Introduction – The Monster Under my Bed
The darkness of my room embraced me like a good friend. Stillness and quiet offered their soothing touch inviting me to rest. It was the perfect place to sleep. But a whisper of movement stirred me. Was that a sound I heard? Still groggy, I wasn’t sure. My eyes strained to see but failed to pierce the darkness. I held my breath, becoming perfectly still, listening even harder to detect the intruder. But the blackness only rewarded my effort with deafening silence. Frozen with fear, my heart pounded like an enormous tribal drum. Terrified it would reveal my presence; I squeezed my eyes shut, foolishly hoping that if I couldn’t see anything, then it couldn’t either. My five-year-old imagination, so often my gift, had become my enemy.
There was a monster under my bed. I knew it. I was sure of it.
Did I dare cry out to my parents? What if they didn’t hear me? It most certainly would. Like a boa constrictor tightening its coils, fear gripped my throat and stole my voice. How could I get away? All I could think was: This has to stop. This has to stop.
In a burst of courage, I broke the stillness and in one desperate, chaotic movement, I tossed my blankets aside throwing myself over the edge of the bed. Hanging upside down, I glared into the darkness underneath my bed to confront my nemesis . . .
Forty years later, my anxiety is buried deep, a forgotten memory. I am a Bible teacher, and the truth is, I am vested in my identity. Much of my life has been an educational pursuit of Bible and theology. But after decades of time and effort in this discipline, my memories are awakened. I have discovered that, figuratively speaking; I am still that five-year-old boy afraid of the monster under his bed. It has been a long time coming, but I finally recognized my monster, and it is . . . God.
Well, it wasn’t really God, but what’s the difference when the eyes of my heart believed it was? He was the god of my imagination, the product of a story in which I found myself. This story was carefully crafted and shaped by a theology I had embraced to be true. Shame had been the companion of my fear for so long it was difficult to admit. I didn’t feel safe, in part, because I was torn between love and threats. My spirit was being crushed. What could I do? Where could I turn? To the One I feared? That was an even scarier proposition. I needed a better narrative.
My friend, Ellen, is a beautiful, bright, and talented woman who, as a valuable member of a ministry team, has been helping others for over two decades. She has been happily married to Mark for almost the same amount of time. Of course, like other couples, their relationship has its ups and downs, but it is solid and it is good. If you sit with her four children for any length of time, you will hear them sing her praises, even if it is sandwiched between complaints about doing chores. And if you happen to visit them, as I have, you will be welcomed immediately. Not long after, you will see and feel the warmth and laughter of a home that is safe, because, above all, this family loves each other.
I do not write with exaggeration or hyperbole when I say Ellen is an amazing woman; she has my deepest respect and she is my friend.
Yet, all is not well in Ellen’s soul.
Not long ago, Ellen, Mark, and I spent a rare evening talking on the porch. They had asked about some rumors they had heard. I shared with them how my spirituality was evolving, changing my mind and heart. They were intrigued with my journey, because both had worked with me in the past. As our conversation was ending, I concluded, “You guys, it’s hard for me to articulate all this, but I keep thinking that God is better than I have ever imagined.”
I looked over at Ellen, and it was obvious something was bothering her. I asked if she was okay, and she nodded, but her watery eyes betrayed her.
“Is there something you want to say?” I asked. She shook her head, gave her best smile, and held up a finger, signaling me to wait a minute. Her body shuddered gently as she attempted a deep breath, trying to maintain control. Then, with tears trickling down her cheeks, she mouthed the words, “Not now.” I wanted to get up and hug her and tell her I understood, but for some reason, I didn’t.
A few days later, I received an email from Ellen that eloquently explained her thoughts and feelings from our conversation. Here is part of it, which reveals the emotional pain that surfaced that evening.
I feel a little like the person who has read romance novels to escape a bad marriage or relationship and escapes for a while wishing that reality could be more like the story, only to end a book and have to gear up for the emptiness that follows and the shame in wishing for more. That is exactly how I would feel after reading books like The Shack or Chronicles of Narnia. Fighting with theology has been a process for some time.
I wish I had hugged her. I did understand. I think many of us do. Ellen needed a better narrative too.
Some of us insist our reality is better than the stories, even while we continue wearing a mask to cover the fear, pain, and doubt that spread like poison ivy across our souls. We maintain the “good Christian life”—whatever that is — and remain in denial. Honesty only seems to make it worse, because, in moments of clarity when we realize the god we believe in is someone we cannot trust, we feel like we are in free fall. And that’s just too scary to admit. Or, just as bad, we stuff our struggle down into some isolated chamber of our soul and press on, only to eventually crash and burn — no longer able to maintain the lie that God is good. Sadly, there are times when our turmoil of honesty sparks nothing more than a feeble attempt at posturing for credibility for a religious peer group. But aren’t we just deluding ourselves?
Some change their expectations of God to match their reality. But their inner worlds aren’t that strong or good, so they live out the remainder of their lives in frustration, sadness, or despair.
Far too many have become cynical by their religious experience. Many blame the church as hypocritical or irrelevant, but I believe the problem is far more serious than that. The mass exodus of the disillusioned is so rampant it almost seems pandemic, but it reveals just how deep their frustration goes. They may still believe God exists, but they are angry. They say, along with Riddick in Pitch Black, “Oh I believe . . . I just hate the [@#$%>*].” So, they chuck God overboard like Jonah, believing God is the problem.
And then there are those who just stop believing.
In my late twenties, I took a job teaching at a small, struggling Bible College. Many who attended were older, having decided to formally study the Bible after university. For some, that had been so long ago it was another lifetime. This brought an unusual degree of maturity to our little campus. It was a great time in my life. (It was the closest I ever came in a teaching job to wearing shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops to work.) Even now, a smile crosses my face, and warmth embraces my heart as I remember the people and events of those days. They were good times.
Since the school was a small community, I got to know many of the students fairly well. Many became good friends. One, in particular, (I’ll call him Bob), became a close friend. Our friendship extended far beyond our time at school. We had some great laughs, but we also shared some profound moments together. Many of them were in the context of learning and practicing our “Christianity.”
But as time moved on, so did we. Our drift apart was probably a combination of things; living on opposite sides of the country certainly didn’t help. There was no fault involved. It just happened.
Today, I’m not sure whether Bob would call himself an agnostic or an atheist; I have never asked him. And it doesn’t really matter, because I have no desire to find a category for him. I do know he doesn’t want to have much to do with the idea of God anymore. Maybe his reality didn’t match the expectations he had learned in my class as to what to believe about God. I don’t know. Whatever his reasons, he decided to jettison God and adopt a new narrative to make better sense of life.
I have no condemnation for him. None. He believes his life is better; and I have no doubt that in many ways it is, or he wouldn’t have made the change. I also know that he believes this improvement in his life is due primarily to his journey away from belief. I don’t agree entirely with that thinking, but I applaud him for getting up from his seat at the religious table. I also miss him.
Modern technology has eliminated geographical boundaries and shrunk our world, allowing us to easily connect with friends from the past. Not long ago, Bob posted something online. I responded in a personal message. Here’s part of what I wrote:
It’s been way too long since we had any meaningful conversation . . . I apologize for that. I am a friend from the past, maybe a past with which you want to create as much distance as possible, but nevertheless, still a friend. I have no illusions that our friendship is current or good, but I’d like it to be. I never asked you how, what, and why you’ve changed, I just knew you had.
I want you to know I applaud your rejection of the god we used to worship. And I apologize for my part in teaching you of that god. I too, have left that table and walked away. Like you, I do not believe he exists. But I have not dismissed god per say. I discovered a better God. I found him to be different and far better than the one you and I rejected. But I’m tired of losing friends. And I don’t want to walk out of the room. I’d like to think it’s still possible to be together regardless of our differences.
I would like to talk (not debate or argue) with you about this. Mostly, I’d just like to listen. Not because there is some religious urgency, but because I agree with you that our lives are brief so all we do matters. But more importantly, you matter. And you matter to me.
So, would you tell me your story? I don’t know if you have ever wanted to. Maybe you were worried I wouldn’t listen or that I would argue or that I would treat you like a ‘project’ to get you back in the fold or maybe you just didn’t want to bother. I don’t know.
But if you’d be willing, I’d love to listen. I would love to hear.
Some of you might feel sorry for Bob, or even Ellen, as though their lives are somehow worse off or that God disapproves of their choices. Don’t. They are on a journey, just like every one of us, and they have demonstrated a courage and an honesty that most of us need desperately.
I am grateful for Ellen and Bob’s integrity and I am honored to call them friends. I also resonate with them. For I have tested the god of my theology and found him to be an anemic caricature - an imposter really - sitting at the religious table. So, I too have now excused myself from that table, because I have rejected the god seated there. Yet, I still believe.
I suspect Bob and Ellen’s struggle is common to us all. Many of us have been, or maybe still are, enslaved to a religious environment that values conformity; so we scarcely whisper our doubts and fears. If we dare to speak of them, it is only in secret - with mumbled voices while cloaked in the darkness of some basement room so we can’t be identified. But our courage is growing, and our whispers are finding a stronger voice. We’ve heard rumors of a better narrative - one that tells of a God who is better than we ever dared to dream.
I am grateful you are considering reading this book. Books being what they are, a one-sided monologue, I realize that what I am really asking you to do is listen. Listen to a story, my story. It’s the story of a process of change that has transpired over several decades: a spiritual evolution, if you will. It is a journey that is intensely personal, brutally honest, and deeply spiritual. There were times when I felt like I was betraying a heritage or had become a traitor to the truth. Change is a difficult struggle for anyone, let alone a man approaching a half-century of “seeing” God from only one perspective. But I began to read and listen, study and think; and I asked questions . . . lots and lots of questions.
I remember when I gave myself permission to question the narrative that had shaped so much of my identity and rethink the story I had embraced.
I remember when those questions revealed how troubling my view of God really was and how deep the fear and doubts went that were slowly strangling my soul.
I remember when I first realized I might be wrong — a bit scary considering I had invested my entire life in a story that said believing the right information was what would save me forever.
I remember beginning to gradually believe differently - though I wouldn’t dare come out and say it.
I remember when I finally admitted to myself that my beliefs were changing and evolving, and I was going to follow this wherever it led, because I was experiencing a relationship with God that was different —and better.
I remember when I discovered the courage to begin to teach differently. A few friends were honest enough to ask what was changing in me. But then I heard murmurs: “Heresy.” “He doesn’t believe the Bible anymore.” . . . And invitations to teach began to disappear.
I remember how many who said they were my friends walked away, never once talking with me to hear what I was wrestling through. I guess they just assumed that the gossip they heard was really true.
And I remember the hurt.
But I also remember those, like Ellen, who lit up when I shared what was happening in my life and my experience of God. They shared a similar struggle.
You may be thinking, as I did, “John, aren’t you just exchanging one view of God for another? Isn’t it just a matter of time before you discover he’s just a different version of the same monster?”
Maybe. But I don’t think so, because I no longer live in fear of this God. The bait and switch is gone.
It’s not that I found some secret narrative that no one else knows about. And I’m certainly not trying to reinvent a god who pleases my imagination and makes me feel better. I think my evolution is more that I’m rediscovering a story – one that has been around for a very long time. In fact, I’m learning again that it really is the greatest story ever told.
For the record, I’m not your adversary. I have no agenda to change your opinions or your beliefs. There is nothing hidden in my pocket or up my sleeve. I only wish to tell you of my journey and the questions I faced along the way:
Questions that set me free from the chains of religious dogmatism.
Questions that began to create assurance, not doubt.
Questions that banished my fears of a god that I found impossible to trust.
Thankfully, I am still changing because my journey still continues. Just because I’ve chronicled some of it in a book doesn’t mean it’s over. And it certainly doesn’t mean I think I’ve found all the answers. I haven’t. But my love and trust in Jesus is growing deeper and stronger. And this is a good thing.
This book is my invitation to you, the reader. Imagine us sitting at a table, where every person is treated with dignity, because you matter. The table is open - and you belong here. I invite you to join me in this journey of spiritual evolution. My hope is that along the way you will discover that, far from being the monster of your spiritual nightmare - God is better than you can imagine.