When Idealism, Reality, and Abuse Collide
Chapter 2 of Runaway Radical is available below. The giveaway is now closed – congratulations to Lori M. and Brennan H., who will each be receiving a copy of the book.
Jonathan Hollingsworth’s mother remembers him coming to her and his father shortly after starting his first semester of college to tell them he would commit to two years of filling up his mind if he could then spend a year emptying his heart. Amy Hollingsworth had homeschooled her son and daughter their whole lives, and Jonathan’s sensitivity was evident to his mother from the time he was small. Now, as a freshman at the local community college, Jonathan was idealistic and burdened with a heart for the lost. He had already spent a week in Honduras, but instead of abating his ingrained drive to help the poverty-stricken, the trip only highlighted for him how very difficult it is to meet the need found in isolated cultures — cultures where the whims of nature can threaten the very existence of the inhabitants.
Filled with sadness resulting from the hopelessness he saw in Central America, Jonathan had his idealism further cemented by the books he read that challenged him to radical obedience to Christ. It wasn’t long before his question of whether God even sees the hopeless was answered through the books he was reading. God sees, they said, and you are His answer to their cry.
To the heart-broken young man, this was a clear call to missions. Jonathan committed to pouring out his heart in a year long mission trip to Africa. The problem was that Jonathan was already headed for disaster because – while he truly cared for the lost – his compassion was mingled with a new form of legalism that he didn’t yet recognize. Looking back he says,
The legalism I rejected proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I don’t do. The legalism I accepted proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I do .. . Both say, Look at me.”
At first, it seemed that he had found his place in Cameroon. His blog entry from day 3 read, “It has only been a few days, and my heart is already exploding with joy. It has only been a few days, and I already feel at home…”
Less than 3 days later, he knew that things had gone terribly wrong, but his parents wouldn’t know for many weeks. Illness, corruption, and spiritual abuse filled the next few months. Jonathan’s faith was shaken to its core, broken apart into pieces that seemed impossible to repair. Through this destructive experience and the subsequent therapeutic process of telling his story in a book co-authored by his mother Amy, Jonathan now has a deeper understanding of grace than many ever gain, and an appreciation for the complexities of spirituality and faith.
The son that returned to Amy from Africa was not the same son that left 4.5 months earlier. Thinking that the worst was over and the healing would begin now that her son was home, Amy was shocked that the worst was yet to come. In Runaway Radical, her mother’s heart is laid bare in the account of the trauma that Jonathan was still to suffer at the hands of the spiritual leaders he had entrusted with his faith. In his article “Being radical for Jesus: The stories that don’t get told”, Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E. interviewed Jonathan and Amy about the spiritual abuse they encountered.
Jonathan is slowly coming to terms with his experience and is piecing together what it means for his faith. One of my favorite passages of the book is near the end, when Amy recounts Jonathan’s response to a couple of Southern Baptist girls who ring the doorbell and ask him the expected question: “If you died tonight, are you certain you would go to heaven?” I will leave it to you to read the book to discover his reply.
Below, you can read chapter 2 of Runaway Radical by Jonathan Hollingsworth and Amy Hollingsworth, and Thomas Nelson has offered 2 copies of the book for us to give away to our readers (entry form below). Runaway Radical is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook at amazon.com (affiliate link), christianbook.com, and Barnes & Noble.
Runaway Radical, Chapter 2
by Jonathan Hollingsworth
ONE OF THE LAST MEMORIES I have before boarding the plane to Africa is standing in front of the painted-on chalkboard that spans an entire wall of my bedroom. This wall bore no literary quotes or Bible verses; it was blank except for a countdown tally that read: days till Africa.
It was the night before my departure, and the tally needed updating. I erased the previous number, scribbled on the day before, and drew a number one that reached from floor to ceiling. I took a few steps back and let the image sink in. This was a symbolic moment, not only because it represented the beginning of a yearlong trip, but because it represented a trip that I believed would inspire me to stay for good.
I can’t count the times a classmate or neighbor told me it wouldn’t be surprising if I became so taken with the African culture that I’d never come back. Or, if I did come back, it would be with an orphaned child who I just couldn’t bear to part with.
Neither of these predictions came true, of course, and perhaps they were too ambitious for someone who had yet to step foot on the continent. But that didn’t stop me from picturing myself in the shoes of every missionary with a success story I’d spent the last two years reading about, wanting to become.
If you are a young, idealistic Christian, then Africa is the place to be. Where else do you find missionaries multiplying loaves and fishes to feed entire orphanages? Or a young woman my age adopting orphaned girls and raising them on her own? Or a nonprofit trying to take down a war criminal? Or people being healed? Or even being raised from the dead?
When Christians tell stories about Africa, they tell stories like these. Every outreach is a success. God always does something amazing. Lives are always changed. Every account is written with the ecstasy of someone whose heart is exploding with joy.
The downside to holding literature so dear is that sometimes you find yourself trying to live out the stories of the characters in your books. This temptation is almost inescapable in Christian literature, where the reader is encouraged, even directed, to view the person as an example to be followed.
As I stared at the countdown on my wall, I had no reason to believe that my story would unfold any differently than the stories of the passionate do-gooders in my books. I had been let down by mission trips before, but those were nowhere near as ambitious as the journey I was about to embark on. If I learned anything from the stories coming out of Africa, it was that if I wanted God’s attention, I had to do something big. I had to do something too big for God to ignore. And then, surely then, he would show up. And he would do something amazing.
But the question I never asked myself, the question absent from the countless testimonies I had heard in church, absent from the inspiring accounts of miracles, absent from all the literature urging young Christians to follow God to another part of the world and make disciples, was this: What happens when God doesn’t show up?
Where do those stories go? I didn’t know the answer then, but I do now. Those stories don’t get told. Those stories make God look bad. Those stories make the church look bad.
So they tell you not to tell your story. No newsletter, no slideshow, no testimony. No one is even told you’ve come home.
Better than a bad story is no story. That way, what happened to you never really happened.