“If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky
At the root of all that is wrong with religion is a false and ugly image of God. If we believe that God’s love is conditional or that He won’t come back for us until we are perfect, it can lead to a heaviness that no human can bear.
Bad religion is worse than no religion. The fruit of bad religion is death. It’s hatred, condemnation and shame. It’s the feeling of never measuring up. In my wife’s case it was depression.
She desperately wanted to please God, but she was exhausted. I was absorbing hours of theology each day and Danelle felt like she wasn’t keeping up. The theology I was learning stressed the importance of perfection and she was feeling inadequate. This perfection is religious uniformity in disguise. If you don’t wear the same style of clothing, eat the same diet or show up to all the same meetings, it can feel like you are sinning.
During this time my quest for perfection led me to believe that eating eggs and wearing a wedding ring was wrong. I was stuck in a religious groupthink that conflated everything as a sin and it was making Danelle feel uncomfortable. I thought she simply wasn’t trying hard enough.
I was convinced Jesus was about to come back and I wanted to be part of a generation of people that perfectly reflected his character. But instead of reflecting a character of love, the emphasis on perfection resulted in me becoming more judgmental.
During this time, Danelle could have reached out to her family for support, but my theology and belief about God kept her from doing that. I judged her family as too “liberal.” I believed we were living in the last generation and needed to overcome all of our “sins.” I didn’t think they would understand all of that. Writing this now, I realize how cult-like that mindset was. Especially since Danelle’s family is so loving and kind. They would have done anything to help her through that period of depression.
Thankfully true truth sets people free. If the “truth” doesn’t set you free then it is not TRUE truth. The journey to discovering this freedom did not happen instantaneously. The first key was the realization that depression is not a sin. This was an epiphany for both of us. We were striving so hard to be perfect, what we really needed to do was rest.
During this time, we listened to a song called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” The music and message of the song allowed us to release the weight of our burdens to Jesus. The first verse says:
“I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Come unto me and rest.
Lay down, O weary one,
lay down your head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn and sad.
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.”
The next spiritual breakthrough happened while Danelle was up late one night lying in bed. She was still feeling spiritually inadequate and thought she was lost because she was not obtaining perfection. In her mind she was contemplating this and thinking, “What a bummer. I don’t think I can make it to heaven. I’m not surrendering to Jesus enough.” While she was lying there, she heard a voice in her head that she believed to be God. The voice said, “You are here in this pit of despair and you are talking to me about it. You think that I wouldn’t save you in this very moment? At this very minute you don’t think you are saved?”
She was going back and forth in this conversation with God. Then God said, “How about now, we are talking, and you are broken, you don’t want to be broken, I love you and I want to save you, you don’t think that I will?”
This broken prayer and conversation with God led to an “aha moment.” It was the beginning of a change in her thinking. From this point on she never struggled again with assurance of salvation. It helped that at the same time I was having my own spiritual epiphanies.
I was starting to understand the implications of what it means for God to be LOVE. My fear-based theology was a rope of sand. All my grasping for perfection was hopeless.
There is no fear in love. In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky puts it like this:
“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin, he loves you.”
What we believe about God changes everything. If we serve God because of the threat of hell or the fear of missing out on heaven we have not yet been transformed by love. John says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
In each stage of my spiritual journey, I have been sincere. When I thought eating eggs and wearing a wedding band was a sin, my desire was to be faithful. When I judged my wife for being too exhausted to get up and pray, I thought she simply wasn’t surrendered enough. I didn’t realize how I was weaponizing a spiritual tool against her.
My focus on becoming perfect made me judgmental and it directly led to my wife’s depression. I realize now that Jesus was always inviting us to rest in Him. His grace is sufficient, and His power is made perfect in weakness. Any expression of religion that emphasizes anything other than redeeming love misses the mark.
The Greek term for sin is “ἁμαρτία” which means “missing the mark.” If we are honest with ourselves, we have all missed the mark at times. So how do we recalibrate our aim? We have to get our focus back on a God of LOVE. True faith is about believing in and reflecting the love of Christ. God loves you, don’t be afraid. Believe that truth and be set free.