Rethinking Christianity: Hell (How My Faith Evolved From A Story Of Fear To A Story Of Hope)

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Growing up in church I knew the Christian message back to front. It was my reality, my Truth, my reason for living.

It went like this:

God created me in my mother’s womb, and loved me so much that he wanted me to have eternal life with Him in Heaven. Tragically, all of humanity had fallen and was deeply sinful and bad, and God hated sin so much He couldn’t stand to look at me. In His amazing love He sent His only Son to take my punishment by dying on a cross, so that I wouldn’t have to be punished and could spend eternity in paradise. I was saved by grace – there was nothing I could do to earn my salvation, it was a gift from an awesome God who loved me. All I had to do was believe this Good News and accept the free gift of salvation.

This was the way it had to be – God was perfectly good, and nothing evil could enter His presence. Therefore I in my fallen nature needed to be washed clean, forgiven of my sins, and covered by the atoning blood of Jesus. It all made perfect logical sense, and it really was a beautiful story – one of love, hope and sacrifice. I was so humbled and grateful that God had chosen to save me; I was secure in the knowledge that I was going to Heaven, and my mission in life was to see others saved in the same way.

We didn’t talk about Hell much, it wasn’t a nice thing to think about. But it was definitely a real threat and a future reality for anyone who wasn’t a Christian. I understood Hell to be a place without God, where there was no hope, no love, no light, nothing good at all. Some described it as a literal lake of fire, I thought that was a bit farfetched. But I had no doubt that it was a place of suffering and torment, that would last forever, and that was the ultimate eternal destiny for all of humanity – or at least that’s what we all deserved.

That was the Bad News that came before the Good News.

As much as we dressed it up with nice words, friendly smiles and good music, the message of our Christian faith was ultimately based on fear. Unless we got it right, we had good reason to be very, very afraid.

The Unravelling

I was completely convinced. It was only when I encountered some Christians who challenged this understanding of the Gospel that it all started to unravel. When encouraged to step outside of my Christian bubble and dig deeper into my beliefs, I began to see my faith from other angles and some troubling and unsettling thoughts started to emerge.

The way to escape Hell was to believe that Jesus, a man from Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago, was the Son of God, and died to save us from being punished for our sins. Logically speaking, therefore, anyone who died without believing this message would be tortured beyond their worst nightmares for all of eternity. If people had heard the message and chose to reject it, well, then that’s clearly what they deserved for failing to believe the Truth. But what about those who had never heard of Jesus? What about babies who died before they were old enough to understand? What about my mentally handicapped brother? What about people who grew up in cultures where Christianity was not the main religion, or was not known about at all?

As I understand it, this is why traditionally children were baptised as infants – it was a way for the poor, concerned parents to appease God in the hope that He would let their beloved children into Heaven if they died in infancy. Christian missionaries have travelled all over the world preaching the Gospel in the hope of converting people to Christianity and saving souls from Hell. Some truly remarkable people have sacrificed their whole lives to this mission, out of genuine love and compassion for those who were destined for Hell. It is not them I started to have a problem with, it was the God who was responsible for it all in the first place.

If God was Creator of all things, all-knowing and all-powerful, then He knew full well when He created people that they would fall short of His standards. God was just and fair, so needed to punish sin – fair enough. But how just and fair was it that some people like me were born into evangelical Christian families where becoming “saved” was easy, while others never even heard Jesus’ name? Does God prefer white Western people? (Not too long ago the answer to this would have been a resounding “yes”, despite the fact that Jesus was of Middle-Eastern origin). And how just and fair was it that Christians could spend their entire lives abusing people with their greed and selfishness and still go to Heaven, whilst a Hindu man named Ghandi who spent his life working for peace, freedom and justice for oppressed people was right now being tortured in Hell?

If this God was good, I wondered, what was the definition of good exactly?

The Bible says that we are made in God’s image, and that we are like children and God is like our Father. It is therefore reasonable to imagine that the way we love our children is comparable to the way God loves us; and as God is God and we are sinful humans, we would expect God to display the perfect example of parental love. If we heard of a parent who threatened to horrifically torture their child forever if they failed to solve a riddle or recite a poem they might never actually hear, we would lock that parent up and despise them as pure evil. Yet that was effectively the picture of God painted by Christianity as I understood it. God’s love was not free and available for all, it came with very, very specific terms and conditions.

It is at this point in the deconstruction process that many good, sincere and thoughtful people have given up on Christianity altogether. If that is the Christian God, then they want nothing to do with Him. And I was in wholehearted agreement – I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that God.

I now believe with my whole heart that the message of Christianity that I was taught is not what Jesus meant.

I think we got it really, really wrong.

Jesus talked about an afterlife, and he warned clearly that there would be serious consequences for our actions. But He didn’t say that only a select group of Chosen Ones would avoid punishment. His message was about love for all, salvation for all, hope for all.

I think the bit about having to “believe” in Jesus, as children “believe” in the Tooth Fairy, and having to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” in order to gain your ticket to Heaven is a man-made idea based on a serious misinterpretation.

I think the idea of innocent people being tortured for all eternity was man’s invention, not God’s.

No time here for a detailed analysis of Biblical references to Hell. But here are a couple of examples of interesting things I didn’t used to know:

Gehenna (Greek word often translated as ‘Hell’) was a valley outside Jerusalem used as a dump, where bodies and rubbish were burnt. Not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.

Sheol and Hades (Greek words usually understood to mean ‘Hell’) are best translated as ‘the grave’. Also not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.

I think that in focusing on Hell-avoidance strategies, we have missed the point.

I think the message of Jesus, spoken through his words and his actions, was that God loves the whole world and wants to restore it, heal it, renew it, fill it with His presence and His love.

Jesus called this idea the Kingdom of God, and he said it was “at hand” – not for believers after they die, but available for all, here, now. It was a new way of being human; a revolutionary, counter-cultural, radically inclusive new way of living. Jesus spent his life making friends with the outcasts of society, healing the sick, feeding the poor and demonstrating radical ways of fighting political, economic and social injustice. He was killed for being a political revolutionary. The second line of the prayer he taught his followers was “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. What sense does all this make if Jesus’ mission was to give us a ticket out of Hell? In that case, this life doesn’t matter much anyway once we’re “saved” so why bother with all the other stuff?

I think we constructed the belief system of ‘original sin’ and Hell-avoidance by taking particular verses out of context and failing to see the bigger picture, the overarching story. Jesus brought a revolutionary message of love, freedom, radical inclusion and hope. He was most fiercely opposed not to unbelievers, but to the religious leaders of the time who used fear to control people, enforcing petty laws and creating hierarchies based on “purity” (which Jesus routinely turned upside-down).

How tragically ironic that in His name we created a religion based on fear and control, which allows for people to be dehumanised and the planet to be destroyed as long as people believe the right doctrines about the afterlife. Instead of fighting injustice as Jesus did we have contributed to it. Instead of radically loving and including people, we have judged and excluded them.

All this because we wanted to see things as black and white, Heaven or Hell, in or out, Christian or non-Christian, saved or damned.

I don’t think the Good News is that we can escape Hell by believing in Jesus. I think it’s much, much better than that.

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Rethinking Christianity: Deconstruction

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Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.

In the early stages of deconstruction it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.

I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.

I used to have everything sorted, organised into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.

The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:

God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.

This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching (at least western evangelicalism) for a large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fuelled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.

As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.

Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.

Biblical Interpretation

Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.

I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.

By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.

Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.

The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.

I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.

I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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I am a born worrier.

It’s in my nature, it’s how I am programmed.

If worrying was a competitive sport I would be a regional champion. Think of any possible misfortune and the chances are I have worried about it at some point.

As a teenager I really lacked confidence so I mostly worried about what people thought of me. At uni I worried about being single. Then I got a boyfriend and started worrying about our relationship. Then that turned out fine so I worried about my health, and that we wouldn’t be able to have kids. Then we had kids and I worried about all the terrible things that could happen to them. The kids are fine so currently my biggest worries tend to be about being in some sort of accident whilst travelling.

Sometimes I tell myself that worrying makes me more cautious, which means bad things are less likely to happen. This might be true, occasionally. But for the vast majority of the time, worrying has been an utterly pointless exercise which has often stopped me from actually living my life.

Jesus knew that worrying gets in the way of living. For obvious reasons, this is one of my favourite bits in the whole Bible:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:25-27, 34)

Life is short, and I have already wasted too many of my days worrying about things that could, but probably won’t, happen. Worries often still buzz around my head, but I am learning to swat them away before they land – they are not worth the time and attention.

Living in the Now

When I catch myself worrying about something, I remind myself of this and it really helps. There is absolutely no point living in an imaginary future, or in the past; the only thing we have any control over is this moment right here. Now.

This is what the Buddhist practice of ‘mindfulness’ is all about – awakening our senses and becoming fully aware of the world around us. It’s become so popular recently because lots of people are realising the power of learning to live in the present moment.

I have had a fantastic life so far, nothing really awful has ever happened to me. So every time I have felt low, my mind has been somewhere other than the present. Either dwelling on something that already happened (that seemed far more serious than it was) or worrying about an imaginary future.

The very happiest times in my life all take place when I am fully in the moment, soaking up and enjoying life as it unfolds.

Feeling awestruck by a night sky or a sunset over the sea; eating a meal so delicious I can still taste it now; laughing so hard and for so long that I forgot what was funny in the first place… these things all happened when I was fully present and fully alive. And since I have learnt to stop my mind dragging me away from the ‘now’, these moments have become a lot more frequent.

Children are experts at living in the present moment. 

I don’t often catch my two-year-old daughter fretting over what someone said at playgroup, or worrying about what’s happening tomorrow. When something bad happens she cries, but then it’s very quickly forgotten and she is once again fully immersed in whatever she is doing. She chases Daddy round the garden or Grandma pushes her on the swing and she is utterly delighted. Her whole face lights up and her world is full to the brim with joy. I am slowly learning to be more like her.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children, and that anyone who wants to enter it would have to become like a child.

I wonder if this is what he was talking about.

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Moods, Mountains and Muddy Windscreens

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There is something about human nature that makes us virtually incapable of appreciating what we have.

We in 21st Century Britain have better living standards than the vast majority of people on Earth and throughout history. We have more food than we could ever need. We are free to do what we like, go where we like, say what we like. There is no real threat to our lives from war, corruption, famine or natural disasters.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation fought to the death for the freedom we have today. And as recent news stories have demonstrated, a very large number of people right now are literally giving up everything in the hope that their families might be able to live somewhere like this, free from the horrors of war. Not to have a slightly better house or higher wages, but so they can feed their newborn babies until their bellies are full and they stop screaming from hunger. And for the privilege of being able to watch their children go to school without the fear of seeing them shot in the street.

We are SO lucky. 

So why does it hardly ever feel like it?

It makes me really ashamed actually. But I don’t think we are really any different to anyone else, I think if the Syrian refugees were in our position they would be the same. It’s just a weird part of being human; a sort of blindness, an inability to see things in perspective. Everything is relative and we quickly lose sight of the bigger picture.

Muddy Windscreens

It’s like we are all driving in our little cars around the edge of this astoundingly beautiful crystal clear lake surrounded by breathtaking snow-capped mountains beneath an endless azure sky… but we’ve been driving so long that the windows are completely caked in mud and we can’t see a thing.

Occasionally something happens that wakes us up, we drive under a waterfall (because lakes have waterfalls) and suddenly we can see reality in all its glory. Often it takes something bad to happen – someone getting seriously ill or being involved in a serious accident – to make us wake up, stop examining the specks of dust on our windscreens and appreciate the things that actually matter.

“Don’t it always seem to go…?”


In my day to day life I now notice what a massive impact my moods have on me, and it’s quite scary. When I’m in a good mood I feel like my windscreen wipers are on and  I’m able to see things in perspective. I feel relaxed, thankful and open minded, and I am understanding and sympathetic towards others. Life feels easy and if I hit a bump in the road I laugh it off and carry on.

When I’m in a bad mood I am impatient, irrational, irritable and closed minded. I can’t see out of the car at all so I try to fix the problem by examining each speck of dust on the dashboard and in the glove compartment. After a while it rains, the windows clear a little and things start to look brighter again. It genuinely feels as if the world has changed, not just my mood.

Around the time I got engaged I was massively freaking out about nothing in particular; one minute I was enjoying the scenery and everything seemed wonderful, and the next minute something ridiculously trivial would trigger a huge emotional breakdown. I wouldn’t be able to see out of my own bad mood at all, and naturally I would want to pinpoint the reason, analyse it and try to fix it.

I gradually became better at understanding the nature of moods and learnt not to take myself so seriously during bad ones. This, along with recognising that my thoughts aren’t real, is one of the most important things I’ve ever learnt to do, and has helped to lift me out of some really dark places (all entirely imaginary of course).

I feel I am coming to the end of the road with the car analogy so let’s try another one…

Storm Clouds

I started to imagine that when I was in a bad mood a big dark cloud was surrounding my head, pelting down negative thoughts like giant hailstones. If I paid too much attention to them they would usually grow even bigger, but if I managed to ignore them long enough eventually the storm cloud would pass over and everything would feel OK again.

It is really, really difficult to ignore your own thoughts, particularly if you feel like the storm cloud has been following you for months. But I’ve found that with practice it really does get a lot easier, and the sky gradually becomes clearer. At the moment my best moods tend to occur in the morning when I’m fuelled up on coffee. (This is basically the same as taking mild anti-depressants, and as there is no sign of a coffee shortage, I’m fine with that.) I will have a dip in mood between about 2pm and 5pm (when the caffeine’s worn off), where I will start thought-swatting again until teatime when everything starts looking better.

I actually started writing this post two days ago at about 3pm, as it was the only time when both kids were asleep. I was struggling to find inspiration, and getting frustrated as I wanted to publish it that evening. I started wondering why I was even writing the stupid thing in the first place, surely no-one was interested and everyone would think I was weird. I felt determined to get it done though, surely I was feeling bad because I wasn’t writing well enough and just had to try harder. I was doing this for about an hour before I realised I was trying to write about bad moods whilst in a bad mood. I started again this morning and it feels completely different and so much easier. This afternoon I know I will feel a bit pants so I will do something else, get on with thought-swatting and wait for my bad mood to pass like I would a headache. Minus the paracetamol.

The world hasn’t changed, despite what my mind is telling me – it’s just that sometimes I can’t see through the clouds.

If I was rich I would buy all the printed copies of Dr. Richard Carlson’s books and send them to everyone I know. He’s probably not the only one to talk about this sort of stuff but that’s where it started for me. I still go back to his books every time I start to lose my way and feel rubbish, and they always make me feel better.

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Happiness and Fly Swatting

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There is this idea ingrained deep in the British psyche that feelings and emotions aren’t important. Stiff upper lip, hold it all in, keep calm and carry on. We just don’t have time for all that foolish emotional nonsense. Well whoever came up with that was an idiot. Our emotions are how we experience the world – if we become emotionally detached and unable to feel the right things at the right times (which is what mental illness does) then we are not really living our lives.


We are living in a world that is perpetually trying to convince us that happiness is something we should be striving for, that we can achieve if we just do everything right. If we meet the right man, get a good job, lose that weight, buy that car, wear those shoes, have a baby, go on that holiday… THEN we will surely be happy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this doesn’t work. Time and again we reach our goals only to find that the goalposts have moved, that we are still not happy and now need to do something else to achieve happiness. In my previous post I told the story of how I got myself depressed because I was so terrified of being single forever. Three years later my dreams had come true and I was engaged to my perfect man, but the goalposts had moved; my situation was completely wonderful but I was definitely not happy.

I know plenty of people whose lives are fantastic by the world’s standards but who are not happy. I have also met people who have very little and whose lives are very difficult compared to mine, but who are genuinely content. If happiness was something you could achieve by having lots of money and stuff, then judging by global standards, most people in Britain should be ecstatic all the time. The media is constantly telling us lies trying to get us to be more, do more, buy more, when in actual fact most of us have all we need to be content right where we are. I am getting pretty fed up with the negative, cynical mindset I encounter so often which makes people incapable of appreciating what they have; instead they spend their lives moaning and assuming everyone else should be moaning too. Happiness is not a place to arrive at, but a state of mind. A cliché for sure, but I would rather be eternally swimming in a sparkly rainbow sea of clichés than be cynical and miserable.

Paul expresses this same idea in his letter to the church in Philippi:

‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
(Phil 4:12-13)

This counter-cultural, upside-down way of thinking is still extremely relevant today, if not more so. I am approaching this from a psychological angle – how we can practically retrain our minds to achieve this state of contentment, but in doing so I don’t feel like I am undermining the God aspect. I think God gives us tools and techniques to help keep our minds healthy, just as he gives us hospitals and medicine to keep our bodies healthy.

I have come to believe that everyone starts off being happy, and that our natural state continues to be one of contentment and peace. In this state we respond to things exactly as they happen – we feel sad/angry/scared when bad things happen but we don’t let them get in the way of our appreciating the good things. Children are really good at this. It’s just that as we grow up our minds become filled with thoughts and feelings that cloud our view and prevent us from seeing and experiencing things as they actually are. Some people’s minds are so “clouded” that they believe that is their natural state. As a Christian this directly links to my belief that a fundamental goodness lies at the heart of reality and existence, and that all the bad stuff – however real – will not have the last word.

Thoughts are not real

When we feel bad, it is almost always because of a thought we’ve had, whether we can pinpoint it or not. Our minds are creating thoughts constantly, all the time, and have the amazing capacity to make us feel, believe and do almost anything. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that my thoughts are not real. They are just thoughts, and I am creating them – it is how my mind processes what I see and experience. When I have good, happy, positive and loving thoughts I embrace them and use them fully to my advantage. When I have bad thoughts I notice them, but choose to discard them as not worth dwelling on. A lot of the time I can do this before those bad thoughts start to affect how I feel. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes it takes all my willpower and attention to discard what my mind is trying to convince me is true. I cannot emphasis enough how much this apparently simple and obvious realisation has helped me – realising for the first time that my thoughts weren’t real immediately took away some of their power.

Fly Swatting

It is a very difficult thing at first to learn not to trust your own thoughts. Our minds are very good at convincing us that they represent reality. I think of it as a bit like swatting flies. When I’m in a fairly good mood, some thoughts that I would swat away might be something like:

– “I don’t like how I look, I wish I looked more like…”
– “I wish I didn’t have to work later, I really don’t enjoy it”
– “She is a bit self-obsessed, I don’t like her”
– “I wish I was back in …, that was so fun and this is so boring”
– “I’ve always been rubbish at that so I won’t bother trying”
– “I might have a car crash today” (slightly more alarming but I do think this fairly often)

When I’m in a particularly low mood I will be swatting away thoughts such as:

– “I hate living here, it’s so depressing”
– “Everything’s hopeless, why bother”
– “I thought I was happy before but that was an illusion, this is reality”
– “The world is a bleak, meaningless place”

At the moment I’m pretty good at thought-swatting and rarely let them bury themselves in my brain and make me miserable. They are just minor annoyances that I have learnt to ignore. Of course sometimes I do take my negative thoughts seriously and start to feel rubbish, and I then have to backtrack to see where I went wrong. Moods are a natural part of life, but it is possible to learn to recognise them and not take the bad ones too seriously (more on that later). Life is good at the moment so I find this pretty easy. When I was feeling really low I would have to be putting far more effort in – the thoughts were more like seagulls than flies and I would be swatting them from all angles with a baseball bat. Gradually, though, each time I was able to discard the bad thoughts and start to feel more positive – to return to my natural state of contentment.

So there you have it – the first principle I use every day to tackle my over-active mind. I don’t know much about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but I think it is loosely based on this principle. I learned about it through an American psychologist called Richard Carlson whose books I happened to stumble across when I was feeling particularly low and desperate. My favourite is called ‘You Can Be Happy No Matter What’, but he wrote quite a few based on the same common-sense principles – I would recommend his books to anyone, struggling with mental health or not.

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The Story Of My Own Mental Health Wobbles

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This seems like an odd thing to want to shout from the rooftops about. Part of me thinks it is incredibly self-indulgent and no-one will really be interested. Another part (the English part I think) wants to stop all this fluffy, melodramatic nonsense about feelings, swallow it all back down and get on with pretending to be normal. But another part, the part that is shouting loudest, thinks that this sort of stuff isn’t talked about enough, and that a few years ago I would have found it really, really helpful to read something like this. So in the spirit of talking about mental health (see previous post), and on the off chance that there is someone out there who might benefit from reading about my wobbles and what I’ve learnt from them, here goes.

I am a really happy person, probably irritatingly so at times, and have been for a while now. I have my ups and downs, I am human after all, but for the last few years the ups have far outweighed the downs. Clearly this has a lot do with having a lovely husband, two wonderful children, a nice house, etc. But during the first half of my twenties my life was pretty wonderful too – I certainly had nothing to complain about, yet I spent a large chunk of those five years suffering with various forms of depression and anxiety.

As mental illness goes, I have definitely gotten off lightly. Some people will read this and think it sounds like a walk in the park compared to their own experiences. But I do feel like I have had a few small glimpses into what depression and anxiety are like, and those glimpses were so awful that I would go so far as to say I would choose a serious longterm physical condition over a serious longterm mental illness any day. No contest. However, I would also say that I am genuinely grateful to have had those experiences as they have taught me so much about how my mind works, and how a lot of the time it can’t be trusted. Left to its own devices I’m pretty sure my mind would make me utterly miserable. Over the last eight years I feel like I have learnt to recognise when my mind is playing nasty tricks on me, and a lot of the time I am now able to stop it in its tracks.

In my next few posts I will explain some really simple, seemingly obvious and yet profoundly effective principles that have dramatically changed my life, and taught me that it actually is possible to be happy no matter what life brings. To begin with I will set the scene by telling the story of my most significant wobbles to date, and what they felt like.

My First Big Wobble

When I was 20 and in my first year of university, I had “depression” for about 3 months. This is a retrospective self-diagnosis, as I never saw a doctor and at the time was too terrified of that label to accept it. But having done a fair amount of Googling recently I am almost certain that if I had gone to a doctor at the time they would have said I was depressed. Thankfully this lifted gradually of its own accord, and being depressed in those few months is by far and away the worst I have ever felt. Since then it has returned at various times and in various disguises, but has never been quite as bad as that first time.

I kept detailed journals between the ages of about fifteen and twenty-four (something I would definitely recommend doing). Looking back over my journal from my first year of university I can see now how my habit of over-thinking things led to my mood spiralling dramatically downwards. Embarrassingly, it was to do with my being single. This sounds really silly and it is. I had never had a boyfriend, and in the back of my mind had always assumed I would meet my husband at university like how my mum met my dad. After a few months of university and no obvious boyfriend material, I began to wonder what would happen if I didn’t find a husband at university. Looking back on it now it seems so ridiculous to even be thinking that aged 20, but back then that prospect was terrifying. I began to try and be OK with the possibility of longterm singleness, and kept imagining future scenarios without a husband and family, hoping to get to a point where I was happy either way. It was this obsessive thinking about an imaginary future that really started to knock my already very shaky self-confidence and lower my mood.

Within just a few days of starting this obsessive future contingency-planning, I was deep in the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I was carrying around rocks in my chest. I tried to go out, hang out with friends, do work, but wouldn’t last long at all before I’d give up and go back to bed. I couldn’t eat, crying felt like a release so I did that a lot. Sleep was an escape once I finally got there, but waking up the rocks would immediately come slamming back down. My head was swarming with tortured thoughts, the world seemed a grim and horrifying place. I felt so emotionally detached that I forgot how to laugh, and often found myself sat in my bedroom longing to be able to cry so at least I was feeling something. I actually think that sort of pain is worse than physical pain, because it is incredibly real but invisible; you don’t know why it’s there but it’s inescapable, and makes you lose all perspective and meaning in life. I never once had thoughts of harming myself (probably because I was lucky enough that the depression didn’t last very long) but I can totally see how those feelings can lead to that. My mind was convincing me that there was no escape – any happiness I had felt before was an illusion, this was reality.

I had this constantly for probably about three days, and then for the next three months I was feeling OK and able to function about half the time, but the other half my mood would swing back down and all those horrible thoughts and feelings would come flooding back. Looking back now I can see that it was an illness – self-inflicted by my over-active brain but still definitely an illness. I should have gone to the doctor, who would probably have recommended I talk to someone regularly and maybe try something like CBT. I didn’t even come close to going to the doctor because I was absolutely terrified of being told I had depression. I didn’t know anything much about depression except that it was really hard to get out of, you had to take medication and it meant you were crazy. So instead I spoke to my friends (who probably thought I was crazy but hid it well), and tried to pray and read the Bible to regain some sense of security and peace. These things undoubtedly helped, but in my mind the issue was still my singleness, and how I either needed to get a boyfriend or be confident enough in myself to survive being single. I can see now that the issue definitely wasn’t my singleness, it was that I was depressed and my mind was constantly playing tricks on me.

The Next Few Wobbles

In my second year of university I was much more confident and my singleness didn’t bother me any more. I had lots of friends and was enjoying the student life. So my next big wobble was about something totally different, but equally embarrassing. I can’t remember why I started thinking about this, but I became absolutely terrified about global warming. Now global warming is a very real and terrifying thing and in some ways this was not an irrational fear. I am a natural-born worrier anyway, but this anxiety became crippling – I couldn’t stop thinking about end-of-the-world scenarios and it seemed to me like they were imminent. I stopped enjoying things, couldn’t concentrate on anything and it was affecting me physically. I suspect this was in a way part of the growing up process – the realisation after my lovely cosy upbringing that I wasn’t immortal and that bad things could happen. That lasted a month or so.

Fast forward two years and I have just got engaged to my dream man. We’d met in my third year of university, he was incredible and I was completely besotted. We started going out about a month after we first met, and getting to know each other in those first few months was a wonderful, exciting, romantic whirlwind. When we started talking about getting engaged, my mind started going into meltdown. I became fixated on tiny things about our relationship that are so ridiculous I am too embarrassed to be specific. I would have extreme mood swings where one minute all was fine, and the next minute the tiniest thing triggered a huge crisis, everything felt wrong and I was in turmoil and blind panic. When we got engaged I was utterly miserable, and this was made worse by the guilt of not feeling what I felt like I ought to be feeling. Strangely, at the time I knew I was being silly. I knew that there was actually nothing wrong, and for that reason the thought never crossed my mind that maybe the relationship wouldn’t work and we should break up. But this didn’t stop me from feeling really, really low a lot of the time. I told my fiancé everything I was feeling, and he would have been fully justified to walk out then on the grounds of me being unstable and completely bonkers a lot of the time. But credit to him, he stayed. I remember really hoping that once we were married this craziness would stop, and thank goodness – I was right. Almost the minute we walked down the aisle all those huge “problems” mysteriously disappeared, and in the years since our relationship has been wonderful.

Since then I have noticed that the times when I feel lowest are when I’m not doing very much. When I was working as a secondary school teacher, almost every holiday and even at weekends, my mood would come crashing down. I started to be able to predict it but it was still horrible, every time I would feel those rocks in my chest and the world would seem like a bleak and hopeless place. I remember walking around a supermarket during one half term thinking how lucky the people around me were to be able to feel normal. Not even happy, just free from the invisible turmoil and pain I was in.

When we first moved to Plymouth I had six months of being in a new place with no job and very little to do, and predictably my mood swings returned. Generally I would feel fine in the morning, then feel really depressed for a few hours in the afternoon, and feel OK again in the evening. I have no idea what caused this but it became a part of life – not fun but manageable. Sometimes I’d feel so low I was unable to do anything except try to sleep until the bad feelings went  away. I began seeing these low moods as similar to a headache or a cold – something that I had to endure but that would eventually pass.

That was nearly three years ago, and since I’ve had children I’ve had no major wobbles.

So that’s the story of my mental health thus far. I hope anyone reading this who is going through anything similar can be encouraged that it’s probably not as bad as it seems, and that there are ways out.

I’ll be referring back to these experiences in my next few posts, where I will talk about a few basic principles I’ve learned that have had a profound impact on my life. I promise they won’t be depressing at all!

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What The Church Needs To Know About Mental Health

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Mental health is a real thing.

It’s not something lazy people have made up so they don’t have to go to work or get out of bed.

Neither is it something that “crazy” people have, that “normal” people don’t. If you have a brain, then mental health affects you.

Ever felt poorly?

We all know that our bodies are truly amazing in their complexity: their ability to process food into energy, to grow and develop, to get us where we want to go, to heal themselves. But we also know that things can go wrong; whether it be a sore throat, a broken leg, diabetes or lung cancer, we are well aware that our bodies are imperfect and vulnerable.

Before the development of modern medicine, people used to attribute physical illness to all sorts of things, and believed in “cures” that today we know to be counter-productive and harmful. A well-known example is blood-letting: for thousands of years people believed that the cause of many, if not most illnesses were caused by “bad blood”, and therefore could be cured by cutting a vein and letting blood drain out. Sometimes leeches were used to suck the blood out. Another delightful example is the practice of “corpse medicine” – the firm belief held for hundreds of years that by consuming the flesh or blood of a recently deceased person, you were gaining some of that person’s “spirit” and “vitality”, and in doing so improving your own health.

With the benefit of hindsight and the wonders of medical science we now see these practices as being harmful and barbaric.

Our minds get poorly too, it’s part of being human

As medical research continues and our knowledge expands, we are beginning to understand a little more of how our brains work. There are now many widely recognised mental disorders that are diagnosed and treated by health professionals. Until surprisingly recently these same disorders would have resulted in institutionalisation; the stereotypical image of a padded cell and a straight jacket were a reality for many. The controversial practice of lobotomy (drilling through the skull and scraping away a piece of the brain) was common practice for much of the Twentieth Century, certainly into the 1960s and possibly even as late as the 1980s. We now view this with incredulity – not dissimilar to how we view the practices of blood-letting and “corpse medicine”.

Mental health is still a very grey area and there is an awful lot we have left still to learn. But if the history of medicine is anything to go by, the fact that we don’t completely understand something doesn’t mean it does not exist or should not be taken seriously. Medical science has identified a wide variety of mental disorders caused by a combination of genetic, biological, physiological and environmental factors, that cause people a great deal of suffering. As with other medical conditions these vary in severity and cause a range of different symptoms. Mental health disorders include stress, anxiety, substance abuse and addictions, phobias, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and depression, psychosis and personality disorders. None of us have perfect physical health; we all get ill from time to time – whether it be with a cold, a sprained ankle or coronary heart disease. In the same way, our mental health fluctuates and impacts our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Some will be affected by stress or anxiety, others will feel trapped by obsessive behaviour or addiction and some will have more serious, longterm conditions.

What about from a Christian perspective?

As a Christian, I believe that in some mysterious way God wants to heal us and make us whole – spiritually, physically and mentally. We live in a world full of suffering and brokenness; we ourselves are broken and vulnerable, made in God’s image but somehow incomplete or clouded with our human messiness. But we also have this incredible belief that God loves this world enough to want to restore it. And restore us. We have this hope that one day, somehow, everything will be made right, and in the meantime the Holy Spirit compels us to bring healing, hope and restoration wherever we find brokenness. Healing comes in all sorts of forms, often not in the way we would expect. Of course we don’t fully understand it, we never will, and I think that’s OK. But I am convinced that God wants to bring people healing and freedom in this life, not just assurance for the next.

I am fairly certain that God does heal people “supernaturally”. Sometimes. But very few church leaders nowadays would encourage members to rely solely on prayer for physical healing – they would tell them to go to a doctor. By doing this they are not implying that God can’t, or won’t, heal people; they are recognising that God uses doctors and medicine to make people well.

The Drowning Man

I am reminded of the story of the man who was trapped on his roof as his house became surrounded by floodwater. He prayed to God to save him, and waited faithfully and patiently for his prayer to be answered. A neighbour shouted for him to climb into his rowing boat but the man politely declined, assured that his God would save him. A few minutes later a life boat sped towards the house and the crew yelled at him to jump in, but again the man refused. A little while later a helicopter spotted the man stranded on his roof and lowered a rope ladder to him, urging him to climb up before the water swept him away. Again, strong in his faith and confident that the Lord would rescue him, the man refused. Soon afterwards, the flood water rose above the house and the man was swept away to his death. When he got to Heaven the man asked God, I had so much faith that You would save me, why did You let me down? God replied: “I heard your prayer. I sent a rowing boat, a life boat and a helicopter – what more did you expect?”

The church does a lot of damage to people by failing to recognise that mental health is a real thing, and that it needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. People are made to believe that the way they are feeling is a direct result of something they have done, and that praying harder, reading the Bible more or “pulling themselves together” will cure them. In the vast majority of cases this is utterly counterproductive and results in the person’s condition becoming markedly worse. Just as in the story of the drowning man, God has given us the knowledge and understanding to be able to diagnose and treat many mental health problems effectively, and we need to become better at recognising this.

Stop thinking about straight jackets and padded cells

Treatment for mental health problems depends entirely on the severity and nature of the condition, just as with physical health problems. In some cases talking therapies or mindfulness meditation will dramatically improve someone’s mental health; sometimes the problem is caused by a hormonal defect so needs medication, and some conditions require a combination of both.

In society as a whole and in churches in particular, there is still a massive stigma surrounding mental health caused by ignorance and fear. Whilst few of us would admit it, deep down we still associate mental health problems with straight jackets and padded cells. Very few people recognise their own mental health problems (because they’re scared of ending up in a padded cell), which in many cases means they are left untreated until they become utterly debilitating and even life-threatening. What would we say to someone who found a lump in her breast and refused to go to the doctor? There are obvious flaws in this analogy but considering the number of deaths each year caused by stress-related illness or depression, it is certainly worth taking seriously.

What can we do?

1. Realise that mental health affects everyone, not just the “crazies”

If you have never suffered with a serious mental health problem, count yourself incredibly lucky. But if you have ever felt stressed, acted in anger and regretted it afterwards or had an irrational fear of something, then your mental health is not perfect. If this still doesn’t apply to you then congratulations, you are superhuman.

2. Recognise mental health problems in others, and urge them to seek help

If you think someone is suffering with some form of mental health problem, suggest that they should do something about it. Take a break, go on a mindfulness course, see a doctor, have counselling, take medication if necessary. Don’t make them feel that they have in some way failed at life if they have to do any of these things. If your friend showed up with a serious rash or a broken arm you would not tell them to “buck up” or “pull themselves together”.

3. If someone is struggling, treat them with love, care and respect. Pray for them but do it sensitively!

If you know someone is having treatment for a mental health problem:

  • Ask them how they are and really LISTEN to what they say.
  • Be prepared to help in practical ways if that’s what they ask for.
  • Make the effort to build a relationship with them and don’t exclude them.
  • Don’t be scared to ask about their condition from a place of genuine concern, it helps if people understand what’s going on.
  • Ask them how they would like to be prayed for, and pray for them.
  • Understand that the symptoms of mental health problems often affect a person’s mood and personality. If they are having a particularly hard time don’t be offended if they’re not their usual friendly selves!


  • …pray for healing and expect an immediate result. Maybe it happens sometimes, and that’s great. But most of the time it just piles pressure onto the person and ends up with them feeling like they need to fake it.
  • ..make it your own personal agenda to see them supernaturally healed. Pray for them by all means, but accept that healing for many is a long and complex process.
  • …force them to be prayed for. In people who have been prayed for on a number of occasions with no obvious result this can cause confusion, upset and more damage. God heals in His own time and in His own way!
  • …make the mistake of thinking that all mental health problems are the same. Just as with physical health, some things get better quickly and completely, while some are longterm conditions that you have to learn to live with. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask.
  • …be so scared of saying something wrong that you don’t talk to them at all – as long as you’re saying it out of genuine love and concern and with sensitivity it will be appreciated!

4. Spread the word

The stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health will only go away if people talk about it more. So don’t be shy, start talking about it!

These are all my own thoughts and observations based on what I have read and experienced, I am not a health professional or a trained theologian. I would welcome any comments or disagreements – my aim is to start the conversation.

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at

For more information and ideas on how the church can support people with mental health problems have a look at the Mental Health Action Pack from Mind and Soul and Livability.

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I Think God Makes People Gay

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Not because He sometimes makes mistakes. Not because He enjoys to watch them live lonely, frustrated, unfulfilled lives. And not to give Christians a chance to practise their praying skills.

I think God actually creates people with homosexuality as part of their identity, and intends for them to fall in love and have happy, fulfilling relationships.

When I was a teenager, being gay was definitely a sin. But if you were unfortunate enough to have such inclinations you could escape hell by simply being celibate. Just take a minute to imagine that when you were sixteen, someone told you that all the urges and desires you were feeling would have to be repressed; you would never be allowed to have a happy, longterm relationship. You had to be single forever, or you would spend eternity in a burning lake of sulphur.

I became less sure about this around the time of going to university. I spent the next nine years not really knowing what to think. I wanted to be OK with it, but those few Bible verses that appear to condemn homosexuality kept nagging at me. Conveniently none of my family or close friends were gay, so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have a strong opinion either way.

About a year ago, I arrived at the conclusion that it really is OK. God makes people gay. To explain how I got here, I will address some of the strongest arguments against homosexuality and show how for me, they have all come crashing down.

1. The Bible says it’s wrong.

This comes back to the point I made in my previous post about how we read the Bible. If we take it as an instructional manual, from God’s lips directly into our lives, then the conclusion has to be that it’s an abomination. But if you do that, you should also be keeping slaves, killing your enemies with a sword, avoiding pork and only wearing clothing made of single fabrics. If you’d rather stick to the New Testament, then don’t even think about getting divorced and remarried. If you think that’s inappropriate, then you are already admitting that some things that were culturally relevant in Biblical times simply aren’t applicable today.

Here are the main texts Christians use against homosexuality (all NIV), and why I don’t think they condemn gay people today:

Genesis 19 – Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed.

In this story, God sends two angels disguised as men to visit one of two cities called Sodom and Gomorrah, already known for being particularly wicked. While they are staying with Abraham’s nephew, Lot, men surround the house and demand that Lot bring the men (angels) out so they can have sex with them. He refuses, so they try to break down the door. God then gets really angry, rains down burning sulphur and destroys the two cities.

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were immoral, wicked, violent and very inhospitable to visitors. They tried to gang rape angels. Yet somehow, many Christians have interpreted this passage to mean that being in a loving, long-term, monogamous, homosexual relationship is wrong. The word ‘sodomy’, meaning the act of homosexual intercourse, comes directly from this passage. To me that is a gross misinterpretation, and by getting caught up in the specific issue of homosexuality today we are turning a blind eye to all the actual immorality and wickedness in our world.

Leviticus 18:22 – Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
Leviticus 20:13 – If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

You just need to step back a bit and read the chapters surrounding these verses to see that these were laws written for specific people at a specific time and are not applicable today. Leviticus 17:12 says None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood. Bad news for any black pudding fans out there. Leviticus 19:27 says Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Sorry boys. Leviticus 21:16-20 says The Lord said to Moses,“Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 

I think I’ve made my point.

Mark 10:6-8 – But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

Lots of people will happily interpret Leviticus as being culturally irrelevant, but this one is more tricky. You can take it to mean that being in a heterosexual relationship is God’s ideal, and anything else falls short. Or you can take it to mean that this is the norm (which it is – there are far more straight people than gay people in the world and that was presumably the case then too), so it made sense to phrase it in this way. In that case the passage doesn’t necessarily condemn homosexuality – it just doesn’t mention it.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul is talking about the bad things people can do that will get in the way of them ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ (this isn’t just about going to Heaven when they die – see previous post!). He’s talking about people who are selfish, reckless, deceitful, greedy and out of control. Loving, long-term, monogamous, homosexual relationships simply did not exist in that culture – relationships, like an awful lot of other things, have changed over time. I can think of lots of people in this world who are selfish, reckless, deceitful, greedy and out of control; gay people in loving, faithful relationships do not belong in that list.

There is also a passage in Romans 1 about ‘shameful lusts’ which mentions men committing ‘shameful acts with other men’, for which I would argue the same.

2. It’s a choice.

That’s an easy statement to make if you are straight. Think about the number of Christians who try almost anything to cure themselves of their gayness, or the number of young people who are bullied, depressed and even driven to suicide because they are gay, and tell me again that it’s a choice.

3. It’s unnatural.

Animals have been scientifically proven to engage in homosexual activity. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that sexual preference is biological, and even some evidence of an evolutionary advantage. Have a look at this, this, this and this for more information.

It does seem a shame that people in longterm relationships should have no possibility of producing biological children. But if gay people are to be judged for that, we also should be piling the guilt on couples who can’t have children for any other reason. Because clearly, what this world needs is a population increase.

4. It just feels wrong.

That’s hardly surprising, seeing as the church has condemned homosexuality for hundreds, even thousands of years. It was punishable by death for much of history and was illegal in the UK until 1967. There has been a seismic social and cultural shift in a relatively short period of time. So of course it sometimes still feels a bit odd.

If in eighteen years’ time my children turn out to be gay, that means that right now, aged six months and two years, they already are. To be extremely honest, right now I would prefer it if they weren’t. That is because of the culture I have been immersed in growing up, and the prejudices that have been planted deep in my psyche. It will take time for the nasty remnants of homophobia that still lurk within me to be completely shaken out, and the same is true for society as a whole.

5. We don’t want to change marriage.


Marriage between a man and a woman has been an institution, an unshakeable pillar of society for hundreds of years. Changing the definition of it is scary and we wonder if we have the right to meddle with something that has stayed the same for so long.

Marriage in Biblical times was a very, very different thing. Marriages were usually arranged by the family; the husband effectively bought his wife from her father and she was then forced to stay with him until one of them died. Divorce and remarriage counted as adultery, and adultery was punishable by death.

It has changed since then, so I think it’s OK for it to change again.

Of course you might still disagree – that’s allowed, I just hope you will at least take some time to think about it.

Imagine for a moment that I am right, that God makes people gay and loves them as much as anyone else. Imagine what He would feel about how the church has treated gay people throughout history.

If I am right, then we need to spend the next two thousand years making it up to them.

If you’re interested in reading more about this whole issue, this is a good place to start.

Next up: I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 2)I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 3): The Way Forward

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My Confession / Why I Am Still A Christian

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I have been a Christian all my life. As a youngster I went to Sunday school, and as a teenager my church youth group was pretty much the centre of my world. Christian youth camps were the highlight of my year and I helped run the Christian Unions in my school, sixth form college and eventually university. It all suited me just fine – for me the Christian Bubble was a very happy place to be, and to this day I have never not been part of some form of church.

The God I knew as a teenager was a loving Father, an awesome Creator and a best friend. I was in awe that a God so amazing would send his Son to die so that I could go to Heaven when I died. Me! God in His perfection was willing to overlook my many teenage failings and let me in to Heaven. My mind was blown every Sunday evening singing those worship songs.

Luckily my immediate family were also Christians, so they were OK. But for many of my friends and for most of the rest of the people in the world and throughout history, come to think of it, death would bring eternal, conscious torment in a very large and very hot lake of fire. We never said it like that, it sounds a bit harsh and it wouldn’t have made us very popular. We believed it though, and would try, in our own little way, to get people to believe in Jesus so they too could escape hell when they died. And God was pleased with our efforts – He really didn’t want anyone to have to go to hell.

We were right. How could we not be? We white, Western, middle-class, Protestant, evangelical Christians had the Truth. It was just a matter of convincing everyone else how right we were before it was too late.

Nothing about this arrangement bothered me. I sometimes wondered about my younger brother with Down’s Syndrome, but decided he’d be OK. God couldn’t be THAT mean, surely.

When I was eighteen I spent time with some Christians who encouraged me to really stop and think about what I believed. They gave me some books to read. And from then on my happy, white, Western, middle-class, Protestant, evangelical Christian world began to crumble beneath my feet. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I mourned the loss of the certainty and security I had felt when I had it all sorted. I found it difficult to pray – God seemed less close. But the result of my world crumbling was that the universe, reality, and God seemed to get much, much bigger.

In the last ten years I have struggled with, questioned and doubted pretty much every aspect of my Christian faith. Something stopped me from abandoning it altogether like many others I know. I clung on by my fingertips often feeling confused, lost, sad, sometimes desperate to regain the certainty of faith I once had. My prayer life was at best guilt-ridden and at worst non-existent; not because I was being particularly lazy about it, but because my understanding of the God I was talking to was morphing so dramatically it was hard to keep up. Church stopped being my family and became something to complain about.

About a year ago I finally began to feel happy and settled in my Christian faith again. I had a sense of clarity. Not because I had figured out answers to all my questions, but because I had made peace with the fact that I am not God, and will therefore never understand everything. And that’s OK. More than OK actually – I find living with that mystery immensely comforting.

Having said that, there are some things I do currently feel quite strongly about, some of which I summarised in my first post. As I said previously I do not claim to be an expert on anything and these are just my own thoughts based on what I have read and experienced, very much open to discussion. Here goes…

1. The church is in a time of transition, where many are feeling dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Gospel message that satisfied previous generations. Many feel that the church needs to drastically rethink its theology and mission, whilst others fear that in doing so we are ‘watering down’ Biblical truths and consequently condemning ourselves and our world. Either way, a dramatic shift is underway and I am absolutely not the only one to have questioned what it means to be a Christian.

2. How we read the Bible is key to how we understand our faith. If you take the Bible to be directly and literally applicable to our lives today, you have to either take the whole thing literally (which causes a LOT of problems), or pick and choose the bits you think are relevant (which then means you have interfered with God’s word and causes a lot more problems). Alternatively the Bible can be seen as a collection of historical documents – poetry, folklore, songs, stories, historical accounts – making up a rich and fascinating history of God relating to people. God-breathed, inspired and relevant but never intended to be an instruction manual for life. This is the point of disagreement at which many discussions simply grind to a halt.

3. Jesus kept talking about the Kingdom of God being at hand. Here, now, on Earth. His life was all about bringing down the powers of darkness, which for the Jews at the time was the Roman Empire. His message was deeply political as well as spiritual, and was about bringing real hope and freedom to people in THIS life as well as the next.

4. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean saying a prayer to save yourself and then trying to get others to do the same. It means becoming a follower of Jesus, choosing to live the way he lived and working with him to bring about this thing called the Kingdom of God. It means feeding the poor, visiting the lonely, befriending those everyone hates, helping others to know their value and to experience the incredible mystery of a God who loves people like us.

5. Ultimately, it’s about believing that the goodness in this world is not an illusion, a fleeting distraction from the cruel and harsh reality of our pointless existence. It’s about believing that we are part of a bigger story, a story that starts with the Earth and everything in it being created and loved by God and ends with every little thing being alright.

That’s what I mean when I say I am a Christian, and that’s the background and starting point for any further musings I share with you here.

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