Believers seem to fall into two camps in terms of the character of the God they follow. He is either a jolly old soul full of good things for them if they behave or, on the far swing of the pendulum, he is stern, demanding, vengeful, judgmental, even harsh. The “Gods” are different but one thing is constant — you! You are trying to earn the love of a God who wants to give you that love for free.
What kind of God do you believe in? Lynne Hybels’ God was toxic.
Lynne grew up in church. Her desire to help people led her to college, initially seeking a degree in social work. However, once there, she grew disillusioned with the idea of helping people with their physical needs while ignoring their spiritual needs. She veered away from social work. But, she was also disillusioned with the church of her childhood for although it did much to address the spiritual needs of people, it did virtually nothing to address their physical needs.
At the age of 21, “as a last resort,” she began to read her Bible seriously for the first time. She was completely captivated by what she read in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. She became enamoured with the vision of what the church could be. Not long after that she visited a friend who had an exciting ministry in Chicago. This young man had a vision for church and a zeal for the Lord that matched her own. They fell in love and she married Bill Hybels, Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.
Together, they threw themselves into ministry, devoting their lives to the growth of the kingdom. Lynne tried very hard, and succeeded, at being a “good” pastor’s wife. She took care to look and act and be the model Christian she thought a pastor’s wife should be. Rebellion was the furthest thing from her mind because she sincerely wanted to honour God and her calling to ministry. Every day she would call out to God, “Tell me what you want me to do today. Anything! I’ll do anything.” Frustrated, she never seemed to hear a clear answer to that plea. She redoubled her efforts, working harder than ever in an attempt to earn God’s favour. Over time, she began to suffer the effects of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion.
She slid into depression. After 15 years as a pastor’s wife, Lynne awoke to the reality that something terrible had happened, and she didn’t know how to fix it. She still loved the church, but she hated her life. Desperate, she walked into the office of a Christian counselor and asked for help. “When I go to bed at night, I pray that I won’t wake up,” she told the counselor.“ If not for my two wonderful children, whom I adore, I would not want to go on living. Can you help me?”
She was 39 years old and she “felt like a complete failure.”
With the help of counseling and the full support of her husband, over the next 10 years, Lynne embarked on a journey of self discovery, spiritual renewal, and healing. Eventually, she found freedom in Christ. Piece by piece she had to dismantle her unhealthy, imbalanced life and build a new life based on the truth of who God really is – not who she always thought He was.
Without blaming, Lynne admits that the view of God she had developed growing up was faulty. “I had a toxic relationship with God,” she says. She was a sensitive child who grew up hearing messages of hellfire and brimstone. That teaching formed in her impressionable mind an erroneous picture of who God was. She thought of Him as a hard-hearted taskmaster. She believed that she would have to work very hard and be very good in order to please Him. So that’s what she tried to do, because she truly wanted to please God. Eventually, her determination to earn God’s love in order to feel His love left her completely exhausted. After a decade and a half in ministry, what she needed most of all was rest, but, “my God wouldn’t let me rest,” she says.
In 1991, Lynn realized the only way she was going to get the rest she needed in order to survive, she says, was to “get rid of my God.” Staring up into the endless blue of a hot summer sky as she stretched out in the prow of her husband’s sailboat, she told God she was done with Him: ”I can’t do it anymore. I can’t keep striving for your love.” At that time, God felt like a horrible weight and she knew she could “no longer carry the burden of a harsh and demanding deity.”
Her world didn’t stop turning and let her off. Lynne’s life was still full of responsibilities. But instead of continuing to work and strive and push herself, whenever possible, she collapsed into a recliner and stared out her family room window at the changing seasons. “Although I felt guilty, I had no energy for anything else,” she says.
Lynne Hybels came to a point in her faith journey where in desperation she decided that, to survive, she had to walk away from God as she understood Him. Thankfully, the God she walked away from wasn’t the God she later came to know and love. It was her toxic view of a harsh and demanding deity that was crushing her under the weight of its demands. As she rested in her recliner by the window, she “watched squirrels chase each other as the leaves turned to gold, and an amazing thing happened.” As she yielded to the beauty of God’s creation, she began to long for “a God” again. But not the God of her childhood.
“It’s me,” she whispered into the void as she opened her heart’s door just a crack.
“I love you,” the Whisperer replied. “I want you to rest, to listen, to watch. All those years you worked so hard, I was trying to get you to slow down.”
Lynne describes this experience as the pivotal moment of her life, where she was truly embraced by the love of God. I sobbed when I heard her say these words. Her poignant longing struck a chord within me. As Christians, we so deeply yearn to hear the Father speak words of love to us. We work and serve and knock ourselves out in order to earn His favour, all the while preaching the gospel of grace (unearned merit). But in our deepest place, in the hidden parts of our soul, we hunger for His tender voice. We thirst for His whispers of love. We long for His healing touch. I don’t think we will ever get enough of Him until we see Him face to face. This is why I cried, and why Lynne says she still weeps every time she tells or writes this part of her story. (excerpt From Faking it to Finding Grace)
Do you need to rethink your relationship with God? Join the conversation with a comment.