There is Joy in Disconnection

My last posting was a bit of a downer, to say the least. If you haven’t read it or listened to it, you probably should, just to put some context on this one. In a nutshell, I described how I realized I’ve felt significantly betrayed by a number of institutions that gave me most of my personal identity for the majority of my life.

One might walk away from that accounting with the idea that I’m pretty sour on God or religion or politics. At a surface level, that may be true – but it really depends on how you define those terms. And it’s really NOT true in many ways, so I wanted to re-contextualize some things.

Because, despite feeling really unhappy about those institutions, I’m actually internally feeling far more free and joyful than I’ve felt in years, even at the same time as I can clearly see the problems around me for the first time.

Let’s start by talking about politics. In some ways, it’s probably far easier than religion.

For as long as I can remember, I felt fairly obligated to be a party-line voter for Republican candidates. From my earliest years as a voter, I have a sense that my church contexts all universally promoted the idea – at least implicitly – that there was no way a righteous person could vote for a Democrat candidate. I spent a fair amount of emotional energy over the years trying to shoehorn myself into mentally assenting with a number of issues I wasn’t sure I really agreed with the Republican candidates about. I didn’t really see any alternative than convincing myself that those positions were right, even though my intellectual understanding differed in several key areas. At times I think I felt slightly trapped. It wasn’t about winning anyone’s approval, because at least we do have secret ballots. But my sense of integrity wouldn’t let me vote against the Party – but also wouldn’t let me feel good about it.

This problem ramped up for a few years before I started down a deconstruction and reconstruction pathway in 2021. Looking back, I see how I was very uncomfortable with many things but felt no options. In particular, the 2016 selection of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate was unsettling to me – I really wanted some other candidate to win for moral reasons, given the obvious faults in Trump’s character. But once he was nominated, there was no way for me to do other than vote for him. At that point it was a vote against Hillary, more than for him. I proclaimed a lot of party-line things – like “we need a disruption in Washington; he’s an outsider who will clear out the swamp.” But I don’t think I was really happy about it.

Hitting 2020 really began to tear at my political foundations, however. Whatever peace I’d made within myself about Trump and his politics began to fade very rapidly, especially in the last half of 2020 as I became increasingly aware of what was really wrong with right wing politics. I voted for Trump a second time, more out of a sense of disruption than anything else. But I was deeply unhappy about it, and January 6th 2021 tipped me permanently and completely over the line politically.

Last fall, I removed myself from the Republican party rolls, and am at the moment an independent.

Since then, I’ve felt an amazing freedom to explore each political issue without any sense of obligation or responsibility to either party. I’m completely free to assess them for how well they line up with my moral and religious understanding, how I think they’ll affect our society for good or bad, and make my own decision without being tied to a party line that is telling me how I must vote.

It’s remarkably freeing – although it comes with a steep price of needing me to examine each issue carefully to decide for my own self where I need to stand.

And it’s also freeing because I no longer have to justify that decision to anyone else who may or may not be happy with the choice I’m making.

In particular, I no longer feel any need to justify my political understanding to parents or former church friends. I am unashamed to tell them what I truly feel, and if they don’t agree with me, to walk away without trying to make them feel good about my choices. I truly don’t care if they like my politics – and in fact, since I fully expect that most of them will disagree with me, I’m neither surprised or disappointed when I get that disagreement. It’s just a nearly pre-ordained fact of life, and so I’m free from getting emotionally fraught by their disappointment.

Now, let’s talk about religion for a moment.

I’ll start by saying that this is DIFFERENT than talking about God. I’ll use the word “religion” to mean the set of organized practices and beliefs and systems that mediate and moderate our relationship with deity. It’s the orthodoxy and orthopraxy – the right beliefs and right practices – that define how we’re supposed to think and behave. It’s very much not about God themselves; it’s about our human reaction to God.

In my deep sense of utter betrayal by evangelical Christianity, I find a deep peace to completely walk away from most aspects of religion – not that I avoid them, but that I find no requirement to tie myself to them any longer. It’s not a rejection of God; it’s a rejection of the human things that other humans use to define my relationship with God.

At the core, then, my current relationship with religion is a rejection of other people’s right to define and judge my relationship with God by their standards, or by their understanding of the Bible’s standards.

For literally 45 or more years, I was subject to scrutiny by first my parents, then my classmates and peers, then my various pastors and religious leaders, who had the right and responsibility to keep me honest and shepherd my soul. Their opinions of my spiritual condition were, in large measure, practically much more important than God’s opinion. In fact, my sense of God’s opinion was moderated by their opinion; if I was assessed by my peers or elders as deficient in God’s view, my own internal sense was irrelevant.

At the core, this amounted to surrendering the Holy Spirit’s own witness in my heart to the fallible humans around me – who couldn’t really tell what was going on inside me to actually make that assessment.

One might rightly ask, isn’t this setting myself up as sole judge of my own character, and making God in my own image? That’s a fair question – but at the core, I now have a deep-seated trust in Holy Spirit’s hand on my heart and my soul and my life, and God has my existing and continuing and very explicit permission to reframe my understanding as God sees fit. God has my “Yes” and God knows it. So I have a deep faith that if I’m misguided, God will correct that in due time and I don’t need to spend a moment of my mental energy on wondering if other people’s uninformed judgement about me is something that needs my worry.

Am I therefore unaccountable before men? No. It’s just that I’ve transferred that authority from my parents and any people around me who don’t truly know me at extremely deep levels, to those few people in my life who are walking in a similar journey with me.

This, again, just like the politics, comes with a strong knowledge and complete acceptance that most of my family and friends from prior religious expressions are deeply disappointed in my current religious choices. And given that I’ve fully accepted that, it has no emotional hold on me. I truly wish they could join me, and if there is any disappointment in me, it’s not with myself for disappointing them, but instead a wistful disappointment that they cannot join me in this sense of freedom.

Finally, let’s talk about God.

I’m not going to lie or even to hedge the truth here: this entire process is horribly hard to go through, because being forced (by myself, I might add) to rearrange every single cinderblock in my spiritual foundation is incredibly disconcerting and painful. I’d far prefer to just stick to what I’d already decided was true; it would be far easier and simpler to keep reciting the old doctrines and dogmas.

But I should say this: for the last decade or so before I began deconstructing my faith and my understanding of God, I was already highly uncomfortable. I kept at the inherited traditions and practices of religious activity, and could and did say all the right things about what I believed, but in truth, I was already becoming quite uncomfortable on many different fronts about those things. I was also good at denying that to myself, but looking back without any reason to lie to myself any longer, I can see that I was not being true to what I really felt. I was building up many layers of self-denial to maintain an intellectual position about God that didn’t match what my heart was saying.

A big part of that was beginning to discover the real meaning of grace, and a strong sense of God’s acceptance of me and love for me that had nothing whatsoever to do with how I behaved or misbehaved. I began to understand that the internal negative reactions to my own failures were far more potent in my life than God’s own reactions to me, and I began perhaps a decade ago to slowly and carefully change my thinking to disallow those things to derail my relationship with God. I often sensed God’s pleasure with me, that refused to be disrupted by my imperfections. And contrary to giving me permission to behave however I wanted, or to sin with impunity, it began to drive me closer to God’s pure and righteous center. So although on the surface it sounds like I was refusing to feel shame at my own sin, and so I would be judged as walking away from a right relationship, it actually had the opposite effect.

So in the last couple years of this deconstruction and reconstruction, in setting aside every other humans’ rights to judge my own personal relationship with God, I’ve found a joyful freedom to let God have the first, only, and final say in our relationship.

And again, just like the politics and the religion, perhaps even more so because of how we Christians have been trained to sniff out the slightest hint of heresy or apostasy in fellow believers and judge them unrighteous and call them to repent, I’m keenly aware that my changing relationship with God is vexing to many who have known me for years.

And just like the politics and religion, because I’ve already grasped that displeasure and shrugged it off as none of their business or responsibility, I’m unaffected and I’m completely free to pursue what God is putting in front of me. When God requires me to address yet another dogma or doctrine that conflicts with my inherited understanding of God’s character and nature and relationship with me, and when I realize that I simply must change my position, I’m free to quickly repent without a moment’s concern for how others will like or dislike that change.

So how long will this last?

Is it only a phase I’m going through?

Will I ever again enter a season where I crave that relationship-centered politics and religion where I derive my sense of self-worth from other people’s opinions? Probably not. In fact, I really hope not. While I don’t see it as sinful, per se, I do see it as immature. I have a hard time imagining that changing, at least any time soon. I believe, instead, that the relationships that matter to me will be with people who, like me, are truly self-confident in their own relationships with truth and with The Truth, and who don’t need my own approval any more than I need theirs. In fact, I suspect I’ll be repelled by anyone who tries to take those roles in my life so they can feel good about me. The ones who I do enter into and remain in relationship with will be those who celebrate my own walk, and offer their support rather than demand a vote. In some sense, it occurs to me that it will be a relationship of peers, rather than subordinates. I’ll have no desire to control or manage them, and they’ll have none over me. And that strikes me as the most mature kind of relationship possible. So no, I don’t think this will be a short part of my deconstruction.

To summarize, in each of these three critical areas, of politics, religion, and God, I’ve come to discover a very deep and relaxing freedom from being controlled or motivated by the opinions of other people, and with that a deep joy in moving into a phase of my own life where I finally feel able to truly learn and grow, so fast that sometimes it takes my breath away.

I may be wrestling with the trauma of being so deeply betrayed for so many years, but that does not define me, and in the grand scheme of things, will be a fleeting phase of my life that I’m convinced will be instead characterized by growth and an upwards trend, towards the person I was meant to be and that had been stunted for too many years. So I rejoice in the new direction God has me moving, because for the first time in many years I can sense the overall thrust of God’s plan and I have a sense that I’m finally on it.

I appreciate your time reading this, and unlike the last episode, I really do invite you to join me on this particular part of my journey. Because I seriously think it’s the direction we’re all meant to go, and if you join me, you’ll discover what God has for you too, and you’ll discover it’s far bigger and grander than anything you previously have considered.

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