Something I’ve been working on in therapy lately is addressing all the negative things I believe about myself. Those pervasive, absolute truths that provide our default way we feel about ourselves, and ultimately how we view the world around us. Being born into Christianity, some of our core beliefs about ourselves are formed by indoctrination. Biblical truths taught by influential adults in our lives are translated into absolute truth, and for children this can be confusing and dangerous. Sure, phrases like “God loves you” sound harmless at face value. But when those children get a little older and are taught “the sinner’s prayer,” it quickly goes from sunshine and roses to existential dread. In order to accept “God’s love” you first have to admit you need it, and that you need it *because* you are a sinner.
Ah sin, that pesky little word Christians use to encompass every nasty depraved part of human nature, oh and anything they don’t understand or makes them uncomfortable. That thing that Christians spend their whole lives praying away, rebuking in the name of Jesus, and using a scapegoat for every human problem they don’t actually want to fix. (see my earlier post on “grace”) It was always a given to me, since I was old enough to remember, that we’re all sinners and therefore need Jesus. And if we don’t think we’re a sinner, and don’t need Jesus, we’re giving in to our selfish desires. We must want to live an immoral life, throwing caution to the wind with nary a care of the lake of fire that awaits us upon our death. (that’s not real either but that’s another post for another day) The problem with all this, is believing we have no worth outside this very small, narrow belief system is a breeding ground for trauma.
If I’m living my life utterly convinced of my depravity, sure of my unworthiness, and know without a doubt my very existence as a human is meaningless without belief in the Christian god, how will I ever love another human? And how will I allow another human to love me? It feels pretty impossible. When we look at this in context of abusive relationships, it flips the narrative of evangelical christianity on its head.
Imagine you are a parent of a child. And you really want that child to love you back. A healthy person would probably love their child, no matter what, and hope their child loved them in return. An unhealthy person might tell their child repeatedly how much they need their parent, that they’ll never amount to anything without them. Sounds pretty messed up right? That child of the unhealthy parent would probably grow up to have some serious emotional insecurities and very low self-worth. They might even struggle with depression, anxiety, or fear of rejection. So let’s say as child you began your life believing Jesus loves you (because you learned that song before a single nursery rhyme), but by around age 8 or 9 you start hearing things like, Jesus loves you so much he *died* for you. But in order to be a recipient of that love, you have to admit you’re a sinner first. You, as a child, must believe you are inherently rotten, you must adopt this as a core belief about yourself before you can even say the sinner’s prayer and be “saved” by Jesus. Who loves you so much, don’t forget.* (*sarcasm)
This whole belief formation I just described is really at the heart of why I can only claim agnosticism, and never buy in to Christianity in the context of “sinners saved by grace” ever again. Because it’s not by grace you are saved, its by convincing yourself you need saving in the first place. Now Christian’s will argue that humans can’t achieve perfection on their own. And I agree. But imperfect is not the same as born bad/evil. Humans are also good, and complicated, and wildly unique and thats what makes us beautiful. Does evil exist? Yes. It exists in the form of racism, bigotry, misogyny, hate, white supremacy. But these are all problems of the human mind and heart, and of systems put in place by people with power. Calling it sin and saying a prayer and moving on “believing” your god will just “fix it” is naive at best, blind arrogance at worst.
As a child sin makes us fearful of our every thought and action. As a grownup sin is a category, in it we dump everything we don’t like about ourselves and each other. Even things that aren’t morally good or bad, just different or uncomfortable. It forces every decision into a false binary. I say false because the universe doesn’t work in binaries alone. It’s full of gray areas that don’t fit into neat social constructs white people have invented so they don’t ever have to grow and stretch and learn.
All this to say, if you suffer from religious trauma or spiritual abuse, odds are you’ll need to dismantle the core belief that you were born sinful and bad in order to heal. And just as important, you’re not alone. A lot of us have and are working to find new core beliefs about ourselves. Beliefs that help us see ourselves in a whole other light, as worthy of love and kindness just because we’re human. When you can finally see yourself this way, it’s so much easier to see other people this way too. Deconstructing belief doesn’t always require reconstructing belief in a deity, but it does require reconstructing belief in yourself.