At home, I open the good Christian workbook that the church of Christ minister gave me. The introduction reads, “No subject or principle bears upon the Christian’s life more than sin.” It provides a laundry list of Biblical references to sin and Satan with bits of interpretation. Sin is a “deceitful force” (Hebrews 3:13) that “kills the sense of shame” (Philippians 3:19) and “pays wages” (Romans 6:23). Satan is a “coward” (James 4:7) and “father of lies” (John 8:44) who “does not appear as he really is” (2 Corinthians 11:14). I go over those pages again and again.
In the middle of the night, when I can’t get back to sleep, my thoughts turn to the Bible. I found the primary message of the New Testament gospels to be so much simpler than I had assumed before I began this journey; Jesus says the ultimate goal is to love ourselves and each other and be joyful.
The next morning, when I return to my workbook, this pops out: those in the world are of the devil until they obey the gospel. Is it possible that the “devil” isn’t some crazy boogeyman lurking in a dark alley, but the force inside ourselves that tells us we aren’t good enough, that we don’t deserve this life we’ve been given, that we have no right to experience joy? How can we love anyone else when we can’t love ourselves? A voice deep inside me shouts, “Yes, that’s it!”
With fresh eyes, I go back over the workbook’s references to sin. It says the meaning of sin most commonly used in the Bible is “to miss the mark.” This clicks. Sin is the voice inside my head that prevents me from hitting the bull’s-eye of love and joy. The booze or the sex or the drugs—those aren’t the sins. Those are just the tools a person might use to perpetuate the missing of the mark, the addictions we might put in place of the struggle to find the love and joy. They could just as easily be television or video games or food. They could be anything we use to anesthetize ourselves, hoping to stop the throbbing pain of unworthiness and put off finding the bravery to accept and love ourselves so that we can share that love with others.
So maybe this interpretation of “sin” is right, or maybe it’s wrong. That’s the thing about the Bible: some people understand what’s written one way and others see it another.
The ex-cop Baptist minister said he wanted to clarify something about “judgment day.” Some people think that when Jesus comes back, he will judge every soul that ever walked the earth to decide who is saved. This is incorrect, he said. Rather, those who have already secured eternal salvation will be listed in the “Book of Life.” Jesus will only judge those whose names do not appear in the “Book of Life.” Everyone in the congregation nods, but I feel like standing up and saying, “Hey, minister, here’s another idea: what if everyone who’s ever lived will be listed in the Book of Life? What if that’s the whole point Jesus was trying to make? That each of us is inherently valuable by virtue of having lived? I mean, it is called the book of LIFE. Maybe Jesus would have us stop obsessing about living forever and focus on the miraculous gift of being alive right now. If we did that, we might cultivate a life filled with joy and love and compassion.” Then I would sit back down and shrug. “Just another possibility,” I would say.
I try to enter each church with an open mind, but sometimes I struggle. The last stop on my list of fundamental churches is listed as “Baptist/disciples of Christ.” Double whammy, I think. On my drive there, I can feel my defenses forming. As I park, I feel them going up. I approach the door to the pretty brick church, and mentally prepare: judge not, I tell myself. I take a deep breath and walk in.
I’m greeted by the most unexpected sight: a female preacher and pews filled with old academics and artsy-types. Here’s a church that also considers itself true to the essential teachings of Jesus, only it takes a different approach to its fundamentals. I feel my shoulders relax, and I can’t help but smile.
Just when I think I have it figured out, it’s time to throw my assumptions out the window.