I’ve been a Christian for 20 years now (I’m 27 this year). I grew up in a Christian household and I suppose it was only a matter of time before I took on the faith as well. Would I go so far as to call myself a true believer? I still don’t know, but allow me to walk you through my journey.
How it all began
“For God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” — John 3:16
This is probably the most prominent verse in the Bible; it sums up the Christian faith in a single sentence, and is often used by Christians in their evangelistic pursuits. Here, a picture of a loving God is painted, one who wishes to reconcile the created to the creator. But, there is a flip side.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:8
It doesn’t take a Christian to also believe that good will be vindicated and evil, punished. Here, however, unbelievers are also placed in the same category. In short, “Christians will go to heaven and non-Christians will perish”. On one hand, we see the benevolent side of God, and on the other, His firm and harsh nature. “Repent! The end is near” — a phrase often used in satirical cartoons probably originated from this very aspect of Christianity and its handful of “hellfire and brimstone” preachers.
I was only 7 when I found myself at the same crossroads between life and death. As a child, it was like being made to choose between candy or a beating — everyone wants candy. I eagerly prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and was henceforth a Christian. The truth is, I didn’t even know what was going on, and even as I write this now, I ask myself the same question with no concrete answer at the end of my train of thought.
What church meant to me
Going to church soon became my Sunday routine. I would attend Sunday school classes with fellow children, sing songs of worship and adoration, and listen to narrations of Biblical stories condensed into kid-size bites, and kids love a good superhero tale — of a humble shepard defeating a mighty giant with rocks and a sling; of an evil Egyptian army decimated by a man who parted the Red Sea; of the Son of God who could heal the lame and raise the dead. At our most impressionable, we lapped up each word like we would every story told to us at that age. There was, however, little spiritual impact.
Church became a weekend playgroup of sorts for me, where I could hang out with my friends and play tag by the playground after Sunday school classes, followed by a delicious lunch after. On hindsight, it was probably unrealistic to think that elementary school children could ever experience some kind of spiritual epiphany at a young age, so I think back to every chorused prayer; every song enthusiastically sung; every memorised verse, why did we do that? The Bible expounds on the virtues of childlike faith, and I’m starting to understand why, too.
Childlike faith obeys without question. The more aware we become as adults, the more we doubt. The famous story of Adam and Eve tells us how sin came to be. They ate the forbidden fruit that would give them knowledge of all heaven and earth, despite being instructed by God not to. Although it was their disobedience that led to sin, there seemed to be an underlying theme — ignorance is obedience; knowledge is death, better known today as: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.
Growing up as a Christian hasn’t been easy, especially when there are events and occurrences around me that I simply can’t explain, or teachings in the Bible that I don’t necessarily agree with. I was often redirected to one of two solutions — to either read the Bible or to put my faith in a God whose presence I scarcely feel. Every day becomes an internal battle between faith and doubt, and honestly, the latter usually wins. Still, I cling onto the former, but it has dawned on me that perhaps I see religion as an insurance policy; my childhood fear of an eternity in hell continues to weigh heavy in my heart. It’s like how some people may not believe in ghosts, but still refuse to play with an ouija board — you’re sceptical, but you don’t want to risk it.
My teenage years as a Christian were extremely rebellious. I’d skip church with fellow church mates and spend the morning holed up at an Internet cafe instead. It was probably to my detriment that I hadn’t bothered to take religion seriously, but it’s never too late, right? A few years later, when I was 21, I decided to seek the answers I had been meaning to search. I enrolled in courses in church and tried to make sense of what I was believing in. I even started partaking in ministry work as a writer. Yet, the fabled presence of God continued to evade me. Throughout the years, my parents have recounted moments in their lives when they felt God was at work, hoping that it would be enough to nudge me towards greater faith. But, a story that doesn’t make one feel is just a story.
I hear it, I understand it, but I cannot relate.
There also remained lingering doubts over Biblical teachings. While I won’t discuss theological issues, I will talk about something that impacts society as a whole — euthanasia and abortion, or, the ability to decide your fate and that of an unborn child. The Bible teaches that both are wrong, because it would mean that we’re playing God, and no one has the right to do that. But, the world is far from black and white. Patients with terminal illnesses, rape victims, impoverished families all beg to differ.
A man is diagnosed with an incurable disease that will not kill him, but will render him completely bedridden and useless for the rest of his life. Medication to stabilise his condition is prescribed, and some cost an arm and a leg. His family is saddled with debt, and even he knows that, and therefore resolves to die. As a Christian, he isn’t allowed to. This makes little sense. Some Christians reading this will probably urge the man to ask for a miracle, and that God will provide if he has enough faith. This infuriates me. Man cannot survive on miracles alone. It’s like saying I don’t have to work because I might win the lotto tomorrow.
What about rape victims who never asked to be impregnated, or expecting mothers whose fetuses have been diagnosed with serious illnesses? These are very real scenarios, but I honestly don’t think “just have faith and pray” is going to cut it as an adequate response.
Hypocrites and their double standards
An agnostic friend of mine once summed up the human condition in relation to Christianity quite aptly.
“Do Christians do good because it’s in their nature to do so, or do they do it just so they won’t go to hell?”
A mix of both is my guess.
I think that the same question is applicable to anyone whose everyday life is, to an extent, guided by religion. Are we genuinely kind, or are we keeping it in for the sake of religious obedience? Even with these boundaries in place, it pains me to say that some of the worst people I’ve met in life claim to be Christians, from an unethical CEO who adopted underhanded means to gain an edge over a competitor, to pastors who preach one thing but contradict themselves in how they behave away from the pulpit, to even televangelists who manipulate the Bible to fleece their congregation of every last dollar. I too am flawed, but the difference is that I don’t claim to be someone I’m not. I don’t put on my Sunday best in church only to take it off for the rest of the week.
So Christianity is a private relationship between God and I, so why am I affected by how other Christians conduct themselves?
Two factors come to mind.
A church leader has a responsibility over a community, so why should I take him seriously when he preaches about patience but contradicts himself in everyday conduct? Why should I respect a pastor who stresses the importance of missions work but loses his cool and hits a team member in the field?
Christians are also, for the most part, responsible for how society perceives them. It doesn’t help anyone’s case when a Christian ostracises another person just because he disagrees with the latter’s lifestyle. It doesn’t help when Christians show a blatant lack of respect for another person’s religion when he tries to evangelise. It doesn’t help when the council of churches publicly complains about Christmas decorations in a secular space just because it doesn’t adequately illustrate the true meaning of the occasion. The Bible makes it clear that Christians are no better than non-believer; everyone’s a sinner, so why do we insist on taking the moral high ground? Why do we place ourselves on a pedestal that we are not worthy to be on?
I’ve always refrained from making a song and dance about my religion, and perhaps, it is party due to shame.
Struggling for control
Yet another recurring theme in the Bible is that a true Christian is willing to deny himself for God, that is to say, surrender his desires for himself and submit to the will of the Lord. If He calls you to drop your career and serve as a missionary, you will do exactly that. If pursuing a certain ambition is not in His plans for you, it will fail.
On the contrary, I’ve always believed that with hard work and determination, we should be afforded to freedom to live our dreams. The paradox is that God’s will is never known until things come to pass, much like Schrodinger’s cat. To find out, one must first open the box, which in this context represents your freedom to pursue anything you want. Granted, nothing is ever certain in life, but it is easier to accept failure due to one’s inadequacy than that it was never meant for me. Whenever I hear sermons about surrendering one’s will, panic sets in. There is a constant fear (and bitterness) that I will not like what God has in store for me.
Why Christianity still means something
Despite my numerous doubts, the Bible is also filled with instructions to treat the marginalised with love and compassion. It teaches us to forgive, to be patient, to bury hatchets, and to value relationships over material gain. It teaches us that there is a season for everything, and that we ought not to worry unnecessarily. These are lessons that speak into my heart and shape me to be a better person.
I wouldn’t say that I haven’t sensed a divine presence at all throughout my life either. There were instances where I was able to accomplish something with the full realisation that it wasn’t down to my capabilities alone, and instances where I found hope in hopeless places.
Do I consider myself a Christian?
I had initially planned to write this as a means to somehow find some answers buried somewhere beneath my train of thought, but I end my reflection with the same uncertainty.
I continue to pray and read the Bible every morning, but I do it with increasing fatigue. I pray the same prayer every day like a magic incantation, hoping that if I recited it enough, my prayers would eventually come true. Yet, I’d like to think that I still am a believer, owing to both faint belief and fear in equal parts. Maybe I really do still cling on to what faint hope Christianity still offers me, maybe I’m just afraid of losing my free pass to heaven. Sometimes, just sometimes, I even wonder if it was God’s will for me to turn away from the faith altogether. Only time will tell.