Some of you don’t know that I used to practice rigid Christianity. I was a jimjim Christian who prayed for two hours everyday and would dry fast till sores formed in my mouth. I even went through a phase of covering my hair. Sleep didn’t come easy because I ate infrequently. My mother pleaded with me to have meals. I prayed in the toilet, because when you live with seven other people, there are limitations to privacy.
One day, I just stopped. I think there’s something in me that’s programmed against suffering. Anyway, I’d had enough of being afraid of God. I didn’t want a “God” anymore. I wanted a friend. A person.
I desired a relationship and wasn’t looking forward to a lifetime of asceticism.
Today, I was reminded of that rigid Christianity phase of my life.
You see, a few years ago, a minister was invited to speak in my church. It was a famous faith preacher that I grew up knowing. My skin crawled as he started to reel out the formulaic Christian life I rejected, years ago. It was like someone was attempting to remind me of an abusive relationship I had been delivered from. No way, José!
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a must-read for every Christian. It documents the constant tension between grace and works; between relationship-based and rules-based rigid Christianity.
Relationship-based Christianity vs. rigid Christianity.
Relationship-based Christianity is firmly enshrined in the principle of free-will and personal expression. It’s impossible to have a thriving relationship without these things. Many times, we feel unworthy as Christians, because we are not doing things the way other Christians do them. We don’t like what they like and have our own style. In a communal society like Nigeria, things can be tough. We have a deep seated mistrust of those who don’t toe the group line; who don’t conform. But I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be different.
There is communal worship and then, there is the more crucial personal relationship with God. Everything flows from there.
In that respect, God is truly omnipresent. As he’s engaging in an independent relationship with you, he’s also having a simultaneous one with someone else in Ukraine or Uganda. Your relationship with him is unique, beautiful, glorious and ever evolving.
Goodbye to my jimjim days of rigid Christianity.
I no longer pray for two hours at a stretch, but I pray all the time and don’t notice. Somehow, I don’t appreciate the time I spend praying because it doesn’t look like prayer. I’m always talking to God and he’s a big part of my day. We have morning and evening check-ins where I’m genuinely interested in what he’s working on and what’s important to him at the moment. And then, there’s my weekly business meeting with him, which ironically is what others call Prayer of Petition.
I really like my current walk with God and would never swap it for scripted religion. It somehow works for me and that’s fine by me.
I would like to add a few extra thoughts.
Two critical features of relationship are free-will and independent expression. Until you intimately understand this, you will never appreciate the diversity of Christianity.
Christianity is God having independent retail relationships with individuals within a larger familial structure. Many do not like this because it strips them of control over others. But for instance, no matter how much you love children or seek to protect them, you cannot control them indefinitely. They must grow up. Control is a misnomer for Christian leaders. They are meant to be stewards while the Chief Shepherd is Christ.
Christianity must be experienced.
Christianity can’t be so finely curated or the diet so carefully selected, that individuals fail to have personal relationships with Christ. Sometimes, our fear of error speaks to a lack of trust in the Chief Shepherd or in his children. Children must be allowed to make their own mistakes so they can learn.
On the issue of prayer.
I have found that some Christians fail to grasp the place of personality in prayer. So, we associate thunderous vocalizations with efficacy of prayer. If it’s not emotional, it can’t be sincere. If it’s not lengthy, it can’t be serious.
The more wicked among us secretly wish for evil to befall some Christians, so they will learn how to do “spiritual warfare” properly. And so, we say, “When trouble comes, they will know how to shout and deal with the devil.” They forget that just like with sex, some scream and shout their orgasm. Others come quietly. Some need massive waves to generate energy. Others need a small amount of uranium.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said mustard seed sized faith is enough. Some choose to fast every week. Others celebrate the bridegroom always, and are instructed on when to abstain. In the same way, some come to God with long-winded speeches. Others simply speak a word.
Individual expressions of faith are beautiful and I am in awe of the wonder of them.
While God calls us to a New Testament characterized by grace, if you choose works over grace, you will receive answers to your prayers notwithstanding. This is because of the principle of faith.
Remember, Jesus spoke about the man who speaks to the mountain without doubt. The mountain will move even if the man lacks love and compassion. Demons will still tremble at his word. So, if your preference is works, you will find the prosperity and deliverance that you seek. But you might miss out on the one thing that matters most – intimacy with God. And like the story of the sheep and the goats, you may do those things in Jesus’ name, but he won’t know you. It’s like the corporate executive who achieves his/her ambition but loses their relationship with a spouse.
There are those who spend many days and much effort wrestling for answered prayers. Then, there are the unassuming sons who in utmost trust, ask their Father for help. There is Elisha and there is David. There is Paul and there is John the beloved. These are different biblical archetypes. Again, independent relationships and expressions but one body.
In a relationship, you are free to explore. Therefore, I have a reservation about the use of the word, “balance” in Christian conversations. While I understand it academically, and how it can be applied when advising young Christians about error; I am reserved because it is sometimes used to strip people of colour. It is used to fit people into boxes. You can ask questions but not too many, so you are not mistaken for a heretic or backslider. But a curious question: How many people deemed David mad for eating the shewbread and for breaking protocol?
Culture and religion.
If one day, you realized you could subdue your flesh without fasting, would you still consider fasting necessary?
I wonder what greater works than Jesus we are supposed to do, if we are still required to leak pools of blood in agonizing prayer? I also wonder about culture – how many things we consider normal simply because we have imported them into religion from our culture.
In Nigeria for instance, the Babalawo asks people to look for white cats & spotted rams or to sleep with the demented. The act of doing those difficult things creates the faith required for the Babalawo’s juju to work. Those things are nothing in themselves.
For the one who finds faith in a person – Jesus – and in a living, thriving, trusting relationship, would they need tokens and extreme processes to produce the same faith? I think not.
Perhaps the real lesson is to understand why we do the things we do in Christianity, instead of mindlessly doing them. To see everything as an extension of relationship and not just as work to be done so we can earn approval or stave off judgment.
For more, please read When God does not answer prayers.