The Religion Chronicles—Part 1: A for Asceticism

When people ask me when I became a Christian, I say it could have been any one of three moments.

The first of these came the summer of my sixth year. I’d rocked a small role in the Easter play several months prior, so when the pastor asked a series of questions about why Jesus came to earth, what he did here and how he died I scanned my memory for details from the play. I correctly remembered the answers, and went forward at the end of the altar call.

I got baptised shortly thereafter and I’d considered myself a Christian from then on, but by the end of high school I held warped views about what it meant to be a Christian. You could call those years my culturally Christian phase. I didn’t own my faith, though I did use the label. It felt like religion surrounded me, and I participated in it, but it was not yet personal.

I arrived at college thinking very highly of myself. I had grown up in the kind of black church you see on TV—big hats, bright suits, organs that rev up Pastor like the charge at a ball game, impassioned interjections from congregants, folks speaking in tongues. Church was my third home, behind my actual home and school, and my experience there affected me in both good and bad ways. While many other kids at church did drugs, went clubbing and got drunk underage, became teen mothers, cursed, cheated in school, or were behavioral problems, the Akins girls did none of that. A lot of what I heard at my baptist church focused on behavior, especially what not to do. I came away thinking myself practically perfect. I equated sin mostly with specific behaviors—notably absent from the list were my own vices like gossip—and came to think that Jesus’ death had been more like insurance, covering both those who would need it and those who wouldn’t. I bet you could guess on which side I thought I stood.

One crisp fall morning my freshman year I stood waiting for the bus to class. I overheard some girls nearby laughing about how wasted they had gotten at a party over the weekend. Though I gave no voice to it, my chest swelled with feelings of superiority. I would not be “that kind” of person. Indeed, college came and went without my getting drunk or even consuming a single drop of alcohol. I also successfully avoided wild parties, drugs, and sex. As far as I knew, I had reason to feel pretty good about myself.

Some time my first semester, I checked out a Christian group on campus. I didn’t regularly attend church and wanted to do something, so I went. I left intrigued. I had thought only old people were truly religious. Young people didn’t get excited about Jesus and they certainly didn’t lift their hands in worship. These young people did both. I had to know more.

I hung around, joining a Bible study and getting mentored by a woman on staff, making friends. When the time came, I signed up for their winter conference. The week after I returned from the conference was a faith-defining one. This is the second contender for “when I became a Christian.” Holed up in my bedroom, I read Mere Christianity and Ephesians. Those books changed my heart.

You may be tempted—as was I— to think a positive takeaway from my upbringing in the church was my ability to follow rules, especially ones about what not to do. Now I see that my knowledge of and love for the Bible has served me far better.

My penchant for asceticism was and remains one of the most crippling obstacles to my following God. My ability to appear good and the idolatrous false sense of security it nurtured in many ways kept me from Jesus. The ability to follow rules was an advantage only insofar as you were motivated by the right things toward the right ends; following them without following God put me in the same position as the Pharisees—faultless in obedience to the law yet completely missing Jesus.

C.S. Lewis’ words in the chapter of Mere Christianity on pride pierced my smug sense of self-righteousness. He explained:

“It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

Ephesians was similarly clear: I could not distance myself from those once deserving wrath and Jesus wasn’t like insurance that I may never need to use. He was indisputably necessary. He was for me specifically. Pride, judgment and excessive dependence on obeying the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law offended God—even if it brought about stuff that looked good and sparkly on the surface. The Pharisees, after all, were called whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, dead on the inside. Deep in my heart reigned these most pernicious of sins. Ephesians assured me that if I were the only person on earth and had managed to only ever fail to live up to God’s standard once—mind you, in reality my failings were many—that Jesus would have both needed to and gladly made the same sacrifice for me only and for my one shortfall. With these revelations, I went from being a cultural Christian to being a well-meaning one. My faith became personal.

My sophomore year, I became a Bible study junkie. I built a small library of lexicons, concordances, different versions of the Bible, commentaries and books on theology—I even wrote scripture upside down on my thighs in the morning so when I went to the bathroom throughout the day I could meditate on it even then. What a weirdo! I also liked to fast. My mom jokingly wondered if I ever ate because every time I came home I’d be fasting for this thing or that.

That summer I planned to go on a mission trip. I know missions get a bad rap—”keep your religion to yourself!”—and my short answer to this is that if Christians really believe Jesus is who he says he is and offers what he says he does, how could we not want others to know him? This impulse is common among the religious and non-religious. When you find something good, you want to tell people about it. Anytime you’ve ever recommended something to someone or given a positive review of a product, you’ve essentially evangelized as well.

Another way I think about what motivates Christians to share their faith is through the lens of a spectrum. We all acknowledge there are sound frequencies we cannot hear and colors that we cannot see. Take the visible and invisible color spectrums:

“Although our visual system can paint a vibrant portrait of the world, its palette of colors is actually quite limited, as we only see between 390 to 750 nm of the full electromagnetic spectrum while the remaining trillion wavelengths escape our view. Within these wavelengths exists other colors, normally invisible to the human eye. However, birds, bees, and some humans retinal genetic mutations, can see nature’s other shades.” 

There are depths of love, joy, peace, freedom, and forgiveness I believe only the Christian can experience. Just like the Giver, from the book by that title, sought to show Jonas existence as it was intended to be experienced before his townsmen devised quick fixes for brokenness, this is also the goal when Christians share their faith. I believed, and still do to this day, that at its core, missions are a loving enterprise while still acknowledging that a lot of bad has been done in Jesus’ name.

Crammed in a house on a beach with 40+ other college students, l got a job along the boardwalk. Most of the people there that summer were from the midwest—Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska. I made many good friends and learned about life in a different part of the country. In the evenings when we weren’t at work we would approach people on the beach to talk to about Jesus, have Bible studies and participate in other activities at the house. On Sundays we attended church together.

A couple of guys from my college also went that summer. One of them was Greg. I didn’t know him well at the start, but since we both worked at Mickey D’s and were from the same school we became friends. Greg was my type at the time—tall, smart, strong Christian, outgoing, white—and over the summer I started to like him but assumed, as I usually do, it was not mutual. That summer, after some personal reflection I realized that I was kind of obsessed with men and drew significance from being in a romantic relationship (this despite never having been in one, so…insignificance it was). I made a vow to God of a year doing singleness the right way: undistracted, focused on ministry and without all the self-pity.

I’d enjoyed my experience so much over the summer that early junior year I began thinking about doing ministry full time after graduation. I also looked for ways to lead on campus and finally joined a church. A few weeks into the semester—and to my complete surprise—Greg asked me to be his girlfriend. I could not have been more conflicted sitting across the table from this wonderful guy in an ice cream shop after he’d come to my orchestra concert because I remembered that vow. I requested the weekend to think about it and returned with the ridiculous request that he ask me again a year later.

He agreed and I really did focus on ministry that year. I began singing on the worship team at my church; I continued to lead a small group; I started meeting regularly with five younger students to teach them how to grow in their faith; I’d get up at 4:30 in the morning to pray for classmates, friends, family, the world, and myself and to read my Bible; I was at church for every service; and in the spring when it came time to select the new student leaders of my campus ministry, I was elected vice president (and Greg president). My church was very missions-focused and that year I devoured every missionary biography I could find. “How cool would it be to do that?” I thought.

There was no greater delight for me during that time than the Bible. I think I read the whole thing over six or seven months. My Bible almost looked like a child’s coloring book, I’d marked it up so much. I was a prolific underliner and notetaker and nearly every page bore some kind of evidence of being read and pondered over, a practice which, I confess looking back, at some point became less about what I was reading and more for show. Pride was an insatiable and sneaky beast, I tell ya.

That year, Greg and I had gotten to know each other better through leading in campus ministry and attending church together and after I took my last final he asked me again to be his girlfriend and this time, with no hesitation, I agreed.

We were very spiritually compatible: we shared ideas about intimacy before marriage—we didn’t kiss over the four months we dated, we got stupid excited about memorizing Ephesians together, and we both loved to serve. When I asked him what he liked about me he said that aside from my being “really, really, ridiculously good looking” that I knew the Bible better than any woman he knew. In a way, it felt like a fairytale Christian relationship, certainly by my standards at least, and I imagined God giving us his stamp of approval. I lived for those stamps.

Greg carries not only the distinction of being my first (and only) boyfriend, but also of introducing me to China. He had begun to talk to me our junior year about China, despite my calling it the instant conversation killer. Let’s get dinner! Chinese food. Let’s watch a movie! Chinese film. Let’s go to the zoo! Pandas. I tell you, I hated hearing about that place something fierce!

The summer we dated, I bought him “Operation China,” a book about the different ethnic groups in China and the spread of Christianity throughout the country. We were long distance then and rather than send the book to him, I held on to it to give to him the next time we saw each other. I made the life-changing mistake, however, of reading it first. That’s when I felt the first inner nudge toward China. I didn’t admit that to him because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that maybe all his persuading had worked, but on my own I began looking into it.

A month after school started, three days after my 21st birthday, Greg broke up with me. I put away my thoughts about going to China. If Greg was going to be there, I wanted no part of it—even if there were 1.3 billion other people there and there was more than enough land to share. I remained strangely unaffected by the breakup for months afterwards but finally over Christmas break I cracked.

I had gone to Oregon to check out Wycliffe Bible Translators over winter break and, in the greatest of all ironies, decided there was no way I liked languages enough to want to spend the rest of my life studying and working with them—but decided to apply anyway. The Sunday before I was to return to New Jersey for my last semester, I stood in the church pew and, for the first time, I couldn’t bring myself to sing during worship. Even greater than the heartbreak I felt at being rejected by Greg was my anger and disappointment with God. In my naivete, I thought I had done everything right. It should have worked out. God owed me. That kind of misunderstanding would return later to torment me.

I came back to school and surprised everyone by telling them instead of going to China I was joining Wycliffe to translate the Bible in Papua New Guinea. But, I eventually admitted  to myself I was just running from Greg, withdrew my application from Wycliffe and decided to go to China instead.

Despite all this, I still had much to learn about what it meant to be a Christian. Greg and I once talked about our greatest fears. Mine had been to fall in love and have my heart broken or to have a job I hate (both things I’ve since done and survived). Greg’s was that one day he wouldn’t follow God. I found it strange he even thought that possible. How could people like us stop following God?

Imperceptibly, being religious became just another way to excel—I wasn’t smart or pretty and I sat in the back of the viola section in my college orchestra, but, as I would later discover, I took some comfort in being the most religious. It was the only thing I was good at.

My friends and I like to play this game called Wise and Otherwise. It’s like Balderdash, but with proverbs. You are given the beginning to an obscure proverb and have to guess the ending. Once, the prompt was “He means well, but..” and one of the other players completed the sentence with “he’s a moron.” This probably most accurately describes me in college when it came to my faith.

The backdrop to this flurry of Christian activity was a borderline dogmatic desire for others to know Jesus. I was about my faith as Greg had been about China: a bit overbearing, but well intentioned. He thought China was great and he wanted me to think that way too.

As a music education major, I took a vocal techniques class where we learned how to teach choir. We could choose any song we wanted to teach our class and, despite most of my classmates being Jewish, I always picked a Christian song. I don’t know why I wanted so badly to hear my Jewish classmates sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ but I can tell you this: to my knowledge, this brought none of them closer to Jesus and did not endear me to them either.

For the holidays, I would ignore what family said they wanted and get them Christian books or CDs instead. “It’s better for them,” I assured myself. I shamed my older sister for joining a sorority. I even once, I’m ashamed to admit, threw a guy out of my car who I was giving a ride home late at night for disagreeing with me about some matter of theology. I don’t even remember what it was but I’m sure it was not important. I heard later he’d cried. He also never returned to the fellowship. I’m not entirely sure how he got home either.

I meant well but I was a moron. I genuinely thought, and think, that life is better with Jesus and in my mind I just wanted others to know that. Instead, without meaning to, I became an insensitive zealot. I thought I had taken every opportunity to show people the love of God but the reality was I had squandered most of them instead.

I said that the real benefit in my upbringing was my knowledge of the Bible, but even that can be a snare. The New Living translation of 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.” I’d missed the point.

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