As my girlfriend walked through the door, I could immediately tell something was wrong. She was crying, and, as I listened to her, I discovered the reason she was crying was me. She liked me, but she wanted to be in a relationship with a guy who took God seriously. At that time, that was not me.
I was a social work major and wasn’t interested in religious things. I even fell asleep while sitting in the front row of Pedrito Maynard-Reid’s class on the history of Adventism. Those of you who know Pedrito understand this is not an easy thing to do. Yet as my girlfriend explained to me the importance of her faith, it made me question my own. Fast forward one year, and my girlfriend, Danelle, became my wife. Little did we know our adventure with each other and our journey with faith was just beginning.
One night we were at a friend’s house and ended up having one of those great conversations where you stay up half the night talking. We were talking about the meaning of faith and religion, and my friend Jason said, “If we believe this stuff, we should do it.” We were talking specifically about Adventism and the role of Ellen White.
His statement — “If we believe this stuff, we should do it” — made sense to me. So, I did what any able-minded millennial would do: I typed in “Seventh-day Adventist” and “Ellen White” into Google. The first websites I came across were from ex-Adventists and people “exposing” Ellen White. I spent the next four months devouring those websites. I became convinced the Adventist church had it wrong. I no longer found myself, “believing this stuff.”
The decision to leave a faith community can be excruciating. Relationships and belonging are all tied into what we believe. Some people think most people who leave the institutional church leave because of their “love of sin.” I know this is not true; it was not true of me.
All of this was going through my mind as I thought about what I would tell Danelle. Through tears I prayed, “God please show me truth. If it is in this church, You have to help me because I am not seeing it right now. If it’s not, lead me out because I don’t want to be part of a false system.”
Immediately after my prayer, I got a phone call from my friend Vicky inviting us to attend a Bible study. I took this call as a sign we should check it out. The Bible study didn’t address or answer my questions, but it encouraged me that maybe answers could still be out there and that I should not give up on religion just yet.
As I worked through my crisis of faith, I started listening to hours of sermons and read many books by popular Adventist leaders. I went from nearly leaving the church to becoming a missionary for it. I started going door to door with some of my Bible worker friends. I told Danelle I was interested in being a missionary overseas.
I didn’t know it at that time, but many of the books and sermons I was absorbing had a fundamentalist bent with an emphasis on something I now know as Last Generation Theology. Though many in Adventism see their religion through this lens as if it is a fundamental belief, it actually isn’t historically — or, I would argue, currently — what Adventism is about.
Last Generation Theology is the idea God has not come back yet because there has not been a generation of people that has perfectly reproduced his character here on earth. They are convicted God is raising up that generation during the end times. I became convinced I could be one of these people. Theoretically I knew the Bible taught justification by faith, but I believed those who REALLY had faith would strive to be perfect. However, this led me to silently judge the people who did not take their religion as seriously as me.
I scrutinized everything from what I ate to what I wore. I removed my wedding band and convinced my wife to do the same. I became convinced veganism was akin to righteousness. I remember at a prayer time during Upper Columbia Conference’s camp meeting I even confessed to a small group I had eaten eggs that morning. I went from skeptic to zealot, and my wife, Danelle, was willing to go along for the ride. But my newfound religious intensity scared her.
She wanted to be in a relationship with a guy who had a genuine relationship with Jesus, and now she was married to a guy who thought eating eggs and wearing a wedding band was a sin. I thought God was looking for perfection, though I wouldn’t have stated it like that then. I still needed to learn that what God really desires is a broken spirit and a contrite heart. There were cracks in my theology, but that is how the light came in.
In part 2 of this series, I’ll share what I had to learn before I could see the light.