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Why guilt defined my spirituality and how I left that paradigm behind

In Brad Paisley’s controversial song “Those Crazy Christians,” there’s a line about going to church that says:

Those crazy Christians, dressed up drivin’ down my street, Get their weekly dose of guilt before they head to Applebee’s.

I can relate to this line because: one, I love just about everything Paisley writes and sings; two, Applebee’s is a pretty good place to eat; and three, guilt has unfortunately been one of the main concepts that has defined my spirituality over the course of my life.

Far too often, guilt has followed me like a shadow. Whether it was failing to attend Mass and confession during my years in the Catholic church or failing to “read the Bible more” and “pray more” during my years in the Protestant church, I have always experienced a sense that I “wasn’t doing enough” or “could be doing more.”

This mindset has stuck with me for as long as I can remember.

When I got baptized in high school, I remember telling myself, “I’m going to see how long I can go without sinning.”

Didn’t last long.

No more than an hour or two after church, my best friends and I were setting things on fire, building contraptions, and shooting fireworks into a nearby pond. I remember my friend Jon Dann (who has two first names) chugging an entire two-liter of Mountain Dew and puking his guts out. Needless to say, my spiritual “mountaintop experience” didn’t last long. I’m sure I drove home feeling guilty for acting so reckless and foolish, but now I can see that the entire day accurately represented life and spirituality.

When I got to college—a small, Christian school in Indiana—I found myself doing more “spiritual things” than I had ever done before. Yet I found that guilt still somehow found its way to hang over me like an eternal storm cloud—actually, even more so. No matter how many disciplines I checked off my list, I still felt guilty. It was never enough.

There was always something I was struggling with, and there were always people that seemed to be “living out” the Christian faith and “following Jesus” better than me.

It felt as if there was a hierarchy of the “most spiritual” to the “least spiritual” people at college (this seems relatively common in Christian cultures)—and I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I always struggled to have a consistent “quiet time,” and I listened to a lot more Green Day than Hillsong United, and I probably cursed more than I prayed due to our competitive FIFA matches on Xbox (I was a Journalism/Bible double-major who got his Masters in FIFA).

Once, someone even divided our dormitory into two categories: “elite” and “non-elite.” The “elite” consisted of the people that the person thought wanted to grow in their faith; the “non-elite,” I guess, were the ones who he thought didn’t want to grow. Since my friends and I could sometimes be perceived as goofballs, most of us were “non-elites.” One of my best friends, Christian, however, was somehow named an “elite” (probably because of his name) so we all gave him a hard time for making the cut and started asking him for ridiculous spiritual advice all of the time.

The whole elite/non-elite thing all ended up being a big misunderstanding anyway, but my point is that whenever you’re a Christian, there is a pressure to do certain things—quiet time, small group, prayer group, journaling, a quiet small group that journals prayers, etc.—and whenever I wasn’t doing certain things, I didn’t feel very elite and therefore felt guilty even in my most disciplined phase of life.

Over the last four years, thanks to the writings of Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen, my spirituality has recently been flipped on its head.

Says Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son:

“I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by him?’ The question is not ‘How am I to know God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be known by God?’ And, finally, the question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’”

In a book project that I doubt will ever get published, I jotted these thoughts down about my journey:

There was a time I read my Bible because I thought God would be mad at me if I didn’t, and there was a time I prayed because I was told this would help me be “closer to God” (even though His Spirit is already inside me). Now, however, I read and pray simply because I want to enjoy Him more. And, though I believe these are essentials to enjoying Him because they direct our hearts and minds better than anything else, I also enjoy Him when I blast music in my car on a road trip, watch a thought-provoking movie on a Friday night, drink a coffee in the morning on the way to work, grab a drink with a friend in the evening after a long day at work, or when I go to bed with my windows cracked as I listen to the music of the bullfrogs in the pond behind my apartment.

My perception of God has drastically changed over the last few years, and abandoning the performance wheel and clinging to grace has been one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done.

In the words of one of my mentors, “Growing spiritually is a lot like getting a tan; you go outside in the presence of the sun and you simply rest and enjoy the rays.”

By Stephen Copeland

A version of this blog was published in Sports Spectrum Magazine.

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