Evangelical Christianity has a language. You might speak it yourself, or maybe you’ve at least heard it. But we tend to say things with a kind of “I’m in the club” jargon that helps us all know what we are talking about. This is lingo like “born again”, “once saved, always saved”, and “speaking in tongues”, all the way down to the more hurtful “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and “false believer”. Yet I still include myself in this subset of Jesus-following individuals because even though I don’t consider myself Evangelical anymore, this language is the language of my interior mind. This is my self-talk, and it holds the trappings of a theology that I have outwardly deserted but is still my internal knee-jerk. And the phrase I want to explore today is the phrase “fallen away”.
Let me tell you a story, and one that I’m embarrassed of now as a married, thirty-something mom. You know…someone with a little perspective. Lord bless and forgive my eager little heart. About ten or elevenish years ago I was in seminary and interning at my family church under our small groups and community life pastor. We were trying to build a community of college-aged peoples around the idea of living a life of Christian purity in a secular world. I was newly married so suddenly sex was something I was “allowed” to experience and enjoy, but I was supposed to talk to these young adults like I had gone through my college years in the same way that they were being told to- chaste and “pure”. Spoiler alert- I hadn’t. The idea was good and well-intended. The concept was a lovely ideal. But what I can plainly see now is that college groups like that won’t usually get any sense of true community and trust because half of the people in the group are having sex and don’t have the safe space to talk about it. Case in point, there was a young gal in her early twenties, active in the church and beautifully confident and self-composed. She was also pregnant. She was keeping the baby, her family was supportive, and her boyfriend was going to stick around too. Today me can look back at the way I saw her and treated her and have complete clarity about the way she received my intentions. And I groan at my overzealous, eager to “be there for her” self. I invited her to have lunch with me, invited her to our small group meetings, hangouts, coffee dates, etc. And she accepted sometimes! And really, she must have thought that I was the lonely one and wanted someone to hang out with, because here’s the deal. She was OK. There was no crying on my shoulder or someone else’s shoulder within our community that she was scared or that she had done the wrong thing. There were no doubts regarding her worth, her goodness, or her salvation. She was a woman in her early twenties expecting a baby with a great support system. Her life was about to change dramatically, and chatting with us about not drinking at parties and saving sex for marriage just wasn’t something that she was interested in. Even beyond that, her relationship with God was not suffering. And believe me, I gave her plenty of opportunity to vent or divulge her insecurities. I thought I was so stealthy digging into her thoughts and feelings expecting this hidden shame to flow forth. It never did. And I did not get it. So, I passed her off as emotionally closed off and stopped treating her like a research project and just let her be. We still hung out sometimes and it was nice, but I kept experiencing this cloying anxiety that I hadn’t done my job with her, and I made all sorts of excuses to my elders when her behavior didn’t match what we had all been expecting. Wasn’t she the fallen away young woman that the Church was supposed to be helping? Why hadn’t all of my love and support and Jesus talk elicited her repentance and a super stage-worthy testimony? 11 years later I can tell you why. Her theology was sound! Probably more sound than mine at the time. She should have been leading me. Heck, she should have been leading all of us. She actually understood the concepts of Grace and His yolk is easy. There was no anxiety about where she stood with God because she believed when she was told that He loved her plainly and without statutes. And I recognize now that there was a crap ton of anxiety within that relationship…but it was residing within me. There I was a married woman with a heaping, steaming pile of insecurity around sex because I had always ALWAYS been taught nothing more than its shame. I wasn’t the one who had fallen away from any outside perspective, but as far as an intimate walk with Jesus goes, it was all smoke and mirrors. And my sweet little pregnant out of wedlock friend, the one we had all labeled, was being held sweetly and securely within her Heavenly Father’s love.
It feels so much safer to look at a person’s actions and assume we know what their spiritual life is like than to correctly acknowledge that we have no idea. Sure there is the idea that a person who is enmeshed in the Spirit will “bear good fruit”…Christianese for being a person whose actions in the world and interactions with people are reflective of a pure heart and a healthy soul. These are the people you love to be around and who leave places better just by being there. But I have also known people who volunteer and speak kind words and make wise choices and don’t actually have any spiritual life whatsoever. I’ve also known people wrestling through addiction or pregnant outside of wedlock that have deeply intimate relationships with God. I know gay believers, science-accepting evolutionist believers, marijuana-smoking believers. All folks just 12 years ago I would have cast lots for and dubbed “the fallen” I now withhold any and all religious judgment for until I actually know the state of their individual hearts. Just because I felt like a harlot heathen when I was having sex with my committed boyfriend in college doesn’t mean that God judged me. It means I judged me. I stood in the way of my own walk with Jesus because I substituted His voice for that of my youth pastor. I assumed that I was the fallen away, not worthy of a Heavenly crown until I stopped the “sinful” act of sleeping with my now husband. Consensual, informed, respectful sex. Exactly what my body was created for, and in a completely different place, time, and culture than the Bible was written. I can chuckle at it now, but at the same time I feel the despair of a young woman who truly believed that she was dirty. Damaged goods. Fallen. Oh, dear Church. We have to do better. We have to love better. Working and doing life with Jesus-followers now feels a lot like damage-control. Consoling hearts broken by well-meaning Christians and adjusting theological framework so that it does not do more harm than good. I want more for our legacy. There is so much more of Jesus to share, but first we have to bind the wounds and bring the God-Man into our pain and our wrestling. We have to show people that they are loved as they are, redeemed as they are, holy even in the colors of their anxiety and the weirdness of their quandaries. That ragamuffin misfits who cuss and fall down and have sex and birth babies and experience lust and despair are the very ones who He died for. And it is NOT because we are so repulsive that we needed saving, but because we were created with flaws lovely enough and a humanity so real and true that God couldn’t be without us for all of eternity. So the fullness of God in the wrappings of blood and sweat came. He chose us. He still chooses all of us. He wants all of us. Falling, failing, meaning well and loving deep, but never fallen away.