Look, growing up I was not unlike . . . certain loudly publicized segments of the Christian population. Quick to judge myself and others. Finding fault. Not at all loving my “enemies”. Quick to label. Fearful of life, of others, of screwing up, of things I didn’t understand. But you know what? Those are all human frailties. Most of them you can trace back to survival instincts. And I was kind of a teenager back then. And as I matured, I read the Bible and learned what was going on in there besides the cyclical few passages that get preached on every year. As I matured, I became more self-confident, I began to discern things better. I began to put away childish things that were hindering me and to set my mind to seek a higher way of life. And it was rough, and it’s been slow because I’m just fundamentally stubborn and conservative. I’ve had to let go of ideas that made me feel safe in a world that made sense the way I wanted it to, in order to seek the way God sees us and the way God wants us to be.
And nobody wants to do that. We’re human beings, we want the world to be the way we want it to be. That’s why we use tools, why we seek sociopolitical power, why we develop certain sciences, and it’s how we have historically survived in a world of disease and violence and climates. But God makes human wisdom foolish, and as Yoda would say, sometimes you gotta unlearn what you have learned if you want to push forward toward the actual truth, instead of the pop culture or self-justifying version of it.
And when I was young, sure, God was often a punishing authority figure. That’s how authority figures behave when you’re a child. They make you do things you don’t want to do and stop you from doing things you do want. The best you can hope for is that they’re just as strict with the people you don’t like.
But as I’ve matured and improved, the important facets of God have gone from justice and punishment to grace and mercy. And that is freeing. I’m free to take chances and screw up doing it, as long as I’m trying to do what’s right. I’m free to ignore society’s attempts to mold me, because there is a higher authority who cares about me much more than anyone else ever will. I’m free to do what needs to be done to make the world a better place, instead of worrying about what my peers will think of me (and in God’s eyes we’re all peers) or hoarding resources for selfish, petty goals. Through the mercy provided through Jesus, I can pick myself up and try to be better in the future, without my past mistakes weighing me down. If God has forgiven my past mistakes, how can I condemn myself? And for someone who is endlessly self-critical like me, that is a wonderful freedom to have!
I know myself all too well to know I couldn’t have become like this on my own, without some actual higher power giving me support to get there. Simply following church rituals and reading a book, however holy, would not be sufficient for a deeply flawed person like me. I needed, and still need, the whole package.
And that is religion with God.