The Emotional Work of Being Christian

Emotional work (work, work, work, work, work)

Hey all! It’s been a bit since I last posted – I moved back in to start my second year at college two weeks ago and it’s been pretty whirlwind, emotionally speaking. I finally found a sweet spot where I have both the energy and time to write up a post, though… a crisp autumn breeze is chilling the tea-colored light pooled on my windowsill, and I’m cozy in bed. I say let’s get started. (Yay for fall, btw!) 🙂

While I was settling in these past two weeks, I hit quiiite a few emotional snags along the way. College is great, but it’s been exhausting. I’m tuckered out to the point of tears every morning and night, and I thought there might be an official word to explain it. So I went Interwebs foraging on a hunch.

Here are the two words I stumbled across… emotional work.

My goal for this post is to touch on a few ways that Christianity forces believers into ridiculous emotional work  – but overall, I wanna give you an FYI on emotional work. Those 2 words are a great tool to recognize how “everyday life” tires us out! Without more ado…

What do the following situations have in common? On a bumpy flight, a flight attendant comforts freaked out passengers even though she herself is pretty damn worried. A waitress chirps out hello (and all today’s specials) to the new customers even though she craves a nap. A woman thanks attendees at her dad’s funeral without a chance to cry.

In all these situations, people are acting counter to their feelings in order to help other people. That’s called emotional work. In society, we do emotional work all the time: as part of our jobs (especially service-with-a-smile professions) and as part of daily life. The concept was first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, but it’s recently become well-known among feminists to explain how women are often expected to do a ton of day-to-day emotional labor on behalf of men.

In this post, however, I’m not so much interested in the emotional work that people do as women or as workers. What about the emotional work we do as Christians… and as sufferers of mental illness?

Christians (/religious people): the real MPVs of emotional work.

As too many of the followers of this blog know… take any crappy situation and throw Jesus in the mix, and you’ve got insta-shit. The same is true with emotional work. The kind that’d make Rihanna sing. 

 

We also know that Christianity spews a whole lotta “Jesus is the only thing in the universe that will give you contentment!! Everything else is completely meaningless!!” to sell itself. (I actually heard that today during church service. Almost verbatim.) Unfortunately, that belief has huge emotional costs, work-wise. Lemme rattle off just a few.

1. Deep acting: You should be happy. Constantly. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad for too long. And definitely don’t be mentally ill.

Because if Jesus is the One who gives you deep and everlasting happiness, and everything else is Bleak Suckiness like Christianity insists, then in theory, you should be pretty damn happy with Christianity. This is why Christians like Francis Chan preach that worry and anxiety are sins, or that depression is ungratefulness. If you’re still mopey after you get saved, that threatens the very heart of your religion.

So Christians tend to do a lot of deep acting. Deep acting is a kind of emotional work where you actually change your emotions for the sake of your situation. For example, you convince yourself that you’re happy or repress negative feelings because Christians are supposed to have “god-given joy” (aka, that divine happiness that comes from surrendering your entire being forever to God, which is so radiant that it brings non-believers to Christ. Or something.)

The problem with deep acting (and emotional work in general?) It’s fuckin exhausting. I mean, convincing yourself that you’re happy because your entire basis for understanding the world collapses otherwise… is some meta shit. Constant emotional work can make you physically tired, give you migraines and muscle aches, lose appetite, etc. It can also worsen mental illnesses you might have… and hence, a deadly cycle.

2. Self-sacrifice, Jesus/Others/You style: You volunteer to help others without taking care of yourself.

This belief deeefinitely does not make Christian emotional work any easier. Before all things, you’re expected to honor Jesus. Everything good you do is due to him, and you ought to vocally give him that credit on a regular basis. If you feel Jesus is calling you to do something for him (or your pastor keeps dropping hints), you put his desire above other people’s and your own.

Next, you’re supposed to look after others. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, if you don’t like them, whatever – just as Jesus served everyone, so you should too. On a practical level that can get exhausting, because making sacrifices to help others, even if it’s not even necessary, becomes a cultural norm and a lifestyle. You might volunteer for church cleanup even if you’re exhausted. Or… to the relief of church staff everywhere… to chip in way more to the collection plate than your bank account suggests you should. The Parable of the Widow’s Two Mites, anyone?

And, of course, you always wave away people’s concerns, saying that doing this work for the Lord gives you the energy you need. This emotional work translates into physical labor too, roping you into more and more commitments, which makes it doubly exhausting.

Bah. And people wonder why pastors burn out.

3. You’re always putting yourself down to make God happy, because it’s all about God.

The heart of Christianity is self-denial. Sin is anything that makes God unhappy; people are inherently sinful. Awfully convenient, huh? In one respect, Christianity is BUILT on the idea that we should ALWAYS be doing emotional (and physical/financial) work to make God happy. If you don’t, you literally go to hell. Ya know.

What this means on a practical level is that you are always striving to make God happy no matter and very often DESPITE your own unhappiness. Time and again, Christians are told that God’s plans for their life come first, period. They’re guilted for wanting careers, lifestyles, hobbies, etc. that don’t fall in line with God’s will. Church communities make it a norm for people to put themselves down (“I am so wretched,” “I never learn,” “I can’t do anything without God,” etc.) – it’s in the lyrics of their songs, it’s in the testimonies they give, it’s in their prayers and conversations.

On top of convincing yourself that you’re happy and feeling bad when you aren’t… on top of throwing yourself into serving others and thanking Jesus… you’re expected to self-deprecate for failing to put God’s happiness first. It’s tiring shit, man!

If you’re ex-Christian (or ex-religious, since after talking with exes from multiple religions I’m sure we ALL have our own versions of this)… I hope you’re finding ways to recover from the chronic exhaustion that builds up from years of living like this. I hope you find “emotional labor” a useful concept for your own life. And I hope you find ways to rest up and shift some of the burden off yourself if you can!

If you related to anything in this post, feel free to comment below or share it around! I’d love to hear from ya. 🙂

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9 thoughts on “The Emotional Work of Being Christian

  1. Monica Chin September 5, 2016 / 3:10 am

    Hi Max,
    I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with Christianity. I can see how many atheists/agnostics/etc. believe these ideas about the religious. But I will say, that many of these claims don’t apply for Christians who have a relationship with Christ. For me, (and I’m not attacking you at all, I just think it’s important for society to be able to discuss these things without being easily offended), I have walked both a life apart from God and a life with God. I am much more satisfied and happy (genuinely) with God. I know many people think that we are faking it for the sake of religious advertisement, and it’s sad that people have to be so skeptical. But I understand the line of thinking. In my opinion, being a Christian isn’t emotional labor. It’s liberation- not secular liberation, but it’s just as liberating as any other religion would claim to be. I made a choice, and if I wasn’t happy residing in Christ then I wouldn’t really be residing in Christ. Christians don’t put away their own needs to the side to serve the cross, since the Bible says to care for oneself. They just don’t put their needs above their duty to the Lord. Most of society sees serving as an oppressive concept, but to us, it’s strength. Two different paradigms, two equally important views.

    Just my 2 cents, take it as you will 🙂

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  2. Ubi Dubium September 6, 2016 / 8:18 pm

    It starts in childhood: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!…”

    And every kid is expected to smile and sing along and clap and play the game. What if one kid were to say “You know, I’m just not feeling very happy today, I don’t think I’ll clap just now”? I wonder what the response would be? But I don’t think I ever saw that happen. Nope, just time to sing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy…” and smile, smile, smile, because Sunday School makes you so goshdurn HAPPY, even when it doesn’t.

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    • maxgoesgodless September 16, 2016 / 9:27 pm

      AGH, I forgot that joy, joy, joy song! You’re right, the religion spends so much time railing against how ~Meaningless the world is that it forces its members to feel ~Content and Joyous all the time… otherwise, its claims aren’t really true.

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      • Ubi Dubium September 16, 2016 / 9:57 pm

        I know SO MANY of those sunday school songs! They are all still there in my head, and every so often one of them pops up as an earworm and won’t go away. I have carefully avoided teaching my children any of them, so their earworms are usually better songs.

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      • maxgoesgodless September 16, 2016 / 11:56 pm

        Me too, it’s always so weird when I find someone else, especially my age, who knows them! At least VeggieTale songs are fun to sing

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ubi Dubium September 17, 2016 / 1:33 am

        I only know the Veggie-tale songs because by fundie in-laws sent the videos to my kids. The songs I know are the ones from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

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      • maxgoesgodless September 17, 2016 / 5:23 pm

        Oof… the fact that we know the same songs and that they’ve been around for so long is so weird to hear!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. amaya November 6, 2016 / 9:48 pm

    Gosh, does this resonate on a distressingly deep level! I used to believe that if I even thought a swearword (even if I had stubbed my toe or something else that would be more than appropriate to swear about), I’d be A Sinner and I’d go to Hell and God hated me. I was being abused at home, at school and, I’m beginning to realise, at church, and our family was going through – literally daily- life-and-death trauma, and I was expected to be stood, smiling clapping, jumping (because if you’re not jumping, you clearly aren’t Holy Enough) and raising my hands in worship in the front row of church every Sunday. I was already in (metaphorical) hell and everything you wrote about had been drilled into me since the day I was born. I gave ‘God’ everything I had and more at the same time as every other area of my life was taking more from me than I had to give. ‘God’ and ‘Christianity’, as taught by the church I went to (which, fun fact, is now bordering on a cult), did nothing but add a whole extra layer of suffering to my already torturous life. And I carried all that guilt and self-hatred and Condemnation for so, so long. I was brought up in church from birth and I’m only now, at the age of 23, and after a string of mental health crises resulting in 6 months of inpatient treatment and 2 years of constant therapy after that, only now am I seeing what monstrous things that church taught me. I’ve finally denounced the ‘God’ they showed me (spoiler alert: their version of God was the exact opposite of Benevolent). My family don’t know any of this, any of the extent of the harm done to me by that place. You know, my father once said to my brother’s face that he’d choose Jesus over my brother’s life. But I owe nothing to that ‘God’, I do not need to grovel or die in the pursuit of this Perfect, Jesus-Like life that doesn’t exist, I will not, ever, be threatened with Hell again, I will never enter their world again. I tried going to a seminar last year, hoping against hope I’d hear something from them that gave me at least some hope that there might be some shreds of goodness hidden away in what they were saying. I had to leave and had a total breakdown. I knew that was going to be the way it turned out, but my mum keeps saying ‘just don’t totally give up on it, please, it’d break my heart’ so I tried and it nearly freaking killed me. Before stumbling across blogs like yours through Tumblr, and first reading the words spiritual abuse maybe 6 months back, I didn’t have any words for what had happened, I had no way to describe how deeply they hurt me and why I feel sick with rage about it sometimes, I thought it was all in my head (because of course my abusers gaslighted me), but now I see there’s a whole community of people who’ve been through the same/similar and can put words to these things that have been affecting me my whole life. So thank you, thank you so much for writing this. The last few strings of guilt tied to me by my old religion are starting to fray and reading your post is helping me break those threads. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • maxgoesgodless November 7, 2016 / 2:41 am

      Amaya,

      This is officially my favorite comment I’ve ever received! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I have to admit that… being the cheeseball I am… I kinda hugged my phone after I read this the first time round. I just want to give you a hug – you’ve endured so much, and even if I’ve only met you through the computer screen, I am proud of where you are given where you’ve been. I am honored that you’ve shared yourself with me.

      I understand that anger. That frustration. That I’m-upside-down-and-can’t-find-my-way-back-round feeling. When you grow up like you described, taught all that toxic Christianity since birth, it is so hard to realize it’s wrong. Not to mention actually leave it behind!

      That’s why I started this blog. I wanted to write it all out. But I also wanted other people to be able to follow along… to know they’re not crazy or alone, to know there IS a community out there and words for the pain and injustice. Thank you for reading and sharing how you related – this is so much of why I write.

      There is 100% a community of us ex-religious people out there. Check out the Ex-Religious Resource Directory tab if online forums or IRL support groups might help ya. There are more than you’d think out there. 🙂 Good luck out there, Amaya! ❤

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