For years, I was afraid to ask God for a better heart. I was certain that, if I did, God would take something from me. If I asked for patience, I was certain I’d get suffering. If I asked to become kind, I was sure God would put in my path people who would test me. If I asked to love obedience, I believed God would deliver hardship. If I dared to ask for gratitude, for humility, for a Christ-like heart…
The story of God, I heard, was a story of transactional, mathematical love: God gave us the gift of Jesus’ atoning death, and for that, we are on the hook for a sum we could never repay. The soundtrack to my twenties was a loop of Christian Contemporary Music about the blood of Jesus and my own wretchedness. And I loved it. I called that transaction love.
The story of us owing something to God because of Jesus’ death especially synced with the immigrant narrative on which I was weaned: that our elders came to this country to give us a better life. That’s a love that gives you wings and a leaden weight, too. Sometimes, the shade of that gift casts a long specter over your conception of love.
But that’s not how God loves. That’s not a perfect love.
Toxic evangelicalism thrives because we don’t expect and can’t imagine a non-toxic love. We’re accustomed to love that punishes, bargains, manipulates, and asks us to sacrifice ourselves. We’re used to human love, and human love is the barometer by which we measure God’s love.
When our pastors, families of origin, partners, or friends tell us that love requires us to accept toxicity, how could we expect – how could we imagine – that God’s love could be anything else, anything better?
Our families tell us that love requires conformity; can we conceive of a God who doesn’t?
Our partners tell us that love requires submission; can we conceive of a God who doesn’t?
Our pastors tell us that love requires us to give until it hurts; can we conceive of a God who doesn’t?
Maybe we’re more comfortable with a God who operates by human rules because that God is predictable and controllable, even at our expense. Or maybe our imaginations are well intentioned but limited by the scope of love we’ve experienced.
A lot of digital ink has already been spilled to explain how people can support abusive elected officials or pastors after they’ve been exposed as charlatans. How could another televangelist or Paula White or Carl Lentz hoodwink the thoughtful Christians in our lives? How could our seemingly intelligent, compassionate loved ones fall prey to a toxic faith?
How could we?
I’d wager that some of us fall prey to toxic evangelicalism because we are – all of us – accustomed to toxic love.
Sometimes I worry that my wife is keeping score – accounting for my wrongdoings. She reminds me that that’s not who she is, and it’s true. And it’s not who God is, either. Love keeps no record of wrong-doing.
Sometimes I worry that my pastor is judging how much I give to my church or how often my family shows up. But she doesn’t. Love is not self-serving.
The language of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians lists more of what love isn’t than what love is. That might be because we know better what those isn’ts look like. Love isn’t like your punitive parent who’ll “give you something to cry about” or who didn’t affirm your identity. Love isn’t like an abusive partner who cuts you off from the people you love or demands your every moment. Love isn’t like a jealous spiritual leader who tests your dedication unto poverty. You already know what those loves are like – you remember your dissatisfaction and your “but they love me” and your “but this is what love should feel like.” And God is not like any of those.
Toxic evangelicalism worked for me before I had more examples of Christ-like love and before I believed that I deserved better – that we all deserve better than an abusive God. It made sense to my unhealthy soul. But as I grew healthier, it made less sense. The Christ-like examples of love in my life began to surpass my conception of God’s love, and the latter had to evolve.
As I encountered more non-toxic love, and as I learned to love in more non-toxic ways, I had no choice but to detox my understanding of its Source. I’m learning to trust God, now: to ask Her for a better heart. And She surprises me every time, not with hardship or deprivation or manipulation, but with healing.
Cover image by Daniel Beltrá from Art Works for Change