I want to talk about the idea of “conviction” in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Particularly I want to talk about how it is used by some Christians both as a gas-lighting technique and as a method of manipulation. However, I have not really had time or the ability to put my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. So instead, I think I will just tell a couple of stories. These stories occurred while I lived as a woman, so I am using those pronouns and terms since they are relevant to the stories.

Note: for those unaware of this particular Christianese phrase, I am referring to the following definition: a feeling of guilt or shame that God inflicts on a person that comes with the recognition of having committed a sin.

When I was outed as gay to my family, I was living overseas and working on my Masters degree in Astrophysics. Needless to say, I was already under a lot of stress, even before dealing with my family keeping me up til ungodly hours on the phone arguing, laying enormous guilt trips on me for hurting the family, or sending me books and articles and pamphlets about how I am deceiving myself into thinking that I can be gay and Christian and about how lesbian relationships are all just co-dependent and unhealthy and guilting me into reading them. (And yeah, according to these sources, gay male relationships are all about lust and sex and lesbian relationships are about emotional codependency. I can’t even start to unpack that sexist and homophobic load of shit).

Anyway. I was quite religious at the time. Having this crisis regarding my family’s rejection of my sexuality had actually driven me deeper into my faith rather than away from it; I suppose I was looking for some stability and comfort which I found in god. I would often go to church to find some solace. One Sunday morning, my parents called me and we had a bad argument that ended in them telling me “we don’t even know you anymore.” I was really upset when I left the conversation so that I could take the train down to church. During the worship service I tried to hold things together but I was so overwhelmed I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. One of the women in the pews noticed me and very kindly asked if I was okay and if I needed to speak to someone. I had a friendly relationship with the current pastor, so I said that I would like to speak to him, thinking that maybe I would admit that I was gay to him and tell him what was happening. I was hoping that, even if he disagreed, he would be loving and supportive in the difficult time I was having and maybe would pray for my family and I. However (as is common in churches) women are apparently only supposed to seek counsel from women, so I was directed instead to the pastor’s wife, whom I had barely met before. This left me feeling a bit scared and vulnerable, but I followed her to a back room where she sat me down and got me a glass of water and tried to make me comfortable. Finally she sat down across from me and waited for my tears to subside.

I was still sobbing and was a bit scared about coming out to a total stranger, but I slowly calmed myself enough to begin trying to speak. “First, there’s something you should know about me. I’m gay, and I’m dating a woman,” I said. I then began to tell her that things were going very badly with my family, but she was not looking at me anymore. She was flipping through her bible. She opened it to Romans 1, and then tilted it a little so I could see it while she watched me intently, clearly gauging my reaction. I started to get shaky and nervous again, trying to ignore it, trying not to look at those pages that she obviously wanted me to see. I kept talking but I felt I wasn’t really being heard. And indeed, as soon as I paused, she interjected and began to tell me that I was living in sin and that god was disgusted with my lifestyle. She asked me if I’d read Romans 1. I said yes, but that I didn’t interpret it the way that she clearly did, that I hadn’t come here to talk about whether or not homosexuality was a sin, and that I didn’t believe it was wrong to be gay.

“Yes you do,” she said.

“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” I stammered, rather flabbergasted.

“Yes you do. You know it’s wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be crying. You’re crying because God has convicted you and you know you are guilty.”

Never mind the stress and anxiety I was under. Never mind that my family was pressuring me. Never mind that people I loved and trusted were attacking a deeply important part of me. Never mind that my family had just told me that they didn’t know me anymore. No, I was apparently crying because I had been convicted. And, you know, I half believed it, because when you’re that mind-fucked by your family and your church and everyone around you, it’s hard to have any sort of perspective besides “well, everyone is saying it so maybe they’re right.” You lose your ability to judge your own feelings and values. It’s disorienting.

I felt like the breath had just been sucked out of me and I mostly just sat there for the rest of the next hour while she read me Romans 1, she talked to me about how I was disappointing god, my relationship was disgusting, I needed to stop running from the truth, etc. I put up a few weak arguments here and there, but I hadn’t come here to argue about sin. I just wanted advice and comfort and safety. I was in pain and I was crying, and she had chosen to use that expression of my pain as a weapon against me by deciding that my tears were “conviction.”

A very similar experience occurred a few months later at my sister’s church, which she had pressured me into going to in an attempt to convince me to break up with my girlfriend. By this point, my parents had threatened to ban me from coming back to their house if I dared to go visit my girlfriend, and I was in a lot of turmoil about what I should do. My desperation and fear left me vulnerable, so my sister talked me into speaking to an elder that she trusted and having that person pray for me. I feared a repeat of the previous time, but I agreed.

I tried to explain to this woman that I was dealing with a difficult family situation and that I could use some prayer or guidance. I avoided admitting the full circumstance at first, but when she kept asking (and in retrospect, she may already have been informed by my sister) I admitted that I was gay. As soon as she heard that word, she stopped listening and started telling me to pray for god to “release me from this sinful relationship that had a hold on my life.” I told her that I wasn’t going to pray for that because that’s not what I felt was needed. This seemed to bewilder her and she continued to insist that I needed to pray for god to cleanse me of sin. At the time, I started to think that maybe she was just very dense or maybe hard of hearing, because nothing I said really seemed to register. Every time I told her “I’m okay with being gay; this isn’t about that,” she just looked really confused, stammered a bit, and then went back to encouraging me to renounce my sin. I think now that she was not being intentionally dense, but she was doggedly convinced that I knew that I was wrong. She was just waiting for me to drop the pretense and admit it. Why else would I be asking for prayer? Why else would I be in a church? I must have been convicted by god.

It couldn’t possibly be that I was dealing with a traumatic family situation. It couldn’t possibly be that I was about to be kicked out of the house. It couldn’t possibly be that I had been strong-armed and manipulated into coming. It couldn’t possibly be intense pressure and guilt from other people that drove me here. Nope, I was convicted and I just needed to admit it. And so she continued to badger me to pray for the strength to “give everything over to God.” Eventually, I half-heartedly did so because I was tired. At least in this situation, I was less emotionally vulnerable, so I mostly felt frustration and disappointment. I guess that’s what you get when you keep believing people who tell you that a “spiritual authority” will know how to fix your problem and you can’t possibly know how to handle it yourself or be trusted to find your own support.

You know what? Neither of these experiences changed my mind about my sexuality. They didn’t teach me that being gay is a sin. They didn’t show me the light. They didn’t convict me. What they did do was capitalize on my suffering to try to manipulate me into changing. What they did do is drive the knife deeper and teach me that church is not a safe place to be. I have never unlearned that lesson and maybe I never will. I am no longer a Christian (for fairly unrelated reasons, actually) but even if I did choose to explore spirituality again, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable in a church. Maybe with some more time and distance that will change. For now, my conviction is that I would rather be anywhere than sit in a pew and anything is safer than being vulnerable in a church.

5 responses

  1. It’s kinda pitiable but mostly facepalmable when they can’t stand going off-script, isn’t it?

    1. Yeah, it’s spectacular how clueless they are about anything that doesn’t fit their premature assumptions.

  2. Thanks for the tip on how to leave a comment! I’m here! 🙂

    Like I mentioned on my blog, I wanted to send a reply to say that your post pierced me and left me saddened. In my opinion, the words, positions, and judgment you received did anything but send you further away from wanting to develop a personal relationship with Christ. Why should you? I certainly would have felt some of the same feelings when you were so transparent and in my mind searching at some level, only to be met with a closed mind and closed heart; on more than one occasion. I wasn’t there to hear all that happened, but based upon your blog post there did not appear to be much love of Christ in those interactions.

    I’m no expert on how everything works with God and His Son. As you know, I am a follower of Christ and I do trust Him with my life. However, there is a lot I don’t know and that remains a mystery to me. The God I love and seek is so much bigger than the restrictions we place upon Him. I do fear Him. It is a reverential fear – because He is holy. I believe with all of my heart when I meet Him, I’ll be on the ground with my face bowed in honor and in awe. And yes, out of love.

    The convictions I have felt in my life have led me closer to him – they weren’t necessarily because I was convicted of sin. Have I felt convicted ? Yes. The Holy Spirit is at work in my life and I want to pay attention to His leading and guidance. It is through the Holy Spirit that I have also experienced a conviction to act and to serve and give my life to Him on the mission field. So, my definition of conviction is a broader one than the one you have used. I experience the conviction to pray. I experience the conviction to reach out. I experience the conviction to help some one. My convictions are not necessarily about guilt or condemnation – but a desire to love and to help others see that my God loves them.

    I feel the message of God’s infinite love has failed to reach your heart – or perhaps based upon our previous interactions – has diminished due the hurtful words and judgment of others whom you once trusted. I cannot say for sure as our dialogues are just through this medium and we are not talking face to face and I am not hearing you as you speak. So, if my words are not on target, please forgive me.

    Well, I think I’ll stop here! As I mentioned, I just wanted to give you a shout out and say I read your words and I heard you. And that is what we need, isn’t it? To be listened to.

    Take good care, and thanks for the opportunity! In gratitude, heather

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by! I am always glad to hear from you.

      I think I prefer your definition for conviction. I think I have known other people who use conviction the same way, but even then it was often still tied to a sort of guilt. In practice, conviction was always closer to the “accuse of a crime” definition than the “sincere belief” definition. For example, if someone said “I feel a conviction from god to pray for that person” it always seemed that god had made them feel guilty for not having prayed for them before and they feared feeling guilty if they did not pray. Of course, I was only observing from the outside, so perhaps that is not how people felt inside. I think, however, much of the faith I was raised around encouraged this sort of thinking, so even if many people had a much healthier vision of “conviction”, the message that reached me was one of guilt.

      That said, there were certainly times when my faith was much freer. I think most of the “god experiences” I had later in life were ones that resulted in me feeling released from guilt or pressure, with perhaps one or two exceptions. Of course, I eventually ran into the problem of wondering “are these real, or is this just what I want to feel?” especially when everyone around you tells you that you should feel guilty. And in the end, how was I really supposed to be able to tell the difference? Let me tell you, running around in circles trying to second-guess every single feeling and thought that you have as either something from God or something of The Flesh is a very disorienting experience. It doesn’t help that The Flesh is considered evil and bad, but the flesh is also me. This meant that any time I felt enjoyment, happiness, contentment, encouragement, liveliness, desire, or even needs, my feelings were highly suspect, because these were positive feelings and thoughts and therefore they might be my Flesh being weak. On the other hand, if I felt pain, that was probably from God, because my Flesh wouldn’t want to feel pain. Not fun!

      Because of this, I’ve only recently started trying to figure out how to handle emotions in a healthy manner. Before, they were always some sort of message from somewhere else (god or satan maybe) about me. Now, when something happens that upsets me or makes me angry or any number of other things, I have to go to my wife and say “I feel _____. Is that valid?” because it’s so hard for me to validate my own feelings as my own. On a positive note, I’m getting much much better at it! 🙂

      At this point, I suppose I agree with many of the Christians that hurt me: my feelings were “the flesh”. That’s just because I think my feelings are me, not god. The positive and negative ones are both just me. They can stand on their own without me having to attach the significance of the Voice of God onto them. Life is so much easier now that I don’t constantly gaslight myself by trying to read divine or demonic will into my every thought.

      Now, I am certain that there are plenty of people who can hear from God at times without having to take it to extremes. I used to do the same. But after having the experience that I did where people encouraged and manipulated me into taking this idea to extremes, I really just don’t think I can go back. After all, the extreme and unhealthy version is nothing more than a more rigorous application of the more benign version. So if god does talk to us through urgings and pressing thoughts, why shouldn’t we try to find god in every thought? I’m curious what your opinion on that is.

      At any rate, thank you for the humility to admit that you do not know exactly why I am not Christian. I have many, many times had Christians tell me why I am not Christian (they are always wrong) so it’s quite pleasantly surprising to hear this admission and I appreciate it a ton. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. 🙂 I think the message of “infinite love” definitely reached me but, yes, it was diminished by the judgments of those I trusted. That’s not to say that I feel that god has to be limited by the failings of his followers. I can certainly accept that god can be good but his followers can still make mistakes or do bad things. No, the main thing is that Christians taught me not to trust. They taught me that I can’t trust myself, I can’t trust non-Christians, I can’t trust Christians, I can’t trust my experiences, and I can’t trust my perceptions. I can trust the bible but I can’t trust that I will understand the bible, and I can trust god but I can’t trust that I will understand god. So really, I can’t trust anything. So at some point, I conceded and said “you know what? You’re right. I can’t trust anything. There is no way to know what’s true. You, me, or anyone else on this earth could be right about god/gods, but we have no way of knowing and I am done trusting things that can’t be trusted. I’m done.” And then I walked away from that and I finally found freedom; freedom to develop my own beliefs and morality based around what seemed most trustworthy to me, and always open and flexible to change.

      Anyway, I guess I am rambling on a bit. Thank you so much for dropping by. Have a great Christmas holiday!

      1. Thanks for the reply!

        I’m glad you feel a sense of trust with me to share what you are sharing in this forum! 🙂

        I am also glad you can share your feelings with your wife and she can help you validate what it is you are feeling and make sense of it. I do that too with my husband. It’s great to bounce things off one another – that is one of the joys of our marriage and I hope yours too!

        I just want to comment on one thing – I so get what you said about wondering if this is the flesh/me or is this from God type of thing. It’s a great and challenging thing to wrestle with – I have and do. I want to do things that are God-honoring and not based on just me or my selfish desires. I confess there have been times in my life where I really thought I was doing something based upon God’s leading, but in hindsight I have wondered if it really was as the ‘fruit’ of it all didn’t turn out as I had hoped.But, I can’t beat myself up about it. I have decided to let it be and decided that perhaps I just didn’t know enough or needed that experience in some way to grow me. I believe everything counts, as I have shared before – even when I screw it up and make a mess of things.

        I hope you never go back to extremism. It sounded awful. It still sounds awful. But what I do hope, is that one day – through the grace and the divine – there can be some reimagining in your life about who God is and who His Son is and it won’t be extreme – it will be real and honest and true.

        I am glad to know you. I hope you and your wife have a fantastic Christmas and you both get some good rest, spend time with great friends and enjoy some great food!

        Blessings and joy, heather

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