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Belief Part 1
I spent most of my life agnostic or atheist before spending about a decade of my life as a charismatic, non-denominational Evangelical Christian church person and ministry leader starting in my mid-twenties.
I’m going to write a series of posts about my experiences with belief and faith starting when I was young and ending with where I am today.
Thank you for coming along for the journey.
CW: *If you have church, faith, or any kind of relationship trauma or abuse, please approach with caution, take breaks, or don’t read my posts at all. Sometimes reading other people’s stories can help us heal and feel not-so-alone in our experiences, and other times we need to take a break from all the things that open us back up and bring the feeling back to the surface. Check in with yourself as you read. <3
While I grew up in a small town in the Appalachian Bible Belt and most people I knew attended one of the many churches peppering the rolling landscape, I grew up in a family where religion was more of the “seen and not heard” variety.
And for that I am thankful.
My parents lived out their faith and personal beliefs in the way they conducted themselves in daily life without feeling the desire or need to evangelize or change anyone.
They practiced and didn’t preach.
My mom and dad believed in helping others, caring for those in need, and always being kind above all else and they passed these values along to my brother and I without having to use indoctrination or religious fear.
Of course, it was hard to avoid religion in our small town. I remember hearing a friend of mine say, when we were both in kindergarten, that her parents were mad at her and made her ask forgiveness from God for her sins so she wouldn’t go to hell.
What was the sin? I had asked.
…She had taken her brothers toy without asking.
Even from a young age I felt that if that was what God required, then I wanted nothing to do with that God.
Especially because I, myself, was an unrepentant stealer of my brothers toys. And if that was a sin worthy of hell then I hoped God never found out about the time I tried to steal earrings from Stone & Thomas. I got caught by my mom, returned them, and apologized, but in my heart I knew I was only sorry I got caught, not that I did it.
I bet God wouldn’t like that.
I didn’t know I was autistic way back then, but I knew I was different. Throughout my childhood and teens years I was sick and anxious, struggling through school and daily life, isolated and feeling alone and misunderstood.
Every once in a while someone would try to talk to me about God and how I should believe and “get saved” (from hell). But, I didn’t have much need for any god who would condemn me to hell after death while at the same time condemning me to the kind of struggles that felt like hell on earth while I was alive.
Maybe that sounds hyperbolic or overly dramatic. True, my life wasn’t as bad as starving kids in war-torn countries. But comparison is actual bullshit. When adults try to use comparison as a guilting tactic to get kids to feel bad enough to do something -”Think of the starving kids in China and eat your broccoli”- then we are teaching them that their own feelings don’t matter as much as someone else’s. We teach kids to stop trusting their own body and minds - “You’re fine! It doesn’t hurt that bad! You’re brother fell too and he’s fine!”
My struggles were mine and they were big, frequent, and all encompassing. They were so hard at times that even as a kid I wished I’d never been born.
One night around 5th grade, after years of struggling with anxiety and undiagnosed illness, I was feeling desperately stuck and overwhelmed.
I could see the toll my struggles were taking on my family. They did all they could to help me. But the troubles went on.
In truth, I hated my life.
So, I got desperate enough to write a note to a God I was fairly certain wasn’t real and left it in the middle of my floor - not being sure of the note-writing-to-God protocol. Prior to composing the letter I did a little recon work and cracked open the Precious Moments KJV Bible I had gotten from my grandparents and looked around for any clues as to what one might say to God should one want to hear from Them (Them = the Trinity).
I don’t remember the exact words, but I was essentially begging God to help me. To heal me. To do anything so I wouldn’t have to struggle so much through life.
So I wouldn’t be such a burden to everyone.
Say to those who have an anxious heart, 'Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. -Isaiah 35:4
But, the next morning came and I woke up feeling sick just like the day before. I took a risk and reached out to God, but in my estimation, God didn’t answer back.
God did not “come with a vengeance and save me from my troubles” like Isaiah had promised.
However, my mom found the letter and was devastated by it. Another failure of mine that hurt people.
When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. -Psalm 34:17
I started to believe that God didn’t help me because I wasn’t righteous. I didn’t deserve God’s help.
I hadn’t earned it.
I didn’t believe. I wasn’t pure and therefore God had to choice but to turn away.
But to feel absolutely nothing at all after writing that letter, after all I had heard about God and God’s promises?
I felt I must have been utterly filled with sin. So much sin I had never asked for forgiveness for. In fact, I decided this unforgiven sin was likely what was making me so sick and different from everyone else.
The sin of not being able to live up to expectations. The sin of being difficult. The sin of needing too much. The sin of making people worry about me. The sin of not understanding things the ways other people did. The sin of struggling so much. The sin of having big emotions. The sin of questioning to many things. The sin of being too much. The sin of hating my life.
The sin of being anxious.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.- Phil 4: 6-7
Hi. It’s me. I’m the problem. It’s me.
I want to be clear that none of these thoughts were put into my head from my parents. They never said any of this unhealthy religious stuff to me. All it took was living in an area where unhealthy church and political culture united in unholy matrimony and soiled all societies it touched with it’s power to control via guilt, shame, and fear.
Little kids were dragged into church in their patent leather shoes and given a steady diet of fear-based theology which seeped into their hearts and bled out into every area of their lives. It wasn’t my parents telling me I was going to hell.
It was little Suzy on the bus.
When I was little I remember my dad and I were watching Carl Sagan on Cosmos and I was asking him a million questions about how the universe began, and what happened to the dinosaurs, and whether or not God was real, and he told me he was agnostic.
I hadn’t heard that word before but when he explained what it meant, I knew that was how I felt based on what I had already heard people say they believed about Jesus and God; heaven and hell.
At that point, I believed God was possible, I just didn’t believe God was as easy to figure out as the people at church made it seem. If God can’t be scientifically proven or disproven, then I wanted to hold on to the possibility of God without venturing into any kind of certainty either way.
But certainty is one of the core unacknowledged tenants of unhealthy church culture.
They say “faith” out of one side of their mouths, yet insist on certainty out the other side.
Somewhere around the end of middle school I became a quiet atheist. Agnosticism was too hopeful for me after spending years looking for the help Christians kept telling me I could get if I would just believe -even a small amount. Even the size of a mustard seed they would say.
I had stretched that mustard seed faith as far as it could go.
I no longer held my childhood fear of being a sin-filled unrighteous disappointment bound for hell. The God I felt I needed or wanted was not the God that was given to me as an option so I just decided to pass on God altogether.
I didn’t want a God made in my own image, I just wanted a God who would love and accept me as I was without being forced to change or assimilate to be like everyone else.
Yet, while I didn’t believe I was filled with sin, I still believed…just KNEW…I was broken. All my efforts to fix myself fell flat.
It turns out believing you are eternally broken, that no one is coming to help you, and that you can’t trust yourself is a sure-fire way to end up in an abusive relationship.
My pain, like a billboard flashing to abusers -”This way for an easy target!”.
From the age of 16 to around the age of 26 I was in an off and on abusive relationship with someone who manipulated and abused me without remorse. He gaslit me any time I tried to stand up for myself or leave. He reinforced through verbal and emotional abuse that I was broken, unworthy, and will never be enough.
I was a lost kid looking for someone to love and accept me for who I was when I met him, and by the time I was finally able to break free from him I was a broken, lost women convinced no one would ever love the real me.
I can’t tell you how many times I prayed for help during that relationship.
Desperate, frantic prayers.
I didn’t believe in God, but I also didn’t believe in myself. One of us had to get our shit together and get me out of that mess and I was more willing to place my bets on some very-likely-non-existent God’s ability to help me more than my own ability to help myself.
That day 15 years ago when I kicked him out of my life, I was so empty, numb, and alone. I was truly a shell of a person.
I felt I had fucked up my life so deeply and thoroughly I didn’t think I would ever be able to recover.
I had damaged so many relationships with so many people including my own parents while going back to him over and over again despite all the people who tried to help me get out. I had done so many things I was ashamed of to please and keep him. Not only had I been in an abusive relationship during that time, but I had also been abusing alcohol that whole time as well.
I didn’t know where to go for answers, healing, comfort, or a new start, but I knew I had to get help or else risk going back again.
I decided it was time to give God another try. I mean, how could it be any worse than what I had just gone through…
Stay tuned for PART 2…