Before we get into the deeper theological waters of examining the image of God as presented to us in American evangelical Christianity, we must examine what our individual images of God are. So today, mine is on display. When I sat down to think about what my image of God had been through my formative years, I realized that the picture of God I had was not one of love and grace, but a God who keeps records of all my sins, who sits back and judges, and who is waiting for me to screw up. Luckily, through intentional study and relationship, that image has shifted in the past few years, but it still influences a lot of what I see in various theologies and beliefs.
Growing up, my God – the God of my Baptist church – was white, and American. I remember when I was five or six years old, the preacher talked about the Rapture, and I was very concerned that Jesus would forget about the United States, his “natural” home. How could go cover the whole world and still be here?
My father patiently explained that everything would be okay if I just asked Jesus into my heart. So I did. That was the first of many times I prayed that prayer.
But by the time I hit twelve, my God had shifted. He was now intimately concerned with my development as a woman – I knew I shouldn’t be wearing v-neck shirts before I even had discernible cleavage and that men were different, alien. My task was to guard them and myself from an as yet unknown threat.
This God – the all powerful, all knowing, all sovereign God – was infinitely concerned with not only the state of my soul, but the state of my dress. I read the Left Behind series around this time, and the God who knew my soul was just as concerned with how women tempted men (I mean, Rayford wouldn’t have been thinking about cheating on his wife if that flight attendant didn’t wear such short skirts, right? Maybe he could have gone to heaven if she’d been a better steward).
I could still be considered a strong, brave woman if I kept myself pure, though. I took a pledge at 14 and was given a diamond ring my parents bought for me at WalMart the day before. I pledged before my entire congregation and before God that I’d wait to do anything until marriage – despite never having considered kissing anyone at that point in my life.
I would wear loose fitting clothing that could tempt no one, because I didn’t want anyone else to get left behind, as I was sure I was going to be because I was too much of a sinner. I yelled at my debate partners in high school, I had crushes on boys, I swore, out loud, when I got angry.
These were the sins that would keep me from Jesus.
So I prayed. A lot. I prayed that Jesus could forgive me for thinking about wanting to kiss that boy I liked. I prayed Jesus would forgive me for saying “shit” when I dropped that portfolio full of research. I prayed that He would cleanse my mind of liking that one song by Eminem my debate partner forced me to listen to when he gave me a ride to the tournament that one time.
I prayed without ceasing, but every Sunday, I’d sit in church and be scared that I wasn’t doing enough. My best friend was still an atheist, after all, and I made her my personal project for evangelism. I remember spending an agonizing night trying to fall asleep, racked by guilt over neglecting my eternal duty to bring her soul to God. When I got to school the next morning, I told my mom to pray for me during the day because I was finally going to talk to her about Jesus. I went straight to her locker and nervously explained that I was concerned about her soul and that if I didn’t say something then I was guilty too. Through the day, I kept pushing, eventually shutting up when she turned to me and yelled, “No, fuck you, I don’t want to hear it!”
I was devastated. Not only had I failed in what God wanted me to do, but I had alienated my best friend.
This was my life. Sunday and Wednesday, I’d feel close to God during worship at youth group, and then do something during the week – forget to read my Bible, forget to take that opportunity to witness, not be careful about how I sat down when hanging out with my guy friends, think about kissing my crush of the week for a moment too long – these were the things my spiritual walk was made of.
God, to me, was someone who I could push away with my sin at any moment. Because Paul had told us that free grace didn’t mean we could keep on sinning, I thought that I had to do my best not to sin so that I could be with God. Everything came back to whether or not I was sinning.
What’s more, God was especially concerned about potential sexual sin.
I literally had none aside from my own thoughts. In an effort to keep pure, I avoided movies with sex scenes, and wore the most modest clothing I could find without appearing Hutterite – though I still had the sense to avoid the denim skirts that would have been social suicide at my high school. But, I was, for all intents and purposes asexual and androgynous. I shopped in the men’s section at Old Navy and wore clothing that hid my shape.
And it was in this place that I lived for years – fearful of a God who watched my every thought, who judged my femaleness and my treatment of the men in my life, who would, at the end of my life, play back all these moments of sin for an audience of my peers and regard the state of my soul.
This judgmental, vengeful God and the loving, glorious Jesus were one and the same, of course. It was the face of the white, European Jesus, sadden and burdened by my sin that I pictured alongside an amorphous Father God in heaven – God the Father was merely two large hands in my imagination, nothing more.
Putting my nose to the grindstone was the only way out, the only way through. I had to at least show that I was putting forth effort in keeping myself from sin or God would not consider me – I never would and never had done enough.
In my freshman year of college, Calvinism became very attractive to me – not because of the depravity and sin, but because of the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Here, finally, was something that said I was always and would always be saved. Here was an element of comfort that I didn’t have to keep trying, that I could try being womanly for once.
But this doctrine came with a God who elected some to heaven and some to hell. The idea that I could be one of the non-elect needled at me, until I rejected Calvinism altogether. Surely, I was too depraved, too sinful, too much for the sovereign God of the Calvinists – surely, if I was Elect, this whole spiritual walk would be easier?
Relief would not come for years yet.
We’ll return in two weeks with how I began to see God in a new light, in a new way, when the Account and Countenance series continues.