Plastic God: Abandoning Unbelief
Excerpted from Anything, by Jennie Allen. Used with permission of Thomas Nelson.
“Get off the phone and come in here, Jennie!” I was sixteen.
I got off the phone with my boyfriend and headed into the kitchen. My two little sisters were already sitting at our kitchen table. Everything felt good. Mom always went all out at Christmas—food and decorations, like something out of a magazine but better because you could smell and feel it. Christmas felt important and set apart.
The table had a wreath in the middle with candles sprinkled through it. I knew what we were doing. We did it most Sunday nights each December. We sat and sang—yes, our family of five awkwardly sang hymns around our table. We talked about Christmas and what happened on that night thousands of years ago. It’s called advent, a beautiful tradition of focusing on Christ throughout the month of Jesus' birth.
We each held a candle while we sang (one year my little sister Caught her bangs on fire). Then Dad read a story about the coming Christ and teach us a lesson we could learn from it. I remember he seemed a little tense that night; it seemed like a lot of work. Looking back, I realize he was doing his best to give us God.
But how do you give someone God?
There were stories on felt boards about Noah’s ark and Samson. There were lessons at Sunday school about how I shouldn’t gossip or have sex yet. But how do you give someone God?
I never questioned those nights or appreciated them. I was neutral. Honestly, I felt neutral about God. When you grow up with the stories and songs and lessons, you accept everything; you aren’t trying to explain God if you grew up hearing about him since birth, like Santa Claus. I knew what I thought I needed to know. I didn’t feel much, for the most part, when watching people talk about him. I don’t remember it feeling very real. In fact, I remember God feeling a little plastic. He was like a plastic statue on our mantel. In my child’s mind, it seemed my family was revolving around the statue; we all would talk to the statue and about the statue. But to me, he was just a statue, a figurehead in our home that felt unmovable. Static. Stale. Unconcerned. Our plastic God. I looked into other families, and as I got older, I even tried my best to look into people’s souls. Most of them seemed to have a plastic God too.
Falling in love with God was an intangible concept to me. I knew it was part of the whole deal, the package. I had heard that along the way in some of the lessons. I just didn’t know how to truly relate to the plastic statue. Even if I could look past the plastic, then he was just invisible. How do you fall in love with someone invisible?
I wanted to feel something. I wanted it to be real. I needed it to be real. But how do you make something like God real?
You don’t. You can’t.
I was the type to play along. I wasn’t faking; I just lived in a place that issued scripts. Everyone took theirs and played it. Mine was handed to me, and I played it as sincerely as I could . . . It wasn’t fake; it was just my normal.
Plastic gods are safe. Plastic gods don’t mess with you.
I was a good girl, from a good family and a good church and a good school, who made good grades and had good friends and made good decisions and even had a good dog. I was a good Christian. I mean, I should have been—I had heard the stories, songs, and lessons 7,338 times. It’s what I knew.
I don’t remember God, the real God, being there. He probably was. But I just didn’t see him—till I did. You can’t control seeing God. That is left to his own discretion— how or when people really see, really get him. But I needed God to not be plastic before I trusted him, especially with everything. Plastic gods are safe. Plastic gods don’t mess with you. Plastic gods don’t matter much; they fit in a small crevice of the life you want, the life you were planning to have. And when everything in life is working . . . plastic gods feel like enough.
Unbelief is not just something attributed to an atheist or agnostic. Un- belief is found in nooks and spaces within Christianity. Every sin, at its root, is based in something we do not fully believe about God.
Recently, as I was about to actually sign the contract to write this book, I was staring at a stoplight on my way home. I was about to give my life to writing about and talking about my God (or at least the next few years). I was, in essence, taking my faith to such a public level that if he weren’t real, it’d be a waste or very fake.
I sat at the stoplight long enough to have a complete crisis of faith. I pictured heaven and angels and hell and God in heaven and Christ on earth . . . and I thought it all seemed like a tremendous long shot, so far from the reality of my days . . . car pool and laundry and vacations—all the stuff sane people spend time thinking about.
In the questioning it felt as though someone were ripping away every safe and precious thing I held. And then I remembered. I remembered the evidence of his hand even that day in my life, his undeniable presence in my soul as I have suffered or felt him leading me. The marked changes to the insides of me that were not a result of my effort. All of it was screaming of something more—tangible spiritual realities. Green light. Faith crisis was over.
Doubt is in all of us . . . if we go there. If we let it rush in every once in a while.
Laura’s crisis of faith lasted longer than a red light.
Something in her eyes and her voice was incredibly serious, “I don’t know what I believe anymore. I am not sure I even believe in Jesus.”
Laura went to our church. She was a deep, raw person with whom I eagerly grabbed time whenever kids and schedules allowed. Laura grew up as a pastor’s kid in a world that was similar to mine. She went on to work for a college ministry until she had her second son. Laura was the best of the good girls. She knew the rules and she played her part well. God was real because her mom and dad had always told her he was. God had always been such a big part of her life that she never questioned what life would be like without him. She married a good man and had two good children and attended a good church. And yet she was questioning all of it, wondering if any of it had ever been real.
She felt guilty for questioning; she honestly did not even know how to question. Life’s realities were causing her to wonder why she’d ever believed in the first place, if her faith had ever been truly hers, or if she just believed because that was all she’d ever known. As we talked, I felt the Lord leading me to encourage her down this road.
“Laura, God can handle your questions, but don’t drag this out. Go there and then decide if he is real or not.”
She cried, fearing what her family would think, fearing what life would feel like if she did not believe in the God everybody she loved feared. But it was as if God was giving this good little girl permission to wrestle with him. The God of the universe was lovingly saying, “It’s okay.”
She kept this picture in her mind as she questioned, a picture of a weak and tired soul standing on the top of a tall, far-reaching sky- scraper. God, in the form of a strong, well-grounded crane, swept her up and let her to look over the edge of faith. She peered over into options, visions of things she’d never explored or chosen to see. God graciously led her jump, and yet she felt him holding her out there as she swung for over a year, searching.
Laura would go on to give God everything with me, and he turned her life completely upside down. But his journey for Laura had to begin with Laura deciding whether or not Christ was the way. Until that was secure, everybody was just playing house.
Unbelief is no small thing. It lays the foundation for all the places we struggle, and ultimately faith in Christ is what will separate those who belong to God from those who do not.
Usually we do not fear God. We do not see him for who he is; we doubt him. We belittle him. It is the most damaging thing in us—to mistake God for something small or wavering. Yet we leave the doubts alone in us, thinking they are our simple, fickle thoughts.
A. W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Nothing defines a soul more than what that soul believes about God. And no outward observer can know what is in the soul of a person. The most impor- tant thing about us is truly only known and defined by the owner of the soul and the one who created it. Everyone else only sees what we want them to see. Nothing defines us more . . . nothing is more important than what we believe about God.
I used to think knowing about God was the same as knowing him. I remember sitting in a room full of future pastors at seminary. I always felt out of place. Maybe it was because I was a girl; maybe it was because I sat tearing up listening to professors talk about God while everybody else was taking notes and arguing dispensationalism.
As God was being dissected in front of me, I kept looking around at all those guys, thinking, Did you hear that?! This is ludicrous. I was freaking out as we talked about angels and hell and how our souls transform the second we trust Christ. Come on, people.
At the lake one weekend, I had a deep conversation with a close friend that triggered a big question for me: how does someone know God? She strongly believed the only way someone knows God is through reading Scripture. I agreed. We do not know God apart from Scripture, and every other experience must be held up to his Word, since it is the clearest revelation from him. It was the foundation for every understanding I held about God. I clung to it as I would the very words of God because I believe that is, in fact, what Scripture is. But it still seemed too simple to me. I knew that experiences, friends, prayer life, worship, church, and books had also brought me closer to God . . . helped me to know him.
On Monday I posed the question in class to one of my favorite professors. The answer that followed went on to shape my view of God. He began by listing all the ways we grow or know God: prayer, studying Scripture, church, worship, experiences, suffering, confession, community, and on and on. Then he said, “But obviously each of these is unpredictable . . . many people who study the Bible never find God. Many people who go to church never really know him. The only exercise that works 100 percent of the time to draw one close to the real God is risk.”
I think the whole class started questioning him . . . looking for proof text in our minds, trying to find a category for what he had just said.
Then he went on, “To risk is to willingly place your life in the hand of an unseen God and an unknown future, then to watch him come through. He starts to get real when you live like that.”
We were all speechless. Knowing God, really knowing him, was getting more complicated. But if he was real, if he was God, then certainly he was worth knowing—not just the facts, but knowing what it is like to run with him, lean on him, have his hand alone holding us up.
Scripture describes a radical, reoriented life for those who trust Christ—one full of living for the invisible and the future. It is a life fully surrendered to an invisible God whose agenda for my time here is contrary to my own, a life very different from the safe, comfortable one I was creating.
I started craving something that had never seemed acceptable to me until that day . . . a reckless faith, a faith where I knew God was real because I needed him, a faith where I lived surrendered, obedient, a faith where I sacrificed something . . . comfort or safety or practicality . . . something. But my heart raced faster when I thought of it, and something about it resonated.
Stepping out wholly dependent on God to come through, step- ping away from what is secure and comfortable exposes the holes in our faith. And then if God comes through, it expands our faith. Something about stepping off cliffs where God leads allows God the opportunity to move in greater ways. When we step off and he shows up, we see him differently than we would if we were standing safely looking over the edge.
The first night I saw Jesus I was seventeen. I was sitting, looking up at a lumber cross. I sat in front of the crosses every year at Kanakuk Kamp. I had seen the nailed pieces of wood at least five years running. The campfire was crackling, and three men hung there on a sticky night in July, reenacting the day Christ died, the day his very visible, warm body hung there in a similar way.
But that night I saw him. I saw my sin and how it put him there. I saw the cost. I saw his mercy, and my heart moved. What Christ did on a cross—he bought me; he died so I wouldn’t. My plastic god broke, and a new, unsettling God rushed in. I felt him.
We are fleshy, feely creatures. We love things to feel real; we want them to feel warm and tangible and to move through us, and at least make our hearts beat faster.
I’ll never forget when I went to see “Titanic” for the first time. Before the movie came out, I had heard the story several times. We even sang this funny little song about it at camp; it included a line like “We all went to the bottom of the sea . . . the captain, octopus, and me.” And then I saw the movie.
I cried for two days. I never sang that stupid song again. When a story gets real, it does something inside of you. When it isn’t real, it feels pretend, shallow—you can sing silly songs about it.
After that sticky July night, things got real and everything began to change. My numb, cool soul was full with something tangible— something chaotic and yet trustworthy. The living God had saved me, made a way for me, and then filled me and began to mess with my life and affections. I hadn’t walked an aisle or thought especially hard about Jesus. In one moment he did something I could not have done. This movement was not because of the depth of my new faith in that moment; it was a cross. It was the person I could now see who was saving me.
In one moment I was free and safe forever. God moves. God saves.
In that moment God flipped something dead to life. All the Christmases I sang around wreaths holding candles, all the stories and lessons snapped to life because they only make sense in light of this person.
However, we can believe in Christ and be free and still be stuck. God was my new master, but I didn’t know how to shake all the old ones. I knew a lot about God, but I still did not know him. I believed he was big enough to save me forever, but now I would have to grow to believe he was big enough to weave in and out of my every day, leading me, changing me.
But now he was real, and I was his.