So, we answer the soul’s call. We learn about our roots, about the heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we make the transition to the religious way of life. We begin to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, adhere to the modest style of dress and participate in the numerous practices of the holidays.

Yet something is amiss. The baggage of the past doesn’t seem to allow us to fully embrace the new life. Fears, anxieties and worries do not leave us so readily, even though we seem to be doing all the right things. Without attempting to make this essay dramatic, I would like to share my insight, which has shed more light on and deepened my relationship with my Creator.

I started to believe in G‑d in my adolescence. My adherence to Jewish practices steadily increased from age 16, and at 20, I undertook complete observance. I started to fulfill the commandments to the best of my knowledge and abilities. All seemed appropriate on the outside. What was on the inside? What about my personal, intimate relationship with G‑d?

I read numerous accounts on how one is to experience G‑d’s love and care, and I understood intellectually that He is always with us. The subconscious message, however, was different. I perceived G‑d as an onlooker to my life. He was dispassionately watching from above as I struggled through the daily challenges, waiting for me to slip in order to shoot down the punishment. I constantly feared something terrible happening if I let down my guard. I could not rely on anything because it could be taken away as a reprimand or a reminder not to be too cocky. Not only that, but G‑d could inflict pain on me at His whim.

On the outside, intellectually, I accepted the Jewish view of G‑d as benevolent, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth. On the inside, subconsciously, my old view persisted.

During one of my journaling excursions, I attempted to uncover the reasons for my fear of punishment and my shame for thinking that I deserved it. I realized that I was under the heavy influence of pagan ideology, which was further reinforced by the autocratic adult rule during my upbringing. Going against the established practices was wrong, and pain and suffering were self-inflicted by my own disobedience and willfulness. Comfort was possible only if I dutifully complied with the expectations of me.

To my surprise and relief, I was finally able to reconcile this subconscious indoctrination from childhood with my struggles as an adult.

When people refer to negative occurrences in life as punishments, they operate along materialistic guidelines. According to this view, the “bad” thing is anything which stands in the way of a person’s experiencing the pleasures and comforts of life. Losing a job means that there will be less money to get things one wants to have, to do the things one wants to do. An illness spells pain. There is frustration with not being able to enjoy sports, or even to do simple chores at one’s will. There seems to be no answer as to why bad things happen—natural calamities, wars, death. One draws the conclusion that it must be that G‑d is a cruel G‑d, quick to punishment. This view fills one with anxiety and dread of the future. If it is good now, it means that it will get bad at some point.

The spiritual approach offers another explanation to life’s seemingly painful events. The underlying principle of creation is that G‑d made this world for the purpose of serving Him with complete devotion and self-abandonment, making this material existence into a dwelling place for Him. He is the Creator, and He causes everything to run according to His will. With every thing that happens to us, whether good or bad, we can learn how to serve Him a little better, how to draw down His presence a little closer. The challenges set in front of us are never greater than we what can handle. G‑d is not only behind us, encouraging and cheering as we muster the strength to keep going, but He is beside us, breathing energy into us, and carrying us in His arms when we are unable to walk by ourselves. He is not out to break us, but to make us.

Losing a job, becoming ill or any other calamity one can think of are not punishments. At first, they cause us to reach deeper and deeper into our own resources, until we realize that we can’t do it without Him. From that, the realization that nothing is possible without Him begins to infiltrate our minds and hearts, changing our frame of reference on the world from self-centered to G‑d-centered, exactly as He wants it to be. I cannot perceive a source of greater comfort and security.

In the course of my religious journey, I heard these explanations, read them, even spoke about them myself, but they never became a reality for me until I put them against my old, deeply rooted beliefs, which were the cause of all the fear, anxiety and shame. Now, the process of shaking off the distorted childhood views and turning around to face mature reality is just beginning to take place. This slow and gentle process—as it infuses my soul with insights, inspiration, gratitude and humbleness—enables me to proclaim that everything will only get better from now on.