MINI : Have More Bad Days

I saw something that made me sad recently.

An article in GQ magazine titled ‘What Would Cool Jesus Do?’ went behind the scenes at Hillsong Church. If you’ve never heard of it, Hillsong is a mega-church in New York City that started in Australia but now has branches all over the world. It’s a modern, energetic, youthful church and a bit of a phenomenon in the Christian world: their songs are used in churches globally, and they even have a movie coming out this year.

Like any large organisation with mass exposure, Hillsong is easy to bash; but the GQ piece was interesting, fair and well-balanced. Included in the article was a short video featuring the pastor of Hillsong, Carl Lentz; and at one point he said this: 

‘I don’t have the right to have a bad day spiritually. I don’t have the right to be seasonal with my faith.’ 

And this is what made me sad…

…but not really surprised.

—————-

If you haven’t grown up in church you may not be aware of this, but Christianity (or more specifically, the kind of Christianity that I was brought up with) has a foundational belief that humanity is broken at the core and inherently sinful.

In other words, there’s something wrong with you from the moment you’re born, simply because you’re human.

The religion I grew up with taught me that without Jesus we can never be our full selves. We made a clear distinction between ‘sinners’ and ‘saved’, between the churched and the un-churched: if you aren’t a Christian, you can’t possibly be living your most fulfilled, happy, meaningful life. (And if you think you are living a fulfilled, happy, meaningful life, you must be mistaken. Sorry about that, most humans.)

These ideas had a big impact on the way I saw the world for a long time. As a Christian, I had been rescued from my in-built human brokenness: now I was supposed to be an example, a light to the world, attracting people towards the faith that I had. If the world was broken, then we should appear to be fixed. After all, that’s the whole point of the Good News that we were selling. As another curious Hillsong visitor said in that GQ video, ‘everyone’s so happy… why am I not happy?’*

*oh god that’s another line that made me sad. what if everyone is just pretending to be happy and secretly wishing they were as happy as everyone else appeared to be?

That pressure to appear ‘fixed’ and complete because of our faith can lead to thoughts like the one I quoted above: that I am not permitted to have a bad day anymore, because people are watching; and I have to show them that my life is better now. If I do have a bad day, I feel guilty: obviously I’m not close to God today, or I’m missing some spiritual discipline, and I need to get my act together so that I can be a better advertisement of the faith I represent.

It reminds me of this job I used to have. I worked at a supermarket a long time ago, and one of my main tasks was known as ‘facing up’. I’ll let Old Me explain what that meant (in his fancy green uniform):

Face Up #1

Face Up #2

Face Up #3

(That took a distressingly long time to draw…)

I feel like sometimes we do the same thing with our religion. Our main goal becomes to look attractive to people, and so we ‘face up’ our lives: we put on a public layer of faith and certainty and happiness and confidence, when behind the front is a way more complicated and mixed up reality.

So we turn Christianity into something sanitised and safe and bland and removed from real life; and in this environment, we often feel like we have to act completely fine all the time and never have a bad day, which subtly teaches others to act the same way.

The worst thing is, we all think that every other person has it all together. We are surrounded with happy people and think there must be something wrong with us for maybe not feeling happy and certain all the time; and because we think we’re alone, we never admit those feelings. Instead, we follow the example and try to fit in with the crowd. 

I have to be clear that I personally know Christians who have a faith that is honest and earthy and real, and who are open about their struggles and doubts. Some of them are leaders and heavily involved in church life: so I’m not painting everybody with one easy brush here.

But I do feel genuinely sorry for all those who feel unable or unallowed to be real, and who feel pressure to live up to a certain standard. People who are expected to live ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ lives, to give the church a good reputation and never be negative about it, to be always available to help, to sacrifice their spare time and relationships and personal interests, to preach only the accepted beliefs and hold the party-line, to kill any doubts, and to always give more, do more, serve more, produce more.

Sometimes, like the pastor in the GQ video, it’s the church leaders themselves who feel the most pressure to perform and appear happy: and that must be an incredibly tough place to be. I used to work at a church (this article is turning into a CV); and it was very difficult, even discouraged, to be honest or to have your own opinion.

Having a bad day spiritually has to be permitted, because here’s the truth: it’s natural to have bad days, it’s natural to change, it’s natural to go through seasons and it’s natural to doubt. More than natural, I’d even say that all of those things are healthy and important. Denying them just creates a culture where we all learn to pretend really well.

——————

The funny thing about all of this is that I’m a natural optimist. I have a fairly hopeful and positive temperament, and I’m a big believer in the importance of gratitude and being content. 

But after I left church last year, I craved honesty. I’d had enough surface-layer stuff, and I’m blaming myself here before anybody else. I couldn’t admit to feeling completely alone and unfulfilled some days. I couldn’t share my deep doubts and frustrations. I couldn’t even understand what I was feeling myself. And I didn’t find any honesty in the ready-made set of answers that we were all repeating every week.

Even though I don’t label myself as a Christian anymore, I still consider myself a spiritual person; but something important has changed:

I want a spirituality that is completely okay with all the shit. 

And I don’t mean just acknowledging the shit and then cleaning it up with a prayer or a few magic confessional words: I mean fully experiencing and sharing the tough, day-to-day, real life stuff, without trying to tidy it up or make it fit into a ready-made box at the end.

I want a spirituality that doesn’t just talk about how beautiful and good and mysterious life is, but also how rubbish and confusing and uncertain it can be too. I want an uncensored, unsanitised, unsafe faith, where disagreements and differences of opinion are celebrated instead of shut down, where I can be fully myself instead of trying to be more like everyone else. 

I want a spirituality that doesn’t get offended if I don’t believe in God today, or if I have to use ‘bad’ language to express how I really fucking feel right now, or if I laugh at something completely inappropriate, or if I don’t want to smile and look happy and jump around anymore: a spirituality that isn’t based on my apparent passion, commitment, energy, or how ‘on fire for God’* I seem to be.

*if you’ve never come across this phrase before, count yourself lucky. seriously, it winds me up like crazy and i don’t have time to let all my thoughts run free today! 

Personally, (and that word is v. important!) I don’t find that at church anymore. If you do, then that’s honestly great.

For me, I find it in my closest relationships, in sharing a few beers with people I can be fully myself with, in learning new things as often as possible and hearing different opinions to my own, in moments of brutal honesty and raw authenticity, in allowing myself to express what I’m feeling without self-censorship, in art and music that engages with every aspect of life and takes me somewhere deep, in moments of quiet and reflection, and even in uncertainty itself.

Those things have become ‘church’ for me now. I’m no longer trying to separate myself from the world, pretending to have found the answer to humanity’s problems: instead, I’m trying to learn how to actually be part of the world that I’m in, and to engage honestly with the world inside of me.

And the best thing?

I’m allowed as many bad days as I need.

And so are you.

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Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make

10 Comments

  1. Amanda
    May 18, 2016
    Reply

    Love reading your blog Jon. I think you’re speaking up for a lot of people even though they might feel guilty about acknowledging that. I’ve had a lot of these thoughts and feelings and doubts myself, and still have. My journey and your journey are different and I never felt I had to completely remove myself from church to face up to what I was going through(with that said, I’ve had a different church as my home for many more years than what I’ve spent in Bradford).

    I’d just like to ask: you say you don’t label yourself as Christian now but say you’re still spiritual.. On any way on your journey, did you or do you speak to God about all that you’ve written or have you had to sort of remove yourself from God as well as from church? Or do they seem like the same thing to you?

    • May 18, 2016
      Reply

      Hey Amanda! Thanks so much for the comments, always appreciate it 🙂 It’s great to know that other people share the same doubts and thoughts… instead of feeling guilty or alone in the whole thing, which can be flipping tough! And totally agree with you on the journey thing – I never want to convince anyone to leave a church… it’s all about allowing people to follow whatever path they honestly need to go down.

      So on your question: I’d definitely say that I don’t equate God and church as the same thing – I’d say more that my personal understanding of God was tied up in my experience of church. I actually felt very peaceful when I left church, feeling that God was still with me and allowing whatever I needed to do, which was a big thing that helped me make the leap.

      My perspective on God has changed heaps since then, and still changes (sometimes from day to day) – sometimes I still pray – sometimes I can’t pray at all. Even when I do pray, there’s a skeptical part of my brain that I can’t fully turn off (yeah it can be annoying sometimes!) I had to allow myself to remove from my old understanding of God, to be apart from that for a while, to pick it up and look at it honestly and without the answers all ready to go, and to look at a wide range of different perspectives. If God is real, I don’t think that he/she/it would be afraid of that… I think it’s us humans who are afraid. That’s why I wouldn’t label myself as Christian – there’s a lot that I’ve let go of that many would see as essential beliefs or behaviours – but I’m open and interested, and feel more myself and more free in this place then I did a couple of years ago. I don’t know if that’s helpful or just a bunch of vague thoughts… I’m pretty sleepy while I write this 🙂

      Thanks for asking and sharing! Hope you find peace and permission to keep going wherever you need to. Cheers!

      • Amanda
        May 18, 2016
        Reply

        It makes total sense to me yeah, especially that it’s probably us that are afraid and not God.

        If you’re after truth and not a “mental/emotional crutch” as I’ve heard some who doesn’t believe describe faith, it’s necessary to be honest with yourself and face your doubts, in whatever way is necessary.

        All the best! Keep doing what you’re doing!

  2. Simon Hammond
    May 18, 2016
    Reply

    I remember when I taught on a certain local church leadership academy, the students were under such pressure to be ‘OK”. Then in one session one student was honest – “I feel spiritually crap” the the floodgates opened and student after student opened up to not being ‘spiritually ‘ OK. The pressure from the front Sunday by Sunday to present a perfect picture is in my opinion cruel and dishonest. Christians suffer from depression, and failure and have bad days and that’s ok (well not ok but a reality).
    Thanks John a great piece as always.
    I want to recomend three books Nadia Bolz-Weber – ‘Accidental Saints’, and two by Peter Enns ‘the sin of certainty – why God desires our trust more than our correct beliefs’ and ‘The Bible tells me so – why defending scripture has made us unable to read it ‘.
    I still regard myself as a Christian but I have come to believe that God is actually bigger than I have been taught. I want to be able to have honest doubts and not be condemned.

    • May 18, 2016
      Reply

      Thanks a lot Simon, awesome to hear your thoughts on this 🙂 Cheers for those book recommendations too, I’ve read ‘The Bible tells me so’ and agree on that one! Also I’d throw in ‘The Idolatry Of God’ by Peter Rollins – tagline : breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction. Speak soon!

  3. Michael Ajose
    July 10, 2016
    Reply

    I’m not allowed to have a bad day spiritually?! Has this guy ever read the Bible – particularly the book of Psalms and Lamentations?

    They’re full of people having “bad days” taking their broken emotions to God! I think the problem is a particular brand of Christianity which is very fluffy, light, sweet and often very shallow which you describe. Tends to have little depth and is unable to engage with the painful, gritty realities of life. The Bible encourages us to be honest with others about our struggles and hardships so that we can TRULY change and heal through brokenness instead of having to put on a veneer of perfection.

    This was a good read and highlights some of the problems of the modern church today.

    • July 28, 2016
      Reply

      Hey Michael! Thanks for the comment. You’re right, the problem for me wasn’t with the Bible itself – although I had to struggle with many of the interpretations of the Bible I had been given – but with the way I had been taught to kill my doubts, and to appear stronger than I was. Especially in my time as a leader, there was so much pressure to ‘be an example’, certain things we couldn’t admit to or engage with etc. A lot of taboo and pressure.

      I also found that I was unable to be honest with myself about what I really believed and thought about a lot of issues and other perspectives… I think I learnt to shut my brain down a little bit. I’m still working on being more vulnerable, open and transparent – even with myself.

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the time, all the best 🙂
      Jon

  4. Ellie Gage
    July 23, 2016
    Reply

    Hey Jon. Stumbled on this via Facebook and found what you’ve written really refreshingly honest! Separating God from ‘church’ has been a BIG key in my faith journey (from nearly 40 years of faith) and I’m a big fan of honesty and reality driven faith. (Yes my faith in Jesus is undeterred by my reality and honesty!)
    David is my favourite bible character; I identify with him! I don’t identify with ‘perfect glossy Christianity’……it just doesn’t sit right with the Jesus I know and His spirit in me.
    Anyway, keep journeying Jon – like the rest of us humans 🙂

    • July 28, 2016
      Reply

      Hey Ellie, thanks so much for your comment – great to hear from you, appreciate the encouragement 🙂

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