This morning when the doorbell rang, I did what I always do—I called my husband to answer it. He opened the door to find two Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Good morning, we just wanted to share a thought with you from the Bible. There’s so many terrible things happening in the world, have you ever wondered why God allows that?”
My husband politely responded: “I grew up in a Christian home, so no, I haven’t wondered about it. But right now I have pancakes on the griddle, and it would be terrible if your thought ruined breakfast.”
And that was that. They handed over this month’s installment of The Watchtower, thanked him for his time, and left. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t answer the door; they might have ended up eating breakfast with us.
Approaching strangers door to door can’t be easy. I was a telemarketer for four days back in 1997, and I am sure getting the door slammed in your face is far worse than being hung up on. I probably wouldn’t make it through day one. Even when you know it isn’t personal, repetitive rejection always feels bad. To be successful, you have to push those natural insecurities out of your mind or overcome them; but when you are doing it for Jesus—you might misinterpret your own insecurities as a lack of willingness to joyfully serve your God. So in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have an extra ounce of empathy.
There’s no complaining on the mission field.
But my empathy doesn’t end there. I can safely credit the Jehovah’s Witnesses for implanting in me my very first doubts about hell. When I was around the age of twelve, my mom struck up a friendship with one of these door to door visitors, and they met every Thursday to talk about God. She even dragged me to the Kingdom Hall once. Just me—which I think had something to do with the fact that I was the only member of our family who attended church.
During that time I was exposed to plenty of their literature, and not surprisingly, I actually read it. The book that was meant to help teens seemed a little too focused on preventing masturbation, and everything else was focused on the apocalypse. Looking back, I’m not sure this was the best way to spend my alone time. Masturbation would have been healthier. But one thing that really stood out to me was their belief that the unsaved simply ceased to exist after they die. Or, will continue ceasing to exist; since they also believe the saved who have already died will remain dead until God resurrects them upon his return. Which will be any moment now.
Their ideas on heaven as a governing body with the 144,000 elect ruling up there while the rest hang out on a new earthly paradise felt a little contrived… but something about taking hell out of the picture felt a little closer to the truth, even to my inexperienced mind. And I quietly adopted that belief.
When I was training to be a missionary, Jehovah’s Witnesses were definitely on the cult list. They are not fundamentalists. They do not take the entire Bible literally. And that nonsense about the end times? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Sure, they believe the only way to salvation is by receiving the free gift given through Jesus’ death on the cross—but they don’t believe in the Trinity! They claim it isn’t based on scripture. And it isn’t. It was decided by a vote long after Jesus’ death. But apparently that vote is all that matters, and other Christians decided (by vote?) that “the elect” can enjoy an eternity in hell.
In spite of these differences, Jehovah’s Witnesses do consider themselves Christians. And when it comes to offering words of comfort with “so many terrible things happening in the world,” you would be hard-pressed to find any differences at all. For example, this month’s edition of The Watchtower is titled: “Where Can You Find Comfort?” And it offers four principal means that God uses to comfort people:
The Bible, God’s Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Fellow Christians.
Now, I won’t lie to you. As always, there is a certain amount of “don’t worry, it will all be over soon” advice thrown about any time we are dealing with an apocalyptic-style faith. That’s because we are meant to be impatiently waiting for that glorious moment when our mortal bodies die, our souls leap to the heavens to be with our one true love (God/Jesus…and however you interpret the Holy Spirit to fit in), and we finally get to see our “enemies” thrown into the lake of eternal torture.
Oh, sweet justice.
I didn’t “love” those two women at my door, but I’m not exactly waiting on the edge of my seat for the moment Jesus returns and lets me watch them suffer eternally for getting a few details wrong. And I’m more than a little confused about why Jesus is looking forward to it. But that’s another post.
Promises for the afterlife might be comfort enough for some, but it is seldom good enough for the modern, privileged Christian who is accustomed to a certain tragic-free lifestyle. They demand comfort now, and the writers over at The Watchtower want them to know that God has met their need, too.
The Bible is chock-full of inspiring words. Just look at all the Bible verse memes! This issue is filled with personal stories of sufferers offering generic verses they claimed really got them through their tough times. No one ever says that about Chicken Soup for the Soul. Well, someone has probably said it—but it sounds silly without the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer that makes the Bible magic.
So first you need to wrap yourself in the Holy Spirit. Not sure what the fuck that means? It’s okay. No one else knows, either. But if you pray real hard, you can convince yourself you feel wrapped in the Holy Spirit—and that’s pretty much all there is to it. I’ve tried it, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t absolutely work.
Prayer. It is a constant struggle for Christians to reconcile the God who answers the prayers of the faithful with the God who has a bigger plan and may not answer a faithful prayer at all. Bad stuff happens all the time; but with either conclusion always a possibility, Christians have no cause to ever doubt God’s control. And that is a comfort to many.
According to popular Christian belief, anything we turn over to God will be answered exactly how it is supposed to be answered. Free will is having the power to choose whether or not we are on the path God destined us to be on, and making that choice is an action we can take even when we feel helpless. Prayer is an opportunity to feel some sense of control in the middle of chaos.
A common thread among believers is that they require the feeling that someone is in control. Someone better than us. Perfect. There must be a happy ending, or how can we bear our suffering? There must be a time for justice. There must be a heaven and a hell.
Fellow Christians are great for reinforcing this belief. It sounds less crazy when you can get a few friends to share Bible verses, pray, and convince each other everything is awesome because with God there is eternal hope. Confronting our fears and working through our anxieties about loss, death, and control are also available options that don’t require God—but The Watchtower didn’t mention it.
When I was a Christian, these things did comfort me. I believed, and it worked. I needed to be sure my path was straight and still creeping toward the pearly gates, but turning everything over to God wasn’t always enough. The belief that God has taken our burden may erase it from our minds for a while, but things have a way of wiggling back into our brains.
I prefer to drown myself in impossible thoughts and discover the quickest way to live with them comfortably; because some of the terrible things in our world will happen again and again, and feeling in control for me means being able to make sense of it, with or without justice. And with or without God, it has always worked. I don’t need God for comfort at all.
And this is why my husband always answers the door.