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I became an active member of a healthy church. I joined a home group, and even became part of the praise team. I made friends. I was doing well. I was still dealing with some “culture shock:” things that were normal in my new church were, at times, shockingly liberal to me. On the flipside, things that I had once considered normal were now obviously out of place. I was still struggling with what I believed, but compared to where I had been, this was significant progress. I was asking questions. I was learning a lot about God. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I wasn’t where I used to be either.

When you’re making a significant adjustment in your life, it’s easy to swing from one extreme to another–and I was definitely guilty of that. I came from churches where emotional experiences were important indicators of whether or not you had a healthy relationship with God. I didn’t want to chase an elusive spiritual “high” anymore, so for a while I was headed towards another extreme: trying to be un-emotional in my faith.

I thought that people who talked about having a close, personal relationship with God were either exaggerating or only speaking figuratively. I had convinced myself that it just was not possible. Even though I had some intense emotional / spiritual experiences in Pentecostal churches, I wasn’t sure anymore if any of those experiences had really been God. My typical day-to-day relationship with God had been pretty distant. Maybe that sense of distance was normal for everyone. Maybe anything beyond that was impossible.

But it wasn’t. One of the associate pastors at my new church also came from a Pentecostal background. He had struggled with feeling intimidated by God and distant from Him. It took him a long time to get to the place where he could see God as a friend… but he got there. That grabbed my attention. I wanted to know God that way!

So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I worked hard to get myself to that place. I read the Bible, I had a regular quiet time, I read books about getting closer to God, I prayed. This went on for months… but I wasn’t making any progress. I was frustrated. I was sure that I must be doing something wrong.

But wait… didn’t all this sound familiar? Didn’t it sound an awful lot like what I had done in my old churches? I thought I had walked away from all of that, but apparently I was still carrying more of it with me than I realized. I was still building on a foundation that was flawed. I was trying to go “back to basics,” but I needed to go back to the beginning.

I asked that same associate pastor for some book recommendations — books that he would recommend to a brand new Christian. He went one step further and recommended a book that was written for non-Christians as an evangelistic tool: How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley. Statistically, most Americans believe that there is a heaven, and most of them believe that you get to heaven by being good enough here on earth. In the book, Andy Stanley addresses that argument and shows why that belief really doesn’t make sense, logically or theologically. The first few chapters pull apart the “I’ll get there if I’m good enough” belief system, and the closing chapters introduce the concept of grace and present the Gospel in clear language.

I may not have been the intended audience… but the book still had a powerful message for me. I was working hard, not to earn my salvation, but to keep it. I thought that I could lose my salvation at the drop of a hat, even for breaking a rule that I didn’t know about. The “gotcha” moment for me came on the last page. Stanley writes: “What matters is that you are no longer trusting inĀ what you have done, or will do, to get you to heaven.” (emphasis mine) Then he includes a sample sinner’s prayer and closes the book. No rules. No threats. No strings.

How could that be possible? It was just too easy. Grace without strings?

Was it possible that I had completely misunderstood God’s grace? I thought that grace meant getting another chance to get it right — like a second chance to take a test that I had failed. That second chance was greatly appreciated, but the pressure was still on me to perform. Stanley’s view of grace was more like this: I failed the test — so Jesus took it in my place and aced it. It had nothing to do with my ability to make the cut. That couldn’t be true… could it?

I went back to the associate pastor who recommended the book to me, and we had a conversation that turned my faith upside-down. I don’t even know how to describe what happened that day. It was an epiphany (and I blogged about that). It was a “grace awakening.” It was just as radical and definitive as a conversion (even though I was already saved). It was a paradigm shift. It was wonderful!!

That pastor shared some stories from his own life–things that helped him understand grace. He showed me Bible passages that I was had seen before but never really understood. I asked questions, and he patiently answered them. I went into that conversation believing that I could lose my salvation (and lose it very easily) if I messed up. I left that conversation with a new understanding of grace. If I couldn’t earn my salvation — if it was really a gift from God — if it was really by grace and through faith — then it was silly to think that God was just waiting for me to blow it so He could take it away from me. If I couldn’t earn it by works, why did I believe that I could keep it by works?

I didn’t have to live as if I was in constant danger of falling off the edge of a cliff. I didn’t have to live in fear of losing my salvation. God wasn’t measuring my life, my words, or my works against some unattainable standard on a daily basis to decide whether I was good enough to continue to be His kid.

As all of that began to sink in, other things that had been a constant struggle for me started to fall like dominoes in a matter of hours.

If God’s grace really came without strings… if salvation was really a gift… then God’s love must really be unconditional. There was nothing I could do to make myself any more deserving of His love! For the first time in a long time (or perhaps for the first time ever), I was able to accept that God really loved me… and wanted me to have a relationship with Him. I didn’t have to keep a “safe distance” away. I didn’t have to wait until I got everything right before I could really get to know God. I didn’t have to settle for just knowing more about Him. I could really know Him!

And I’ve been getting to know Him ever since.

My “grace awakening” happened in late 2007. It had such an impact on me that I decided to get baptized again. It was truly a new beginning for me. I’m still learning more about grace today. I finally have a relationship with God that isn’t based on fear. It isn’t perfect… I still have a long way to go and many unanswered questions… but I know that God will help me sort through them all in His timing!

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can have that kind of relationship with God, I highly recommend the books How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley and Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. You can also get in touch with me through my contact page or by leaving a comment in the blog.

(To be continued!)

12 Responses to “Grace”

  • elizabeth says:

    thank you so much for this, I have been struggling with these issues as I am leaving the upc, and it is so hard. I struggle with fear, fear of losing my salvation, and never feeling GOOD enough…ect. thank you this has opened up my eyes, and I am hoping to move forward through this difficult transition.

  • Pat says:

    What a great testimony! I can relate on many levels of your journey. The pressure that is placed on you to perform is so unattainable it’s no wonder we all crash and burn. You clearly brought out how it’s almost impossible to develop a close relationship with God because that really is placed further down on the list of things to do. Being overshadowed by “if you walk, like talk like, look like..” then you will have arrived and be in right relationship with God. I’m still amazed at how much pressure is place on the members to conform and how the leaders NEVER let you depart from the group in good standing. Been there done that. Thanks and God bless

  • Cassy says:

    I so identify with your statement that “other things….began to fall like dominoes…” I left UPC in 2009 after I received and believed the message of grace. Since that time God has opened up more and more of His Word to me that I had never seen before, but thought I knew because of what I had been raised to believe. Now I believe His grace is fathomless and His salvation is a free gift to me. What an awesome revelation!

  • Lynn says:

    I wept, reading your story. I’m really not alone in this fight. What’s funny is that my former Apostolic/Pentecostal church (ACI/AMF) taught that most UPCs were horribly liberal and charismatic, and refused to fellowship with them. The label “UPC” was met with a roll of the eyes and a sardonic laugh, “Oh, they were UPC. You know how they are. Those loose people.” As if they were lesser men. Throughout my journey of leaving organized fundamentalist Pentacostalism, I have been through absolute hell. HELL. I have had my name spread around in sewers of gossip. I have been maligned publicly. I have been shaken and had my hair messed up by ministers trying to pray the “evil” out of me. I have been told where to sit in a sanctuary, as if that would have any effect whatsoever in “saving” me. I have been pulled into private conferences with the Pastor, I have been preached at in front of the congregation, been in public arguments in the church parking lot with other “saints.” The fundamentalist mentality of a Pentecostal/Apostolic is one that is diseased, bigoted, and afraid. It was ground into me from birth, and now I am dealing with the exact same fear…the church I go to now, (a non-denominational “progressive” church of about 1,000) isn’t making me truly happy. Even though I appreciate the Christian message, that church just isn’t making me happy. Just like you, I feel stuck, I feel like there is no where else I can go. I absolutely refuse to go to another ACI/AMF church. But I miss the relationship factor, the personal part of meeting other Christians. This church has people with dreadlocks to their knees and tattoos and just last Sunday, I saw a transvestite. That is not the church atmosphere I want, though I have nothing against those progressive people. God is God for anyone He calls. My heart is traditional. I don’t like rock bands singing idiotic renditions of traditional songs I cherished as a child. When they finally (albeit rarely) sing a song where they have a verse of it sung traditionally, I nearly cry, because that’s what I want. I want to sing the songs that got my mother through my brother’s death, I want that melancholy reverence and remembrance of what God really is to me, and the sacrifice He made. I can’t find that in a progressive atmosphere with booming drums, irreverent communion, and conversational sermons. I want PREACHING, not a conversation! My soul needs taught, not to make friends! I can identify so much with your testimony, it’s like a release. My current boyfriend has helped me greatly with exposing what my church really was, but it broke my mother’s heart when I told her I had enough. My family believes I’m lost. I tried to reason with them, I tried to make them understand. But the church is dug into them like a tick, and sometimes I just wish that God Himself would expose these diseased churches for what they really are: slaveholders who serve God out of utter fear instead of love and acceptance. What ever happened to the true Christian message?

  • Brent says:

    Hi Lynn, I am so sorry to hear of the agony you are going through. My prayers follow you, and there is hope. The things Jenni says here on this site are true. I was raised like you, and my family are still submerged in the bottomless sea of many pentecostal beliefs. There is freedom, and there is spiritual food out there. You may have to forego some of the so called freedoms of pentecostal type worship, but in the end you can learn that there were good things and bad. There were some truths, and many lies. God be with you, and the peace of the Holy Spirit fill you, as you search.
    In his perfect love,

  • rose says:

    I am sitting here in tears after God leading me to this site.
    I have just recently left the UPC after being there for two years. I went on a whim of a friend who first ask me to visit on a Wed night, and then our friendship, or what I thought was friendship began to blossom, as we studied daily, and the phone calls and laughter came. As we cried together, prayed together, laughed together.. then once while sitting in church i heard God say.. Leave this church.. and I did try..but ended up missing friendship so much I went back. This time I am not going back.. I am being shunned by her and the other sisters, and i just dont see God in that. I love them unconditionally. someday I hope they know that. This is indeed hard and I to am dealing with things of the heart that make me feel so alone in my walk. I still hear God tell me not to go back and remember that he will not leave n or forsake me. My heart goes out to each one of you hear that have had this battle, and I will keep this site and read it daily, so I can be encouraged by each letter over and over and over again till I can rest, In the fullness of the simplicity of the Love of God. Pray for me as I pray for each of you. Thank you for this site.
    In His Grace

  • Suzanne says:

    I spent three formative years as a teenager in a UPC church (age 13-17). In a nutshell, the UPC church instilled in me nothing but doubt and fear of a harsh, judgmental God, and where I was continually questioning if I was good enough for God to “approve” of me or bless me (let alone save me. This messed with my head for several years after leaving the church, and why I (and many ex-UPCers I believe) just decided that God is a messed up concept that a bunch of uneducated religious nuts believe in. And this doctrine of doubt and fear is CONTRARY to the doctrine of FAITH–for fear is the opposite of faith. Recently I have found a bible-based church where I have matured more in the last six months than I did the entire time I attended a UPC church, and I have the joy that God promises those that believe on Him. I’m extremely saddened by those who have posted this and other ex-UPC web sites, and who still struggle with feelings of adequacy in Christ because of the lies that have come from a pentecostal pulpit. I can tell you though, that God sees the heart and if you seek Him, he will never, ever let you down. He will make a way for you to find Him and restore you so that you can experience the peace and joy that you are longing for. If I can say this, I was helped tremendously by Precept Ministries (Kay Arthur), as this ministry shows you how to study the Bible in light of the WHOLE counsel of scripture.

  • TimmyJoe says:

    This is such a great site, and this is such a great testimony! While I am still “pentecostal”, I am a minister in the Assemblies of God, I am so excited to hear about your eye opening experience to the grace of God. I am also pleased to say that I believe the A/G is moving away from this fundamentalist mindset, that brings people into bondage and hinders them from know true freedom in Christ. I have been gradually experiencing a “grace awakening” for myself as I have listened to preachers such as John Piper, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, Rick Warren and Andy Stanley. I also would love to recommend Justin Peters “a call for discernment” on the Word of Faith. It is so exciting to see people coming out of bondage into God’s amazing grace! Thanks for this site!

  • I left a penticostal church. I feel God put me in there to rescue my husband. I know your pain of leaving and losing friends. I was not fully prepared for their hate messages after leaving.
    here is my testimony

  • Ty says:

    Oh how I wept when I read your testimony! There is such relief knowing that there are others who have experienced what I’m presently going thru. I have felt so utterly alone.

    Me and my husband left the UPC about 5 years ago. We were both raised in it. Both our parents are strict UPC pastors, and my husband was even a liscensed UPC minister for 15 years. Leaving the church was and still is the hardest thing I have ever done. Because of the “fear” that you speak of in your testimony, we don’t go to church anywhere. Our parents, who are pastors, would rather us be totally “lost” than to see us attend a church other than UPC. They are the only ones with the “truth”. We’ve also been told that we would become reprobates if we left the truth. But…what is truth? Jesus said…”I am the way, the life, and the truth…”

    I want to find the “grace” that you speak of! That is something that is rarely taught in the UPC. I have longed to talk with others about these issues. Sometimes I think that I am going crazy trying to figure out answers to tons of questions that I have concerning standards and things. I’ve always been taught that if you have to question it…then it is probably wrong. Or they would respond with “obedience is better that sacrifice”.

    While being on the outside and looking back in, I’ve come to realize that it really is simply having a relationship with God. Oh, I know how to dress the part. I could “line up” tomorrow and everyone would think that I’m back in. But I’ve come to know that only God knows my heart.

    Would you please pray for me and my husband to find our way. (This seems to be very hard because of who our parents are!) I want God to guide us. I plan to read the books that you recommended! Thank you so much for putting your journey into words. They have blessed me!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Finally I’ve worked up the nerve to leave the UPC. Finally, after having questioned it for a decade and a half. Finally, despite it being bred into my DNA. Finally, despite the fact my family is “4th generation” and many of them are evangelists, missionaries, and pastors.

    This has been so easy and so hard. Many of you will relate. Easy because I know I am in God’s will and He has His hand on my life. I know He’s leading me into knowledge of His grace every day. I am excited about what He has in store for me and my life. Easy because I can finally embrace Him without endless restrictions and ‘rules’ that I live by because those rules are making me more holy, more deserving, more spiritual…

    Hard because, of course, of the fall out. My family is convinced I’m lost forever and I’m setting up my three children for a life time of failure, heartache, sin, and of course, hellfire and damnation. My mother told me it’s like a death in the family and it’s causing her blood pressure to be too high. My sister developed shingles from laying awake at night worrying about me.

    But regardless, I know I’m in His will. And I know I’m on a path exactly where He wants me to be.

    One of the number one things that’s helped me is reaching out to people I’ve known of over the years that have left the UPC. Since I really don’t want to be bitter or cynical, I am trying to reach out to those who have left but have remained positive and are living victorious lives in a new healthy church environment; thriving and raising their kids in His grace. I’ve just simply called them and said; ‘Look, I know you left and maybe you don’t want to talk about it. Please know that I’m not judging you one bit, but I’ve left and I need to talk. What advice, tips, and encouragment can you give me? Can you tell me about your experience?” Without exception, they’ve been open and honest with their experiences. They’ve encouraged me beyond belief! Knowing how they’ve dealt with the brainwashing, the family disappointments, etc. has been so helpful to me. I encourage all of these readers to reach out to people you know that have successfully (and positively) ‘escaped’. I know that in the future others will be reaching out to me in the same way.

    The interesting thing is that some people have already contacted me; people still in the UPC but desperately unhappy and questioning themselves. I’m doing everything I can to encourage them without ‘slamming’ the UPC. Of course people in the UPC will share heaven with me and I don’t want to be negative about that denomination. After all, it’s my own foundation and has given me the wonderful life I have now.

    Sadly, many phone calls are people still in the UPC who weep and moan, get angry, and generally try everything to convince me of my horrible backslidden state. I find it interesting how quickly the women ask me: “So…when are you going to start cutting your hair/wearing pants/makeup/jewelry, etc.” They don’t ask about how I feel, or my thoughts on salvation, or anything about my actual spiritual life. They are so quick to rudely ask about standards. To me, it just shows how standards have become the main focus for some people; the ‘crutch’ or robes of righteousness that people clutch tightly around themselves, falsely giving them the feeling that they are earning salvation because they look the part. So very, very sad. I recently heard that Mary Mary song “….take the shackles off my hands so I can dance…I want to praise Him!….” on the radio and wow, it sure meant something to me!

    Jesus is so good! Thank you Jenni for this site. I’ve stalked it for awhile but felt led to comment today. Sorry for the long post but if it can help even one person then praise God. Stay strong and positive, people! Seek Him! In Christ Alone is our salvation and it will be worth it all….

  • Jen Shivers says:

    I left UPC six years ago and recently went through yet another bout of anxiety attacks and fear over going to hell. Why do I fear that I am going to hell? It’s not because I’m committing any terrible sin, but solely because of the brainwashing I received while I was in UPC for seventeen years. I never know what is going to trigger one of these “episodes”. But when I go through one, I spiral down into a pit of despair.

    The latest episode occurred last week, shortly after I visited a new church. I found myself enjoying the fellowship since that is the focus of the church, but I couldn’t shake the doubts that this church is teaching false doctrine…they didn’t teach Acts 2:38. The salvation message of faith was too easy. Then I begin to hear the voices of my former UPC mentors echoing in my head that I’m lost, the people in this new church are lost, everyone who does not follow Acts 2:38 is lost.

    This is when I had to start at square one analyzing why I left UPC. Was I wrong in leaving? Was I rebellious like the pastor and his wife told me? My emotions take me on a roller-coaster of self-doubt, self-questioning, regret, anxiety, and fear. This continues for several days. Of course I have no one to tell my fears to because none of my family members were a part of UPC so don’t understand. Plus, they think I should have gotten over this years ago. I think so too so am surprised when this happens every so often.

    What brought me out of the latest episode was remembering the terrible things that UPC did to some friends of mine and to me. The so-called friends who endured horrible treatment at various times, chalked it up as a price they had to pay for the truth. They are all still in UPC and have chosen to either shun me, or to have an extremely distant relationship.

    When I remembered the past wickedness at the hands of those people, the fog began to lift, and I began to see clearly once again that I am OK with God.

    What happened in the past? Here are just a few things that come to mind:

    Three of my friends were raked over the coals by a pastor for such things as their attitudes, how they taught Sunday School, complaints by choir members, or other church members. As a result, all of them had some form of hysterical breakdown, and one was so stressed, her body began to shut down, she developed a severe case of candida and she lost a baby at seven months pregnancy. She later became a pastor’s wife and her and her husband falsely accused me of several things because I wasn’t enough of a yes man for them — even though I had supported her during the earlier difficult time.

    But, this is one terrible part of UPC. The clergy/laity authority fallacy. The clergy is elevated above the other members and they can do no wrong. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in my case and several others I witnessed, the clergy were always right and were not to be questioned, EVER!

    The pastors in UPC are elevated to a god-like status. This is a fact! I heard this in many UPC churches that when a pastor speaks, God is telling him something, so if you disobey him (the pastor), it’s like disobeying God.

    I was labeled, rebellious, wicked, a covetor of authority, a person with emotional issues, stubborn, etc… I even told the people telling me this that I thought I would have a nervous breakdown and they didn’t care! I was told I would go to hell if I left the church. I was made to look like I left because of some secret sin when in actuality, I had not done anything wrong except to say I did not want to be controlled.

    Am I describing a Christian church? Am I describing a church that anyone would want to go to? Unfortunately, the ones who are abused and still choose to stay think somehow they have paid their dues and so are more deserving of heaven, or if they don’t think that, they are too afraid to leave.

    Anyone who has left, knows there is a terrible price to pay for leaving. The longer in, the harder the price to pay! That alone is an indication of an extremely abusive (i.e. wicked) system. The hateful treatment at the hands of these people is the devil’s work.

    So although I have paid dearly for my departure, I truly believed
    God delivered me from an emotionally unhealthy and wicked organization. Is wicked too strong a word? Say anything that is opposed to UPC teaching and see what the response will be. If you don’t change your position, you will begin to be labeled everything terrible and ridiculed to the point where you think you’re going to lose your mind.

    Outside of the occasional episode, I am happier than I ever was while in UPC!

    If you are still in UPC, but have been abused, please find the courage to leave. It is the only way you will ever find God’s grace. If you have left, but have fearful episodes every now and then like I do, be consoled that God does care about you and will bring you through to a brighter, happier day. Don’t look back with regret, but allow God to take you to a deeper relationship with Him… a relationship which does not require a mediator such as a pastor or mentor, does not depend on a UPC rule book, and is not reliant on your good or bad performance.

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