Have you ever said to yourself, “Why can’t I just be fine?”
As in, why can’t I just be normal, less affected, more chill, easy going?
I have. A thousand times. Blame it on anxiety, PTSD, depression, late-life emotional maturity, who knows. What it essentially translates to is:
“Why can’t I just be acceptable?”
If you grew up with any sort of Christian upbringing, like me, you were taught early on (either through Sunday School, your parents, confirmation, etc.), that you were born with an inherent stain, inherent badness, inherent sinfulness. This is the foundation of Christianity. I wish it were different, and I know plenty of scholars who would disagree with me about this and say there are additional foundational doctrines. But without establishing from the get-go that all humans are inherently damned, worthless, awful, terrible—what need do you have for receiving salvation from Jesus? What would the work on the cross amount to, except a brutal story?
It was probably five years ago this epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks.
I had to choose: I could either continue rebuilding/discovering my self-esteem, or, according to what I was taught, I could follow Jesus.
I could keep pursuing inner peace, emotional stability, healthy friendships and a sense that I was actually acceptable just as I was—or I could reclaim my place in the guilt factory.
First Escape, Then Re-Emerge
Have you ever escaped an abusive environment? It doesn’t have to be physical to be abusive. It can be manipulative—where everyone stakes their opinion of you on how you recite Bible verses and “win people to Jesus.” It can be emotionally abusive—where you can’t do one thing right without someone in leadership or authority literally losing their shit on you, railing on about how you can’t possibly do anything right (aka, their way). It could be a financially abusive environment—one where you can’t respectfully disagree or have divergent interests without having your very home and shelter put on the line.
Speaking from firsthand experience, leaving such an environment takes courage, of course. But what takes even more energy is re-acquainting or discovering yourself for the first time once you’ve finally accepted the cold, hard truth: You were abused.
It’s shocking. When you leave abuse, you realize how much your hands, your mind, your heart, your thought processes—all of it—have been tied up, while you held your breath to see if you could get the answer to that dreaded question: “Am I acceptable today?”
I decided that if I had had any real encounters with the real Jesus in my spiritual walk, that he wouldn’t hand me back over to those kind of people, nor that kind of treatment or abuse. And if that meant I didn’t “believe” in Original Sin and I didn’t “believe” in Jesus saving me from it, then I guess I had to figure out how I’d organize my ongoing torture in the depths of hell.
Trouble is, since walking away from that abuse, life has never been better. I’m sure that’s not the answer many of you wanted to hear. Life’s been fantastic, really. I’ve done all sorts of things and read all kinds of heretical books and philosophers and blogs. Oof! It’s been lovely. Of course, it wasn’t like that at first; it’s not like I haven’t still been haunted by “what if” questions. However, what I discovered is that when I practice a smidge of mindfulness, the fog machines and demonic vampires don’t amount to much more than imaginative theatrics. What a relief! Those folks in church were just trying to scare me into being scared so we could be scared together!
Salvation is Something Else
When I was a youth and college leader, our main objective was to “win people to Christ,” aka become a leader, grow a group of followers, make that group SO BIG that people think you’re amazing, so you get a “promotion” at church (or better yet! Lunch with an associate pastor!), and then keep on going. Never, ever stop to breathe, to grow or (God forbid!) to question and evolve.
And I think evangelical and protestant environments know this: if you slow down too long to think, you might notice the shit sandwich they’ve been serving. You might notice the double standards for the pastor and his “crew” compared to all of the “servant-hearted” worker bees. You might sniff this out, and what good would that do? Afterall, salvation is predicated on the idea that you are inherently tainted, you little piece of shit. (Fun game: next time you’re so unfortunate to hear a pastor preaching a sermon, just add “you little piece of shit” to the end of their sentences and see how that works out. )
Practically speaking, I don’t think Jesus ever called anyone a little piece of shit. Even the people who were crucifying him. He utterly rejected the religious instinct to judge, condemn and abuse others who didn’t fall in line. Whether or not you take the Bible literally or figuratively, I personally take comfort in the fact that there are examples of his radical lovingness in the Bible, which ought to carry weight to those who claims to follow Jesus. But, I digress…
This has been a huge question on my mind: what is salvation for, if I am not a little piece of shit? Because that’s what salvation is all about: an unflinching guarantee that you won’t burn in hell.* If the testament of Jesus is to say that all are worthy and loved, that all are children of God, what happens when I die?
The honest answer?
Nobody fucking knows what happens.
For real. No one knows. No one has proof what will happen to you. If your spirit-self and body-self will separate… if you’ll wander the Bardo until your next life, if you’ll walk through shiny golden gates and walk on streets of gold or if you’ll be held in an endless purification process like purgatory.
We don’t know. Anyone who says, “This is definitely what happens,” is trying to control you and make you do something they will benefit from.
So, yeah, I think salvation is something else.
Salvation is the cessation of suffering. Here and now. And maybe the afterlife, maybe in heaven, maybe on another planet. Who the hell knows?
But what I do know is what I can see in front of me and feel what’s moving through me: the purifying salvation of not being scared to death every single day about whether or not I was going to get yelled at. The purifying salvation of learning how to say, “You may not treat me that way.” The purifying salvation of waking up and being open to what today has to bring.
I think salvation begins when we accept our suffering, when we work with it and then humbly offer what we can to those who suffer around us.
Salvation is healing and comfort in the here and now.
Only in this new lightness, in this quasi-salvation of the cessation of suffering, have I begun to sense an expansive possibility that there’s still room for Jesus in my story.
So for now, I will follow Jesus without attaching a controlling or domineering belief system to my daily life. I can follow, diverge or run the opposite direction if ever I feel threatened or unloved. Why? Because I truly think that’s what Jesus would want me to do.
*Editor’s Note: Catholic and Orthodox theology have a much broader understanding of the afterlife, which kind of helped when I first read about it, but also kind of not. Let me know if you’re interested and I can share some reading materials.