An acquaintance asked me the other day, “Paul, what do you even believe any more? Do you still believe in God? Are you even Christian?”
I’ve written a lot about therapy, pornography, purpose, and how race has affected my experience as a U.S. citizen. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I’m often writing little blurbs about everything from toxic masculinity to finding your purpose. If we are connected on Facebook, you have probably noticed that I post almost exclusively about the harms of pornography which is a stark contrast from the Bible-verse-trigger-happy high school graduate from ten years ago.
There’s been a lot of trauma, a lot of work, a lot of wylin’ out, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that has led me to this point in time.
As much as I’d like to think that I’m so unique, I’m about 80% sure that my experiences, questions, and confusion are shared by many of you.
For those of you who would consider yourself 100% grounded in your faith and religion, I’d ask for grace, but also encourage you to hear me out as I try to explain where a lot of my doubts and cynicism originated from.
For those of you who are in the same boat, you aren’t alone, and I see you.
For those of you who don’t believe in God any more, you aren’t alone either and I see you too.
This is: the art of deconstruction.
To properly understand my journey, you should know that I was practically born into church. I was homeschooled until high school, took classes on theology, read the biographies of missionaries, and surrounded myself with friends who shared the same religious views.
I went to a Foursquare church in Van Nuys for the first thirteen years of my life. During my time there, I was encouraged and inspired by so many individuals who volunteered their time and resources to teach Sunday school. I remember fondly, this one black family taking the 11am slot to teach fourth grade sunday school and I especially remember them incentivizing memorizing a whole chapter of the Bible by giving an entire Little Ceasar’s Pizza to any kids who could. There was also teacher April who organized the Vacation Bible School and invited me to join the dance team as an elementary school teacher. I remember pastor Bob at Highway 56 sticking around later when my parents were late to picking me up. I remember pastor Brian at Rock Solid keeping us middle schoolers busy at the Jr. High summer internship.
Most of my memories are positive and most of them I cherish and remember fondly.
In high school, I started going to a new church in San Diego, and I remember pastors, Josh and Greg creating a safe space for us high schoolers. I remember Matt investing time and energy into making sure I was not just blindly following sermon talking points. I remember Frank treating me like an adult and not a project as he burned worship cds for me. I memorized scripture, listened to Christian Contemporary Music, and probably annoyed the living crap out of my non-Christian friends.
I’m pretty sure I broke up with a girl one time citing God as a reason..
I wrote entire posts on Tumblr devoted to my interpretation of scripture. My mother watched Fox News and I was convinced that being Christian was synonymous with being a Republican.
I knew the verses and the messages about grace and love, but I never stopped and listened to anyone who had a different life experience than I did.
I used to give mini-sermons at Christian club where I just copied the styles and themes that I had seen modeled for me in church.
If you are reading this, and we knew each other back then, this is my formal apology.
I am so sorry if you ever felt judged or shamed by the things that I said. Things that I, a flawed human, asserted that God said about you. Whether it was my blatant disregard for your emotions or my gaslighting and steamrolling of your worldviews, I am so sorry that I caused you pain.
In college, the cracks in my self righteousness began to show. I volunteered my time in my college fellowship, took calculated small steps of vulnerability in controlled situations, and pretended like everything was okay. My closeted addictions started coming out and by the time I graduated, I was full on tripping.
The Cynical Prodigal Son:
I remember going to Mexico City for the first time after I graduated from college and rationalizing to myself that my secret porn habit couldn’t actually be contributing to ruining the lives of real people.
Deep down, I knew I was lying to myself, and so I said that I cared about anti-trafficking efforts, but I quickly forgot everything I saw and experienced.
As I wrestled with my own sexuality and addictions, I became angry. I didn’t know what spurred the anger because I had never done the hard work of naming my emotions. I became frustrated and criticized the church for the needs I saw that it wasn’t addressing.
It was easier for me to blame the church for over-preaching about tithing and under-preaching about mental health and addictions because that meant that my problems weren’t my fault.
I stopped going to church, and lost the one thing I thought I’d always have: my integrity.
I was so confused.
For my whole life I knew that there was a “right” way to be a Christian. Christians didn’t sleep around, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t curse, voted yes on Prop 8, and volunteered as much time as possible at church.
But despite knowing that this was the “right” way to to do things, I knew that I was not actually adhering to the full letter of the law.
When I wasn’t at church I was cursing, experimenting, and let’s not forget, watching a SHIT ton of porn.
I felt like a fraud at church because I was.
Yeah, I had read the whole Bible.
Yes I had been to small groups and retreats.
Yes I had been on mission trips.
But there was this huge cognitive dissonance between who I was supposed to be and who I was.
After you attempt to quit porn after a church retreat for like the third time, you start asking some questions about whether or not something is wrong with you.
Toxic Church CULTure:
If you’ve gone to church, tell me if this sounds familiar:
The pastor talks about how everyone needs grace, and then some people at church look straight at you and when it’s time to pray for each other, nobody says jack shit about anything more than “work has been tough.”
At first, you think wow, everyone here has their shit together. I aspire to be this level of holy.
But as you spend more and more time there, you come to a shocking discovery: At ANY church, charismatic or conservative, expository or theme-based sermons, Hillsong worship songs or hymns, people are seriously fucked up.
Marriages are falling apart, addictions are out of control, mental health is a huge issue, volunteers are being abused, affairs are happening on the worship team, tithe money has gone missing, pastors are arguing and causing church splits, and it turns out, that some of the biggest assholes and abusers are churchgoers.
Then, depending on your level of self-awareness, you begin to realize that you are actually a part of the problem.
I remember realizing that I despised the fact that no one was talking about pornography, depression, and suicidal ideation in church. At one lunch with my mother, I asked her WHY the church was so silent on issues that I KNEW were relevant. She just sat with me and heard me out.
I kept criticizing and SLAMMING the church for what it wasn’t doing to make the world a better place. I thought it was ridiculous that churchgoers didn’t act like Jesus did in the New Testament, but it never occurred to me that perhaps I had a part to play in this.
A Perfect Storm:
In 2019, after about a year of therapy and processing my emotions, I realized that I had a lot of work to do on myself in order to not project all my baggage onto my friends, family, and significant other.
An incident, in which my pornography addiction wreaked even more havoc in my day to day life, led me to start aggressively targeting the root cause of my habit in therapy as well.
As I processed my emotions and sat with them for the first time in 25-26 years, I began to see the depth of my own pain and brokenness. And as my therapist validated me and told me that I wasn’t alone, I realized this fundamental need I had to be seen and heard.
It was as this was happening, that I realized that I had not felt seen or heard in really any of my circles except for a handful of scenarios.
My best friend, Imon who sat with me through all of the shit I had been processing even outside of the context of religious camaraderie.
My college pastor and friend, Abe who hugged me after I revealed that I didn’t think I could be a college small group leader because of my porn addiction.
My friend, Crystal who allowed me to sit in post travel and job hating depression because she too was experiencing it.
This concept of sitting with people as they were processing their emotions would end up being the missing piece that helped me tie together everything that I had been experiencing.
For the first time ever, I was allowing myself to be angry, sad, tired, cynical, happy, excited, depressed, worried, doubtful, anxious, heartbroken, worried, and a whole slew of other emotions without shaming myself into putting “faith in God.”
And while my Christian readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop as I say that therapy has led me away from God and into the ever waiting socialist arms of the far left, I have a surprise for you:
God showed up in my therapy sessions uninvited.
As I transitioned from talk therapy to EMDR therapy, my sessions began to tackle really traumatic memories in which I felt truly alone, violated, or damaged. And even though my therapist said nothing about God and I didn’t explicitly invite God into that space, He freaking showed up there in the middle of my deepest pain.
It was at this moment, that I realized the importance of being present during the painful seasons of those in our community. I think of Jesus mourning Lazarus, the disciples falling asleep as Jesus prays at Gethsemane, and the Holy Spirit descending in the upper room.
But hold up, I’m not done yet.
20 Fucking 20:
In the biggest plot twist of our modern day lives, 2020 came and screwed us all over. Whether you were a small business owner, a stay at home mom, a church goer, a food service worker, it really didn’t matter, we all were affected.
We had BLM in the streets protesting injustice. We had a freaking virus running crazy. Trump was re-running for office. Asians were being targeted in public.
I don’t even need to write you about this, you all ALREADY fucking know. 2020 was a cluster show.
It was at this critical point in history, that my faith in the church was shaken to its core.
While my faith in God was just recently reinvigorated, the marriage of christianity and politics that 2020 brought forth absolutely destroyed me.
One day, I’d be playing basketball at a park while being aggressively approached by a racist security guard only to hear from the pulpit that BLM wasn’t a Biblically founded movement. I’d grown up hearing about how Jesus spoke in parables where the heroes of the stories were marginalized immigrants, while my old church friends were lauding ICE and wall building as practically Christian endeavors. I’d learned as a child that loving your neighbor as yourself was second only to loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but then people were raving that masks and vaccines were inherently unchristian or worse yet the mark of the beast.
We were taught as children in Sunday school that we had a personal relationship with Jesus, but then all of a sudden, there was this HUGE push that God HAD to have us meet in person.
It was like everything was moving and changing and contradicting itself.
My heart sank as past mentors and pastors openly decried governmental mandates and went so far as to assert that being Christian meant defying laws designed to protect us. Nonchalant and cavalier comparisons to the persecution of Christians in other times and countries were liberally used by conservatives. AND THEN, just when things couldn’t get any worse, having views that weren’t as conservative became being anti-God.
All of a sudden the LITERAL depiction of loving your neighbor became rebranded as being socialist.
A Search For Doers:
As I sat with my dad at the breakfast table one morning in 2020, I shared with him how I was so discouraged and confused about my convictions on what the church should be. I asked him where the heroes were and who was actually doing what Jesus had commanded us to do in the Bible: loving God and loving people.
He didn’t have an answer, but he said that he would pray that I would find more of these heroes.
In the span of a year and a half, I was given the immense privilege of partnering with Fight the New Drug, my friend Calista referred me to join Clubhouse, I met Victoria on Clubhouse and was able to share my story on the Trafficked Truth podcast, and my friends Tina and Randy shared their story with me and hosted me on my longest stint in Mexico City yet.
In the face of the question: Where are the heroes who are doing Kingdom work, the answer came in the the form of El Pozo de Vida, 27Million, and new friends who have been doing Kingdom work in their respective areas of expertise.
Where I am:
It’s weird when you look back on the past few years and realize that the majority of the people who have been the best representations of God’s grace, acceptance, and character weren’t even churchgoers.
I have immense gratitude for my supportive family, my ride or die friends new and old, and for the organizations that have given me the privilege of partnering with them.
It’s interesting how I learned empathy, shameless acceptance, and recovery from sources that weren’t explicitly citing scripture or throwing “Kingdom principles” at me. All of these aforementioned traits are traits that the Bible teaches us that we should exhibit, and yet, as a Christian I admit, we have failed as a body to grow these character traits.
It might make some of you uncomfortable that I don’t quote scripture in my facebook posts every week anymore or that I curse when I write my blogs. It might be disconcerting to know that not all the organizations that I partner with have Jesus explicitly in their mission statements.
But that is just the point: I’m done playacting that I’ve got my shit together.
Never in my life, have I cared less about what people think about my motives or intentions, because I know what they are for one of the first times in my life.
I’d rather be congruent and consistent in who I am and who God has created me to be, than pretending to be someone who I am not.
It doesn’t help me or anyone else if I bury my struggles and pain and pretend that cliches and quotes are what can change lives and the world.
Our world is so fucking messed up, and we need to be on the frontlines addressing the needs, not just criticizing other doers from our high horses of self righteousness.
I honestly think that God created us to be innovative and creative in our problem solving approaches and part of that is trusting that God has given us the tools and gifts that we need to get the job done.
Maybe as a collective body, we as the church need to do a better job of leading with actions rather than words..
Maybe God isn’t so keen on our “defenses of the faith” on facebook so much as he is looking for our actions that display His love to those who need it.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a aman who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.James 1:19-27
Have we focused too much on the very last phrase, fixating on spotlessness, while disregarding everything that came before it?
Is the pinnacle of our lives as Christians arguing about vaccines and the mark of the beast or is it going and doing as Jesus commanded: loving God and loving others?