Target Audience: Christians, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Conservatives
I was 18 when I came to know Christ in 1973 on the front pew in a conservative Baptist church. Richard Nixon was president of the United States. Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada. My family neither encouraged nor discouraged church attendance. I never went to church as a kid.
Most evangelical churches were still using the King James Version of the Bible. For the most part, evangelical churches were small, struggling local churches. Ministers were seriously overworked and underpaid. There was a simplicity about them, but most were deeply religious organizations that had no problem instilling fear in their congregations about God, sin, immorality, and any behavior that deviated from what they considered to be the norm. In my experience, though, they never really defined the norm. We were somehow just supposed to know what it was and behave accordingly. If my pastor preached a message defining it, I must have been absent that Sunday. In any event, I have always regarded myself as a Christian who marches to another drummer, thinks outside the box even when it is not fashionable to do so, and has looked through the cloudy window at what many churches regarded as normal Christians participating.
In those early days, many pastors portrayed God as a fierce and mighty being. Being afraid of Him was safe. Perhaps they figured that if you were sufficiently afraid of God and the consequences of messing up, you would live within the norm, whatever that might be. I got that message — over and over again, from a number of different pastors and teachers in a number of different Baptist churches. I am not saying that Baptists are the only denomination that preached fear to the point of being scared, but I attended mostly Baptist churches in those days, so I am sharing from my experience.
The message was clear though: If you sin enough, or can’t stop doing things that are sinful, God will get you. Not only did I fear the inevitable judgment of God, many of my pastors and teachers taught that one day all our sins would be displayed on a giant screen for everyone to see. I am not sure where they got the giant screen from, but the image stuck with me and only intensified my fear of God in the wrong way. Pastor after pastor, teacher after teacher, pounded pulpits and podiums warning us of impending judgment if we continued to sin.
These same teachers also taught that God will forgive any sin, any sinner. No one is ever denied who asks to be forgiven. Once forgiven our sins are cast into the depth of the sea. God casts them as far as the east is from the west. Pastors and teachers extolled the glories of redemption. I also heard these messages. I asked God to forgive me of all my sin, and He did. I knew I had been redeemed. I knew the Holy Spirit lived in me. In those days, I would tell anyone who asked that I belong to Jesus and that I had been forgiven. These messages were preached frequently in the Baptist churches I attended. It was impossible to miss them. I heard the messages of the unconditional love of God, and I believed it.
The messages of unconditional love, forgiveness, grace, mercy and all the other positive attributes of God were clear, but in my mind, there was this lingering image of God holding an axe above my head, just waiting for me to cross that invisible threshold of sin. Which sin would cause that axe to come crashing down on me ending my life? I had been taught that even though I had been forgiven, judgment was coming. There would be a day when everyone would know every wicked, sinful deed I had ever done. All my secrets would one day be exposed by an angry and vengeful God exacting His wrath upon sinful humankind. That was the message that overwhelmed every other message I had heard about God’s attributes.
As much as I would like to be gracious at this point and state that the teachers in my early Christian walk only taught what they believed to be true, I am not sure it would be accurate. I think some of them were control freaks and realized that the only way to keep their congregations in line was to teach a fierce and vengeful God who would exact harsh and cruel punishment on them. I’m reasonably sure that I have encountered a number of control freaks occupying ministerial positions, even in recent times. I believe that those men and women are guilty of spiritual abuse in my life. Years of believing that God is out to get me is bad enough, but perhaps what I am tempted to resent even more is the obstacle that teaching has presented to me developing an intimate relationship with God, fully experiencing His unconditional love and being able to revel in His forgiveness.
After more than 40 years of believing in a god of judgment and vengeance, it is difficult to suddenly shift gears, but that journey has begun.