I became a Christian because I was afraid of hell. I was afraid I would die before I woke. I was afraid of where I might end up if I didn’t pray a special prayer that assured my protection.
As a kid who already struggled with a plethora of nocturnal fears – of monsters and ghouls and all manner of wicked-faced, sharp-toothed frights – the last thing I needed to fixate on at eight years of age was the dreadful image of an eternal, fiery torment. I had enough trouble falling asleep as it was. So, one night, moved as much by an overactive imagination as by the Spirit, I prayed a patchwork sinner’s prayer – penitent phrases I had gleaned from church services and Vacation Bible Schools and stitched together by my hushed lips mumbling the words into my pillow.
Beside my bed, a Voltron nightlight projected the blazing image of a robot protector on the ceiling of my bedroom. In hindsight, I realize that the image wasn’t a far cry from my theology at that time – that God was an all-powerful being who watched over the weak. Something invincible that could vanquish the terrors that slithered out from a dark realm. But, as I understood it, if you had not acknowledged his all-powerful-ness and verbally professed your belief in his invincibility, you were bound for that dark realm, where you would suffer forever and ever. And so, I prayed.
It’s been twenty-six years since I lay in my childhood twin bed and whispered a desperate prayer for, among other things, peace of mind at bedtime. I’ve grown quite a bit since then, in every form of the word. I’ve learned quite a bit about God and Jesus and salvation and faith and grace, not to mention about sin and hell. I’ve been baptized. I’ve led Bible studies and taught Sunday School classes. I’ve obtained a seminary degree. I’ve been ordained into full-time church ministry. I’ve worked in many different churches and organizations in which all of the above beliefs and experiences have been well utilized.
There are those nights lying in bed, waiting for sleep to usher me away, when I feel surrounded by fears as irrational but as palpable as the ones that tormented me when I was eight.
I don’t fear the darkness of hell anymore, but I do fear the very real possibility of separation – of loss and abandonment. I don’t fear the agony of the fire, but I do dread physical ailments and illnesses and the cruel what-if’s they cast before my mind’s eye like a fishermen’s lures. I don’t fear the prospect of an eternity apart from God, but in the quiet of my bedroom I stress over the realization that I have not lived my life as closely to his truth as one should.
My theology has developed in countless ways over the past twenty-six years. My God is bigger than he has ever been, and he only continues to increase, emerging from the shadows cast by my limited understanding in ways that remind me he is not – he cannot be – a figment of my imagination.
But the darkness at the end of the day remains a place where doubt resides, where fear thrives. So, with the same mixture of hope and terror that I possessed when I was eight, I still speak words into my pillow. Words of trust and rattled optimism. I ask for protection. I ask to be saved.
And I am convinced that, just as it was when I was eight, there is something greater going on. Something wider and deeper is taking place – something invincible and yet as connected to me as these doubts and fears that never fail to show their threatening faces and gnash their vicious teeth when I turn out the lights. This Something is that which fulfills the words of the Apostle John, that “perfect love casts out fear.”
It is in this Something that I must trust as much at thirty-four years of age as at eight. And when sleep does usher me away, it is this Something that I still believe watches over me while I sleep, like a light on the ceiling.
I am never alone.