It has been suggested that perhaps my desire for God just has never been enough. That perhaps that is why my faith never seemed to settle in. And perhaps that is why I wasn’t able to ever find peace with God.

I don’t know how I could have desired God more. I spent hours as a child seeking God in the Bible. Memorizing chapters, praying fervent prayers, all of it centered on desiring to find a relationship with God. I studied Greek and Hebrew as a teen, attempting to ascertain the nuance of a relationship with God. I sought with all my young heart could muster, feeling for a sense of God nearby.

I desperately wanted God. But all I ever received was silence.

My biggest question was really fundamental: how do you know that God is involved in your life? And even more fundamental than that: how do you know that you’re a Christian?

And by a Christian, I don’t mean someone that agrees to the doctrines of Jesus or that goes to church on a regular basis. I wanted to know how the birth of spiritual life took place and how one can be fully confident that they are “born again”.

Growing up in Southern Baptist and Independent Baptist churches, much emphasis was placed on the concept of being born again by “asking Jesus into your heart”. Assurances were given that 1) you only needed to ask Jesus to save you from your sins and 2) the Spirit of God would come inside you and give you eternal spiritual presence that you could sense and feel. You simply had to make the request, mean it when you made it, and believe it with all your heart.

That was the promise.

I prayed a prayer when I was almost 6 that met the basic requirements. And for a while it seemed to work. However as a teenager, my awareness of myself and the world had changed, and I began to wonder if anything had actually happened when I was 5.

This launched a 20 year journey of trying to settle my concerns about my own salvation. How could I know for sure that I was a Christian?

In high school and college, I talked to my dad, my pastor, my youth pastor, my pastor’s friends, my counselors at camps, and my professors. I just wanted to know for certain that I was a Christian, and to rest in a relationship with God. The only answer I was given was “you simply have to have faith and trust”.

I would review my personal life story with them and explain the steps I had taken along the way to follow God, request salvation, and live for God. They all told me that they thought I was surely a Christian, but that only myself and God could know for sure.

Not helpful.

I asked them how they knew that they were “saved” and “born again”. And the answer I got repeatedly was, “I just know” and “I can sense God’s presence in my life”.

Well, ok. But HOW did that happen? And why don’t I know it and feel it?

I spent hours as a college student praying over bible verses, begging for God’s presence through David’s Psalms, hoping for just a glimpse of God as others seemed to experience so easily. As a child, I had memorized chapters and chapters of the Bible, meditating on them for days at times. It wasn’t an issue of not knowing what the Bible said or how to read it. Perhaps it was an issue in my interpretation.

I read commentary after commentary. I read several systematic theologies and collected a library of Baptist and Protestant Church history, doctrinal studies, and commentaries and read them all.

I researched the historical modalities through which people became Christians over the years. It was shocking to me to realize that the concept of a “salvation event” and an invitation to receive Jesus into your heart is a fairly recent thing established in America in the 1800s. So I went further back. I read books that compiled people’s salvific encounters with God and found in Old Europe that some people never prayed a prayer, others simply walked into a church and felt something, others received a minister to their door when a family member was sick, and others simply had some epiphany while thinking about God during their day. All of these counted as “conversion” moments. There was no apparent formula, and I began to realize that the idea of being “born again” through an emotional invitational moment was likely not the thing I should be striving to find. I just wanted presence and confidence in this Christian God and the salvation power of Jesus.

I went broader than the free-will Arminian that I was and found Calvinism to be more in line with what seemed to be the way God worked. I even believed for a time that I simply must be one of the damned.

Finally at 28, I made a second attempt at proclaiming my faith, trusting Jesus, repenting of sin, and choosing God. I was baptized in the church that I co-pastored by the senior pastor I worked with.

Nothing. I felt nothing. I experienced nothing. I had no more direction in life than what I had prior. I felt shammed. Deceived. Confused. Scared. Embarrassed. Tired.

This continued for another 5 years. I went into a Presbyterian framework, which further entrenched Calvinism in my mind. I read Grudem profusely. Then my marriage fell apart and whatever sense of security I had remaining fell away.

I wandered in Protestantism a bit longer, but grew tired of the countless people who were so happy with their “lives in Christ”, but had nowhere near as much urgency as I did for the spiritual things of God. There was plenty of interest in following rules, “studying the Bible”, and having a system to live life, but I was way past that. I wanted mature faith and spiritual encounter. My desire to experience God was so much more persistent than I saw in people around me. The only thing that seemed to produce feelings at all was emotion that came out in music and worship in those churches.

I left Protestantism for a while and decided to try Catholicism. And interestingly enough, I saw the same rules-based fervency that I had grown up with, but again, very little personal urgency for God.

So I stopped claiming a denominational perspective and simply said “I believe in Jesus and the need for humans to be saved from their own sin” and ended up back at a very liberal Bible church with some old Baptist roots. The leadership was likable enough, but there were always murmurings of questionable ethics. The music felt good. And it felt good to be surrounded by people.

But the people couldn’t handle me. They didn’t know what to do with a guy who had traversed the realm of Christian perspective yet was unfulfilled in the basic requirement of finding himself secure in his own faith. What do you do with someone like that?

Most people just choose to “believe”. But my question has always been: how do I know that the spiritual transaction has taken place? What secures me to God and how do I experience him? Do I have to follow a certain set of rules? Or is it all freely given through God’s grace? What spiritual fruit should I expect to see in my life? Should I feel God in my life? At what point does God “show up”? Surely it’s something tangibly spiritual, is it not? Why do I get the sense that this belief is only in my head? Why don’t I fundamentally FEEL God’s presence in my life?

I’ve heard all of the standard answers to these questions: it’s not about feelings, it’s about faith. You have to truly believe and trust God for it to work. You can’t waver on any this. Almost all Christians today say that you cannot do anything to earn your salvation: you can only trust God.

Yet at this point for me, trusting God seems like work. And everyone said you can’t earn this thing of salvation and God’s presence. So I quit trying so hard and told God that I was here and waiting.

I finally left the church altogether. Not because I wanted to leave God. Not because I wanted to “be alone in my sin”. Not because I stopped enjoying the music.

It was because I saw the system for what it is: a tribe that helps people feel safe about their status with God so that they can live their lives the way they please according to their own personal ethics (which may or may not align with what the church teaches).

And I don’t feel safe at church. I don’t feel that I can trust church leadership with my story or my feelings. And I don’t think any church interprets the Bible correctly.

So why continue to go? I chose not to.

But my desire for God and things spiritual? That has never waned. My thoughts about God have changed. But I’m still waiting. Waiting for a Higher Power to show up in some form or fashion. Because I do want it.

But Christianity hurt. And while I don’t wish my journey on anyone, I don’t regret the steps I’ve taken to ask the important questions, to check the feelings I’ve felt along the way and figure out where they came from (whether my own emotions or from some third party source), and to walk a path alone that isn’t blindly following doctrines that do not align with our reality.

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