Sunday thoughts #16: how my faith kept me from becoming a man

Posted: March 24, 2013 in believing, my personal journey, sunday thoughts
Tags: , , ,

005211398I don’t come from a faith background filled with whack-job-fundamentalist-types. Most of the Christians I spent time with are caring, decent people who love God and others.

On the other hand, the tradition I came from was definitely not liberal or progressive in any way. The formula I use to describe the old version of my faith is something along the lines of 50% truth (believe the right things theologically) and 50% behavior (which mostly meant love people, be sexually moral, and share your faith with others.)

I let the belief part of the formula mess me up in some ways, which is the point of this article.

The behavior part did also, but that’s for a future article. (For example, I have painful memories of spending most of my teen years wallowing in guilt and shame and repenting from and praying for deliverance from “lustful thoughts,” otherwise known as “hormones.”)

But I digress.

And I must digress again. Before I go on, I have to say this. This is my journey, not yours. I am not condemning you or judging you. I know that many Christians have a really hard time when anyone breaks rank and looks back with a critical eye on the religious institution that Christianity has become. That’s all I’m doing. It’s not about you. And besides – I know that so many of you have struggled or are currently struggling with these same issues – we’ve talked about it! And I also know that many of you have learned to walk in a faith that’s beautiful and effective. So relax, bros and sisters – I love you.

So, anyway, to my point, which was supposed to be something about how my faith made it hard for me to grow up and become a man:

I believe that the way I was experiencing my faith in many ways kept me from growing and maturing as a human being. And I’ll go one step further: I believe that religion in general, and modern day evangelical conservative theology in particular, can have the unintentional consequence of keeping us from developing psychologically and achieving maturity. This happened to me in at least four ways:

images-61GOD IS IN CONTROL. Although the teaching I received on God’s “sovereignty” usually wasn’t along the lines of strict Calvinistic determinism, I did receive a constant diet of “don’t worry – God is in control.” Also: “When God closes a door, He always opens a window.” And: “I know it’s difficult to understand when bad things happen, but trust God – He has a plan.” And more. And all this rhetoric kind of messed up my head. The message was loud and clear: Whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, regardless of anything I do or don’t do.

393602_565000440190774_218801947_nHow did this keep me from becoming a man? Well, let me put it this way: You know what grown ups do when they come to a closed door? They open it! That’s how doors are made! They have hinges! Actually you don’t need to look for the nearest window! Push the damn door open!

I spent way too many years of my life outwardly disagreeing with deterministic theology, but inwardly, subconsciously, buying into it. I couldn’t really change things, or create my own future or prevent bad things from happening. I couldn’t really be a change agent when I saw injustice or tragedy. God is in control, and things are going to work out His way, regardless.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t sit around in a paralyzed state of inaction with my thumb up my butt. But down deep I had this weird internal, just-below-the-surface-of-my-consciousness belief that everything was going to work God’s way in the end, no matter what we as human beings did or didn’t do. Global warming? Bah! God made us and wasn’t going to let human beings wreck His creation! War? Nuclear destruction? No – this would only happen if and when God wanted it to happen. There was nothing I or we could do about it. Poverty, death, disaster? God knows what He’s doing. My own difficult life experience? Just trust God’s plan!

Do you see what a childish way this is of viewing the world? Modern conservative evangelism in some ways encouraged me not to step up, take responsibility for my life (like grown up men do), and be a tenacious and unrelenting force for change in a struggling world.

524906_441573029251224_1213553015_nGOD WILL LEAD. Another thing that grown ups do is make decisions. They decide if and where to go to school, if and whom to marry, if and where to move to, whether or not to accept a job…and more. They seek counsel from trusted people, they research, they think things through, they take chances, and they live with their decisions. And when their decisions don’t turn out so well, they learn from their mistakes, without either blaming their “lack of faith” or descending into denial (“I know God has a purpose in leading me into this dreadful situation…”)

And you know what children do? They let other people make decisions for them. They believe (usually rightly) that others are watching out for them and will make decisions for them that are in their best interests. So they wait, and trust, and when they get the word from above, they rely on it and move forward, or not, depending on what their “higher power” tells them to do. And you know what? Christianity doesn’t just subtly teach this approach to life – it’s a blatant and clear message. “Become like little children…” “Trust not in your own understanding…” and more.

When my faith changed to what it is today, I immediately felt myself growing up. Making decisions became less about waiting passively for answers from above and searching for a “feeling in my heart” or a “word from the Lord” and became more of a balance between rationality and intuition…a difficult balance to strike, for sure, but one that I’ve been practicing now for many years…and loving! (Although, I have to be honest, there have been times I wished I could crawl back into the safety of childlike dependence.)

GOD’S WAYS ARE BEST. Being part of the modern conservative evangelical movement can at times entail being told what to think and what to believe. I don’t mean to imply it’s like a cult. But when you really look at it, you do have to be sort of a black sheep in the family if you’re in the conservative Christian conformitymovement and you’re liberal politically, or support gay marriage or legalized drugs, or question the Bible’s absolute authority or come to your own conclusions about any number of things. Again, like children, you are told what the acceptable positions are to take, and you take them, or you risk being “disciplined,” usually symbolically.

Grown ups, though, develop their own opinions and carve out their own positions on the things that are important to them, even while listening to and considering the opinions of those they trust.

731434871_God_Love_You_answer_1_xlargeGOD LOVES YOU, SO YOU’RE OK. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to debate the theology of a personal God. But what I was told since I was a young man was (and this is paraphrased): You are a piece of crap, but God loves you anyway, so be happy. Ok, so it wasn’t put in exactly those words – but the message was clear. You are “broken,” “depraved” and “your heart is desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), BUT – no worries! Because Jesus died for you, you are finally clean and God loves you.

This emotionally abusive theology is exemplified perfectly in a recent sermon by Mark Driscoll, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and one of the world’s most downloaded and quoted pastors (named one of the 25 most influential pastors by Preaching magazine in 2010):

You have been told that God is a loving, gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, wonderful, and good sky fairy who runs a day care in the sky and has a bucket of suckers for everyone because we’re all good people. That is a lie… God looks down and says ‘I hate you, you are my enemy, and I will crush you,’ and we say that is deserved, right and just, and then God says ‘Because of Jesus I will love you and forgive you.’ This is a miracle.

Ok, so the messages I received weren’t quite that nasty. BUT the theology was in the same vein: depravedwretch_1337413134_600You’re only OK because God says you’re OK. Without God loving you, you’re worthless. (This is actually stated – I’m not making this up.)

Basically, my ability to love myself, to accept myself, and to feel ok about who I am was dependent on the fact that a transaction outside of myself made me ok in God’s eyes. I was acceptable because of an outside source – not because I was intrinsically valuable. Something about this just seems really unhealthy, in retrospect.

And, really, I can’t tell you the number of Christian friends I’ve talked to over the years who have struggled with heartbreaking self-esteem issues, in part, I now believe, due to this schizophrenic message of loathing and love.

As I moved on, I began to grow up in this area. This is ironic – but it wasn’t until I walked away from my old theology that I finally began to truly love and accept myself. I no longer looked outwardly for someone to love me and make me feel good about myself, like children do.

I finally started to become an adult.

  1. Steve Morris says:

    Having realised all this, where do you go? From your new vantage point you could take a look at other world religions and realise that they all say things that are repugnant and offensive to rational thought and leave this whole religion thing behind. Or do you fall back into the old ways, cherry-picking parts of the Bible that you find appealing – in other words create your own religion? After a while you may come to realise that all Gods are created by people in their own image, and not vice versa.

  2. Ford1968 says:

    Thanks for this. These pieces are how I stumbled on your blog. Two comments:

    Driscoll is an ass, but no more so than Timothy Dolan (Driscoll is just in a testosterone charged package); their popularity scares the crap out of me.

    As for emotionally abusive theology, I agree that the self-flagellation paradigm is harmful. Now double down for the gay kid in the front pew: “You are deeply flawed and unworthy of love. Live your entire life alone or piss off God Himself and be separated from Him”. That’s got to stop (and things are changing).

    • nash says:

      I totally agree. I have known several gay Christians who were injured in horrible ways based solely on conservative Christian theology.

  3. Kevin Henne says:

    Hi Mike,

    Just looked at your #15 reflection blog, I whole heartily agree about your points about needing to be responsible actor, that Love should be unconditional, that the world is truly free, however these points are not in any way in conflict with my faith/beliefs.

    Your comments suggest a faith background lacking in a God image of shared power, mutual participation, vulnerability of God, the complexity of human free will (Mystery of suffering) and the transcendent nature of love crossing boundaries of law and human invention.

    I wonder if you have spent much time at a quality Theology School (i.e.. Seattle U) and the ‘Christian faith’ you speak about strikes me a young one with not much thought, history and reflection. (no hints of quality thought based upon authors writers. (Kung, Palmer, etc…..) I see this weekly in my hospice ministry by folks that are literally dying and feeling the moral quality of their lives, but are afraid of the God based upon what they have seen on Pat Robinson’s 700 club.

    So my point is that folks that have similar faith backgrounds like yourself might read this blog and then agree with you that Faith is BS and then move toward their favorite god of choice. (secular humanism or the god of self-centered consumerism. (Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, all is meaningless)

    I would hope your blog might contain more writing from counterpoints (say Palmer, or Moltman) that reflect theologies tested by time, but if what I read in the comment sections are any indication it will have the same effect toward cultivating mature faith as someone laughing at Tammy Faye Baker.

    • nash says:

      Hey Kevin – I appreciate your comments. And I don’t totally disagree. A couple things – let me “defend” my blog for a minute. If you care to, click on “Sunday Thoughts” over on the left (in the big mess of tag words), and check out #’s 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 (check out the links on this one), 11, 13 and 16. You’ll see some deeper shit than the one you read. And secondly, I do understand the nuances you’ve mentioned. I spent 25 years trying to get my head around a more compassionate, nuanced Christianity – I subscribed to “Open theology,” read all the emerging church-types, studied Palmer…so I do “get” all this stuff. Unfortunately, however, it just seemed like it kept coming down to mental dishonesty and logic gymnastics for me. Like I was constantly trying make excuses for the Bible, for Christian theology and more. “The Bible says this, but it really means is..” But that’s just me…I have a lot of respect for Christians who have been able to make it work.

  4. Torger Helgeland says:

    Wow, Mike. I can’t argue with your results, growing as an adult since departing from the goofy theology you experienced, but my question is, what church did you go to? I never heard what you heard, at least not truncated and slanted like that. As for that Mars Hill dude, I’m shocked. There are centuries of better theology to draw from and this guy becomes popular with that? Mars Hill is a young folk church, no? Young folk aint readin’ their Bibles. And that’s scary.

    So, I admire your making decisions, determining own life etc. I’m weak on that and it’s church influenced weakness for sure. But the “I’m crap, but Jesus’ sacrifice/God’s love makes me worthy” is strange. To me it’s easy to see. “Im a marvel of God’s creation, yet covered or shot through with mud resulting in this messy, confused mixed bag.” To me this matches reality, especially my experience, quite well. My petty shallow self centered thot’s wreak of what seems simply enough to be the sin the Bible talks about. Are you free of such, or what do you call that stuff in your own soul? I’ve had a great childhood. This ain’t fallout from hellish abuse. I’m a selfish punk just because I seem to like it, but it’s disturbing at same time. I’m failing at overcoming it and romans 8 is a fantasy to me, but the first half makes perfect sense. When my heart can actually come to want to follow Jesus rather than my own comforts, then somethin might happen in my heart. I ain’t making that fit my theology. For some reason I believe in him, but don’t like the idea of giving all to him. My heart haunts me with this . If this is only the result of arbitrary indoctrination, than the game’s up because I can trust nothing of my soul intuitively if I can’t trust this.

    And from what pulpit is the “you’re a homo so you’re broken and unworthy of love” coming from? sounds like a biased interp to me. Isn’t the standard christian theology to hate the sin but love the sinner? And it’s true for crying out loud! Whether we’re worthy of love is almost beside the point. Point is Bible says God loves us much, sent his son etc. Problem is folk think it’s empty talk ’cause they don’t see it much in us christians (guilty). Yet even secularists aspire to hate sin love sinner, dont’ they? Or do they deny that anyone’s a sinner? Yep that’s it. I forgot about that. There’s no sin within, it’s just pressed in from without (abuse , neglect, etc.) Well then shit. I’ve no excuse. Great childhood, Is that why I don’t want to become a liberal? I’ll have no excuse for my shit headedness? Torg.

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