God Stories: Ashley

God Stories is a weekly segment where people from every possible location on the spectrum of faith tells the story of how they got there. They do not necessarily represent the views of the blog as a whole. If you would like to share your story, please see the submission guidelines here.

I have a complicated relationship with religion and spirituality.

I think that’s true for a lot of people. It’s been a major factor in shaping who I am, but it’s also caused some of the most hurt in my life. And it goes WAY back.

When I was little, my family was in a cult. Not like a Secret-Compound- in-the- Woods, Don’t-Drink- the-Kool-Aid kind of cult. We didn’t have Kool-Aid, we had tea.

All the teachings were based on one old guy’s ideas, everything was about how well you could “observe the law,” and questioning anything was strictly prohibited – literally. Years later, my mom found a website for that church that basically said, If you have questions, keep them to yourself.

I wasn’t the questioning type, anyway. Granted, I was like five. The main thing I learned about God during that time was that he was strict: you had to follow his rules, or else.

But my parents were way ahead of me. They asked questions. They wondered if the church’s teachings were really biblical, and if you were really a “child of the devil” if you ate shrimp or went to church on a day other than Saturday. They changed their minds, and my family left the cult when I was six.

After that, we went to more touchy-feely churches that taught me God was loving – but he was also strict! So you still had to be good and follow the rules—or else—but he might smile while he was looking down on you.

And that was fine with me. Church was my whole life, so it wasn’t like I got into a whole lot of trouble. I was the goodiest goody that ever was. I was home schooled, so church was my entire social sphere.

As a teenager, I would go to church on Sunday, run the Power Point, and watch the babies – but only if forced, because kids are gross. I would clean the church during the week, go to youth group on Wednesdays, and hang out with the pastor’s kids. I was pretty sure I was going to marry one of the two
boys in the youth group one day, because obviously those were the only available options.

But then that pesky “questioning” issue came up again. This time, my parents didn’t question doctrine, they questioned the pastors. The pastor and his wife sometimes made fun of other churchgoers behind their backs, or spread rumors about couples going through divorces.

When my parents asked whether the pastors should treat their congregation that way, the pastor toldmthem things like “I see the devil behind you” and “I am the voice of God in your life.” My mom said, “No, you’re not.” And that didn’t go over well.

My parents were asked to hand over their church keys. My sisters and I were disinvited from attending the youth group. We missed church for the first Sunday in years, and when someone asked the pastor why, I was told he said, “I think they’re camping or something.”

We weren’t camping. We were crying over pancakes at a Village Inn. So now God was strict-but- loving, and he definitely didn’t like questions.

We still hadn’t learned our lesson. We kept going to church, and my parents kept asking questions. They believed a loving God wouldn’t punish people for eternity in hell, and were told, “If you think that, I’d seriously question your salvation.” Subsequent small groups formed to teach my parents why they were wrong. Because God was strict-but- loving-but- JUST.

I didn’t ask questions. Asking questions got you into trouble and made friends abandon you. Plus, if I had questions or doubts, that probably meant I was “falling away,” and that seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen.

Then I went to college.

And part of me hates that my religious shift involved college, because that’s so cliché: the evil secular college professors who cause innocent Christian students to doubt their faith.

But college involves thinking. And questioning. And at first I hated that I was being forced to think critically. It was uncomfortable for me to look past the surface of an issue and ask WHY, or HOW, or consider things from different angles. But during six and a half years of plugging away at a degree, that’s what I became used to.

One semester, I sat in a Medieval History class and listened to how Church traditions came about… and how the Bible in its current form was put together… and how it was put together by a bunch of Church politicians who had their own agendas.

And I realized I had never stopped to consider why we had certain traditions, or that they might not matter as much to God as they did to us. I started to wonder if the Bible really was infallible, or if it was a collection of works written about God that could be interpreted in different ways – and that important information might have been left out. And that made me question EVERYTHING.

The professor ended the class with, “But don’t let that make you lose your faith or anything.”

Too late.

Actually, it was a slow process. That one moment was a starting point that forced me to look at everything a little differently, and ask those troublesome questions, and come to my own conclusions about God.

I feel like it’s an ongoing process to sort out what I think about God, and what that means for my life.

Once I decided God was loving, I stopped believing in hell. Once I stopped believing in hell, I started viewing sin differently. Once I started viewing sin differently, I started viewing people differently.

It’s hard to label myself when everything is constantly in flux. I’ve stopped calling myself a Christian, because that doesn’t seem to fit anymore. I believe in something spiritual, and I call that God.

For now, I’ve determined that whatever God is, God is love. God is not the Church that has caused so much frustration in my life. God embraces questions, God embraces every kind of person, and God is not going to smite me for having doubts or for not going to church anymore.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to sort out. But sometimes it’s really, really freeing.


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