In college, I struggled with depression and eventually an anxiety disorder. Depression and I had been old traveling friends since I was in junior high, but in college, it became much stronger, to the point where one night I considered suicide. I sought counseling, and blessedly found a good psychologist, who I wound up seeing for I think two years. She suggested I try envisioning my bad thoughts as coming from an evil person on my shoulder.
I did, and found that I felt better. When I felt down and self-loathing, I pretended to flick him off my shoulder like you would an insect. Just the action helped cheer me up. (Also imagining him yelling on the way down.)
For several years, the evil little man had no counterpart. (In cartoons, if you have a devil on your shoulder, there is always an angel on the other one.) There was me, of course, but I am a moral mixture, as anyone else. “But I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:23) There was nothing speaking from a position of good and cheerfulness.
Until Lasairian, a character I created for a d20 Modern role-playing game.
Lasairian becoming the voice of my conscience was not immediate. The first instance I recall of talking to him to pass the time was early in my pregnancy with Azrael. I was undergoing a procedure and the idea of chatting with my other creation was novel enough to take my mind off what was happening. It worked so well I kept doing it, thinking it would keep me entertained between game sessions.
Before long, he had taken over as the voice I associated with my conscience, a character whose central devotion was to God. Who better? To him I assigned ethics, my knowledge of God and my desire to improve the world and myself. Since then, I have had many arguments with him/me about assorted choices and actions, many of which I lose. I lose because when I argue with myself, I know I know better than whatever way I want to go. Knowing this makes my arguments weaker. Then I lose.
Why? Why all this rigmarole, this entire struggle against myself? Because I am walking, and I am not very far along yet. However, it is easier to walk now that I am not mechanical anymore.
Bear with me; I will explain.
In a letter to Rev. James MacDonald asking his opinion on reluctant compassion, I described the history of my walk with God, and how for many years it had been a half-hearted (if that) walk, done mostly out of fear and the sensation that it was something I had to do if I wanted to avoid of Hell. I called myself a mechanical Christian.
A mechanical Christian, I wrote, is someone who knows about God, but only intellectually. They do not feel God’s power in their lives; they go through the motions of religion without anything truly driving or filling them up. Instead of wearing the armor of God in Ephesians 6:11-17, they are wearing a shell.
Some differences between mechanical and armored Christians
- Mechanical Christians are at greater risk to lose their faith, break down and succumb to the world’s pressures. Armored Christians are protected. Not immune, for no one is without sin, but better protected.
- Mechanicals can and tend to be uncomfortable at church, so they do not go, and then they feel guilty, but then they continue not to go out of shame for having missed earlier. Armored Christians love church, the recharge for the week, the fellowship.
- Mechanicals do not know quite what to do or say in personal prayers, sometimes from lack of knowledge, sometimes out of fear of “asking too much.” Armored Christians lay out everything before the Lord and speak with love and confidence.
- Mechanicals hear the Great Commission, the call to spread the Word, and cringe. They do not feel capable of sharing because they do not know either. They are not certain, and they fear being backed into a theological corner. They fear misleading people because they do not feel they know where they are going or what they are doing. Armored Christians… You cannot stop them from sharing the good news.
- Mechanicals see Christian tee shirts and wish they felt confident enough to wear one. Armored Christians know those shirts should be unnecessary.
- Mechanicals, upon encountering an atheist (or say, a website like evilbible.com), get confused and upset, begin to question, and then try to stop questioning for fear of making God angry. Is their faith not strong enough; is questioning a sin? If they have questions like this, can they really call what they have faith? (Cue anxiety attack.) Armored Christians prays and questions with the hope and understanding that their questions will lead to a deeper understanding of God. They read, pray, and seek guidance.
- Mechanicals tend to get uncomfortable listening to Christian music because they feel excluded from the joy and inadequate. Armored Christians sing along joyously.
There is no shame in being a mechanical. It is lonely, though, and can be aggravating and depressing. “Why do I feel this way; why don’t I believe; what’s wrong with me; am I damned/doomed/screwed for my questions; is God upset with me?” Et cetera, et cetera. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt. Two, actually.
Growing up, I was taught that God created everything, from all the stars in their majesty down to the smallest bug, and that He loved His creations, all of them. You, me, that sparrow over there, etc. I was taught that God is always watching and is always with us, teaching and guiding, knowing our every thought and step. However, I also learned that God has a bit of a temper, and that if you disobeyed Him, to Hell with you. What with sin being a part of us we cannot overcome, disobeying Him is inevitable. This was not reassuring.
I was afraid. This leads me to one similarity between mechanical and armored Christians.
- Mechanical and armored Christians both fear God. They just go about it differently.
Dictionary.com defines fear like this:
- a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.
- a specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.
- concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone’s safety.
- reverential awe, esp. toward God.
- that which causes a feeling of being afraid; that of which a person is afraid: Cancer is a common fear.
Armored Christians fear God. They have reverential awe. God is awesome; He is the Creator; He is someone so all encompassing and enormous that fear is a perfectly reasonable response. There is nothing He cannot do, and they understand that. However, fear is not the only component of their relationship with God. There is love; there is friendship. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18
Mechanical Christians are merely afraid.
To put it another way, mechanical Christians and armored Christians split over Isaiah 40:10-11:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Mechanical Christians only know of the God in the first half of those verses, the God of might, with His recompense before him. That God demands holiness and righteousness, right living, no sinning. Armored Christians, on the other hand, know the God of both the first and second verse, the God who calls for people to live right, but will care for them and loves them.
What is a mechanical truly afraid of, with their fear of God? Specifics may vary from person to person, but I think a common one would be fear of Hell, of being cast away, of making God angry.
When you were a kid, were you afraid of making your parents angry? Were you concerned about getting in trouble? Getting in trouble was not fun then. An angry parent could yell, not let you do a fun activity, or send you to your room. If you were sent to your room, there you were, all alone, feeling bad that you made your parents so mad. You could not apologize, because you were supposed to stay in your room and think about what you had done.
Mechanicals fear being sent to their rooms for eternity. Moreover, what with sin being a part of our nature and disobedience to God thus being inevitable, as stated earlier, with every mistake they become more afraid, more convinced that they have blown it for eternity.
So what is a mechanical, or someone recently freed from their shell but not yet armored, to do?
We cannot earn salvation. We are granted it through Christ Jesus. We cannot earn it ourselves, just as we have not gained anything through our work. It is a gift. Since it comes from Christ, the thing to do is to focus on Him. We cannot earn God’s favor.
We know we are going to screw up. If anything, we know because we do. In addition, what is a common saying after we mess up? “I’ll do better next time.” That is pride, the mother of all sins, blinding us to our condition of being sinful, of being helpless ever to improve ourselves without God. We think we can do it, that we can stop screwing up, but we cannot. Even after we come to Christ and confess that we are messed up (which, Him being all-knowing, is no news to Him), we are still going to make mistakes. Fewer of them, perhaps, but mistakes will still happen.
There is grace. The trick there, however, is to not assume that grace gives us license to sin freely and be forgiven later. Take Paul here, in Romans 6:15-16:
15What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
Seek God, ask Him for help. Do not be afraid to ask for help. With Him, there are no stupid questions. You will not get in trouble for asking. Admit you are lonely and bewildered, confess your sins and ask forgiveness, and you will find in Him your greatest friend and Father.
Mechanicals also fear they do not have “enough” faith, and this creates a tragic cycle that feeds their shelled state. They are afraid of God because they do not truly know Him – Because they do not truly know Him, their faith is a strangled, fragile thing – Because their faith is fragile, they do not question for fear of making God angry – Because they do not question, and they do not learn or get closer to God.
However, the Bible contains an answer to this problem, as it does so many others.
The Healing of a Boy With a Demon
14When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15”Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
17”O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.
19Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
20He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Mustard seeds are very, very tiny! They are among the smallest seeds in existence, and yet from them spring large trees. Christ himself said if we have faith as small as a mustard seed, nothing would be impossible for us. There is no way to measure what would be the right amount or enough faith; we just need to have faith.
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
2 in you I trust, O my God.
Do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
3 No one whose hope is in you
will ever be put to shame,
but they will be put to shame
who are treacherous without excuse.
4 Show me your ways, O LORD,
teach me your paths;
5 guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
7 Remember not the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you are good, O LORD.
8 Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
9 He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way.
10 All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful
for those who keep the demands of his covenant.
11 For the sake of your name, O LORD,
forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
12 Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD ?
He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.
13 He will spend his days in prosperity,
and his descendants will inherit the land.
14 The LORD confides in those who fear him;
he makes his covenant known to them.
15 My eyes are ever on the LORD,
for only he will release my feet from the snare.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart have multiplied;
free me from my anguish.
18 Look upon my affliction and my distress
and take away all my sins.
19 See how my enemies have increased
and how fiercely they hate me!
20 Guard my life and rescue me;
let me not be put to shame,
for I take refuge in you.
21 May integrity and uprightness protect me,
because my hope is in you.
22 Redeem Israel, O God,
from all their troubles!
Coming to a deeper faith, a closer walk with God is akin to walking out of darkness and into the light. Breaking free of mechanical faith is akin to seeing a picture clearer than you did before.
The Christian life cannot be lived just by rules (Do this, do not do that), or formulas, or by seeking an experience (because they do not last, leading to an emotional, spiritual roller coaster that is not in any way true faith). By humbling ourselves, by admitting to ourselves and to God that we need Him, we can be free of our shells. With our little mustard seeds, we can fear the Lord, but no longer be afraid.