I was eleven. My mother was in the process of trying to leave my abusive, alcoholic father. This is the backdrop for when I entered the Evangelical world.
I was hurting and impressionable. I desperately needed God. I was given God with strings. This defined the next two decades of my life.
I was skeptical by nature, and I questioned a lot of what the church presented me. My childhood conditioning, however, left me no foundation to understand God the Father in any other light than the one the church presented him. Here was a God that demanded perfection. He was loving one moment, but if you messed up, his wrath would be on you. He could not even stand to look at you when you’d done something wrong. He punished you for your own good. He didn’t want to, but you left him no choice but to hurt you.
My heart hurts for the young woman that I was. I was desperate for love and approval, and if I could just be good enough, I could earn God’s. If I remained sexually pure, God would bless my marriage. If I read my bible and prayed every day, God would honor my faithfulness and let me know and be near him. If I served him with everything in me, somehow, he would take the mess that I was and make me right.
I was miserable.
I didn’t realize it though, because I was “blessed and highly favored”. Rereading my old journals provides entry after entry where I was suffering panic attacks from PTSD, but I didn’t recognize it. Since anything other than feeling happy was considered less than God’s best, I must be “under spiritual attack”. I prayed and prayed and couldn’t understand why God allowed these attacks. Spiritual leaders told me that God didn’t put anything on a person beyond what they can handle, so I must be stronger than I thought. That’s why I was being attacked. That’s why terror would strike me when I lay down alone in my bed. That’s why I would cry and cry, afraid for no reason.
Not one spiritual leader suggested counseling. Why would they? I was trying my best to serve and please God. I was coming up to the altar for healing from my inner pain. I had a new Father now, and that was enough.
Except that it wasn’t.
I buried my pain deeply and turned into a perfection-driven adult. I worked hard to earn my way in life. I married an amazing man and had beautiful children. I was a model Christian by all standards. I loved God and did everything right with every fiber of my being.
It’s funny how getting sick changes things.
Chronic illness stripped me of everything that I had defined myself by and left me unable to cope with the trauma that I’d repressed for decades. Every layer of protection and merited worth was peeled away in a tortuous fashion. What was left was just me, physically and mentally broken.
God was there, but God was unlike who I had been taught to expect. God was love, without strings, regardless of my failings. In him, all my pain wasn’t swept away. Instead, I was invited, as Jesus had invited his disciples in the garden that night, to sit in the darkness with him. Jesus was not appalled at my brokenness, and he did not offer a quick fix. He didn’t tell me I had cried enough and that it was time to rejoice now. He was just with me, and together we wept in the garden over horrors that only we knew about.
God was no longer the tyrant who demanded perfection and it was our own fault when we were punished for falling short of it. Perfect Love had cast out fear. I didn’t have to do everything right or have all the answers lest I risk judgment. I could accept that Biblical inerrancy was new as a theological norm. Rather than approach the Bible as the answer to all questions, I could approach it as the accounts of desert mystics who had met with God and written about it.*
I no longer had to judge, others or myself. There were no strings, no requirements. Suddenly, the Gospel was good news. God was there. She was a mother who loved her babies, he was a father who ran to his children. Jesus’ very body was made up of us all, battered and bruised and still the icon of the divine.
I am thirty-six. I have a chronic illness and go to counseling regularly for C-PTSD. There are no more easy answers. This is the backdrop of my life now.
I hurt, but that’s okay. My life has beauty and happiness too, and in it all is God. God is wild, undefined and unchained. That’s the Good News.
* I will not even begin to defend this position. I spent countless hours studying history as well as Hebrew and Greek words before coming to my conclusion. Anything less would have been contrary to my temperament, and I expect people to reject, react, or sincerely study the matter as their temperaments lead them.