essays, faith

Faith that evolves

mostly write about asexuality and being a queer Christian, but those aren’t the hardest challenges I’ve encountered in my faith. Being both queer and Christian has been difficult, but it has also shown me a community of love, belonging, joy, and all the fruits of the Spirit. 

My hardest challenge to my faith was recovering from a relationship with God that was based on anxiety, performance, and achievement. As an Enneagram 3, I will always fight this, but it really came to a head after college.

I had grown up in the United Methodist Church, but more recently I had been involved in a charismatic missions-driven megachurch. I was busy 24/7 in college, and I knew exactly what I wanted in life and worked day and night to get there. I served as a leader in many capacities and had a wide circle. Then… I graduated and moved to work for a Christian company in a new city several states away where I knew no one. My anxiety and depression could no longer be ignored, and I was completely alone. After a few years there, I also had a mystery physical illness, and no tests or doctors could tell me why or what it was. I prayed for miraculous signs and healing, as I had been taught in my college church. But instead of a “sense of peace” or God making everything good when I prayed and worked so hard to get His attention, I fell deeper and deeper into loneliness, confusion, and fear, and I got mentally and physically sicker. 

I told a friend at the time that God and I were like the couple that has been married so long that it’s not even a relationship; we were just in the same “house” moving past each other like ghosts, unable to really hear each other or see each other. I wanted to demand that He answered, wrestling with Him like Jacob, but I couldn’t get hold of Him to show off all of the hard work I was doing in His name. He had once been so active in my life, but He was silent when I needed Him most. My heart ached so much, it felt like it was screaming. Meanwhile, I went to work each day, editing and writing nice, acceptable Christian blog posts and articles about having faith and joy.

I wish someone had told me that a lot of what I had been taught about God was wrong, that He was real and present, but that the ways theology had been explained to me were harmful and that I wasn’t alone in experiencing this. I eventually discovered progressive Christianity through Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey, and I found Christians who were writing about mental illness like Addie Zierman and Jenny Simmons and Anne Marie Miller (Anne Jackson, at the time). They didn’t have all the answers, either, but they were the fellowship I desperately needed as I sat alone in my apartment in this strange city where I didn’t have anyone for a long time.

I sought answers from a wide variety of Christian ministries and websites. The worst advice I received, mostly from evangelical media and churches, was that it was my fault. That God is constant and if you don’t feel Him, “guess who moved?” (placing the blame all on the hurting person). “If you just”: had enough faith, prayed more, practiced spiritual discipline, worked harder, served more, memorized Scripture, submitted to authority, accepted the world as sinful and fallen and joined the culture war to “preserve a Christian worldview” … The “just”s abounded. 

Luckily, around this time I also discovered a new bestseller: Dr. Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. I read and watched and listened to everything of Dr. Brown’s I could get my hands on, and still to this day, her work holds exactly what I so often need in each season of my life. I learned to name the shame that the “guess who moved” and “just”s theology preached. I deconstructed from the vending-machine faith of my college days: insert one prayer, receive one reply from God. I learned resilience, and I waited, hoping someday I could earn God back. 

“I thought faith would say, I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, I’ll sit with you in it.” – Brene Brown

Eventually, I realized this waiting was going to take a while. I settled in. I gave up trying to work up spiritual feelings or supernatural moments or earn God’s love. I was so tired of trying so hard. Nothing I did was going to earn or achieve enough to gain His attention. I just needed to trust that He would be there, and that it would be enough. 

The loneliness faded to be less all-consuming in time. I didn’t feel like the ache in my heart was going to rip me apart. I did find wise older friends to help, even just to say “me too.” Then over the next five years, I moved across the country in multiple directions a few more times. I got therapy and medication and joined and left communities. I learned, listened, and was exposed to a lot broader range of Christianity. I went to the Evolving Faith conference and found more people like me. I came out as queer and found a whole loving and affirming community online. I rejoined the Methodist church in a more progressive region. Through all of these transitions and big life changes, I learned that when you’re in healthy spaces and relationships, doubt and anger and fear are still real and present, but they aren’t the default setting.

But I admit that those questions for God still remain. Why didn’t He help when I needed Him? I’ve found Him in so many things and people, but mainly because I am looking for Him there. 

This isn’t a nice testimony of justs, of figuring out the right formula or recipe for experiencing God without trying to earn His presence. I’m not fully healed. I’m still mad about how our society treats queer people and singles, especially young adults, and about how hard it is to find a church. I’m working to make sure others are accepted and loved, and that we don’t have to spend years weeping to God about how He left us alone. I’m still fighting to end the stigma of mental illness in the Christian world so others don’t have to wander through the wilderness on their own like I did for too long. But I can’t say He isn’t real, because He is the tie that binds all of us together, all these people I’ve found on the internet and in churches and in the world who are broken in the same ways I am. 

What I have learned is that we don’t really go through suffering to get to hope and faith. Hope and faith aren’t somewhere I have arrived at. They aren’t a destination. And they aren’t prizes or achievements to unlock more of God’s presence. They are tools I have added to the values I carry with me along the way. They remind me of why I keep walking with all the doubt and fear and loneliness and anger and lament. So I keep going toward whatever God has in store for me next, and still I seek Him with each bend in the road.