This is a continuation of my previous post.
The visiting evangelist paced back and forth, vigorously preaching the fear of the Lord. He had a microphone, but Lord knows he didn’t need one.
He shouted at the packed room of petrified charismatics, denouncing a litany of sins – and not just the classic ones. He zeroed in on rebellious attitudes, careless words – and, yes, he even condemned those who engaged in “habitual mas-tur-bation!”
Then in a serious, foreboding tone, he brought up numerous scriptures about God’s judgment and our sinfulness. He said God was fed up with lukewarm Christians, ready to vomit them out of His mouth.
And like a bare-fisted punch to my face, he declared that, according to the Bible, the majority of people in churches just like ours were going to burn in hell. He said we weren’t sufficiently committed to God, though he never explained what a sufficient commitment to God looked like.
I was stunned, heartbroken, and sat in the service both trying to hang onto his every word and figure out what it meant for me. I had been striving for so long to show God I loved Him, that He hadn’t wasted His time in saving me. But despite the best of intentions, I now realized that I was very likely going to hell and so were most of my church friends.
I didn’t know what to do, but I felt like this guy had the answer, so I readily went up for the altar call at the end of the service and received prayer. I felt touched by God, made whole, and finally cleansed. But I also felt afraid – afraid that this was the last, fresh start God was going to give me.
Prior to that church service, I thought I was radically living for Jesus when I stopped dating and threw out my TV. But after that night at the altar, I decided to take it up a notch.
Prayer became an all-day, obsessive compulsive attempt to be in non-stop communication with God. I read the entire Bible in a year. I loaded my 1989 Corolla with anyone willing to visit Sunday services at my church. I volunteered at the local nursing home.
I shared my faith with the majority of the people I met, oftentimes because I was afraid it would be my fault if the person went to hell. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, sharing the Gospel probably wasn’t my strong suit. One time, during a conversation about faith, I asked a guy, “Do you know what your problem is?” He crossed his arms. “What’s my problem?” I paused, then said, “You’re evil. That’s your problem.” He turned around and walked away, and things were never the same between us. Go figure.
My life was full of exhausting rules. One of the hardest rules to follow was “Thou shalt always obey the speed limit.” I was inspired by a guy from church who said disobeying the speed limit was a rebellious act of quasi-witchcraft. I was like, “Oh my goodness, I don’t want to be a sorcerer!”
So I started watching the speedometer with excessive concentration, nearly crashing my car twice because I wasn’t focused on the road. I even obeyed the speed limit in 15-mile per hour zones. I felt helplessly embarrassed by the train of cars moving behind me like a funeral procession, but at least I was being obedient.
But it wasn’t enough to be a do-gooder. I also became more disciplined. Along with ditching the TV, I stopped watching movies. I was inspired by a lady from church who said God told her to stop renting movies because she was being entertained by the sins Jesus died for. It would be years before I saw another movie other than Left Behind – but I don’t think that one counts.
One time at a party, some church friends were watching a classic James Bond film. Wanting to avoid being entertained by sin, I left the room and went to the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, one of the guys came in the kitchen to get something to drink. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Oh, I’m just praying,” I said.
I stopped reading all non-educational, non-Christian literature. I broke most of my non-Christian CDs in half, including the instrumental soundtrack to the movie Sabrina (there was a song by Sting on it). I set my book of Far Side comics on fire (it had lighthearted images of hell in it). And as an act of faith, I generally resisted taking medication when I was sick.
Ironically, a favorite Christian song of mine included the line, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
As I became more successful at rigid obedience, I also became more judgmental. Sure, many of my church friends were legalistic in their own right, but none of them could touch my commitment to Jesus (well, there was this one guy – his dedication was a constant thorn in my side).
Naturally, I began to wonder if my friends were actually saved, if my parents were saved, or if my college pastor was even saved. To top it all, after reading in Romans 7 about the Apostle Paul’s struggle with sin, I seriously wondered if Saint Paul was in hell – but I thought it was pretty cool that God could nonetheless use an unsaved person to write several books of the Bible.
Anyone who wasn’t obeying the rules as rigidly as me was suspect. That put a lot of pressure on everyone else, but it put even more pressure on me. I was walking a badly frayed tightrope in an attempt to prove my salvation, but I could only work under that kind of pressure for so long before losing my balance.
I felt sick to my stomach a great deal of the time. My shoulders were knotted up with stress. Every mild sexual thought, every person I didn’t tell about Jesus, every night I failed to read my Bible – it rattled me and left me wondering when I would fall from grace and plunge into the abyss. In my spiritually delusional state, I didn’t realize I was already laying in the safety net.