Why is Christianity different?

I’ve been reading Philippians, having some thoughts…  Why follow Christ?  Why not any other religion that helps you be a better person?  Well, I can’t speak for other religions.  I don’t know enough about them.  Maybe if I was born and raised in another culture, I’d have a different outlook and different answers.  I’m not sure.  Maybe someone of another faith can read this and give me some insight into how their world view differs (if it does).  And, yes, I already know what the standard Christian answer is: because Christians believe that Jesus was God and that he walked on earth, that Christians don’t have to earn salvation, but it is a free gift.  Maybe these are novelties.  I honestly don’t know enough about world religions to make that claim.  I would hope that if I didn’t know Christ in name, I could still live in the freedom that Christ has given me.  What is this freedom?  What is it grounded in?  I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  I have the passion and exuberance of Paul in pressing toward the goal.  Do I see that freedom in other Christians?  Sometimes, not usually, not often.  Do I judge them?  No.  I’m really not sure what others see in me.  I know how I feel: empowered.  Jesus gives me truth and love, at the same time, and that’s a very powerful mixture.  I conjecture that you can only really be given and receive both of those things in unity.

Yet, I’ve been a “Christian” all my life, and I only recently found the freedom of which I speak.  Previously, I found myself lost, confused, frustrated, angry.  The freedom was there at times, but fleeting.  I was trying so hard and continuously failing, in my own eyes.  I was hard on myself.  I was giving myself a lot of truth (or so I thought) and not much love.  I’ve looked at it from a psychological perspective and questioned, “How do people really change?”  I think it starts with non-judgmental self-awareness.  Isn’t that just another way of saying truth in love?

The God of this universe loves me and knows me personally.  His spirit lives within me, his holy temple.  He searches my heart.  I can open up to him, and he accepts me completely.  But knowledge is not enough… the real question is how we act on that knowledge.

And this is the a missing piece of this puzzle that I’m trying to find a way to fit in.  Christians can clearly differ on how to apply that knowledge.  A huge part of the freedom I recently found started when I began to (1) view my faith as a journey, a spiritual practice, and daily walk, one in which I may stumble at times, but the point is to stay on track and keep trying.  Just because I’m “born-again” doesn’t mean I automatically have all the fruits of the spirit all the time.  These are attributes I have to practice and work at on a daily basis.  And when I mess up, I show myself compassion–I don’t judge myself harshly, doubt my salvation, or punish myself.  I consider how I can take better care of myself in order to have the strength and resilience to keep making those good choices.  And (2) I started loving and caring for myself, practicing self-care and self-love as the foundation for my ability to love others.  Jesus sums up all the law in loving God and loving others, right?  Well, we can’t do that effectively if we don’t love ourselves.  A lot of Christians want to call self-love ungodly.  And maybe that’s the piece I’m trying to make sense of.  Paul wrote to the Philippians, “…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”  This is the concept that has lead to some dangerous decisions in my life.  I wonder if Paul knew his words could be used to abuse and control others.  Although, he did also tell all of them to be of the same mind and in unity.  Maybe in that communal context it could be safe to always put others about yourself… ?  Yet, sometimes loving others means doing things that they might not like or might not even perceive as loving in the moment.  Love is hard work!  Maybe that’s why Paul writes, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent” (Phil 1:9-10).  I like it better in the Message: “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”

God loves me.  I’m valuable.  I’m worthy.  I’m worth drawing healthy boundaries with people, saying no when I need to, taking care of myself first so that I can have the strength to care for others.  When I’m not feeling very loving, I use it as an opportunity to examine myself and see why I am feeling empty: am I tired? hungry? over-extended? lonely? overwhelmed? anxious? unprepared?  What can I do to address these underlying issues?  Usually, it involves realigning my life with my priorities in mind: connection to God, to myself, and to others (friends, family, community, and humanity).  Why did I miss this concept for so many years of “practicing” the Christian faith?  I suppose because this concept came to me from outside of the Church and the Bible, and I had to embrace it and make sense of it through the lens of my faith.  I suppose a lot of people struggle with pride and selfishness.  I struggled with giving too much (yet, the underlying motives were probably selfish and an attempt to control others while avoiding true vulnerability–see it’s very complicated, this spiritual journey thing).  Giving too much can be as detrimental as giving too little.  God looks at the heart anyway; that’s all that really matters.  Lastly, I began to understand and embrace that (3) my faith is not a checklist, but a relationship.  So I don’t judge others (or myself) by holding them to some “Christian” checklist that my culture or environment has dictated to me.  Vulnerability (not appearances) is the essential element to any deep, connected relationship.

I’ll end with a quote from Philippians (from the Message) which seems to sum up my perspective well for me:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

And as far as why Christianity is different.  That’s something I still haven’t figured out, and I’m not sure if I really need to.  I know why I’m different.  That’s a start.

When we are loved, we are healthy.

Lately, I’ve been having some thoughts on freedom from sin. I’m reminded of this passage:

Galations 5 (NIV)

1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

I don’t think Paul (or most anyone who wrote anything the Bible) wrote these letters to be confusing or carry some deep, hidden, esoteric spiritual meaning. He was just probably dictating a letter, struggling to convey his understanding of Jesus in way others could grasp. I think the fact that the church has used the King James Bible for so long has contributed to a somewhat mystical way of reading scripture that over the years I’ve drifted away from. This stuff shouldn’t take a PhD to understand!

If you’re like me, (and you grew up going to church regularly, reading the Bible regularly, hearing the same kind of messages and ideology over and over again), then you might struggle with same kinds of issues and contradictions that I have. I’ve often found myself struggling and confused like the apostle Paul: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:15-17 NLT).

So Paul said, on the one hand, we are free from sin, and we can walk by the spirit, yet later in Romans we see him struggling with his sinful nature. But–as he seems to point out–at least the Holy Spirit in him convicts him of this wrongdoing. I’ve known this feeling of failure all too well. In my failed marriage, as my ex-husband constantly blamed me for our unresolved conflicts and issues, I dutifully shouldered all the blame and tried to do my best to be more “like Jesus” because I felt this is what the Bible was telling me to do (because it had been taught to me over and over again). I am a sinner, and nothing good can come from me. I am undeserving, yet Jesus loves me. The worse I can feel about myself, the harder I can be on myself, the clearer I can see my sin and confess it, the more and more I will change and become like Jesus. And Jesus passionately loves me despite my utter depravity, so isn’t that comforting? Was this mindset really working? Not for me. I was getting more and more depressed, more and more angry, yet I couldn’t figure out the source of my anger. I simply continued to cry out to God in confusion and confess my angry attitude and actions as part of my inevitable sinful nature. Grasping at solutions like praying more, reading my Bible more, holding on tight and trying to “white knuckle” it into being “good.” A pastor I appreciate very much suggested in a recent sermon that we tell ourselves “Sin is not my master” maybe 100 times a day in order to reinforce our place of freedom in Christ. Most of his ideas are great, but to the “now” me this sounds like unhealthy, obsessive behavior. How does repeating a phrase over and over again really sound like freedom? All these isolating behaviors can be helpful at times, but they certainly don’t draw us into connection with supportive others… which I think is central to change.

So I started seeing a Christian counselor about eight months before my marriage dissolved (my ex refused to go with me at the time because he said I was the only one who needed help). I was so awestruck by this Christian counselor listening to me, not judging me, and his constant redirection that I practice more what he called “self-care.” Shouldn’t he be helping me understand everything I was doing wrong? Shouldn’t he be giving me more and more insight on my sin? How else was I going to finally get it right? At the time, I didn’t realize the genius of what he was truly offering me. His words and support moved me to slowly grow at peace with my spouse’s constant disappointment in me and begin building joy through small activities and relationships that nourished me: attending playdates with other moms, running outdoors, just choosing to focus on what I could be joyful about when I wasn’t having to suffer through interactions with my highly neglectful, critical spouse. I was slowly beginning to learn the true source of freedom, and, yes, I mean the freedom that Paul is talking about. A freedom grounded in the resiliency and peace that self-care grows inside oneself. Let me explain…

I might be speaking egocentrically here, but I think most of us kind of know what some of our major “sins” are–at least the ones we struggle with. (And, yes, of course there are probably an infinite number of sins of which we are completely unaware… but I think my insight here also addresses how we become more aware of those as well). We really don’t want to practice habits destructive to ourselves, others, or our world. Why? because it HURTS. It may not hurt immediately, it may even feel good in the immediate moment, but either we already know or we eventually learn that certain habits are destructive. Of course, one might argue that sometimes in our pain/boredom/emptiness/(insert anything relating to a lack of God’s love here), we actually do want to be destructive to ourselves and others. Some of us (myself included) have been dealing with pain from a lack of nurturing in childhood or other relationships in life (all humans are imperfect, and fail us at some point), and maybe in a attempt to deal with or avoid that pain, we unwittingly make destructive choices. Paul lists “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal 5:19-21). I could probably add to that a multitude of sins, such as selfishness, impatience, laziness, denial, overeating, overspending, being wasteful, lashing out at others, of course, the list goes on and on. I believe that none of us really want to live our lives in pain… we just might not know or understand what it really takes to free ourselves from our sinful nature.

So, I started thinking about these sins and how people in reality truly “overcome” these things…

According to attachment theory, newborns don’t develop properly and can’t connect well with others later in life if they aren’t first nourished with lots of love, attention, and warmth in a connected relationship with a primary caregiver. Being loved actually prevents the child from falling into many future self-destructive behaviors. God’s love, in a very similar respect, is the foundation upon which we grow more into the image of Jesus, more healthy, stepping away from the unhealthy behaviors we may have developed in our feeble, ignorant attempts to soothe or avoid our own pain. In fact, God’s love allows us to embrace pain fearlessly and pass through it toward the growth of faith and character. Yet, “God’s love” also sounds so intangible and vague. “Jesus loves you,” we hear a thousand times over. “God loves you, so love yourself.” However, just “believing” that is really not enough, and I think a lot of us get stuck here (I know I did). “Man, if I just squeeze my eyes shut tight enough and pray hard enough and have enough faith, I will truly know how much God loves me… I’ll feel it for sure!” That line of thinking so doesn’t work for me! As James writes in chapter 2:

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Just telling someone “God loves you” does absolutely nothing for them. SHOW THEM God’s love. Allow others to show God’s love to YOU! James gives a very real example of clothing and feeding another person–this is showing love to their actual, physical body. Can’t we also accept and give love to our own physical bodies in obedience to God? Just believing God loves you really isn’t enough. You have to make choices that support God’s love for you: reach out and connect with others, share with others, eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, use your talents, do things you enjoy, make music, dance, play, laugh, enjoy nature! I used to think this type of thinking was selfish. I used to think it was too focused on the earthly realm, not suffering now in order to receive our reward in Heaven. However, as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:21), so I think we can embrace the reward of God’s love now. It doesn’t make life easy, breezy, painless. In fact, it enables us to take a hard look at and step into the more painful parts of life without fear.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Don’t constantly focus on what you shouldn’t be doing (your sin)–what a narrow and limiting mindset! Instead, focus on doing positive, healthy things. As you make healthy choices, (grounded in God’s love and our own self-love), it will become easier and easier to avoid succumbing to self-destructive behaviors. A focus on the sin is self-defeating. When you are training and instructing a child, for example, it is more productive to say “Walk” instead of “Don’t run!” Or “Love one another” instead of “Don’t fight!” Or “Use your words for uplifting each other” instead of “Don’t say ugly things!” The former, more positive statements are more broadly applicable, teach character, and don’t just box the child into never-ending fences and mazes of “Don’t this” and “Don’t that.” It is so easy to make a long list of rules and try to find some sense of security in living by it (that is not taking our security in the real source of God’s love). The more you love yourself, the easier it will be to give love to others. We might be able to put up a facade of kindness to others for a season, but when times get rough, when we’re tired, hungry, stressed, afraid, our true character reveals itself… and I think ultimately we only treat those around us as well as we treat ourselves on a regular basis.

I tried to boil it down to one statement. Hence, I think my title does it as best as I am able: When we are loved, we are healthy. This was my lesson, and it has made all the difference!

Approaching death

Today I stood beside a woman while she came to terms with the approaching death of her mother. She handed me a stack of paperwork relating to some very difficult decisions she and her parents had worked through concerning her mother’s final wishes. If her mother’s heart were to stop, would she want chest compressions? Would she want a machine breathing for her in the event that she stopped breathing? This family had prepared well by seeking to address these questions early, setting up a situation more conducive to peace and acceptance when the inevitable occurred. As I regarded her, I noticed her eyes seemed to be straining, and she stood quietly. I felt my heart tugging me toward her, and I reached out and hugged her. Suddenly, she was crying. We separated, and she joked, “Why can’t you be mean? Why do you have to be so nice?” as she wiped under her eyes. “Then I wouldn’t be messing up my make up!” I laughed, and said, “I understand.” I stood quietly, waiting for her to direct the conversation. I struggled with specific words to offer her, but I hoped my presence and attention was enough as she worked through her own feelings and thoughts.

Her tears made me think: Why is it often that kindness can be more painful than indifference? I conjecture that it pulls the hurting person out of numbness and into feeling, making them aware of the pain they are enduring. Love and acceptance naturally opens people up, and when we are open, we are exposed and vulerable to feeling the full range of emotion, painful or pleasureable or both. I wanted to tell her, “It’s OK to cry. You need to cry. Let yourself feel the pain of this situation. Let yourself move through it. This is normal.” And I know it’s “normal” because I’ve witnessed it time and time again, but how can something so painful really be “normal”? I suppose I only have to think about birth to know that this is can be true. In my own experience with three natural childbirths, I discovered that it was only through embracing the pain, completely trusting the process, and resting my heart and soul in the supportive hands of both God and others was I able to have “normal” births. And through the pain came incredible joy. One day, I also hope to have a “normal” death.

On the other hand, however, it is only natural to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Pain in a warning sign, and a way of protecting us from danger and, ultimately, death. But does avoiding pain always benefit us? Sometimes the fear of death, while deep and hidden in our hearts, is unfounded. Jesus, for example, did not avoid pain. He willingly stepped into it. He was in a situation where he trusted his father who loved him. Jesus willingly gave himself up to death for the sake of love. His crucifixion is an image of extreme vulnerability. He gave himself over to death, only to conquer it for all humanity. So what does that really mean for those of us grieving the very real deaths of our loved ones? I think the consolation is more than just Jesus conquering death and opening up heaven as the prize at the end of our lives here on earth. He also conquered the ever present fear of death, giving us the prize of living without that fear, living in freedom to accept reality and embrace pain, knowing we will make it out on the other side, being more fully alive and present to our current experiences. While death appears inconquerable, while it seems that death always wins, there is one way to conquer death: acceptance. When you accept death, it can no longer rule you. You live in the reality that you are mortal, and you live your life in a way that reflects that understanding. Maybe Jesus allows us to look death straight in the eyes and accept it and embrace it for what it is? Something that acutally makes life all the more meaningful, beautiful, and good.

I believe when something hurts us emotionally, we have a strong urge to protect ourselves because of our deepest fear, the fear of death. The fear is that, like a newborn babe who cries out, our needs will not be met, and we will die. On a rational level, we know that emotional pain can’t actually kill us… but on an instinctual level, it hurts, and it’s still hard to embrace it, trusting that we will make it through emotionally “alive.” We can get into unhealthy patterns of constantly running from painful thoughts or emotions, using distractions or addictions to numb us to our feelings. We feel better quickly in the short term, but in the long term we are left with an incomplete experience of life, on some level disconnected from reality. We have to let ourselves feel the hard parts of existence in order to keep our sensitivity and perspective on the good parts. But how does one step into pain and come out alive? Maybe this is what Christ teaches us to do, and the answer is through love. Love is enough to buoy us through the hard parts of life. We just have to open ourselves up to seeking and accepting the love around us from God, family, friends, even self. So then when real death does approach us, as it inevitably will, we don’t have to be afraid for we have already learned how to step into and through the most difficult of experiences.