“Yeah, but you’re just inherently good, and I’m just, well, not.” We’re sitting on a hotel bed with a slightly crooked gilded portrait of an angelic Jesus looking down upon us as we discuss why I am a Christian and she, one of my travel companions, is not. I smile at this notion that I am inherently good. Me, the girl who in the ninth grade downed a bottle of tequila and was rushed to the hospital, where I proceeded to flirt with the male nurses and insist that my mom was a lesbian. Me, who in the fifth grade became so angry with my brother that I took my long nails and scratched bloody lines down his back, and then was proud that I had made my big brother cry. Looking at my past and my present, I can confidently say that I am not predisposed to being a good person. This ‘goodness’ my friend refers to does not come from a biological (psychological? behavioural?) inclination within me, but from a God who is all that is good, pure, and perfect. It is not that I am good, but rather that I acknowledge just how bad I am.
I have been a practicing Christian for all of my adult life. I am often asked why I believe; there is no straightforward answer I can give. It is not just a mental knowledge, or a spiritual awareness. I think C.S. Lewis put it best when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
* * *
My parents became Christians in their late teens and early twenties and were, for a time, distanced from their families for their seemingly strange beliefs. I, however, have always known who God was and that Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. I also grew up in a culture where this was common knowledge. When my family and I moved from England to Texas, we also moved into a very Christian environment, where almost everyone went to church at least on Christmas and Easter. My childhood was full of vacation Bible schools, seven-foot papier-maché rocks representing Jesus’ tomb, Veggie Tales, and Bible verse raps. During that time, I came to understand how just and loving this God was that my pastors kept talking about, and believed in his existence. I was baptized when I was twelve and from there began to study the Bible to understand what being a Christian really meant.
My view of Christianity, however, drastically changed when I entered the ninth grade. High school is a big transition for anyone. Entering high school, I became more self-conscious and hyper-aware of the actions of those around me. I began to see Christianity – and the Bible – as a set of rules preventing me from having fun. I wanted freedom, and so I searched for it. I thought I found freedom in the flickering light of a cigarette, or the green-tinted eyes of a grade 11 guy, or the white lie I told my parents when they asked where I was going that night. If freedom was in these things, I thought, then why did I feel in myself more of a void than I had before?
These feelings I had been grappling with all came to a head when I went to the hospital for drinking nine times the legal limit of alcohol. I had been hanging out with a group of my friends and with an older guy, whom I had a crush on. Perhaps to impress him, or perhaps because I had no idea how alcohol worked, I ended up drinking far more than I should have. I remember waking up in my bed in mismatched pajamas and having to peel the electrode pads off of my chest. I had no idea what had happened until my parents filled me in, and it dawned on me what rebelling against my faith had led to. I hadn’t found freedom; I had merely replaced God with a different master: man. Or, well, high school boys.
A few months after the electropads my dad was offered a job in Canada, and we left the Lone Star State for Oakville, Ontario. Ontario was far different from the snug Christian environment I had just come from. Outside my church congregation, none of my friends were Christians, so all of my beliefs and the actions that reflected those beliefs were fairly alien to them. I remember my friend asking me one day, in all seriousness, if I was a lesbian. She could not understand why I didn’t date guys, and so she immediately presumed that I wasn’t attracted to them. These types of instances helped me evaluate the reasons behind my actions. While those experiences ultimately strengthened my faith, I felt isolated from those around me. I also discovered a need to constantly work at ‘being good.’ I followed the commandments: honoured my parents, tried not to lie, attempted to love those around me, but I failed time and time again. I placed an immense amount of pressure on myself to be perfect, forgetting that I was not and could never be.
* * *
The transition from Ontario to Quebec, the suburbs to the city, home to residence was difficult. While Oakville was not full of Christians, Montreal, I found, had even less. Even though Quebec is a province of cathedrals, only 2 per cent of Montrealers profess to having a personal relationship with Jesus (Catholics are excluded from this study, considering they do not personally connect with Jesus, nor share the gospel with other denominations). Despite the province’s strong Catholic history, many families do not fit the nuclear mould. Quebec has the highest percentage of common-law partnerships and the second highest percentage of same-sex relationships in Canada. Living in this city, full of its own political self-expression and ideals, had a profound effect on me.
While wrestling with what I believed, I lacked the guidance of fellow believers. Even though I did not have many Christian friends in Oakville, I had had supportive Christian parents. Amidst my friends’ hurtful words and my own insecurities, my parents had always encouraged me to be true to myself and to love those around me even when I felt like I couldn’t anymore. It was around this time that I met a few people from a Fish Frosh event that attended Providence church. Through them, I started attending a bible study after feeling more of a desire for spiritual connection. At Providence, I entered a small – the group consisted of around forty people – yet mighty community of other like-minded believers who showed me more love than I thought was possible outside of a biological family.
There, I met friends like Francesca Mitchell and Stephanie Adjemian. Like me, Francesca was hesitant about her beliefs. “If I’m honest, coming to university as a Christian was a bit of a challenge at first,” Francesca told me. “I was anxious to make a good impression on my flatmates, so I ended up partying pretty hard, and I had to work hard to ensure that God didn’t become an afterthought. Truth be told, I wasn’t always successful.” Like it was for me, the so-called freedom Francesca sought only led to dissatisfaction. Referring to the process of finding community in the church, Francesca said: “For someone like me, who doesn’t come from a Christian family background, [it] has really been amazing.”
Before leaving for university, I remember earnestly praying that God would provide me with Christian friends who would encourage me in my faith. At the beginning of university, however, I did not have that physical support system. Uncertain of who I was or who I wanted to be, I signed up for both Arts Frosh and Fish Frosh, the 115-person Christian frosh at McGill, in an attempt to try it all. My Frosh week involved more pub-crawls, power hours, and hitchhiking rides from strangers claiming to be the owners of 747 (in hindsight, not my brightest idea), than Fish Frosh activities. Stephanie was also attempting to figure out her own belief system during Frosh as well. “In university, I was away from the church I grew up in, and I was no longer living with my parents. I felt a responsibility to figure out the particulars of how I believe what I believe and underwent a pretty radical transformation in the way I think, theologically speaking,” she says.
In those first couple of years, I finally realized just how ‘bad’ I was. I often hear people say, “Well, I’m no Hitler, so I don’t see how I could possibly go to hell,” as an excuse for their actions. We often socially compare ourselves to feel better and ignore the vileness within. I had been particularly guilty of that: believing that because I had not killed someone, or robbed someone, I was a good person. On examination of my heart and my mind, I found that I was not as nice as I would have liked to believe. I was proud, unloving, and selfish, and, even worse, at least to me, I could do nothing to change it. I recognized at that moment a need for a saviour. I rediscovered what it meant to have a Heavenly Father. I could finally put my trust and hope in someone who loved me unconditionally and perfectly. The rules that had once felt like prison bars became gifts of guidance given by one who cared for me better than anyone else. When I recognized the bad in me, I could see so much clearer the good that is God.
* * *
The belief that Christians are naturally good people, or that all Christians judge others, is a false yet permeating belief in society. I see this misconception in the Quinn Fabrays, Ned Flanders, and Hilary Fayes of modern media. This ‘holier than thou’ attitude, however, goes against everything that Jesus said and did while on earth. Jesus did not come to earth on thundering clouds and take up residence in an ivory tower. He was brought into this world by a teenage girl, engaged to a carpenter, in a barn. He was laid in an animal trough and swaddled in ragged cloth. His birth was indicative of the life that he was to lead, one of humility and servitude. He ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors and mingled with the blind, lame, and lepers. He was despised by those he tried to love. His most humble act came, however, when he was publically nailed to a cross at the request of those he was dying for. Naked and starved, he cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In that moment, Jesus atoned for all my badness: my pride, ambition, selfishness, conceit, hate, and reconciled man to God. Blameless as he was, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice for all of our sins.
I am a Christian. I’m also a sister, a Victorian novel enthusiast, and a clean roommate. I’m also a control-freak, bad at keeping in touch, and guard my feelings for fear of getting hurt. I’m just like you.
I look at my friend as we sit in a hotel in Rome and say, “I’m not good, but God, He’s great.”
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” –Romans 3:23-24