When I was a young boy growing up in the early nineties, which as we all know were the glory days (Ninja Turtles, What Now, Transformers, McDonalds Young Entertainers, slap bands, bowl cuts – need I say more?) I got to know God alongside all these wonderful things filling up my malleable imagination.
I learned that God didn't like it when I kicked my brother in the head, even when it felt good. I learned that he didn't like it when I used certain four letter words and he didn't like it when I told a woman in a swimming pool she was fat. I wasn't being mean, I just noticed it and thought she should know. God didn't like it when I smashed that girl's watch when I was 6 and he didn't like it when I was rude to my mum.
As I grew up, I learned in addition to this that God didn't like it when I was silly in class and he didn't like it when I created devastatingly hysterical smells from my rear end that produced satisfying reactions from the girls around me.
As I grew into a teenager, I learned that God had especially strong feelings about sex, drugs and alcohol and it wasn't worth me even thinking about that stuff, let alone trying it out. God was an overbearing landlord watching my performance closely.
Confusingly, at the same time, the God of the youth group pulpit was supposed to be my source of love, God had set me free (somehow), I was forgiven (somehow) and I was apparently now "His".
Being a Christian was supposed to fulfil me, and as I drew near to God I was promised joy and abundant life and unconditional love. God had plans for me, he wanted me to do important things for Him and feel really good about the fact that I was a Christian, and not one of those dirty atheist people.
If I made a mistake, then I was still free to enjoy a good worship sesh, still free to enjoy an inspirational monologue at church, and still free to enjoy religious superiority to everyone else. God was my sugar daddy, my spiritual high, my therapy.
Which is perfect, because in my everyday life He had become the source of a lot of angst and self-hate, and I needed something to balance out all these negative feelings inside me. And so my teenage years into my early twenties saw me embark on the perilous journey of a seesaw faith, swinging between harsh legalism under its pious name 'holiness' and the feel-good experience of spirituality.
This black hole of narcissism is a sure route to confusion and makes it impossible to form any sort of coherent picture of who God actually is. Duffy Robins refers to this "moralistic therapeutic deism" and argues that this is miles away from the God we have revealed to us in Jesus.
He says: "What if the blasÃ© religiosity of most…teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit, that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks not passionate surrender but ho-hum ascent?
"What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?
"If this is the case – if theological malpractice explains teenagers' half-hearted religious identities - then perhaps most young people practise moralistic therapeutic deism not because they reject Christianity, but because this is the only 'Christianity' they know."
The Loss of Transcendence
The issue here is that in both understandings, we are pushing God into a template of being that we can understand and control, and we push out transcendence. God can be whatever we need Him to be, and can give us permission to live accordingly.
I've been told "Jesus wasn't wishy washy and said it like it needed to be said", only for that image of Jesus to be used as free pass to tell people where to stick it, with no consideration of what they need to hear at the time.
I've been told that "Jesus was a forgiving friend of sinners" and seen these people continue in self-destructive behaviours convinced that the main issue is that they're forgiven for the very things that God wants to free them from.
And increasingly I hear that Jesus was first and foremost a radical social reformer, this thinking leading to an almost Pharisaic legalism about welfare and a notion of a God very disinterested in my inner workings.
Brennan Manning writes, "Clearly, the God of our imagination is not worthy of trust, adoration, praise, reverence, or gratitude. And yet, if we are unwilling to address the issue of transcendence, that is the only deity we know. The loss of transcendence has left in its wake the flotsam of distrustful, cynical Christians, angry at a capricious God, and the jetsam of smug bibilolatrists who claim to know precisely what God is thinking and exactly what he plans to do."
It is my mission to know God on His own terms, beyond the caricatures I will inevitably fall into creating, and beyond the oppressive and trivial pictures that I have been sold.
This God will never be comfortable for me, but He will always be comforting. He won't make life easier for me, but He will make life better. He won't subject me to a heavy list of demands, but He will keep growing my desire to be more fully human and begin to rid myself of selfish behaviours. I look forward to a faith without me at the centre.
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