When I was in middle school, the first books of the Left Behind Christian rapture fiction series came out. And I shamelessly devoured them. I totally bought into the theological framework presented within, and embraced the idea of the rapture with what can only be described as fervor. I desperately didn’t want to be one of the ones left behind.
When I was five years old, the church pastor preached a sermon about repenting before Jesus comes back to judge us. I remember being worried that Jesus wouldn’t come back to the United States, and that he wouldn’t come back for me. So I asked Dad what I needed to do, and we prayed the sinner’s prayer that night.
In high school, I spent my Saturdays at debate tournaments, surrounded by “liberal heathens” who believed in comprehensive sex education and voting for Democrats. Every Sunday and Wednesday, when I attended youth group, I’d beat myself up for failing to witness properly, for failing to remind people that Jesus is coming back to just the quick and the dead. During one ill-fated trip, I turned to my seatmate on the bus and began urging her to accept Christ. She was a novice freshman, and I barely knew her name. But I was afraid for her soul.
So much of my journey in faith can be characterized by fear. I was constantly and consistently afraid that I was failing in loving my neighbor by not witnessing every day. I hastily confronted friends about their need to accept Christ – badgering them until they began to distance themselves from me. I found a group of like-minded evangelicals and we set ourselves up as the persecuted minority of the school. Any negative reaction to our jerk behavior, to our annoying evangelism was taken as confirmation that our mission was true and pure.
I associated so much of my early Christian life with fear. Fear that I was at once not enough and too much. Fear that Jesus would come back and I would be left in a terrifying world to fend for myself. Fear that I would slip up somehow.
I remember telling a Calvinist friend in college that Calvinism scared me because I just knew that if it was true, then I wasn’t one of the elect – I would be destined for hell.
When we read what Paul says about “perfect love,” the idea that it casts out fear was completely foreign to me. I lived in a world of fear – not only fear for my salvation but fear that accompanies existence as a woman in both the church and the world. I was taught to fear men and their lust. I was taught to fear my own body and the natural feelings I had. I was taught to cover up, to shame myself, to internalize everything people told me about my sense of myself.
I was taught to be “humble” – which meant refusing any praise, and refusing to view myself as important. Instead, I was a part of a body, an element acting not of myself but out of interest in the communal God. I did not exist in any real sense of the term.
I didn’t lead anyone to Christ during those times. Oh, I lead people in the sinner’s prayer. I praised people for their supposed conversions. But I didn’t guide them. I didn’t lead anyone. I instilled fear, I prayed a prayer, and I left them behind. I did this because I was afraid for myself – afraid of what would happen to my soul if I didn’t save theirs.
And the culture I lived in encouraged this. Through my first two and a half years in college, I faithfully attended Campus Crusade for Christ meetings at a neighboring college (both colleges were small, so we combined). I went on door-to-door evangelism binges. I handed out tracts to small children and their parents. I laughed about walking through “sketchy” neighborhoods to talk to people about Jesus. I truly believed I was doing the Lord’s work.
But the entire time was a roller coaster of constantly checking back and forth and wondering if I was going to be okay with God when the time finally came. I worried about the fact that my mom had stopped going to church. I worried about my friends who didn’t do devotionals or didn’t come to chapel. I already had undiagnosed anxiety, and constant worry about the eternal salvation of my friends and my own seemed entirely normal to my already worrying mind.
This culture of fear is not uncommon in evangelicalism. I wasn’t an outlier. Indeed, the schools and the churches I went to are relatively mainstream when it comes to evangelicalism. We had more liberal intervisitation polices and co-ed dorms. We didn’t have to sign a morality contract like my friends at Biola did. Even then, fear was pervasive.
I’ve never felt more in tune with God and with who I am as an heir to the Kingdom than I have in the past few years when I’ve worked on shedding fear and shame and focusing on the justice of loving my neighbor. I don’t feel afraid any more. I’m not scared about my salvation.
And this, ultimately, is why I have faith that evangelicalism is not the big scary bogeyman it can sometimes be. Because fear and shame aren’t sustainable. Because fear is not a solid basis for faith – especially a faith that already exists as a house of cards.
Here is the essence of my faith: that love will win out in the end. That justice will prevail. After all, perfect love casts out fear, and we must not fear our ability to love. It is, indeed, what makes us children of God.