My earliest memory of faith is lying in my bottom bunk each night, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over, in the hope that, if I died in my sleep, God would let me into heaven*.
I became a “born again” Christian when I was 13, after my family started attending a local evangelical/brethren church. We had attended another (less intense) church prior to this and my immediate family were all Christians. As a passionate and impressionable teenager (with a side dose of baseline anxiety, see bunk bed prayer*) I quickly internalised what I was hearing. The result was a life focused on daily quiet times, fervent evangelising and high-octane church involvement (the majority of time at this church, then later one closer to my university). Over the next 7 years I devoted most of my time to camps and mission weeks, prayer triplets, bible studies and prayer rooms. I had a poem stuck on my bedroom wall entitled “Letter from Hell”; written from the perspective of a friend in hell, asking why I hadn’t done more to bring them to Jesus.
My deconstruction started relatively innocuously in my early 20’s. There was no one defining moment, instead it was an accumulation of many smaller doubts and wrestles. A medical elective in India made me question my theology on hell. The over-spiritualisation of a break-up made me doubt how I interpreted God’s will. I became increasingly uncomfortable evangelising my friends and the line between evangelism and manipulation became increasingly blurry (think curry night that is 10% curry and 90% testimony from a prison convert). As I began working as a doctor, I got a privileged insight into the complexities of people’s lives and the categories of Christian and non-Christian now felt like a cruel over simplification. Doubts and questions around the role of woman in the church, and teaching on sexuality (including homosexuality) and relationships made it increasingly difficult for me to tow the party line. I ruined more than one dinner party with my issues surrounding penal substitution and Calvinism. Steadily everything felt like a struggle.
As difficult as these issues were to wrestle, the breaking point, the true unravelling, came when I realised there was no space to air my doubts and questions in the various Christian communities I was part of. In the few settings they could be aired, I still needed to eventually conclude with the view held by the church/organisation. I started to feel like I was suffocating.
As a generally anxious person (*see bunk bed prayer), the ‘micro manager’, black and white God who had a plan for every minute of my life was initially quite comforting. But it had now become the source of much of my anxiety, especially in regards to petitionary prayer. It felt like my linear, formulaic, two-dimensional faith was crumbling under the pressure of a multi-dimensional, complicated lived experience. I poked at a few more pieces and then the whole thing crumbled.
It took me a few years to truly face and accept what was happening. People would ask what church my husband and I were attending and I’d blame having a new baby. Or working. Or moving house. I felt terrified of my bible, unable to read it in case it pulled me back to who I had been before. I found prayer overwhelming as it had became more about ruminating over my fears than a spiritual practice that brought peace and direction. I felt a sense of grief as I left these communities and mourned the loss of a role that I had felt so certain of. But if I’m really honest, I mostly just felt angry.
I felt angry at the power and the patriarchy within the evangelical church. Angry at the legalism, angry at the uniformity of biblical interpretation we all had to adhere to. I felt angry at how much honesty was suppressed in the name of ‘godliness’. Angry at how repressed I was as a female and how much shame came with the purity culture teachings. I also felt ashamed and angry with myself for feeling angry and it’s taken many years to begin untangling all of that.
The first signs of hope came in the form of a Brian McLaren book (given to me many years earlier by a wise and kind friend) and then another book, Doug Frank’s A Gentler God and then I discovered Rachel Held Evans. I read Evolving in Monkey Town in one evening with tears streaming down my face. I remember the overwhelming relief that I wasn’t alone. It felt wonderful to know this was a path that others had taken and not only survived, but had re-emerged with something new. I found reading Fowler’s work on Stages of Faith helpful and also Scott Peck’s work on faith psychology. I also began reading and listening to Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist who has helped me reach a much more positive view on sexuality than I inherited from the evangelical ‘purity culture’ teaching. My husband, who became a Christian in his early 20’s, has always held a much lighter, more open faith where questions have always been as welcome as answers, so we’ve been able to do much of this journey together, which I am so grateful for. I am also fortunate to have some very dear friends from my past evangelical life, who are on various paths, without the church.
Other signs of hope have come through running, gardening and becoming a mother. Connecting to my body (often in nature) and learning to trust my instincts as a mum have helped reverse years of thinking my emotions were unreliable and my body a separate/lesser part of me. I’ve also loved being around my children who question and love and integrate all part of themselves in life so freely. Children know how to find and share pleasure. I found the evangelical obsession with abstaining from ‘worldly pleasures’ to be such a damaging, joy stealing theology. Being in such a constant state of vigilance makes it incredibly difficult to experience pleasure, joy and presentness and confounded my general anxiety towards life. Attempting to be rooted in the now, feet on this earth and allowing myself to experience joy and pleasure, might be the biggest sign of hope I’ve had so far.
The last few years have been defined by a much deeper contentment for where I am. I’ve realised I was trying to package my deconstruction back up into the same neat, little boxes my evangelical faith had just come out of. I’ve given up trying to label where I am and what I am. I’ve been comforted immensely by the fact Jesus answered most questions with riddles, stories or more questions. He also sometimes changed his answer depending who was asking. And why they were asking. He didn’t make the disciples agree to a 12-point statement of faith. I feel at peace with my “questions that have no right to go away” (from the David Whyte poem Sometimes).
I’ve occasionally felt pangs of guilt and worry that my deconstruction process has involved a lot of navel gazing and self-centredness. I’ve also wrestled with the frustration that to many, it looks like you’ve given up or ‘back-slidden’ when you no longer attend church. Nevertheless, I’ve found despite all my struggles, I am still drawn to Jesus. He still consumes my thoughts, my conversations (and clearly my podcast choices). He’s in the bedtime ponderings I have with my kids where we question things together and I can listen to what they think without jumping in with answers. He’s in my job as I seek to alleviate suffering rather than try to explain it away or spiritualise it. He’s in my friendships that feel so much more human and loving without the evangelical agenda. I’ve started to have honest conversations with the friends that bore the brunt of my super evangelical years and I’ve experienced so much love and grace from them in this. The world doesn’t feel like a “them and us” anymore.
In rejecting a certain type of Christianity, I’ve discovered Jesus in all the places I never looked. The freedom that has come from being ‘outside’ the religious community and their rules and exclusivity has been surprising and life giving in equal measure.
I sometimes wonder if that’s how the disciples might have described their time with Jesus…
– Jenna Gillies