In my very first Bible study, we studied the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians. I was a high school freshman; I’d never really heard of Bible study, much less attended one.
Two seniors, Jen and Betsy, led. To me, they were like the best mixture of rock stars and nice older siblings: both blonde, both hospitable, both cheerful and kind and impressive. They were the axles of the youth group. I still remember the photocopied handouts they made for all of us—colored sheets of printer paper with the fruit for the week on the top (“Faithfulness!” “Peace!”), key Bible verses, questions. They decorated the margins with little squiggles and stars and smiley faces.
I think every Bible study I’ve gone to since, I’ve been looking for the feeling I experienced in that group—the heady surprise of reading the Scripture seriously for the first time in community, under the cheerful, competent leadership of two wise leaders.
And yet—and yet—
The Bible study—and so many Bible studies after that—seem beside the point to me now. Not useless, exactly, but like tools for the wrong job.
We studied “kindness” as if it were a scientific concept, or a grammatical principle. Bible study was a wholly intellectual exercise—looking up cross-referenced verses, talking generally about how to do better. We shared only safe stories (even though I know for a fact that my house was not the only war zone). Everyone was sweet and nice and good and at the end we joined hands and prayed popcorn style and ate a brownie and went home.
Sometimes, Bible studies feel like tupperware parties held during a bombing raid. I mean, a tupperware party can be fun and even useful, but it’s grotesque when people are dying.
Let me be clear: it was all we were capable of at fourteen and sixteen. Most of us didn’t know our war-torn houses were remarkable, much less unhealthy. I don’t want to be hard at all on the girls leading or participating the study, because honestly it was one of the best studies I’ve ever been in. No: I critique that study because it resembles most of the others I’ve known.
Why study kindness like it’s a frog you can dissect? Why did kindness seem so controllable, so safe back then, like a car or a five-paragraph essay? Why didn’t anyone warn me that kindness is more like birth–something unleashed inside us when we surrender? Why did the call of Christ seem so divorced from my pain?
Why did I think I could apply kindness—goodness—patience to my life like mascara?
The older I get, and the more I feel Jesus’ power working in my life, the more I yearn after a deeper spiritual discipline–a hungry desperation to be free. I’m done using my faith as a spit-shine finish on sickness.
I long for a community of believers that realizes that others’ approval and God’s approval are often diametrically opposed. That doesn’t spiritualize away anger, hurt, mental illness and abuse. Where we learn how to set boundaries and lovingly hold a line with unhealthy people.
I don’t equate the Holy Spirit with psychology. I don’t think therapy is just the same as church. But oh my God, sometimes, we’d be better off in therapy than warming a pew. Sometimes, Jesus can’t teach us how to love until we confront our id.
Years of Bible study and church sermons erroneously taught me that the fruit of the Spirit was here, and the everyday chaos of my emotions were over there, and I could connect the two by thinking about them more. I learned that religious truths had some kind of reality outside my body and my relationships and my mental health. I thought I could produce kindness by reading Galatians a lot and trying harder to be nice.
I did not know that kindness could start with saying: hell, no. I did not know I might have to stop idolizing niceness. I did not understand showing that showing basic, wise kindness to the people around me might be like learning to use a sword.
Honestly, I better understand Paul’s prescription to put on the whole armor of God now that I’ve gotten therapy. You have to be a crazy warrior to learn how to love other people. You have to be asking God’s help constantly to discern between wholeness and hell.
Again, I’m not saying Paul’s talk about spiritual forces can be dumbed down to pop psychology. I believe demons are real. I think spiritual warfare is an honest-to-God thing. I just think in an American, wealthy, rationalist culture, demons and spiritual oppression might look like mental health issues. The forces of darkness will exploit any means to keep us gasping, helpless, on the floor.
It makes me crazy and terribly sad to see desperately unhappy people spiritualize their problems instead of dealing with them. Faith lived out with bitterness, passive aggressiveness, or codependency will not lead us to the Kingdom.
Every fruit of the Spirit touches every aspect of our being—body, mind and spirit. To think otherwise cheapens God’s wholeness and traps us in surface salvation. If we view “kindness” “goodness” and “self-control” as abstract prettiness, then we are deluding ourselves, and the truth is not in us.