I used to believe there was only one way to God. So I became a missionary and went all over the world telling everyone how to find that one way.
Right at the beginning of my freshman year of college, I met a bunch of Christian students. They had something I had never encountered before – a vibrant connection with God. Within a few weeks of being around them, I had my own sweet encounter with Jesus. I was ecstatically joyful to experience unconditional love from the divine, and to discover meaning and purpose in my life.
Then it got complicated. I quickly began to feel the not-so-nice side of my new spiritual community, an all-or-nothing quality of group-think. The basis for everything was the belief that the Bible was the absolute word of God. I fought fiercely at first against the idea of the Bible’s complete accuracy, because it seemed crazy for such an ancient book to have been preserved without any errors, but in the warm, supportive circle of my new friends, my resistance was subtly eroded.
And gradually I learned to do a kind of mental gymnastics. What if I didn’t like what the pastor said in the sermon, or I felt uncomfortable with something I just read in the Bible? For example, I hated all the crap about men being the head of the household, and only men being the leaders of the church, and I passionately questioned the concept of hell – that a loving God would do hell seemed so wrong to me. But when something didn’t sit right with me, I was taught that it was either because I didn’t understand what it meant or I had sin in my life that was keeping me from seeing the truth.
So I figured out that when my knower objected, that meant there was something wrong with me. I was desperate to be accepted by my new friends, so I learned to silence my knower, silence my objections.
But it’s complicated, because my church experience wasn’t all bad. There was also a wonderful, healthy side going on at the same time. I was filled with longing for a deeper connection with the loving God I was learning about. I was learning authentic spirituality – love for the divine, faith, prayer, joy, hope – at the same time as I was silencing my own voice. The authentic spiritual connection came in the same package as the stuff I didn’t agree with, and I chose to swallow the bad in order to have the good. Slowly, imperceptibly, my beliefs shifted to line up with the group, and were reinforced over and over again by positive affirmation.
Was I brainwashed? Sometimes it feels like it. But it wasn’t in a cultish way, by one megalomaniac of a group leader with a charismatic personality. It was just by the steady pressure of a group of loving people, people who were earnestly seeking a connection with the divine. Acceptance came via conformity, and there’s a lot of power in group earnestness. I wanted acceptance.
So over time, I took on board the belief that Jesus was the only way to God.
Once I had the belief that there was only one way to God, and people would go to hell if they didn’t follow that one way, there was only one loving conclusion to come to: I needed to tell as many people as possible about Jesus. And because plenty of people here in the US were already pastors and preachers, I should go to places where people still hadn’t heard of Jesus. It seems absurd now, but as an 18-year-old, the responsibility to save the whole world plunked down onto my skinny shoulders. I had no choice: I was called to become a missionary.
But even in this mental progression, it’s complicated. I was becoming more and more convinced that we, the Christian denomination I was part of, had the only truth. And at the same time, my connection with God was becoming more life-giving and sustaining all the time. The more deeply I connected with the beauty of the divine, the more earnestly I wanted to give that gift to others, out of a desire to love and serve. On top of those two motives, throw in my fascination with travel and seeing the world, and you have a completely mixed bag of driving forces.
So I spent thirteen years being a missionary. For thirteen years, I lived this complicated combination of deep spiritual connection and smug self-righteousness that we had the only way to God. On the one hand, there was a wonderful focus within the spiritual community on becoming healed, whole people, because how could we tell people about a loving savior if we didn’t embody that love? I had mentors who were shining examples of love, courage and humility. I learned the disciplines of prayer and service to others. I experienced miracles galore. I watched myself and many others grow and change and become stronger, better people.
On the other hand, I’m ashamed of many of the things we did in our efforts to save the world. Am I sorry I helped smuggle Bibles into China? I don’t know. I believe humans should have freedom to read whatever they want to read, yet did we solve anything by offering one dogma to replace another? Am I sorry I knocked on doors in lots of countries and tried to tell people about Jesus? Yes, it makes me cringe that I believed so strongly that ‘we’ were right and ‘they’ were wrong. Do I wish I hadn’t done all the practical outreach – working in soup kitchens, orphanages, refuge camps, etc.? No, but I’m not sure that we really solved much of anything.
And yet, a psychic told me recently that she could hear her guides saying, “thank you, thank you, thank you,” to me, “thank you for bringing love and hope and compassion to people who couldn’t have received it in any other way.” And she pointed out that my particular brand of Christianity was the only doorway to the divine that I knew about as an 18-year-old, and I followed my path with all my heart.
It’s been eleven years now since I left the church. My spirituality looks very different. I’ve explored many things and pieced together my own truth. I’m a lot less sure about how the universe works, and a lot more sure that we are deeply loved and connected. I won’t say more about it here, but the time has come for me to do a lot more writing about it – stay tuned. Whether it’s through writing or leading group programs or doing one-on-one coaching, I want to help others untangle religion and spirituality. My deepest heart motivation really hasn’t changed: I want to help people connect to the divine. But now I know how to do it with open hands, nudging people to find their own truth, instead of trying to impose mine on them.
If this resonated with you and you’d like to talk about your own journey, let me know. I offer a one-hour free session over the phone if you think you might be interested in being coached. (Contact me HERE.)