Quitting Christianity?

“I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered to myself. I was tired.

Flame / 9.6.23

Counting the days until the Mbird Minneapolis Conference and hip hop artist Flame is sure to be a highlight. The following is an excerpt from his (and wonderful!) book Extra Nos: Discovering Grace Outside Myself, p. 78-82.

One day after a Sunday church gathering, I broke on the inside. I remember the sermon was about more. More affections. More right desires. More internal examination. I came home and sat on the staircase in my living room and simply hung my head low. “I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered to myself. I was tired. I felt like I simply wasn’t doing enough killing the flesh, enough hating my sin, or enough despising the world. I was trying and trying. Working and working. Putting myself in position to do more. Yet the sermon that Sunday was the death blow.

I remember thinking to myself and lightweight praying to God, saying, “Lord, I don’t know if I can be a Christian anymore. I just can’t give You what You want.” As a trained Reformed Baptist Calvinist with one degree in theology at the time, I knew the right answers and could have corrected my thinking in a self-led theological dialogue. That wasn’t the problem. I’m talking spiritually and emotionally, on a personal and pragmatic level. I was tired and ready to tap out.

The thoughts that ran through my mind went like this: I know Arminianism isn’t the right way. I can’t go to any church or denomination influenced by them. After all, the TULIP acronym was developed by the theological was between them and the Calvinists. As a Reformed Baptist Calvinist, I was trained to think the worst about Roman Catholics, so I didn’t even consider becoming Roman. The Eastern Church wasn’t mentioned in the Reformed Baptist space. What other alternatives were there? Christianity, it seemed, was reduced to only two options: Calvinism or Arminianism. It felt impossible to simply stop believing that God exists. For that reason, I deeply considered living as a spiritual nomad.

The expectation to perform at an Ivy League-level sanctification was all too commonplace. One day as I sat listening to a popular Reformed Baptist pastor, he spoke of sanctification in terms of a letter grade. He exclaimed that some may have a C in sanctification while others may have a B-. My mind drifted as I began to contemplate what grade I might have. I thought to myself, Well, based on a few nights ago, maybe a D+. But based on the last few days, I’d say at least a C+. Because I was hypertrained and hyperfocused on monitoring my motives and affections, I was careful to not pridefully grade myself too high on the scale. After all, God was watching and knows my heart. From there, I simply spiraled downward into a brief pit of despair.

During my time in that space, I’d argue that sanctification was arranged in the room in such a way that one constantly would stub their toe. While there were excellent affirmations of forgiveness arranged in the room, the blurred lines between the Law and Gospel hindered the smooth path and often led me to stumble. Sanctification was awkwardly placed, out of place. With an unhealthy notion of progress or focus on an upward climb on the ladder of spiritual wins, I was left to believe that the Christian life centers on trying harder: growing closer and closer and closer and closer to Jesus. More effort, more self-denial, more Godly affections, more evangelistic/missional activities, and more obedience. For God! Not to mention, I have to have JOY! while exerting such pietistic energy.

While each of those things have their place, they must be arranged in the room properly, or one will become consumed by either despair or pride.

When we swing on the pendulum of pride and despair, there is no certain answer to the question “What does God think of me?” Moment to moment it changes drastically, fearfully.[1]

The result of this Christian paradigm leads to the following:

  • Lowering the bar. This makes you feel better about your lifestyle, living in the false comfort that you are not that bad or the false comfort that you are “killing it.”
  • You are smiling and performing what’s expected on the outside while dying on the inside.
  • Comparing yourself to others. “At least I’m not as bad as them.” “I’m pretty good.” Or, “They’re killing it.” “I suck.”

The Christian life should be centered around Jesus and the proclamation of his Good News: the promise of forgiveness, the comfort of the conscience, the assurance of salvation. Our good works (spiritual growth, spiritual disciplines, sanctification, acts of service, whatever you call them) are for the benefit of our neighbor as unto the Lord. They do not assist you before God, neither before faith nor during your Christian journey. Furthermore, they are the result of repentance (contrition/remorse and faith). That repentance is created in you by God’s Word. By the Spirit. By His Power. We get no credit in repentance. God’s Law accuses and condemns us, kills us and drowns us. This leads to contrition. God’s Gospel (proclamation of forgiveness) then revives us and brings us up out of the water into new life! By faith, that is to say, trust in Jesus, we receive the forgiveness of our sins.

Indeed, the Christian life is a life of repentance. What does that mean, though? In means that we constantly live in our Baptism. We are constantly being accused by God’s good Law. We drown underneath the condemnation of the Law. Then, Christ resuscitates us with the announcement of our forgiveness. He brings us out of the water and back to life. This is the Gospel. From there, we “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt 3:8). The fruit is the result of repentance. Our neighbor then benefits. This cycle continues until Jesus calls us home.

The Law says “do,” the Gospel says “done.” The Law commands, the Gospel promises. The Law measures and judges, the Gospel forgives. The Law tells us how we ought to live, the Gospel tells us that Jesus died; and He died with a marvelous and gracious purpose: to save sinners. Both the Law and the Gospel are from God, but they have different purposes. The Law condemns. The Gospel saves.[2]

If one is not clear on these things, it can certainly rob your faith and lead you away from Christianity altogether. That’s where I was headed. I gave nearly two decades to the synchronization of my heart’s affections with God’s affections. I maintained faithful church membership and accountability. I vigorously exercised living in community with transparency. I read all the prominent scholars and lay leaders. I attended all the big conferences. Organically, I met and made friends with many prominent Reformed pastors, leaders, and influences. I faithfully spread the Reformed doctrines of grace. I attained a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling from the crème de la crème of Reformed Bible institutions so as to attack this deep-seated disconnect between my head and my heart. I was dead set on helping others who struggled like I did, only to find ineffective and insufficient solutions. The theology was disjointed from the reality of the human experience. It took time for me to realize that. As one ages, life moves further and further away from being simple. Things depart from the black and white only, and gray areas start to arise more regularly. The paradoxes and complexities of adulthood don’t allow you the luxury of seeing the world as you once had.

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2 responses to “Quitting Christianity?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. This is good news indeed anchored on the promise alone.

  2. E Nash says:

    What a wonderful, thoughtful post. I appreciate you.

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