This is the third part of The Self-Made Landscape series where I explore how the contours of our personal landscape can be shaped by what we allow to mold it. Today we examine religion.
Religion is a strong force.
It can be compelling; convincing.
It has strong ties with legalism.
It stresses obedience and works to earn God’s love and approval.
It can rob us of a rich personal relationship with Jesus. It can strip us of the need for faith and acceptance of His grace and mercy. His free gift of salvation.
Religion is often a bully. Taking what Christ intended to set us free and skewing it into heavy rules, regulations and expectations.
From an early age religion was making its mark on my life; carving out giant crevasses from my personal landscape.
Discovering the impact it was having was a life-saving revelation. It revealed the lies I had been believing and brought me back to my first love.
Call me naïve that these didn’t stick out like a sore thumb sooner, but I was blinded.
I was a victim of lies I couldn’t discern because they were woven so closely to my heart.
I was your typical good Christian girl:
I grew up in the church and rarely missed a Sunday morning.
I attended Sunday School and youth group on a weekly basis.
I spent my summers at bible camp and on missions trips.
I led bible studies and sang on the worship team.
I knew the lingo.
I knew the way to pray to sound ultra spiritual.
I knew what people in the church saw as a girl on the right track. All in all I looked the part and I played it well.
I grew to be a very serious young woman. It was partly my nature to be cautious but this need to hold up my reputation fed into the churchy rules and regulations.
I had been warned by trusted church folk that I needed to be careful with fun. That certain types of fun could easily lead to sin. That my actions could be perceived in the wrong way. And what mattered most to me was that I was perceived as the good Christian girl.
Fast forward to my early twenties and things began to fray at the seams.
The weight of expectation and perfection I put on myself was beginning to carve deep crevasses in my personal landscape. I was falling into a deep depression that was worrisome to those who cared about me.
The voice of the saboteur had a lot to say.
It was the same voice that was always trying to keep me on the straight and narrow. In its accusatory tone it would bark at me: What are people in the church going to think if they find out you are struggling? If they find out you are fraying at the seams? If they find out you have doubts and you are not as squeaky clean as they thought you were?
I would confuse this voice with God’s voice.
On a daily basis I felt like I was disappointing Him. And to make up for that disappointment I thought performing would please Him. I thought I would earn points and He would love me more based on my hustle.
But no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t measure up. I felt stifled. Like I couldn’t breathe anymore. Like who I had been all these years was not a true version of myself.
But the scarier truth was that I didn’t actually know who I was.
I had deceived so many into thinking that my insides matched my outward façade while all I could feel was a deep dark void of nothingness.
I couldn’t perform my way out of this because it was the mask wearing that got me here in the first place.
I saw holes in every religious thing around me because I was filled with those same holes.
And after years of therapy, prayer and trying to reconcile what felt so broken, I threw my hands up and walked away.
At the time of walking away it felt risky to take such drastic measures.
To be vulnerable and show where I was spiritually based on my actions.
To take such a strong stance when I didn’t even know what my stance was. I just knew it wasn’t what I had been living.
I see today that my exodus out of the church was God’s way of hitting the reset button. But at the time it was happening it didn’t look like something God would choose for me. I had so many people in the church worried about my decisions. Worried that I had fallen off the rails.
Over the years I have come to a new understanding of how His thoughts and His ways are high above my own.
He knows the plan and the path to take.
He knows my heart and He knows what I need.
And often when it looks like the end, God is busy restoring. He is breathing life into dry bones and making streams spring up in the wasteland (Ezekiel 37:1-14, Isaiah 43:19).
I spent years away from the Christian crowds but never fully separated from God.
For the first time I began to weed out the voices of disapproval and there was space for me to hear what God had to say.
He would speak to me at three in the morning as I lie awake in my apartment. His voice was kind. Loving.
He would fill me with His joy at times that were unexpected. Times I would expect Him to disapprove of my behaviour or my choices. But I would often feel an overwhelming sense of love and affection.
I could sense His still small voice whispering:
“I choose you”
“I love you because you are mine”
“There is nothing you could do that would make me love you more or less”.
Even though these sentiments were so different than the religious ideals I had adopted and lived out for most of my life, I knew these kind words I was hearing were God’s voice. There was a feeling of fullness when I would perceive them. There was a deep knowing that this was truth. I had no doubt.
As the years went on and I knew I was living nothing close to the good Christian girl life I thought God required of me, He persisted harder. He spoke louder.
He’d lead me to songs that spoke of His love for me. He’d bring people into my life that knew of His goodness and His mercy and could speak those words of life over me.
I was falling in love with Him in a way I had never known. In a way that abolished religious rules and regulations.
And following His Word and His ways was no longer out of obligation. It was out of affection and love.
I began to know at a core level that if He asked something of me it was because there was life in it. Goodness in it. Purpose in it. There was freedom living life the way the One who Created me had planned out just for me.
There was simplicity in following Him. A lightness and ease.
And if I missed the mark I was never rejected by Him. Only brought closer to His heart and loved all the more.
His love was never swayed by my performance. Whether I did good or bad, His love for me could never grow or fade. It was constant. No matter what.
It was incomprehensible, and truth be told I still struggle to fully grasp this free gift; no strings attached. No song and dance required to earn any of it.
But even with all this lavish love, there can still be a pull back to my knee jerk way of living.
What is familiar might hold comfort but it doesn’t mean it’s truth.
It doesn’t mean it holds life.
And in my experience, there often isn’t any freedom in the familiar.
When I think about God’s free gift of salvation, His love and His grace there is something reminiscent to the lightness I have found in minimalism. In living a life of simplicity.
If I am able to surrender all the heaviness of striving, consuming and earning I can reap the benefits of this life changing thing.
And because I didn’t earn it by merit, I don’t hold the heaviness of controlling it or needing to maintain it.
As humans we often hold great suspicion about free gifts.
We have a hard time letting go of control. Relinquishing what we have a say in.
We are often driven to hustle for the good things in life. To know that we have somehow earned them. That we are worthy of them.
And much like God’s ways, minimalism has taught me a lot about letting go and ignoring the loud voices of consumption.
Much like my Creator, it’s the still small voice that holds the truth. Where the yoke is easy and the burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
When we are able to empty our hands and our minds of all the excess and all the chaos, we will be free...indeed! (John 8:36)