Water, Binaries, and a God-Sized Hole

On a drive this morning, I passed by several churches of different denominations all with a giant cross extending from the roof into the backdrop of blue sky. I thought about the people who say that humanity invented God out of a desperate, pathetic attempt to make meaning and find solace from suffering. It’s an attempt to fill a hole, they argue, that does more harm than good. But I wonder why such a hole exists in the first place. If we were not made for something else, why do we so desperately crave something else? Something we can’t exactly name. Why do all our human attempts at filling this hole inside of us with earthly things (booze, drugs, food, fame, money, achievement, and people) fail us every time? Why do we always end up disappointed at best or devastated at worst? It’s like the saying: you can never have enough of what you don’t need.

So, did we invent God as a mythical idea meant to merely soothe our weary souls? It’s a reasonable question. Or were we born with a God-sized hole because only God can fill it? If God could be fully understood, would God be worthy of worship?

To me, faith is both balm and fire. My faith can be medicinal, yes, as it does soothe me. It provides me with the kind of peace and assurance nothing else in the world ever could. But it’s also fire. Something urgent and untouchable. A call to action and a call to serve. Not to bury my head in the sand. If I believe Jesus is who He says He is, then I have an obligation. If I am willing to receive this gift of grace, then I am obligated to share that gift of grace with everyone with whom I cross paths. And I don’t mean through ministry. I don’t mean through politics. I mean through humility and empathy.

This thought led me into thinking of the binary between scientific and spiritual. The seen and unseen. The logical and creative. Order and chaos. The irony is that they imply separation or mutual exclusivity, but indeed one cannot exist with the other. Male cannot exist without female. And vice versa. Order is insignificant without chaos. Science and faith are dependent upon each other.

So, I think about the question: are you more of a creative type or logical type? Sure, most of us have genetic propensities for one over the other. But I think it’s a moot question. We are whole people, made in the image of a God who embodies every shade of every spectrum. The tension we feel, I believe, is self-imposed from the lie that we must choose sides. We must be one thing over another. Why can’t we accept we are all of it? All at once? Why are we so uncomfortable with gray in a world that tells us to think in black-and-white?

The danger of binary is why we feel guilty when we experience joy during grief. Or melancholy on a beautiful, sunny day. It’s why we struggle to reckon with historical figures who did both immeasurable good and committed horrific injustice like slavery. Or when we tell our sons that boys don’t cry and tell our daughters to keep quiet and stay small. We are trying so hard to fit the human experience into neatly tied boxes. It’s like when Francis Collins writes: “The pure, clean water of spiritual truth is placed in rusty containers, and the subsequent failings…should not be projected onto the faith itself, as if the water had been the problem.”

The water is not the problem. It’s our attempt to contain and label it. And I wonder what might happen if we let it run freely? If we made more space for nuance. If we welcomed shades of gray. If we could tolerate paradox. Maybe we’d stop fighting so much. And stop yelling in comment sections and stop hating each other. But perhaps such a thought is idyllic and impractical. Perhaps that is why only God can fill this God-sized hole in each of us.

But That’s Not God

Like a lot of kids in the Midwest, I grew up going to church. My parents prayed over my younger brother and me every night before bed, read us stories from the Bible, and explained Jesus in a simplified way we could understand. This was a big part of my childhood, but it never felt like an overly religious household. And by all accounts, it wasn’t. There were no shame tactics, unattainable moral standards, or religious checklists to complete as the entry fee into Heaven. I didn’t have designated church dresses or know how to pray the rosary. All I knew is: God loves you. Jesus saved you. End of story.

The safest I ever felt was when my parents tucked me into bed and prayed for our health and safety. (When they closed their eyes, I usually looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t be sure where God was hanging out since I couldn’t see him after all. I imagined Heaven must be something like Disney World in the sky).

“It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. We love you forever. Amen.”

For a child like I was—the timid, anxious kind—there is something magical and comforting about the existence of a supernatural being who’s looking out for you. Believing in God felt like believing in eternal safety and protection. This was indeed an appealing idea.

When my anxiety reached its peak in fourth grade, I’d excuse myself from class and scurry down the hallway to the bathroom. I sat in the middle stall and did the only thing I knew how to do to feel better: pray. And it worked. Every time. I learned when I asked God to show up, He did. Peace always arrived by the time I returned to the classroom.

As I got older, finding peace wouldn’t always be in the ways I expected or even wanted. I was no longer a worried child in a bathroom stall. I was becoming an adult who believed her ideas for the future were far better than whatever this God of Peace had in mind. My personal freedom was far too important to abandon in pursuit of a “religious identity” as I saw it. I was turned off by the so-called Bible thumpers on my college campus. They seemed self-righteous and judgmental and fun-sucking. Some were. Some weren’t. But who was I to judge their hangover-free Sunday mornings? We grew up in the same churches, didn’t we?

Just make me feel safe, God, that’s all I need from you right now. I got the rest covered.

And from the outside, it sure looked like I did. But on the inside, deep within my gut, I was restless and uncertain, never fully attaining the peace I so desperately craved. The general sense that “there has to be more than this” incessantly filled my mind. My prayers were full of requests and void of listening. I thought if I kept searching on my own I would eventually find “it”. Whatever “it” is. But all I ever found was a need to do more searching.

While I lived in Austin, this internal conflict became overwhelming. I began to operate from a social justice lens; the counselor-in-training part of me was acutely aware of the ways Christianity had wronged and shamed so many. I was increasingly disillusioned by what I saw as a religion that justified homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of oppression.

If Christians weren’t actively using division as a tactic, they were certainly silent when others were. Although I never abandoned my belief in the existence of God, the belief was undoubtedly strained. I stood on shaky ground, easily swayed by the slightest gust of doubt.

Frustration arose with the type of empty faith that runs on checklists, keeping score, and talking points without action. There were so many issues I couldn’t seem to reconcile. People close to me shared stories of being rejected by the Church and, subsequently, their own family for being gay. For being born how God created them. How could I defend an institution that used God as a veil to speak against equal human rights? How could they look at gay children and tell them we “love but don’t affirm you”? In no way could I picture Jesus treating people the way some religious leaders treated their congregations.

I noticed the many ways believers stayed silent so as not to rock the boat during instances of injustice. Very few of the Christians I knew were part of the conversations about racial discrimination in America. Why isn’t there more outrage at the police killings of unarmed Black men? Why aren’t there more people of color in our pews? How can we stand by politicians who spew hate, incite fear, and celebrate division while our pastors preach love and acceptance?

Why do religious leaders go on international mission trips but avoid addressing the poverty in their own cities? Why do so many pro-life advocates stay silent—and, in some cases, justify—when women and children who cross our southern border are separated and forced into detention camps? Why is the focus more on banning abortion than it is on the lives of the children who already struggle to survive in our communities? More on ensuring birth than ensuring equal access to contraceptives?

One afternoon, I’m sitting in a graduate school seminar. A classmate shares a story of overhearing a preacher angrily calling for damnation to hell for sexual sinners. Other classmates shake their heads, displaying a spectrum of anger and sadness.

“This is why Christianity is so dangerous,” someone says.

“It’s no wonder people don’t feel safe in churches,” another responds. “They’re full of outdated, discriminatory beliefs and practices.”

Before I can stop the words from exiting my mouth, I hear my own voice echo across the room. “But that’s not God.”

The room falls silent. I gulp, momentarily considering an exit strategy. Too late. Eyes are on me.

“That’s not God,” I repeat. “I know what it’s like to be frustrated—even outraged—by the Church as an institution. I know because I grew up in it. But thankfully, I had parents who encouraged me to ask hard questions. They were so confident that the answers would always point back to love and acceptance, not discrimination and fear. There were no shame or fear tactics. But I know that’s not universal, and it breaks my heart it’s not. It should be. Religion can be used for hate. But that’s because of hateful people. That’s not because of God.”

I’m met with some sympathetic looks. I don’t know where the words come from; I have no intention to speak up. But in this moment, it’s clear: I can’t base the validity of God’s existence on the actions (or inactions) of the people who claim to believe in God. That logic doesn’t add up. I’m spending so much time judging people who misread, misinterpret, and mistreat. But if I can find the Christians who don’t lead from love, surely I can find the ones who do. If my gut tells me what is wrong, surely it can also point to what is right. Instead of nodding along fervently at the criticisms of when Christians get it wrong, maybe I can look for the ways they are getting it right.

Political bias finds its way into our interpretation of God. None of us is an exception. Imperfect humans with imperfect agendas are destined to fail. And sometimes people even use religion to propel their own hateful ideologies. But that’s not a testament to God. That’s a testament to human bias, brokenness, and sometimes evil.

As I neared the end of graduate school, the ground on which I stood that had necessarily been shaken to its core began to solidify again. I understood that the true Jesus isn’t passive nor discriminatory. His life is defined by healing the hurt, sitting at the feet of the most marginalized and desecrated in society, and actively speaking out against all forms of injustice and evil. What breaks his heart should break mine. He cannot possibly side wholly with either conservatives or liberals. No party or belief structure has a monopoly on God; He transcends our broken, binary systems. He represents both unconditional love and restorative (not simply punitive) justice.

My heart inevitably softened for those who are well-intentioned but still get it wrong. If I want to receive grace when I slip up, I must learn how to give grace to others. If I’m calling for compassion for the oppressed, I must work toward compassion for the oppressor, whom too often has little to no awareness of the role they play in perpetuating shame. Although I may never find all the answers to all my questions (that’s why it’s called faith, after all), I did discover two that answer a lot of them.

Lead with love. Not doctrine.

Follow God. Not his followers.

This is not an easy pill to swallow. And it’s not a suggestion to sit back in silence and enable dangerous people to maintain power. If we listen well enough, God reveals to us when to act and when to be still. But fighting against blame and division with weapons of blame and division is not productive. As Audre Lorde so eloquently wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We cannot simply hand our LGBTQ+ children a Bible after they share their stories of shame, rejection, and violence. We must listen. We cannot simply pray for racial healing as a hall pass out of tangible action. We must have hard conversations. The God I’ve come to know calls us to love even the ones with whom we vehemently disagree while standing up for what is right. Love is what is right. Always. I’d venture to say we all need more of it.