As a child, I often had pastors who would paint terrible, frightening pictures of hell. Then they would tell us that if we did not accept Jesus Christ into our hearts, we would be thrown into a fiery pit, for an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This happened on a regular basis. I would stand alone in the second pew, while my parents would be in the choir loft. The pastor would fire up a verse of “Just As I Am,” and if we got through all the verses without anyone coming up, he would have us sing it again.
He would remind me that if I did not ask Jesus into my life, I could be the best sort of person on earth, but I would still be sent into eternal burning. It didn’t matter if our parents were Christians. It didn’t matter if we were raised in a Christian family. God didn’t have any grandchildren. We were to make the decision for ourselves, or we would go to hell.
I would stand, with my best dress, my lacy socks, and my shiny leather shoes, and I believed every word of it.
It was frightening to hear, as a tiny girl. The threats worked. I invited Jesus into my heart. And then I did it again. Again and again. In fact, on a pretty regular basis, I would ask Jesus into my heart. I didn’t go up to the altar each time, because I figured that would be an embarrassment to my parents. But I would pray in the pew. Just in case it didn’t stick. Just in case I wasn’t sincere enough. Just in case I lost my entry ticket into heaven. Just in case I had done something that did not merit God’s love that week. Just in case God was angry at me for some reason… I just kept asking.
This experience taught me a lot. For the most part, it taught me that God was angry, jealous, and petty. And even though God was all-powerful, God would let a small child to burn in hell. For all of eternity.
I began to question this vivid idea of God when I started traveling around the world. I went to China and Hong Kong, and I came face-to-face with crowds of people who (according to my view) were going to hell.
I was deeply concerned about my view of God when my closest friends began to confide that they were gay or lesbian. A couple of them grew up the same black-and-white religious world that I did, and I can’t imagine the courage that it took for them to come out of the closet.
This view became even more problematic when a friend committed suicide. I knew the torment that he lived through. I had great compassion for his suffering, and yet, according to my religious system at the time, he was in hell.
I began to wrestle with the notion, when I loved certain people in my family deeply and I knew that they were not “Christians” in the same way that I claimed. I knew that, according to my beliefs, they were going to hell, but I also knew that I would do anything that I could to save them.
So why wouldn’t God? Why would God allow so many people suffer for eternity? And for what reason? Because they didn’t say a prayer, inviting Jesus into their hearts? Why was that formula so important?
There seemed to be one conclusion. It was because God was cruel and vengeful. Full of wrath. And I was in the hands of that angry God. Just like a tiny spider who was held over an open flame, God was holding me over the fire, and I would be singed unless I loved God.
This was the God I grew up with. And this idea of the divine fostered a great deal of anxiety and fear within me.
I knew that something had to change. And at the heart of all of this was my concept of God. It was this God who withheld love except if people came asking for it. It was a view of God who would allow a person to suffer, unless he or she loved and worshiped God in a certain way. It was a view of God that gave me the sense that I was never worthy of love or acceptance, and therefore in turn, no one else was either. It was a view of God that enflamed intolerance toward people from other religions, and for gays and lesbians.
It was an ideal of God that ran contrary to the very nature of what the Scriptures say. That God is love. That Jesus Christ is our peace. That we are to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves–and all of that is very difficult to do when the source of that love is jealous, vengeful, angry, and intolerant.
And so if I was going to have peace, I needed to re-imagine God. All of this, I did intuitively. When I became a Presbyterian, when I went to seminary, and when I began an intellectual pursuit of reading theology. In the midst of all of this, I often had seasons of doubt, and I wondered if religion was more damaging than healing. Yet, I persisted with my religious studies, because I knew that even though fundamentalist religion could be destructive, there was something there that was a source of peace.
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, wrote a book with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist, entitled How God Changes Your Brain. As the title suggest, their research shows that contemplating God will change your brain. Even though our brains begin to lose abilities and begin to slow down at the age of 30, meditating, praying, and contemplating God slows the aging process. They help the brain to grow. Contemplating God actually changes the neural circuits that enhance our cognitive health. Furthermore, it makes us socially aware and makes us more empathetic. It promotes peace.
Newberg and Waldman explain how the anger and prejudice that is generated by extreme beliefs can damage your brain, but imagining a God who is loving, rather than vengeful, can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. Their studies show that contemplating God can increase feelings of security, compassion, and love.
I guess that’s why I stay. Even though I witnessed religious abuse growing up, I keep writing and pastoring, because I’ve seen the security, compassion, and love flourish in so many lives.
The authors explain how it works by telling a Cherokee legend about a little boy who received a drum as a gift.
It was a beautiful drum, and he loved it. Soon after he received it, he was playing with it, and his closest friend came up and wanted to play with it.
The little boy was torn, and he ended up grasping the drum and running away.
Frustrated, the boy went to one of his elders and asked him what to do. The elder responded that he often felt like there were two wolves inside of him. One was greedy, angry, and selfish. The other was generous and kind. And the wolves were fighting. The elder turned to the boy and said that he thought that the boy had two wolves inside of him too.
The boy asked, “Which wolf will win?”
And the elder answered, “The one that you feed.”