Mental Health,  Religious Trauma

Fearing God: The Common Curse of Evangelicals & Exvangelicals Alike

The same religion that touts One True God, has created gods everywhere you look.

The man on the pulpit – his beliefs are Gospel Truth. It doesn’t matter what other pastors say – whatever church you happen to be attending at the time is always the right one. The politician your town supports – his platform is unquestionably God’s “heart” for the community. Voting against him is rejecting God’s will. The neighbor who looks over their fence disapprovingly, sneers for God. You shouldn’t have been mowing your lawn on the Lord’s Day – simple as that. Their convictions are strong because they are “in step with the Spirit”. The mother of your friend who has never talked to you but talks to everyone else about you – her viewpoint is God’s. Apparently you have done something wrong and caused upheaval in the community. Fundamentalist religion, specifically Evangelicalism, has created a generation of weary followers serving a million Gods.

As a child raised in religion, you learn to always look outside of yourself for who you should be, how you should act, what you should like and do and eat and wear and feel and think and hear and want. What’s real and true and good is always outside of yourself. From the lectures preached on Sundays to the catchy song lyrics reminding us “there is nothing good in me” to the droning murmurs of gossip keeping us in line, we are always seeking or receiving guidance from “out there”. Self-trust is non-existent.

Those of us unlucky enough to be born into a religion we didn’t choose for ourselves, have from infancy been warned by parents and youth leaders, friends and grandparents, teachers and acquaintances to “be careful to guard your reputation” and “avoid the appearance of evil”. What this means in practice is avoiding anything that anyone else can misconstrue or decide they don’t like. While there are a host of loud rules and thousands more quiet ones, its still impossible to predict every possible way other church folks could potentially judge us or misrepresent us. So we live in fear and walk on glass, afraid to step an inch in the wrong direction. We’ve all seen what happens to those who do venture one step too far. We have all watched with a knot in our stomach as our friend or cousin or classmate or the kid next door is torn to pieces by people we both mutually loved. We look on as the divergent is shunned, harassed, put in their place – at the mercy of a hundred Godly Iron Fists.

I can’t count the number of times throughout my childhood where I was criticized by my own mother for insignificant “flaws” because she was attempting to keep me safe within the small box of acceptable behavior enforced by our church community. Her criticisms were meant to keep me from being ripped apart the way she and so many others already had been, but rather than feeling safe I instead developed extreme anxiety and self-loathing. Unfortunately, my experience is common within high-demand religions.

Childhood and young adulthood for me was a constant losing game with an ever-present referee. I couldn’t get anything right. If my skirt accidentally hiked up even an inch and my slip showed a little underneath, soon Mom’s voice would hiss in my ear “pull your skirt down, you don’t to flash the entire church!” If I didn’t smile enough it was “cheer up! You don’t want anyone thinking you’re grumpy or mean!” If I talked or laughed too loudly “Hush! Be a lady!” One day I wanted to wear my hair in two braids because I thought it was fun, but was met with a disapproving look and “That hairstyle looks too young; you don’t want people thinking you’re immature do you?” – every criticism was yet another proof that I always messed it up, I always got it wrong. I was never enough – out in the community or inside my own home.

Unbeknownst to my mom, she had made the entire church her God – and by default, so had I. It was something everyone did. That’s just how it was. The people around us became our measuring stick for whether or not we were acceptable. Out of necessity of avoiding shunning and retaliation, we bowed to the desires of our fellow congregants. We offered sacrifices at the Altar of Opinions and we appeased the God of Gossip. We drank the wine of People Pleasing and lit the Candles of Hollow Showy Facades. We worshiped the God of Volunteerism and showed up multiple times every week regardless of how we felt. We submitted to the God of Money and wrote checks every week in faith. We sang the Praises of the Pastors and defended the High-Status Church Members. We were servants to the whims of Christian Moods on any particular day and people we thought were our friends filled the role of Merciless and Unpredictable Dictator. And all of them were bound by the same chains we were. No one was free, except maybe the power-holders at the very top of the hierarchy, and maybe the hypocrites who did whatever they wanted behind closed doors. Everyone else was a slave to each other and those at the top. We ratted each other out and turned each other in to gain the leaders’ trust and buy some time before it was our turn at the Chopping Block. Face-to-face it was always polite niceties, and behind backs it was a free-for-all; stepping on others to climb a little higher and feel a little safer. Anything to get ahead was fair game.

The result of living like this for decades, especially during your formative years, is hyper-vigilance toward real or imagined threats mixed with self-doubt and chronic anxiety.

That anxiety is crippling – even around simple decisions like ordering at a restaurant. “What is everybody else ordering?!” You frantically scan the room, eyes darting, brow furrowed. “Is this flavor weird, or is it okay?” Breath is shallow and quick. “What if I want a side? Is that splurging too much? What are other people doing? What do they expect of me?”

Suffocating fear and long-term denial of self manifests as waking up one day and realizing you are completely disconnected from your own opinions, preferences and desires. You don’t know yourself or what you like because the people around you have always been a god-like force perfectly representing God and God’s Complicated Will. Your entire life’s purpose has always been serving and pleasing God and representations of God, and never yourself. This can make day-to-day questions difficult because you honestly don’t know the “right” answer: “What do you want to do tonight?” a friend or partner asks. “Where would you like to eat? Do you want to sit inside or go for a walk?” Stammering, going blank, you desperately search for any clues on what you are supposed to say. “Oh, whatever you like!” you hear yourself saying. “I’m flexible, I’m down for anything!” Phew! You bought yourself some time.

What most church people think of as selflessness, flexibility, a servant’s heart, or being nice, is actually total bewilderment toward the mystery that is your own self. You know hundreds of ways to serve the God of Approval but you don’t even know yourself.

So answering with a knee-jerk “whatever you like” is less about being humble and open-handed and more about slavery to a God who constantly shape-shifts into your friends, your neighbors, church acquaintances and even the unsuspecting waitress at the corner cafe.

After finding the strength to leave, you will make the startling discovery that this living hell isn’t confined by church walls, Christian town limits or Red State borders. It etches itself into our brains and follows us anywhere we go for years, if not for life. It haunts us in our dreams and whispers in our ears sitting in traffic or standing in line at the grocery store. To your dismay, the shape-shifting God even morphs into your boss at the secular job you really like, or transforms into the friendly Buddhist lady next door.

Many of us feel discouraged and confused when religious triggers torment us in neutral settings that have never been dangerous. We often still feel the need to appease non-fundamentalist people we meet. Because I had been monitored and sheltered well into my twenties, it was only as an adult that I made any friends with a different background than mine. I then discovered world events I had technically lived through but never heard of before – learning about them now as historical events. I stared blankly as English conversations turned into pop-culture-reference-gibberish and I awkwardly laughed along, hoping my feigned reactions were contextually appropriate.

This big, bright, busy and beautiful world was so foreign and unfamiliar and scary but it was real. It was the real world I had missed all along. My mind, wired to always serve a God outside of myself, grasped onto what I was observing and concluded, “Ah! This must be the “true” way of doing things. This is what I need to do.” I took in everything I could: “How do normal people dress? How do normal people talk? What do they like? What’s the right kind of music to listen to? Do I need to follow celebrities and understand football?” Suddenly, the God of Church People was replaced, and the accepting, progressive world became my God. But this replacement escaped my conscious awareness. The opinions of other people still mattered more than anything and it dictated my life, regardless of whether they actually cared about my choices at all. Other people’s perspectives were automatically more valid than mine, even on inconsequential things like a coffee order.

It took years to realize that as a recovering Evangelical, my brain was wired to imprint God onto almost anything outside of myself. Like a hatching baby duck “choosing” it’s mother, I was trained to follow after others and learn the right way from them, regardless of whether they actually had any expertise.

This myriad of false Gods kept popping up at unexpected times and places. Typing at my work computer, when my boss looked over my shoulder my heart rate soared as I wondered what mistakes he was catching – even though I was skilled at my job. When I cooked a meal and shared with friends, simple reactions such as “what’s this?” or “oh, this is interesting” sent me spiraling that I must not have made the food to standard. There was no such thing as different but equally valid. It was right or wrong, good or bad. Somewhere “out there” there was a correct way to cook and a correct set of foods that were delicious and healthy and desired and these apparently weren’t it. I had gotten it wrong again.

With my church of origin being unsurprisingly homogeneous I had been exposed to very little variety in personal expression. “Different, but Equally Good” was a foreign concept.

One right way and a million wrong ways is a life spent in church, with the anxiety of a million potential missteps. That is the legacy of the church and the inheritance for children of the church. It’s a powerful curse that afflicts Evangelicals and those who try to leave Evangelicalism far behind. It permeates spheres of life it has no business invading and smashing this curse is a holy calling.

To do that, I look for ways to assert myself and my preferences and put myself in situations where I have to trust my instincts and use my voice. I tell myself and my fellow survivors, “You are good, you are whole, your opinions are just as valid as anyone’s and whatever makes your healthy and happy is right. Your soul is divine and you can trust it. You deserve to be celebrated.”

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