I mean, I believe that He exists. But I find it really hard to believe that He's on my side. As a kid, if I was asked to write one of those cute postcards to God that get sent around in those chain emails you seem to get every year, it would have read something along the lines of "Please don't punish me, I don't know why I do dumb things sometimes."
Not a lot has changed since. While I can somehow accept that Supreme Divine Being Himself was horrifically beaten, stripped naked, humiliated, crucified and then killed for me because the Bible tells me so, for some reason, it is a lot harder to accept that He might actually like me too.
This sentiment is not just restricted to those who spend a lot of time thinking about Him. Popular ideas about God tend to look more like the fed up Monty Python caricature than Morgan Freeman with his cute little freckles and voice that could make NWA lyrics sound like an adorable children's story.
The Internet loves to put words into the mouth of God, and is apparently of the opinion that if God is a reality, then he's a bit of a douche. God can be found on Twitter saying things like "I need to be told how great I am at least once a week by everybody because while I am perfect I am also very emotionally needy", and in memes, God demands "I made you in my image. Except that foreskin. Get rid of it. It's gross."
And while I find that pretty funny, it carries some pretty tragic undertones.
You probably wouldn't want the general public of New Zealand to write God a character reference either. Church historian, Peter Matheson notes that Kiwis view Christianity as life denying, as puritanical and narrow, much like a corset forced on to a country of wild children. Whether we like it or not, this view colours the perception of the God behind the belief system.
God of the Youth Group
Growing up in church I picked up a theology of "You're a child of God so don't be naughty". We implicitly learned that we needed to tell our friends about Jesus so that they too could live sexless, drug free lives liberated from swear words and Slim Shady.
We were lumped with the confusing task of living out of Christian do's and don'ts because if Jesus died for you, you should at least try to stop wanting to watch Christina Aguilera music videos. For me, this bred a "failure is not an option" mentality, and God began to feel unsafe, especially in moments of personal failure.
Growing into adulthood, this mindset continued to shape my picture of reality and only worsened when I began making decisions that had the potential to affect my future in significant ways. Anxiety took hold in more extreme ways in job trials, romantic relationships and personal failures that I believed could bring permanent shame and disrepute and began to manifest itself in my body in the form of muscle spasm, constant tightness and panic attacks. Underpinning all of this was the perception that I was only loved when I was performing.
God was my enemy until I managed to go for two weeks without thinking about Natalie Portman in less than noble ways.
The Gospel and Mental Health
Theologian and counsellor, Bruce Wauchope talks about how our perception of God has a massive impact on our human experience. He explains that no one on earth has an ideal relationship with their parents, and that shapes how we interact with God, fearing disappointment that leads to rejection.
So we feel separated from God when we already feel alone, hurt and scared and we project this onto God. We ask the question "Why am I rejected?" and answer with "Because I am bad, and my internal pain confirms it." In our desperation to be accepted we try to get back on side – we acknowledge, confess, repent, renounce, baptise, water baptise and jump through all the hoops to please God and to escape His wrath.
But the pain doesn't go away and so we develop defences against this. Our own selves accuse us. We become demented creatures striving to get back to God, feeling anxious, paranoid and exhausted. And so many of us will often turn to comfort in food, sex, sleep, the bottle, fantasies or disassociation. Acknowledging the existence of God becomes a bleak affair. We are trying to get back to an ugly god, an abuser, a benevolent task master. And often the preacher confirms this!
So what is freedom in Christ?
As I wrestled with being seen in my failure, in my poor decisions, and in my anxious state, I found that God was not the caricature I had made Him out to be. In my searching of the scriptures and in my learning about authenticity and weakness I found God to be infinitely more compassionate than any of my own rules were. That I was much more graceless, black and white and punitive than He was.
For moments I would allow myself to believe the possibility that God was actually for me, and interpret through that lens. In those small moments I glimpsed freedom from performance for the first time. And I couldn't go back.
This God constantly made the first move. This God entered into suffering. His perfect love really did drive out all fear, and just like a small animal will gradually stop barking and decide that the stranger is trustworthy, I began to let my guard down, to be vulnerable and to find that He had carried me the whole time. That He was good.
This is the good news, that acceptance doesn't depend on you and me. Watchman Nee contends that Christianity "begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE." Tim Keller proclaims in unison "We are more sinful than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope."
My ears are open and this is the best news that this anxious, weak and stumbling soul has ever heard. God can be trusted and He is on my side.
I'm still crawling out of my default mode, still edging in with hesitance, but the closer I look the more I can echo these words by the late Brennan Manning:
"Ignorant, weak, sinful person that I am, with easy rationalizations for my sinful behaviour, I am being told anew in the unmistakable language of love, "I am with you, I am for you, I am in you. I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself."
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.
Sam Burrows previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-burrows.html