My family and I watched an episode of Brain Games on the topic of superstition one evening. It was about how the amazing powerhouse situated in between our ears helps us learn, think, do a host of intricate tasks, but also tricks us into believing things that have no rational basis—such as knocking on wood to avoid consequences, or wearing a special item of clothing in order to win a game. It was interesting because we all had different responses to the show. My husband claims he has no superstitions, that his brain rejects irrational, superstitious thoughts. Knowing him as a lifelong skeptic, I’d have to agree. On the other hand, we both looked at our daughter who is plagued with an assortment of nervous habits, and knew the show offered some interesting insights into the quirks of our teenager.
One thing she does is her compulsive habit of saying “love you” to me as the last word before…everything. Before going to bed, before going on a trip, before leaving the house for any reason. If you ask her why she does this, she’ll explain, it’s “just in case” one of us dies, then that’ll be our last word. So I said to her, how about we make it the default position, that her Dad and I are both assured of her love for us no matter what. She agreed, but of course her initial superstitious behavior was based on irrational thought, therefore no amount of proper reason will change the behavior, even if it sounds good at the time.
We deal with it. Given potential alternative quirks, this is a sweet one. “Love you mom, loveyouloveyouloveyou!” as the door closes behind me as I exit. Most of the time I smile, but sometimes I am concerned for her. Because I know that when your love for somebody is rooted in anxiety, it is not life-giving.
In the same way, I believe the difference between genuine devotion and superstitious belief in God is how much our acts of Christian identity is riddled with anxiety. How many of our prayers are superstitious utterances and how many are mature expressions of faith grounded in love? Do we read the Bible out of guilt or because we sincerely find the words spiritually nourishing? How often do we get up on Sunday mornings because we are eager to go or because we fear what the community will say if we don’t show?
Now, before you give me a lecture about how we can’t only do what we feel like doing, let me ask whether we should always do what we don’t feel like doing? Our rituals of service and sacrifice to our God will only ever mean something if it is offered generously out of our free agency and authenticity.
Growing up evangelical, this was taught in theory but never practiced in reality. Because the consequence of not choosing to serve God was at worst hell, and at best, an un#blessed life. Those messages are coercive and threatening no matter how sugar coated it is with language of unconditional grace. And I find that many of my Christian peers still live in the bondage of fear lasting long into adulthood.
I have found it necessary in my personal faith journey to pass litmus tests of authenticity, ensuring my choice to remain in my faith is one stripped of fear. I have to ask myself and others in my Christian community hard questions like, do I fear hell? Am I afraid of social ostracization? Do I believe punishment is around the corner if I don’t do _______? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then I am not unlike my daughter, who speak words of love out of a desperate habit of anxiety.
Now my daughter loves me, I believe she does, in spite of her anxious proclamations. I’m not saying Christians whose motivations are laced with fear don’t also love the Lord in earnest. I am saying that the hard work of extricating fear from our worship of God will transform our spirituality from superstition to mature faith.
And that process is excruciating. It means ruthlessly stripping away anything that is tinged with fear. It may mean not reading the Bible, or putting a halt to a familiar prayer life, or leaving a beloved church. It may mean that your faith is chipped away until nothing resembles what looks like Christianity. It is terrifying to come face to face with…fear.
But, I am becoming more convinced than ever that those who have whittled their faith down to a tiny mustard seed has more potential for bearing fruit, because whatever is left is pregnant with exciting possibilities. When you have squeezed all the toxicity, legality, and coercive fear from a life of religiosity, what emerges from your unclenching fist may be small, but it will be offered with spontaneous reverence—with what poet Jack Gilbert calls, a stubborn gladness. Glad, because it is voluntarily given, but stubborn because you know how hard you’ve fought to be this real.
Imagine if our worship became this true—void of pretense, empty of rhetoric, and unguarded. Imagine how easily that seed will multiply into fruits of irresistible wisdom and encompassing love.
Imagine that God has always only wanted this from us.