Marlene Winell’s book LEAVING THE FOLD, in which she coined the phrase “religious trauma syndrome,” was immensely helpful in my own healing — particularly in recognizing the ways I still carried abuse and trauma from my experience in church. (I left the church in 2006, but did not read the book until 2018.) For example, Winell made me realize how difficult it is for former evangelicals to recognize their own value and to take pride in their own achievements.
First of all, we are all taught that we are dirty, rotten sinners who deserve God’s eternal judgment starting when we are very young (I will get into Hell theology in a future post because there is so much to unpack, but I will say that I don’t have memory before I knew that I was unworthy of God’s love). With this “truth” instilled in me at a young age, time and time again I was told that all glory goes exclusively to our Heavenly Father. If we have accomplished something worthy — from a piece of art to a part in a play… even bringing someone to church who consequently got “saved” — all credit goes to God, because He is in control. To be proud of my achievement was to succumb to the sin of pride, to believe that our talents were our own and not given to us by God. And sin of any kind, we were constantly informed, was nailing Jesus to the cross again.
In other words: The Church expects us to give our talents and abilities into God’s service while never taking pride in our work. All credit goes to God alone, because He is our Author and Perfector. To feel a sense of accomplishment toward our work independent of God is a sin against Him, and since all sins are the same in God’s eyes, it would be enough to condemn me to Hell forever. Thankfully, God had His son brutally massacred to cover that sin, so that when God looked at me, all He saw was the blood of Jesus. I had no identity outside of that blood — and no other reason to exist. My talents therefore served no purpose except to honor Him. This was first explained to me when I was five or so, and reinforced throughout my years in Church.
I even remember a pastor preaching that God gave us talents to test us… that He really wanted us to do things we didn’t enjoy doing or that we weren’t good at, so we wouldn’t fall into the sin of pride and instead rely more on Him. I was an adult at the time, nearly on the brink of leaving the church. A certain Austrian celebrity had just been elected into a pretty high office in America. So I shouted out from my pew in my best Arnold voice, probably inappropriately, “I’m going to be governor of California!!!” It was a moment, I’ll admit, I was proud of — to the pastor’s chagrin.
After leaving the Church, it has taken me many years to build up my self-esteem and realize that I can take pride in myself without needing to justify it in some roundabout way (i.e. “A lot of people came to see me talk, and they seemed to enjoy it,” “I got an A on my essay because the professor is so passionate about this subject and communicated it to us so well.”) Often, I would inflate facts just to justify feeling proud of an accomplishment, because I didn’t want people to think I was being needlessly prideful. I did this instinctively, even as my belief in a theistic deity faded — because that is how trauma works… you carry it within you after abuse, even when you are safe. It took me years of processing my religious trauma, with the help of a therapist, to even know how to simply look at something I accomplished, smile to myself, and think, “I did that all by myself, and it’s okay that I feel good about it.”
This is my story, but it is also the story of many who leave the evangelical church. If you are struggling to take ownership and pride in work that you have accomplished, I can tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I kept a list of talents in my pocket that I was proud of for a long time, and I’d pull them out to remind myself of them when I needed to. I still have to remind myself sometimes that my accomplishments are my own, but I’m getting better and better at it. You will too — just keep practicing and keep doing things that make you feel happy and good about yourself.
Thank you so much for reading. Comments and questions are welcome, but I also know that these posts are being read by people for whom it may not be safe to comment. I see you, and you are not alone. Here is a reminder: You are worthy of love, just the way you are. You are not broken, because you are not a creature of sin cast out of God’s presence. Rather, you are like me: Unfinished and still growing. I believe in you.