One of the things about the faith of my upbringing I most resent is the obsession with a moment of conversion. A specific time of decision, the beginning of faith, when you say the Sinner’s Prayer, and magically, you are saved. Your life turns around, and you are forever changed.
This view of things is rooted in the story of Saul/Paul, when Jesus knocks him off his horse while he’s on his way to knock some Christian heads together. He goes from being a persecutor of believers to the chief believer, for which he is persecuted and ultimately dies.
I’ve seen some dramatic cases like this in my own life, but they are rare, especially if you look more closely at the arc of the convert’s life. Like a Disney movie, a lot of conversion stories end at the happily ever after and leave out the dull/uninspiring/even discouraging parts. The times when they slide back into previous patterns, as we all tend to do. The times when the sugar high of religious experience ends, and they wonder if it was all real or not. The visible implosion or the more common, private terror that it wasn’t real after all.
Selling this type of faith, particularly the insistence that it is the only legitimate one, sets people up for disappointment. That’s particularly true for those of us who were born into these environments. Let’s just say my supposed “conversion” at age 5 wouldn’t make a very good movie starring Kirk Cameron. I barely remember it.
I have a childhood friend, we’ll call her Monica, who similarly was raised an evangelical and has literally spent her entire life being dramatically converted, over and over again. I can’t tell you how many letters, phone calls, and emails I’ve gotten from her over the years telling me she has “finally” been saved, this time for real. Her life has been difficult, she’s struggled, she’s been depressed, and yes, she’s made a few bad choices. But she’s always been convinced if she can just surrender her life to Christ, everything will get better. When it doesn’t, she discounts the conversion itself, and her entire faith. She has often descended into self-loathing.
What a damn shame.
Because I’ve got to think Monica’s faith might actually be stronger and give her more peace in her struggles if she didn’t see it as a moment, but a lifelong companion, with ups and downs and highs and lows and doubts and assurances and sins and repentances. That all of it is real and true and part of a whole. And with no guarantees of some sort of Happily Ever After. That is real life.
I’ve also seen a sort of flip side of Monica, where someone has a conversion experience or a clear decision point that they never question, but they also never grow from it. They crave the structure and certainty that such a version of faith offers, and they just hide under it for the rest of their days. They don’t really need to learn how to love or serve or walk by faith or deal with life’s complexities, because they know they are good to go. They are going to heaven. They just have to stay in the lines while they wait it out. Check that box.
What a damn shame.
I had an argument with my mother once about infant baptism. She was a bit chagrined that our children would be baptized as babies (as was my Lutheran husband). Now, personally, baptism, like most doctrinal issues, isn’t a hill I’m going to die on. I frankly don’t know which type of baptism is better, if any, and I don’t really care. But we were attending a church that baptized babies, so why not.
**I’ll pause here for a sec and let the lovers of doctrine fetch their smelling salts**
For my mother, the whole thing cut to the issue of salvation itself. She made the argument that baptism was the certification of a “moment” of decision that an infant could not have.
“It’s like when you get married,” she said. “The wedding is the moment. That’s how you know you are married.”
That’s true. Although I’d argue that while legally, the wedding is the moment of marriage, the love that is the basis of that marriage is both more important and real and more amorphous. I know the date and hour that I married my husband, but I can’t tell you the moment I loved him, even though my love for him is one of the most meaningful and certain things in my life. But I can’t tell you when I started loving him exactly.
(Also, in a separate, related point, I can’t say my agency and decision-making as a fully indoctrinated 5-year-old was substantially different than that of an infant.)
I also can’t say that my love for my husband permanently switched on one day and never diminished thereafter. It has ebbed and flowed, sometimes hour to hour. There was a time after our second child was born when I really struggled to love anyone for weeks and months at a time. There have been times, fortunately brief, when I didn’t think I loved him at all. And I didn’t, at least not in the Disney-princess sort of way.
We kept going. We allowed each other to be human. We believed it was all part of the experience of relationship. We didn’t demand that our love look a certain way for all time or else it was false. We haven’t had a new wedding ceremony every time things took a turn for the worse.
I think most evangelicals would subscribe to this vision of love. I wonder why more don’t talk about faith that way.
Faith is not jumping through a series of hoops or passing a bunch of litmus tests. Faith is not signing onto a program that can never be questioned. Faith isn’t gaining entry to a club.
Faith is not a moment.
Faith is not a destination.
Faith is sometimes not having any faith, at least not in the way it’s often defined.
Faith is making peace with not knowing.
Faith is one foot in front of the other on a nonlinear path, sometimes with the ground giving way underneath you and seeming to take you back.
I find in hindsight those times didn’t take me back at all. They were just another phase.
Faith is perseverance. Faith is hope it all means something. Faith is resting in your lack of control.
And most of all faith, and love, is the experience along the way, of joining your heart to the ones with whom you find yourself.
Happy New Year, friends. Keep walking in real, authentic faith. Don’t worry about what that looks like. If there is a God, they are love. Of that I am certain.