Scared Out of the Church!
by Joni Bell | 20 January 2022 |
I occasionally journey to Southern California to visit my childhood home and catch up with my cousins still living in the area. A few days of reflection on my roots helps me think again about my choices, my life, my purposes. And yes, it is a great escape for a few winter days when you live in a Northern climate!
On one such occasion I arranged to share a meal with a cousin at a favorite restaurant. We enjoyed recalling memories from decades ago. We laughed, talked with each other about what was going on in our lives, and mingled our hopes and disappointments.
She and I are only days apart in age. We were quite close as children, as were our parents. Lots of memories! We had enjoyed the same large church-operated elementary school. When my family moved away she continued her secondary and college education in Adventist schools. In her early adulthood she had stopped attending church. To this day she does not connect with the Adventist church, or any church, although I know she has visited various congregations in her area.
In the course of our conversation I mustered up my courage and asked her a question I had pondered for some time. It is a question we often consider in relationship with others who have shared some part of our life experience. The timing was right in the dialogue we had shared at the table. “Why did you leave the Adventist church”?
She looked down, took a deep breath, then answered, “I just got so tired of being scared all the time”.
Scared. I understood her response. Immediately. We grew up with terrifying beasts decorating the literature in the church foyer and novels on the supposed scenario of end-time events in our homes. Was it that these images simply controlled our consciousness? I remember memorizing charts with dates that marched right through to our time. And all of us knew the consequences of bowing to “the Beast” even though not doing so would mean torture or imprisonment. Yup, these were some pretty scary prospects. Perhaps, unintentionally, well-intended prophetic messages created a fearful view of our future. And more, it was imminent! Knowledge had increased and we were “down in the toes” of Nebuchadnezzar’s image! Scared? Yes, what we heard and saw generated fear, a fear that might even dominate our vision as adults.
As I considered my cousin’s words I worried that her fear, and the fear I had been familiar with, shaped our understanding of God. God is love? I had often struggled with the tension between grace and obedience. A familiar conflict for us Adventists. Were we satisfying the requirements of God’s law? Being saved by grace, should I be so obsessed with my behavior? Had I confessed every sin? What about unknown sin? It struck me that my questions about God went further. Is He a God of love, or a demanding and wrathful eternal being?
Fear. We were often reminded that a time was coming, coming soon, when it would be too late to confess our sin. Had that moment passed? Had I been judged and found “wanting”? The terror of that possibility! Instead of longing to see Jesus, I realize that in those times when I took my faith seriously my focus had become “am I ready?” These concerns, these fears, crowded out a relationship.
Faith and fear
My cousin and I are not alone. For too many of us, our faith had formed around fear emerging from the forecast of end time events. When evangelistic meetings or renewal week-ends came along in our teens we were reminded of the brevity of time, the need to “get ready, and the “time of trouble.” Better keep stocking up on those non-perishables. In my innermost being I feared the end. I recall entertaining the thought; “I hope He doesn’t come in my lifetime.”
Our human experience affirms the contribution or risk of fear. There are physical reactions. Fear protects us. It alerts us to danger and prepares us to deal with it. That’s good. Fear warns us, makes the hair stand up on the back of our necks, gives us strength to fight or flee. It’s instinctive. Fear can accelerate our heart rate, produce shortness of breath, and generate a surge of energy. However, it can also paralyze us. It can actually keep us from thinking clearly.
Fear is in one dimension a powerful emotion. And emotions can at times disable reason. Anxiety about end-time events produces emotion, and those emotions can come to define your spiritual experience. You’re on your computer late into the night, summarizing end-time events because the “apocalyptic clock is ticking.” Who are the two witnesses of Revelation 11, will there be a military ruler coming from the north to invade the Middle East and how will a one-world religion come about? Is there a secret government conspiracy? You are wondering, could these things happen in my lifetime? What will I do? How will my family survive?
Fear can provide an adrenaline rush. The resulting excitement, brought about by focus on end-time events, can be addictive, and even come to define our religious experience. Perhaps it’s the “roller coaster” syndrome. An addiction to the excitement, a sort of satisfaction. And, if you are able to build a fortress and stash away enough food to last for the foreseeable future, well, that’s even better, right? You did it! You’ve got it all in control
Fear. Scared out of the church. Is there an alternative? Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic, wrote; “Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.” If his philosophical view is right, then WE become, I suggest, the center of our faith. Not Jesus.
It was in the late 70’s that my views on God and the end times started to shift. I started to examine the roots of my faith. I listened and studied. I saw the contrast of teaching that faith was “having a meaningful relationship with Jesus” versus the religion of fear so frequently proclaimed in the church. Slowly but surely I began to see it was all about Jesus! That faith was centered in His life, His showing us the character of God’s love, and God’s existence grounded in the resurrection. I didn’t have to be worried about end-time events. No storing up, moving to the wilderness, etc. I needed to focus my faith life into staying in relationship with Him. Yes the end is coming, and I began to celebrate what He will do for us.
Some of the things I had learned as a child came rushing back to me. I had heard the truth about Jesus. I had been taught that our relationship with God is based on trust and love. That fear had entered when the relationship was broken, and we became insecure. Through my years of growing up, the truth about God competed with the natural emotions in a broken relationship. In the absence of love and trust the natural human condition is anxiety, uncertainty and fear. I still see that struggle in my church.
Somewhere in our adult life, my faith journey and my cousins had taken different directions. I do not judge her at all. I feel bad that my witness, that our witness, was not evident. Sorry, cousin. Sorry you had to leave the church to escape a religion of fear. I apologize to you and the countless others, family and friends. Yes, I have chosen to stay, but I will not be silent.
The first letter of John (Weymouth translation) puts forth the basic tenet that “Love has in it no element of fear, but perfect love drives away fear, because fear involves pain and if a man gives way to fear, there is something imperfect in his love.” Fear and love are not compatible!
In my mid twenties I rejected the religion of fear. Do I still hear it in the church? Yes, and it is disappointing to me. I grieve for the cousins, the parents, the children who have and will leave the church because of the fear. They seek truth. They reject merchants of fear.
Here we must revisit our core vision. We are a movement heralding the return of Christ. The good news of His return! The good news!
Followers of Jesus long for His return. As a child, my father’s homecoming after work was the highlight of my day. He would come in that front door, scoop up my sister and me in his arms, shower us with hugs and kisses and get down on the floor to wrestle and play. There was no fear regarding his arrival. There was eager anticipation. Why? We had a relationship with him. Love. Were there rules and expectations? Of course there were, and we knew they came from our parent’s love and provided the best for us. But that wasn’t the focus. It was the joy we found in that love.
So here it is, cousin. I do not worry about the end time. I do hope Jesus brings this age of suffering to an end soon. I hope His coming is near. Whether Jesus comes in my lifetime or not, whether it is in this century or a millennium from now is really irrelevant. I don’t know the mind of God. I think He is coming soon, and He spoke in such a way that we followers in every generation can live with the encouragement of His coming, but my faith isn’t built on signs of His coming. My focus is on Jesus and my relationship with Him. And how does that look? It’s a celebration of grace! It looks like joy!
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.