Shortly after his wife’s death, well-known Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote:
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?”
Growing up Protestant and Evangelical, I wasn’t raised with an understanding of God as a God who shatters. Yet the more I learn and grow, the deeper I resonate with this image.
I’ve experienced God’s shattering four times so far, and each experience has been crucial to the strength and resiliency of my faith.
4. Christian Pop Culture Worldview
College was my first major experience with God’s shattering, though thankfully, much milder and less intimidating than the ones to follow.
I actually didn’t mind the shattering of my belief that “Christianity” and “American pop culture Christianity” are synonyms. It was definitely paradigm-shifting for me, but it didn’t really hurt.
Before my theology classes in college, I had assumed that listening to Christian music, reading Christian teen novels, buying Christian t-shirts or wearing WWJD bracelets was inherently better — and helped me life out my faith more — than listening to non-Christian music, shopping outside of the Christian book store, or wearing necklaces that didn’t have little crosses on them. Coming to understand that commercialized pop culture Christianity wasn’t the same thing as authentic Christian faith was freeing.
To this day, my experience at a Christian university is the single most influential part of my adult identify formation. Ten years later, my respect and admiration for my theology professors remains just as strong. In their classes, I never had to check my brain — or my faith — at the door. Instead, professors encouraged me to engage deeply with both my intellect and my faith, and to develop a habit of critically testing the culture around me to make sure it conformed with Scripture, the life of Christ, and my experience of the Holy Spirit.
In my life and career since college, I’ve come to realize what an immensely profitable demographic Christians are for businesses and industries looking to make money. And life has given me plenty of chances hone the skill of discerning if a particular Christian product is theologically sound, or just another one of those slick and money-hungry mass marketing strategies in sheep’s clothing.
3. Finding My Identity in Idols
If there’s one thing I’ve known about myself, from first grade on, it’s that I am good at school. Growing up, I was shy and socially awkward. I tended to weigh more than my friends. I had no hand-eye coordination, so I was embarassingly bad at sports. But I loved school, and I was good at it.
Then I finished college and started working full time. No one knew I’d gotten good grades all my life. No one cared. For 16 years, academics had been foundational to my identity. Being good at school was always where I got my value. Now it was gone. And I had to figure out who I was.
In hindsight, the shattering of my nearly lifelong idolatry to academic success was crucial to my growth and my understanding of my vocational calling. (I don’t think academia is idolatry for everyone who is good at school, but it was for me. And I have years of receipts to prove it.)
Being shattered forced me to start letting go of this idolatry. But I tried to replace school with different idols first — and got pretty burned in the process. If I wasn’t able to be smart anymore, I tried getting my value from being athletic. I worked out six days a week, but that ended up being a little unhealthy and compulsive. I tried dying my hair blonder, wearing heels and cute dresses, and buying more expensive makeup, but that backfired on me, too.
Learning to let go of idolatry was a process, but it allowed me to discover things I’d never had a chance to see. “You care about people,” a friend told me when I was 26. It remains one of my favorite things anyone has said about me.
I’d never been described as someone who cares about people. But also, I’d never really had time to care about people. I was too busy making sure I got straight As, working 50+ hour workweeks to advance my career, working out enough to have great abs, or whatever other idol of perfection I’d chosen to dedicate myself to 120%.
Starting grad school at 30, I haven’t magically stopped caring about grades. I still like school. Being able to exist, full time, in an environment where your skills are fully engaged, challenged, and valued is a huge luxury, and I’m immensely grateful for this season.
At the same time, I finally realized that there’s more to life than school. Having to leave the people I care about: my friends, family, my church family, the amazing college students I worked with, all the high school kids I made pancakes for every other Friday … that has been immensely destabilizing.
I like getting As on quizzes, but I miss getting to be a part of things that actually matter. I know seminary is designed to train you for ministry. But there’s something frustrating about being in training. I miss spending time with people. I want to be in the world and doing things that have an actual impact. But I don’t think would have gotten to this point if my academic idolatry hadn’t been ripped away and shattered.
2. Being Told I’m Wrong By People I Care About
Being told my theology was wrong — and not just slightly off, but dangerously and fundamentally wrong — by someone I cared deeply about, and whose life, actions, and Christian faith I respected immensely, was a turning point in my life.
It shattered me. It threw me into a spiral of doubt, fear and anxiety that took months to work my way out of. But I’m grateful that it happened. (And I’m selfishly grateful that it didn’t happen until I was 26, when I had more life experience to work my way through it. At that point, the Holy Spirit and I had been through plenty already. I was starting from a pretty strong framework. But even still, the doubt and fear were pretty terrifying.)
I didn’t walk away from my doubt crisis feeling confident that I was right and the other Christian was wrong. I know I have plenty more to learn. If there’s one thing that following God has shown me, it’s that no matter how smart, experienced, or strategic I think I am — God’s idea of what’s best for me is always better than my idea, no matter how carefully researched, strategized, and thought out my plan is.
I have plenty of gaps in my understanding of God. And if my theology is as flawed as I’ve been told, I want to figure that out. But I’m not going to take someone else’s word for it, even a person whose life and Christian faith I deeply respect.
Seminary is a chance to challenge and test my theology, worldview, and Christian beliefs. It’s also a chance to study, in great detail, the ways that people have used Christian faith to gain power and control — in politics, in relationships, in institutions — throughout history. For the rest of my life, I’m sure I’ll continue to encounter people who try to use Christian faith to manipulate, control, or gain power over other people. I want to better equip myself to discern when this is happening, so I won’t be shattered next time.
Being in seminary is a practical way I can equip myself to respond when that happens. And if God does want for me to change a certain theological belief significantly, I fully trust that God will make that clear.
1. My Participation in Systemic and Structural Harm
In her bestselling book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum expresses concern that child psychology seems to operate from an implicit assumption that all children are white, providing very little training on how psychologists can address challenges or experiences related to a child’s ethnic or cultural identity.
It’s the first of many lightbulb moments I had reading Dr. Tatum’s book, because I’ve had the same experience in my field. My college journalism classes taught us that seeking objectivity — identifying our biases and seeking to minimize them as much as possible — was crucial.
Yet I don’t remember any training on how to identify the bias or blind spots I have as someone who is white. After eight years interviewing people and sharing their stories for a living, I have experienced this to be an alarming and deeply damaging omission.
Since completing my bachelors in journalism, I’ve held three salaried writing jobs in three different fields, and not once did HR or my office provide any formalized training on how being white impacted my ability to do my job effectively. Any training always came from my clients, coworkers, or community members of color — often on their personal time and not as part of the requirements of their job.
In my two most recent jobs, I’ve gotten to work with multiethnic teams, and I have experienced — time and again — how my blind spots as a white woman make me a less effective teammate. I’ve needed extra help, required more of my clients’ time (in order for me to successfully complete the work they were paying me to do), asked more questions than was professionally courteous and have otherwise been objectively not as good of a colleague as I would like to be.
I hated seeing myself repeatedly cause harm, but I had no idea how to stop.
“I do not understand what I do. What I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do,” Paul says in Romans 7. “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
I first tried reading Dr. Tatum’s book about a year into my first experience on multicultural teams, and I only made it about 30 pages. The concepts were too complicated and the material too dense for me to grasp.
I tried again a couple years later, and simply devoured the text. I underlined and starred everything. My margins are full of notes. Dr. Tatum’s book made all my stressful experiences working on the multicultural teams begin make sense. All my mistakes, all my confusion, things I’d experienced that I didn’t understand: it was all there. Her careful explanation of psychology and identity development, explored with an understanding of how one’s ethnic identity is formed from childhood to adulthood, gave me a lens to see my overwhelming situation in a new light.
At that point, I’d spent almost four years investing in trying to be a more effective teammate on multicultural teams. And I felt like I still had so much more to learn.
It turns out that there are 6 stages of racial identity development for people who are white. I definitely wasn’t at the last stage, but there was something so comforting about seeing all of the stages I had gone through. I knew I was investing a lot, and it was exciting to see — in print — how far I’d actually come.
I didn’t choose to be born white in a world of systems built and led by people who are white. I didn’t realize I’d need to cultivate the skill of multicultural competency. But I’ve messed up and caused harm enough that I can now recognize the reality of the world I’m living in. And it’s my responsibility to learn, even if doing so takes work and job-specific resources aren’t immediately available.
Being Shattered Saved My Faith
In hindsight, I’m not surprised that my experiences feeling convicted of the harm I cause as a white person happened concurrently with the Holy Spirit nudging me to pursue a call to ministry.
When you’ve been a Christian since age three, and have always taken faith seriously, it can be harder to see the reality of your human brokenness and the urgency of your need to depend on God. Being on multicultural teams shattered my illusion that I can, on my own, be a great person who is wise enough to impact the world for good.
In ministry, as in my experience on multicultural teams, any good I do has almost nothing to do with how awesome I like to think I am. Anything truly valuable happens through God’s strength working amid my weakness. Hard stop.
Ministry isn’t about me. It’s about God working through me. It’s God taking my failures, my selfishness, the harmful things I’ve done in pursuit of idolatry, the harm I’ve caused … and working something good out of it. It’s God creating beauty out of my dust.
If God hadn’t shattered my pop culture Christian worldview, I wouldn’t be as equipped to test the spirits to see if they are from God, since so many false prophets fill our media, marketing, institutions, and world.
If God hadn’t shattered my ability to make school an idol, I might not have realized how much joy and life I was missing. I wouldn’t have seen the need to get my value in Christ. I didn’t think I really needed it.
If God hadn’t shattered my certainty and let me wrestle through such pervasive doubt, my faith and trust would never have been able to grow to the level they are today. Wrestling through doubt wasn’t fun, but I would trade the beauty and authenticity of faith I’ve been able to experience for anything in the world.
If God hadn’t shattered my illusion of innocence in any participation in systemic racism or injustice, I don’t know if I really would have been able to understand the depth of my brokenness and how much I need Christ. Confessing, repenting, and turning away from my past and toward God … I don’t think my rule-following, Christian-since-age-three self would have been able to fully understand my potential to cause harm and my complete need for Christ without having my eyes opened to the realities of systemic racial injustice in our world.
Being shattered isn’t a pleasant experience. Picking up the pieces and beginning the slow process of building back up on a new foundation takes time. It can be frustrating. It can hurt. But I wouldn’t trade these four experiences of being shattered for anything.
They have allowed me to feel and experience God in ways more beautiful and powerful than I could have ever imagined.
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?
The Incarnation is the supreme example. It leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” -A Grief Observed