I’m Max, and I was a cradle Baptist
I begin this post as the first article on my blog about growing up Christian – and growing out of it.
I’m Max, and I was a cradle Baptist. My parents were two founding members of a small church, and per their desire to see me grow up with the same love and subservience to God, I attended Sunday School before I could read. Over the years, I became deeply versed in the all the usual suspects – memorized Bible verses, sang all songs, led the worship team. And along the way, there sunk into my heart and mind a toxic cocktail of Biblical interpretation and lifestyle that plagued me until my final years of high school.
There are so many things that went wrong with my Christianity, and possibly the Christianity I was taught and showed, that I could talk forever if I didn’t separate it all into chunks. And so tonight, I’ll be talking shame and guilt.
“God Deserves Your Everything”
If you’ve never heard the Gospel, buckle your seat belt.
Consider this: All human beings are absolutely horrible people from birth. Just awful. We are flawed permanently in our very souls, simply from the act of living, and nothing will prevent us from suffering for all eternity to make up for it. Well, nothing… except one man. As debauched as we are – literally, even filthier than used tampons, we’re told – there is someone who can save us.
Thousands of years ago, he came to take our eternal punishments in our place, even though there was nothing for him to gain except a way to demonstrate his everlasting love in the face of our desperate wickedness. To avoid damnation and show our gratitude for such kindness, all we need to do is devote our entire lives and beings to this man. And why wouldn’t we, after what he’s done?
It was this concept that haunted me most through elementary and middle school. After all, if Jesus had endured the worst torture known to mankind in order to keep me from burning in hell for my badness, shouldn’t I be giving all of my energy, skills, thought, and time to him? There were two things I knew, reinforced again and again by hymn lyrics, sermons, catchphrases, and Sunday school lessons: (1), I was worthless, disgusting, and deserving of death without God. And (2), Jesus had performed the ultimate good deed of the entire universe for me, the ultimate evil.
In light of this, everything I ever did, thought, desired, or even dreamt was now on the table. There were no excuses when you remembered what Jesus had done and how terrible and vile I was before I accepted him into my heart (…at age 8). “Say nothing you would not want to be saying when Jesus comes.” And so I became my own watchdog, policing everything I did and was both consciously and unconsciously.
I should always be praying to God, thanking him for all his wonder and majesty and goodness, from the moment I woke to the moment I slept. My every desire ought to glorify him. I should forever be ready to give everything I had to others, and help them when they needed it, even if they didn’t ask. My life evolved – or devolved – into a flurry of self-policing and a perpetual reminder of how worthless I was, and how I should always be looking to give myself to others and thank God for his exceeding kindness.
Burnout: It’s a Cycle
For obvious reasons, this mentality didn’t hold out well for long. From an early age, I fell facefirst into a vicious cycle of phases marked by intense horror, guilt, self-hatred, disgust, and rage. I did not break it until my deconversion in junior year of high school.
The cycle always began with a very long period of “forgetfulness” – that is, neglecting to remember God’s awesome immensity and love, and to respond accordingly by regularly thinking of him, thanking him, and “passing on” that love to others via cheerful attitude and helpfulness.
Eventually, there would come along a stressor – be it sitting through a “wake up call” sermon in which a preacher reprimanded his congregation about how “lukewarm” and “ungrateful” they had grown toward their amazing God, or simply remembering what I’d been taught in Sunday school. I would be struck by God’s Ultimate Good and my Ultimate Worthlessness, feel convicted of my despicable sins, and decide to launch myself headlong into A Godly Life.
And so I’d embark on a very short period of so-called “Godly Living” – a time ruled by obsessive thoughts on God. I would feel constantly encouraged and motivated to keep “being sanctified” – forever propelled further and further into the art of giving my energy, skills, and time to things that God liked.
But there’s always trouble in paradise. To praise God and offer gratitude for his gift of existence was to acknowledge how horrible I was, and it was a dichotomy of hating myself and striving to be as perfect as God was. And it was not sustainable. Within a week, a day, or an hour, I would catch myself not being as devoted to the Lord as I should, instantly despise myself (how hard could it be to “love God” in this way given what he’d done for me? who did I think I was? how arrogant could I be?), and eventually give up. I would fall into a period of normal thinking and living, until the next stressor came along. And so the cycle began anew.
A Chronic Guilt
As I grew, this toxic pressure ate away at me more and more. I began to expect that I would fail at this obsessive helping, praising, and acting cheerfully around others. I began to believe if I was the only person in the world who was this much of a failure, and in doing so, really buy into the myth that I was a disgusting, worthless person at my core. I broke down in the shower; I shook my head and cried at worship songs; I shouted at myself in my room. Sometimes I slapped myself, somehow believing that this would magically make me able to fulfill all of God’s desires 24/7, as I always wanted to.
The insidious part of this entire cycle is how self-renewing it was – and permanent. The more I failed to “obey God and be a good Christian,” the more I believed I was truly awful, which made Jesus’ death even more important and worthy of praise in my eyes. And there were always, always things that would remind me of my severe worthlessness and God’s deservingness. The cycle continued and continued until, in high school, I finally realized how incredibly abusive this was: and that I had never truly believed in God all along.
I think this is why, in my struggles with depression and the ways it has stunted me, I am so oriented toward progress rather than perfection. Even as I write this, I can’t even think of perfection; it’s unattainable, it’s poisonous, and it’s mythical. Instead, I judge myself by how I grow every day, and call each “mistake” or “failure” a learning and growing process – and it is. Sometimes I still feel guilty when I don’t pray for a meal or sing a hymn with all my heart, even though I no longer believe that the God of the Bible exists.
But I know that today I am a far better person, free of that cyclic guilt and shame and the shadow of God’s “goodness.”