Have you ever felt this way? It’s a feeling of running free in one direction and then suddenly being whipped around or tripped by something across your path. One minute you feel confident and know where you’re going; it feels good. The next moment you feel jarred, disoriented, suddenly confused. In these kinds of moments, we are vulnerable to believe what is not true about ourselves because we suddenly doubt if we can trust our own direction, our own selves. Insidious lies can take root in these little moments of vulnerability. I grew up going to church every Sunday, and one of my strongest memories of this kind happened to me there. I have to use some religious phrases as part of this story, and I hope they won’t confuse the heart of what I want to say.
I was sitting at the table in the kitchen of the church basement, where my Sunday School class met every Sunday. I was probably 8 or 9 years old. The church I grew up in was very focused on “spreading the gospel.” As kids, we were taught in Sunday School and special summer camps that we should tell our friends about Jesus (aka “spreading the gospel”). We were taught about it in simple terms: there was heaven and hell, and if a person prayed to Jesus (also called asking Jesus “into their heart”) then that person would go to heaven. We were encouraged and rewarded if we brought friends to church or special church events. We were taught that if we really cared about our friends, then we must tell them about Jesus somehow. What if they died and they hadn’t asked him “into their hearts”?
My sensitive heart took these teachings very seriously. I cared about my friends and when I thought about them not going to heaven, I felt so sad and so responsible. And how ashamed would I be (or rather, how ashamed would other people be of me?) if my friends missed out on heaven because I was too afraid to tell them the truth that I knew! So I did my best to tell them. I even went so far as to start a “church” during recess at my elementary school.
I had a best friend at school, and I don’t remember if she came to my “recess church” or not, but I do remember that one day during recess I helped her to say a certain prayer and ask Jesus “into her heart”. I was so excited… I remember getting off the bus at home and telling my Mom all about it. I felt happy that my friend was going to go to heaven… And I felt happy that I had helped her. I was a little girl trying to do what I was taught was a very good thing.
Sitting around our Sunday School table that morning, the teacher asked us about our week. Though I was usually shy, I excitedly shared with her and the class that my best friend had asked Jesus “into her heart” and how I had helped her do it. I was running along with that happy confidence… I had innocently and with simple faith acted on what I was told was a good thing to do, out of the goodness of my heart. Expecting a joyful, excited response, I was crestfallen when my teacher simply snapped, “Well, YOU didn’t actually do it Carla. It was GOD who did it.”
To a little girl or boy who goes to church every Sunday to learn about God, pastors and Sunday School teachers are pretty much God… They are older and teach from underlined, well-worn Bibles; they must really know who God is, what he is like and how he relates to us. Translating my teacher’s response in my 8 or 9 year old’s mind, the words I really heard her say were, “Carla, watch it… Don’t think that anything good can come from yourself. Don’t be proud or pleased with yourself, and don’t you dare take credit for something good because only God does good things.”
I was tripped and vulnerable and that’s when the lie wedged itself in there. It is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” twisted lie which shows up in all kinds of abuse. It says: Carla, what comes out of your own heart is not good enough. What you want, what you decide to do, is not good enough. You thought doing this was a good thing, but you didn’t do it right, you took too much pleasure in it… Be ashamed for being proud because God is not pleased with proud people. Even if you do your best, you cannot trust yourself.” This lie taught me that I had to dance a certain way (a very narrow, restricted, apprehensive way) in order to be pleasing to others and to God, and eventually, even to myself.