So, I had a really cutesy Christmas post started, but a message I received just a few days ago changed my direction. Consider this a slightly late Christmas gift for all those curious, all those searching, and all those who've been waiting for a chance to see this on paper. But, it's also a lovely present for me. I'm jumping off the train I was on for too long... I can't hold back for fear of people's opinions anymore. I promise to always pray for wisdom and His love to radiate through every word I speak, but... I have chosen to finally speak them.
For the last three years I've debated with posting/saying much of anything about the reasons we left the religious movement we were so longed involved in, which I will reference as PHM. (Why? Because 'holiness' cannot be copyrighted to one particular denomination, and because I don't ever want that word to become so commonplace to me again.) I've put it off, because I don't want to start any religious argument chain, which so often happens, and does not in the slightest reflect true holiness. I've refrained from it, because I don't ever want it to seem that I have any disdain for anyone still active within the PHM. I never want to come across as rude, belittling, prideful, hateful, or ungrateful, and I've been afraid some would put those labels on me simply because I chose to share my story. But then something struck me. This is my story. All rights are mine. So, while I do promise to be courteous and kind, I've also made up my mind that I will clarify any and all assumptions, judgments, or falsehoods that have been attached to our decision to walk away. There is no way to get everything laid out in one blog post, but I'll summarize it with as much detail as possible.
Let me start by saying that for 23 years of my life, the PHM was my life. My only ministry opportunities resided there, along with a lot of my family and all my friends. There are still many people I care about and respect within that movement, so please know I don't despise everything about it by any means. There are a lot of fantastic things taught in that movement... when kept in the right perspective. I just felt like God had a much bigger plan for me that would never be possible within the many limitations laid upon us. If so many hadn't already expressed negative opinions about our current lifestyle, I wouldn't have even considered writing anything about this. Nevertheless, they're constantly floating about, so this is an honest attempt to clear things up for those trying to figure us out.
For one, hearing the words "you all gave up what you once believed," is completely untrue. The foundation of our beliefs are exactly the same as they've always been. There are other outward-standard-type-changes that I've just now begun expressing, but it's not because I've compromised any of my convictions. I never knew what I felt about those things. It never was clear to me through Scripture, which is what I base my life upon now. While in the PHM, I never questioned anything openly, because we're taught not to do that. For whatever reason it's considered disrespecting God's authority if you question a preacher on why he said what he did. Labels are put on people so quickly, you didn't dare ask anyone else in the congregation. I followed along with things simply because that's what was required to be used, and even accepted, within that movement. The PHM was my whole world... and if one area crumbled, there went the rest. If you disappointed one leader, many others found out about it, and your ministry was halted. Loyalties were shown to some while completely ruining any ties with another. I always felt critiqued, so liberty in the Lord was something honestly unknown to me. There was always this overwhelming pressure no matter where you went. Some felt disrespected if you didn't address them with the proper title. We never knew which churches liked neck ties and which ones didn't, which ones liked hair worn up or down, or which songs were appropriate to sing. Some friends weren't "spiritual enough to hang around with," so close friendships were few and always analyzed. Our hearts so longed for approval, and we sure tried our best, but we were just never going to get there... and that truth became clearer everyday.
After two years of major depression, disappointment, and confusion, I begged my husband to pray about something different for our life. We were both miserable. We both had big dreams for our future and a strong passion to help the world in a positive way, and everything we tried was turned down. I feel our very purpose is to help hurting people. Not just invite them to church, but actually reach out. It always bothered me that there was no sign of outreach in the community. The only growth relied on members inviting people on occasion, or people leaving other churches and coming to yours. I could be completely wrong, but I always felt if you desired to go beyond church services to offer help, some kind of lecture was in store. We couldn't do a bus ministry because "those kids would cause problems in the church." A 17 year old friend of mine, with no one in her family to support her endeavors in Christianity, felt a call to the mission field. However, because she couldn't reach perfection quick enough, no one would support her. Instead, she was talked about and ridiculed by many. Friends of mine who sold businesses they owned, saved money for months, and changed their entire lifestyle because of their call to minister in another country were accused of only wanting a long family vacation. They were contacted through social media and instructed to post pictures of their time in ministry to prove they were actually there for religious reasons. Youth members were told to stay away from other members. When I questioned why this was being done... when I suggested that there was obviously something in these "wild" ones' hearts that yearned for Christ to keep them showing up... Well, I was told, "That's not true. The devil will sometimes place people in our midst to destroy the rest of us." That phrase echoes over and over in my mind. It breaks my heart to remember hearing it and realizing how many desperate lives it would affect negatively. I do understand that we should be careful about who we associate with, if they're involved in dangerous things. But, as a Christian, I feel like we should offer a lot more love than rejection. As a forgiven individual, I find it entirely too hypocritical to ever deem one a lost cause. The more I read about the life of my Jesus, the more I realized I didn't see Him reflected very often. I saw a constant struggle for unattainable perfection accompanied by an instinctive complementary quality of harsh judgment. I witnessed jealousy and competition, rejoicing over someone else's suffering, and a vast amount of bitterness.
Needless to say, we've moved on to other places and experienced a joy and freedom in Christ we'd never felt before. Reaching out is encouraged and embraced. Community ministries are the vision that guides our congregation. It's much easier to witness and invite others to church now, because our people feel approachable and understanding. Because of that, our church experiences growth on a regular basis. And though too often I've heard, "a church that grows steadily is obviously a church that compromises," that's not always true. People long for a place to feel like home, for a congregation to feel like family, and for the liberty to grow in the Lord at the pace that is needful for them. Christians should support each other in any attempt to spread the Gospel, hope, or a chance at a purposeful and fulfilled life. But, when too many religious traditions and "qualifications" are involved, support is replaced by judgment and unnecessary expectations.
I've received several messages, letters, and phone calls over the past couple of years- none of which have been pleasant or effective in enticing a young couple to miss what they left behind. Instead they've only confirmed what we'd decided in our hearts all the more. But this last one, well, it's the one that topped the cake, because I feel like it came from a very sweet person, that has just been, well, brainwashed a little. I say that without any rudeness, because not long ago I was in the same boat. Let me share:
"I just wanted to ask, what caused you and Aaron, who used to be so strict, and people I would look up to in the PHM, be where you are today? I'm sorry if this is rude, but I've just been wondering for a while and it really bothers me to see where you were and where you are today!"
Yeah, so I woke up to that sitting on my phone... Great start to a day, right? Well, it actually was, believe it or not. It caused me to once again thank God that He opened my eyes. Yes, opened them. I've not been deceived or swayed. I've come to see that religion does nothing but hurt and disappoint. Relationship with Christ is what makes the difference.
I responded to this person in a very respectful manner, but assured them that their very judgment of me, whom they've not been around in years, backed up the biggest reason we chose to move on. How could someone who has not spoken to me in over 4 years know my heart, know about my prayer life, or my devotion to Christ? How could they possibly know "where we are today?" They don't. My appearance is the only thing that speaks to them. My profile picture on Facebook is the key piece of evidence for their case that determines whether or not I love God. Never mind the many posts I make about my church, my love for the Lord, my convictions, or the many testimonies I share to declare the sovereign power of my God...
They can't get past my picture. They can't get past my lack of "works."
I don't mean the "works" that keep my faith alive. No, those are the very things I feel are overlooked. While I now wear pants, cut my hair, and wear some makeup, those aren't the only things that have changed about me. No sir, no ma'am. I noticed I had a problem with doubt. I doubted everyone and everything... even God and what He'd speak to me. I was very self righteous. I had to pray for forgiveness for thinking I was any more spiritual than those girls who were "obviously vain" for keeping up their appearance. It took months and months to learn how to let God wipe away the automatic judgmental attribute that took residence inside my brain. I was extremely prideful and didn't even realize it. I remember feeling like I was something when I'd walk through the mall and see no one else that looked like me. Boy, did I think I had reached the highest plain of knowledge and wisdom. I was bitter. I was impatient. I was short tempered. Let me say, I had a lot of issues buried beneath my "holy appearance."
For so long I was taught that my love and dedication to the Lord was shown through what I wore. If my hair remained uncut and I wore only long skirts, everyone would know that I was sold out to Him. I don't know how many times the "Be ye separate" verse was taken out of context to fit their preference. Teaching people that how they look is what causes people to seek out Christ in them is completely Pharisaical. It does the opposite! We have to be so careful that we don't allow our "super spiritual hero" costume become the very thing that drives people away. Even Jesus said in Matthew 23, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't allow others who would enter to go in."
He goes on to say, "For you are like whitened sepulchers, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones."
The very definition of the word Pharisaical is, "of or relating to the Pharisees; practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical."
The more things I gave up, the more "holy" I thought I became. It actually did the opposite. Because, I started thinking I was accomplishing my own salvation. I thought I was becoming good enough for Him, because of what I was doing. You start to forget about His sacrifice and what He did when this starts. If you don't fully forget, it definitely loses its luster... which is nothing short of tragic and lethal. (Remember this verse- For by grace are you saved, through faith, not of works, lest anyone should boast.) We have the purest intentions when we start on that journey, but what we so easily forget when we're so into "works" is that our righteousness - NOT our unrighteousness, but our righteousness - is as filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) We will never do enough, wear enough, or give up enough to earn His grace, but that's what makes it so amazing and something to be so eternally thankful for! The Bible is crystal clear on what is sin, and I will follow that with as much wisdom and reverence as I can possibly attain. But, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) It's not nearly as complicated as religion tries to make it. God does not sit up there waiting for you to mess up. He's not itching to send sudden destruction upon you because you're not perfect. Here's a secret... He already knows you're flawed! It's Christ that makes us flawless. His sacrifice was enough! Such a precious sacrifice should never be walked on or abused, but cherished. But, it's also the very thing that removes the pressure and stress of life! Why do we let religion pile more on us?
That was the question I finally started asking. Christ said that He would give us abundant life, but the life I was living was anything but that. He said He would give unspeakable joy, so why I was so unhappy? Why did I constantly feel like something was missing, like there was some place I was supposed to be, or someone I was supposed to meet?
Because there was. While I had always loved Jesus and desired to please Him, I didn't fully know Him. To be honest, there didn't really seem to be a need. I don't mean that to be any certain way. It's just that every single thing I was to do or not do was laid out before me by others. There was no need for my husband or I to pray about any situation, because if our answer didn't match up with someone more "seasoned" than us, we were advised not to follow what we felt God had told us to do, because we were obviously wrong. Therefore, we stopped praying about things. We went to our leaders and followed their instructions. When things didn't work out, well, we questioned God before we questioned them. When that same direction we were given didn't lead to vast success, we were then talked about for being foolish or immature, because something was obviously our fault. There was no way to win.
And there's not. Not according to our strength or ability. We will never win... until we surrender to Him. When He truly becomes Lord of our life, when we allow Him, and no one else, to direct us, we start seeing victory. Our relationship with Him becomes so close, we hear what He says, we do what He says, and we quickly see that what He says always leads to a win.
I remember being told that the reason for having such strict outward standards wasn't necessarily because it was a heaven/hell issue, but simply because it gave them tighter boundaries which would help keep them from falling too far. When I prayed about that myself, I felt like God showed me something...
Aaron and I have had an amazing marriage. I feel that the biggest reason for that is due to our trust in each other. I try to imagine how different things would be between us if I always went through his phone, placed him on trial to try and determine his reasoning for every conversation, or questioned every detail of his day. How great would it be if I never let him go anywhere without me, or stay up after I went to sleep, or refused to let him use the internet. If I spied on him every hour, bugged his cell, or always threw a fit about him going out with the guys, what would that do to us? I mean, if those boundaries were there, then there would never be a chance for him to cheat, lust, or do anything he shouldn't, right? So, it would be completely appropriate for me to put such strict limits on him, wouldn't it? Well, I'm sure I know what you're thinking. NO! That would be ridiculous. And I agree with that. While I may have all the safeguards in place, our relationship would be weak. His love for me would surely decrease, and the chances of him one day completely melting down and walking away for good would go up.
How is it any different in our relationship with the Lord? If it's so fragile that we have to reach a level of ridiculous to maintain it, what kind of relationship is that? It's not a thriving one. It's not a trusting one. It puts all kinds of pressure on an individual that will suck them dry of any joy or zeal they may have. That is not the life He wants us to live. When someone truly loves Him with all their heart, they will want to do what's right. It's no one else's job to determine whether or not someone really loves God based on what he or she chooses to put on that day. I know some are quoting the scripture, "You will know them by their fruits..." right about now. I agree. But what is fruit? Some think its referring to the 9 fruits of the spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. I don't see anything about garments listed there. Others say "fruit" is signifying anything that brings life and hope or leads one to God. Either way, religion doesn't produce much of either. I witnessed that for the majority of my life.
While in college we studied different religions, cults, and customs. The very thing that should set Christianity apart from the rest is the true freedom we experience in Christ. There should be no man-made rules added to the process. If the first thing people experience when they walk through church doors is a sense of condemnation or inadequacy, we're not doing our part. Did Christ ever make us feel that way? No. He accepted us just as we were with open arms. The more we fall in love with Him and get to know Him, sure we're going to change some things about our lives. We should treat people better, have better attitudes, carry around some self control... But, He's the One that equips us to be able to do those things! The load is not for us to carry. We lay the load down!
So, I can promise you, we didn't pack up and leave for any other reason than the fact that we loved God more than we could express. We left because we longed for a place that would allow us to experience Him without any reservation. We moved on because we clearly saw that Christ told us to reach the hurting, help the lonely, feed the hungry, and love the unloveable, and we weren't doing a very good job of that. I assure you we didn't hide ourselves away in a church that didn't care about pleasing God, but just the opposite. We hunted down a place that taught us to check ourselves daily, and I've done a lot of changing. While some only see the changed clothing, hair color, or the added jewelry, God sees the changed heart. While I used to look at others to determine what step I needed to take next, I now ask God to direct my every move. When I used to tremble at the thought of someone finding out I liked "contemporary" Christian music, I now weep and crumble before my God while singing His praises. And though it used to be almost repulsive to be near anyone different than me, those individuals are now the ones I can't wait to meet. Christ lovingly chiseled away at my heart, and He continues to do so. I will never reach perfection here on earth. I will continue to make mistakes and at times, when I try to take control, I will fail miserably. But, in my weakness He is made strong. The more I've learned about Him, the more intensely I love Him, and the more I love Him, the more I want my life to live up to His. But, for the first time, I understand how easy it is to do that. It's not up to me to figure out what thing to give up next, or learn what could possibly maybe probably offend someone else. I don't have to fear losing respect with this person or that one at the drop of a hat. I don't feel stressed, beaten down, or bound. I feel completely free and utterly excited about my future in Him.
I ran across a quote that said, "There's a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. When you truly know Him, you have energy to serve Him, boldness to share Him, and contentment in Him."
I immediately recognized that none of those things applied to me or the religious life I was living. I was burnt out and churched out. I understood that if things about my heart didn't change, I could never persuade anyone to try the Jesus I said I was serving. And, I had to regrettably admit that I was not satisfied with the God I was introduced to. I was tired of focusing on minuscule things like music and hair. I was weary of hearing about how short sleeves and high heels could send the wrong message. I was aching for something deeper than a shallow (mis)understanding of how I should live my life. Where was the challenge to change people's lives for the better? Where was the charge to stand up for people who felt abandoned? Why weren't we encouraged to offer love and support to the people who messed up in epic ways? Was the mission field a priority anymore? Were we ever going to roll up our sleeves and get down in the gutter with those showered with misfortune? Wasn't this what Jesus did? Isn't this what He wanted? Didn't He want me to serve? Who was He, really? I honestly didn't know...
And that's why we gave up religion.
Because I really wanted to meet Him.
Take just a couple more minutes to watch Jefferson Bethke explain further how Jesus > Religion.
You can find this blog linked up to some other incredible sites: The Time Warp Wife, Cornerstone Confessions, Teaching What is Good, A Bowl Full of Lemons, A Peek into My Paradise, Rosilind Jukic, Proverbs 14 Verse 1, Women with Intention, Giving Up on Perfect, Ducks 'N a Row, I Choose Joy, A Handful of Everything, Busy Being Blessed, Essential Thing Devotions, and many more!