Last week a CNN article announced a prominent Christian author and former pastor was walking away from both his marriage and the Christian faith. Newsweek had covered the story, as had USA Today, NPR, and Fox News, making it apparent the mainstream public cared just as much about the story as Christian circles. That doesn’t happen very often.
But a pendulum swing is always big news, I suppose, making Joshua Harris’ story a journalistic feast.
‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye‘ hit bookshelves in January of 1997. Harris was young, but his book – essentially the teen guidebook for Christian purity – would launch him into Christian stardom. It sold 1 million copies, and although it was written with good intentions, it quickly became a legalistic handbook on fear rather than love.
Fear constructs ideals and judgements and calls them religion. Fear develops formulas and sorts people into categories of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. Fear gets puffy and ugly and raises hate flags.
Fear wasn’t what Joshua Harris intended to communicate. He asked the publisher to stop printing his book and made an apology for his words and any destruction they’d caused. But I wonder if he forgave himself, because I know – painfully – making apologies doesn’t indicate anything about a personal understanding of forgiveness. Two decades after becoming Christian famous, Harris wrote new words – he was leaving faith. He was kissing the Christian circle goodbye.
I was truly sad about it, not because I always love the Christian circle, because I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t. Not because I’d been a fan of Harris’ book. I never read it, but in a way, it shaped me.
I was a senior in high school working at the Family Christian Store the day the book came out, and I was eight months pregnant. Joshua Harris was the poster child for doing everything right as a Christian teen, and I was the poster child for doing everything wrong as a Christian teen, and for the final month of my pregnancy, I carried an illegitimate child while also carrying stacks of the purity guidebook, lining them up on empty shelves, all neat and tidy. I grew a thick skin during that month, for a lot of reasons.
I’d work at the bookstore for several more years and countless pastors, youth leaders, and other kids my age would continue gushing about the book, asking, ‘Have you read it yet and don’t you think it’s wonderful and isn’t it about time we go back to the days of not kissing anyone until your wedding day?’
I was feeding a baby every couple hours. I was trying to make it to graduation. At any given moment I was thinking about buying diapers or worrying my abusive ex would show up and threaten to take my greatest treasure. I didn’t have the energy to agree or disagree with one man’s opinion written in a book. I didn’t have time to take sides, or explain the dangers of creating polarized sides on an issue in the first place. And any idealized dreams I’d formed about relationships, marriage, sexuality, or womanhood had been deconstructed in less than a year, so I wasn’t aiming for perfect – I was grappling for grace.
And the beautiful part of my story is, I found it.
Becoming a teen mom in the height of purity culture taught me a lot about grace – that I didn’t need a formula for Christianity, I just needed Christ. I needed the good form of both humility and dignity, because without them, I couldn’t love or be loved. I learned how to live on the outer fringes of the Christian circle of ‘acceptable’, but I never felt like I had to leave the circle. I knew Who had invited me; I knew I belonged.
Grace doesn’t swing on the pendulum of our understanding, on the pendulum of our culture, on the pendulum of fear or pain or disillusionment. Grace doesn’t swing away from mistakes or swing closer when we get it right. We can’t explain it, we have to experience it from the source: Jesus.
So it makes me very sad when Harris, or anyone, walks away from faith in Christ, because they will not find grace apart from Him. I’ve tried to brute force my way through pain, questions, suffering, and failure without the gift of grace – and it broke me. Brute force always breaks.
The day after reading the announcement, I did as I always do on Tuesday and volunteered at Hope, a center for women in crisis. I sat in a circle with my women and facilitated the discussion. We didn’t talk about the news, we talked about things that mattered, about challenges and suffering, about joy and goodness. We were honest with each other and we listened. We asked questions we wouldn’t dare ask in church. We spoke truth without defending it, and we didn’t rush to give answers.
I have a very good circle. Yes, it is still on the fringes of the Christian circle, and yes, I like it that way, but here’s the deal: the people in my circle – at Hope and elsewhere – are living like their God is as big and as loving as He says He is. They don’t pretend to know it all or do it all right, and no matter what is going on in their mind, body, circumstance, emotions, relationships, or in the world around them, they keep following Christ. I need that. We all do. (Note to reader: Get a good circle!)
We discussed strength and its many forms, deciding on these:
The best strength is agile trust in a good God – regardless.
The best strength is resolute faith that endures – even though.
The best strength is resilient hope that refocuses and responds, ‘Maybe today.’
And above all else, in all things, our greatest strength is knowing and believing we have a God who is right here, unchanged by our understanding, unafraid of our questions and doubts, and completely unwilling to be stingy with grace.
So my friends, let’s live like we believe that. Let’s pray for each other and encourage each other. Let’s continue following the One who loved us first, extending and reflecting His love to those who don’t believe, to those who have walked away, to those who are seeking, and to those who are wandering, because there is still Good News and it hasn’t changed.
As always, feel free to share. Thanks for reading.