I Am That I Am: We Are So Much More than What People Think of Us

The “lessons” we learn about ourselves

The deepest lessons we learn in life aren’t from the classroom. They’re not on paper. Not even in the field.*

Instead we learn them from each other. From how others treat us. These lessons can happen in the moment, between the lines. Sometimes they’re explicit and outright. They can be enriching, affirming, warming… or damaging, painful, self-diminishing. Through the way others act toward us, we learn what they think of us. So often, we believe that what they think of us is what we really deserve — even without realizing it.

A friend chooses to spend time with you and listen to you in your darkest times: you learn that you’re worth patience, compassion, care, and listening, even when you can’t give  back. You have value beyond what you have to offer. You’re more than your usefulness.

You find out that the loved one you trusted lied: you learn that others cannot always be trusted. You were taken advantage of.

Your daughter runs out of the house when you get home from work to jump into your arms: you learn that you’re loved and wanted outright. You are missed. You’re wanted near.

Your mom shakes her head and says, “why can’t you act more ladylike?”: you learn that being ladylike is what you should be doing, and whatever you are doing is apparently not that, because your mom thinks it’s wrong.

These lessons sink deep into our shoulders, run with our blood, settle under our tongues and charge our very movements. We carry these lessons in our bodies and in the way we react to and approach the people around us. They prompt us to become freer, less worried, more secure, happier, or more on edge, afraid, guilty, hobbled. The lessons that hurt, we learn the hardest. And a lot of the time, we don’t even see ’em. We take them as gospel, as truth, as lived knowledge, and in doing so, surrender so much power to false and limiting ideas of who we really are.

I grew up with lots and lots and lots of these soul lessons, like we all do. The lessons I wanna talk about today are the lessons I learned about my very self, because I have a hunch that you reading might have learned your own too. I am unlearning them. I hope you’ll find what you need here to start unlearning yours too.

Making saints and exiles of ourselves

When I was growing up, the people around me had a lot to say about who a person should be and how they should express that. Back then, it seemed so simple, even beautiful. We were Evangelical, and all our identity was in God: his servants, his bride, his children all rolled into one. Our purpose on Earth: to bring God glory, please him, and expand his family. We weren’t meant to try to be anyone other than who God wanted us to be, his specific blueprint for each of our lives, our epic role in his story of millennia.

I “knew who I was in God” and that was all that mattered; being anyone beyond a submissive, pious, cheerful, wise, grateful helper (as a girl, this of course was my future role) was “foolish”, “vain”, “empty”, and “arrogant.” When I did things unexpected or unapproved of, my mom would say, “I know you, and this isn’t you.” 

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Growing up, I hated who I was, because I thought that the girl people saw WAS who I really was. It turns out that I had situational mutism, a severe anxiety disorder that begins in early childhood, and where the sufferer isn’t able to physically speak (or even nod, smile, make eye contact, etc.) in certain social situations. SM sidelined me in life. I spent so much time on the periphery of rooms, aching to be a part of conversation and fun and friend making, but every time a joke or hello! or comment popped into my head, it stayed locked in the cell of my vocal chords. So I unintentionally formed a reputation as that really quiet religious girl — the one who didn’t talk or smile back.

This was a powerful lesson I learned day after day for years. One that I am still-unlearning: that I am not “one of the rest of you”, that I’m “a piece of furniture” (as one person sometimes called me), that I am on the outside of life looking in.

That’s why I loved the lessons that my religion taught me about who I could be. Self-improvement is built right into Evangelical Christianity. It’s called “sanctification.” It’s the idea that, from the moment they believe, anyone who becomes a Christian automatically begins an eternal process of becoming a person more like Christ: full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. They are becoming saints — sanctified. 

I cherished this promise. I drank up the peace of its reassurance. Sanctification was a guarantee that no matter how lonely or inferior or awkward or unkind or quiet or not-enough I felt, or how many bad habits I couldn’t break, I only had to wait and trust in God, because he would change me.

But there was a dark side to sanctification. Sanctification wasn’t just God working in me continually to change me for the better. I was supposed to become more like Christ by becoming less of my original self. Scripture said there was no good in my original self, and I could never, ever hope to change myself; only God’s power could transform a wretch like me. In fact, all the language about “being made new” was violent. Visceral. I was supposed to die to myself. To kill my “old man” (not my dad, my old self!) so God could create a new one. Carve. Mold. Break me to make me. Christianity asked me again and again to extinguish and empty myself from existence.

And so, without even knowing, I sent my original self into exile.

And, ya know, that is what you do when you believe the “lessons” people give you about how little you are worth, or how little you can accomplish, or that your rights matter less than theirs — you send yourself into exile. You push yourself away. You learn to see your true self as enemy, as other, as dirty secret. You stop listening to yourself. You agree with what others say about you and become the enforcer of their underestimations, their deliberate hurt and their misunderstandings.

This is what I did. These are the lessons that Evangelical Christianity, and the consequences of my situational mutism, taught me.

  • That I had no right to exist. By rights, God could have destroyed us all, but he didn’t and I shouldn’t forget it.
  • That I couldn’t make myself a better person. Only God could do that. I had no power, creativity, or rights over myself. I shouldn’t try to be anyone beyond what others had in mind for me.
  • That the only way I could be redeemed as a human being, after being born so flawed I deserved eternal torture by default, was to put my original self to death. That my authentic self deserved violence and silence.
  • That I should continue being unnoticeable, invisible, unheard — unwitnessed for who I really was.

I took these ideas and believed them, and because I believed them I forced my original self, my authentic, vibrant, free-spirited, friendly, warm, cheerful self, into exile. I shut out her voice. I fell out of touch with what and who I really wanted. And I tried to flinch and dance away from any action that might lead to people judging me as too much or not enough for the box they had constructed for me. I allowed myself to believe that who they thought I was — that religious, timid kid cut off from conversation and human relationship —  was all I could be.

I can’t emphasize enough how deeply these lessons affected me on an almost cellular level. I grew up cut off from what I wanted, because wanting was vain and selfish, and because of this, I had unwanted sexual experiences. I gorged myself on food, then tried to whittle myself away in shame for expressing an appetite for life. I felt chronically unwanted or separate even around friends. I avoided mirrors. I didn’t take medicine when I got sick or get food when I was hungry. I didn’t even realize I could move chairs out of my way. I didn’t reach out and make friends. I didn’t know how to connect with people because I was disconnected from the self I really had to offer. I didn’t speak my mind or pursue what called to my heart. I wasn’t living.

Because when I was told that I didn’t deserve to be and create my authentic self, I believed it. I thought that these “lessons”, which were really other people’s projections onto me, were the truth of who I was and who I could be.

Maybe you grew up hearing the same sort of thing too. Maybe you’re from a religious tradition — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, Jewish, and more — that told you, you are not good. Be less of you so you can be better.

Or maybe you weren’t religious, but you were still told that the way to be better or good was to be less you. Because of your family. Your culture. Your gender. Your abuser(s). Maybe you weren’t outright told “die to self”, but you still felt you had to shrink. To be less you. Less authentic. Less here. Less loud or quiet. Less rebellious, awkward, clumsy, forgetful, unphotogenic, distinct… human.

  • The oldest child: be responsible, don’t play like the younger kids do, be an ambassador for the family name over your own, others first.
  • The girl: sit up straight, cross your legs, wear skirts, don’t cut your hair that short, don’t play in the mud, like dolls, want babies, please men.
  • The survivor: your abuser’s right to express their frustration toward you trumps your right not to be hurt by them, their feelings matter more than your pain, be still, be quieter, don’t disagree.

Radical acceptance: finding myself in a fitting room

I let other people’s expectations of me become my limitations. As long as I did that, I could never be anything more than what people imagined me to be. But I’ve come to realize that my imagination is way better than any of theirs.

The lessons I was taught were dead wrong. To heal, I had to realize just how wrong they were. I had to apologize to my original self, the one I sent into exile, who I was supposed to kill and be less of, for everything I believed about her. For all the things that happened to me because I believed them: letting so many people take advantage of me without taking action to change my own circumstances. I would never have believed them if they hadn’t been taught to me, so they are not my fault; but only I can change their effects now.

I realized this in a fitting room in TJ Maxx. Retail therapy, y’all. 

Trying on clothes was really painful growing up. In a world where I felt so controlled, the fitting room was our little secret between me and the mirror, a magic little box where I could indulge in clothes I’d never wear outside it. It was like trying on selves and futures, but guilt was my constant companion. Hot flashes of shame coursed down my back when I stood in front of the racks, wondering, will people think I’m trying to pull off being someone I’m not? 

But when I became independent, I got to take myself shopping, and over time, with effort, the shame melted into the background. So that’s where I found myself, in a fitting room in TJ Maxx with clothes I didn’t even know I liked. Trying them on felt like a laugh of relief, like breathing fully after a life of shallow gasps. The old lessons in my head said, this isn’t what people are used to. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. You look ridiculous. 

But I’m strong enough now to know my instincts and even sometimes what I want… and I knew that this? This was what my original self liked all along. People not being used to this didn’t mean this wasn’t me. It just meant that now it was time to show them who I really was. If I liked it, if I wanted it, if I found it pretty or meaningful or funny or cool, I wouldn’t vet it anymore to sniff out possible judgment, criticism, or shame. Instead, I would accept it all, radically, along with any judgment or labels that came with it. 

That changed everything. I bought the clothes. I showed them to my roommate, laughing, but unapologetic. And as I wore them, I still heard those old lessons, the ones that pushed my original self down into exile all that time. But I didn’t listen to them. Instead I realized that there was a whole other way to be me right in front of me: to acknowledge other people’s judgments of me without letting them change me.

All this time, I allowed other people’s expectations of me become my limitations.

I can be aware of what people will think of me without apologizing for it. I can say to the world, this is who I am, take me as you will. No more allowing other people’s reactions to me to define me, to shame me, to burn me.

It’s time for me to be playfully, gleefully, freely me, without apology. To take back the power I gave other people when I allowed their idea of who I was to dictate who I was. People make judgments. It’s what they do. I can’t change that, but I can take the power back from them by no longer reacting to them.

I am no longer defining me; I am living her.

1: Me and my twin, original-selfing from the start; 2: back when we were still believing and living in Christian conditions; 3: a year ago, look how much happier we are as college heathens!, and 4: a low quality pic of one of my happiest moments. This is who I am: glitter in my short hair, dancing with a rainbow flag, and my ink showing through.

Survivors, questioners, nonbelievers, humans, this is encouragement I have for you:

Don’t let people’s expectations of who you should be limit who you really are.

Don’t keep believing negative “lessons” about who you are and what you deserve — indoctrination, cultural norms, family dynamics, gender roles, abuse, everyday human hurts. They are not an authority. They’re a projection. Take your power back from them.

Allow yourself to imagine who you could be, beyond what you’ve always supposed to be. Get back in touch with who you always were. In all their awesome, kickass, nerdy, cool, inspiring, relatable, human glory.

All of this makes me think back to one of the names of God. It’s a pretty badass story. Moses asks God what name he should call him by to his people. God says, “I am who I am.” I used to find this so confusing and mysterious, but now, as an unbeliever, I actually find it awesome. God didn’t define himself. He said, I am that I am. I am who I am.

That is what I’m saying now. I am that I am. In these clothes. This style. These words. These actions. These vibes. I’m getting there. I’m daring to imagine and become a person so far beyond anything God and other people had in mind for me. And I’m no longer giving power to the “lessons” about the powerlessness and limitations that my self was meant to have. I take that power back: I am that I am.

When we realize that negative “lessons” are just expectations, underestimations, miscalculations, on other people’s part, and that who we are goes beyond anything anyone else can define for us, we take back our power. We set the standard for how we should be treated with compassion, vision, and love for ourselves, no longer allowing others to teach us the baseline of what we deserve. We bring our original selves out of exile and make them sacred. Make them heard. Make them real.

Let’s finish with words from 3 of my favorite healers: Kirsten (The Crazy Herbalist), whose articles about plant allies and the role of stories in healing from trauma changed everything for me 2 years ago; Lilia Tarawa, whose style, love for others, and joy in a free life makes my heart sing; and Nayyirah Waheed, whose poems make me feel called out and called in at the same time.

The cultural stories which ask us to be smaller or other than who we are are not acceptable. The violence done to us without our consent is unacceptable. The lack of collective support many of us feel is isolating and a very real thing. Long live the resistance and the resistors and that small but so potent voice inside that knows something else is possible for us.

Transforming trauma is about re-writing our stories, releasing the lies that have permeated our cells and finding new songs. 

For Survivors, by Kirsten

you were born for you.
you were wanted by you.
you came for you.
you are here for you.
your existence is yours.
yes.”
― Nayyirah Waheed, nejma
Here’s to finding new songs. Here’s to visions. Here’s to yes.
Max
*You might notice I adapted the beginning of this post from the end of my last one, a review of Ch 3 of Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Is that like outfit repeating but for blogs? It felt so natural writing it, I realized it was actually meant for this one.
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“In Love with the One I Fear”: Bringing Abuse into Christianity (Crazy Love Ch 3 Review)

This week we’re looking at the third, and maybe most humanizing, chapter in Crazy Love. It is also named “Crazy Love,” and I mean, it’s not wrong. This chapter is a gold mine for a conversation Evangelicals really need to have, but it’s also heartbreaking. Got daddy issues? So does Francis Chan, and “Crazy Love” is about how he tried to create a better mindset for his relationship with his Heavenly Father after living in fear around his own father. Yeah, this one’s real. Grab a blanket or a beer or curl up with a pet, lads, ’cause Chapter 3 goes in.

If you’re new to the party, Crazy Love is a book that calls for American Christians to revitalize their notions of who God is (our breathtakingly powerful Maker) and live a radical, sacrificial, crazy-in-love-for-God life to prove it. Published in 2008, it swept through American Christian communities right onto the New York Times Bestsellers ListI’m taking Crazy Love chapter by chapter to deconstruct the beautiful and the toxic in Chan’s ideas — and see how they echo larger issues with American conservative Christian theology in general.

This week’s theme: Evangelical Christianity’s “personal relationship with God” is just Christians reproducing the cycle of abuse in their own lives on a cosmic level. We deserve better.

Francis Chan opens the chapter with the claim that most American Christians miss out on what God’s love for them really is for a lot of reasons. For him, it was his relationship with his own dad that tripped him up. This is his story.

dad and DAD

The concept of being wanted by a father was foreign to me. Growing up, I felt unwanted by my dad. My mother died giving birth to me, so maybe he saw me as the cause of her death; I’m not sure.

I never carried on a meaningful conversation with my dad. In fact, the only affection I remember came when I was nine years old: He put his arm around me for about thirty seconds while we were on our way to my stepmother’s funeral. Besides that, the only other physical touch I experienced were the beatings I received when I disobeyed or bothered him.

My goal in our relationship was not to annoy my father. I would walk around the house trying not to upset him.

He died when I was twelve. I cried but also felt relief.

The impact of this relationship affected me for years, and I think a lot of those emotions transferred to my relationship with God. For example, I tried hard not to annoy God with my sin or upset Him with my little problems. I had no aspiration of being wanted by God; I was just happy not to be hated or hurt by Him.

Don’t get me wrong. Not everything about my dad was bad. I really do thank God for him, because he taught me discipline, respect, fear, and obedience. I also think he loved me. But I can’t sugarcoat how my relationship with him negatively affected my view of God for many years (54).

This is the thing about Francis Chan. 

I was talking (/ranting/trying to laugh about) Chan with some apostate friends a while ago, and one of the topics that came up is how weirdly, aggressively submissive and self-diminishing Francis Chan’s theology is. Then someone brought up the idea that the only way someone gets to thinking this way is if they’ve been through so much shit that these ideas really do seem normal. 

If you’ve been reading along and wondering how in the hell Francis Chan could react to the God he describes in such mind-bogglingly dehumanizing ways (calling humans puny and undeserving in response to a magnificent Creator and universe, saying that we are extras in life and delusional to think otherwise, describing stress as reeking of arrogance), this is why.

Francis Chan never explicitly characterizes his experience with his father as “abuse” in this book. I don’t know if he has in any sermons he’s given. It seems clear as damn day to me that this was abuse, and I don’t think anyone reading this would disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure Francis Chan would agree unless he has issues with how loaded the word is, because on some level, he knows this was wrong and that he did not deserve it.

Because he didn’t. Knowing how fucked up Chan’s theology can be, having studied and loved and tried to live out his writing in this book, all I feel reading this is just sad. Our ideas of the world are founded on our ideas of who we are. I wish so badly that Francis Chan would know that he deserves better. At the end of the day, Chan is just a guy with fucked up experiences who tried to break the cycles humans use to hurt each other and create a more loving, authentic Christianity. He just never actually got there. At some points he gets SO CLOSE and then swerves right into a toxic extreme. This is just another example of what I mean.

In Love with the One I Fear 

If I could pick one word to describe my feelings about God in those first years of being a Christian, it would be fear. Basically, any verses that describe His overwhelming greatness or His wrath were easy for me to relate to because I feared my own father…

Most Christians have been taught in church or by their parents to set aside a daily time for prayer and Scripture reading. It’s what we are supposed to do, and so for a long time it’s what I valiantly attempted. When I didn’t, I felt guilty.

Over time I realized that when we love God, we naturally run to Him — frequently and zealously. Jesus didn’t command that we have a regular time with Him each day. Rather, He tells us to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.’ He called this the ‘first and greatest commandment’ (Matt. 22:37-38). The results are intimate prayer and study of His Word. Our motivation changes from guilt to love.

This is how God longs for us to respond to His extravagant, unending love: not with a cursory ‘quiet time’ plagued with guilt, but with true love expressed through our lives. Like my little girl running out to the driveway to hug me each night because she loves me.

Fear is no longer the word I use to describe how I feel about God. Now I use words like reverent intimacy. I still fear God, and I pray that I always will. The Bible emphasizes the importance of fearing God. As we talked about in chapter 1, our culture severely lacks the fear of God, and many of us are plagued with amnesia. But for a long time, I narrowly focused on His fearsomeness to the exclusion of His great and abounding love. (56-57).

For some parts of this I’m following Chan, and then others he just totally loses me. Some of what he says just seems to directly contradict past chapters and the nature of his theology itself. Chan writes that “true love” doesn’t come from guilt, it comes from straight up wanting to love. I’m behind that. His comparison of loving God like his daughter runs out to jump into his arms is adorable. He actually describes how the birth of his daughter changed what parenthood and love was for him later on.

I just wish Chan actually wrote that idea into his actual theology. He has self-awareness without the follow-through. That is where people get hurt.

I’m gonna guess we all agree that fear isn’t healthy in ANY relationship. Actually, that’s not even a relationship at that point, it’s just a power dynamic, and abuse is nothing without a power dynamic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our parents’ and grandparents’ generation in America tended to have more authoritarian or just plain abusive upbringings (Dad rules the house), but believe in a God who echoes them. I think people will create relationships according to what’s normal or instinctual to them.

Maybe that’s why Chan says he thinks we shouldn’t love God out of guilt even though in the last 2 chapters, he just told us:

  • “But know this: God will not be tolerated. He instructs us to worship and fear Him” (28)
  • “We cannot escape Him, not even if we want to” (32)
  • “But to put it bluntly, when you get your own universe, you can make your own standards. When we disagree, let’s not assume it’s His reasoning that needs correction” (34)
  • “But then there’s that perplexing command: ‘Rejoice in the LORD always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (41)
  • “Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?” (42)
  • “Don’t let yourself forget. Soak it in and keep remembering that it is true. He is everything” (51)

Yeah, you’re right. No guilt here. No. Guilt. Heeere.

jim
The Office… my first love. Fact: I once wrote a 4000 word paper about Jim and Pam’s relationship for high school. 

It turns out that Francis Chan doesn’t think we shouldn’t fear God. He actually believes we shouldn’t JUST fear God. That is where he loses me.

It feels like he just gets so close to unlearning shitty relationship dynamics (you’re not supposed to be afraid of your dad and you’re not supposed to serve, worship, and never question him), but he isn’t there yet. I was rooting for him to get somewhere good, and then he served up the last paragraph. It makes me wonder how he went through the whole editing process without stopping and going wait, uh… maybe I’m just reproducing the heavy-handed fear and control bullshit that my dad made me think was normal in the theology in this entire book. 

I don’t judge him for not completely getting rid of his FLEAs, and I want to treat his experiences with respect and sympathy, but I WILL hold him to task for the consequences that abuse-flavored ideas have had for other people.

Recently, out of a desire to grow in my love for God, I decided to spend a few days alone with Him in the woods… I had no plan or agenda; I just opened my Bible. I don’t think it was coincidence that on the first day it fell open to Jeremiah 1.

After reading that passage, I meditated on it for the next four days. It spoke of God’s intimate knowledge of me. I had always acknowledged His complete sovereignty over me, but verses 4 and 5 took it to another level: ‘The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'” 

In other words, God knew me before He made me… (57-58).

You know. Just a guy. In the woods. For four days. With a Bible.

sure.gif
In our skule?

This is right in line with the all-consuming control that Chan teaches God has over us. For Chan, this is comforting, beautiful, and celebration-worthy… and it also leads him to belittle humans. Again.

If Francis Chan grew up being shown that he was worthy of love, would he still grovel so much at just the thought of receiving it? If he’d realized it and started changing how he thinks now, would he? What is he passing on to his congregations and his kids?

This is the God we serve, the God who knew us before He made us. The God who promises to remain with us and rescue us. the God who loves us and longs for us to love Him back. 

So why, when we constantly offend Him and are so unlovable and unloving, does God persist in loving us?

In my childhood, doing something offensive resulted in punishment, not love. Whether we admit it or not, every one of us has offended God at some point. Jesus affirmed this when He said, ‘No one is good — except God alone’ (Luke 18:19).

So why does God still love us, despite us? I do not have an answer to this question. But I do know that if God’s mercy didn’t exist, then there would be no hope. No matter how good we tried to be, we would be punished because of our sins.

Many people look at their lives and weigh their sins against their good deeds. But Isaiah 64:6 says, ‘All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ Our good deeds can never outweigh our sins.

The literal interpretation of ‘filthy rags’ in this verse is ‘menstrual garments’ (think used tampons… and if you’re disgusted by that idea, you get Isaiah’s point)… (60)

HE COMES SO CLOSE TO RECOGNIZING THAT HIS CHILDHOOD IS STILL AFFECTING HIS THEOLOGY. So close… He says that when he was a kid, offending others led to punishment. He could have said after that, and that was wrong, and that really hurt me, and I realize that I don’t deserve punishment, and it’s not something we should keep believing in our relationships with God today.

But this is not something Francis Chan seems to have worked out in his life this far. I understand that. I get that this shit is hard to work through. I get that you can go on believing so many awful things about what you deserve without even realizing it’s not normal. That’s why therapy is so helpful. 

“So why does God still love us, despite us?” BECAUSE YOU DESERVE IT! This just screams to me that Chan hasn’t resolved a lot. I hear a little kid talking in that sentence. Someone who hasn’t learned that people don’t love you DESPITE YOU. People love you BECAUSE OF YOU. That’s not how love works. And it breaks my heart to hear this grown man say this sincerely not knowing the answer. Crazy Love is a manifestation of Francis Chan not understanding that love is better than that.

head.gif
Heal, dammit! HEAL!

It makes total sense to me why Chan might still believe this. With the father he described, I’d expect that he felt like his existence was not wanted or welcomed, it was tolerated. If you live your life in fear and on edge, trying to be less of a burden so the people who say they love you won’t hurt you, and only being touched when you’re getting hit, you’re gonna feel like people permit you to exist and that you are the problem. If they love you, they love you despite you. And that’s fucking heartbreaking. He deserves so much more than that. I did. You did. We all do.

The thing is, Evangelical Christianity is tailor-made for abuse survivors. If you are coming from a world where being controlled, tolerated, loved despite yourself, and hurt because of yourself was normal? Evangelical Christianity is the most natural thing in the world to fall into, with the added bonus of a promise of someone who will love you no matter what.

Related: Seventy Times Seven Times Shall You Forgive Your Abuser
When God is Love, But God is a Monster

godabuse

What gets me MOST in this damn chapter, though, is that Francis Chan has heard this argument. In fact, he ADDRESSES IT. And then he swerves again! It’s like a practiced move at this point! The mental gymnastics on this guy…

Do I Have a Choice?

While I was speaking to some college students recently, an interesting twist on the contrast between our unresponsiveness and God’s great desire for us to come up. One student asked, ‘Why would a loving God force me to love Him?’

It seemed like a weird question. When I asked the student to clarify what he meant, he responded that God ‘threatens me with hell and punishment if I don’t begin a relationship with Him.’

The easy retort to this statement is that God doesn’t force us to love Him; it’s our choice. But there was a deeper issue going on, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it in the moment.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would tell that student that if God is truly the greatest good on this earth, would He be loving us if He didn’t draw us toward what is best for us (even if that happens to be Himself?) Doesn’t his courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even ‘threatening’ demonstrate His love? If He didn’t do all of that, wouldn’t we accuse Him of being unloving in the end, when all things are revealed? 

If someone asked you what the greatest good on this earth is, what would you say? An epic surf session? Financial security? Health? Meaningful, trusting friendships? Intimacy with your spouse? Knowing that you belong?

The greatest good on this earth is God. Period. God’s one goal for us is Himself (59-60).

  1. “The greatest good on this earth is God.” Uh, source?
  2. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT SEEMED LIKE A WEIRD QUESTION? Being forced to love and serve someone is so natural to you that you had to ask him to clarify?
    God, this reminds me of the time someone asked him what he thought of homosexuality and he ended up saying we should excommunicate divorcees too. You know. To make it fair.
     

    april
    Channeling April Ludgate’s face while I write this entire review.
  3. “The easy retort.” Oh yeah. We’ve never heard this one before. I think I know how it goes: well actually now God gave humans free will because if He just made us worship Him then we’d just be robots and that’s not true love, so you can choose whether you want to go to hell or not. You’re literally saying that if Door A has serving, loving, apologizing to, and being loved by an invisible man for eternity and beyond, and Door B has a modest helping of eternal torture, that Door A is a choice? It is a free choice in the same way coercion through violence gives you a “choice.” But it’s not a healthy, loving, or remotely fair one, and it’s not something you should be teaching children is okay or the way things are. Why isn’t THAT obvious. 
  4. I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO REACT TO THIS PART AHHHHHHHHH!!!!

 

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WHYYYYYYYYYYYY?

Is Francis Chan’s answer REALLY that “courting, luring, pushing, calling, and yes, even ‘threatening'” is just an ass-covering move so no one can say God isn’t truly loving?! 

I CANNOT wrap my head around the fact that Chan is trying to tell us that God threatens us with hell and punishment if we don’t serve him forever because he loves us? That is THE wildest take I’ve heard on “I hurt you because I love you and I know what’s best for you.” What that’s saying is, “I already decided that I’m what’s best for you, so I’m gonna give you the choice to worship, fear, and love me, but just to encourage you to do it, I’m gonna make the other choice hell.”

If he sincerely believes this, his idea of love is shot.

Christians can do better. Christians MUST do better. Break the cycle of abuse. Throw out abusive ideas of love. Change your relationships with God.

What happened in this chapter — seeing how Chan’s ideas of love got fucked up and how he tried to course correct, but still ended up in such a bad place — was awful. Sometimes it was incomprehensible. Sometimes I felt nothing but sympathy.

The deepest lessons we learn in life are not in the classroom, on paper, even in the field. They are the lessons we learn from how others treat us. These lessons slip under our tongues. They seep deep into our skin, permeate our blood, sink into our very marrow. We live them out on a cellular level. We carry them like air in our lungs.

The lessons that hurt we learn hardest. We cling on to these, sometimes without even knowing, because facing the possibility that they were wrong and therefore that we were wronged is so scary. It can upend our whole worlds. To understand that you didn’t deserve to be treated that way. To realize that that person who said they loved you, never really did. To know that this pain could have been avoided, or that you were so cut off from your own self, you didn’t even know the pain was there.

From what he shared, the lessons that Francis Chan learned growing up were that he was tolerated at best. When he was touched it was to be hurt. To be beaten, yelled at, made fun of, isolated, blackmailed, spied on, physically hurt, violated, humiliated, deprived, gaslighted, limited, as a person — it all says one thing to you. That the other person’s feelings matter more than your pain. That they come first. It is the ultimate dehumanization. They have the right to express their anger, righteousness, frustration, annoyance, and tiredness by taking away your right not to be hurt. 

No wonder Francis Chan still believes that humans are worth so little. No wonder why he thinks love only happens despite you, not because of you. No wonder why he thinks someone who is bigger than you wins the game, so don’t ask questions, never forget how small you are, and never stop serving him.

No wonder why his love needs fear. No wonder why his love is crazy. After all, that’s abuse in the most callous words. Crazy love.

How many more pastors, Sunday School teachers, parents, and ministers reproduce this hurt in their own theology? How common are these ideas in Christianity — that you should be so lucky that God (for some reason you can’t comprehend) deigns to care about you, that you should grovel in gratefulness for his love, that you should fear him?

How many people believe this stuff? How many people start to think this is how their human relationships should be too?

When you bring abuse into religion, you don’t just make it normal. You make it sacred. You make your own god an accomplice in your abuse. You self-inflict. You are helping no one. You are healing no one. You are changing nothing. You’re just preserving the game. You’re just dropping the burden on the next generation. You’re just continuing to allow yourself to hurt.

I know it’s hard. I know that taboo and silence and culture are all accomplices in preventing us from even admitting we need to heal, nevertheless healing. I know not everyone can go to therapy, not everyone can even find it, and not everyone has even realized the stigmas against it are wrong. I know calling things abuse or toxic or unhealthy or undeserved in our lives means seeing people in our lives in a different light, and even having to confront them. I know it means having to confront ourselves. 

Nevertheless, go forth and fix your shit. 

Because your kids deserve better. Because your congregation deserves better. Because YOU deserve better. Because it’s worth it. Because you can’t keep going like this. Because it’s wrong. Because love can be so much more than crazy.

Here’s to everyone out here who’s already trying. 

Christianity is a High-Demand Belief System: Crazy Love Review Ch 2

We’re digging in to the second (and in my opinion, the worst) chapter of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love this week! 

For anyone just joining us, Crazy Love is a book that calls for American Christians to revitalize their notions of who God is (our breathtakingly powerful Maker) and live a radical, sacrificial, crazy-in-love-for-God life to prove it. Published in 2008, it swept through American Christian communities right onto the New York Times Bestsellers ListI’m taking Crazy Love chapter by chapter to deconstruct the beautiful and the toxic in Chan’s ideas — and see how they echo larger issues with American conservative Christian theology in general.

This week’s theme: traditional American Christianity is a high-demand belief system that takes an emotional and psychological toll on believers.

“You Might Not Finish This Chapter”: Francis Chan Gets Existential

If there’s one thing Francis Chan is good at, it’s accurate chapter titles. Chapter 2 is called “You Might Not Finish This Chapter.” If that sounds weirdly morbid (or… self-defeated?), well, the whole thing is intended to be a giant reminder that you are, ya know, gonna die someday, maybe-even-like-today. But hey, at least he’s not trying to mislead anyone.

If you were hoping for a chill chapter review today, sorry, guys, this isn’t our week. In fact, this is probably the most wackadoodle chapter to unpack. So grab a seat and a snack! We’re delving right into Francis Chan’s, uh… death complex.

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Our hero Chan pulls no punches from the start. He’s out here gettin’ all existential and we are coming with: “You could die before you finish reading this chapter. I could die while you’re reading it. Today. At any moment” (39). (Francis Chan: king of casual.)

Okay, yeah, Chan says, you probably just think today is an average day. But did you forget how lucky you are that your kidneys function? Because not everyone’s do.

What about driving down the road at sixty-five miles per hour, only a few feet away from cars going the opposite direction at the same speed? Someone would only have to jerk his or her arm and you would be dead. I don’t think that’s morbid; I think it’s reality” (40).

Yeah, we know, Francis. We know.

That’s what the first section of the chapter is all about — a nice little primer that, as James 4:13-14 reminds us, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (40). Cheers! 

Chan is just getting started. The next section, in a kind of weird topic switch, reexamines how Christians should approach stress and worry (I wonder if he was feeling either one after what he just wrote.) Chan tells an anecdote about how he developed heart palpitations a few years before writing, reaching a peak around the busy Christmas season:

“But on Christmas Eve the issue intensified so much that I told my wife I would go to the emergency room after the church service. During the service, however, I surrendered all of my worries and stress to God. My symptoms slowly went away, and I never went to the doctor” (41).

If you’ve ever had a Christian relate an experience where they Jesus-ed away their medical and emotional problems and proceeded to tell you to do the same? Roll your eyes with me on the count of three, because that’s exactly what Chan is about to do. He calls up Philippians 4:4:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!… You’ll notice it doesn’t end with ‘…unless you’re doing something extremely important.’ No, it’s a command for all of us, and it follows with the charge, ‘Do not be anxious about anything'” (41).

Yeah, that’s what I need when I’m stressed out. Someone commanding me to rejoice. Next time I’m anxious someone should just come up to me and command me to just “like, stop, brah!” (They have a surfer boy voice in my head.)

These verses, Chan says, transformed his outlook on worry. And I don’t mean to keep quoting at you guys, but I have to quote this next part because I’m afraid you won’t believe me.

Worry implies that we don’t quite trust that God is big enough, powerful enough, or loving enough to take care of what’s happening in our lives.

Stress says that the things we are involved in are important enough to merit our impatience, our lack of grace toward others, or our tight grip of control.

Basically, these two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. Both worry and stress reek of arrogance… Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?… I am still dumb enough to forget that life is all about God and not about me at all” (42).

Far be it from me to not take this seriously, but honest question: does Francis Chan know how to… like… chill? His ideas about stress are stressing me out.

But the hands-down WORST part of this chapter comes directly after. In fact, it’s infamous to me. This is an idea that had a tremendous impact on me in high school. And so much of my life is about unlearning everything Chan wrote to follow. He switches gears again, from worry and stress to the idea that your life does not belong to you. This wasn’t a new ideaat all, in my faith. But I had never heard it this way before.

“Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second where you can see the back of your head. Maybe your mom and your closest friend get excited about that two-fifths of a second with you… maybe. But no one else will realize it is you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care.

Let’s take it a step further. What if you rent out the theater on opening night and invite all your friends and family to come see the new movie about you? People will say, ‘You’re an idiot! How could you think this movie is about you?”

Most Christians are even more delusional than the person I’ve been describing. So many of us think and live like the movie of life is all about us… From start to finish, this movie is obviously about God. He is the main character. How is it possible that we live as though it is about us?” (42-43).

To Chan, it was absolutely ludicrous for anyone to think that they were the main character in their own life. Reading this, I thought, I was just another player in his cosmic chess game, one more supporting character in his epic of millennia. This is why stress and worry were so intolerable to him: being stressed about something means it’s a big deal to you, and you are not a big deal, how could you forget it? He put it all together for his final conclusion: that you should use your “puny” human life to serve God for the two-fifths of a second you’re here. No pressure! Be happy!

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Anyone get the reference? Throwback to Vine? Anyway, this is how I imagine the little Francis Chan in my head growing up.

Francis closes out his points with 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or you drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (44). Because:

“Frankly, you need to get over yourself…

To be brutally honest, it doesn’t really matter what place you find yourself in right now. Your part is to bring Him glory — whether eating a sandwich on a lunch break, drinking coffee at 12:04 a.m. so you can stay awake to study, or watching your four-month-old take a nap.

The point of your life is to point to Him. Whatever you are doing, God wants to be glorified, because this whole thing is His. It is His movie, His world, His gift” (45).

High Demands and their Emotional Toll: Let’s Talk About It

WHEW. Francis Chan is back at it again. This is SO MUCH to unpack. 

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Watch Schitt’s Creek!!!

“You Might Not Finish This Chapter” exemplifies so much of why I believe that Christianity is generally a high-demand ideology. If you’re wondering where “high demand” is coming from, “high demand religious groups” (HDRGs) is another phrase for the much more loaded term “cult.” No, I’m not calling Christianity a cult, but I did find “high demand” to be an awesome description for my problems with and harm from it. Because that’s what it all boiled down to. Demand.

“You Might Not Finish This Chapter” is gob smacking full of demands on believers’ emotions, and guilt, urgency, and insecurity are the muscle behind it.

They sound harsh, maybe even radical, but they are just the natural progressions of ideas that are fundamental or typical to Evangelical Christianity: you are small and your life is fleeting, your life’s purpose is not about you but glorifying God and converting people, and mental illness is your fault.

Demands that you not forget how your life can end at any moment, because “you are a mist.”

Demands that you stop worrying, because it “reek[s] of arrogance.” Because how dare you fear that your responsibilities are bigger than God’s power to see you through them. Because how could you be so “dumb”?

Demands that you realize that your life is just two-fifths of a second of the back of an extra’s head in the movie of life. That you are not the main character in your own life.

Demands that you do absolutely everything, even “eating a sandwich”, to bring glory to God. Because you’re nothing. It’s all about Him.

THAT is what I mean by high-demand. The demand is high because the stakes are. High-demand belief systems and groups rely on black and white thinking to enforce their demands. A faith is high-demand when it says that you are so inherently awful and immoral, from birth, that you deserve to be eternally tortured — unless, of course, you dedicate your life to serving a magnificent God into infinity… and beyond (with the two-fifths of a second you have on Earth!) That is why you should be the joyful slave of God and keep remembering you and your life are puny. The concepts of total depravity, hell, eternity, and being controlled by either sin or God are high-demand. And they are all traditional beliefs of Christianity — even more moderate kinds.

High-demand belief systems and groups are harmful because of the effects their demands have on people. Whether they’re a religious cult, a family, an athletic team, a community under political police, etc., you can see the psychological and even physical damage that demands do to them.

I read this book when I was in high school and loved it so much I still have parts of it memorized. This chapter was my favorite. 

So when Francis Chan wrote that we could die at any moment and that should change how we live — to serve God in everything — I tried to do that. Not even 18 yet, I prayed for God to remind me my life was just a mist. I had no idea how to eat a sandwich for the glory of God, but I sure tried! I believed the sole purpose of my life was to lead other people to God, that I was a vessel for God’s desires. I planned on going to a Bible Institute for 2 years and becoming a missionary, not because I wanted to (I actually REALLY didn’t), but because a preacher said that anyone who can be a missionary should, and I knew that I couldn’t run from God; he would just find me, break me, and bring me back to Him, like he did to Jonah. When I left the faith, I struggled for 2 years to see the point in living until I realized you make your own. I couldn’t even walk outside at night because I was afraid God would strike me dead.

When Francis Chan wrote that stress and worry reeked of arrogance, I felt guilty whenever I was anxious because how dare I not trust God enough? When I realized I was struggling with depression, I asked to go to the doctor, who gave me Bible verses on index cards. I wasn’t getting better because I wasn’t reading and praying on them regularly. Obviously. This part of the chapter sounded so suspiciously close to the illness denial and shaming that is so prominent in American Christianity. Another demand: don’t be sick, or you don’t really believe.

How many of you guys out there have been told you’ll be divinely healed if you just Jesus hard enough? That your mental illness is a sin? Your medical illness is a punishment? You have no right to distress? How many other people have lived in guilt and shame for not being able to believe their very human pain and fears away?

But when Francis Chan wrote that I was not the main character in my life, the most damage was done. I didn’t even know it had affected me until years down the line. I was frustrated with why I felt so powerless to change my own life… like I was a Non-Playable Character in the video game of my life… like an extra. And then suddenly, in a rush, I remembered Crazy Love… and it all made sense. I was literally taught that I am an extra in life. Extras have no agency. Their lines and movements are scripted. They are to be glimpsed but not seen, heard but not listened to. 

For a long time, I moved through life like I could not change it, like believing that I was important or wanted anywhere was ludicrous and arrogant. I never realized that that was how Chan believed we looked to God. I was not important. In fact, my life was a mist, humans were puny, and my role in life was the equivalent of two-fifths of a second of the back of an extra’s head. This idea filtered out to every area of my life. When things got in my way, I didn’t ask them to move or do it myself. When I got sick, I didn’t take medicine. When I wanted things, I was terrified of admitting it; nothing that I desired mattered. Only God’s did. I had to know my place.

That’s what I mean by high-demand. Demands backed by guilt (“Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?” (42)), urgency (“You could be the next person in your family to die. I could be the next person in my church to die. We have to realize it. We have to believe it enough that it changes how we live” (51)), and belittlement (“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes'” (40), “The point of your life is to point to Him” (44)). Demands that take a toll on us because if we don’t fulfill them, we’re being arrogant and not knowing our place. 

Demands that can leave us obsessive, lying awake at night, burned out from the pressure of trying to serve others, look happy, and constantly deny ourselves, silenced with shame and guilt for feeling worry or stress, reduced to minimal self-esteem, or even traumatized. I write a lot about all of this. I believe that a lot of high-demand religious groups and systems, including traditional Protestant Christianity, but also including the LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and conservative/fundamentalist Muslims can suffer from very similar things. I’ve heard it from so many other bloggers and young people at this point that I know it’s a phenomenon.*** 

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Always worth a rewatch, but maybe even more after this doozy of a chapter.

The unofficial takeaway is that Francis Chan needs. To. CHILL.

But I’m glad he put down his ideas to paper. Because they are a great window into how Christian ideas can put enormous pressure on believers. How high the demands can be. And how they manifest in believers’ lives. But there are so many more than remembering you can die at any moment, being happy all the time and believing your stress away, and understanding you are an extra in your own life who should serve God in every moment (thank you, Francis Chan, for these absolute gifts.)

What demands did your religious beliefs or group put on you? 

How did they impact you?

What similarities can we find between us? Can we support one another?

I think we start by talking about it. Giving ourselves permission to name it. And sharing our stories with each other. So that’s what I’m trying to do. Put it out there. In all its long complicated mess. It’s not easy, breaking stuff like this down… but it’s worth it. And I know I’m not the only one. 😉 

Chapter 2, check. I’ll see you guys next week!

*** PS: If you’ve never heard of Religious Trauma Syndrome, I really recommend you look it up! Valerie Tarico and Marlene Winell, both experienced professionals who work with people who’ve left high-demand religions, are proponents of investigating the psychological harm that comes from HDRGs and putting Religious Trauma Syndrome in the future DSM. And they explain why fundamentalist Christianity can be so damaging to people so clearly!

And I can’t seem to find out who coined HDRG, but Colleen Russell, LMFT, CGP, is an experienced therapist in the field with an excellent article on HDRG characteristics.

Crazy Love Review Ch 1: Please Stop Calling Humans Puny

We’re diving in to Chapter 1 of Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love this week: “Stop Praying.”

In case you missed my intro to Crazy Love last week, it’s a book that calls for American Christians to revitalize their notions of who God is (our breathtakingly powerful Maker) and live a radical, sacrificial, crazy-in-love-for-God life to prove it. Published in 2008, it swept through American Christian communities right onto the New York Times Bestsellers List. Millions of people have read Crazy Love, and I got to hear from some of you on Facebook and in the comments last week. Thank you to everyone for sharing your own thoughts and experience with the book! Seriously, it’s amazing to hear the beginnings of a discussion… I can’t wait to see what you have to add. 

I’m taking Crazy Love chapter by chapter to deconstruct the beautiful and the toxic in Chan’s ideas — and see how they echo larger issues with American conservative Christian theology in general.

This week’s theme: the harm that comes from calling humans puny in response to a mighty God.

“Stop Praying”: Tremendous God, puny humans

Francis Chan opens with a passionate preface, and I pulled this quote so we can get an idea of the writer’s own purpose…

This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers…

I believe He wants us to love others so much we go to extremes to help them. I believe He wants us to be known for giving — of our time, our money, and our abilities — and to start a movement of ‘giving’ churches. In so doing, we can alleviate the suffering in the world and change the reputation of His bride in America” (21).

Tall order, but sounds respectable, doesn’t it? From the start, Chan plays on the common knowledge that many Americans believe that Christians don’t live up to what they preach. That if God is really as life-changing as Christians claim, Christians’ lifestyles should go from “lukewarm, halfhearted, or stagnant” (22) to an undeniable display of God-driven service in the eyes of nonbelievers. In contrast, he paints a picture of “lives of risk and adventure” (21) that start by “address[ing] our inaccurate view of God, and consequently, of ourselves” (22). 

“Stop Praying” is the first step in that paradigm shift. “Stop Praying” is about reexamining what the Bible says about God, and what that implies about how crazy big and powerful he is. According to Chan, this realization should humble us beyond measure — the God of all things deigns to love and die for us?! — so much that we understand we owe Him our whole lives in service. Crazy Love’s call to paradigm and lifestyle shift rests on this notion.

And oh, did it ever stop me in my tracks. This is the chapter that blew the doors off my perception of how “big” God was. It’s also the chapter that blew the doors off my perception of how “puny” (38) I was supposed to be in contrast.

Chan starts out by having readers put down the book and watch a video, “The Awe Factor of God.” In it, Chan pulls a Neil DeGrasse Tyson for 3 minutes, narrating a zoom-out from planet Earth all the way to clusters of galaxies. Back in the book, he asks us readers why God would create all this. To Chan, the answer is, “perhaps God wanted us to see these pictures so that our response would be, ‘Who do I think I am?'” (26).

Chan goes on to a thrillingly beautiful description of God’s creations. As a Christian teen? I was obsessed with this passage. I read it ’til I could recite it. I watched that video on my bathroom floor til I cried. Chan dropped facts about the smallest details of creation: how many muscles are in a caterpillar’s head, or species of tree in a square mile of Amazon jungle (27). Chan wrote of a God who was creator of laughter, spider silk, goosebumps, and yes, galaxies. It was an effective reminder that if God was Creator like I was raised to believe, then he was unfathomably more brilliant, artistic, and original than I ever thought. It filled me with awe and inspiration.

This is why I find it so heartbreaking and hard to understand why, in the next paragraph, Chan would conclude that the span of creation means “know this: God will not be tolerated. He instructs us to worship and fear Him” (28).

Reading this now, years after deconstructing my faith, I mourn that this is Chan’s gut response to seeing the universe God supposedly created. Not that we might see ourselves reflected in the terrifying, breathtaking majesty of space as fellow creation or even simply that through it, God tells us about who he is and how powerful he is to care for and love us through it. It’s about self-deprecation. This gut response drives all the rest of Chan’s theology, ultimately so damaging to my own self-esteem.

Chan does it again in his next section. Loving God should be natural, he writes, and when it’s not, it means we’ve forgotten he’s the Creator. We need reminders, just like he’s reminded of how lucky he to be with his wife. Touching, but then he again puts love and fear side by side: “Because we don’t often think about the reality of who God is, we quickly forget that He is worthy to be worshipped and loved. We are to fear him” (30). 

So Chan sets out on a quick refresher on the attributes of God. 

  1. God is holy.
  2. God is eternal.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. God is all-powerful.
  5. God is fair and just.

In his definitions, Chan drives home that God is dimensions beyond our comprehension. We just can’t even. Some of this could inspire someone to joy or peace, thinking that a God who is huge beyond compare loves you: he should never stop having your back. I can no longer believe in a being that too good to be true, but I respect how hugely healing or comforting this could be or is to other people.

Instead, Chan writes, “Can you worship a God who isn’t obligated to explain His actions to you? Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation? Do you really believe that compared to God, ‘all the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing,’ including you?” (34)

Chan concludes his chapter by imagining the events of Revelation 4 and Isaiah 6, where John and Isaiah, respectively, have fantastical and terrifying visions of what God’s throne in heaven looks like. Once again, instead of focusing on God’s strangeness and might, he turns his awe into self-belittlement:

“The appropriate way to end this chapter is the same way we began it — by standing in awed silence before a mighty, fearsome God, whose tremendous worth becomes even more apparent as we see our own puny selves in comparison” (38). 

The take home

Wow. Chan tells readers to take a breather after that first chapter, and I don’t know about you guys, but I need to… just not for the reasons he’s thinking.

Reading back on all this, I cannot believe the feat that Francis Chan accomplished by constructing a notion of God with so much potential to bring people wonder, peace, and joy… and then used that wonder, peace, and joy to break them down instead. See that? You’re puny. Who do you think you are?

I can’t make this up: he even wrote, “when you get your own universe, you can make your own standards” (34). It strikes me again and again how thoroughly Chan seems to be so un-self aware of how his “radical” theology discourages people from asking questions and finding worth in the grandeur of God without putting themselves down.

It’s taken me a long time to deconstruct my faith. I know some folks out there who’ve deconstructed their faiths and say that the universe does make them feel that humans are tiny and ineffectual in contrast. My view’s the opposite. I see the universe and I think of how incredible it is to be alive, how lucky we are to exist alongside it all. We are all welcome to our own interpretations of what it means to be here!

Where it gets red-flag dangerous is when people start to see people as truly unworthy. This is what Chan believes. Humans do not have the right to question God: “When we disagree, let’s not assume it’s His reasoning that needs correction” (34). Humans should understand that none of us are good. Humans should stop forgetting that God is so huge he automatically deserves our worship, love, and fear. Silly humans. Who do we think we are.

Can you see how poisonous it could be to someone to believe this, nevertheless be raised in it as a child? Imagine what it might do to their concept of what they’re worth? Can you hear how imbalanced the power dynamic is, that you are not even allowed to question God’s decisions? How can you love and respect a God whose rules are the rules simply because he’s bigger than you?

How Chan can promote a movement of Christians alleviating suffering and helping one another when he has such a low opinion of humans is beyond me.

Chan’s views are blunt. They were blunt even for my church. But we can’t pin it all on him. The idea that God is so big, therefore we are so nothing, is woven into Christian culture. How many times have you heard this Christianese:

He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)
Apart from God we can do nothing (John 15:5)
Who are we to question God? (Job 38)
JOY: Jesus, Others, You
Who am I that the Lord of all the earth would care to know my name…
Who am I that You would be mindful of me…

The idea that people are little, powerless, have no agency, have no right to question the ~way things are~, is woven into Christianity through the very concept of original sin. Really? We are so inherently horrible, from birth, that we deserve nothing more than being tortured for eternity? I heard pastors even use a baby’s cry as a metaphor for sin.

I talk a LOT on this blog about all the harm that Christian theology can do to people’s relationships with themselves and the world around them. With all of that said, I think there is a way Christianity could stop that harm. Of course, I think you’d need to completely drop the concept of original sin itself to get there, or at least totally revamp it.

But here’s something I think is more feasible for Christians right now. Maybe this is still too radical. I’m not telling Christians what to do. I am making a plea from someone who loved, lived, and left it all because of this very thing.

Don’t take Francis Chan’s path. Don’t point to God’s size and wonder and go, that means we’re puny and are so unworthy of God’s love that we should grovel and remember how lucky we are all our lives. Point to it and say, that means God has our backs. That means some of that same potential, creativity, love, and brilliance is in us.

If God loves us while being that big, it means he doesn’t love us DESPITE it. It means he loves us because we DESERVE it.

I don’t know about you guys reading it, but that is a Christianity I could get behind. That is a Christianity that would build people up. That is a Christianity I might not have left.

So, that’s Chapter 1, and I promise that’s the least I can possibly go on about it. 😉 Wishing you guys a warm January so far… it’s been bomb cyclone weather over here in Massachusetts and I am FREEZING! Making hot chocolate and feeling love for all you, my recovering/transitioning/crossroads family. Stay tuned to read me share how I had to learn to live out my better self, I think you guys will resonate with it… til next time!

This one was extra long, so… pictures!

 

Crazy. Love?: First Review of Francis Chan’s Book, Crazy Love (and What it Reveals About Conservative Christianity)

If you were holy rollin’ like me in the late 2000s, you might have been part of the Francis Chan craze that swept conservative Christian circles across the nation — and the New York Times Bestsellers List.

Some of you might remember him. Tall, slim Chinese American guy with a book that took conservative Christian church Sunday Schools by storm. It was called Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Chris Tomlin, a darling of the contemporary Christian music world, did the forward, for chrissakes. And the book, well, it was supposed to awaken a revolution.

In some ways, Crazy Love WAS revolutionary. It was a bold, fierce, scolding reminder that if the Bible was completely true like Evangelicals insisted, then its God was inconceivably more powerful, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and terrifying than the American church currently acted. It urged Christians to embrace a new idea of what Christian looked like: to fall madly in love with such a god as this, and to live radical lives to prove it. “Because when you’re wildly in love with someone, it changes everything” (back cover.)

But it was so much more than even that. Because to Chan, if God was that unspeakably enormous, it followed that humans owed everything in service to him. Chan took conservative Christianity’s fondness of servitude and self-deprecation and burst out in full-throated insistence that anyone who thought God didn’t demand their obedience was absurd: “Can you worship a God who isn’t obligated to explain his actions to you? Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation” (33)?

Chan came out and said it: all the toxic things conservative Christianity already believed about humans, but 10x more blunt.

  • He proclaimed that in the movies of our lives, we are extras in one scene with “two-fifths of a second where you can see the back of your head” (42).
  • That worry and stress “communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust… [and] reek of arrogance” (42).
  • That no matter how good you try to be, your deeds will be like “menstrual garments (think used tampons)” (60).
  • That God’s “courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even ‘threatening’ demonstrate his love” (62).

In Chapter 3, Chan described the abuse he suffered under his own dad, and struggling to heal his ability to imagine a non-abusive love with the Heavenly Father. In Crazy Love, he then goes on to construct a dynamic between human and God that is horrifically abusive. The title of his next heading is “In Love with the One I Fear” (56). And that, I think, sums up the book. 

There is SO MUCH about broader conservative Christianity’s problems that we could talk about here. Crazy Love is, after everything, a perfect lesson, a magnification, of the psychologically toxic ideas conservative Christianity teaches about humans. Mental illness and basic human feelings are made into sin. Your life is not your own, and you’re insane to think otherwise. Don’t just understand you have no choice but to be God’s slave, you should be OVERJOYED for the opportunity. God is so amazing, you’re pathetic, Jesus had to die for you, and you just keep forgetting. Abusive dynamics are dressed up as the ultimate love. 

Crazy love.

In fact, skimming the book, this is some of what I can talk about in this review:

Chapter 1 (Stop Praying): Chan says that Christianity’s God is beautifully incredible (and this is where my love for God came from; the accompanying videos shook me), but turns this around to say he’s so big you have to worship and fear him by default, and for you to question the order of things is just arrogant. Like a fire devouring what it burns on, God’s greatness runs on humans’ supposed patheticness.
Chapter 2 (You Might Not Finish This Chapter)Chan showcases Christianity’s fondness for “death scare”, aka trying to worry people into accepting the message faster by reminding them how short life is and that there’s a chance hell could be real.
Chapter 3 (Crazy Love — so well named)Chan proposes that people being afraid of God isn’t right. You have to love AND fear him, then it’s fine. He writes about his experiences with parental abuse with seemingly no self-awareness about creating a new abusive dynamic between himself and God.
Chapter 4 (Profile of the Lukewarm)Just a straight up list of what American Christians are doing wrong today.
Chapter 5 (Serving Leftovers to a Holy God)Chan convicts lukewarm Christians with Biblical backup that God thinks they’re evil, so useless they’d ruin manure, and wants to spit them out. God demands everything you have.
Chapter 6 (When You’re in Love): By making your entire life about making God look good and realizing how tiny you are, you will become free, because that’s what love does. Here we see the language getting as intense and weirdly sexual as lots of prayers and CCM: “Be all in me. Take all of me. Have your way with me” (111).
Chapter 7 (Your Best Life… Later)It’s foolish to seek fulfillment outside of God, and the only way to please Him is by total surrender. You should give up your time, income, job, and entire lifestyle to advance God’s kingdom.
Chapter 8 (Profile of the Obsessed)A list of what people who are “obsessed” with God do: love everyone who hates them, put God’s kingdom before their very safety and lives, connect with the poor, look weird to mainstream society, are intimate with God, live thinking about heaven, can never be humble enough and take slavery as joy.
Chapter 9 (Who Really Lives That Way?)Inspiring stories (including his own megachurch.)
Chapter 10 (The Crux of the Matter): So how are you supposed to change your lifestyle? Pray about it. God will tell you. 

Why am I doing this?

I spent 18 years, from birth,  in the world of Evangelicalism. When I think back on what it was like, I see magic. I smell campfire smoke, wild, tangy and familiar as my own blood, hear the thick snaps of sparks and the wind in the darkness as I pledged myself to a whirlwind romance, an all-out pursuit of a god who held me in everything. I see the morning light falling in meek golden bars against my palm as I turned the pages of my devotional, the red spotting my knees from praying so long on my bedroom floor. But most of all I remember the feelings. Our congregation, our family, in the dim warmth of the sanctuary, one in minor-chord melody. The explosion of emotions in my chest when I stood in a lake with storm rain lashing my face as I begged God to show me his. My heart, on a Sunday morning, full to burst with sensations I could not name.

So I called it love. 

Crazy Love was a huge part of helping me see it. This magic I called love.

It has taken me so long to see the crazy.

LOVED this book. I read it again and again in my head, and every time I was interrupted I went back and read the whole chapter again. I watched the accompanying videos over and over on my bathroom (and bedroom) floor until I cried. Skimming it now, I walk the paragraphs as familiar as streets from my childhood.

I loved Chan’s understanding of how amazing God was. I never saw how deeply his conclusions about what that meant for us as human beings fucked me up. Until now.

And I still have this book, because when I left and lost my faith, I held onto it as proof that I wasn’t making up everything I had believed and the passion with which I believed it. Now, it’s time to make use of it.

This review is my hope to make it up to myself. To honor the awe and beauty and glory I saw in everything God, could be and the love our relationship could have. To explain myself forgiveness for all the reasons why this cosmic romance, electrified by Chan’s Crazy Love, turned so abusive that it destroyed my very concept of self. And to open this conversation up to others. Your stories, your feelings, your adventures and your hurt. To talk about what it is to be in crazy love.

When I was looking up Francis Chan videos to share in this intro, I came across a Ted Talk by a woman who’s now one of my favorite humans. Her name is Lilia Tarawa, and she left Gloriavale, a Christian cult in New Zealand. When she speaks of the good memories of her upbringing, you should see the smile on her face. But just a few minutes later, her voice breaks as she describes the pain of the dysfunction, trauma, and abuse that came with them. I hear echoes of my Christianity, and Crazy Love itself, in her story.

How beautiful and radical Francis Chan’s idea of God was, the God of E-minor and pine needles. And how fucking terrible his view of humans is, that believing means “beating your body and making it your slave”. How it all went so very wrong. How it hurt me beyond belief. And I’m writing this because I bet there are others out there too.

See, Francis Chan has a huge influence. In 1994, he founded Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California. Crazy Love, published in 2008, sold over 2 million copies, followed by Forgotten God and Erasing Hell. By the time he left in 2010, it was a 4000-member megachurch, and by some accounts, a cult. He is Chancellor and Founder of Eternity Bible College. He has spoken at major conferences to tens of thousands, and he now leads We Are Church, a San Francisco-based network of house churches. His ideas have reached so many people.

Other than other Christians put off by Chan’s radicalism, I have not found any articles about how Crazy Love hurts. No one is talking about it. So I’ll start. I invite you to follow along. And, maybe, talk a little about it too.

I’ll try to post one chapter a week, 10 in total. And all of them, I think, are just already-toxic ideas and tendencies in conservative Christianity taken to the extreme.

Francis Chan’s book is a perfect example of so many of the more “mainstream” Christian ideas that hurt human self-esteem, minds, and hearts. And I mean to drag every one out into the open.

So, here we go. This is Crazy Love.

Crazy.

Love?

 

Baggage

I went to visit my grandparents in Brooklyn this weekend to see them for the first time in almost a year. It was hard for a number of reasons, but mostly because I haven’t seen anyone in my family for nearly a year. Nearly a year since I came out to my family, nearly a year since they stopped paying for tuition at my college, nearly a year since my independence became my liberation.

I consider myself estranged, but it’s complicated. Complicated like, in the process of cutting myself off from the two people who are the problem, I had to cut myself from two people who aren’t. Complicated like, that’s why I traveled for 7 hours this Saturday to see my grandparents for the first time in a year.

I’m not going home for Thanksgiving — which is partially why I took that trip. My grandparents don’t know what happened. They don’t understand the particulars of my parents loved their church more than they loved supporting me where I was at. All they knew is, I hadn’t been back in a year and they didn’t know if I would be. So I went back. 

If I could have my way, I wouldn’t be back for Christmas either. Maybe I won’t. I told my grandparents I would, just for that day. But the reality is, it would be like stepping back into the past, into everything I ran from, everything I’ve worked for years to mentally escape and paid for to physically escape. Into a room full of people who never really met me,who only saw the girl I was when I was still trapped, still brainwashed, still desperate and hurting and hoping. Such a timid, standoffish, limited girl. That is not who I am anymore. That is so far past who I am.

In the eight or so months since I became independent, everything about me has changed. It feels like my whole soul gets transfigured in a new way every week, and it’s liberating as all hell. My outlook on life, my life itself, is so radically different. But going back threatens to strip it all away for the time while I’m there.

On the bus back, watching the buttery yellows of the sky melt into raw pale blues behind the dimming silhouettes of houses, I reflect on what I’d do this time around if my past came back at me for a second round. If someone was on top of me I’d fight dirtier. If I ran away again, I wouldn’t come back. If I threw a punch I’d make sure it was a knockout. If I snuck a vitamin into the toilet I’d remember to flush. If they turned on those cameras throughout the corners of the house, I’d smash ’em. Shit like that.

But the reality is back then, I didn’t have any of the power I have now. None of the perspective. No money saved up. No distance. No one willing to help me when shit went down, because shit had not gone down yet. No, it was just me, just me and a duffel bag and a map of the roads to walk down when my parents’ home became a home to them alone. The way it went down is the only way it could have gone down.

I’ve recovered from so much more than I ever imagined. There are still some knots to tug at, though, reminders of how powerful old ghosts can be even when you’ve banished them from most parts of you. I still feel a shot of terror as I flinch when my roommate walks in the door. I still angle my computer screen away from corners of the ceiling. I still have trouble setting down my phone, and the password is twice as long as average. I still cry and feel violated when sex hurts. I still have flashbacks. I still feel unbridled bouts of rage when I see the people involved in my former high demand religious groups. I still have trauma anniversaries — including Thanksgiving and Christmas season itself — times when it feels the past all congeals together and comes rushing back to swallow me whole, to forget who I am, to forget that it’s over.

I still have that duffel bag packed. It’s in my closet. Part of me thinks it always should be. I should never forget what I came from, it makes all this joy and freedom sweeter — and realer. It represents so much pain, so much fear, so much from the long stretches of time I thought I was going to die. That suffering is still the most familiar thing to me. Sometimes it is even a comfort. It is what I turn to. It is what I know.

Because it IS all I knew. At least two Christmases, I was suicidal. Thanksgivings, too, I was forced into traumatic situations without exception, and I was always with my family when it happened. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to become that person again. I rooted out most of the psychological toll it all took on me. But at times like those, it comes roaring out of the corner. I feel engulfed in despair, in horror, in disempowerment. It feels like it’s still happening. I almost forget the person I am now.

Winter holidays are hard for me. I’ve set down a lot of the baggage digging deep into my shoulders, but I still have a duffel in the closet. 

Boundary Crossing: Learning to Claim My Personhood, Power, and Free Will After Evangelical Christianity

Quite a few months ago, I made a post about how profoundly and insidiously Christianity had indoctrinated me to believe that I was created to live on the sidelines, to feel chronically undeserving, to make myself small, to die to self. Christianity took my personhood away from me.

I said that when I came back, I’d have some ideas on how to take charge in my own life and see myself as just as worthy as everyone else. It took a while, but I’ve got ’em!

In the last few months, I’ve learned so much, changed so much, and claimed so much more power in my life. Shit’s wild! And a lot of it, believe it or not, started with astrology! That is a story for another time (there is a whole series of posts that could be made about how much astrology has helped me see myself, realize shit, and heal.) Star teachers.

Story short, I had this HUGE HUGE HUGE realization about boundaries. And you know what? It turns out they have a LOT of damn power over me. But all of my freedom, all of my joy, all of my healing, has ALL COME from crossing those boundaries. And so I chose to start pushing myself every day to cross more and more boundaries. That’s how I’ve started learning to take charge in my life, to go from an outsider to a life liver, to claim my full worth and power as a person just like you.

To me, anything involving me reaching beyond my own self and interacting with other people was crossing a boundary. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t party, don’t dance in public, don’t shout hi from far away, don’t talk to that person in line, don’t ask if your friend wants to hang, don’t eat in front of others, don’t ask for more, don’t ask if they can plug in your computer, don’t blow your nose, don’t raise your hand, don’t be a burden. These were all things I found so hard to do, on top of speaking, which situational mutism already made so difficult.

Not only this, but in the smallest ways, I acted as if I had no free will. No power to change the world around me. When I got sick, I used to never take medicine. When something was bothering me, I didn’t realize I could literally just move the chair. My entire mentality was shaped by the idea that I couldn’t let my presence be known and I couldn’t change my own life, only let my life happen to me.

And when I asked myself where these boundaries come from and why they had so much power over me, I saw a whole constellation of perpetrators. My church, and my social experiences due to situational mutism, taught me that I should not interact with other humans. Show the world I exist. Move and be seen. Take up space. Own myself.

  • I grew up in a church that taught me to be “in the world but not of it.” Maybe that’s why I felt so alone and distant even in crowded rooms… the idea that I don’t belong here, that I’m not actually “one of you.”
  • Francis Chan’s Crazy Love taught me that I am minor, a prop, an extra in the movie of my own life (because it was all about God, and I needed to die to myself.) I wasn’t used to the idea that I had agency in my life.
  • Situational mutism cut me off from connecting with other humans because I physically couldn’t speak, which reinforced my feeling that I didn’t belong and wasn’t truly a part of social life, and made social boundaries way harder to cross.

But the biggest factor was that I believed, deep in my heart, that other people did not want to talk to me, to feel my presence, to hear my thoughts. That interacting with them was a burden. That they thought I was boring. That I deeply wasn’t worth their time.

When you grow up being taught that you exist to serve God, that you should die to yourself and pray for who you are to be broken and remade, that you’re an extra in your life because it’s God’s world and you are nothing…

how do you unlearn it all? How do you start living better?

I realized that night just how much I had let invisible boundaries between myself and others cut me off from so much human connection. From life itself! But I also realized that in the past 6 months since I had come out, been cut off, and seen my very soul transformed day after day, so many people had shown me they REALLY wanted to know me, to spend time with me, to hear me. 

After I cut off last March, I wrote that I was “Finally. Unbelievably. Terrifyingly. Thrillingly. Free. It feels like the tenderest most beautiful sentence I have in me, an iridescent thing, full of shock and grace, thrill and terror.”

And I understood for the first time that ALL of the freedom I have found in the past 6 months has been because I crossed boundaries that Christianity set for me. I made more secular friends and learned to set up hang outs, I had sex, I drank (and got alcohol poisoning), I got propositioned, I went on dates, I joined Tinder, I smoked, I went to a friend’s birthday party and drank and danced in public without a thought for the first time in my life, I walked into a tattoo shop (and ultimately got a sick ass tattoo)…

Crossing boundaries is liberation. It is life. It is joyfully laying claim to who I rightfully am. To all the possibilities that may be and that I may be. Crossing boundaries is saying, YES, you are worth it to me, you are iridescent and exciting and dimensional and worth it, you this experience, you this friendship, you this human being. It is jumping in to the pool of life, peeling off from the sidelines and finally becoming part of everything. It is a release of all I never allowed myself to be, all I was never allowed to be, and saying, I see you. I acknowledge you. I forgive you. I embrace you, in all you are. It is deep life, life up to the earlobes, life dripping down your chin, life settling warm and circular in your belly. It is saying yes to yourself.

So how did I put crossing boundaries into practice?

First, I decided to every day do something I would never have done before. This was hard, but having the last 6 months of boundary crossing behind me — safe, thrilling, life changing — kept me on it. I decided to have myself purposefully cross boundaries now. And some were so small! For example, I called out a friend’s name when I saw him walking further up on the hill — something situational mutism had always prevented me from doing. And I’m not gonna lie, I got a shot of adrenaline just from doing it. Another time, I decided to say yes to going to a concert on a first date with a girl I liked. This was in a way less scarier than speaking, but very new.

Every time I did something I never would have done before, I showed myself it was safe to do it, and I became a new person for that new experience. I was changing how I was experiencing life. While it may sound small, I’ve been noticing in very real ways that it’s easier for me to start conversations and to just say whatever is on my mind. It’s been one month! That much recovery. 

Second, I realized that sometimes you don’t wait for the right time, you make now the right time. I had just watched a movie in class that struck home how important it is to follow your convictions with action, otherwise it’s just words. And suddenly I realized, I don’t want to be — I CAN’T be — the kind of person who isn’t deeply authentic anymore. I HAVE to live my own truth because at the end of the day I am accountable to love and fulfill me, and that is by being authentic. I CAN’T allow myself to not do what I want to do and feel I should and can do. 

So, I decided that I would start going by the name Maxwell (Max) in real life. I had been dreaming of this for YEARS, but my parents threatened to cut off tuition when I tried. Now that I am financially self-sufficient, nothing was holding me back other than waiting for the right feeling. But fuck that. I was just gonna do it. It’s been scary, a little awkward, and hard — but I decided, sometimes you gotta change your own life. It’s no one else. It’s gotta be you. At the end of my life, do I want to say I had courage, or I allowed fear to keep me from being a free spirit? This is my life. I’ll live it.

At the same time, I decided to call my first politician about something political. I’d been wanting to and feeling I should do this since Trump got elected, but fear of phone calls and lack of knowledge always stopped me. And finally, I decided to call the pastor at the church back home. I’d been wanting to do this for a long time: confront the church with how they’d hurt me, and start a conversation about how their teachings affected people. I’d been waiting for a right time too. But I wanted no more waiting. Even though I had no idea what I’d say or where this would go, I knew my soul wanted this, it actually felt there was no other way events could transpire.

So I did all of these things. The call with the politician was awkward with long pauses and my heart was beating a million a minute. Starting to transition my name has been awkward and hard too, believe me. And I did end up telling my story to the pastor, and it was hard and monumental, and the deacons heard it too but turned down my request to speak to the youth group. But I did it.

Third, I kept reminding myself that I had power over my own world and showed myself love by pushing myself to act like others valued me. 

I used to get up and plug my own computer in because I felt I couldn’t burden my friend who was sitting right next the outlet to do it. Same with getting napkins, shutting off the light, just so many trivial little things. And I only realized this wasn’t “normal” because my friends would point it out, a little offended or confused.

I learned to make a joke out of it: “oh yeah. Free will. It exists. Free will who? Never met him,” I’d quip to myself. And I’ve accepted that acknowledging and learning to use my own power (from taking medicine to making a phone call to asking a simple question) is a journey I advance every day.

I’ve also pushed myself to believe that others value my presence and my words. I’m not too much, I am wanted. I even reached out to make a new friend this month, which is revolutionary for me! 

LONG long post, but I have so much to share about this part of my life and I’m sure I’ll be back for more. If you have any thoughts or advice you wanna share, pipe up! Maybe I just rambled this whole time, or this situation is very specific to me, but I’m hoping that someone out there can relate to something in here. I’d love to hear it!

Still Rebuilding: When Christianity Robs You of Your Very Personhood

There’s this lie.

This lie I was spoon fed from birth. A lie they put in an IV drip, one I carried with me always, until the lie became my very blood. A lie that lives, still, at the very center of me. Of everything. This lie:

At my heart of hearts, I believe that I do not deserve to exist.

But this lie is really made up of many littler lies. Lies in the form of sermons and scripture, bible stories, song lyrics, prayer sayings, Christianese lines. I broke these down in a draft of a letter to my church. They taught me I have no right to exist. I learned that and more.

1. You taught us that we were tiny, insubstantial, miscellaneous compared to God. That we were utterly worthless and wicked and we should be so so soooooo grateful that gosh, wasn’t Jesus just SWELL for deigning to even notice that we existed?

I learned that I was unimportant (unless it was to God) and that having any sort of pride or understanding of my place in the world was foolish and shockingly arrogant. I feel like I am forever part of the background — never part of real life or relating to other human beings. I am always on the sidelines socially, and I keep myself there because I haven’t realized that I deserve and am entitled to more. I feel I do not belong and am only allowed to be there.

I am situationally mute — I have a hard time speaking and interacting with other people — because I feel like I don’t have the right to participate in life. The rest of you are main players, and I am an NPC, a non-playable character you walk up to to get info or some useful trinket from and then continue on your adventure. I am part of the background, and not the action, the real, complex, hands-on act of relating to other human beings.

And that is because I was taught that I am literally part of the background in God’s universe. My church got into Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love when I was in early high school, and I adored it. I read and reread that book word for word so many times I still have it memorized. Looking back now, every word makes me sick and enraged.

“I am still dumb enough to forget that life is all about God and not about me at all …

Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second when you can see the back of your head. Maybe your mom and your closest friend get excited about that two-fifths of a second with you … maybe. But no one else will realize it is you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care.” (pg 42)

Francis Chan went on to say that this movie is life, and to describe anyone who thinks that their life is about them as “delusional.” Today, I still operate like I am an extra who appears for two-fifths of a second in the movie of life, except everyone else is a main character and I am not.

2. You taught us that everything good we did was God through us, since we had died and Christ was living through us. All that we were was our sins and our weaknesses. We gave credit for everything good, admirable, or unique about us to God, saying it was not us.

I learned to mentally separate all of my strengths, uniquenesses, and goodnesses away from my view of myself until my self splintered. I now see myself as multiple selves. When people compliment me, I feel like they are talking about someone else, because I’m so used to thinking that it is literally not me. I am going to have to reconcile these parts of myself now, incorporate myselves back into a healed whole.

3. You taught us that we did not belong to ourselves. That the REASON FOR OUR EXISTENCE was to serve God. Forever. That we were to be his literal slaves. And on top of that, that we should be OVERJOYED for the chance to be, and that this was our entire identity. Nothing else mattered.

I learned that I only existed to serve other people, and that my own desires, ambitions, and joys did not matter — in fact, they were foolish, dangerous, and arrogant. I learned I had no right to prioritize myself or want anything for myself. The thought of telling people when something is painful, uncomfortable, or less than I deserve is utterly terrifying because I was expected to THANK God for all of my suffering. It was there to make me rely on him and realize just how lost I was without him and I was literally supposed to rejoice in it like Job did, like Paul did. Suffering was a natural part of life and what I deserved in the first place.

4. You taught us that we needed to actively deny our desires and ambitions, because only what God wanted mattered. Our career interests, our thought life, the movies we watched, the people we befriended, how we spoke, it was all up to God, not us. We would be what God wanted us to be in life to further his kingdom.

I learned that it was selfish to want things, and that I had no right to do so. I find it extremely hard to communicate what I want. In a world where everything is about God and you are meant to reduce yourself down to nothing, I was encouraged to stifle my own desires. In fact, these things were foolish, selfish, even evil. I find it humiliating to admit I want things with other people now, from friendships to sex — and a little scary, because I can’t help feeling like someone will come punish me for daring to think I’m person enough to want things out loud.

But altogether, these are basic parts of human existence. Having a place in the world, understanding what you’re worth and what you deserve, expressing what you want. This is what being a person IS. My church’s Christianity wanted me to stop being a person. It literally wanted me to become nothing so God could have all the glory. It wanted me to exist as little as possible. To believe I didn’t deserve to exist.

Believe is not even the right word. Know is better. It was taught, the way a woodpecker teaches wood to make way for its beak. Until it was as familiar as skin: I don’t deserve to exist. I don’t exist. I don’t exist like you do. I’m 20 years old, and I am realizing that I believe this for the first time.

I think this lie was pounded into me so hard that it went straight through me.

daughterslave

  • Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
  • Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
  • Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
  • John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This is not the first time I’ve written about how horrific Christianity can be to self-esteem. But it is the first time I see just how insidiously and viscerally it has affected me — like corkscrewing the middle out from me. I don’t believe that I deserve to exist. I don’t believe that I am entitled to taking up space, having strengths, wanting things out of life, or being a person in general.

This kind of thinking is insidious. It eats you like acid. It breaks you down little by little, saying not just “you can’t want things” but “how DARE you want things,” not just “don’t think you have a priority in your own life” but “don’t be SO DELUSIONAL as to think you have a priority in your own life,” until your self-esteem dissolves away. 

Growing up, I was taught that these beliefs were ultimate good, ultimate truth. 

Right now, today, I see it for what it is. I think it’s deep evil. I think it’s a sickening, horrifying lie, and it enrages me that people in my church (and around the world) are still being taught this. Little kids are still being raised like this, still having their hearts and minds broken down until they find themselves where I am: 20 years old, and realizing for the first time that they don’t feel like they have the right to be a person.

But there is a person inside me, a self that has been hidden for a long time. A self that some wise and desperate part of me managed to secret away from the all-consuming destruction that my Christianity wrought. The person I would’ve-could’ve been if I hadn’t been indoctrinated, abused. The person I still am at my heart of hearts, and one day will be inside and out. A self I am reconciling with, apologizing to, learning about, and falling in love with.

This self loves me. This self I meet in my inner world, in woods fragrant with moonlight, jasmine, shifting murmurs and movement, in parking lots, in palaces. This self knows who I am and what I deserve. We’re going to work together to learn how to exist with boldness, pride, joy. To really take up space. To take part in life, to be a main character.

I am going to spend the next few weeks thinking about what it means to be a person. This status, this act, this way of living life itself that I’ve been denied for so long. That I am going to reclaim, “little by little every day, little by little in every way.” And I am going to come back and share what I learn with you all.

Then I’m going to do a scathing chapter by chapter review of Crazy Love, because FUCK that book.

(Edit 8/6/17 for grammar/link colors)

Living with Our Parents’ Blame: A Love Note to My Fellow Prodigal Kids

It’s been four and a half months since I came out to my parents. Four and a half months since I spit out the secret I’d been carrying like a poison pill under my tongue for years. Since this whole crazy, dangerous, exhilarating, beautiful adventure — life — began.

Four and a half months, too, since my parents cut me off. 

A lot has happened since then. But I’m not here today to tell that story. People like me, people from extreme religious families who’ve been cut off (or cut themselves off), we’ve all got our stories. No, I’m here to talk about how we can cope with the other story.

The story our parents tell about us.

We have all heard this story, too.

To be cut off from your family because you no longer live by their traditions — it’s a type of life like no other. Some of us escaped abusive religious houses. Others stopped believing in our family’s faiths and either spoke out or were found out. Some came out with a gender or sexuality different from what was accepted. So many reasons.

Some people might find this strong, inspirational, badass (AND IT IS thankyouverymuch!) But many of our families see us living our truths, choose to cut us off, and then paint us as the villains. They come from places where religion or conformity is everything. If you leave or reject the faith, it doesn’t just mean you’re going to die, it means they’re bad parents. They question everything they thought they knew about themselves and us. They feel as if we have died. That is their side of the story, for many. Yet it sounds like:

“You are so selfish. What you are doing is filthy.”

“You are killing us by rejecting our faith/by living your truth.”

“What have we done to deserve this? Why are you punishing us?”

“We have done nothing to you. This is all in your head.”

“Your mother won’t stop crying.”

 

The other day I read this article by a Christian mother who cut off her gay son. It pierced me right through. This is the part that haunted me.

Perhaps I am writing this is [sic] for myself more than for those who are reading. I have not seen my son in nearly two and a half years now and there are days that the pain is just as fresh as ever. Until now, I have kept this pain inside and shared with only a couple of my closest friends. I am not sure that a day has gone by that I have not shed tears. Sometimes it is a single tear and other days are gut wrenching cries of despair. I have pulled into my driveway with tears blinding my eyes, only to find myself literally screaming and wailing in grief. I’m devastated by our loss; his loss.

I know this is how my mother feels, too. I know she cries every day. I know she looks me up obsessively online. I know she calls around asking after me. She texts me asking why are you being selfish and I taught you right from wrong and we only want the best for you. Saying as a mother I have rights to you and you do not, saying I miss you so much, saying can I please just see you, please, please. Saying come back home

After I read that article, I carried the pain of knowing her pain around with me all day, red as hot iron at the bottom of my chest. I have no regrets about telling them who I am. I know so much of what they do and say is inexcusable and horrible. Don’t get me wrong, I know what living this truth is gutsy, pathmaking, beautiful, real; I know it’s right.

And yet I can’t help seeing their side of things. Their story. Which is that their daughter, who was once obedient, loving, and madly in love with God, has told them that she’s the type of person God used to sentence to death. They feel that I have died. They feel this means they failed as parents. They fear for my very soul. They are terrified of my Chinese grandparents and church finding out.

And I know I am not the only one who has felt this too.

 

So I’m saying this for all of us — every apostate I’ve met online and in person, every apostate I’ve yet to meet, every apostate yet to be (welcome to the club, prodiguys and prodigals) — because someone who gets it needs to say it.

Your parents are not hurting because of who you are.
Your parents are hurting because of who they are, because of how they see things, and because of what they cannot see.

Their pain is not your fault. Not your responsibility. Even if it brings you down, know that it’s not on you.

Religious mindsets and groups can blind so many people. It can become someone’s whole identity, and when that happens, going against the grain can make you feel like you’re losing your entire world. So they choose a god or gods over us. So they do what their leaders and texts say they should do.

That is what’s killing them, what’s hurting them, what’s causing them grief.

Not you. Their faith. Their tradition. Their fear. Their belief. Their conformity. Their lack of experience. Their inability to have an open mind. 

What they can’t see is how kickass you are. How much it can take for someone to be open about who they are and what they believe despite the costs. How much resilience and courage you have. The fact that you are creating an example of what it means to live life with joy, risk, strength, and above all, TRUTH for other people. The fact that you showing them who you are can actually be interpreted as an act of love, because if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t show them.

I see that, and I’m mothafuckin proud and glad you’re out here, cause we’re all out here, even if we don’t all know each other quite yet. There’s a lot of us, even if many of us are silent — which is why I’ve decided not to be.

Maybe one day your parents and mine will come to see how much we bring to the world. But for now, we’ve got to know it for them. And I’ll know it with ya.