I met with a client this week who is struggling to rebuild her life as she trudges through an ugly divorce. Let’s call her Anna.
Anna believes that God has a plan for her life and a path for her to follow so that she can move forward after the end of her marriage, and she is doing everything possible to be faithful to both. She is doing her best to raise her two teenage girls to be women of faith. She is working hard to build the realty business she opened when she left her husband. She is struggling every month to pay the bills but is determined to become financially secure so that she can stop relying on her ex-husband, who isn’t interested in being reliable or remotely honest when it comes to child support. The thing that amazes me is that in the midst of all of this, Anna continues to give to others even when she doesn’t have much herself. She particularly likes helping low income families get affordable housing even though she doesn’t get much of a commission from that kind of work. Anna and I both believe that she is doing everything she can to be on God’s path, and we can both very clearly see God at work in her life, so why isn’t it getting any easier?
That is the one thing that Anna just can’t get over: that no matter how hard she works to do exactly what God wants, her life is just as difficult now as it was only a month or two after she left her husband. Anna sits in my office and cries, just wanting God to reveal to her what she’s supposed to do next. What is the next step on God’s path? Not knowing makes her anxious and fearful about what’s going to happen next. It makes her fear that she has screwed up and has wandered off God’s path somehow. In the end, despite her deep faith, she’s incredibly anxious, frequently exhausted, and always at the end of her rope, and she doesn’t think that a good Christian woman should feel the way she does.
I try to remind her at every session that no matter how perfect your life is otherwise, raising two teenage daughters will have you at the end of your rope every day, all the time.
Beyond that, though, I get where Anna is coming from.
My parents have always attended an evangelical, fundamentalist church. They did when I was a child, and they still do now. As a child, I remember learning about God’s will and God’s plan for your life. God had a path for your life and you had better be on it. If you stepped off that path, even one tiny step off of the path, you were in big trouble. Even more frightening was that stepping off the path meant that you were on your own, that God was not going to be present to you and your needs while you went on your little ‘jaunt’ off the path. If you realized your mistake later and wanted to get back to a good relationship with God, you had to backtrack to where you left God’s path in the first place, and then get busy moving forward on God’s path because being off God’s path was unacceptable, sinful, and a good reason to condemn you to Hell for all eternity.
I suppose that makes some sense, especially to fundamentalists. The thing is that it makes God sound awfully petulant and kind of like a narcissistic parent. You know, you better play by God’s rules or He isn’t going to play with you anymore. He’ll just take His ball and go home and you will be All. By. Yourself. Oh, and you’ll spend eternity in Hell.
I don’t believe any of that anymore.
I’m Methodist now, and I am a feminist process theologian. That doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t study theology, so I’ll just say that I really like the idea that my beginning (birth) is fixed in God’s hands and my ending (death) is also fixed in God’s hands, and the life that exists between those two points is a negotiation between God and me. I believe that God will never leave me because God is not in the business of abandoning His children…not even the disrespectful, rebellious ones. For me, it’s all the more reason to love Him and serve Him.
What does that have to do with Anna?
Well, Anna was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist church just like I was. Both of us learned early on that ‘true Christians’ had the peace that passes understanding (Phill 4:7) and that meant that you don’t get anxious if you really love the Lord. ‘True Christians’ trust God and do not fear circumstances. ‘True Christians’ wait for God’s leading and are patient because God always acts in God’s time, which is rarely early but never late. God is all merciful and knows your needs; He has numbered the hairs on your heads, so you have nothing to worry about. (Lk 12:7)
What all that boils down to is that ‘true Christians’ don’t ever have unpleasant emotions like worry, fear, or anxiety. Anger is pretty much unacceptable as well, unless it’s holy anger at the sin you perceive in the world (or in someone else, but that’s another post.) ‘True Christians’ sail through life so zen that nothing ruffles their feathers; after all, their Father in Heaven is looking out for them, so why worry?
I know devout Buddhists who that aren’t that zen and never will be.
Anyone who reads their Bible…heck anyone who has seen the movie The Passion of The Christ knows that Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and was so distressed that God sent angels to comfort Him.
Seriously? Jesus sweats blood, but somehow our faith in God is going to insulate us against the icky feelings that we don’t like?
No, that’s not how it works. Faith in God is not a magical pair of rose-colored glasses that will make our lives all sunshine and puppies. Faith in God is not an extended release Valium for the soul.
Don’t get me wrong. Please, seek God’s will in your life and then do your best to live by it. And when following God’s will leaves you exhausted, disappointed, and anxious, know that you have stumbled onto all the things that Christ experienced as he led the disciples for three years and then walked the path to His own crucifixion. Definitely check in with God daily to make sure that you are following the path He has set before you, but plan on a few nights where you sweat some blood and need some supernatural help to make it through to the morning.
And if you are going to trust in something, trust that the God who delighted in creating you also delights in watching over you, because His son has made it clear that this is a difficult world to live in and we need all the help we can get. The God who created you loves you beyond what you can ever understand and will never leave you because it would break His heart to do so. You are, in so many ways, the apple of His eye and He adores you.
If that doesn’t make you love God, I’m not sure what will.