A painting takes layers of color to become a work of art. It starts with a raw, stretched canvas, applications of white gesso, then you begin to build your vision with tints and hues, brushstrokes of light and dark until eventually you have a picture. An image. A creation. Our view of ourselves and the world we occupy are created in much the same way, layers of experiences, teaching and learning that accumulate into a belief.
I was in second grade. Dressed up in pants that were too short, a nest of unmanageable hair, a buck-toothed half smile, waiting outside the door for my turn. I was anxious. If I couldn't do this I couldn't truly love God. I couldn't truly be a Christian. I had read and re-read, but the moment I tried to say it outloud, I couldn't recall any of it. I had my little book open, trying to remember as much as I could; like filling a bucket with a hole rapidly enough to retain some water (little did I know at the time that I had a learning disorder and a short-term memory problem). The door opened and the teachers called me in. I stood in front of the teachers (an older husband and wife duo), as they sat in tiny schoolroom chairs.
"Whenever you're ready" they said.
They asked the first question: "Who made you?"
This was easy. "God made me".
"Very good, what else did God make?"
"Um, He made, I mean, God made all things".
On and on the questions came, about halfway through I began to struggle. The questions sounded brand new, as if I had never heard them. I tried to reason my way through them. "What covenant did God make with Adam?", "A covenant that ... he ... would ... inherit the kingdom of heaven?" "No, the covenant of works." I was rattled. I was stupid. I was no good. I was a sinner. I didn't love God. I was only in second grade. I left the room nearly in tears. I hated Sunday School. I hated church. I hated how it made me feel horrible and worthless. But I didn't know any better. I thought that was the way church was meant to be. I didn't pass the catechism class, for the second time. All my friends had moved onto the next Sunday School class. But I was left behind. A pattern repeated often in my life, mostly at my own hands. It was a core belief.
Lately I've been desiring to peel away layers to affect a change in my core beliefs. For decades it's hindered my personal and professional growth, interferred with my relationships with my wife, my kids, my friends and God. Simply doing things because I know it's right (despite it not being what I feel) has not yielded the changed behavior I hoped it would because I have not gotten to the root, until recently.
In an effort to be theologically honest, my church growing up (by making us memorize the "Children's Catechism" in order to graduate to the next level of Sunday School) seemed to miss the point of teaching children the truth they can understand for their age for teaching children the truth as an adult understands. We were given elegant steak dinners, with fine wine and roasted aphargus, when all I needed was a hot dog and Kool-Aid. Despite the truth that was contained in those catechisms, my inability as a child to understand nuanced concepts hindered any deeper truth they tried to impart. Being taught that man is fallen and depraved, undeserving of salvation or grace screamed louder than the "exception" that through the work of Jesus on the cross acting as a bridge to that divide. It became all I knew of myself. It become the echo everything I saw. I was depraved. I was undeserving. I was fallen. No amount of grace or love from Jesus could alter those words I so believed about myself and still believe today. I am a muddied portrait of self-loathing and worhtlessness.
After thirty years, those deeply imbedded experiences and teachings have molded who I am. They are the foundation of my beliefs about mysef and the world. Eventually my childhood beliefs transitioned into adulthood; though I am more able to understand deeper theological concepts, I have never eradicated those initial scars. I have merely painted over them. They remain the slate from which I've been drawn. The constant echo in my head follows a predictable and destructive pattern. "Why didn't you get that client?" "Because God is a venegeful God and I'm a horrible sinner undeserving of His grace". "Why did you get sick today?" "Because I was so excited about finally getting that client that I went out and celebrated and became and selfish and prideful and focused on myself and did not give all the glory to God and that made Him mad, and he is justly punishing me".
My instinctual, habitual reaction to anything good, anything complimentary, anything happy, anything uplifting is to fear and flee from it, to look to the skies for God's smoting. My involuntary, unconsciously accumulated experiences have built up this belief that I should not and cannot rejoice in happiness because it will lead to pride and selfishness, because I'm a depraved and horrible person, undeserving of everything — oh, and it is only by the grace of a vengeful and just God that I have anything. I'm fallen. I'm a sinner. God is out to get me. The work of salvation is merely an afterthought, forgiveness is an elixir to salve the burning rage of God, and Jesus's love abstract at best and meaningless at worst. Over the years from the simple teachings that I couldn't properly decipher has led to a misguided and unhealthy view of myself and the world and my faith.
Surprisingly, I have no desire to adandon my faith. I just need to alter my perspective. But now begins the hard work of peeling away these messy layers of a destructive belief, without throwing away the painting. I have hope. It's never too late to begin to heal and repair.