I am so very sorry. I hear the pain in your hearts when you tearfully admit you have a hard time believing God could love you. I now realize I bear a good bit of the responsibility for it. Some of the things I taught and did when I was your pastor harmed you and were a great disservice to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Early on I simply didn’t know any better. I taught you what I had been taught. I was the product of a form of Christianity that has dominated for so long—an institutionalized, clergy led, power preserving perversion of what Jesus intended for his followers. It’s true I had not done the critical research for myself. But, after all, who was I to question what my instructors said was the correct way to believe and “do” church?
When life experiences and personal Bible study exposed some cracks in my rigid doctrinal foundation, I began to suspect there was more to knowing God than I knew. But I deviated little from the denominational tradition in which I was trained and continued to teach things of which I was no longer convinced. It was too important for me to preserve my good standing and keep my denominational star on the rise.
We claimed our mission was to save lost souls from hell by getting them to “make a decision for Christ” and become one of us. More candidly, we were mostly focused on growing the church. By means of sermons and programs of all sorts, I pressured you to try harder. I exhorted you to demonstrate “deeper commitment” to God and the church. I called upon you to be “faithful” and give more money. I taught you that if you wanted to please God you would have to strive to be a better church member. In a thousand different ways I made you think you were still lacking in God’s eyes.
No, I wasn’t mean about it. I usually did it with a smile. I found entertaining ways to say it. Nonetheless, speaking on behalf of God, I made it clear I expected more from you and so did He. No matter how hard you tried I had to keep you motivated and centered in the church. I needed you to fill your seat and bring someone else along to fill an empty one. The church (and I) had bills to pay.
The outcome for so many of you has been learning almost nothing about the abundant life Jesus promised. You live in constant doubt that God could ever be pleased with you. The abundant life is simply not compatible with constantly worrying we might be disappointing God. I taught you he was ready to banish to eternal torment everyone who didn’t find his or her way into his grace. Trying to measure up was why we did most things. Guilt and shame was really the glue that held us together.
Most of our time was spent striving to earn favors from God by praying more, reading the Bible more, doing more in the church and “witnessing” more. I never taught you how to live in the knowledge God unreservedly loves us because of Jesus.
Our church environment was a chronic breeding ground for hypocrisy. We played comparison games and excluded ourselves from anyone who sinned differently than we did. We were hard on each other whenever one of us failed. We thought it was our duty to keep each other in line and maintain impossible standards of “holiness”. We occupied ourselves with debates about whether Christians should dance, go to movies, use alcohol, sleep in on Sunday and miss going to church, wear certain types of clothes, or listen to certain types of music. We quarreled over Bible translations, hymnals, sound system volume and carpet colors. Conformity to group standards was a very high value, as was compliance to membership policies and the pastor’s authority. In the name of maintaining order I rebuked and “disciplined” those who did not comply.
When I began to realize the magnitude of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. I kept it to myself. Not until I was off the church payroll was I willing to declare in no uncertain terms, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19 NIV). And, because of this, our mission is to go lovingly into the world around us with liberating good news rather than with preachy judgment pressure people to withdraw with us into our own little subculture.
My constant prayer for you today is that our merciful Heavenly Father will undo the damage I caused in your spiritual development. I pray that God will make himself known to you as the essence of love that he is. Should our paths cross again, think only of me as a fellow traveler—no title, no pedestal, please. And, remember, God loves us and will never give up on us. He has included all of us in his grace through Jesus Christ and never has a single condemning thought toward us, ever. Be at peace.