A straight sandy path leading up a sand dune with dry grass and thistles on either side. Text over the top: The fear that God won't keep me good. Faith in Grey Places.

The fear that God won’t keep me good

With my creative juices running a bit dry, I’m writing about my most significant recurring fears. If you missed the first post in this series (on the fear of unanswered prayer) you can find it here.

This week I’m writing about my fear that God will not keep me good.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12–13, NIVUK)

Christians often talk about the “straight and narrow” to describe the right way to live. The implication is that it is difficult, and there is only one. Or if there’s more than one, then only a few predetermined, pre-set paths constitute legitimate ways for a Christian to live. You have to find one of those paths and stick to it. Innovation is dangerous.

This idea plagues me. Because I do not trust myself to stay on the path, and I do not trust God to keep me on the path either. Good grief, I don’t even trust myself to go forward, because the farther down the path you go, the higher the stakes and the more dangerous it gets. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this fear comes from John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian and Hopeful leave the highway and walk along a meadow path which is gentler on their feet. But then they’re captured by Giant Despair and taken to Doubting Castle. When they escape, they have to retrace their steps back to the point where they first left the highway. 

I’ve also thought a lot about Jill Pole from C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. Aslan (i.e. the Jesus figure) tells her to remember four signs to help guide her on her quest. Of course, she forgets them, misses the signs and also ends up trapped in a castle full of malevolent giants. (Yes, she and her friends escape, but that’s not the point.)

Growing up, I associated staying on the path with staying inside a mainstream Christian denomination. I heard stories about small churches that started up with lots of energy but then went “off the rails.” 

As an adult, I do appreciate how orthodoxy and denominational structures can help safeguard communities of faith against becoming cults (i.e. high control groups that manipulate and exploit their members) — though I also know the protection is far from absolute. 

Because I also see mainstream Christian leaders doing terrible things and/or teaching damaging doctrines. And this has undermined my confidence that there even is a righteous path to follow. If these people, who are credited with much good, have been educated and steered at the heart of Christian establishments and yet have still been perpetrators of harm, then what hope is there for me? 

I guess that links in with why I don’t trust God. There are plenty of Bible stories where the heroes did terrible things (Samson, Jephthah, Gideon, David, the list is long). If God didn’t stop them, why would he stop me? 

And, supposing that I want God to be with me and walk with me, I still have this sense that he’s going to be absent. Because the straight and narrow isn’t about God walking with me, it’s about me walking with God. But how can I walk with him when I don’t know where he is or where he’s going? And I no longer trust the path to lead me to him? Is there even a path?

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called The morning after, inspired by the story of when the disciples shared breakfast with Jesus after his resurrection in John 21:1–14. Ostensibly, it’s written from Peter’s perspective, but the emotions of regret, isolation and uncertainty are autobiographical.

To me, the resurrected Jesus, much like the resurrected Aslan, is elusive and cryptic. And despite all my longing, I’m utterly powerless to ask him to sit and stay. He disappears, but the grief remains. 

Now, to be fair, this has never been my experience of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always straight and real with me, and boundlessly kind. I don’t know why I don’t experience Jesus that way too. Instead, I feel like I’m held at arms’ length. Like I can’t be trusted. But then, I don’t even trust myself not to give up or get cocky, so I can’t blame him. 

The result is that this fear stops me from doing my own thing. Instead, I put my blinkers on and do the next task that I can’t avoid. Which isn’t bad and isn’t nothing, but it’s not much fun either. 

As with last week’s reflection, I don’t have a list of answers, though I do have some avenues of inquiry. I’ve been mulling on some of them for a while.

How much is this idea of “the path” from God anyway? Do I feel forgiven for the times when I have given up or got cocky? Do I project too much Aslan onto Jesus? Maybe I make unfair comparisons between myself and other Christians? Am I too quick to transmute my achievements into failures? (My husband says I do that a lot.) And just maybe — am I still too afraid of making mistakes?

I do believe in the kindness of God and I’ve written about it before, both in a poem on gentleness and in The God who forms (it’s one of my favourites). I guess, for whatever reason, I don’t associate kindness with the Christian walk. Maybe I should.

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Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

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