Nicole Johnson considers the importance and challenge of seeking the truth of what we believe.
Whack-a-Mole. Do you know the game? That is what I was picturing. Except in this instance (and what I imagine will come as a bit of a surprise) the “moles” were innocent attendees at a large day-long women’s retreat. I was standing in the back of the cavernous venue, having just listened to the final talk of the day. The band took the stage, the music started, and as if I had dropped a quarter into the machine to start the game, hands took to the air in response to the worship music now filling the room. Being the top-notch Catholic I am (cue eye roll and a few winks) I pictured myself holding the oversized mallet (cushy, mind you. I’m not out to hurt anyone.) and reaching out into the crowd to “whack” the hands in the air.
It wasn’t that they were blocking my view. It’s that, in a way, they were blocking my ability to fully absorb the beauty of the music, and the prayerful words that were supposed to be seeping into my soul. I have zero right to judge the sincerity of these women; it really had nothing to do with them but everything to do with me. The norm for us older cradle Catholics is more of a conservative approach, if you will, to worship. We are great at standing, kneeling, and sitting quietly at attention; not so great, or perhaps comfortable is a better word, at the more open and expressive forms of prayer. So there we were: me and my posse all standing among the larger charismatic crew, with our hands folded neatly in front of us. It wouldn’t have been any more clear that we were the Catholics in the room if we had a neon sign over our heads.
I was reminded of this experience after reading the very honest and transparent post from the lead singer of Hawk Nelson, Jonathan Steingard, who recently made the public announcement that he no longer believes in God. When I first saw this headline during my morning news scroll, I immediately thought, “Oh, no, no, no. This is the last thing our dying breed needs. This is just the kind of fuel people will use to justify their argument for not holding on to the faith.” After reading his post in its entirety, however, while I may not personally agree with his conclusion, I do feel empathetic to his inner conflict and respectful of his careful discernment.
I am going to take immense liberty here to summarize a few points I took from his post describing how he had come to this decision. From someone who has just arrived on the scene and taken a small peek at this man’s life, I wonder if perhaps he’s found himself proclaiming love for a God he has never really had the chance to personally build a friendship with. It’s that age-old argument we parents struggle with in raising our children. How much do we push our faith on them? What is fair to ask them to believe when they have had such limited life experience for their beliefs to be rooted in?
The memory of Jonathan’s childhood that stuck out to me the most was his experience at a retreat in being asked to sign a pledge to “date” Jesus for a year. I think any one of us can empathize with the enormity of that request on a young teen just trying to find his way. Please understand I am in no way claiming his parents did anything wrong here. We can’t expect our children to become friends with someone we never introduce them to. It does force me to reflect on my own parenting and how critical it is to balance my deep desire for my children to know and love God with the reality that it has to be their own personal journey.
The second conflict of his that I was struck by is his question about worshiping a God that allowed so many terrible tragedies spoken of in the Old Testament; a God whose actions were in direct opposition to the all-loving Father we know Jesus to be. My own son said almost these exact same words to me when I once asked him about his belief in God. If anything, I think this line of questioning reveals innocent hearts that know right from wrong, are entirely empathetic to the plight of those in the Old Testament, and just want to be sure they are choosing to follow a just and loving Father.
I guess what I’m left with is not a defense of Jonathan’s position, but a certain level of respect for his courage to strip away what he has been told to believe in an effort to, hopefully, meet God on his own terms. Perhaps living what feels like a lie is more painful than the journey of finding one’s own personal truth.
After 44 years of living my Catholic faith, I’ve learned that this journey can’t be reduced to some strange sort of competition where I’m striving to be as faithful and devout as my neighbor because that is where I think I should be. There have been one too many times in my life when I’ve felt jealous of another’s faith or felt like their relationship with God was somehow better than mine. I’ve been to Christian concerts where I was basically told my level of faith could best be proven if I released all inhibition and raised my hands high in the air in praise. I’m all for charismatic practice as long as it’s rooted in a personal relationship and not in the feeling of needing to show a level of faith on the outside that you aren’t necessarily feeling on the inside. I found it interesting that Jonathan said “praying in public always felt like some kind of weird performance art.” If we truly understand who God is, we know that there are no hierarchies in His heart. He loves every single one of us the same, hands high in the air or stuck in our pockets.
In the spirit of self-exposing honesty, Jonathan’s post has caused me to really stop and think about my own faith and how much my innermost feelings line up with my proclaimed beliefs. This past week, after several months in quarantine, there were two big dates on my calendar. One was the opportunity to receive Communion. The other was a hair appointment for a cut and color. Guess which one I was more excited about? I get it. It’s bad; awful in fact. But perhaps even worse is not acknowledging I’ve really got some work to do.
If you are not familiar with it, Whack-a-Mole is an arcade-style game with twelve or so holes from which moles pop up at random. The goal is to use your mallet to hit as many moles as possible before they disappear again. In the strangest way, this seems like such a perfect analogy to those stumbling blocks we all run into on our own journeys. These questions pop up, moments of discomfort when what you’ve been taught doesn’t line up with what you feel.
Living your life with a mallet in your hand to keep the questions and doubts hidden will, in my opinion, rob you of the true and honest relationship God wants to have with each one of us.
As Jonathan’s band mates said in their response to his post, “The truth doesn’t change just because we question it. We should encourage and challenge one another in our faith, seeking truth.” I was so happy to read that Jonathan’s bandmates are not angry with him but quite the opposite, are committed to pray for him and his family. And I love that Jonathan admits he remains “open to the idea that God is there” and would “prefer it if he was.” I have no doubt God will show him, in a patient and loving way, that He most certainly is.
Copyright 2020 Nicole Johnson
Image: Mark Angelo (2018), Pexels
About the Author
Nicole and her husband have been blessed with three children. Nicole markets the mission of a non-profit that provides early therapies for children diagnosed with developmental delays. She and her husband serve on the board for the New England chapter of Bethany Christian Services, a national adoption agency. Nicole's family advocates for life, adoption, and embracing children with special needs. Visit her blog at Joy in the Journey.