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):
(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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