I have worked with young children for far too long to not learn from their example and sometimes stand in awe of the wisdom found in their innocence. By observing them, I’ve come to some conclusions about the way humans work. I believe that people are inherently born with a sense of not only self-worth, but also an instinctive understanding of self-worth in those around them.
Three-year-olds are colorblind – and when they are not, their questions come from a sincere curiosity about superficial differences between themselves and their friends as they all share the sandbox. Discrimination, judgment, prejudice – we’re taught those things. I believe that we evolved to have a natural tendency toward tribalism, because that is how we survived. I’ve seen that behavior in three-year-olds as well – the way a whole group of them will hold each other as they gather around one of them that is afraid or sad. But I believe that the particularly appalling ways in which hatred manifests is all nurture, not nature.
I also believe that this hatred, at least within the Evangelical community, begins with the standard by which we are taught to measure perfect love. I hope you’ve been reading Stephanie Stalvey‘s CHURCH KIDS COMICS, because it is one of the most beautiful depictions of how our compass for love ultimately corrupts our view of ourselves and each other. She wrote a line that nearly left me a sobbing mess: “I don’t know how a child can be told that their will and negative emotions are expressions of ‘sin nature’ without it fundamentally affecting their self worth.” I read that and burst into tears for my childhood. I cried for those kids I teach every day, who I hope I empower so I can help them weather any evangelical storm that might be headed their way.
Now, I am no psychologist, though I’ve spent much time in their company, both as a client and with clients. Working with teenagers and studying trauma-informed care helped me comprehend the symptoms I found in myself. Becoming a student of Religious Trauma Syndrome taught me much about the way that our bodies and souls constantly carry our history. So no, I’m no expert in how the human brain works. But I AM a participant with experience about which I have tried to be very introspective, while also trying to look around, shut up, and listen to others. So in the words of Robert Anton Wilson: “I believe nothing, but I have many suspicions.”
I remember my first true suspicion that something was wrong with what I’d been taught my whole life. It involved watching a child in a little church I attended and sometimes pastored in Juneau, while I was going to college – probably sometime in 2005. I’d preached while the regular pastor was ill; subsequently, I led a kid of probably ten years to Christ. About a month later, while everyone congregated for a potluck or something, I caught a conversation that kid was having with one of the church’s deacons. This gentleman was certainly in his eighties. They were talking theology – the particulars I don’t remember.
Here’s what I DO remember: The chill that starting in my spine that quickly cascaded all the way down to my ankles, upon realizing that this child and old man believed exactly the same thing. In the seventy years that separated them, this deacon’s perspective on the world was as basic and as uncomplicated as that of a boy’s who had just started his journey down the same narrow road. That bothered me, because it told me that we were following a system that does not require much perspective. As an English major trying to get past my own biases so that I could actually enjoy some of this remarkable work I was reading, I saw the red flag.
Let me be clear about something – the indoctrination that causes this alarming state of stasis isn’t Biblical. As a metaphor about an evolving people trying to understand their place in the world after living in oppression for so long, this God is beautifully flawed and fascinating in the way that it always seems capable of profound poetry even while being perpetually exasperated by its creations, to the point of genocide. It is a reflection of how those people living under captivity who kept those stories safe were exasperated with themselves. Of course, all the myths will say that the gods created us in their image – that’s the point, because it is a myth, and myths are our reflections. As reflections, the reverse is actually true: We create God in our image, to help us understand ourselves with a little more clarity. It’s why we tell stories.
I actually think that warning Eve about this truth was the Serpent’s true role in the Garden: “The Knowledge of Good and Evil will make you like Him,” he hisses. What if the Serpent is simply looking down the long road awaiting humanity of bloodthirsty and vengeful jealousy once Eve places her mouth around that forbidden fruit? We only have one side of that conversation, after all – surely not all of it. What if the Serpent is terrified, imploring Eve about the perils of the human condition once they understood of what we are actually capable? He’s trying to stop her: “Stop, don’t eat that! If you do, you will see God’s reflection in yourselves.” But she’s a child being told not to touch the hot stove!
In short, the Hebrew God myth is a profound ancient metaphor for what Falkner said all great literature must ask: What does it mean to be human?
Read literally, the Evangelical God is such a simple concept that it does not require growing up to believe in Him. He fashioned first man from clay, then Eve to be his servant. He gives them a Garden, with a temptation so great that to fall for it will doom all of the human race for all time, making it impossible for Him to even look at us without someone suffering for our mistake. He is simply too perfect to be in the presence of imperfection – despite being All Powerful and All Knowing at the same time. For this imperfection – one that He Himself in his wisdom chose to enable – the eternal flames of Hell is the only consequence that He could ever possibly will into existence.
But by being All Powerful and All Knowing, God provides a way to allow a small number of us to escape that terrible, eternal fate. It requires a blood sacrifice. I just can’t wrap my head around it now – how so many of us still choose to worship a God that would require the blood sacrifice of His Son to save not all of us, but just a few who would believe. But according to Evangelical theology, this concept is far trickier (and more confusing – thanks, Nicean Council): Jesus is not just God’s Son, but somehow the Son becomes God Himself, who takes upon the sins of the world in order to save us from the transgressions that He in his perfection allowed in order to damn us. He has bled for us – paid the price, saved us from our sins so that He no longer sees us at all, simply His own blood saving us from ourselves. Freeing us from a sin we inherited because He introduced it to our ancestors in the Garden.
And whenever we sin, we nail Him to the cross once again – and we are reminded of how our sinful nature is incapable of anything good without His loving grace to save us from ourselves. He is a God who keeps us children – and as children, we are taught that because of our sinful nature, we are all doomed. If we question any of this, we sin again – because we forget that His ways are not our ways.
Imagine with me if this God were a human parent – tempting a child with a simple but intentional temptation that’s nearly literally a variation of “Don’t open the cookie jar.” Imagine how teasing it is to simply make that request to a child, while the cookie jar is within their reach. Imagine how, when the child inevitably opens the cookie jar, the parent casts that child out of the house, then promises physical torture for disobeying him. But instead of torturing the child, this parent lets the child watch them graphically injure themselves instead, to make the child feel ashamed. All this just so that this child – their offspring – will submit to their will without question, without doubt. I have just described devastatingly traumatizing child abuse manifested in a parent suffering from a severe case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Evangelical children are all taught that this is the perfect compass by which to measure love. We grow up modeling that love in ourselves and in the world around us.
To be fair: This is not the Bible’s standard, nor the Bible’s fault. Look up Matthew 28, John 13, and 1 Corinthians 13 for clearer ideas on that. I still love those chapters. There’s also a beautiful little book in the Old Testament called Hosea, about the titular prophet’s unconditional love for his wife Gomer that is so profound that by accepting her exactly as she is without judgment, he finds God’s light both in her and in himself. I’ve never heard a more wonderful reflection of someone loving someone else in their totality.
Rather, this corruption is simply what happens when Evangelicals read the Bible’s God literally. Unfortunately, thanks to the Church’s indoctrination, it is the only way in which most people are taught to read the Bible. As a result, Evangelical theology starts chipping away at your self-worth from an early, early age – teaching you that not only are you completely and irrevocably separated from God without the sacrifice of Christ’s blood, but that everyone else around you is as well. Follow the chain: When someone’s own self-worth is finally diminished, their instincts are to try to fill that hole by seeking validation in others. Working with kids taught me that too.
Now, I can only speak toward my own experiences next – and those confirmed by many in the exvangelical community with whom I have been engaged in conversation: Once you don’t find that value in others that you hoped you’d find in yourself, you remember that they’re sinful too – maybe even more sinful that you. You wonder what went wrong with them in their walk with God, that they could ever make you feel this hollowness. You’ll ultimately hate them almost as much as you hate yourself, because you’re still seeking that validation in other people. It festers, the way everyone secretly hates everyone inside ours homes, our church walls, our youth group – so that we can forget how much we actually hate ourselves. It just continues to remind us and reinforce that we are all so sinful, helpless without God’s grace. We are so blessed that He has covered our worthless, sin-infested collective carcass with the blood He shed to save us from a fate that we face if we don’t surrender to His complete and perfect will.
We behave this way because our God behaves this way. He simply couldn’t think of any other way to give us a god-shaped hole in our hearts than to drill it in Himself so that He may fill it with his own blood. I’m simply done spending another moment of my life worshipping this God who was so clearly forged from our worst qualities.
I have done so much hurtful gaslighting in so many relationships throughout my life, because I thought that’s what love is supposed to do. To lovers, yes – it makes me sigh to think of all the times I told women I was dating that it was all in their head, that I’m sorry if what I said made them feel offended, that all of this anger is due to their own triggers that they need to deal with and that none of this is on me. I’m embarrassed by the things I have uttered to them both during conflict and times of peace, to deflect any blame in a way that made clear that I wasn’t interested in hearing a word that came out of their mouths. Not just lovers – friends too, and family, and clients, and other people who got in the way of how I believed things were.
If I ever conducted myself in such a manner toward you and have not yet apologized, and you are reading this– I am so, so sorry that I behaved in such a manner. I wish I had listened better – because everyone deserves to have someone who will really listen to them. Listening is something that the God we believed in never really taught us to do, except when someone is singing our praise or begging us for mercy.
Unlearning those bad habits is a lifelong process that requires practice, trial, error, listening, and being kind to myself. And learning how to laugh at myself along the way — the greatest tool I know to practice self-care and self-patience. I don’t always gets it right, but I’m learning how to recognize it when I get it wrong. Thank YOU for your patience with me as I keeping untangling these mental knots. I encourage you to also practice the same patience with yourself. Another thing we learned from the Church — to be our own harshest critics.
But I had it easy – I was a white cisgender man in a religion built to keep that demographic in power. This theology must make women and the BIPOC and LBGTQ communities feel utterly powerless, all the time. These demographics are indoctrinated only to submit, because they are blamed for the Fall of Man (which is on Eve) and the Mark of Cain for murdering his brother (which I was taught in Sunday School was the start of different races). You, not white men like me, are the ones offered up in sacrifice, expected to submit and render yourselves powerless to a power that abuses you because they love you.
It’s taken me a long time to get there, but I see you now. I’m so, so sorry.
How many good, Christian wives do you know who stay with their physically and emotionally abusive husbands because they are instructed to submit? How many pastors do you know who pressure their flock to not get vaccinated so that they will learn to rely only on God and not the world’s solutions? How many evangelical women do you know who hate their bodies because they’ve been weaponized as tools for Satan to overwhelm men with lust? This is what happens when you literalize the Biblical God as the perfect standard for love. We all become narcissists like Him, and victims of narcissism.
And while my primary focus in my essays has been the Evangelical Church, among the deconstruction community are other Christian-Judeo traditions. Coming together has been pretty eye-opening. I’ve finally concluded that the Abrahamic God just manifests baggage. I’ve been in conversation with former Catholics, former Mormons. They all have slightly different interpretations, but it seems that what we all have in common is that our interpersonal relationships are basically our manifestations of the nature of our God.
The Catholic Christ seems to me more about controlling through guilt, reaping blessing after blessing upon children who didn’t ask for them and then getting frustrated when they are not grateful. I’d say that describes many people in my sphere who were raised devoutly Catholic. Mormons basically follow an Abrahamic alien sex cult (and sorry guys – the Raelians are clearly having way more fun with that) in which men become gods who have babies with their wives for all eternity on their own personal planet. It is not difficult to see how that’s working out for Mormon families everywhere.
It goes without saying that it takes more than simply walking away from a faith tradition to untangle the sorts of knots that its storm leaves in its wake. I return to an earlier observation about our bodies and souls carrying our history; leaving the fold of your childhood is only the beginning of the process. Indoctrination is not a light switch – it takes time, work, and learning how to fight for yourself after having barely or even never been taught how to do that as a child.
I cannot tell you what the path toward untangling that knot will look like for you, but it is an excellent conversation to have with a therapist. I had one who encouraged me to go find that child within me who needed to learn how to stand up for himself. He suggested that I do it in writing, since it is clearly how I best meditate and therefore my safest place to explore my own story.
So in the fall of 2018, I wrote a long prompt in which I engaged in an interaction between myself and that inner child. It was one of the most surreal writing experiences of my life, finding that kid tucked away in the corners of my brain. I didn’t know what to expect or who would I find until I just sat down and wrote him out. We had so much fun at first, fighting invisible monsters together and just talking about all the things he was still amazed to learn that I loved (let’s be clear: Frankenstein and the Marx Brothers). Once we realized that we were safe within each other’s company, we confronted something living in a house up the hill that was very frightening, very honest – and very, very hurt. That child and I heard that monster out together, and then we forgave him together.
I came away from that exercise as drained as I’d ever felt in my whole life, but also the most empowered. Because when I found that kid, he wasn’t in a fetal position like I feared he’d be – rocking back and forth because he was sad and afraid. That kid was the fucking warrior I’d always wanted to be. He was me before all of my self-worth was taken away – the type of kid who would cover you with a hug if you are feeling sad or afraid. That’s what he’s been doing all my life, as I struggled to understand what love actually is away from the selfish, demented God exulted as my perfect example. He was the kid who existed before all of that, who weathered that storm, who was refined by it and was ready to finally meet me so that he could remind me of myself.
We cried when we parted ways at the end of that prompt, and we vowed that we would meet again. Now I see him everywhere – in every preschooler who loves without judgment, in every tiger-eyed teenager fighting through adversity because they refuse to believe that they have to be who everyone is telling them they are. I hear him in the moments when I allow myself to breathe, to laugh, to take time for myself because I am no longer fallen or ashamed. In that kid, I find the reflection that I truly need – the one to which the god myths were always meant to point. The one that reminds me that I am worthy, because we ALL are worthy.
The only way I could have ever learned to finally love myself was to find that kid hiding inside me and to start loving him.
I love you too. If anything that I have written in this story resonates, I hope that you are on a path that will take you to on a journey in which you find the courage to love yourself. You are worthy of that blessing; any God who would fearfully and wonderfully make you who then cannot see that worthiness without first bathing you in His own blood is Himself unworthy of our worship.
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