Above all things

Only day 4 of NaBloPoMo (or NaBloWriMo if you prefer), and I’m already having to write my first post that isn’t pre-scheduled or closely edited. Well, the idea was to get me to write more spontaneously and get my thoughts out quickly, so I guess it’s working! Anyone else doing Nano/nablowrimo or some other variant of it?

One of the things that does huge damage to individuals, families, and communities in evangelicalism is the idea that the most important thing is being completely “right” in what you believe and how you go about making decisions. Everything else is secondary to that, and follows from that. People and families who don’t do things the right way are all secretly falling apart and miserable and have “something missing from their lives,” no matter how much they might feel otherwise. People who live “biblically” always have “God-honoring” marriages and families and lives that are complete and blessed, no matter what kind of horror show plays out when there’s no one to perform holiness for. People who follow the rules have blessed lives.

It’s one of the things I’ve really struggled with in my adult life, as someone who mostly tried to follow the script for what I was supposed to do, and how. I didn’t follow it absolutely perfectly. And believe me, I felt plenty of guilt over the various ways I deviated from the rules. Constant guilt.

Which in retrospect seems like another unhealthy and oppressive aspect of this obsession with doing things right – the focus is always on what you’ve done wrong, what you could do better, no matter how much you might have done right the rest of the time. There’s no satisfaction in doing things well, in doing things the right way, because that’s what you were supposed to do in the first pace. You don’t get credit for good things. Only blame for the bad.

Funny enough, it turns out that being able to give oneself credit for the things one has accomplished is actually a sort of important part of maintaining emotional and mental health. Turns out that after a while of focusing on only the bad things about yourself, after years of being trained to talk and write and sing and think about how sinful you are and how even the worst things that happen to you are still better than you deserve…

It becomes really easy to only ever see the “bad” things about yourself (or to realize that the people you trust have a kind of warped sense of what’s “bad” and what’s “good”). And eventually it becomes easy to see yourself as bad. As evil. Not just someone who does bad things, but inherently and solely bad.

I think that keeping people in such a state of constant psychological self-flagellation – and in a state of constantly pointing out the faults of others in the name of “accountability – is a really powerful method of controlling people. When you get people to fundamentally distrust themselves, you make them vulnerable and pliable. Never sure of whether what they see, think, or feel is reflective in any way of reality, and as a result, reliant on others to tell them what they should see, think and feel.

This is what life was like growing up evangelical. It was made explicit that I could never trust myself or my perception of the world, not even my own feelings. Especiallynot my own feelings, actually, because feelings were fickle and rooted in the flesh, not in the spirit. Because, as we were frequently reminded, “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9]

This didn’t give me a complex about myself, or anything.

I mean, it’s true, feelings are subjective and they can be fickle. On their own they’re not the most reliable indicator of what the world is really like or how we should behave. Sometimes our feelings lead us the wrong way. But what I was taught went in the opposite direction – the pastors and care group leaders and my parents not only taught me to ignore and suppress my feelings, but often implied if not outright advised that doing the exact opposite of what my feelings told me was the “godly” thing to do.

Turns out running away from one’s feelings isn’t the best way of dealing with them. Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.

15 Comments

  1. “So, what do you want to major in in college? Oh, well you THINK that’s what you’re interested in but if you’re doing something that would make YOU happy maybe you’re just trying to avoid sacrificing anything for God.”

    “So, you have friends who aren’t Christian? You like hanging out with them? Doesn’t the fact that you enjoy it mean that that’s a temptation drawing you away from the Christian community?”

    “So you have a friend who’s gay? Have you explained to them that they need to repent of their sin? No? Doesn’t the fact that you don’t WANT to do it mean that God is CHALLENGING you to do the right thing here? [insert maudlin story about them burning in hell and looking at you in tears because you didn’t warn them]”

    And lots more similar about the most inane details. REALLY resonating with the part about how feelings should be distrusted not because of their consequences but merely because they exist. If there’s something you want to do, you’re taught to be suspicious and avoid it, because if you WANT something it’s almost certainly bad.

    See also: evangelical distinction between “happiness” and “joy.” There’s some value in distinguishing immediate versus robust “happiness” (cf heroin), but in some communities it just means “happiness” is sinfully doing the thing you want but “joy” is smiling and singing worship songs despite crippling depression because at least God approves of you. (Not that they believe in depression, but that’s another rant…)

    • Yes to all of this! The joy vs. happiness line is really messed up, too. Like you said, there’s no meaning to it other than to get you to distrust anything that feels at all good.

  2. A sweet friend of mine just posted on facebook a quote from Joyce Meyer about how we only recognize mistakes in other people and not ourselves. In my point of view, the opposite has happened. Credit for good things can only go to God, husband, church, etc (in about that order) while the dear Christian women are encouraged to blame all the mistakes on themselves. I think this happens to a lesser extent to men.
    It is healthy to recognize when other people mess up instead of taking the blame. I hate hearing “he only yelled at me because I didn’t have dinner ready on time and yelling isn’t that bad.”

    I hear you, Beady, about the unbelief of depression. I spent a few years wondering if someone with bipolar had demon possession.
    One day, it hit me that the number of people with depression and other mental illness was way higher in my church than the national average. At first I thought it was because our particular church had a ministry to such people. Then I thought such people (myself included) were just drawn to the church, even though we were born into it. Now I understand that some of the teachings actually promote depression.

    • I once read a blog post by an evangelical woman confessing sinful anger for being upset that her husband had put off repairs on the family van until it started stalling out in the middle of traffic – which, as you can imagine, could be really dangerous. They were lucky enough that the few times it actually did this she was going at very low speeds. She turned this around (and actually, I’m not 100% certain but I think it was her husband who pointed it out) to how she should have been grateful for the grace God showed them by keeping the van from stalling out on the highway or in a more dangerous situation. It was absurd. This man literally put every single one of his family members’ lives in danger, and she was the one who sinned by being angry that he didn’t listen to her until things were potentially lethal.

      “Some of the teachings actually promote depression” – yes. One of the reasons I didn’t recognize my chronic depression for what it was for years.

  3. How true, and how sad, because I became a Christian 10 years ago (from a non-observant nominally Jewish background) to find RELIEF from the perfectionism that I’d acquired from my family’s mentally ill behavior patterns (OCD, paranoia, narcissism…the list goes on). At the time, the message of grace and cleansing from intractable sin was a lifeline for me to set boundaries in an abusive relationship. But a few years later, I found those same abusive patterns replicated in the church, as I started to clash with some Christian friends about my support for gay rights

    Though I’m still a Christian, I seriously wonder: Is the sin-depravity-forgiveness paradigm really as fundamental as I thought, or did it mostly reflect MY reality as an abuse survivor? Since there’s so much abuse in the world, perhaps that’s why this theology resonates with many people.

    • Jendi – I can definitely see how becoming a Christian as an adult could be liberating in certain ways, especially for people who’ve grown up in difficult family situations. I know in my old church many people grew up in abusive or dysfunctional households and saw the church as a refuge from and remedy to that. The church can offer an alternative to family that can be very appealing and legitimately supportive/helpful.

      I think it can be very different if you grow up in that framework. For me the concept of sin is now both meaningless and actively triggering. I’m not sure I could attend even a very progressive church where the concept is preached.

      • I can relate to what you all are saying. I am just still searching for a way to honor my experience now, and my experience in the past, because if I can’t trust one, how can I trust the other? Perhaps God is big enough to work through all sorts of doctrines depending on where we are in our lives.

        • Jendi, I can’t give you the answer you are looking for but I can share my experience.
          When I started questioning my particular religious upbringing I began to wonder how I could ever trust anything, especially myself. I began to worry that I would always live in a perpetual state of delusion. After time has passed, I am feeling more comfortable with grey areas and not knowing everything. I am learning to trust more of myself which is especially hard for me since bi-polar disorder runs in my family and I am aware how frail our grasps on reality can be.
          I can see my past experiences as valid, but now I am not compelled to use the same explanations for them. I did grow up speaking in tongues and seeing miracles. Instead of saying that must prove the existence of a particular form of god, I can also explain it as partly the power of our brains with the placebo effect, but partly to a mystery that I do not have to understand. And I am ok with that now.
          I don’t know how your journey will go, but it does get better! The initial questioning stage is the hardest. I found it very helpful to find a community of people who had gone through or were going through similar things.

          ps: Not all Christian groups adhere to the sin-depravity paradigm. It can be useful, but more as a stepping stone than a final destination.

  4. I think that keeping people in such a state of constant psychological self-flagellation –and in a state of constantly pointing out the faults of others in the name of “accountability –is a really powerful method of controlling people.

    I agree very much. I would add that the means for that control is not necessarily from leaders, but is often more pronounced in the form of peer pressure.

    Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.

    Yes, as if feelings of being insecure were not difficult enough to deal with in and of themselves. :^(

  5. “Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.”

    This really hit home after I had kids. I couldn’t trust my gut instincts and ended up listening to some fundy christian parenting “experts” that gave some really shitty advice. Turns out some kids have been seriously harmed and even died by following those particular people’s advice.

    Other people tried to comfort me by saying that god would help me, but giving god the credit for the good things I did do for my kids and taking all the blame for any mistakes was not good for my mental health. (understatement)

    I did not have post-partum depression with my second child. I know leaving the church helped with this, although it wasn’t the only thing I did differently.

    • With regard to fundy Christian parenting “experts” who give harmful advice, Debi and Michael Pearl come to mind.

      • It wasn’t them, but similar teachings. Really, a newborn is not trying to control you, they just want to be: fed, cleaned or held.
        They advocated forcing the child to go without eating during the night so that they would learn to sleep all night. Our midwives told me to stop listening to him because some babies have died because they went into hypoglycemic shock from trying to follow this.
        It was a power struggle: babies needs and my instincts vs self-appointed church leader’s commands.
        When you are trained to obey self-appointed authorities, it is a struggle.

  6. “When you get people to fundamentally distrust themselves, you make them vulnerable and pliable.”

    People prevented from cultivating an inner compass, who have been taught to ignore their own doubts and feelings, ARE easy to control. Is it any wonder abuse occurs in these contexts? Yeek.