On Spiritual Exploration, Letter 3
A continuing correspondence about life paths and unfolding journeys of faith
This is part 3 in a 6-part discussion between me and JG ofentitled "On Spiritual Exploration." JG posted his first reply last week, which you can find on his newsletter:
If you missed my first letter, you can read it here.
This series is all about finding a life path: Is it ever linear, or is it more of an epic journey? What has that path looked like for each of us spiritually? Today, I'm exploring the early days of my Christian faith.
Trigger warning: This post discusses some details about eating disorders and depression.
Thank you for sharing such a stunning look into the landscape of experiences that formed your spiritual path so far. I appreciate that this format allows us to be honest and open. So much of online writing—of online life—is about posturing: creating a personal brand, crafting the perfect image, and honing messaging to target a particular audience. But letters bring us back to our humanness, the totality and reality of who we are, instead of the image we're encouraged to present.
I think you're right that a long-form "social network" would be of immense value. It would certainly get us all to slow down, consider our responses, and reset our expectations around the speed at which we convey and consume information. Writing these letters feels more like the days of online journaling or blogging before business "thought leaders" co-opted
But I digress. We're talking about spiritual exploration and life paths.
It was interesting to read about your background in the Catholic church. My earliest experiences of church were Catholic, too, so some of the elements are familiar to me. I have vague memories of making my first communion (and being extremely put off by the taste of the wine) and of some of the rituals in the mass—none of which I really understood at the age of 7 or 8.
My church experience changed quite a bit when we started attending non-denominational Christian churches instead of the local Catholic church. I honestly can't remember the impetus for the switch; I was in my teens and pretty much along for the ride. I called myself a Christian and had a different spiritual approach than many of my friends, but I didn't understand much about the Bible or the Christian faith in general.
Despite that, I went to church with Mom quite regularly for a while. At one point, I started attending a youth group and even auditioned for the worship band. But if I'm honest, JG, I did it mostly because a couple of my friends went to the same church. God and faith weren't life commitments for me. And yet, I felt drawn to church and the Bible because, even though I didn't recognize it at the time, God was calling to me.
He was continuing to call to my family, too. During this time, my mom made her official profession of Christian faith and got baptized at the church we were attending. But as she began her new path, something happened in me, some shift I don't remember and can't explain, and I started pushing back. Hard. It had nothing to do with her profession and baptism, but I can't tell you exactly what did cause it because so much of what was going on in other parts of my life at the time is conflated in my mind.
I already described a bit of the tumult that was my teens and early 20s. But believe it or not, my mid to late 20s were even darker. By that time, I was no longer as closely connected to the circle of friends I'd had in high school. I'd tried college (twice) and found it emotionally and personally overwhelming. I'd dabbled in various retail and food service jobs but could never stay in any of them for long without feeling like I had to escape before something inside me shriveled up and died. I finally settled on helping out with some family business and writing online for a content mill, which left me with more time on my hands than was probably healthy.
I spent far too much of that time online and in front of the TV instead of sleeping, binge-watching dark dramas until all hours of the night. I immersed myself in fictional worlds, writing stories and playing role-playing games and staying up late chatting with people I met in those internet communities.
I journaled a lot, cried a lot, and often felt angry and depressed. Turmoil in relationships around me drove me deeper into fiction, where I used the characters I wrote about as vehicles for making sense of the mental and emotional darkness I was battling. At the same time, I was desperate to make the people in my life happy—terrified of upsetting anyone for fear they would react in anger or withdraw their friendship.
Maybe that's why I withdrew. Paradoxically, I dealt with that fear and pain by setting myself apart and convincing myself that no one really understood me. I had always felt a bit "other," like I didn't fit in anywhere, and I struggled with the nagging worry that friends or groups who seemed to accept me would one day announce that they actually thought I was weird or annoying and didn't want me around anymore. So maybe, in my mind, it was easier to keep my distance. But doing so only made me feel more alienated, depressed, and alone.
And if you're thinking this would be an apt time for another waypoint in my spiritual journey, JG...you're right. Waypoint 3 came just as the 2000s were rolling over into the 2010s.
By the final summer of that decade, I had descended into a new personal abyss: a back-and-forth struggle with anorexia and bulimia, the culmination of years of body image issues and strange eating habits. As I alternated between eating next to nothing, bingeing, over-exercising, and taking too many laxatives, I was simultaneously attempting to run a coffee shop with the help of a friend as my only employee.
I have no idea what I was thinking. I lacked the knowledge and the experience necessary to be a business owner, and my body was a wreck from the eating disorder. I was exhausted all the time and often despondent because business was slow. Not surprisingly, the entire enterprise lasted about three months before I had to give it up, citing "personal health" as the reason for closing
I know that, at least for a while, I stopped going to church. The sermons made me feel uncomfortable and convicted, so I eventually refused to continue accompanying Mom to services. I didn't want to deal with what I perceived as judgment and attack—not understanding that God was using that discomfort to draw me out of my self-imposed prison.
I must have started going again at some point, though, because I remember reading the Bible more often than I had in the past. And one day, as I was reading Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, God smacked me between the eyes with a single verse:
"If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." ~ 1 Corinthians 3:17
In context, the verse is actually about not behaving in disorderly, unholy, or divisive ways within the church, but that's not how it struck me at that moment. As I read those words, I realized that, if I continued down the path I was on, I would die. Simple as that. I couldn't lie to myself; I'd read enough books on eating disorders to know it was a very real possibility. Between that and my immersive embrace of mental and emotional darkness, I was on a self-destructive path that could only end in disaster.
But that's not what God wanted for me. He wanted me to turn to Him for help and healing. He wanted me to know that there was so much more than I could see, that my life was worth something, and that He had a bigger purpose for me that couldn't be found by digging deeper into the darkness. The only way I could find it was in Him.
He was holding out deliverance to me. And finally, after years of running, I accepted.
It wasn't all easy or rosy or any of those things that "feel-good" radio preachers want you to believe. No bolt from the blue, no overnight transformation that suddenly filled my life with flowers and rainbows and sparkles and unicorns. Despite starting to make friends at church, I still felt awkward and separate, not fully accepted or understood. I wasn't yet in a place where I could fully appreciate the pastor's methodical, verse-by-verse teaching of the Bible. I didn't understand or share the zeal for digging deep into the Biblical text that I saw exemplified in my brother and some of the ladies in the evening Bible study I joined.
But I kept going to church. I kept doing that Bible study. And I kept reading the Bible on my own. Through it all, I started to learn more about Jesus than I'd ever understood before.
Growing up, I'd heard that Jesus was the Son of God and died on a cross to take away the sins of the world, but I hadn't really known what that meant. I had a vague idea of sin as a list of things that people who were Christians weren't supposed to do, and I thought that Jesus dying simply meant that people who believed in Him got to go to heaven.
But it turns out that sin isn't just "doing bad things;" it's an offense against a holy and perfect God for which the penalty is death. And Jesus took that penalty on Himself when He died so that sinners—a category from which no person is excluded (Romans 3:23)—could have a right relationship with the God Who created them (Romans 6:23).
I learned one other important thing, JG: When Jesus rose to life again on that Easter morning, He overcame sin and death so that I could, too. I could be free from the cycles I'd found myself stuck in, no longer sucked deeper and deeper into a dark place that would inevitably destroy me.
But to accept the deliverance God offered, I had to acknowledge that abusing my body through the eating disorder and clinging to my emotional darkness was indeed sinful. I had to turn away from those things—an act the Bible calls repentance—and accept the payment that Jesus made for me.
It was a huge change, which is why the Bible calls it being "born again:" leaving your old life behind and becoming someone new (John 3:3,6-7)
I'm not sure when I decided I was ready to make a public declaration of that change, but when the pastor announced a series of classes for anyone interested in being baptized, I started attending. It was the summer of 2011, and the baptism ceremony was planned for a weekend in early August at the home of one of the families in the church who had both a lake and a pool on their property.
Baptism is a pretty big deal, JG. It's a symbol of that rebirth, of "dying" to a life lived in service of sin and "rising" to a life in service of God (Romans 6:1-6). And I'm not going to lie: I was scared.
I distinctly remember being near tears in prayer shortly before my baptism because I was terrified that I hadn't actually repented. I wanted to be absolutely sure I was right with God. I'm not sure why I thought I wasn't or why fear was my default mindset. Much of that time has, for whatever reason, been reduced to spotty impressions rather than solid memories, so it's hard to know exactly how much I understood about the theology of my faith or how that understanding informed my thinking at the time. Clearly, I understood at least the basic nature of sin and didn't want it to be the main feature of my life anymore.
So I prayed, finished the baptism classes, and joined eight other people that August weekend in symbolically putting aside that sin and awakening to the new life God had set before me. (As an interesting side note that I remember to this day: I was one of only two who chose the lake over the pool for my baptism. I had a very strong sense that I should be baptized in a natural body of water. And it was truly bizarre to see my pastor in a t-shirt instead of his usual suit!)
I supposed you could call that Waypoint 4, the moment I "officially" became a Christian. And somehow, I did feel different. That day had a sense of light and of rest. Perhaps it was a feeling of renewal?
Whatever it was, I don't think I really grasped how much was involved in living the Christian life or how much things would start to change.
But that's a topic for the next letter. I'm interested in hearing from your mind first, JG. Your letter made me wonder how those two elements, heart and mind, have fitted together for you as you've come along your life path.
I look forward to reading your reply.
Thanks for reading! 🙂 Stay tuned tonext week for JG’s reply.
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