I have to confess something.

I’ve gone to church approximately 1650 times, but I think I only really started studying the Bible about a year ago.

I feel like a traitor about that. I feel like all my friends and family will be like “What? No way.” Or worse, actually, that they would actually believe it. Either way, I’ve failed, until now, when I just came clean.

I’ve been a part of plenty of Bible studies, but I always quit them after a while because I wasn’t connecting with the people in them the way I’d hoped I would. I was a church camp counselor, but I always got really uncomfortable when it was my turn to lead Bible times, and I always silently wished my TAWG (time alone with God) times were as effective as other people’s seemed to be. Most all of my friends in my life have been Christians, but the emotional intimacy in them has only ever gotten so far, probably because I had this secret. I memorized the names of the books of the Bible in order, and many verses throughout years of Sunday School, but even if they made it deeper than short-term memory, I couldn’t give you any context for them.

Now, let me tell you something else. You know how sometimes when you meet someone, you forget to remember their name? And then you end up getting to know them for so long, so well, that it becomes embarrassingly inappropriate to ask them what their name is? (At least I hope I’m not alone on that.) Well, it’s been the same way with Christianity for me. I’ve been a Christian, in the midst of really great Christians, for so long that, because I’m a [selective] perfectionist, it became embarrassingly uncomfortable for me to say to anyone “Hey, actually, despite what you’ve probably always assumed about me, I am pretty sure my faith is actually really immature.”

  • I don’t know how to listen to / hear from God.
  • I don’t know how to study the Bible. Reading random passages for devotions, or even chronologically, has never been productive for me. I need context. And I didn’t read much else because I didn’t know the “right” things to read because all the Christian thought leaders have different opinions on every Christian writer. The Bible Project has been a huge help here though, thank you Tim.
  • I knew the main stories of the Bible, but I never considered the characters’ humanity, especially not in comparison with my own.
  • I only recently learned that the parables didn’t actually happen. (I didn’t know what parable meant.)
  • I don’t understand how Noah lived to be 950.
  • I don’t know if it’s OK to believe that certain Old Testament stories are allegorical and not literal.
  • I don’t understand why there are so many denominations (fights) within Christianity if doctrinal details are inconsequential in faith-based salvation.
  • Really how important is theological study, apologetics, exegesis (and other fancy words I don’t really know the meanings of), etc., in a world of such enormous need and injustice?
  • Why would a Christian oppose clean energy?

These are my main questions. I don’t know if they’re valid or stupid, but there they are.

One Sunday in July of 2014, I started to care about theology. Here’s how it happened:

Michael was traveling, and I decided to go to Sunday School for the first time after attending this church with my now-husband for more than 4 years. I wanted to just see what it was like. What the people were like; what sorts of discussions occurred; if it would be something Michael might be interested in doing together with me, because that was my desire — I wanted to learn about God, and I wanted to learn about God with my husband, to grow spiritually as a couple.

I went to Sunday School with one intention and left with something very different.

Turned out, the class I wanted to go to didn’t meet during the summer, so I asked what the next closest class would be, topic-wise, and went to that class. It was on “engaging as Christians with other religions”.

During the class, the leader, a pastor, said that “some of the people in the world are sinners”. As a first-timer, I was too shy to ask what she meant by that, but it certainly piqued my attention because I had always been under the impression that “all have sinned”. Now, all of this happened very quickly and unexpectedly, so I’m not 100% sure of this, but I think she was defining sin as being something wrong that you intentionally do; if it’s not intentional, if it’s an honest mistake and you didn’t know any better, you’re not “sinning”. Interestingly, later she also said her babies are sinners because they pee on her. I think she was somewhat kidding about that, but in all seriousness these babies don’t know any better nor do they have control over that socially-learned action. I think she said it was different for her babies versus babies of “unreached people groups” because they’re inheriting sin from their parents (although we all have the same ancestry going way back, so…??).

So, I never asked Michael to go with me, and I never went back myself either. But it did remind me of my thinking about denominations, Pharisaical fighting, and “What are the essentials about Christianity?” vs. “What really doesn’t matter?”. I felt like this difference mattered, because it seems so fundamental to why salvation is even an option. I hadn’t previously thought that there even could be different ideas about who the label “sinners” really included.

After Sunday School that day, I decided to go to a different church that I used to sometimes attend, for their worship service. This particular church is different because of their emphasis on community, family, humanity, relationships, emotions. The sermon was about David, a character about whom I had heard many stories, but had never thought to spend the time to really get to know as the dynamic human he was. I was thankful that I went there that day, because I realized there that the best, most effective way for me to study the Bible would be to start with the people in it. I bought my year-long Portraits of Devotion study a year ago and I’ve almost finished it. It’s going well, and reading with “coffee and Jesus” has become a habitual part of my mornings; I’ve gotten a lot of context and learned a lot about David, Jesus, Paul, and others as the humans they were.

We’ll see what the next year holds. Prayer will be one topic for certain. I’m particularly hopeful given that this secret is out, and my heart is open.


Hannah Downey

CX Design Consultant at Salesforce focused on content & sustainability. I love information design, the art+science of text, guac, sweet potatoes, & amazing people.

Read More