Free to Relax

Photo by Katherine Moran on Unsplash

“Faith is what enables me to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than I could imagine.”
- James Alison

Christianity used to stress me out. And when I say ‘used to’, I mean, up until about a year ago.

When I was a kid and I used to look up at Jesus hanging on the crucifix at church, I’d feel so guilty. He looked so sad. So disappointed. So bitter, even. Like, how could I ever make it right? I felt I had nothing to do with his death, but I also felt complicit. The message I got in the Roman church was that I needed to be fixed in this life so that I could sit before Jesus and his angry dad on judgment day.

It was too much. I didn’t know how to handle it. Eventually, I wandered away from Christianity for various reasons and got into other things. Now that I’m back, I’m so fortunate to have been introduced to good, healthy, and wise theology.

I want to bear witness to what this Christian faith has revealed to me this last year (yep, I’ve been a tried and true practicing ‘Christian’ for a year), in a small(ish) digital nutshell.

James Alison — one of my favorite theologians — nails this concept in his book (which I’m geeking out on now), Jesus, the Forgiving Victim.

We are all born into a world created by the ‘social other’. This world is already set in place through generations of humans laying roads, constructing languages, figuring out how to measure things, setting up systems, voting, not voting, waring, peacing, and making an infinite amount of choices on a daily basis for gajillions (or so) of years. When you see how powerful this ‘social other’ is, you see how little we have to do with our lives (I truly don’t understand how I was an individualist for so long.)

This ‘social other’ gives us our identity. There’s an element of love and stability in this — maybe even a slight majority of it, depending on where and when you happened to pop out of the womb. But it’s not reliable. It’s so easy to depend entirely on the social other for approval, for identity, a sense of who we are and whether we’re ‘worthy’ or not. This is when we lose ourselves in trying to win or keep approval from people. Sometimes, the approval comes and everything seems fine. Until things go awry.

It’s a very fleeting and unreliable beast, this social other.

And then comes Jesus, who nudges us into daring to let go of our need to get a quick fix of immediate approval from this ‘social other’, but rather from this God (whom he personifies), which is not really a God like the gods who came before. Alison describes this god as a sort of ‘Other other’ not part of or in rivalry with any part of the ‘social other’. This god expects nothing from us and can only love us.

Jesus empowers us to discover ourselves as being liked and loved into being by someone who has no ulterior motive — someone who doesn’t hold the same wavering tendencies as so much of the social other does.

As Alison so lucidly states,

Faith is what enables us to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than we could ever imagine. One of the odd consequences of this is that, as it happens in life, it ceases to become so important to be good.

And this is something unique about Christianity compared with other world religions… Its starting point is that we’re kind of a beautiful trainwreck. We don’t start nice and tidy and then screw up. We start screwed up and as we find ourselves loved, so we are able to let go of our attempts at being good, which are usually dangerous and hurtful.

In fact, as we find ourselves loved, we’re all the more able to give up trying to manipulate people into loving us. This is when we also find ourselves able to do genuinely good things out of soft-hearted generosity rather than out of a need to prove or justify ourselves.

I just love that.

This is the promise that we are to trust as Christians: that we are loved more than we’ll ever know by the divine. This love came at the beginning of creation, long before our human fall, and will have the last word. We are freely forgiven, no matter how much we muck things up. God’s love redeems us. We are reborn in it. It revives our hardened hearts and sets us free to love without obligation.

I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this several times a day — and even then, it often doesn’t compute. But when it does, I see why this Jesus thing is still around today. And if they’d told me this when I was younger, I may have never left:)

Yes, I’m a wreck. Yes, I strive for your approval. Yes, I’d do anything to get you to share this post to all of your friends. And this is super stressful.

But in Jesus, I am free of it. I can relax into the love that he personifies — the love inherent in the ground of my being itself.