As children we have a childlike faith. It just is. Faith that our parents are always right and acting in our best interest. Faith that we can take things at face value and learn to operate in this world based on the feedback we get from the prominent people in our lives. In my childhood, I also developed a very simple kind of faith in God. I grew up going to church every Sunday and my experiences there constructed another faulty corner of my belief system. In my last post I shared one of these experiences, and now I want to describe a recurring church experience that fueled the belief that I could not trust myself.
Every Sunday that I went to church, I took with me this simple and childlike faith in God. It was a natural, simple belief that just was. I didn’t try hard to make it happen. I sat in Sunday School and church and took in everything I was taught about what it meant to believe in and love this God and what it meant for him to love me. I believed everything they told me because as a child, I didn’t have much else to compare their teachings to and didn’t learn to question it.
In my early teenage years, a new pastor came to our church. He was charismatic at the pulpit and presented himself very humbly and earnest in person. In his sermons he went into deep detail about all the ins and outs of the Bible. Our church esteemed him as our all-knowing leader who was very close to God. I pretty much took everything he said as golden truth.
Sunday after Sunday I listened intently to his sermons. By my teenage years, my depression was becoming more uncomfortable for me and I started hungering for comfort. Sitting in those services, I was the epitome of vulnerable… A hungering heart, a simple faith, an obedient listener. Sometimes I found comfort in the sermon. I would grasp at some words or phrase or Bible verse that assured me that I was loved and that I was accepted, that I was good enough. But this doubt about myself and my faith kept growing within me. It was a confusing, gradually consuming “merry-go-round” feeling. I would leave church feeling lighter and assured, but over the week more and more doubts would grow. I didn’t have the perspective at the time to understand why. But now I see the huge twist that was happening.
Every Sunday, at the end of almost every sermon, the pastor would challenge all of us. He would challenge us with this kind of question: “Now, you may have told God that you want to follow him. You may have prayed at various times throughout your life for his forgiveness. But, take some time now to look deep in your heart and ask yourself, are you sure? Have you really made the decision to follow God? You may think you have, but today, why don’t you be sure? Make that commitment anew. Show God, once again, that you are serious and genuine in your belief.”
It seemed like a good admonishment on the surface… It seemed like the pastor wanted us to know God and that’s why he challenged us. It seemed like a good thing when people would go to the front to pray, crying and contrite. It seemed like it was good because, well, of course it would be good to want to be sure that we were following God… Who could argue with that? But how come myself and the other people there weren’t jumping out of our pews joyful and alive every week? How come, for me, my depression grew worse and worse and I grew more and more anxious about my faith? My doubts about the genuineness of my faith grew so strong that at one point I went to talk to the pastor and asked him for help with it… I told him I was so doubtful about whether or not I really did love God. He took out a pamphlet of The Four Spiritual Laws and walked me through it. He assured me that if I had faith and believed, then I was okay. In his office he validated my faith; but from the pulpit he didn’t.
The twist worked away at my soul. It is the same twist at the heart of all kinds of abuse, the twist that teaches us to doubt ourselves through contradicting messages. There I sat in church, with my simple faith, along with hundreds of other people with their faith (why ELSE would they be at church if they didn’t have some level of desire to know God??) and Sunday after Sunday, the pastor shot arrows, challenging us to MAKE SURE that we were serious about following God. Our actions showed we were serious. But the faith that we were already demonstrating was ignored. Instead, we were admonished to be better, to believe better, to decide stronger, to commit more deeply.
The questioning started digging underneath my faith, slowly hollowing out a pit of self doubt and confusion which easily spread to every area of my life too. I was groomed to doubt all of my feelings, all of my “simple faiths” about anything else. It was one of the most powerful, churning lies at the root of my struggle with depression.
My next post, “Spiritual Abuse and Emotional Ravaging” will put a spotlight on the emotional damage that happened to me at church…