I ran from Jesus because I was tired of being perfect.
I ran back for the same reasons.
Jared Anthony Smith
It can be lonely, as a Christian. For those of us who battle depression and yet are held in Christ’s love, it can be tricky to manage things. The forceful wave of christian piety comes at us from all angles –– It speaks from every voice in our churches and from every pulpit and every friend. It says to us loudly and clearly: that if you just loved Jesus more…you’d be okay.
This short article is my story: from relying upon me loving Jesus, into relying upon his love for me. I see coming a force of change in Christendom. It’s fire has lit my soul. Jesus loves the broken things, and I think I finally understand that.
It may come as a shock to those who know me: to know that I ran from Jesus.
I was the kid in youth group who knew the most verses, who answered all the questions, and who was always sought after for “spiritual” advice. I was the theology major, and the straight arrow, much prized by my Pastors for my after-sermon questions, and respected by my peers as a role-model to follow.
When some kids did not pay attention in Sunday School, I was always on it –– because I loved it all. I loved knowing the right answers, I loved the admiration of adults, I loved being invited to the Spiritual Retreats for the “more astute and spiritual” kids to go in depth, etc. I loved being perfect for Jesus. I can honestly say, that I loved Him –– for my part. I loved reading my bible, and praying, and helping others do the same!
In high school I gave christian speeches, and ran christian clubs. I led christian “see-you-at-the-pole” prayers, and wore christian shirts. Not to say I was isolated –– I’ve had many pals inside and out of the church. And for my part, I was good friends with everyone I could be: my atheist friends, my Buddhist friends, my churchy friends, and friends without a party to align to. I played all the right parts and said all the right things. I sang all the right songs and served all the right ways. And after being a Christian, homegrown, for twenty-three years everything was perfect…until it wasn’t.
Depression works differently in everyone, and in me it breeds sarcasm and inconsideration. Few but my Fiancé truly know just how sardonic I can be: I’m a closet critic of the world. And in those low points growing up, I’d look to my faith to strengthen me. I’d read my bible more, or pray more, or serve more, or listen to sermons online, etc. But in college I was confronted by something else. It was loneliness. Thoughts filled up my contemplations, with no where to go. As a last resort, I found within myself this plea: holiness! Lord I want holiness. Build it in me! This fell short. In a month my bootstraps were torn off from trying. I was down for the count.
“How can I be struggling so much…and no one in the Church know?”
This question rattled around my skull for days, then months, then years. Constantly I hoped someone would just be touched by the Spirit to know this fact: that I needed help. For I certainly could not entertain reaching out! How could I? All my Christian friends respected me: not as a person who needed help, but as one who gave it. All my Christian teachers looked at me: not as one who lacked their counsel, but one on whom they could relax their inquisition –– because I had my walk on lockdown.
At one study while in college, I remember simply mentioning that I’d tripped myself into a lie with a friend (over something really silly), and had to work up the courage to confess it to them. The immediate look of shock on one woman’s face (who’d previously mentioned to me how much she loved me as role model for her then high school son) chilled my soul.
“I’m not safe… I’m too broken, and it’s not safe to be real.”
Never again could I risk that look. My identity was in my obedience: and so was my witness! How could I impact others for Jesus if I constantly keep talking about how messed up I am? Everyone respects me because I always on it. I’m on my walk, I’m on my responsibilities, and therefore others look to me for support. Without the appearance of perfection, all that is lost –– and I could not risk that. Then it struck me.
Christianity had become tiresome. It was pretending to be happy and perfect. It was giving lip service to how “generally” sinful I am, but never daring to be specific. Because true Christians are only generally sinful now –– all the specific sins are long gone. From there, my church services were spent glaring at the lines in the songs, and guilting myself into prayer. Weeks were spent, with venom for the slavery I felt at being conditioned through childhood to only have prayer as my resort from depression. For I was robbed of intimacy with God, and had no where else to turn. Confessing this kind of serious anger and doubt that had welled up in my spirit was out of the question. Because it would not be good for Christian relationships.
“Just ride out this storm… You don’t want to lose your reputation with everyone for when this all blows over.”
There was so much doubt creeping in my thoughts about the God I loved. And these were no simple doubts… Recall that I’m very well studied. I knew every argument and every apologetic angle. I can say without pride, that I knew too much for my own good (My Fiancé echoes this constantly to me, and much to my benefit). I did not have doubts as “basic” as God’s existence, or the credibility of the biblical text.
What I came to doubt…was his love.
I believed Christianity to be perfectly true, but I’d become convinced it wasn’t beautiful. I was so crushed in my heart, because I felt like I’d lost a loved one. Each time I found myself turning inward to pray, I was stricken with anger: for the God that I once loved to run to, I felt had deserted me to my distress. I was in darkness, and in despair. God, I felt, had sent no rescue. I was too far gone. I felt that now (because of how dark I’d grown) I couldn’t trust The Church to love me again, once I was back to health. So why bother? So I ran. It was in this season, that I wrote this:
Where are the watchers for my soul
To shepherd, keep and comfort me?
Who are the warriors of might
That champion my swift relief?
Death and disarray surround me.
I wander, drifting through the cold…
To find a refuge from this storm
Where are the watchers for my soul.
There was no hope at the end of those lines. I felt abandoned, and felt alone. And yet I was not sad. I truly relished writing poetry like that –– there was something cathartic not to have to end each piece on a “happy note” with reminders about “how Jesus still loved me though,” and “it’ll all be okay.” Because I did not feel that, and I couldn’t let my soul pretend that.
My mood ended in darkness, and in bitterness, and in quiet.
Songs ended in minors –– and that was okay.
Meditations ended in silence –– that was fine.
Dirty jokes made me laugh –– so I laughed.
Pious people made me cringe –– unabashedly I gagged.
Non-Christian conversations ended in common ground –– and that was okay.
Christian conversations ended with zeal against their hypocrisy –– and that’s okay too.
Over the months that followed, I moved further and further from my faith, until it was a distant twinkle. I virtually vanished from Church –– no one mentioned it to me or noticed, or reached out at all to see if I was all right. That certainly solidified my resolve. Before I knew it I was writing fiction about the righteous justification for rebelling against belief in God. I believed that I was about to become an agent for a newfound cause. I called it Dissenting Theism. For I believed in God, and knew its truth –– but I still elected to rebel for the sake of it.
I knew that God could change my heart –– for he was God. So now I wrote about how I’d always hate. I challenged him to change my attitude: as if through doing so he’d prove my point –– that his love was not beautiful at all, and I was justified in my disgust. I started dating a girl who wasn’t christian. She was, in fact, the furthest from it. She was bisexual and a staunch atheist…with whom I was finally free to by truly myself and voice my thoughts in full.
That made all the difference.
Because at last I could do whatever I wanted, and not worry about reputation, or “hurting my witness.” I learned to cuss, and talk about human things –– like sex –– without blushing or feeling awkward. I learned not to feel uncomfortable very “unchristian” communities, and to make new friends there. I felt free.
Fresh air smelled sweet. Depression was still there…but you see, now I was allowed to be angry about it. I was allowed to rage and burn and growl and spit and shout and yell! It’s so much easier to go through darkness when you’re shouting at the top of your lungs.
“Cast down thy hierophantic chains, thou Spirit free! Be free to run!
Be free to rage as thou wilt.”
Time passed. With time: I grew tired. That weariness that I’d found in piety found me again in rage. For when rage cooled and the storm passed, I found no passion left. I broke up with my girlfriend –– I needed space. I stopped writing –– I had no inspiration. I stopped playing music too –– what point was there? I wasn’t hot nor cold, but lost in a dreadful stillness. In that silence, a quiet song began to play in my heart. It was faint at first, but each time I listened it grew louder and louder.
“Rest to Rest… Come lay down your burdens, Child. Rest at last and be free.”
Before long it haunted my every thought and echoed behind every conversation. There must be some place of rest. The universe surely cannot be only a struggle! Surely it’s not just delusions and striving! Surely it’s not just raging or ignoring! Surely there is some positive movement we may make toward final peace and rest from all the weight of pain and toil.
“Come to me, child. All who find me find life. I came that you’d have life to the full…”
Each wind echoed that call, and endless fountain in my mind. I could not place its source or figure out its meaning. But with reckless and endless reiteration, gentle and calm across the air it found me… and out of nowhere I remembered. All the many verses I’d skipped on my way to the ones about perfection… all the ones that pointed to Jesus.
“Don’t be good for me, child. Be mine. Did you begin by being lawful? No, you began with my love, back in your youth! Remember then –– how much I love you.”
With a fury newfound, and set upon my own former ignorance I scoured my old bible, ending its retirement from my closet. Suddenly on every page the truth sprung up like a slap in the face (but also somehow like a hug). The Christianity I ran from wasn’t my Jesus at all. There is no boasting in scripture of our perfection on his behalf –– but on his perfection for us. The old truths, ones I may have once known, came at once rushing back to me. I broke down crying.
I was yours, but I wanted to run
I ran. How deeply I was wounded
I was wounded, and I needed you…
I always had you, for I was yours.
All along, I was headed in the wrong direction. My rebellion did not begin with outright dissent… it always had been. And his pursuit had not begun with those final whispers in the stillness of despair… it always had been too.
It was rebellion that I prided myself as the kid who was invited to spiritual retreats.
It was his faithfulness to forbear with me in my pride.
It was rebellion to revel in the praises of my peers in christian circles.
It was his steadfast affection toward me, to lovingly guide me through.
With reckless fascination I began to smash things down. So many idols found their match in that hour. For the gospel came through like a wrecking ball: undoing me until all that was left was reliance on the finished work of Christ.
To my atheist, agnostic, or otherwise non-christian friends who are reading this: the gospel (the true gospel) in the scriptures is not “how to be good for Jesus.” That garbage is western idealism shrouding over a very simple and foundational truth.
It’s not fucking “good news” to tell someone:
“Hey Jesus loves you…
So love him perfectly back with this thousand page 4,000 year old how-to manual.
… but like no pressure.”
The church has been notorious for this: they do a good show of talking up Christ’s love. Then, once inside, they switch the tune to “how to be more holy” or “how to honor God with your finances,” and related crap. There is no rest in self-help methodology. Broken people run to Jesus because he loves them as they are, and then the Church tells them “For God’s sake don’t stay that way! Now that you’re in the family –– shape up!” That sure doesn’t feel like family. It feels like a gang, or like the mob –– where you’re in no matter what you’re background was…sure. But now you better fall in line or else.
It’s so toxic, and what’s more, it cannot produce love. Demand can never do that. Certainly Jesus is enough to get you in, but then there’s like discipleship and bible study, and your prayer life, and… And before you know it, you’re living with eyes stuck on your performance, and on some backward repayment, as if Jesus paid for your pass and now you’re making payments on the loan.
The “do-it-yourself” mentality to life has two effects I have observed:
1. It rejects those who know they can’t cut it. The ones who know they’re broken, leave.
2. It welcomes those who think they’re good enough –– until being perfect breaks them, or they lower the bar to justify themselves and feel justified in condemning others.
But that is not the way. In family, you love one another. The law cannot empower the person to fulfill what it demands of you!
Only Love can motivate everything the Law demands.
To my friends outside the Church, please take it from me. Jesus is not the way they make him seem. Humans are like that –- they’re petty and conditional. Throughout the bible God has taken the full weight of the deal on himself –– from Adam to Abraham and on. Many Christians don’t mean to be assholes, but by definition they are screwed up, and need Jesus. Look at Him for a moment, not his crazy kids, and see what I mean.
The gospel is more radical than simply “DO THIS” or even
“You’re saved NOW do this.”
The gospel is “IT IS DONE –– you can rest in him.”
That’s the core distinction –– it separates the Gospel from from every other system out there. Some moral systems ignore the reality of your conscious condemning you, and say its either an illusion, or lacks meaning. I lived like that for a while. After a bit though, the transience of evil made all the good meaningless too, and purpose vanished.
Still other religions also call their gods perfect, and surround themselves with moral vigor! Many flavors of unbiblical Christianity do this too. But if your god is perfect and can’t accept failure, then the only way you can every meet the standard is to lower the bar for yourself –– cause you’re screwed up just like the rest of us.
Only in the Gospel do both of these things meet:
(1) an acknowledgement of our messed-up condition that truly matches what our gut knows reality to be, as well as
(2) a meaningful rest from the struggle to be perfect and do it all right all the time.
The Gospel says that sin is real, and has real consequences. That guilt you feel when you mess it all up –– that’s real. That love you feel when someone goes out of their way to help you out –– that’s real too. But it also, therefore, allows true peace and rest from that struggle. Because, Jesus took the weight of your guilty conscience from before the throne of God and paid for it with his own life.
Think on that implication.
The cosmic animosity between God and sin no longer exists in your soul –– for the weight of every misstep was paid for. There’s a settling of the storm there. At once there is a quiet in you, and true peace. When the love of that act (in Jesus on his cross) fills you: then you’re made free to rest from trying hard to please God –– he went all out to draw you in and call you his kid.
And once your his kid, there’s literally nothing you can do to change that fact. He always and irrevocably and totally loves you. Remembering this is what hit me full in the face, growing from that quiet thought on the wind.
All my raging and all my anger was a little tantrum, but he’s my dad. Even if he put me in a timeout for a bit, he’s right there to hug me tight until I squeal and laugh again. God isn’t concerned with me serving him because he demands perfection. Christ paid the perfection –– both for me to get in, and also to stay in. That means I’m free to just be his kid and mess up without risking the loss of his love for me. And honestly, knowing I’m free to fail lets me rest. Resting causes me to be naturally joyful. And I’ve always loved God and others best when I’m simply resting in his joy.
I thought I was free, when I struggled after virtue. But I was enslaved to looking perfect.
I thought I was free when I ran away. But I was enslaved to hopelessness and rage.
Now I could rest. Now I could love him, recklessly and in un-obligated joy.
That voice spoke a new reality over my soul and in my heart.
You are truly free.
You see, this is what hit me in that still small voice. I remembered that all those pointless facades of holiness before other Christians were ridiculous. I was God’s kid, and only His endless adoration of me really matters.
If the coolest kid in school thinks you’re cool, you don’t care if lesser kids think lesser of you. If that special someone says they like you…nothing else matters at all. If God himself is overjoyed to see you, if you are the most precious thing in the universe to him –– that kind of affection can’t help but spill out of you! This is why the Lord tells us to inherit the kingdom of heaven we must: become as a child.
Because that’s the way that children love.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as they.”
I love this passage. It’s one of my favorites precisely because it confounds our attempts to codify it. If scripture says: “be humble,” that’s easy. We just throw some ash on our heads and call it a day. If scripture says: “praise him,” okay. We dance and listen to positive Christian music, then we’re square.
But it says to become as a child.
So everyone loses their minds. Because this means we have to discard all of the carefully prescribed, ordered and systematic, legal remedies and ten-step solutions we’d organized for our daily salvation. This means we cannot rely upon a steady flow of deep thoughts. This means we cannot rely upon a steady flow of giddy experiences.
This means we must give up all our designs and just run into his arms. Our thoughts are his –– he’ll do with them as he wills. Our loves are his –– he’ll do with them the same. We need to dwell with him, and let him love us, whether that sobers or invigorates us.
Let yourself sing loudly if when Christ’s love fills your heart, for that’s how it moved you. Let yourself think deeply when he nears your thoughts, for that too may be his spirit.
The kingdom of God is full of children.
In countless ways we, in the church, fulfill this every instant! For like children on the playground we play roughly and do dangerous things. We sit under the trees and eat together. Sometimes… we call each other mean names and hurt one another deeply.
We run over the asphalt, we draw chalk masterpieces on its surface.
We take each other’s toys, and divide into our excluding groups.
We dare the jungle gyms. We stay alone reading on the lunch tables.
We cry. We laugh. We sing. We play. We dance. We hurt. We live.
Soon the bell will ring and we’ll all go back inside.
The teacher will let us rest, and maybe help us understand why somethings went the way they did outside. Some of us weren’t supposed to climb trees, but we did. Some of us shouldn’t have made fun of one another, but we did. Some weren’t allowed to draw on the walls, or break the rules. But we did.
Now we’ll know, because now we’re home.
And now it’ll be all right. Cause now we’ll run to him, as children.
Be “an adult” if you’d like, and try to outthink the Lord. Make strong rules for yourself, and fail to keep them. I’ve learned through this to be broken –– to be a child of his. I’ll make mistakes, and play hard. But I know that no matter which way I fall, I’ll still be his and he’ll take me closer to him.
I can be broken without worrying about “hurting my witness.” For even though the appearance of holiness and strength seems like it does the trick, it’s not what the Lord uses. Power can attract people to us, sure. But only our brokenness can bond us.
A child cannot “be themselves” too greatly to exceed their Father’s love. For His love is for His Children, both the quiet and the loud ones, the ones invited to Spiritual Retreats and those passed over.
I could talk for ages about that kind of love.
I think I will spend the rest of my life doing just that.
I might just live free and broken –– that way everyone knows how far his love truly goes.
Yeah… I think that kind of life is really good.
So to all those reading this: expect a lot more posts about his goodness, and about life under his favor –– a life of resting in the finished work of Christ. Because it’s in resting in that finished work that all true growth in the Christian walk occurs. True holiness only happens when you’re not looking at it –– it happens when you’re looking at him. Once looking back at Jesus, and not at trying to be good, His rest fills you.
Seriously: within a week or two of all that happening, my ex-girlfriend came to church for the first time. Six months later, and after many questions and wrestling with things… Jesus whispered in her soul as well (A year later she’s now my fiancé by the way, and astounds me with the Lord’s affection every moment he speaks truth to me from her lips. He has directly transformed even my rebellion into what’s become the most cherished conduit I have for Him loving me).
I’ll be posting a poem soon, one talking about the beautiful ways he uses Broken Things, and calling all Christians to set aside “trying to look awesome” (and ending up looking ridiculous) and instead to just rest and be broken. Please look for that and share it if he moves you to (and this testimony as well if you want). I’M REALLY EXCITED AND PROUD OF IT!!! It’s straight gospel fire, and I hope it encourages you as it the Lord has used it to encourage me. It’s entitled: Power in the Broken Things
To my non-christian friends, I hope this answers some questions you may have had about what the Gospel really is –– many of you have said things to me recently along the lines of “well, not Christians like you” or “you know, the ‘other kind’ of Christians.” I feel the same way, my dudes. Christ has set us free –– for freedom. Come talk to me about it more sometime –– if you feel broken, this is the right family for you, cause we’re all messed up together. I’d love to talk to you about him, about the way he really is.
I want to call up the same power that Christ uses.
For he lifts power up through our weakness.
He uses broken things.
And that’s really good news.
Because that is what I am.