I had an epiphany while crying in the ladies room two weeks ago after a triggering sermon. It’s something I’ve suspected for a while, and while this may be obvious to those who have left the faith, it’s a new revelation for me: the evangelicalism I’ve fallen into forbids me to think for myself.
I thought this when a well-intentioned church leader asked me what was wrong – I figured I might as well explain, because insisting “I’m fine” in between dry heaves is really not convincing. She listened intently while I gave a brief explanation of why healing stories are so hurtful to me, and seemed genuinely sad when I said I wasn’t too sure if I believed in an intervening god anymore. Had she stopped at “We just don’t understand God’s ways,” I’d have been fine – I think it’s a cop-out answer to give to a grieving person, but it’s nonetheless true. When the conversation shifted to “Did your father have a personal relationship with Jesus? Have you asked him to be your Savior?” I shut down. That wasn’t the talk I needed at all, but I guess that doesn’t matter if one is following a script, which was what the discussion started to feel like.
If I didn’t care at all about being polite, I’d have stood up and left. I’d have insisted more clearly that I didn’t want to pray in the bathroom with her because being put on the spot like that makes me immensely uncomfortable. But I sat there, complying, because of a voice in my head that insisted, She’s just trying to lead you back, you know. You have so much bitterness in your heart that you refuse to hand over to God – you can’t make decisions about what’s really best for you right now.
That same self-doubting voice was there during seminary, too: You have no right to shrug off those people who are telling you to forgive the guy who keeps harassing you for a date – you know forgiveness is the right choice, but you’re just bitter because he reminds you of your ex boyfriend.
And in college ministry: It doesn’t matter what your family dynamic looks like, or how they feel about religion. God is calling you to sit your parents down right now and share Jesus with them! You’re just afraid.
This bitterness and fear were the common denominators of all those self-doubting moments, I’ve realized. I can’t trust when my intuition is telling me to get out of a potentially dangerous (emotionally, that is) situation because my bitterness, my fear – my sin – has made it impossible for me to think straight.
What I never stopped and asked myself until now is, how do I know the judgment of my Christian peers isn’t clouded by their sin? Can anyone be trusted?
Autonomy, agency, and rights to my own body – the right to pull away from a stranger who insists on grabbing my arms to pray with her when I already refused – have been deemed “selfish” by many, if not most, of the church groups I’ve been part of over the last seven years. I know why this is: The heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that – but now I’m starting to think that the real deceit is when people who don’t know your situation very well think they know what’s good for you; when they think a dash of prayer and a sprinkle of Bible verses will suffice, and having been a Christian longer than I have automatically lends credibility even if they have never been in my shoes.
I am all for community and friends who can hold each other accountable. But friends have the advantage of earned intimacy in the struggles of your life; strangers do not. And every time I doubted my ability to know what is best for me was under the pressure of acquaintances who happened to attend the same church.