Before I started college, I often heard stories of people losing their faith while in college. It was often the same kind of story:
A student is shown the beauty of science which made it difficult to trust in religion. The student’s lived experience of non-religious folk did not match up to what they had been told. There were plenty of kind, smart and funny atheists walking around which dismantled this ‘us vs. them’ narrative that had been a large doctrine in their home church. The student began to break the rules they believed God had set for them and believed that they weren’t worth of God’s love.
While I’m sure that many of these stories do exist, my personal story has been a little different. Growing up in the South, I was exposed to harmful, rule-based religion (more than what I would have liked). I’ve seen the harm it does to people’s lives– the exclusion, the hurt and the fact that no one actually lives out the horrible theology of ‘no sin is worse than another.’ In the same breath, I’ve always known that this is not who God is, and so from a young age, I’ve been way more enamored with the largeness of God than God’s smallness. Because of this, I always associated God with beauty, and made the connection that since God was beauty and God was in everything, all parts of life must be beautiful.
Even in difficult times like when my grandmother passed away, I held fast and hard to verses like Ecclesiastes 3:11 which says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” but ignored verses like “Jesus wept.” And so somewhere along the way, religion began to be synonymous with a world that was perfect all the time. If God was beautiful, then everything needed to be beautiful even the hard stuff. Of course, there were difficult things about my life, but when I would feel a sense of sadness or loneliness, I would just push the bad to the back of my mind and focus on the good.
Once I got to college, I tried to keep it up. My soul latched onto trying to be perfect all of the time while I was hanging on for dear life to qualities that I felt defined me – enlightened, spiritual, writer, missionary, and superstar Christian. I could keep going, but it just gets worse. However, this only lasted for a bit because around September I started to feel burned out, confused, lonely and honestly, pretty sad. I was learning about injustice left and right, about the ways in which minority groups had been wronged since the start of the world, about how religion had often times been used as the oppressor and how a lot of life was, objectively, not beautiful. And as God’s own way of making sure I didn’t wrap it all up in a tiny bow and say ‘well, thank God it’s not like that anymore,” Trump was the president. Injustice was everywhere.
On top of that there was the fact that even though I was making new friends, I was lonely. I missed feeling known and loved without having to constantly re-explain my whole life. I missed my best friend knowing my coffee order. I missed hearing my mom’s laugh from downstairs. However, in the re-explaining of my life to new friends, I started to notice gaps. When I started talking to my closest friends, I started to notice how I simply jumped from joy to joy, went through the highlight reel of my life while my new friends told about the bad and good. I was puzzled. Why was it so hard for me to lay down pride and accept grace? I wanted to be honest about difficult things, but it felt almost impossible for me to reach that part of myself. I was hanging on tight to a perfect version of myself that I just didn’t have the energy to perfect anymore.
Simply put, my current life didn’t match my worldview and who I viewed God to be. I wasn’t depressed, but life just wasn’t as colorful and bright as it always had been. There were plenty of days where I would start crying for no reason, where I was so clearly far from perfect, where life felt darker than it ever had. My fluffy theology was being burned away at its core. I needed God so badly, but I felt incredibly ashamed. I wasn’t being joyful, kind or even loving most days. These are all of the qualities that God embodies, and I believed that I too should embody. And so, for a while, I tried to wade through the darkness the way I always had– by faking it with myself, God, and others.
When I look at my prayer journal, I barely wrote prayers throughout the first semester of freshman year. Actually, I think I only wrote three times between August and December and before, I was writing nearly every day. I was worried that if I started writing words down on the page to God, I would be found out. I was worried that I would see myself as broken, and worse, God would see me as broken.
Things didn’t really get better until I went to counseling. There, I was able to talk about all the things that were not the ‘highlight reel’ moments of my life. It was hard, and after most sessions, I left feeling confused but also relieved. Slowly and surely, I was learning to live a life that wasn’t terrified of the darkness, one that didn’t rush to name it beautiful, but rather one that simply acknowledged that God was there in the darkness with me. I started to experience God as a God who saved me from having to be perfect not as a God who saved me so that I would be perfect. I started praying again, but instead of my prayers being lists of things I was thankful for, they started being full of real and truth-filled things that I was feeling. Crazy enough, I could acknowledge when I was really sad and, even more, I knew deep in my bones that God was in that sadness just as much as God had been in my joy for all of my past years.
My theology began to completely shift and in turn, I began to live a fuller life. For the first time a ‘full life’ didn’t mean the absence of hardships or sadness but rather acknowledging that things could be sad and difficult as well as joyous and beautiful, and God was in it all. Now, when I read the Bible, God’s joy, love and patience aren’t qualities that I have to preform but attributes that I can rest in. And my greatest fear that if people didn’t see me as perfect and wouldn’t love me never came true. In fact, quite the opposite happened. When I began to open my heart up to the joy and sadness of life and began to share that with others, my relationships with my friends and family grew much deeper.
In many ways, I do think that my tendency to solely focus on the good is simply a result of my personality combined with my theology, but in other ways, I do think that it’s related to how the church presents God. If the church only represents God as holy and beautiful, as a Being to aspire to and not as a Being that weeps with us, that looks at the injustice of the world and is angry with us, then I think we have done God’s people a disservice. Our God has to be more than a God who sits high in the heavenly realms. God sits with the oppressed, holds the hand of the orphan and comforts those who are lonely. I can’t explain how much more life has changed since my view of God has changed, and I think it’s important that churches express that God did not create us to be perfect, but rather knows and partners with us in our humanity. God does not only tolerate our humanity but delights in it.
Jewels Tauzin is from Jackson, MS native and is currently a sophomore at Rhodes College where she is an English and Urban Studies major. She hopes her studies will help to further God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. She is passionate about the good news, friendship, and trying new things!