The best testimonies in church were always from addicts and ex-cons who started with, “If it weren’t for God, I might be dead by now.” In 2020, I wonder the opposite. If it weren’t for no longer believing, I could be dead by now. After all, many American Christians are sprinting toward literal mortal danger, toward COVID-19.
Years ago, after graduating from a Southern Baptist college, I set out to be an overseas missionary. I believed in a savior who died for me and I was diligent in “living for Him.” I encapsulated all the phrases we heard in church: on fire for God, filled with His love.
For someone like me, whose only desire in life was to have a close relationship with God and to feel this closeness, I believed God would put things in my path to bless me or test me. Both would make me stronger in my faith.
While at an international missionary base, training to spread the Gospel to people around the world, I was surrounded by people, some in their 50s and 60s, telling me how God wanted to bless me with my own prayer language. Us Southern Baptists didn’t believe speaking in tongues was real in modern times. It’s one of the beliefs that distinguish between Christian denominations.
But I wanted God. I wanted this.
People placed their hands on me to pray for me to receive this spiritual language, but nothing was coming from me. As a Baptist, reading the Bible and being good was the measure of a true Christian. Now I was surrounded by people who believed there was more. God was greater. I just wasn’t stepping out in faith and receiving God’s gift. I wasn’t letting go.
“God is perfect. Humans are not.” This was on me, and I was failing.
People at the missionary base noticed I was broken over this. Each night, they gathered around to lay hands on me and implore the Holy Spirit to wash over me and show his love to me.
With more praying and chatting with people late into the night, they realized what could be blocking me from receiving the gift of tongues: I’d graduated from college.
Later, a leader in the group raised his hand to the sky and commanded the “demon of intellectualism” out of me. I cried. I wanted that, too. I was thinking too much, I’d been told. I was putting God in a box by trying to figure him out with logic. And it was holding me back from him blessing me.
“Speak out in faith. Just let it come,” the leader said. I decided I needed to break through this rational thinking stifling me and so I followed their directions and emulated some of the sounds of speaking in tongues I heard coming out of the mouths of the people surrounding me. As I did, their prayers got louder with excitement. Adults, leaders, people who had put their lives on the line for God could tell I was being blessed and it roused their souls. I repeated the same odd five sounds again and again like a child starting to talk.
I’d take those few sounds with me as I became a missionary in Asia and build on them. I’d whisper them under my breath while teaching English as a guise to convert the young Buddhist monks in a temple. I’d let more sounds come out as I prayed over strangers to be miraculously healed of physical sickness.
I would pursue God and take his message to places that were dangerous. I would repeat “more of you and less of me.” I would continue to see intellectualism as counter to what God was trying to teach me. I’d surround myself only with people who knew the Holy Spirit’s miracles and spend less time with family and friends who were “lukewarm” non-miracle-believing Christians.
The problem with fervency is it led to in-depth Bible-reading and searching out secondary sources to support my beliefs. Both flung me into a decade of deconversion. I’m currently a skeptic.
Back then, however, there was no skepticism in me. And it was seen as a sin to entertain it. So I’m not surprised there are groups of Christians who believe COVID-19 is a hoax, or even if it’s not a hoax, God will protect them from it.
In May, a poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed 43% of evangelical Protestants, a group I’d identified as when both a Southern Baptist and charismatic believer, say they think COVID-19 is a message from God. Not that God caused it, but that he is using it to tell the world to change.
More than that, 55% of all believers feel God will protect them from the virus.
COVID-19 has made groups more vocal, more determined and emboldened to march forward with their mission. It is the same visceral imperative many of us feel with racial equality. It’s seen as life and death. Gathering together is the best way to get out the message and be heard. But accompanied by their belief that God is protecting them against a government mask mandate, these particular groups of Christians are spreading more than the Word of God.
If I hadn’t left the church, would I believe masks aren’t needed like the doctor and minister Stella Immanuel who preached in front of the Capitol while touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure? Would I be attending outside praise and worship services like the one Sean Feucht led recently, gathering upward of 11,000 unmasked believers?
If I hadn’t left the charismatic movement that was always requiring God to do tricks and encouraging me to “walk out in faith,” I have no doubt I would be attending a church in person. I have no doubt I’d attend purposeful “God is more powerful than COVID-19” gatherings like the young woman who died from the virus. And I am sure I would stand by any number of explanations used to explain away those who got infected. The person had a weakened immune system or they were reckless to start with, I’d probably think.
Christianity is based on one singular belief: Jesus raised from the dead. Once you believe in one miracle, the pathway is paved to believe in the next. Not all branches of faith go as far as handling snakes, but they’re all rooted in the one miracle that overrides our intellect. That’s why, as a young, idealistic Christian who only wanted to grow in my faith, I was prayed over to sever me from my intellectual and rational thinking.
This global pandemic has revealed there’s already a virus inside some American forms of belief — ones that believe God isn’t powerful enough to exist outside of gatherings or ones who believe this is in God’s plan so he can show his power.
This kind of spiritual terrorism is showing up on a national scale and, as in my own faith journey, only reason can get us out.