I grew up in the church. Literally from children’s church to ordination, I was church raised and bred in southern congregations all over Virginia. My years as a member taught me some valuable lessons about who I am, what I want from life, and what I want from the world around me. It also instilled in me some painful indoctrination that to this day, I fight to overcome.
In my unlearning, I found that a lot of my trauma stemmed from philosophies and beliefs I was taught in the church. Those beliefs often benefited the institution but not my personal development. I was a devout follower studying regularly and willing to do anything to please my leadership and God. But I was living with constant condemnation and the overwhelming frustration that I wasn’t achieving religious perfection. I was taught that the only way to live a successful life was to be a loyal and unquestioning follower, to mimic behaviors and patterns of those who knew better than me, and to calibrate my actions to the actions of the circle. On the surface, that’s not bad advice but its outcome is manufactured. For me to be authentic, I had to come from under absolutism and find real freedom.
On my journey, I found that there were just some things the church taught me that I could no longer subscribe to or live by if I wanted to be my authentic self. The danger of these indoctrinations was like brainwashing. I was taught action and consequence and was constantly terrified that any misstep would result in damnation and hell fire. While it’s true that there are consequences to harmful actions, the principles taught were control mechanisms rather than the tools needed for a fulfilling life. There was little method to the madness, and it left me struggling to understand why God created me yet everything about me needed to change.
The teachings below are the ones that most negatively impacted me. I’m not sharing this with you because I want you to hate the church. There are some great ministries out there that allow people to cultivate a relationship with God while being their authentic self. I’m sharing because there are hundreds of people who are still trapped and living in fear due to abusive doctrine. These were the teachings of man, not God. It’s time we unlearn them.
At a very young age, I was taught that in order to love God, I must fear him. The justification was that fear = respect. However, outside of biblical terms, I couldn’t find real life examples where I feared someone as respect or respected someone as fear. Essentially, I was being taught to respect God AND fear being punished by God. It worked. I lived in constant fear of punishment. If I didn’t clean my room, God would get me. If I was alone, God was watching me. Instead of being a child of a loving God, I felt more like a play thing in God’s toy box. At any moment, God would intervene in my life and do what he will as a way of punishing my bad behavior. Rather than obedience out of love, I was simply afraid. Even writing this, there’s that childhood fear that I’ll be struck down by lightning if God doesn’t like what I write. Do right or expect to drop dead and/ or struck by lightning at the hands of an angry god.
Unlearn. Fear is fear. Respect is respect. Fear as respect is dictatorship. Some people like God that way (whatever floats your boat.) For me, God is like a parent. As a child, I needed guidance and instruction but as an adult, I’m expected to make decisions that led me to a happy and whole life while being my truest self. I don’t think God expects me to be cookie cutter. I don’t think half of the things we consider sin is even on God’s radar. I don’t think God keeps a list of every bad thing we’ve done to use against us later. Life is too short to live consumed by fear.
As young as 15, I begin sitting in on marriage counseling classes. I prided myself on it; I was being taught early how to remain steadfast, chaise, and prepared for marriage. The problem was, I saw very few marriages I aspired to. I heard stories that sounded magical. God pointed saying “Marry her,” and just like that, I would be chosen and worthy. So I started acting and living like a Christian-Pick-Me. But time and time again, I saw evidence of failed unions from people who were devoted to God. Cheating spouses, unwed couples having sex outside of marriage, couples who were married but hated each other, or wives so subservient that she was like a robot. It was something I was being taught, to remain pure and God would bless my one-day marriage, but that I saw few successfully have. Even the couples I knew who claimed that God answered their prayers about marriage spent years suffering in silence first and got a plan B or C version of what they were holding out for.
Unlearn. I realized that marriage ain’t for everyone and it’s not something to aspire to or achieve. If you choose to commit to life with a partner, do it on terms that enhance your life not define it. Recognize that if you try to have what you see other’s have, you’ll likely fail because you’re not them. You should have what works for you in a way that benefits you. It’s difficult to unlearn that marriage = status. Society still teaches us we should prize being picked and chosen. But learn this: Your life will be defined by how you spent your time and what impact you had on the people around you not just the boxes you check off.
The church prefered clear gender roles and has some long standing traditions about what women and men could or couldn’t do. The men carried tables and played paint ball while women cooked and had tea parties. Men were leaders and women were assistants. Women were responsible to men from what we wore to how we served. There was a constant double standard too. A unwed pregnant mother was an embarrassment but the father of that child was free to be forgiven and ordained. Even as the church evolved and allowed women in leadership, progressive women were expected to either commit to singlehood aka “nunship” or find a husband to lead her.
Unlearn: I often challenged that system. I refused to wear tents as dresses to appease a man’s glare, I moved my own chair, and I wasn’t the least bit interested in tea parties. Sure, I was called rebellious. But these teachings, often passed off as chilviary and purity, were just further attempts to keep people in place or on doctrine. While it’s understandable to have events/ groups devoted to men or women, the church didn’t account for or care for other gender binaries and when together, we weren’t all equal again. So it was important for me to discover my womanhood and my sexuality as mine. It is not a condition or a bi-product. My boobs are part of God’s design too.
That God Punishes and Test
Every thing that exist has a religious justification in the church. That justification was often “God is testing you.” I found myself constantly questioning why God was playing these games. Even when tragedy struck my life, I was told that God had answered my prayers, just not the way I wanted. To which I responded, “God knew what I meant.” Sure, I accepted that just like a child to a parent, God isn’t required to give just because we ask/ want. But I wouldn’t expect God to toy with a person’s heart either. The story of Job was always used to describe how faithful we should be. Job was tested and God took everything from him to prove how much Job loved God. When Job wavered, he was punished. That sounds like a cruel justification of a tragedy to me. God’s love shouldn’t break me, it should lift me up.
Unlearn. Life can be random. Things mostly happen by chance, by learned behavior, by action and reaction. If there is divine intervention, you didn’t earn it and you can’t request it. Spirituality let’s us control the world around us. There are favorable outcomes resulted from positive effort and the reverse. But God isn’t testing you. You aren’t a guinea pig or a play thing.
TBH, it’s a word I don’t like. Not because I’m not willing to do it but because I believe true sacrifice is offered, not required. I sacrifice because I want to, not because I’m told to. I wouldn’t want something given to me only because I demanded it and not out of desire to give it. The church often teaches that for God’s love, you must sacrifice everything. That’s like a parent saying because I birthed you, I own you. We are created with vast thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Is the creation limited to use those thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a singular way? I don’t believe so. There was always the understanding that we were doing it for the greater good but those goods were always self serving and came with guilt when we were unable to live up to it.
Unlearn. We sacrifice everyday. We give up a cupcake for a waist line, a shopping spree for a paid light bill, even our big dreams for the benefit of someone we love. But we do it by choice. Because we love and because we want to. Being told you must isn’t sacrifice, it’s a demand.
Love You, Hate You, I don’t believe in that.
You’ve probably heard this one. “I love you but I hate your sin. I don’t believe God created you that way.” Let’s keep it real! If the factor you hate is a large part of that person’s existence, than expect your love to be questioned? Because loving a person but hating who they are inherently to the point of denying it even exist, ie: You queer kinfolk, is not love.
Unlearn. Love loves. Period.
The process of unlearning was hard. I eventually left the traditional church all together to allow my elf to detox. It took a long time to change my thought processes and find understandings I could stand behind. Now that I was being taught God for myself, I trusted God for myself. The God that I learned didn’t equate to the indoctrination that I was being taught and I’m glad about it. I decided to trust my inner God as an expression of the outer God. And now, it’s all love.