I have heard that you are wondering why what I say these days seems so different from the “way you trained me up so when I was old I would not depart from it” (paraphrase Proverbs 22:6). You wonder what happened to me, where you went wrong, or where I went wrong. You wonder if you failed me, or if I abandoned you and “the pure milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:2).
Growing up in the church, with every fiber of my being I followed God the best I could in the way I was taught to do so. I was taught that I was “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) and that I was “not my own” (1 Cor. 6:19). I was taught to be a “slave to Christ” (1 Cor. 7:22), to be a “temple to the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), to “deny myself, take up my cross and follow Christ” (Gal. 2:20), to “be less so he can become more” (John 3:30). I could go on. And I lived this until I could not go on.
I started listening to how this was impacting me. I started recognizing that my anxiety was not a sign of any problem on my end in knowing, loving, obeying, or worshiping God. It was a sign that something needed to change.
I found contemplative spiritual practices, like Taize, and spiritual disciplines like rest, retreat, connection to God in nature. These helped me have space to connect both to God and to myself.
I also learned that God was big enough to handle all my emotions, like anger. And I felt safe to know God with more safety and less codependency and anxiety. I learned to just be a person with God. I learned to see God more as a shepherd, and only accept kind internal feedback as from God. I learned that internal accusations, shame, and guilt were not from God and were not a sign of conviction or that I was doing something wrong. I learned to be less introspective and worried about my internal state, and live more in the present in my interactions. All my focus was still on devotion to God, but it became a place with more space and peace.
As I have done more internal healing, and released so many of the painful conceptions I had of God and myself, my relationship with God and my theology has continued to grow and change. I have found that both an authentic relationship with God, and general well-being, come from the inside-out, not from believing the right things and using your mind and will to conform yourself to them.
In addition to doing my own healing work, my profession is to help people heal. I have studied this extensively, and seen first hand in the lives of my clients what works and doesn’t work; what helps the most, what helps a little, what doesn’t help at all, and what keeps them stuck.
The Greatest Commandment
The Bible says to love God, not defend God, or become God. In order to have “right beliefs,” I think we have abandoned the core tenet of our faith as given to us by Jesus: To love God and love others. If you really believe that loving God and loving your neighbor is the greatest commandment, please hear with an open mind what I have to say. Because our neighbors do not feel loved.
And a lot of Christians do not actually feel loved without also feeling anxiety, fear, shame, or a lot of pressure to do it right. Some just try to ignore these feelings, and push ahead to be the perfect Christian. I did that for a long, long time. Some speak up about their struggles and try to get help within the church, but are met with spiritual bypassing - just pray more, have more faith, root out your sin, rededicate your life, etc. Others have compulsive reactions, such as drinking, affairs, addictions, etc. that are labeled sin. The church’s answer is often repentance, rededication, and accountability. The issue with these responses is that the symptoms are seen as the problem, not as the information and alarm bells they truly are. They are our bodies’ way of trying to communicate our needs to us so we can address the root issues. More on that later.
Instead of writing off people both inside and outside of the church who are struggling—as lacking faith, lost, backslidden, sinners, or heathens—what if we take the time (without fear of the answers) to see what they have to say about why this is so. Could we listen to the impact of our way of loving God and neighbor without becoming defensive? Just with curiosity. And maybe some empathy.
How do we know someone feels loved? That they know they are loved? How do you feel loved? What changes for you when you feel that on a visceral level down to your bones? We might describe it as a sense of well-being, feeling seen and accepted, feeling secure, feeling both calm and excited. It is both cozy and expansive all at the same time.
This is the heart of safe attachment - the cozy part is what attachment psychologists call a safe haven, and the expansive part is a secure base. We need both in our initial attachment figures and we need to develop this in ourselves.
The biggest factor in healing is a safe relationship where someone feels seen, heard, valued, and known for who they are, not who they feel they are supposed to be. That is one of the reasons therapy can be healing even without much expertise or experience, as long as the therapist is able to be a supportive, nonjudgmental presence. Carl Rodgers called this “empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard,” (more information about some of this research and C. Rodgers quote can be found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198542/).
Dan Siegal, MD, and Tina Payne-Bryson, PhD, who are foremost researchers in healthy child development, have concluded that what kids most need (and thus what all humans most need) is secure attachment to themselves and others (I would posit, including God). They define these as the 4 S’s: Seen, Safe, Soothed, Secure. You can read more about the 4 S’s here. The focus is on caring for the needs of the child to help them be able to meet the challenges they face in life and have a personal sense of well-being. Dr. Siegal has also developed an approach to well-being he calls the mindsight approach (based on the principles of interpersonal neurobiology), which nurtures compassion, kindness and resilience in our personal lives, relationships and communities. That sounds an awful lot like the fruits of the spirit to me. What would it be like to create communities around the goal of fostering these fruits, rather than ones focused on the right things to believe?
I don’t know about you, but I was raised with a different type of parenting. A church-sanctioned parenting style that focused more on obedience and right beliefs. The impact of this was mitigated for me by the love and warmth I felt from most of the adults in my environment. I have very loving, warm, attentive parents. And I felt a lot of love from the people who helped teach and raise me at church. I did often have the 4 S’s. And I feel very privileged that I experienced this because it is too rare. But I was still very aware that all the parenting messages I heard in church and from church-sanctioned parenting experts like Dr. Dobson. I felt a lot of pressure to be obedient, good, and honor my parents (which to me felt like never disagree or disappoint them). The main problem in this equation was human depravity and unruly wills, rather than human needs. I choose the latter.
It was very confusing to me that we received such mixed messaging in church about our core state and identities. We were told we were a unique gift from God at the same time that we were told we were born sinners and were utterly depraved. The theology of original sin and the fall is not enough to make that make sense. We were told we could be anything we wanted and change the world, at the same time that we could do nothing of our own accord and surrendering to God’s call to ministry was the greatest thing we could do. We were taught that God delighted in us, and that we were worms in God’s sight. That God wanted to adopt us, but I never could figure out why we weren’t God’s children in the first place.
Again, I could go on, but I’m going to move on to how focus on obedience and right beliefs is a way of teaching the tenants of a belief system, but not actually bringing forth transformation. As I mentioned earlier, transformation happens in the context of love, not fear. Scaring a child into praying the sinner’s prayer because they didn’t realize their loving God was actually going to send them to hell unless they did so, is a fear tactic. And yet, God’s perfect love is supposed to cast out that fear. How does that make any sense? God gets to be the good cop and we are supposed to be the bad cops to scare everyone to Jesus?
But I digress. I have a few points to make about this.
- Attachment styles
Many forms of Christianity in America focus on God being our main attachment figure. It is the gift of a personal relationship with Christ. But this gets warped because a healthy attachment has both the safe haven component and the secure base component. We might feel God is a safe haven if we internalize his love for us (and don’t get caught up in all that depraved, worm stuff that’s also there). And we might feel God is a secure base to explore and grow. Or we might feel, as I did, that because we have been taught we are supposed to double-down on our beliefs, and use apologetics and evangelization to share them with others, there was no place to explore. We were taught it wasn’t safe to explore, ask questions, or listen to others’ perspectives. We could only go out if we were armored up and prepared to share our message then run back with our hands over our ears. That’s how it felt to me anyways.
- Teaching styles
Just as we were given an authoritarian, top-down attachment style - obey and believe, we were also given an authoritarian, hierarchical way of learning. We were taught the right things to believe about God. Right thinking, right beliefs, right actions, and a right relationship with God = righteousness. If I teach you this and you follow it, you will be safe. Even when fear language is not used, fear is implied. If you learn by exploring and asking questions, you are shut down, corrected, shamed, marginalized, or even punished. You learn implicitly that you should be afraid of thinking outside the God box you are given. This teaching style has been a part of our culture at large as well. Follow the rules = you are good. Disobey = you are bad and should be punished to make you behave.
Spiritual, relational connection is expansive and growing by nature. So are humans. We start out as tiny humans who learn by exploration, play, and curiosity. There are forms of teaching that encourage and enable this to continue, such as Montessori, Conscious Parenting, and Godly Play. Trauma research has shown the absolute necessity of play, and enough safety to explore without fear, as part of our essential well-being and healing. There is also extensive research that spiritual growth and exploration is part of normal, healthy human development, just like learning to walk, and gaining some autonomy as a teenager. (See The Awakened Brain by Lisa Miller for more on this.)
- Never-ending Pressure
We’ve lived for too long under the pressure to produce and bring profit, even if that profit is souls, or Christ-likeness, or something else spiritual, rather than money. It is still pressure, and prolonged pressure is what leads to all the symptoms we see that we mislabel and misunderstand. We see exhaustion and call it laziness. We see lateness and call it disrespect. We see mistakes and call them sins. We see self-advocacy and call it rebelliousness. The church says Jesus loves you no matter what, we love you no matter what, while all the while shaming and judging people for being human. Eventually the pressure becomes too much.
This low-key pressure is also stress, is also trauma. Abuse happens in the church too, all too often. But a lot of what happens is too much pressure with too little support (except accountability to keep managing and trying and pushing to make it all work). Trauma is not something that is done to you. It is what your body registers as too much, too fast (which often feels like shock), or too much, too long (which often feels like burnout). The problem is there has been suspicion of any other ways of knowing about human nature other than what we can parse directly from the Bible (and respected white, male theologians). And so we are left with Pauline and Augustinian views of human nature that are pretty bleak, and focus a lot on control and management of our sin nature and our flesh. We are taught we are helpless and only God can save us. So we’re left confused and feeling shame and begging God to change us. Not a recipe for feeling great, even if you wouldn’t call it stress or trauma.
- Core state is bad/evil/sinful
Most of us North American Christians are taught theology built on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. It goes something like this: God the Father is a just and holy judge, he cannot bear to be around sin because he is holy, so he cannot be around us after Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit in the garden of Eden (“The Fall”), because we inherited a sin nature from her (original sin theology). Original sin theology actually started with St. Augustine, when he was trying to make sense of his human nature. It did not need to become our only way of understanding God, especially when so much additional information about human nature that is much more compassionate and aligns more with Jesus’ teaching and values are available. Why are we so intent on maintaining this theology focused on legality, criminality, justice, absolution, and guilt? Jesus gave us a much different lens for seeing God: Immanuel, Shepherd, Bread, Life, etc. Not just for the deserving or those whom God absolves. For everyone. He freely ate and loved everyone. Without making them a project. Without telling them they’re evil at their core and need to worship him to be safe from the Father’s wrath. What would happen if we were actually more like Jesus?
The interesting thing is that I feel closer to Jesus and more in line with his values and way of being in the world now than I ever did when I was trying to believe and do the right things and fit in the evangelical Christian mold I was given. When I stopped worrying what Christians would think of me, when I knew that I was good at my core, and I was a whole person—then, I was able to safely connect with God without avoidance or anxiety or shame. A change in theology was necessary to maintain my connection to God.
- Hierarchical systems
We are embedded in hierarchical systems in our culture and our churches. Even churches with congregational polity have enshrined hierarchy in other ways. Even when there’s not a bishop, it doesn’t mean hierarchy doesn’t exist. It turns into patriarchal hierarchy - headship theology, IPLB theology - that hierarchy is called necessary for protection and God’s design. Christ is the head, followed by the pastor, the deacons, the husband, the wife, the children. (See 1 Cor. 11 and Eph. 5).
This interpretation implies that you can’t trust yourself to make good decisions. You must be under the headship protection of those above you. One of the many problems with this is that it teaches you to prioritize someone else’s knowing and experience over your own. You are not allowed to develop your own autonomy, sense of self, awareness of your body cues of what is safe for you or not, or self-advocacy to act on it. All the psychological research into how humans work tells us that our bodies are our main information systems to tell us when we are safe or not. It is not healthy for us to outsource that.
What ends up happening is that the intention may be to protect us, but hierarchical systems are not made to protect those underneath them (under the IPLB umbrella). They are made to protect the protector. As long as the “God-ordained” male protector at the top of the food chain is charming enough, powerful enough, good at hiding what he does privately, etc. that person is allowed to do whatever he wants and will get away with it. If those under “his protection” try to get away or speak out, they are generally not believed or supported. It takes a lot for people who are in a “protector” role to be held accountable. Would you like for me to name a few examples inside and outside of the church who finally have been publicly recognized for the harm they have caused? Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Fallwell Jr., Larry Nassar, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Bill Gothard, Tony Alamo, Bob Coy, Dave Reynolds, Doug Phillips, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Mike Hentz, Mark Driskoll, Joshua Duggar, John Geoghan, Paul Shanley, Cardinal Bernard Law, and Christopher Heuertz.
The underlying problem is not the leader’s virtue or lack of it, but the hierarchical systems that make them almost immune, while placing others under their “authority” and taking away their ability to determine and advocate for their safety.
Putting Christianity in a hierarchical system sets God up to be a benevolent King or Slaveowner at best, and a Tormenting one at worst. Those “under him” then follow suit. They are tasked with knowing what’s best for those under them and protecting them. A heavy mantle even when done well. No one really loves their Master freely. Whether their Master is heavenly or earthly. The system of masters and hierarchy is inherently problematic. We at best have a trauma bond or anxious attachment to God, even if we experience no “abuse.” It is inherently a relationship of ownership, not of belonging and love. And it has no place in a redemptive, loving, transformative relationship.
- Responsibility, Repentance and Repair
Our individualist society that looks to the legal system (both spiritually and physically) to be the sole arbiter of justice has caused so much harm. If you want to know some of the normalization and systematization of it related to mistreatment of Black Americans, The New Jim Crow and the documentary 13th are good places to start. The Color of Compromise will explore this related to the church more specifically. And this is only related to its impact on Black Americans. There is more to explore related to other repeated harms done and ignored by the church, such as regarding clergy sexual abuse, conversion therapy, etc.
Some churches and liturgies are moving away from a hyperfocus on personal piety, guilt, and repentance to encompass some of the larger injustices. But I still think we lack an understanding of how taking accountability, making amends, and doing the work of repair works. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg just wrote On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. I am only part way through the introduction, and already I am filled with hope that there are clear ways to repair harm and hurt that we can implement in our churches and society at large. There has been too much pressure on victims to forgive and too little pressure on perpetrators to acknowledge and repair harm. In fact, our legal systems discourage it. Plausible deniability. Don’t plead guilty. If you can pay a lawyer to talk your way out of it, you’re good. This is not the foundation of a healthy society. It is the road to more and more harm.
I have been feeling for a long time that we needed some form of Truth and Reconciliation in our country as other countries have done. I am thankful to Rabbi Ruttenberg for showing us a clear path to do that.
- Feedback and change
In line with the issues above, our churches have too often been on an internal feedback-loop, impervious to attempts at reform. You don’t need to look hard to see the devastation of each attempt at reforming the church over centuries. That’s how each new denomination got started. Internal reform was rebuffed, so a new denomination was started in an attempt to find a safer, more authentic connection to God.
This is extra proof that people are not leaving churches because they are rebellious or backsliding. They are leaving because there is no room for reform and they have no other choice. And on the way out, they are mislabeled and the reason for their leaving is distorted so that those still in the fold can hold onto their beliefs and ways of doing things without examining the impact it’s having.
When communities and systems become too rigid, they break people or they eventually break. It reminds me of Jesus talking about white-washed tombs (Matt. 23:27). That’s how I used to feel. They’re brittle and eventually they crack. Please invite Jesus to cast out your fear, let the inner spring of the Holy Spirit soften you, and be willing to listen. Jesus is continuing to do new things, and you can find him there if you are willing to listen, learn, and look in new ways. Maybe a new birth (John 3) or a washing of renewal and regeneration by the Spirit (Titus 3:5)? That’s how it feels to me. I’m not a rigid, brittle statue anymore. I’m a living, breathing, embodied human connected to God.
Some final thoughts
I have become more and more disturbed by the ways in which Christianity has enabled not only the colonization of land that wasn’t theirs to take, but also the hearts and minds of its devotees. External colonization was possible because the above theologies have, for all intensive purposes, enabled and promoted internal colonization. We don’t even see that the Christian system we’re in is controlling because we’ve been taught so thoroughly not to trust ourselves, that we are inherently dangerous, and that we must watch and control ourselves all the time, and only trust in God, never on our own understanding.
I feel like my Christian education taught me how to be a benevolent white female Southern woman under the authority of a usually-benevolent slave-owning God. I was the privileged one in society as long as I played by the rules. I was white, thin, helpful, hardworking, smart, and responsible, and it worked out well for me as far as societal success (except that I chose a career that our capitalist society doesn’t pay well). Whether it’s the never-ending pressure of a productivity-minded society, all of the religious pressures I lived under for so long, or my neurodivergence, or a combination, I’m not sure, but I have had cycles of burnout and chronic illness. Other than that, I’ve had warm, loving, attentive parents, no bullying, interests and hobbies, friends, and communities that cared about me. Overall, a really good life.
And, as so many people find, a really good life in our society does not equal well-being. But as I’ve been learning, there are communities and societies that are built around reciprocity, kinship, and well-being—the First Peoples on Turtle Island, as they call it. It is time for us to put aside our hubris and certainty and listen, really listen to those who have been marginalized and hurt, both inside and outside of Christianity. It’s time to recognize their wisdom and learn from them. And to support and foster their restoration, rather than fight it. Isn’t that what Jesus would do? What he is doing? I guarantee he’s not in a suit and tie, or a judge’s robe, defending Christian principles.
Isn’t it time to see where he really is, and who he’s eating with, and join him? We don’t have to be the heroes or saviors, like we’ve been taught. We just need to be with Jesus and with those he loves. His love brings the transformation. Let’s get out of the way and let it.
Let’s create accountability that is not for punishment, but for restoration. Sabbath rest that honors our body’s rhythms rather than productivity and consumerism. Cycles of rest for us and for the earth. Jesus did say he would bear our burdens and give us rest (Matt. 11:28). Inherent worthiness rather than original sin and meritocracy. What if the “sins of our fathers” are more accurately burdens and trauma that are passed down but can be healed, rather than ongoing punishment to be meted out (see Jer. 32:17-18)? We can heal the generational trauma that has gotten us here and turned what is supposed to be “good news” into a gun pointed at ourselves and others until we surrender and believe. We can find release: for our bodies from being in nervous-system activation, from our rigid roles with God and each other, and from control and management as the way to live. Our minds, hearts, and bodies were never meant to be controlled or subdued, just like we were never ever ever supposed to do that to others, whether it be black and brown bodies or the brown dirt of the earth. It’s time to beat our swords into plowshares. Restore kinship with the earth and repair the damage we have done to earth and neighbor (and ourselves internally too).
What I Believe Now
If you want to know what I believe, here are a few of the things I’m clear on:
- Humans are good at our core.
- All of our thoughts, actions, emotions, and body-sensations are self-protective and intended to help us.
- Mind over matter is a fallacy of dualistic thinking. Our bodies, emotions, and thoughts are there to give us information and to help us process our experiences in the world.
- We are made to live in community, equality, and kinship, not in hierarchy or as stewards over something or someone else.
- We can live in harmony with ourselves, our communities, and the earth if we approach each other with mutual respect (you might call this humility), listen with curiosity and compassion, and work collaboratively.
- Transformation, healing, thriving, etc. are only possible when there is safety and love.
- Learning works best when it is a mix of didactic: learning from those before us, and exploratory: using, building on, and testing that knowledge, testing theories and creating new ones, making it our own.
- Certainty is not possible, but clarity is.
- We can know and connect with the divine most accurately, safely, and with transformative love when it is in the context of healthy attachment. We are allowed to be an independent being who is connected, rather than one who is owned.
- Spiritual exploration is a part of our human development and is something to be encouraged rather than discouraged, controlled, shamed, or punished.
- We don’t have to be afraid. God is big enough to meet us anywhere. And it will always be marked by unconditional, transformative love that sets us free.
- I am not against the church, Christianity, evangelicalism, etc. However, I am opposed to fundamentalism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, etc. being baked into Christianity and I think it’s way past time for that to change.
- I think we’ve spent so much time learning from the Bible and not enough time learning from other people. My main focus these days is on learning from the people who have been excluded from my education and marginalized by Christianity. That’s where I’m finding the most life. (If you want Christian authors, try Native by Kaitlin Curtice, This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley, Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, and God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines as a start.)
- My calling, my passion, and my energy are in helping people find healing and liberation. I do not have energy to debate this with you. There are lots of resources here and on my website if you want to learn more. My energy henceforth is returning to helping those who have felt hurt, confused, isolated, or trapped to heal.
- Jesus defied all the labels people tried to put on him. It’s okay if I defy labels too. And if that makes you uncomfortable, then so be it. Discomfort is the catalyst for change.
So ends my challenge to the church on Turtle Island.
May we all see and know the mystery of God for who I AM is, not who we want them to be.
Living, learning, and loving with you,