A year ago a Christian college near Chicago asked me to speak to their students. It was that university’s spiritual-life week: three days set aside for the students and faculty to focus their attention on God things. … Like with many speaking opportunities, when I visited this university, I met a number of students who could relate to my personal narrative, including Zack, a twenty-one-year-old senior. The shy religion major approached me after the final evening.
“I have to be honest with you, man; I didn’t like you the first night,” he said to me right off the bat, which caught me off guard for a moment. When the first thing out of someone’s mouth is a criticism, it’s difficult to know how to respond. However, I didn’t say anything; I just listened to him.
“I went home after your first talk, thinking to myself, What was that guy’s point? He just told stories. I’ve never heard an author just share stories before. Usually, they share advice or biblical theory or something else I’ve heard a thousand times.”
Zack’s voice cracked a little.
“For some reason, even though I didn’t care for the first talk, I had to come back last night and again tonight. I didn’t really want to. But I kind of felt led to come back. And I’m so glad I did. The last two nights were somewhat enlightening for me. You and I have pretty much identical stories. Both of us were raised in superconservative churches. Our fathers were both deacons. We went to Christian high schools. I pretty much lived your life except I’m not in the same place ten years later.” He laughed.
“But I have to ask you: How did you break the cycle? How did you get free?”
He just looked at me.
“Cycle? What do you mean?” I asked, wanting to be sure I knew what he was asking.
“Well, you seem to have gotten away from depending on what other people expected you to think about God to figuring things out. How did you do it? How did you overcome the fear? Do your parents hate you now? I can’t do it. And I need to. I want to. I feel like I’m suffocating. I don’t even know what I believe anymore. About God. About Christianity. About anything of real meaning, really. And it’s not like you can just express stuff like that around here. Professors aren’t much for hearing about a student’s doubt or big-picture questions. They just want to make sure you have the Four Spiritual Laws memorized, which seem to be the answer to everything.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I knew his struggle all too well. He didn’t feel like he had the freedom to ask questions, to doubt, to be frustrated about his way of life. Like so many of those from the twenty-first century who have asked evangelicalism into their hearts, Zack had gotten to a place where he felt duped. For almost twenty years he’d invested his heart and soul into a way of living that made a lot of big promises. He was promised that God’s will would be clear. He was promised that his life would eventually fall into place if he learned how to obey. The processes that he followed included lots of things practical Christians do: praying three times a day, reading his Bible, working up a good amount of honesty with an accountability partner. But even though he followed all of the rules, he still felt lost. I know a lot of people whose stories are similar to Zack’s. Toward the end of our conversation, Zack said to me, “I’m not having a faith crisis here; it feels more like a life crisis.”
And he was right; it was a life crisis-one that happens to a lot of us because we don’t know how to be free. Because faith in God is an element of our lives that is rooted in the deepest parts of our psyche, the questions and thoughts and doubts that filled his brain did not merely represent a breakdown of belief. The obstacles that Zack talked to me about had become a life disorder. Everything he was about was affected in some fashion: relationships, his pursuit of a career, his emotional stability, and also his ability to work past guilt. And according to Zack, the answers from all of those Christian professionals who seemed to believe they owned the copyright on truth didn’t work. Not for him.
I didn’t have any foolproof answers for Zack, so I just offered this: “Zack, get free, bro. God is not the kind of God who is going to zap us if we do something wrong. He loves you. He wants you to be certain of that. No matter what you do or where you do it, he loves you! Live and make decisions with that confidence in mind.” I didn’t give him a process by which to learn about God’s love. I didn’t give him one of my books. And you know what? Even if I had thought that all of the answers to his questions existed, I knew enough about timing not to offer them. So I just gave him a reminder: God loves you. He wants you to be free. The same is true for all of us. Like so man people I know, Zack seemed to be searching for the freedom to be.
Excerpt from Hokey Pokey by Matthew Paul Turner. Used by permission of David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, Colo. All rights reserved.