I see this a lot in my reader groups: people (particularly girls) asking for recommendations of novels with strong female leads. And then inevitably, fifty people comment with various novels they love and recommend. And almost exclusively, the novels feature ass-kicking women with hyper-masculine tendencies and abilities that somehow mark them as “strong.”

And inevitably, I roll my eyes.

Now let me just say that I will be the first to admit that I’m a Sarah J. Maas fan, and she is the queen of writing ass-kicking female leads. And I am fully aware of the hypocrisy of my own stance here for even liking her books. But I will just say that any trope, when written well, can be overlooked. Even enjoyed.

But…

It’s still a trope. And it’s one I think we should address.

In today’s society, gender is almost a bad word. There’s a chasm between those who think gender is binary, and the other side who is shouting with ever-louder bellows that gender is much more than we’ve defined before. And for the sake of my own sanity, I won’t get into the nuances of that argument, except to say this: I believe gender is both binary and varied. And I believe that’s what makes humanity beautiful.

Because there are plenty of men who love ballet and art and cooking and reading and playing the piano and performing and [insert any defined “feminine” hobby or preference here]. There are plenty of men who cry at a great movie, who are tender and compassionate, who are not afraid of their emotions. And they are no less masculine for it. Because masculinity has nothing to do with what you enjoy, nothing to do with your personality, and everything to do with innate responses to the world around you.

And the same goes for females. As far as the pink-loving, glitter wearing, ruffle-clad gender norms are concerned, I am not the typical female. My favorite color is black. I like to hunt and fish. I’d rather be in the mountains. I don’t wear high heels. My cuticles look like crap most of the time.  I can’t stand most romantic comedies. And my favorite movie is Braveheart. Yet I am fully female and fully feminine and I am glad to be. I don’t consider femininity weak, lesser, or of any less value than masculinity.

So it really bothers me when modern culture purports that in order for a woman to be strong, she must take on masculine characteristics. Like it or not, women are, by nature, physically weaker than men. We are not capable of the feats most men are. Of course there are exceptions. Of course. But as a rule, my husband can do more physically than I can. And that does not make me weak. It makes me different. Because believe me, there are plenty of things I can do that he cannot.

So when authors write female leads who can fight like a man and take down most of them, it bothers me. (If you’re a Maas fan, I know you’re probably saying, “But Morgan, Aelin [Throne of Glass] is also feminine! She loves dresses and chocolates and pretty things and…” Yeah. I know. But I would argue that it is not a love of dresses that makes one feminine. Why can’t a man have an appreciation for fashion? Why does that make him less masculine? Why can’t a woman not have an appreciation for fashion? Does that make her any less feminine?) Why should the ability to fight like a man mark a woman as strong enough? Why shouldn’t innate nurturing and empathy be marks of strength? (I won’t even go into childbearing, childbirth, and child rearing. Because God help us if a man ever had to experience a contraction. But I digress.)

Let’s flip this coin and look at it from another perspective. My husband cannot and does not see the world the way I do. He does not consider the reasons behind what people do first—he considers whether or not what someone has done is a reason for recourse. Protection first. Consideration second. But not me. As a woman, I default to considering the why behind actions first. I stop to think about what makes people the way they are, and often that leads me to give grace and mercy before acting. And likewise, it often leads me to advise my husband to do the same. Where his instinct is to protect first, mine is to nurture first.

And both of things are good. Of equal importance. And equally strong.

I don’t need to kick ass in order to prove my strength. My husband does not need to watch a rom-com in order to prove his sensitivity. We can be different—complimentary—and be at our best. Strong. Beautifully nuanced.

It became my heart’s anthem to find a way to convey this genuinely. I wanted to show what I’ve learned from my own marriage—that complimentary qualities are better when they’re together. And that inherent masculinity is strength just as much as is inherent femininity.

It’s the very reason I wrote Elizabeth (the main character in The Promised One) to be the way she is. She speaks her mind. She does not think of Ferryl as superior or stronger or better. Nor does she think of herself as superior or stronger or better.

They are equal.

*Gasp.* What a concept.

My two main characters are equal. Partners. Masculinity and femininity working together. Side by side. Not in front or behind. And as their story progresses, you see this more and more. Without spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t read it yet, I will simply say that their story is one of showing how feminity is its own kind of strength, just as needed and powerful as a man. And it has nothing to do with high heels and dresses and ribbons and bows. It’s a story that shows how we were designed to compliment each other, not vie for the title of “strongest.”

Perhaps that’s the whole point. Because perhaps femininity and masculinity are stronger when they’re together.

Shallow art does not equal good theology. Let me say that again.

Shallow art does not equal good theology.

If art isn’t authentic to the human experience, it’s not art.

There. I said it.

*breathes*

This topic can be…touchy, to say the least. For Christians, anyway.

I’ve avoided it, to be honest. I thought to myself, “If someone brings it up, then talk about it. But don’t open that Pandora’s Box. It’s not worth it.” People have brought it up in my inner circle. But I can tell that they, like me, weren’t sure what to say about it. Perhaps they couldn’t make eye contact. Or perhaps they toed the sand and danced around the subject with shrugs and incoherent grunts. And I think maybe I know why…

We’re scared. Or maybe we’re chickens. But we’re afraid to say what we really think. For whatever reasons (which I am positive there are many, but that’s for another blog post), we think that if people knew how we really feel, they’d think less of us. Judge us. Run screaming from our heretical ways.

Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but I’m trying to make a point. Because I think the bottom line is, as a whole, Christians don’t make authentic art anymore. At least not in the mainstream. (Before you get your panties in a wad, let me clarify: I know this is not a universal rule of thumb. I am saying that it is generally true, with few exceptions.)

Hear me out.

When I look at the Sistine Chapel, when I listen to Handel’s Messiah, when I read Lewis, or Spurgeon, or heck even Tolkien, I am forced to wonder what happened to modern art. I am forced to wonder how we traded The Screwtape Letters for some of the Christian fiction drivel you can pick up on Amazon.

I am Christian. I make no bones about that. But neither do I shove it down your throat. You’re free to have your own thoughts and beliefs, just as I am free to have mine. Just as I am free to infuse mine into my writing and art. Which I do. If you’ve read even a chapter of one of my books, you can tell that my faith is integral to who I am.

But I refuse—REFUSE—to let the ideals of what my faith should produce dictate the content of what my art conveys. Or to put it more bluntly: just because I’m a Christian does not mean I am going to write G-rated books. Just because I believe in a perfect God does not mean I am going to write perfect characters or idyllic stories.

Listen, I’ve read a lot of modern Christian fiction. It’s terrible. (Granted, there is some that is not, but it’s a SHORT list.) And I mean that in the most sincere way. It’s weak. Ineffective. Laughably shallow. It focuses on faith as if it were this thing to master. As if belief in the Almighty were a checklist for the day.

  • Bible reading? Check.
  • Kindness to a widow? Check.
  • Prayer at dinner? Check.
  • Church on Sunday? Check, check.

I think life is a little more nuanced than that, don’t you? And quite frankly, I think we–the humans God created–are a little more colorful than that.

We’re flawed in profound ways. Profound. We’re addicts. We’re liars. We’re thieves. We’re miscreants. We’re whores. We’re oath breakers and failures. We’re cheaters and swindlers. We’re murderers and haters. We’re bigots and shunners. We’re people. In every flawed color. We’re people. Humans.

And I think it’s high time Christians stop pretending like we’re not.

Conversely, I read a lot of mainstream fiction that also conveys a lie. It purports this ideal that self is the ultimate prize. That if we can learn to love ourselves, we’ll have it figured out. That if we can find our inner strength, we’ll have arrived.

I don’t know about you, but my strength fails me on a continual basis. And the moment I start thinking I’ve got my sh*t together, it usually hits the fan. In that vein, I think the majority of modern mainstream art lies to us, too.

So what, then?

When I set out to write The Promised One, it was not with the intention of writing Christian fantasy, or even anything particularly meaningful. It was simply a færytale love story. It was honestly just a labor of love that morphed into something much deeper. It became an opening into another world–a world in need of redemption much like ours. As I wrote the love story I wanted to read, it hit me: love here on earth is meant to be a shadow and portrait of a greater Love. And it is often through our love stories that we learn, begin to understand, or even find the greater Love.

But as the characters came to life on those pages, I wondered what people would think of them. Of the seventeen year old girl who slept with her boyfriend and carried his child. Of the prince who was more interested in flirting with the ladies than living up to his responsibilities. Of the orphan who hated the idea of the divine. Of the mother who would stop at nothing to get her way, even at the expense of her family. Of the foul-mouthed brother whose temper flared at the drop of a hat.

But much more so, I wondered what my Christian friends would think of the language, violence, debauchery, murder, incest, betrayal, dark magic, and more in my books. I wondered what my non-Christian friends would think of writing a couple who waited until their wedding night to have sex. I wondered what my Christian friends would think of the protagonists who were sleeping around or ambiguous characters who murdered and lied and played a game for the sake of their own gain. I wondered what my non-Christian friends would think of the scenes with Providence himself showing up.

In other words, I wondered where my story fit.

Nowhere, really.

It’s too Christian to be mainstream, and much too mainstream to be Christian.

And when I first queried it to publishers, I wasn’t sure who would pick it up. I knew a Christian publisher wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole as long as the characters remained messy and foul-mouthed and *gasp* not virgins. And I knew a mainstream publisher would want to white-wash the more powerful moments with the Creator, and the general notion of monotheism as an ideal.

I was unwilling to compromise on either front. And when I was offered a publishing deal from a mainstream publisher, I eventually turned it down for those very reasons.

So I decided to venture out into unknown waters. I decided to put this book out there and see what would happen. I decided to try something different: to present people as they are, not as they should be. And to present the concept of God divorced from the box Christendom has put him in over the centuries. To write a book with authentically flawed characters who discover the need for a perfect Creator through those flaws, not in spite of them. I took the risk of offending my Christian friends with my very much NOT G-rated content, in the hopes that maybe they could identify with my characters. I took the risk of offending my non-Christian friends with a blatantly spiritual story of the need for redemption, in the hopes that they might identify with my characters.

Because that’s just it. I think it is precisely through our flaws–and the flaws of those around us–that we find out our need for something more. It is in the imperfections that we go in pursuit of perfection.

I want to make something clear: by saying that shallow art does not good theology make, I am not implying that I have somehow found the formula for good art. I am not saying that my books are better, or deeper, or more profound by any means.

But I am saying that my books are authentic. You will not find characters who fit the bill of Christian idealism. Nor will you find characters who make good choices very often, if ever. But you will find characters who are searching for that ideal. Characters who are aware, even if only intrinsically, of their need for something more.

That’s the kind of art that doesn’t happen too often in this world.

Oh yes, there are those who make it. U2 comes to mind–raw music that explores the mystery of the divine from the flawed and inadequate human perspective. I think Crowder scratches that surface, too. (Listen to Praise the Lord by Crowder if you’re looking for some profoundly raw lyrics.)

I used to shake You like an 8-ball
I used to shoot You like a gun
I used to hold You like a hammer
Try to nail down everyone
I used to keep You in a steeple
Used to bind You in a Book
I used to take You like prescription
Without knowing what I took

~Praise the Lord, Crowder (American Prodigal)

As for authors, I will confess I haven’t read much modern Christian fiction like that. I’ve read more Christian non-fiction that ventures down that path. Blue Like Jazz comes to mind. Think what you will of his theology, Donald Miller at least explores the possibility that the god we’ve fashioned over the centuries just might be a tad bit bigger than the limitations we’ve put on him. I tend to agree. Wholeheartedly.

And I think that’s why I wrote The Promised One, and the subsequent books. To explore the idea of the Creator outside the bounds of religion. Outside the bounds of preconceptions. Outside the bounds of limitation. To let imperfect people stumble upon him and then discover–as I think we all do on some level–a keen need for him.

And I put this out there in the hope that maybe there are more of us. I think there are. I think perhaps there’s a whole coven of us, hidden in the caves, wishing that the bubble of modern Christian culture would burst. Wishing that we offered a little more steak and a little less breastmilk.

And at the same time, I think there’s a whole world out there wondering why self has let them down time and again. If there is something more. Something bigger. Deeper. Wider. Brighter. Better.

Hint: There is.

Last week, Twitter blew up with the hashtag #MisandryInPublishing. Apparently some poor, hapless (male) soul posted that he believed it to be a real problem and women. went. nuts.

Oh man, the hate on Twitter. It’s mind-blowing how nasty people can be sometimes. But I digress…

The poor soul was obliterated by one cat-scratch after another—women on the man hate rant about how the entire concept of misandry in publishing is laughable at best.

I read through the banter. I wondered as to the fate of humanity for a moment. And then I stated my peace and moved on.

Yes, I am a female author. And yes, I believe misandry in literature is a real thing today.

It’s everywhere. Almost every modern novel I’ve read of late is chock full of man hate in one form or another. Oh no, it’s usually not blatant hatred. It’s subtle and clever. It’s portraying men like they are slaves to their instincts. Like wolves on the prowl. It’s portraying men like chest-beating Neanderthals who roam about looking for a broodmare. It’s portraying men like video game obsessed, Cheeto-slamming drunks with smoking hot wives who run the household. It’s portraying men like hapless, hopeless fools when a woman leaves them.

It’s misandry, and that’s all there is to it.

I’ve blogged about this sort of thing before (there’s one article on this site that I wrote years ago and it still gets several hits a day. It blows my mind.). Back then, I wrote about how men needed to step up to their roles as husbands and fathers. I saw an epidemic of man-boys who couldn’t bring themselves to put down their video game controllers long enough to run the household. I confess, I see things a little differently now. Yes, those men exist. And yes, ladies, Neanderthals exist, too. I’m not disagreeing. But I’m beginning to see that it’s not so much that the world is riddled with sex-crazed man-boys as it is that we women have decided it is. In our perhaps good intentions of vying for equality, we’ve lost sight of what the word means to begin with. And we’ve decided men are to blame for our problems.

We women yelled for equality in the ‘70s when we burned our bras. We shouted for equality in the ‘80s when we demanded better pay in our jobs. We screamed equality in the ‘90s when we insisted that “it’s a man’s world.” And here we are still crossing our arms and stomping our feet claiming that men have all the fun.

Ladies, when are we going to put on our big girl panties?

I read an article the other day about women (once again on the hate fest we call Twitter) tweeting under the directive “describe yourself as a male author would.” It was sickening, what women think men think of them. It’s embarrassing that we’ve boiled down men into nothing but sexual machines who cannot think past the next breast they’re going to ogle.

Ladies, I don’t know what men you’re surrounded by, but my husband, my father, even my son, are NOTHING like that. They’re men. They’re strong. They’re kind. They’re grounded. They’re gentlemen who open my door. They’re fathers who kiss their babies. They’re men who aren’t afraid to cry. They’re soldiers guarding their own homes.

My husband is the kind of man who is as tender as he is fierce. He is as passionate as he is strong. He is as kind as he is fearsome. He defends his family with valiant passion, loves his God with unwavering devotion, sacrifices for his wife without second thought. That’s a man. That’s masculinity. And any woman who would be threatened by such a thing needs to take a long look in the mirror.

It does not make a man Neolithic that he should be a visual, sexual creature. It does not make a man domineering that he should wish to open a door for a woman. Women scream for gender equality, but if you ask me, what they’re really screaming for is female superiority.

No, thanks.

It’s a big enough deal to me that we figure out this whole gender equality thing, that I wrote an entire book about it. I wanted, for once, to read a love story about people who stick together. I wanted to read a love story about a man and a woman who embrace their inherent gender roles, work together, and face the world arm in arm, not one in front of the other. Gender equality—true gender equality—is about embracing what makes women inherently feminine (and NO, that’s not pink lace and glitter), and what makes men inherently masculine (again, that’s not chest beating and gun toting). Femininity is at its heart, about the inherent empathy of our sex. It’s about embracing our natural instinct to nurture and love. And masculinity, at its heart, is about men embracing their God-given instinct to protect. Both are rooted in love. And neither have anything to do with pink or blue or glitter or camouflage or the length of your hair or the length of your shorts or any of the nonsense we associate with gender.

So ladies, let’s stop pretending like we’re screaming for equality when we call men Neanderthals for being exactly how they were designed to be. Maybe one of these days we’ll finally figure out that gender equality—TRUE equality—is exactly how God intended it. He is, after all, both male and female.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

 

I am a perfectionist. There. I said it. I like to wrap things up in a pretty box, tie a bow on them, and call them accomplished. I like to explain things. I like to categorize my life into snippets of theology. “Oh this? I learned ____________ from this. And that over there? That was the time I learned _____________.” I think being able to define the incidents in my life has given me a sense of purpose. It has certainly given me a sense of sanity.

So when I was faced with something I couldn’t define, I was lost. Broken. Utterly shattered. When my journey of being a surrogate ended abruptly, unexpectedly, I didn’t know what to think, let alone what to pray.

Somewhere back in 2012, I met a woman who was a surrogate. She was carrying twins for strangers. Strangers. It blew my mind and right then and there I decided that someday I wanted to do the same. I wanted to gift a family with something they could otherwise not have. It took a few years of convincing my husband, but somewhere in the summer of 2016, he acquiesced and said, “Hey, let’s look into it.”

So we did.

I filled out an online application (which was shockingly long and in depth). I wondered if I’d even pass the rigorous criteria required to be a surrogate. When I passed that initial screening I was stoked. When I passed the second level, the physical exam, and the in-home assessment, I was over the moon.

I was going to be a surrogate!

Now before I go on, I need to point something out: pregnancy for me was easy. So was conception. It was literally a case of, “Oh, hey what do you think about getting pregnant? Oh you’re on board?” BAM. Two weeks later I had a positive pregnancy test.

Honestly. It was like that.

So, naturally I assumed surrogacy would be the same.

I had pretty strict criteria for the surrogacy matching: namely that I was unwilling to abort the child for any reason (even if my own life was in danger). It limited the selection pool, but eventually, after about a year of the whole process, we were matched. And the couple… they were like a dream. It was absolutely mind-blowing that we could have so much in common with a couple from a completely different part of the country, with completely different upbringings, completely different cultures, even different races. But we did. And it all felt like kismet. Surrogacy was in the bag. It was going to be as easy as my pregnancies had been, I was certain.

But it wasn’t.

Not even a little bit.

Don’t be fooled. Surrogacy is not for the faint of heart. It’s taxing—mentally taxing, emotionally taxing, physically taxing. Not only that, it’s overwhelming. It’s a whole lot of, “Oh, you want me to do that now?” But I persisted. All I could think of was handing that couple their precious baby in nine months. Of seeing their faces as they held him in their arms (they already knew the embryo was a boy).

But it didn’t happen.

Somewhere near 8 weeks of pregnancy, feeling nauseous, unable to sleep or button my pants, I got the diagnosis: blighted ovum.

If you don’t know what that means, it’s basically when the embryo attaches to the uterine wall like he should, but never grows.

It was devastating. I’ve never ever been so at a loss for words as I was sitting in that doctor’s office, FaceTiming the intended mother as he said (rather abruptly, I might add) that the pregnancy wasn’t viable and it was a blighted ovum.

No.

That wasn’t possible

It couldn’t be.

We talked it over with the parents and decided to stay on all the medications and wait two more weeks. Just in case. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Enough Google searches told us it was a possibility.

But he wasn’t wrong.

And at 9 1/2 weeks pregnant, it was official. It was over.

Now I had miscarried once before—between my son and my daughter. But it was somewhere around 5 weeks along and little more than a late period.

At almost 10 weeks? That’s a different story entirely. I won’t go into details, but sufficient to say that no one ever tells you what miscarriage is really like. No one tells you how devastating it is. How humiliating. How painful. It’s labor. It’s contractions and shocking pain. All of that, without the reward at the end. I started miscarrying at church and looking back, I’m fairly certain I went into shock. I didn’t even realize what was happening. But it was sudden. And it was terrible. And I still tear up thinking about it. I drove home in excruciating pain, my clothes soaked through with blood, and all I could think was how I wished I were in a hospital bed, instead of having to deal with this in my own home.

And then came the real pain.

Then came the part where I had to face it. My sweet couple, they only had one embryo. One chance. And I failed them. I failed them so thoroughly I couldn’t put it into words. Everything I saw reminded me of my failure—every innocent post from Facebook friends enjoying their babies. Every commercial of families. Every song about the grace of God. It all reminded me that I had failed. That this sweet couple that I had come to love like my own family would never know the joy of holding their own child.

And yeah, I was mad. I was mourning a child that wasn’t even mine. Tell me that it’s not life and I’ll tell you this—I wasn’t mourning an embryo. I wasn’t mourning a clump of cells. I was mourning a child. Their child. I was mourning the fact that he didn’t get a chance.

I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t fit it into that little box I liked. I couldn’t wrap a bow around it and call it a lesson learned. I still can’t.

I cannot explain why we lost that sweet baby boy. I cannot understand what God was thinking. I cannot say why God would call me to be a surrogate (because I know he did) for it to fail so completely. And worse, I cannot even fathom why he would put that family through it, either.

Here’s the strangest part of it all: somehow, that has given me comfort. Somehow, through all of this, God has reminded me that he is still sovereign. That I have not taken the sanctity of Life out of his hands and put in in a petri dish. He is still the One who gives and the One who takes away. He is still the One who decides the fate of each of us. We cannot take it out of his hands.

Somehow, that has given me peace.

No, I’m not okay with it. No, I don’t think on it with smiles and fondness. I am still mourning, still grieving.

But I’m okay.

It’s okay.

And God is still God.

Maybe that’s the lesson. Maybe the point of all of this is that sometimes—sometimes God is so much bigger than our expectations. Sometimes the plans God has for us are nothing at all like what we expected.

And maybe that’s okay, too.

The irony of it all is that before we even had the embryo transfer, I painted something for the intended parents. A gift as we embarked on this journey together. It was a scripture the mother had quoted to me the first time we met.

Proverbs 16:9—The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

Wow. Just… wow. There could be nothing more true. And for this girl, who naively went into a situation with rose-colored glasses and the best of intentions, I walk away knowing that my steps are the Lord’s, not mine.

And that’s okay with me.

Today, my heart is truly broken. Today, I mourn. Today, I feel betrayed. Flummoxed. Bamboozled. Duped.

I didn’t see this coming. Not for a thousand miles.

Today the world found out that Josh Duggar is not quite the repented soul he had purported himself to be.

I am going to step up to the plate here and admit that I was one of the first to jump on the defensive for the Duggar family, Josh being no exception. I believed him when he said he had made mistakes as a kid and had repented. I believed it because I believe in the power of repentance. I believe in what Jesus can do in the hearts of the willing. I’ve seen it. I believed it because I had no reason not to.

So when I found out I (we all) had been had, I was utterly devastated.

How could he do this? How could he lie so blatantly? How could he? How could he?

He could because he is human. Just like me. And while I don’t condone what he did–in fact I’m repulsed by it–I do know full well that we are all susceptible to a great fall. It comes after haughtiness. Just like destruction comes after pride. None of us, no not one, is above it. It can happen anytime. It always starts small. Insignificant. Harmless, we tell ourselves. And then one day we look up and our world has crumbled around us.

But as I’ve prayed about this, as I’ve kicked it around and asked myself why this hurts my heart so much (considering I don’t know the man personally), I’ve realized something. I think the mistake we made–Christians and non-Christians alike–is that we put the Duggars up on a pedestal. We said, “See, they’re what Christians look like! They’ve set the standard!”

Now I recognize that not everyone did. I recognize that they had plenty of haters on both sides of the aisle. I recognize that even among those who didn’t mind them, there were plenty who didn’t look to them as the pinnacle of faith. But I did. I admit it. I sang their praises regularly. “Say what you want,” I would say, “but they’re doing something right. Look at their kids. They’re so well-behaved!” And while I will grant that just because Josh has fallen doesn’t mean all their children are deviants, I must confess, I fell prey to an idea that I think many Christians do when shown someone who has “got it together” (whatever that means)–we create a formula in our minds.

The Error in Formulaic Faith

That’s why I’m upset. I see it now. I thought there was a formula and the Duggars had figured it out. I thought, “Okay, if I homeschool. If I hyper-focus on modesty and character development. If I limit TV time to no more than thirty minutes a day. If my kids have X amount of Bible verses memorized by the time they’re five. If they eat at least three vegetables at every meal. If. If. If.”

I bought the lie. And my friends, it’s a lie of the Devil himself.

Don’t get me wrong. Those things are good. And in a balanced environment, all of the above can be beneficial. But it’s not one thing. It’s not a formula. It’s not a checklist. Faith is living and active. It is evolutionary in that it grows with us as we grow. It deepens as we learn. It thrives as we feed it. It is not a formula. It is NOT something we should carbon copy from another man. If our faith is not our own, it is not faith, it is religion. And if our faith is not from an authentic place in our souls, it’s not faith, it’s religion.

And therein was my problem.

If our faith is not our own, it is not faith, it is religion.

I was looking to man for the standard, not Jesus. Isn’t that the crux of the problem with religion to begin with? So in essence, I was following the religion of Duggar. I was setting them as the standard by which the American family ought be measured.

Wow.

It actually scares me when I realize it. It puts that feeling in my stomach–call it nausea, call it disgust. How did I do that? I was always the first to say that there is nothing real about reality TV. And yet there I was, idolizing a family who it turns out is as broken as the rest of us. They have nothing more or less figured out than I do. And they need forgiveness, redemption, revival, reconciliation, and deliverance. Just like me.

So it turns out I’m much more like the Duggars than I thought.

And in the end, we all need Jesus. That’s it. He’s the standard. If I’m looking at ANYONE ELSE (and that certainly includes those who seem like they’ve always had it together–our pastors, that oversaved friend, Billy Graham, for goodness sake), I’ve already missed it.

And on the same note, if we hyper-focus on what Josh did instead of focusing on Christ, we’ve missed it. He needs Jesus. So do I. I pray to God with all sincerity that I won’t fall prey again to the notion that there’s a formula–that someone other than Jesus has it figured out. And that I, too, can live on cruise control.

There is no cruise control in a life of faith. There is fight or die. End of story. Just ask Josh Duggar.

I hear this a lot these days: “I can love Jesus without going to church.”

I suppose you can. But you won’t get very far.

If you’re one of those people, don’t tune out. There’s something you need to hear.

When I was in college, I saw a tshirt that said, “Jesus is not a religion.” I loved it. I thought it was so perfect. That’s right, Jesus not a religion! What a revolutionary thought!! It was that mindset that set me down the path to the version of Christian “spirituality” I sported for many years.

I loved to say that I loved Jesus, I just wasn’t sure about some of His followers. I loved saying I wasn’t “Christian,” I was “spiritual.” I loved feeling like I was on the fringe. I loved feeling like I was on to something revolutionary.

All I was really on was a watered-down, self-help, “Christianized” version of hedonism. If you’re unfamiliar, hedonism is the religion of self. It is the concept that if it feels good, do it. It is based on the idea that we shouldn’t be discomforted, we shouldn’t have pain, we shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable in life.

Of course, this is a great idea except for the reality that we’re usually discomforted, usually have pain, usually uncomfortable in life. It’s a fact of life. Life stinks. Things are hard. People hurt us. We get sick. We lose things. We lose people. We lose everything. It’s the way of the world. Don’t believe me? Please show me what rock you’re under – I’d love to know what it’s like to live life without problems.

No, life is painful and things happen. But that doesn’t mean we have to live in misery. See, I think the spiritualized version of Jesus was rooted in the right idea. Jesus wants us to live a blessed life. He TELLS us not to worry. He tells us to trust in God and cast our cares at His throne. So shouldn’t that mean that life should be good?

Well, yes and no. You see, the truth is, when you really know what it means to have Jesus in your life, it’s not that you don’t have the problems, it’s that you know the problem-solver. It’s not that you don’t have the pain, it’s that you know the doctor. It’s not that you don’t lose things, it’s that you know the Guy who has (and made) IT ALL. And you trust Him for it. Daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute you choose to trust. That takes training. That takes discipline – more discipline than I have on my own, I’m afraid. I NEED encouragement to keep that up. I need people around me encouraging me just by the fact that they love Him, too.

The blessed life is NOT void of problems. It’s just a life that trusts those problems to our loving Father.

How can we do that when we’re not learning about Him? How can we trust Him when we’re not getting to know Him more everyday? How can we do that if our preconceived notions aren’t challenged?

I’ve heard people say that they can love God without going to church. Yes, you can. But you won’t get to know Him very well without a little guidance. I’ve heard some say that’s what the Bible is for. That is absolutely right. The Bible is our SOURCE for the voice of God, the truth of who He is, and His Will for our lives.

But I don’t know a single person on planet earth who knows everything there is to know about the Bible perfectly.

I don’t know anyone who has it all figured out. Not a pastor, not a theologian, not even Billy Graham himself. We’re human. We all interpret things erroneously from time to time. We all view the Bible through a bias, whether we admit it not. That’s why we NEED each other. That’s why God DESIGNED us for community. That’s why He CREATED the church.

Iron sharpens iron. It’s that simple. If we become Christian recluses, we are putting ourselves in danger of creating our own religion. We are putting ourselves in the path of the enemy. Without help, without accountability, without the edification of believers around us, we CAN’T GROW IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH. Yes, we can grow. Yes, we can love the Lord. But without help, we WILL misinterpret the Lord. We WILL create our own theologies. I see it all the time. Friends, family, acquaintances – all around me, I see people who have formed their own version of Christian “spirituality.” Maybe it’s based around politics. Maybe it’s based around self-help “Oprah-isms.” Maybe it’s based on their pain and hurts. Maybe it’s based on bad theology. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. But it’s NOT the heart of the Father. And it’s causing them to wonder why they’re not experiencing that “peace that passes understanding.”

The truth is, the enemy does NOT want us in the House of God. He does NOT want us to experience a community of believers who are all in the same pursuit. He does NOT want us to grow in the Lord. He does NOT want us to be challenged in our faith so that we grow in the knowledge of the Father. He does NOT want us to be encouraged by someone who has been where we’ve been. He does NOT want us to encourage someone else with our story.

All I know is, knowing that the devil doesn’t want those things for me only makes me want them more. And the more I’ve immersed myself in the church, the more blessed I’ve been. I’ve seen Jesus in a friend who opened herself up to tell her story of a wayward sister. I’ve seen Jesus in a pastor as he told his story of a past he regrets. I’ve seen Jesus in an acquaintance as she told her story of redemption with more power in the tips of her fingers than I have in my whole being. I’ve seen Jesus in the broken. I’ve seen Jesus in the joyful. I’ve felt Jesus in the music. I’ve felt Jesus just being in the presence of others who are feeling Him too.

It’s (and I hate to use this word) almost magical, this thing we call church. It’s miraculous. That’s what it is. To be gathered with a body of believers, lifting up the name of Jesus, every knee bowing, every tongue confessing, is a blessing beyond words. And if you’re not there, you’re MISSING IT. Stop robbing yourself. Stop making excuses.

I’ve heard it all.

“I don’t like the way my pastor preaches.”

“I don’t like the worship style.”

“I don’t like that there’s no Sunday School.”

“I don’t like that there is Sunday School.”

“I don’t feel comfortable in crowds.”

“I don’t have time.”

“I’m tired.”

“I don’t like Christians.”

You can make up a thousand excuses to NOT be there. But what’s your excuse for your soul? If you’re as desperate for the Father as I am, if you want His presence, His miracles, His blessings as much as I do, what’s stopping you?

The truth is, no one is stopping you but you.

Go to church. You deserve it!