Today’s guest post is by my friend David Nilsen. His blog, The Screaming Kettle, is consistently excellent, and I’ve found in his writing a story that is very much like my own.
I used to be a Calvinist. Now I’m not. If you know anything about theology, you know I just told one of the world’s shortest complete stories.
I am a rational thinker. I love math and science and lists and organized categories. So it’s obvious looking back that at the point at which I encountered Calvinism as an adult, the key fit the lock. I had begun meeting weekly with the new worship pastor at our church, and one week we got into the classic argument about sovereignty and free will. We raised our voices. I told him it wasn’t fair. He told me it didn’t matter. I hardly slept for weeks.
I would lay in bed staring at the ceiling trying desperately to make the lines connect in such a way that God would still be just for doing this. I wrestled with the ideas in my head trying to make the lines connect. I crunched the numbers and erased them when they didn’t add up until suddenly, late one night, they did. I can’t remember what the epiphany was, but I had gotten the math to work, and God was still good. I was suddenly a Calvinist, and I saw the world with new eyes. In the words of one young Calvinist I know, I had experienced “second salvation”.
If you’ve ever radically changed your theology as an adult, you know the heady rush that comes with that new perspective. The weeks and months that follow are like putting your mouth to an open fire hydrant – there is so much to take in and you want it all. Calvinism was beautiful to me. It provided a perfect system of answers that left no room for ambiguity. Every doctrine had a place in the house Paul built. You could almost run your hands along them like the clean boards of a new shelf.
I made a good Calvinist, and for the eighteen months it stuck. I’m not afraid of confrontation and I grasp systems easily, so as soon as I was convinced I began convincing others. I was leading the young adults ministry at our church at that point, and I taught Habakkuk, Ruth and all six Post-Exile books from a Calvinist perspective, which is not easy, let me tell you.
We attended New Attitude in early 2007, the twentysomethings conference put on by Sovereign Grace Ministries. Speakers included Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney and John Piper. Three thousand young people, each as restless and reformed as the next, packed into the convention center in Louisville, Kentucky for four days of worship, sermons, prayer and discussion. My wife and I went by ourselves but were quickly taken in by an amazing group of people from a church in another state. They invited us to their hotel for meals, welcomed us into their group for prayer and fellowship, and in every way showed the love of Jesus to us. Even now, after abandoning not only Calvinism but Biblical inerrancy, creationism, complimentarianism and all the other trappings of reformed evangelicalism, that weekend still stands out to me as one of the truest experiences of Christian community I have ever known. Their hearts were full of love and thirsty for beauty; that they’ve maintained both in the face of Calvinism is a mystery to me, but I am grateful for them.
Calvinism was amazing right until it wasn’t. It was about a year before every last spark of joy evaporated from my spiritual life, and it happened rapidly. At the time I thought it was just a dry spell, but it wouldn’t go away. God seemed absent not only from my time in prayer but from the pages of Scripture. I couldn’t figure it out. I hadn’t fallen into sin, I was being faithful in my reading and prayer, I was holding to truth. I was crossing every T, dotting every i. I couldn’t figure it out.
Looking back I earnestly believe it was the mercy of God. I had grabbed hold of what I perceived as Truth so tightly it had died and turned to dust in my hands, and the way I looked at God and his work in the world was mathematical and cold. I hadn’t done it on purpose, but I had turned God into a logical computer and the Bible into a code book. Calvinism provided all the answers, which had always seemed like the point of faith. I hadn’t yet realized that life was found in the questions. And damn if the questions didn’t come.
After six months of the total absence of joy and passion in my spiritual life, I had the space to begin asking hard questions. The gears and pulleys of my theology had been greased early on with the enthusiasm of new discovery, but that grease had worn away, the machine had seized, and I could finally get in and look at how it worked. I hated what I found. If what I had believed was true, God was not good. It felt like I was seeing the man behind the curtain, and he was a very bad wizard. I was stuck for a time in the terrifying place of still thinking Calvinism was true, but believing God was a monster if it was.
It’s an awful thing to have to question the goodness of God. In fact, in the couple years that followed the collapse of my faith system, the only thing I felt I could hold onto was that God was good. I refused to let that go even when everything seemed to indicate the opposite. I couldn’t get my mind around how God could be acquitted of great guilt if He really worked the way the Calvinists said, but I refused to accept that He was less than Love. My daily prayer was God, I believe you are good, but I can’t see how. Help me see how. And slowly, painfully, he freed my heart from the weight of the doctrines I had chained to it, and chained to him.
The last several years have been a time of rediscovering joy and freedom. I no longer believe God works in the cold manner I had assigned to him. And I no longer believe he requires me to solve for x in some doctrinal equation in order to know him. I have a head full of questions now, but my heart is far more at peace than when I thought I had all the answers.
David Nilsen is a writer from Greenville, Ohio. He loves good coffee and beer, deep talks that keep him up too late, books and snobby films. He’s been married to Lyndie for ten years this January, and has a four year old daughter who is already asking questions about God he doesn’t know how to answer. He blogs at http://homekettle.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @DNilsenKettle.