Faith Is Not About Religion
And why I chose this topic for my first Medium post
I just finished reading a Medium post about somebody who described losing their faith over a bad experience in a church environment as a teenager…
… and my heart ached
It’s a common story. Whether it’s a child brought up by ‘religious’ parents where a ‘god’ of their creation was used to administer an atmosphere of fear to elicit good behavior. Or someone in a position of authority did or said something horribly *not* godlike or loving.
As I said, it’s a common story.
I have my own history as a child-abuse survivor who attended Catholic school as a young boy and experienced people and situations that made me think “if this is what religion is about I don’t want anything to do with it”.
And I set off on life.
In my 20’s I called myself ‘spiritual but not religious’. My career in IT took off, money came in, good friends, fun parties, expensive vacations, and material possessions were the norm; life was good.
But something was missing, and I became a seeker.
I spent thousands of dollars in my thirties to reach a state of pre-clear in Dianetics, I invested in healing crystal kits and studied biorhythms and astrology. I probably single-handedly put one of Tony Robbins’ children through college with the purchase of his materials. And my bookshelf to this day contains hundreds if not 1,000 self-help books.
I became a student of psychology, numerology, physiology, neurology, spirituality, but never religion. “Religion is for the lemmings who can’t think for themselves” was the narrative I walked around with.
And as life went on, the worldly successes increased, seemingly in congruence with the hole in my heart. My disillusionment with career status, material possessions, and peer accolades seemingly increased the growing ache instead of lessening it.
What is going on? I have the education, career, life experiences and even relationships having a fiance’ and beautiful new son (yes the timing was out of order, yet intentional).
So why is life getting harder, less fulfilling, less enjoyable, less meaningful?
And as so often happens, this growing ache that started out nearly inaudible in my youth’s perception of achieving success led to medicating my ache.
Social drinking became binge drinking. The occasional hit of weed became wake and bake. The random indulgence in pornography became a freight train into a very dark world that could easily be described as the very gates of hell.
It now seemed like it was life with no limits, and I had no idea how I had got there nor where I was going. And sadly, (or gratefully) after a decade of increasing physical and moral decline, I reached the bottom.
I remember being at the height of my career as an IT Manager in my mid 40's. It was the annual holiday party and they were giving out the Charlie Award; an award voted on by the executive staff across all divisions for the one person who rose above the crowd that year.
And that year, it was me.
You’d think this pinnacle of achievement in my little corner of the world would help fill that ache, that need for validation and recognition that I never got from my father which fueled my life-long need for perfectionism and work-a-holism.
My memory is not one of standing in front of the entire company while each manager described why they personally chose me, what my glowing attributes brought to the table, and accepting my well-deserved accolades.
Instead, I remember shoving my hands in my pockets because it was after 2 pm and I was starting to get the shakes from the DT’s. My daily withdrawal had come calling which could only be quieted with a regularly administered allotment of tequila that I drank at home alone, every night, 6 days a week. (Sunday night was off-limits so I would stop calling in “sick” every Monday morning).
The reality was, I had them all fooled. They are rewarding my performance, my success, my achievements, my attitude, my skills… yet I was the most dead inside that I had ever been in my entire life.
And suicide began looking like an option.
Through a series of events that took place over the next few months, my longing to “find the answer” grew. This seeking I had been doing my whole life now truly took on a life or death urgency.
What am I doing, what am I living for, why am I here, what have I done, does anybody even care.
They were questions with no answers.
Psychology said I was programmed this way as a child, let’s talk about it.
Neurobiology said my habits and beliefs became embedded early in life through brain chemistry and wiring, and not much can be done now.
Spirituality said I’m a beautiful butterfly who is free to fly where I choose (yea, that sure felt true… not!)
Where haven’t I looked, what stone haven’t I overturned in 40 years of seeking what was missing?
Romans 12:2 “… be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”
Please, not religion! I’m not going there!!
It’s absolutely true that when the student is awakened, the teacher will appear.
I won’t go into the whole story (I didn’t plan on doing this much, to be honest) but I’d like to share some more.
I was on a motorcycle touring vacation with my best friend of 30 years and we rolled through the town of Hume Lake in the Sequoia National Forest of Southern California. It was one of the most beautiful scenic rides we had done, and there was a life-changing destiny that was about to take place.
We spent Saturday night at a campground near Hume Lake Christian Camp, and they had church service the following morning for local residents, not just camp attendees. My friend and I decided “why not”. There was no agenda and even less expectation but we were both amenable to the suggestion.
I don’t remember the exact sermon that morning, but I remember how I felt. There was a message of hope, or wholeness, or something that touched the seeker in me, and surprisingly, in my friend also. We decided that we would research more about the camp after our road trip. And we did.
It was several months later that we pulled into the camp for a 4-day men’s retreat; complete with bungee jumping, jeep tours, rock climbing, archery, zip lines… oh, and church stuff.
What I heard that weekend forever changed my perspective. The pastor (Albert Tate) did a 3 part series on the Prodigal Son (if you are curious to read about it click here). It is about the incredible love God has for broken people, just like me.
I had never heard of a loving God, it was always a controlling God who provided a rule book of dos and don’ts. Rules I wasn’t interested in, I’m doing just fine on my own thank you… but clearly I wasn’t.
I didn’t give my life to Christ that weekend, but I felt things that I don’t recall ever feeling before. I cried, I related, I experienced. I felt understood and known and strangely, loved. And yet nobody there knew me, how were these emotions and thoughts possible?
As you might have assumed, I did ultimately give my life to Christ, nearly 10 years ago, not long after that experience. And it’s true, everything is changing.
Not all at once, but gratefully, some aspects of my life changed immediately.
On the morning of January 3, 2011, at one of my lowest points in life, on a trip with that same friend camping in Big Sur California at Limekiln Campground, I wandered into the woods early that morning and cried out in such pain.
I cried out specifically to Jesus.
Prior to this morning I had “begged god” to take the drinking away thousand times. He never did, some god he is.
But that morning I simply prayed:
“I don’t understand the bible, the parting of the Red Sea or dinosaurs or Noah’s Ark or all the other stories, but I do believe that Jesus lived, died and rose again and I don’t need to suffer anymore”.
That was pretty much it, no begging for anything, just a profession of faith… and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that exact moment in time (over 9 years ago as of this writing).
I can’t explain it, something in me changed.
Does that mean all my troubles and worries went way? Hell no, not by any means. In fact, in many ways, life has gotten harder… but better.
And this is why I had to write this morning, to tell some of my story and explain the difference between religion and faith.
I thought God required religion, and that religion was all about what I saw and discovered first hand as a child, through the eyes and interpretations of my parents and the phony people I saw in my early church life experiences.
Religion could never help me, and all my life I believed that meant God couldn’t help me. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I believe what I discovered that morning was the birth of my faith. Faith in a God who loved me and at that moment, I believed could change everything.
Since that morning I began opening the Bible with a different perspective. And I began attending Church with a new desire. And I began to pray with new expectations.
God’s word has become the infallible all-knowing self-help book. One with true answers that medicate my soul like nothing in this world had been able to do in the prior 45 years.
And the church I now realize is filled with broken people just like me. People who are selfish, fearful, prideful and most often do religion poorly, but those who get it, truly love God purely.
We all suck at religion and make a horrible spokesperson for God. No doubt you have likely run into people like us. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t real or can’t cure what ails you.
And I believe faith is the catalyst.
It is important here to not just write me off as another Jesus freak with an agenda
Yes, my faith clearly is in Jesus Christ, and that is my message and I am an evangelical.
However, I can’t say that your faith in Mohamad or if you believe that we are still waiting on the true Messiah to arrive, or if your faith in agnostic spirituality isn’t enough to transform your inner character and well-being.
Who is anyone to say what is true for you?
And if people try to “convince you”, well, they are wrong. They are shoving an agenda, not exhibiting love.
Sharing one’s faith looks very different than promoting one’s religion.
For me, I found there is only one path to God, but my God only works because of my faith. And my faith is that God loves me, wants the best for me, wants me to be the best version of myself, and wants me to love and serve the world for His glory.
And my God acknowledges my brokenness and pain and provides a path of healing and forgiveness for the multitude of ways I have hurt others and the means by which I can learn to forgive others who have hurt me. Through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus and the strength provided through the Holy Spirit and the wisdom found in the Word of God, being transformed by the renewal of your mind is truly possible.
In fact, I’d say, if you went all in, change and healing and restoration is inevitable.
If your faith, whatever your faith is, is about love, compassion, forgiveness, peace, service, well-being, sacrifice for others, especially to others who look different, believe differently, vote differently and even pray differently than you, then your faith works.
If your faith brings healing and hope and promise and courage and direction and joy, then your faith works.
Yes Jesus said He is the only path to God, but He also said He is a choice that everyone must make for themselves.
Religious people tell others what to believe and how to live.
But someone filled with faith in a loving and healing God has a joy that transcends all understanding, peace in the face of pain, hope in a broken and hopeless world, a desire to sacrifice what little time, talent or treasure they may have for somebody who has even less.
True faith is self-less, not self-serving.
True Faith changes everything.
My prayer is that your faith makes you a better person and brings you closer to the world and not drives a wedge between you and others.
My prayer is that your faith fills you with that desire to be better in response to a loving God, not in an effort to gain the love of an angry and judging god.
Religion has a beautiful role to play in one’s faith, but religion on its own as a practice or rule book is the very thing Jesus died fighting against.
If your faith gives you strength and hope and new purpose and intrinsic value in who you were created to be, then your faith works. If your faith fills that hole that you’ve been longing to have filled your whole life, then you’ve found a faith that works.
If you found a faith that breaks your heart at the division and suffering in the world, and over the selfishness that has people clawing for more at the expense of their neighbors, then you’ve found a faith that works.
Having a bad experience with religion is the #1 reason I believe people miss embracing faith in a True God that works, that is tangible and real. A God of restoration and compassion, not of judgment, persecution, and condemnation.
It is about the overused and misunderstood term “relationship” with God that drives us to accomplish and become so much more than a motivational book or therapy session can provide. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a big fan of both!)
Unconditional love is not anything that mankind can give one another. We all have narratives and broken experiences that create pain and self-protection and walls between us and those we profess to love.
It takes a great effort to look in the mirror and stop staring down a pointing finger.
Division is the greatest human tragedy, but a faith that works unites us in the struggles of life, it makes sense out of the chaos and brings peace and purpose to all who lock arms in the journey.
I don’t believe for a minute that I (or others) should be trying to convince you to believe in the God of my understanding.
But I do believe that if you discover a deep-seated faith that meets the criteria of you becoming a person who desires the world to be a better place and is becoming more willing to roll up their sleeves and ask “how can I help”, then it’s likely you will discover the same God I have faith in.
That is your journey, should you choose to embark upon it. Nobody can ever tell you what to believe, nor should they try.
But, in my experience, a faith that works is the only way to transcend the mess.
May you find the faith that works for you.