They Said Walking Away from God was Impossible. Watch Me.

From the very beginning, they said there was no walking away. They said I was in the palm of God’s hand, and nothing, no power of hell, no scheme of man, could ever pluck me out. They said no matter what happened, even if I somehow (gasp) stopped being a Christian, if God wanted me, he would always find a way to bring me back to him.

From the very beginning, God was it. Being “on fire” for him, serving him, being a living sacrifice for him, dying to myself so that he would increase – that was always the only life worth living. That was the only life that was possible to live.

I was born and raised in a church that taught that I exist is to stroke God’s ego glorify God. It proclaimed that without a relationship with God, without completely surrendering and sacrificing your life to him, without killing the self you were before you dedicated your very being to him and begging him to break and reshape you according to his will, well, life was completely and utterly empty, void of meaning, dark. Worthless. (Cue the crashing piano.)

It painted non-Christians as unsafe, depraved fools, conspirators, and enemies. It said that these poor people were like clueless babies, and we, the enlightened and blessed, were to, ah …humbly preach God’s message. This way, they too could have the only thing that made life remotely worth living. (Misery loves company?) It said that nonbelievers knew, deep down, that God exists. Those atheists were just denying it because they didn’t want to have to give up their lives to God. Can’t imagine why not.

And those people who left? The people who believed for years and years and years, who studied the Bible and sang and tithed with the rest of us, who were even worship leaders or Sunday School teachers or pastors themselves? They were never true believers. Because no one could ever know the only True Love in the universe and walk away from it.

And even if they somehow did? Well, God would hunt them down, just like he did Jonah. He would shipwreck us and we would come back. Someone we loved would die, or we’d lose our jobs or houses or minds, and God would use it to show us just how very powerless and useless we were without him. How generous.

All my life, all along, the message was crystal clear. Since some lady at the beginning of time chomped on a forbidden fruit, obviously all of humanity was utterly depraved forever and deserved to be eaten alive by worms for the rest of fiery eternity. Duh. I was worth less than a used tampon by my very nature.

But God, bless his heart, had the generosity to get tortured to death on a dead tree, even though nobody even asked, thus saving us all from ourselves – all for the low, low price of killing our spirits and pledging to unquestioningly obey and serve God forever as his children, slaves, and bride all rolled into one! And this was the epitome of love, by the way. So much so that non-Christians didn’t even know what real love was.

I have decided to follow Jesus, I sang, over and over and over. No turning back. No turning back.

I’ve heard that C-PTSD is especially tough on people who have got no concept of themselves before their trauma. They lived in danger ever since they could remember. It was all they knew. 

For myself and others who were raised in Evangelical/Baptist/Fundamentalist Christianity, leaving feels impossible because we have no concept of being people without believing and living out all this crap. It’s like we get Jesus Juice through an IV.

And then we stop believing. And that alone is hell enough. It takes months or years and some of us barely survive. It’s been roughly 5 years for me, and I’m still barely surviving it some days. Just the mere idea that I once knew the “Truth” and walked away from it – I never once imagined that could happen to me. And besides, I knew nothing about the secular world. It was supposed to be dangerous and utterly empty and depressing and blah blah blah. Even if I wanted to leave, how would I?

But it turns out, you can stop believing. Your entire world can melt away around you. And for a long time, yeah, it’ll blow your mind, because almost everything you loved and believed in turns out to be a bullshit casserole – there’s layers on layers of just how fucked up it all was. And for so long too, you’ll be shell-shocked. Because you don’t know how to exist, how to LIVE, without serving God, thanking him for everything, constantly apologizing and afraid and guilty and alert. Because you weren’t supposed to escape. And there will be so many others you know who didn’t, so why did you? 

But you are here. Surviving. And slowly, like a thaw, you learn how to live. And how to leave. And oh yeah, it’s fucking terrifying, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But there is a point, a constellation of many points actually, where you actually start to want to be a person and live without God. To own yourself for the first time. And you may not see it coming, but it happens. And you’re doing it, as messy and awkward and funny and hard as shit that it is. Look, Ma, no hands!

There is no one point when you simply leave. You’re always leaving. It’s the art of leaving. You leave when you drink for the first time and a girl puts her hand on your thigh. You leave when you wake up late on a Sunday and the birds are chirping and you got nothing planned. You leave when you pick up a new hobby, strike up a conversation, start saving up for that tattoo. You leave from breath to breath as you exist, as you do and recover and feel and build what you want. You leave by living. And it’s fucking awesome. Ex-fundies do the impossible every day. Call us stuntmen.

They said I could never have a fulfilling life without God. I say, watch me.

Life Has No Purpose, and That is Freedom: Vignettes from an Ex-Christian

It’s been years since that night. Those nights. But I still remember them, still turn the memory over in my palm like a small river stone: the bonfire bristling with thick snaps of sparks, soft crackles, insistent heat. The stars glimmering quietly in their shadowy seats up above the glassy black lake, among the silhouettes of towering trees.

There I was on the hill, surrounded by believers, the air laced with cricket song and sweetish smoke, the cold sliding down my throat. In those moments everything felt alive and thrumming, sacred and old. It was easy, then, to look up at the dark summer sky and see God. To feel him moving among us. To love him. Oh, more than anything, to love him.

It was so easy. Easier still to rise when the preacher called, pick my way down the incline and take a stick from one of the servers, stare deep into that flickering fire as I prayed for God to forgive me for not giving him my all, to help me do that now. Easiest of all to throw that stick into the flames, a symbol of my decision to follow God for the rest of my forever. He was my God, and I was his. We were the fire. All else was just smoke. 

– – – – – – – – – –

I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 then. In my life, I’ve thrown a lot of sticks into a lot of bonfires. Walked down a lot of church aisles, knelt on a lot of different spots on my bedroom floor. Growing up Evangelical, pledging my wholehearted servitude to an invisible being every few months was a given.

For little me, it quickly became a sacred and comforting ritual. Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. “Convicted by the Spirit,” realize in horror and shame that I hadn’t been giving all that I was to God. Immediately come before him, “broken,” lavishing him with passionate apologies, praise, promises. Humbly ask that he “reveal to me his plan” and help me, despite my selfish, weak soul, to “live for him.” No matter the cost.

Vowing my eternal allegiance to the God of the Universe was easy. All I had to do was throw a stick into a fire. I watched it burn. Afterward, when I closed my eyes and sang, all of creation sang with me. What else was worth singing for?

– – – – – – – – – –

My knees to my chest, bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, I shifted a little. One of the legs of my bed was digging into my back. I don’t know how old I was – 14, 15, 16? However old, I was small. I felt small.

The words had been there in my head for I don’t know how long. Once, when I was younger, I was brushing my teeth when a centipede slithered out of one of the holes in the bathroom sink and I screamed. This feels like that. Like those words had been hiding, hideous and horrific, just behind the porcelain.

I knew what the words were even though I had never thought them. Now, it was time to think them. I put my hand flat against my bedpost to steady myself. The words spoke themselves. What if, they whispered. What if this relationship with God isn’t working. What if this relationship with God isn’t working because it was never going to work. What if He’s not there. What if heaven is empty. I sat so still. But no bolt of lightning came. No light erupted through the ceiling. No blindness struck. What if heaven is empty.

– – – – – – – – – –

I swing my legs gently, letting my heels bump up against the cobblestone ledge of Chapels’ Pond. The sky above me is a melt of blue, fletched with soft-edged clouds. I sigh and rub my eyes. I’m tired. I’m tired.

Behind me is the Christian chapel on my college campus. I just spent three hours sobbing uncontrollably in its sanctuary while my computer grinded out Tyler Glenn’s solo album, EXCOMMUNICATION. I burst out with bitter laughter when I got to “keep on living, keep on living, keep on living.” When I heard “I found myself when I lost my faith,” I lost it.

It’s been 2 years since I started college, leaving my family and church behind. But I haven’t forgotten the summer before I started college, the summer I realized – that God I threw sticks into bonfires for, he was a monster and a myth – and all the rage hate disgust confusion terror and desperation made a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. I also haven’t forgotten the summer before this year. Both summers, I stood in front of my bathroom sink with a cup full of chemicals on my lips.

I didn’t expect to last this long. There’s a little person in me who isn’t a fan of tomorrows. Now that God’s gone, for her, there’s no point in living. And even if there is, it won’t last long anyway. In the closet in my dorm room there’s a plaid red backpack. In my head is the length of time it’ll take to walk to the nearest homeless shelter from my parents’ house. After all, once my parents find out I’m a queer nonbeliever, it’ll be over. They’ll disown me. They’ve threatened over less. And once that happens, I’ll either die or finally down that Drano. I don’t want to survive. What purpose is there in living? God and I used to be the fire. Turns out I’m just the stick.

But as I sit at that pond, legs swinging, something begins to ripen inside me. Words swell up from a place I haven’t been in a long time. What if, they whisper. What if you’re right. What if there is no point in living. A bird swoops down to settle among the leaves. What if you don’t need a reason to live, except to just live. A little orange fish nips at a lily pad and the pond puckers with tiny quiet ripples. Would you ask a birch what it’s doing here? Would you ask the rain its purpose? Would you ask Jupiter why it spins?

What if you’re right. Life is meaningless. There’s no point in being here. There’s no plan for your life to be revealed, there’s no one to follow or serve, there’s no single sacred reason to keep breathing. The sky’s blue is deep as a voice now. You’re here because your mom had scientists cook you up in a Petri dish. There are no rules. No expectations. You’re here. You’re now. What are you gonna do with that?

And suddenly the backdrop of death I’ve been carrying around with me for so long falls away, and I see life, I see everything ahead of me. And it is vast and bright and beautiful. 

Whatever you want. You don’t have to die. You can plan to survive what your parents will bring you. Save up. Fight for your voice back. Recover from God. Change your name. Get tattoos. Forgive yourself. Wake up early. Sleep late. Skip math class. Go hang gliding. Learn the back handspring. Study Polish. Move countries. Make friends. Lose them. Write blog posts no one might ever read. Kiss a girl. Get drunk. Camp out in a national park. Roast marshmallows over the stove. Let people see you. Let people love you. Let yourself love.

I don’t know how to leave God once and for all. I don’t know how to make him leave me. But I want to learn, I think. I think I can try to learn. No matter how long it takes. How hard it gets. I have lost my God; I have lost myself; I have lost the fire, and the stars, the hill and the lake and the cold. Look at how little I have left to lose. Look at how much I have now to gain. I still have the smell of smoke on my skin. But maybe, just maybe, with time and a whole lot of fresh air, I could make my own sparks.

Cover image by ninniane of Flickr ]

My voice, my choice: Reclaiming speech from Evangelical Christianity and Situational Mutism

My voice has not been my own for way too long. I’m changing that.

 

When I was an evangelical Christian, I was taught that my tongue was meant to be an instrument of praise. As a social justice activist, my voice was supposed to be an instrument of power.

But situational mutism made both those expectations complicated. See, I have SM, a complex social anxiety disorder that begins in early childhood and makes me physically unable to speak in some social situations. As a result, my voice hasn’t matched up with expectations. In this post, I’ll go over just what I was taught about my voice, ways that SM made matters worse, and how I’m reclaiming my voice from all the shoulds.

Growing up, it quickly became crystal clear that meeting evangelical expectations was gonna be… tricky. See, when you have situational mutism, your voice does not belong to you. It belongs to your anxiety. Doesn’t matter what you want or what you need. Doesn’t matter how angry, frustrated, or crazy-making it gets. You physically cannot speak, and you don’t get to choose who, when, or where. 

I can’t count how much mutism has taken from me. Class discussions I couldn’t join, even when it hurt my grade. Questions I couldn’t ask, even if it meant I failed the test. “See me” notes on that test I couldn’t answer, even though I’d get in trouble. Jokes I couldn’t crack, help I couldn’t get, smiles I couldn’t offer, friends I couldn’t make. On. And on. And on. 

That wasn’t really gonna work for the Evangelical Christianity I grew up in. There, I was supposed to use my voice for “glorification” (aka kissing God’s ass – prayer and worship), “witnessing” (aka piling into vans to proselytize unsuspecting randos on beachfronts and in malls), and “edification” (aka encouraging my brethren to keep believing in God.) Gossip, cursing (like dang it), taking God’s name in vain (yep, including oh my gosh) were no-nos. My tongue could be as dangerous as a forest fire, and it wasn’t mine to use.

A little kid who couldn’t speak wasn’t gonna cut it.

Growing up, my SM was interpreted as selfish, standoffish, and sinful. Can’t really blame people for the second one, but the others took their toll – to this day, I still can’t shake the belief that being introverted or even just quiet is a personal crime. (Mix in the fact that I’m an extrovert who grew up sporadically mute and personality tests make for one hell of a party!)

I’ve been called a lot of things for going mute. Not to be dramatic or anything, but when people realize that you can’t speak, they lowkey stop treating you like you’re human. I’ve been called furniture, piece of furniture, dead piece of furniture, dead, timid, etc. I’ve had people do the mime or the robot and scoff when I didn’t smile at their ~original~ joke. I’ve had people scoff to each other about me right in front of me for minutes and minutes. 

Not having a voice has cost me. I wish I could say it got me out of trouble because, not being able to speak, I couldn’t say the things I wasn’t supposed to say anyway. As if. Wasn’t supposed to curse – too irreverent for that. Wasn’t supposed to gossip – too much of a drama queen for that. Contrary to what my SM wanted – to shut me up – as years went on, I found ways to start talking. I’m an I/ENFP at heart, and my ass was advocating before I even knew what advocating was. 

I told my church I had depression in my baptism speech because I wanted people to know they weren’t alone, that God was bettering me. I shared my testimony when I could get up the courage. I even managed to witness to one or two people at most, out of all the times we went out. As a social justice activist, that advocacy only grew. I went to protests, even spoke at one. I shared (and overshared) on social media. I was bolstered by the SJ idea that as an oppressed person, my voice would be heard and valued, and not gonna lie, after years of silence, I adored that newfound attention.

But evangelism and social justice activism have boxed me in too. As an evangelical, I grew up feeling incredibly guilty and fake for not being able to speak to my brethren or witness to my loved ones. As an activist, I saw fellow activists making social media posts that translated to “I see that [unspecified you] aren’t sharing my posts. You’re not a good ally and I’m watching you.” 

After a lifetime of being fundamentally misunderstood and sometimes blatantly mocked by people who can speak… after a lifetime of being told what to say… after a lifetime of being muzzled by SM…

I am done letting other people define my voice for me.

This voice does not belong to Christians. It doesn’t belong to activists. It doesn’t even belong to me. But I’ll be damned if I don’t own as much of it as I can get.

I have fought HARD for this voice. I don’t always like the sound of it. Sometimes it says dumb shit, cracks corny jokes, makes great puns. Every time I use this voice, I have wrestled and won it on loan from my anxiety. That precious time is mine to use. And I will use it.

I’ll use this voice to be joyful. Authentic. Snarky. Rude. Kind. Irreverent. I’ll use it to help, heal, share, and sing badly along to Disney soundtracks on Spotify. I’ll use it to advocate for and support adults with selective mutism. I’ll chatter too fast when I get excited (which is like, once a day) and whisper too loud during meetings. I’ll use it for whatever the hell I want, thank you very much. I got this.

This was mostly a cathartic post… obviously, I have a LOT to say after all this time 😉 but I wanna hear from you too. Do you relate to anything I wrote here, from evangelical expectations to wonky witnessing experiences to activism to SM? Let me know! Let’s make it a conversation. God knows I’ve got a lot to make up for! 

Toxic Twins: Social Justice Culture and Christianity

This week, I thought I’d share my thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while: social justice culture. Now, social justice was the first worldview I took on after I left Christianity. All my time in college thus far has been spent in social justice activism activities, and near all my friends and classmates believe in social justice too. 

That said, I’ve started to see some frankly terrifying parallels between the Evangelical Christianity I was raised in and the social justice spaces I’m a part of now. I’ve been stewing over it for a long time, but I realized recently that even though many people see the toxicity too, not many say it.

So I thought I’d start a discussion. I hope that readers comment with their thoughts – respectfully – or at least come away with a new perspective. I can’t cover all my thoughts, but I’ll lay out the gist.

Disclaimer: This post is not abut equating social justice to toxic Christianity. I’m talking about how my experiences with toxic Christianity allow me to see how social justice ideology might be toxic in its own ways.

Social justice is toxic because its worldview is drastic

According to Merriam Webster, social justice is

“A state or doctrine of egalitarianism (Egalitarianism defined as 1: a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs; 2: a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people)

SocialJusticeSolutions, born out of the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, writes that social justice has a flexible definition, and can include working for

“…human rights; dignity; political, economical, social, and other equality; equal distribution of resources; justice; use of policy and laws; removing inequality; societal participation in change; personal responsibility; and creating access to opportunity and chance through action.”

Sounds like a noble goal to me. But the social justice movement is far from just ideas; it’s ideas put into words and actions. It’s a community with a culture. And I think that culture, in ways reminiscent of the Christianity I grew up in, can be toxic.

See, current social justice ideology doesn’t just say that we can create a better world. It says that we MUSTIt sees the entire world in terms of inequalities, and then it says that every person has the duty to right them – or else they’re selfish and ignorant.

Here’s the thing. If your outlook on life sorts the world into a few massive groups of people and then says that they are in severe danger (of hell, or of racist/sexist/classist etc violence)… those beliefs tend to hijack your feelings, and then they encourage you to speak and act in drastic ways.

That’s what Christianity did to me. And that’s what social justice ideology does too.

Once I believed the basic ideas of Christianity (all humans are bad and deserve eternal punishment; the only way to be better/dodge flames is to serve God), I became obligated to do certain things. I read the Bible and prayed regularly; I went to church;  I tried to “share the Gospel” with other people (including complete strangers.)

When I started to see the world from an SJ point of view, I became obligated to do certain things as well. Check my privilege. “Call out” sexism or racism I see in daily life. Use this word, not that one. “Educate” myself.

According to SJ ideology, I knew the truth, and I needed to act on it. If I didn’t, I was selfish and ignorant. What excuse did I have not to act, anyway? This was for the sake of my fellow humans, for mine too. 

That’s exactly how I thought when I was Christian (although in different terms.) Thinking like this puts a huge emotional demand on a person. Leaving the belief community has a big, big emotional and social cost. And I know from experience: that’s not good news. Cults are called “high demand religious groups” for a reason.

Social justice is toxic because its language and conclusions are drastic

The best way I know how to tell if a community is toxic? Look at its language. Look at what members say. For Christianity, it was the Bible, worship songs, and testimonies. For the current millennial social justice movement, it’s how people speak online, and it’s very reflective of the “we not only can, but we must” view that flavors current SJ culture.

Tumblr, which is infamous for its SJ culture, speaks in absolutes. “We/you need to,” “always,” “the fact that,” “if you do x then you are [negative word] / can just die,” “Period.,” “should not,” “as an x person, y people can [hostile word]“, and on and on. It can see the world in sweeping and deeply colored generalizations, and arrives at pretty militant conclusions because of it.

(Note these are examples I randomly peeled off the first few pages of a blog I still follow. I’m not attacking the ideas *or the people* themselves.)

On Facebook, my feed is flooded with posts by classmates from my college who say things like “silence is violence,” “there is no excuse not to educate yourself,” and “unpack your privilege. Be better.”

Social justice has taken on its own language, and those code words have become methods for control. There are some uncanny parallels to Christianese – both in what they mean and how they can be used to control believers. This issue is worthy of a whole post, but for now, consider “get right with God” and “check your privilege.”  

In Christianity, “get right with God” may be used by a believer when another believer has exhibited ungodly behavior or thought. The believer is expected to repent and act in a more Christian way… unless they don’t really love God, that is.

In social justice, “check your privilege” is used by a SJ advocate when a less oppressed person has stepped on their ideological toes. If the person doesn’t want to be seen as ignorant or arrogant, they’re expected to apologize and agree with the advocate.

Both these phrases use implied threats to bring a wayward person back in line – but surprisingly, social justice is way less subtle.

If a person is “called out” and they dispute the person confronting them, they run a huge risk of making it worse. For being “problematic,” people have been reprimanded at best and harshly put down, bullied, threatened, shunned, publicly humiliated, and fired at worst. I’ve seen this reaction online and on-campus. I think we all have at this point.

Some people call this absolute language and  political correctness. Others call it censorship. I know it as thought control. It’s militant, it’s virulent, it crushes nuance and discussion, and it makes people (including me) afraid to share our opinions, even if we agree with the general concept of social justice. 

And I know what that does to a person. It creates an echo chamber that suffocates individual opinions. It makes you think you’re always right. It emphasizes doctrine over conversation. And none of that shit is good shit.

I could say more, but I think I’ve gone on enough now, and I’m want to hear what you think! Do you see any toxic parallels between social justice culture and another culture? Any experiences you wanna share? Do you agree with my diagnosis? Let me know below!

[ Photo credit: Don’t Believe Everything You Think by MintHouse on Etsy ]

Nothing Good Dwells in Me: How We Wrestle Self-Worth Back from Christianity (Part 2)

Nothing Good Dwells in Me is a 2-part series about rebuilding the self that Christianity destroyed. The first article was a more personal exploration of how my church taught me, intentionally or not, how worthless I am. Today, we’ll look at ways to start changing that thinking.

Last time, I laid out a few key (and disgusting, and toxic, and just plain stupid) beliefs about myself and my heart and my destiny (oh my!) that growing up Baptist taught me. You know, the standard human-as-lowkey-worm spiel: my heart is deceitful and foolish, nothing good dwells in me, trusting in people is accursed. The usual.

Even if my church never intended for this to happen – and I believe they didn’t, since they tried (and failed) to keep us from hating ourselves too too much with the occasional “remember, you’re a child of God now! You are incredibly special and important!” – they really should’ve realized that if you teach a kid that they’re both incomprehensibly horrible and amazing, horrible will win out every time. Captain Cassidy and Neil Carter explore the abusive and dissonant aspects of this weird-ass dichotomy, if you’re interested. Like Neil points out:

But what do you do when the damage has already been done?

What do you do when you’ve stopped believing that God exists, but somehow, inexplicably, he is still in your head – trapped with a stalker ex and no restraining order?

When some nights you can’t shake the feeling that living without extreme self-deprecation isn’t right; that you don’t deserve freedom; that you are Bad to the core and the very existence of your body and soul is immoral?

2 ways to build self-worth… plus, anything you’ve got to add!

There are two key strategies I’ve learned to shut up the echoes of Christianity in my head and start telling my own narratives instead. I’d love to hear yours! 

1. Ego files

Okay, so I ripped that name off my therapist, and I kind of want to come up with a new one, but the concept itself isn’t new to me. It’s really helpful for people like me who grew up thinking [fill in life struggle] was normal and right and have to fight in order to acknowledge, validate, and celebrate their survival.

I know what mine looks like – on particularly bad nights I’ve written it all out over and over again, maybe even got it memorized down pat. It might be hard at first to let yourself brag about what you’ve done, and recognize that what’s not commonly considered an achievement might be huge and important for you. Simply being alive is the first on my list. Hey, sometimes that shit is hard!

Anyway, being able to brainstorm, or even keeping a Word doc, of things you’re proud of or the person you’re becoming or want to become – it can do wonders. Asking a friend what good they see in you, if you’re both up to it, can also add a few things to your ego file.

2. Disprove worthlessness

Sometimes, though, my brain does not want to play nice. Sometimes I can’t help but compulsively believe that me not being inherently sinful or Bad is a stupid idea, and anyone who says that is stupid and worldly and therefore very bad too.

When that happens, when I can’t believe in my worth, I find it really effective to disprove my worthlessness. For example – okay, if I feel compelled to believe that I am inherently sinful, who says? Why am I inherently sinful? What does sinful mean? Who came up with those standards, and why should they somehow be more correct and noble than all the other religious standards in the world?

A lot of times, I end up feeling better. A lot better. Even though Christian ideology makes no sense, and logically I know that, it can be really hard to believe it – the indoctrination temporarily rewires my brain. (I wish we had a word for that. Ideas, anyone?) Like with an abuser, challenging those toxic claims can suddenly make intimidating “truths” much less intelligent or powerful.

Those are mine! How about you? Anything that does or doesn’t work for you? I’d love to hear it! 🙂

[EDIT: Also, forgot to tell you all that I’m 19 now! I survived to another year. That’s going on my ego file for sure! :)]

[ Photo by auntjojo, courtesy of Flickr ]

Nothing Good Dwells in Me: How Baptist Christianity Obliterated My Self-Worth (Part 1)

Note: Today’s post will be less about healing from and replacing the ideas my Baptist Christianity gave me, and more about unpacking the damage that happened in the first place, so no Kickback today! But-

Nothing Good Dwells in Me will be a 2-part series, first on what I was taught and then on how I am learning to love myself despite it. Stay tuned!

A compliment? For who, me?!

Confession: I’ve got a problem. I can‘t accept a damn compliment. 

Oh, it’s gotten better over the years. Far as I remember, it used to be that even if I didn’t verbally turn away a compliment, I’d sure reject it in my head. Nowadays I accept most compliments with a litany of overjoyed thank you!s, but some still snag me. Why? Well… let’s say I’ve got theories.

Theory A: It’s kinda hard to believe a compliment is true when you were born and raised to believe that you were depraved, puny, and worthless, from birth, simply for being human. I mean. That’s a big one. 

Theory B: I loved God. I wanted to glorify him in everything. When I was smallest, he was greatest. Which meant I gave him all the credit, as often as I could.

Theory C: As a Christian, accepting praise for my accomplishments and character strengths was a swing away from arrogance. Everything good I was or did, was because of God’s “work” in me – without him I was nothing, after all. Saying “thanks!” instead of “oh no no, this is all thanks to God, he is always sanctifying me” (sanctifying = improving your Horrible Human Self) suggested that I thought I was able to do anything good without God, which, of course, was blasphemy to me.

Maybe that’s why, looking back, church sometimes seems like it was a circlejerk of self-deprecation. I mean, I wonder how many times in our frequent heart-to-heart discussions we mentioned how humanity inherently sucked. How many songs we sang that lamented failure and inadequacy as part of human nature. How many verses we memorized in Awana kids’ program (along with plenty of positive, encouraging ones) on the wickedness and foolishness of the heart.

There were no You’re Totally Depraved! sermons shouted from the pulpit (only one or two if there were), just thousands of reminders of how defective and small humans are from multiple directions over many years. It was still so damaging. And that deserves recognition by myself, contemporary Evangelical/Baptist leaders, and bloggers alike, because theology that emphasizes how Bad humans are runs a very high risk of giving people big-time self-worth issues, especially children. 

I’m sure that adults tried their best to temper lessons on human worthlessness and wickedness with “remember how much God loves you” side mentions. But it wasn’t enough to keep me from refusing to take credit for anything “good I did” (it was just God doing a work through me), while automatically assuming blame for everything bad I did or was (because I was human. Human bad.)

Love your neighbor as yourself. Or, you know, however you’d love yourself if it wasn’t lowkey sinful to

It’s fascinating that, even as I marinated in the message that I was inherently sinful and needed God to completely transform my personality, desires, and behavior in an ongoing process until the Second Coming, I had nothing but good words for other people.

And that makes sense. I mean, remove the plank from your own eye first, right? And we were always supposed to “edify” one another. Plus, I daresay that most secular-born and raised people struggle with hating themselves while idolizing other people too. It’s, I think, a human thing, or at least a product of modern Western society.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason I avoided ing others the same way I invalidated myself… didn’t have all to do with the hypocrisy factor. Or the command to encourage my brethren. Or human nature.

Maybe I knew that other people didn’t deserve to be told “you are intrinsically bad and selfish and broken and only God can fix you.”

I wish I could say that maybe, deep deep deep down, I knew I didn’t deserve it either. But I don’t think I knew that. I don’t think I ever even considered it. 

I was born into this, and I never had a chance at truly loving myself. And that hurts, because I’ve come to realize that I am a brilliant, radiant, fun, people-loving, visionary person. Yes, even despite being human.

I was worth a great treasure to God – well, despite

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lessons we had that were all about our worth in Christ. (In Christ, always in Christ. Because good luck finding worth without him.) And you could pretty much guarantee that the crux of every Christian self-worth conversation, sermon, or Sunday School lesson I’ve ever sat through was this: Psalms 139:13-14.

13  For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
14  I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.

Oh, and the sparrows one. Definitely the sparrows one. It’s Luke 12:6-7:

6  “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God.
7  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

I want to recognize and honor the attempts my church made to remind us of how precious and protected we were through God. We shared with each other passages on the “hope and a future” that God had for us, on how he would never forsake us or stop forgiving us. We saw posters like these about how God could “use” even dead people. We remembered aloud how precious we were to God, that Satan tried to make us believe we were worthless (…although I think the Bible already had that covered.)

Religion would have been far more toxic if I hadn’t had those conversations in my life. But despite those efforts, the vitriol of the Bible trumped them every time.

Because our worth was found specifically and even exclusively in how generous God was to give a damn about us.

Because I was born damaged and my value as a person was only redeemed when I became “more like Christ” – when God started changing who I was, what I wanted, and what I did according to what he believed best.

Because how valuable I was had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

Because we were insignificant as a breeze while eternally loved by God… except that love always came with a “despite,” with how sinful we were and how much we hurt him.

Because even when we had lessons on worth, they made sure to counter all the negative effects that these mixed messages had on us over the years.

Spoiler alert: If you tell a child that they are both trash and treasure, trash is gonna win every time

For every lesson we had on self-worth in Christ, we received fifty more little contradictions in songs, sermons, Sunday School and youth group lessons, and daily devotions. STRONG contradictions.

I understood. I understood that human nature was The Worst. I understood that I was weak. I understood that I was wired to hate and hurt God and others. I understood that even a baby’s cry was symbolic of human selfishness and complaining. I heard these messages. I understood them.

They said my heart was “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9)

They said of the men of Noah’s time, “Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5)

They said trusting my heart makes me a fool (Proverbs 28:26), that “Cursed is the man who trusts in man” and “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jeremiah 5,7)

They said that if I left Christianity, I would become like the unbelievers, who, as we all know, are “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing [their] days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3)

They said “acting on” my queerness is dishonoring of my body, a vile passion, (Romans 1:24and used to be deserving of death (my blood be upon me)  (Leviticus 20:13)

They said “Nothing good dwells in me” (Romans 7:18)

I call foul. No, I SCREAM foul.

Not of my own free will, I recently started attending a Baptist Bible study on my university’s campus. What I immediately noticed is that this group is actually more direct and bald about How Bad Humans Are than my church was. Last time, the teacher’s voice kept breaking because he wanted God to make him a better person. The time before that, another teacher actually said “if you follow your own desires in life, you will die” (spiritually, which to Christians is the only way that matters.) They only use the word human in a negative context, as a synonym for “Quite Bad.” Hm.

I’m not here to give suggestions to Christians on how to make their theology better. I’m 18 years old, and I am a survivor of Christianity. It’s not on me to fix popular American Baptist theology.

But I am here saying that teaching people that they’re so inherently selfish, wicked, and wrong that their very desires and personalities must be undergo a transformation literally until Christ returns HURTS PEOPLE. Even if you insert the occasional “fearfully and wonderfully made” bit. It hurts children. It doesn’t give them a fighting chance at recognizing and celebrating what about them is good, and because their flaws are a threat to their eternity, the bad and ugly take a front seat every time.

I’m still learning to take a compliment.

And the next time I receive one, God will have no part of it.

[ Photo by Quinn Dombrowski ]