judgment

Getting Pumped for Judgment Day: From Fundamentalist Fear to Extraordinary Grace

If I had to choose a least favorite hymn, it would probably be “It Is Well With My Soul.”

As a child, I would sometimes sing this song at school or at a summer camp at the Baptist church. My understanding of this song was that lots and lots of bad things will probably happen to you, but you should still be glad as long as your soul is OK. Since this song reads like a list of awful things (sorrows like sea billows, Satan buffeting, etc.) I also interpreted that last verse “the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend” as a bad thing. After all, the songwriter said, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”

Although I understand the theology of this song better now, I’ve never been able to shake to connotations of my childhood. Whenever I hear it, I am gripped with a sense of sorrow and of fear.

When I was a child I believed in Christ’s return the way I believed in the rising sun. I took for granted that it would happen. I expected it at every moment. Whenever  the sun burst through the clouds after an afternoon storm I would turn my face to the sky, heart racing, wondering, “Is this it? Is He coming now, riding on those clouds, shining like the sun?” and I would be filled with fear.

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In elementary school chapel I sat with my classmates in my scratchy plaid jumper and white oxford shirt and listened to our principal explaining judgment day. On that day, she said, all of our worst sins, even the ones we thought no one knew about, would be displayed in front of the whole world. For people who weren’t believers, this would be a horrible day, but for Christians, this would be a great day because after the whole world had watched that movie reel of our very worst moments, Jesus would step forward and erase the tape.

These words were meant to encourage belief, but they filled me with terror. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick while I imagined everyone I knew watching a video of my sins. I wasn’t comforted by Jesus erasing the tape. I was too busy panicking about everyone knowing I peeked at my spelling book for just a minute during the last test. And even at that young age, my fear worried me. Did this mean I wasn’t really a Christian? If this was meant to be a great day for Christians, then why was I so afraid of it? Shame pounded in my temples as I sent up fervent prayers to combat those of generations of saints, “Please, Jesus, won’t you tarry just a little longer?” I pleaded.

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When I was in jr. high and high school I encountered a new theology of judgment. Judgment, I heard, was for the wicked, not for those favored of the Lord. When Christ returned in all of his glory, he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous like grain from chaff or sheep from goats. We need only worry that we were counted among the righteous.

On the surface this was comforting since Christ was my salvation. But over time, righteousness became equated with our good works. It was Christ’s righteousness that counted, but the only evidence of that was my actions. There were a dozen interwoven reasons why I was a perfectionist, but on a spiritual level, it was because I feared judgment – first and foremost from my church community and eventually from Christ himself.

I was a model child. I had perfect grades. I helped around the house. I babysat my sisters. I didn’t listen to secular music and I didn’t watch PG-13 movies. I never smoked, I never drank, I never even held hands with a boy. I didn’t even have a curfew to break because I was never out late enough to warrant one. I served in the youth group. At sixteen I was in charge of a whole cabin of girls at church camp who were only a few years younger than me. I played violin for the worship band. I ran the school’s mission team doing local and international outreaches. I can’t remember a single time that outright disobeyed my parents.

And yet, I was wracked with guilt for all the ways I failed. When I was sarcastic, when I used a disrespectful tone with my parents, when I was impatient with my sisters, when I lied because I was afraid of getting in trouble, when I got in a car accident, when I said mean things to make people laugh, when I tried to make myself feel smarter by making others feel dumb.

With a theology of judgment where God was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and my actions would determine which character I ended up with, how could I possibly think about judgment without fear? How could I ever be good enough to feel secure in my righteousness?

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When we say The Apostle’s Creed we affirm that, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” For most of my life I didn’t know how to rejoice in this judgment. I didn’t understand how this could be part of the good news.

But then grace broke in. And grace came in the words of Augustine.

See, Augustine had a different idea about this. He said what if judgment isn’t about God separating the righteous people from the wicked people? After all, who of us is 100% righteous or 100% wicked? Aren’t we all a mixture of both? What if our lives are like two plants that grow up side by side – one good and the other bad – and as they grow, they intertwine so much that you couldn’t separate the bad one without damaging the good one?

When asked about their biggest regrets, many people will say something like, “I don’t regret anything because even my mistakes were things that helped me to grow.” Our lives are full of both glory and suffering and sometimes the two are so closely linked that we can’t separate them even in our own minds. Sometimes our worst mistakes or experiences ultimately lead us to some of our best moments.

Augustine says, What if God lets the good and the bad grow up together for a time and judgment is when he separates them, once and for all, at the end?

We cannot perfect our lives. We cannot expunge all the evil that exists in the world. But maybe THAT’S what judgment day is for. Maybe it is about God extracting the bad, the evil, the sin, and the brokenness that is woven into our lives, and throwing it to the fire, leaving our lives perfect and whole. Wouldn’t this be the best thing that could ever happen to us? Wouldn’t this kind of judgment be the cause of great rejoicing?

Maybe judgment isn’t about shame. Maybe it isn’t God projecting a film of all our failings on a jumbotron. And maybe judgment isn’t about God choosing to bless some and judge others. Maybe judgment has nothing to do with our works of righteousness.

Maybe judgment is our deliverance. Maybe judgment is when we can finally stop wrestling with sin, when we can stop experiencing brokenness, when we can finally be pure. Maybe judgment is the greatest grace of all.

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This essay is a little excerpt from the book I’ve been working on writing. I hope it’s something you could connect with!

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Hope for the Evangelically Screwed Up: An Invitation to an Honest Conversation

After my last blog post where I touched on some of the ways that my evangelical Christian background damaged me, I received an email from a woman I deeply admire and respect. She is a mother of five who I used to babysit for when I was in high school and whom I have remained in contact with over the years. I actually thought of her as I wrote my last post, knowing that she subscribes to my blog and would read it. Honestly, I was worried that some of the things I said there would be hurtful to her or would cause her to see me differently. What I wrote was true and I have no desire to hide that, but there is a part of me that just hates letting people down. So when I received her email in my inbox, I opened it with some hesitation. I was worried. This woman is tremendously gracious. I was not afraid she would berate me or say anything unkind. I was, however, afraid she might be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when I opened her email and found it overflowing with gratitude for sharing my story. She shared with me that she had recently been struck by the realization that she had become one of those people I talked about – looking for the right formula to raise kids to be Christ-followers. Imposing certain protocols to ensure their safety from the secular world. “I naively believed that I could single-handedly keep them from the world (pardon the drama).  No account for individual personalities or even more, God’s faithfulness. I believed that they could skip over the part about being insecure, faking it, etc. if only we did things a certain way.  This has been a tremendous burden.” In the end she asked me to share any advice I had for her as a mother. I was blown away by her candor and her graciousness and deeply humbled that she would ask for my thoughts. Me in all my 25 year old wisdom. Ha.

I will be the first person to tell you that I am not in any way qualified to give advice. Probably not about life in general and certainly not about parenting. However, I have spent the eight years since leaving my parent’s home and my charismatic evangelical church trying to forge a way into adulthood. In many ways I am still trying to do this. I can’t speak authoritatively about what it means to be a parent, or even what it means to be an adult, a Christian, a woman. All I can do is speak from my own experience. I wanted to share a little bit of my ongoing conversation with this woman. I have spent much of the past few years grappling with my faith, my evangelical upbringing and the corresponding unhealthy understanding of God, of myself, of the church that I developed. I am only just starting to write about these things, but I believe that writing about them is a crucial part of the process for me. Another crucial element is dialogue. It is continuous conversation with others, throwing around ideas, trying to put words to the wrongs we’ve suffered, to the pain we’ve caused, to the grace we’ve received. It’s something I cannot do alone. So I am sharing it.

The following is an excerpt from a long email I sent back to this mother. This friend.

“Maybe it isn’t possible to avoid the struggles so common to adolescence and young adulthood. Maybe struggling with identity, with insecurity, with our bodies and with the pressure of the expectations of others is unavoidable. Because even if we remove ourselves from the world’s version of these things, they emerge again in different ways- inside of the church, in the youth group, in homeschool groups, in families.

Sometimes, in trying so hard to teach kids the ‘right’ way to act, I think what we have inadvertently communicated is that these actions are what make us holy. That these actions are the mark of true believers. In trying to teach children to act rightly, we’ve become judgmental of others, assuming that certain actions we don’t approve of indicate the state of their hearts.

We try to tell our children not to judge others based on how they look, but we do it all the time. And I think the worst part of this is that we aren’t just judging what sort of personality they have or whether they are nice or not, we are judging their hearts and their relationship with God based on outward elements we have come to believe are signs of rebellion or impurity. Who are we to judge other people’s hearts that way? That’s not the biblical principle of looking at the “fruit” in someone’s life. We aren’t looking at people and asking, “Are they kind? Are they patient? Are they full of grace towards others? Do they speak with wisdom? Are they humble?” We are looking at people and saying, “Are they dressed the way I think a Christian should dress? Are they listening to music I think a Christian should listen to?” 

Something that really shaped me in my tween and teen years was the implication that the only thing keeping me from all sorts of inappropriate behavior was my parents’ strictness. That their vigilance was all that stood between me and a life of sin. This was something I inferred, not something they ever said to me, but regardless of what made me feel that way, it simply wasn’t true…. No, I don’t think they should have let me do whatever I wanted, but I had a genuine desire to do right. While my parents always verbally affirmed that they trusted me and that it was the world and others they didn’t trust, their actions communicated that they didn’t. Jonathan has often commented in conversations we’ve had about my childhood and adolescence that my parents seemed to act out of fear a lot when it came to making decisions. From the outside it looked very much like they didn’t trust me to make good decisions. And I think that’s true. And as a result, I also came to believe that I couldn’t make good decisions. But I wanted to be good and I wanted to please my parents and please God. So the only way I knew to accomplish that was to hold fast to what I did know – follow the rules that have been set for you and don’t associate with anyone who doesn’t follow them. I knew how my parents and the church leaders responded to people who didn’t act the way they expected them to. And I didn’t want my parents or leaders to ever look at me the way they looked at those people. So there was always an incredible amount of pressure to act the way they expected me to act. So much of my “right” actions were not based on the conviction that this was the right way to act, but were based on fear that if I didn’t act the way I knew the church leaders and my parents expected me to act, my heart and my intentions would be judged.

And the thing that really bothers me is that these prescribed actions are so arbitrary. They are man-made distinctions. Being modest is biblical, but it’s the evangelical subculture that has decided that wearing spaghetti straps means your heart is impure. (Not to mention how this kind of judgment skews our perspective of our bodies and of our sexuality, but that is another enormous topic for another time). ” 

I love my parents dearly and I know that in every parenting decision they made they genuinely were doing the best they could at the time. This isn’t about pointing fingers or calling anyone out or living in the past. What it is about is healing and growing. It’s about dialoguing with a new generation of parents (which many of my friends are newly a part of or on the cusp of joining) about ways we can change. It’s about wrongs we can acknowledge, lies we can reject, judgment we can stop passing. It is about hope we can have, grace we can extend, and life we can give. I don’t know where all of my questions about faith and Christianity and God and the church will ultimately take me, but I think it starts here with an honest conversation.