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)

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 ]