I had originally intended to side-step the part of my story right before I was banished from my family’s home. It is hard for me to summarize what happened in a concise way and I don’t think I can ever explain just how disorienting and crippling it was. There’s still a lot of raw emotion wrapped up in it. However, I felt that, in order to properly document the circumstances surrounding my deconversion, I needed to take a step back and describe what happened. It is important because I had horrible experiences with Christianity, but that did not cause me to abandon my faith… at least not directly. I will expound more on this in another part. For now, I will attempt to plow through this quickly.
My experiences prior to my rejection were horrible. During that time, I underwent a rigorous attempt at re-training by my family and church. Although I was an adult (around 23 years old), I was made all but a prisoner in my parents’ home for two months; I lacked transportation and was banned from using their phones or internet for unapproved communication. I bought a personal pay-by-the-minute cellphone but I was punished with arguments, guilt-trips, and the cold shoulder anytime I used it. To further my isolation, my parents and sister leveled threats of serious emotional and spiritual consequences if I dared to talk about my home experiences to anyone. My parents wanted me to feel I had nowhere safe to turn, so they demanded invasive information about my communications. Even what my doctor or therapist said to me in private was considered need-to-know by my parents and pried out of me. I was offered a counselor but was not told that she was unlicensed… besides which she was also counseling my parents who would inform her what to say and how to treat me. My affection for my own family became a weapon. My mothers’ illnesses were blamed on my rebellion and I was told that I had destroyed the family. Everything they did was designed to leave me feeling hopeless, helpless, and isolated, and it was disastrously effective.
All of that paved the way for what I call “interventions”. These were sessions in which I would be required or coerced or manipulated into sitting and listening to pastors, family-members, or church-goers attempting to set me straight (literally). Their tactics ranged from shaming (“you disappoint God, your lifestyle is disgusting to him”), to guilt (“let’s go around in a circle and have each family member describe how your sexuality personally hurts them”), to scripture (“if you want us to leave you alone, you have to win this scripture debate with us”), to monetary influence (“we paid for your doctor’s visit so now you owe us obedience or you have to pay us back”), to emotional manipulation (“we love you so much; how could you ever think we would harm you?”) to just plain repetition (“say you give your sexuality to god, say you give your sexuality to god, say you give your sexuality to god.”) In a cruel twist, after months of being restricted by my family, they abruptly reversed course and threatened to banish me from their home forever if I visited my girlfriend. I visited. I was banished. That is where we left off.
Let me make it clear: while all of this had worn me down physically and emotionally to the point of almost killing me, my faith in god was still strong. The abuses of Christians did not change that. I was still trying to find truth and answers, and I still trusted that god could provide them. He had confirmed his love and acceptance to me again and again. How could I doubt him?
Now that the pressure had lessened and I felt safer, I had a chance to mull over my experiences. What was clear was that some of the most spiritually demonstrative months of my life and my family’s lives had come and gone with both of us being equally convinced of completely opposite statements. We were no closer to convincing the other whether god did or did not approve of my relationship. I began to get angry. I wanted answers for why everything had ended so badly. Why had we failed to reach a consensus? Why was it so hard for god to speak to both of us equally clearly? I truly believed god had miraculously spoken to me, but if that was true, why was he unable or unwilling to do the same for my parents? Or if my parents were the ones hearing from god, why was god unable or unwilling to speak to me? And that led me to a fatal question.
How do I test whether or not something is true?
It’s perhaps the simplest question a person can ask. From our earliest moments, we are asking this question as we explore our world. But my particular faith tradition actively scuttles attempts to apply normal testing methods to spiritual things. Charismatic evangelicals teach you to see angels and demons everywhere based on coincidence, scriptural interpretation, and personal feelings. In other words, it teaches you to label your confirmation biases as god. My parents and I clearly had different biases to confirm. But neither of us had any objective proof or compelling reason to assume that we had heard the truth and the other had not.
I remember the beginning of the end like it’s like a photograph. I was walking towards my graduate school campus through a residential neighborhood. I approached the back gate. It was just a narrow foot-path and the gate was always tangled with vines and brush back here. About the time I reached the gate I finally just said it out loud. “Really, how do any of us know that we are right about any of this?” And the questions came flooding in: how do I know for sure if I’m hearing from god? How do I know for sure how to interpret scripture? How do I know for sure I’m talking to the right god? How do I know for sure that god is there at all?
This wasn’t the moment that I lost my faith. They were just questions. I am a scientist; I am used to questions. Questions are great, because then I can start looking for answers. Little did I know that I had just drank a poison that would kill my faith. It turns out, those particular questions don’t have good answers.
So I was a Christian. That much has been established. What next?
Well, as any good Bible-believer will tell you, Christians sometimes go through trials and tribulations. Sometimes Christians go through a period where they are are seduced by The World, and they allow their faith to stagnate. I was no different. While I was in college, my fire started to fade. I went through several ups and downs, where I would try to re-ignite that spark, but then would lose interest or feel disillusioned with god and the church. I just wasn’t sure how certain I could be about god. I stopped reading my bible, I stopped praying. I made only a few half-hearted efforts to go back to church. Apathy towards god had crept up in my life. It was all very Laodicean.
But like any good Christian, I had a turning point. I had a conversion story, praise Jesus. What was that turning point?
I realized I was gay.
Yep, coming out as gay turned me into a hardcore Christian again. It wasn’t immediate. At first I was scared. Holy hell was I scared. I stewed quietly in my guilt, wondering what in the world I had done to damn me to this fate. I knew, of course, all gays go to hell… at least those that act on it. I determined that I would not let my love for another woman compel me to act against god. I tried to bottle it up, deny it, and hope it would fade away, even as my heart broke over the love I would never be able to have. During this phase, I wasn’t reaching out to god. I was hiding from him. I was terrified, confused, betrayed, bewildered, and ashamed. God was the last person I wanted to show up. I was hoping that I had mostly escaped his notice.
But eventually, I was encouraged by the woman I loved as well as my family to study, reach out to god, and seek out answers on the matter. I started reading, studying, praying, fasting, research, confessing, soul-searching, crying, counseling, and speaking to elders. Much to my surprise, I discovered a depth to my religious experience that was totally new to me. I felt god speaking to me again, I felt his overwhelming love. I felt him embracing me wholeheartedly and welcoming me back to his flock. Amazing things started to happen. Without going into the long and gory details, my revival story has all the hallmarks of a perfect Christian “return to god” narrative: visions from god, supernatural signs, prophecies from various godly men and women, even a miracle that saved my life at the darkest moment. I returned to my faith with joy and passion. But there was one little unfortunate problem.
Each of those spiritual Jesus-moments affirmed to me that god accepted my love for another woman.
That was not the answer that my family or my church had expected me to find. While they had first joyfully encouraged me to seek god’s will, they now began to clutch for power over me to get me to see the “correct” answer. God could not be telling me that it was okay to be gay. How did they know? Well, God had told them that it wasn’t okay. So there.
Christians in my life, especially my parents and sister, began escalating the number of hoops that they expected me to jump through in order to “seek god’s will”. “You can’t make up your mind,” they said, “until you try reading this book, doing this fast, going to this church, speaking to this pastor, praying this much, and enduring these trials.” Desiring to thoroughly test my belief, I conceded to these tests. Each time I would return with the same answer. “God accepts me.”
“Well, of course god accepts you,” they complained. “You just somehow missed the part where he said accepts the not-gay version of you. Try again!”
What followed was a righteous game of supernatural dick-measuring: whose God Experience was the biggest? They started sharing their own Jesus Moments with me. These included demons possessing bedrooms, spirits of oppression, dreams and visions, prophecies, signs from god, and feelings of hatred given to them by the Holy Spirit. All of these things were supposedly clear messages that I was wrong. I conceded that this might seem to be the case, but that it didn’t explain why all the messages I was getting were the complete opposite. How was I supposed to know which one to trust? “Just trust in our authority,” they said. But I then committed the gravest sin a Fundamentalist Christian can commit.
I said no.
I said “if God can give us both visions and miracles and messages from on high, then he can damn well make his answer known to me. I have thrown all of my trust on him… every bit of it and everything that I have to offer. I know he will come through for me.”
And so, I was banished from my family home.
Part 1 (Part 2 here)
I was a Christian. For some of you, my statement is enough for you to believe me and I could stop writing my intro right here. To you, I say THANK YOU. You’re awesome. But for the rest of you who will want to cast doubt on that statement due to the fact that I have left the faith, I urge you to keep reading.
I was a Christian. I don’t just mean I went to church on holidays and said grace before meals. I was a diehard, devoted, born-again, Jesus-loving, awe-struck, Bible-believing, all-American, devil-rebuking, 6000-year-old-earth-believing, on-fire-for-God, relationship-not-religion evangelical Christian. Pentecostalism was the flavor I was raised with. Yes, I am certain that for many, that makes me a Not-True-Christian, but let me tell you, Pentecostals can “Not-True-Christian” with the best of them. As far as we were concerned, all y’all other Christians were fake. Even the Baptists. Especially the Baptists. We had a particular dislike for that “once-saved-always-saved” bullshit. We sure wouldn’t want anyone to get too comfortable that they were safe from hell in our religion! Can I get an amen?
But lest you dismiss me because I spoke in tongues a few times, let me point out that I didn’t stay Pentecostal. I chose to go to a non-denominational church in my teen years and dropped a little bit of the weirder Charismatic stuff (although some of it definitely stuck around). I was less into tongues-speaking and immersion baptism, and willing to accept a wider range of Christians might have a handle on the truth. Even if my doctrine may not have been 100% pure at all times, according to your metric, no one could deny that I was a Christian. The evidence and fruits of my faith were numerous. I read my Bible front to back multiple times, and the New Testament so many times I lost count. Every single evening I would read scripture and meditate and pray. I sought god’s will on all of the important (and sometimes non-important) decisions in my life. I felt the supernatural presence of god. I trusted in his guidance and I listened for his leading. I had powerful experiences that other Christians confirmed were revelations from the Holy Spirit. My faith was not shallow, nor was it based solely on the demands of others. By almost any standards, I was considered a Christian with a genuine Walk With God.
I preface my explanation of my deconversion this way because I am tired of self-righteous Christians trying to explain to me “you must never have really known Jesus” or “you were never really a Christian.” If you had told that to anyone who knew me during my earlier years, they would have tried to rebuke the devil of lying out of you. They would have laughed. YOU would have laughed. If I was an imposter, I was a damn impressive one, so much so that I apparently deceived my family, my pastors, my community, and myself. NO ONE thought I was a fake.
Now, at this moment, you might still be trying to rationalize where my faith was flawed. “Too legalistic,” you might say. Or maybe “not legalistic enough”. Or maybe you might even imply that demons can masquerade as God and thus I had fallen for Satan, not Jesus (although if they look so alike, I’m uneasy about worshiping either.) But take an honest look at the way that you judge Christians within your own denomination and church. If someone in your church appears to have a real relationship with god, people say they see god working in their lives, they pray, read their bible, believe all the right things, they inspire others, would you ever consider telling them to their faces “you probably aren’t really a Christian”? Or is this absurd “real Christian” standard something you only apply to apostates? I bet it’s the latter.
So then take me at my word for the sake of this discussion: I was a Christian. I loved god and I believed in Jesus to save me from my sins. And now I don’t. I’m not even convinced that God is real. I’m going to briefly explain how that happened.
The Josh Duggar scandal has brought up a lot of conversations about conservative Christian sexual ethics. A lot of important concepts have been brought up, such as Libby Anne’s “two boxes” and Captain Cassidy’s discussion of in-group hypocrisy. All of this has gotten my own gears turning, trying to make sense of the people who are flocking to defend a child molester, while simultaneously insisting that teenaged couple going on a date to Disneyland is equally as sinful. And I think this brings me to the entire justification for the two boxes and hypocrisy: in conservative Christian sexual ethics, there is no such thing as victimless non-marital sex.
People who believe that gay sex and rape belong in the same category haven’t necessarily completely shut off their ability to understand pain and consequences. Rather, they’ve bought into the idea that all non-approved sex has horrific, painful consequences that must be defended against, whether they are visible or not. This rationale is desperately necessary in order to keep people in line. The fact of the matter is, people build their ethics from experience and consequences. This is an unavoidable part of our psychology. Certainly, external consequences can be imposed to encourage better (or worse) morals, but people can’t help but be affected by the actual consequences they observe. This is why we all fall prey to the just-world fallacy, assuming that good things will naturally happy to good people and bad things to bad people.
Of course, this poses a huge problem for the arbitrarily legislated sexual morality that Conservative Christians pedal. Happy gay couples and people who have casual sex and go on to live productive lives are a threat to the assumptions that gay sex and casual sex are immoral. This becomes even tougher to sell when one attempts to claim that gay sex or casual sex are equivalently evil as rape or child molestation… crimes in which a victim can clearly be identified and horrible consequences are obvious. Christians could chalk it up to god being mysterious. They could simply tell people “I know that looks like fun, but god doesn’t want you to,” and leave it at that. But rules without reinforcement are difficult to maintain.
And thus, we get the idea that all non-marital sex victimizes. This is so endemic in our culture that it shows up as well in non-Christian forms. Men are assumed to be predators, unable to control their urges, assumed to take advantage of women because they only want sex. Women are assumed to be temptresses, constantly “defrauding” their brothers in Christ by daring to have bodies. LGB kids are said to be destroying their mental health, gay men are reviled as spreaders of disease, gay women are scorned for being “emotionally codependent”, gay families are pitied as inadequate and unloving, depriving children of a “real” family. Pre-marital sex is said to cause your soul to be damaged, your body to be defiled, your paper heart to be ripped into pieces. And all of these things are tied nebulously to societal decay and a loss of privilege for an entire country. All of these dire (and largely false) accusations are laid at the feet of non-approved sex in order to scare people into submitting to the rules.
What are the consequences? Rendering a gay child homeless is considered less harmful to them than allowing them to be gay. Women are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and to cover up every inch of themselves to avoid damaging men by temptation. Fathers still think that threats of violence or actual violence against men and boys who enter consensual relationships with their daughters is acceptable. Teenagers are still left woefully unaware of how to practice sex safely because the heightened risk of pregnancy and STDs is considered a worthwhile sacrifice to try to prevent teens from having unapproved sex (even if that STILL doesn’t actually work).
This is why Christians will still refer to my homosexuality or transgenderism as something that I “struggle with,” regardless of my insistence to the contrary. They simply can’t imagine that being transgender and being married to someone of my birth gender could fail to cause me some sort of mental anguish or horrible repercussions. Similarly, my mother lamented that she just wanted to protect me from the pain and regret of premarital sex, and refused to believe me when I insisted that I felt no pain nor regret. Indeed, despite the fact that many people have asserted that their chosen non-approved sexual behaviors have led them to feel no guilt, shame, pain, suffering, or regret, many Christians stubbornly refuse to accept this.
The fact that the consequences of being “victimized” by non-approved sex are so difficult to quantify is a feature, not a bug. The times that I have refuted the victim narrative that they have attempted to impose on me, I always received either outright claims that I was lying, or gas-lighting of some sort. “Deep down, your soul is tortured, you just can’t admit it,” they’ve said. Or “maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you will, and then you’ll wish you had listened.” Or the Christian will point to some unrelated struggle in my life (especially if there is an actual or imagined mental illness involved) and claim that this is my reward for being gay/transgender/a slut. These claims are intended to be irrefutable. That is why these Christians have such confidence in them. That’s also why Christians clutch so hard at the rare juicy conversion story, where a sinner will describe the bondage of (sexual) sin and how horrible it was and how Jesus saved them. It encourages them that their irrefutable narratives are correct, regardless of the paucity of evidence outside of a few straggling anecdotes.
The thing is, these threats are powerful. They are scary. They scared the hell out of me when I was younger. The damage is especially borne by young Christian people who are trying to understand their sexuality amidst a slew of slut-shaming, purity-espousing, LGBT-hating, fear-mongering, misinformation. And it has actual, real-world, physical, deadly consequences. Instead of the conjured up, nebulous nightmares that Conservative Christians fear, these lies injure kids. These lies make them ill. These lies emotionally cripple them. These lies cause them to be vulnerable to abuse. These lies kill. The morally bankrupt idea that unproven spiritual consequences are equally bad as proven physical consequences is killing our youth. And that is worth being outraged about.
In closing, this all made me scrutinize myself a little. I try to be very fair to other people with differing views (hey, I used to be on the other team) and I relish the open-mindedness that I was not allowed to have when I was a conservative Christian. So my question to myself was, do I ever do the same thing? Do I look at conservative Christians and assume that they are suffering secret, unproven, dire consequences for their different beliefs? And the honest answer is: sometimes. I’ve seen enough visible, physical harm to wonder. But I also recognize that conservative Christians can be perfectly happy and lead wonderful fulfilled lives even believing things about sex that I find backwards and harmful. I can accept that. I don’t think having conservative Christian sexual ethics automatically relegates you to being guilty, miserable, or victimized. However, I do think that there is ample, concrete evidence that, statistically speaking, conservative Christian sexual ethics do not lead to superior outcomes. If you, as an individual, are happy with abiding by no-sex-outside-of-hetero-marriage rules, then by all means, enjoy yourself (safely and consensually). But don’t assume that the rest of us are victims of our unapproved sexuality. We just might be finding just as much (or more) fulfillment and happiness outside of your sexual norms than you have within them.
Mama, Daddy, I am truly sorry that you have left me. I will always miss you. I will always wish that you would choose to want to know me again. And I will always appreciate the things you did for me that helped me become the man I am today… with all of my strengths and flaws. There will be many things I will remember fondly and many things that I will not be able to recall without tears or pain. I cannot say at the end of this “it was all for the best.” Nor can I say “this was meant to happen for a reason.” All I CAN say is “this happened” and “this changed me” and “this was part of my journey to being the man I am today.” And I suppose that is all the closure I can hope for, and I think in the end, it will be enough. I hope that you have found or will find some closure as well. I hope that you will live on in peace and heal as well. I hope that you find fulfillment in your own ways as I have found mine. I hope that you never forget how to love me, as I will never forget that I love you. And I hope that you can be happy in this life and whatever may come next. I hope that, if there is another life, we can start over there and find our family again. But if not, know that I still carry pieces of you with me and I always will.
Captain Cassidy has been writing a series on Excommunications about compromise. The entire thing is splendid, and I highly recommend it (or any of her other posts, for that matter). In this post, she defined compromise as “coming to an awareness of what our real goals are and then finding different ways of reaching those goals if necessary so we can have peaceful relationships with others.” This is an excellent definition, and it exposes one of the greatest challenges to meaningful compromise: people must be honest about their goals and motives.
I have a lot of experience with believers attempting to convert me back to their religion and sexual/gender ethics. Here’s the thing: people who think that they are going to lead you on a long, twisted, and heroic journey to redemption are some of the most dishonest people about their motives. It gets easier to spot once you’re savvy to the game, but if you’re still in the disorienting realm between “I feel guilty always telling them no” and “they are my friends/family/loved ones… they surely would never be dishonest with me” it can be soul-sucking. I’m going to outline a few typical tactics here and expose the underlying dishonesty involved. If you are experiencing this and you are losing your mind trying to figure out how to compromise with your friends or loved ones please know that you are not the problem. The game is rigged. It is designed to have only one outcome, and that outcome is not in your favor. It is okay to just refuse to play.
(1) Aggressive helpfulness
Believers may attempt to frame their goals in terms of your happiness and benefit. Maybe you’ve heard “I saw this article and I just thought you’d probably find it really interesting!” Or “I really get where you’re coming from, but I think this book might have a lot of answers for you… it really blessed me when I felt like you do.” Or “Can we just have a discussion about this? I know you don’t want to, but it will feel so good for you to get it off of your heart.” Or “I know things have been really rough with the family lately… I know a counselor you can speak to; I’ll even pay for it!”
But the goal is never actually about your comfort or benefit or happiness (at least not as you’d define those things). It’s about “fixing” you. The article will always* be some horrifying AFA editorial about a (totally not fake) lesbian whose mother paid to have her raped but now, through the power of Jesus, she wants to reconcile and be straight. The book will always* be about how it is impossible to live a happy and fulfilled life without X brand of Jesus. The discussion will always* be an attempt to prove to you that you’ve not done enough research and praying and bible reading to actually reject that particular piece of doctrine. The counselor will always* be unlicensed, Christian, anti-gay, and has already heard the “real” story about you from your family. It will never be good. You can say no.
*Okay it might not be those specific things depending on your situation, but I promise, it will be something equally as unpleasant.
(2) Unsolicited bribes
Similar to the aggressive helper, is the unsolicited bribe. The believer may attempt to buy your compliance. This might put a positive mask on their tactics but, again, the motives are never honest. The gift is not being offered for your benefit and enjoyment, but primarily to win an opportunity to convert you. At times, these can get pretty bizarre. You might get abrupt offers for things you never even asked for (but that the believer knows you secretly really want) with a stipulation tacked onto the end. How about “you’re welcome to talk to me about anything and then, in return, I’ll share my testimony with you!” Or “I’d really love if you could go to the amusement park with me… but that’s not going to work out if you do (insert completely unrelated heathenish thing here).”
These bribes can take an even darker and more dishonest turn when the believer does not inform you beforehand that there are expectations included in the offer. Maybe they offer to pay for a doctor’s visit or offer you a loan and then, down the road, hold that over you as a way to manipulate you into compliance. Remember that you never accepted any terms when you accepted their gift and you are in no way obligated to fall into line because of it. However, if at all possible, it is probably best to avoid accepting any sort of assistance or offers from someone who may have conversion motives, just to save yourself the headache.
(3) The Negative Reinforcement Compromise (NRC)
Another common “compromise” is what I’d call the Negative Reinforcement Compromise… where they believer will agree to stop some sort of hurtful behavior in exchange for a favor. Again, the purported motive is rarely honest: they may claim that they are compromising in order to “maintain a good relationship.” However, the only relationship they are probably interested in maintaining is a relationship with the former believer/straight/cis version of yourself and they are just trying to gain compliance until they can convert you. This becomes obvious if you accept their compromise and, when you don’t convert, they refuse to uphold their end of the bargain. Examples may include “Alright, I’ll stop harassing you about this if you’ll just read this book and talk to this pastor and pray this much.” Or maybe “Okay, we can stop talking about your sin, but in exchange, you should never mention your partner in our presence.” My personal favorite (the one that actually made me laugh at the absurdity) is “Okay, we won’t refer to you by your birth name if you don’t refer to yourself by your new name.”
The believer in these cases fails to recognize that no compromise is reasonable if their behavior is hurting you and you’ve asked them to stop. The only correct response is for them to stop, no strings attached. The NRC probably galls me the most, because it preys on the victim’s desperation to ease the pain or discomfort that they are being put through, often leading them to accept the unreasonable terms. When, at a later time, they decide that the agreement was unreasonable and they want to change the terms of the deal, they will be exposed to the full brunt of the believer’s disdain, disgust, and anger. This will often be used by the believer to justify any further dishonesty or abuse with the statement “but you agreed to X and later you went back on that, so you have no right to complain” ignoring the fact that the “compromise” was made under duress (and the motives stated for the deal were dishonest in the first place).
This is not to say that it’s impossible to find healthy compromises between people with radically different beliefs, ideas, or values. However, the people involved have to approach this with honesty. If a believer is honestly interested in improving their relationship with you, they will be willing to consider actions and options that you state are healthy for you. And you, in turn, can find actions and options that are healthy for them too. Both people must be approaching each other from a place of mutual respect. If the believer thinks that he/she knows what is good for you better than you do, they don’t respect you. Back off, reset, and refuse to engage until and if they are willing to approach the table as your equal instead of as your “designated adult”.
If anyone has their own experiences or tactics to share, I’d love to hear it!
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.
This thought just hit me like a pile of bricks, and I need to sound off on it really fast.
In evangelical culture, it is often repeated that love is not an emotion. Love is an action. If you google search for those words, a slew of Christian articles pop up. Christian courtship books, books about relationships, evangelical talking heads have reinforced this message. My family said it over and over. Until maybe yesterday I had just accepted this paradigm without question. It made sense. Love isn’t an emotion, it’s so much more than that. Love isn’t a feelings towards someone, it’s doing something to them.
This was rooted deeply in a rejection of emotion and desires in general. After all, feelings are fickle, cheap, short-lived. Feelings are deceitful, like the heart. Feelings are sinful, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life. Wants, needs, feelings, desires… all of these are to be crucified. But love is to remain, so love is not a feeling. Love is action.
And this is why whenever my mom would say “I know this doesn’t feel loving to you, but it is love” I believed her. This is why, whenever I was mistreated, belittled, rejected, and disrespected, I excused it as “just their way of loving me.” Their way of loving, despite the fact that it did not feel loving, had validity because feelings could not be trusted but actions were love. Their way of loving allowed them to consistently wield the power to define what love looked like, regardless of whether I liked it or not.
Accepting that paradigm meant that I could not accept their love while simultaneously rejecting their actions. Each time I tried to insist that I needed them to treat me differently, the answer would be “but we love you. We love you.” And love is action, not a feeling. Whether or not I felt unloved was irrelevant. Whether or not I was hurting, I was scared, I wanted to die, it didn’t matter because those were feelings and feelings can’t be trusted. Love can.
And over and over, I accepted this paradigm. Even as I tried to argue that abuse could be committed with loving intentions, even as I argued that I wanted respect, even as I tried to make them understand that what they were doing was hurting me, I still internally accepted the idea that love is an action as valid and, as such, I had no real ground to stand on. The best I could do would be to quibble over which actions are love, which is a very difficult argument to win since it is so subjective and situation-specific. From me, love looked like trying to still have a relationship with my family after all of the hurt they had caused. From them, love looked like emotional manipulation. Who was I to decide if that was or was not love?
But that’s exactly why the idea that love is an action is so wrong. It gives all of the power to define love to the one loving, not the one on the receiving end. It allows one person to decide that any action done with a feeling of love, is love. In fact, actions can be done with a feeling of hate, and it can still be called love.
I do believe that my family loves me. I think they love me very deeply. But love is an emotion. They can have very deep feelings for me and still act hatefully. They can want the very best for me and still be unbelievably cruel. They are right to say that actions mean more than emotions. But they are wrong to say that love is an action.
It is completely possible to feel love for someone while your actions destroy them.
Because love is only a feeling, it is meaningless to me unless it is demonstrated through actions that make me feel loved. And that’s the difference. If we accept that love is only a feeling, then we must by necessity give the recipient of our love some amount of control over how that love is demonstrated. The recipient gets to define what actions make them feel your love.
And this might seem like a minor distinction, but to me it is so important. Love is not something you can do to me. Love is only something you can feel about me. The actions that you choose to take based on that feeling are separate. They are not love. I can acknowledge and desire your love while simultaneously utterly rejecting the actions you take to demonstrate it.
I left this review on Amazon after purchasing a 1-cent copy of this book to verify for myself some of the stupid bullshit that made up my ‘sexual education.’ Amazon wants me to rate the book, so here it is. Note: I don’t tackle the deeper problems of gender essentialism or unhealthy attitudes about sex here since I wanted this review to be palatable to potential buyers. Most of these potential buyers will be semi-conservative Christians, so I wanted to discuss the book’s shortcomings within that framework. Besides, the review is already too long!
Rating: 1 star
I understand that many Christian parents will feel themselves in a bind when it comes to educating their students about sex, puberty, anatomy, and influences that a teenager may face at school and in their neighborhood. They may want to find an education book that reflects their values while still having a straight talk about sex and bodies. Preparing for Adolescence claims to provide just that, so I can see how it would be attractive.
DO NOT BE FOOLED. This book is packed with misinformation, shame-inducing language, even outright cruelty, and does very little to enlighten teenagers about their bodies, sex, or even modern challenges facing teens. I’m going to break this down into a few topics that the book addresses and bring up some of the serious problems. Full disclosure, I was homeschooled with this book as my only sexual education apart from a few side-discussions added by my mother (which, while limited, were still MUCH more informative than this piece of rubbish). As a result, I was woefully ignorant about sex, bodies, normal behavior, bodily changes, attraction, STDs, and more until I entered college. Needless to say, that is NOT a safe situation for any teenager.
PUBERTY: This is primarily what my mother purchased the book for… to explain my sister’s and my changing bodies, as well as explaining the process that boys go through as well. I am very glad that she gave us her own personal lecture about menstruation, because Dobson does not even provide the bare minimum of knowledge about these topics. His discussion of menstruation reads like a weird fairytale, describing it as a miraculous and exciting time when a girl’s body prepares for pregnancy (he calls the uterus as a “special pouch” for holding a baby and the vagina as a “special opening” for the baby to exit). So much for having a mature discussion. He spends a couple of pages rambling on about how miraculous and wonderful pregnancy is and how it is the most “amazing thing that ever can happen”, but entirely fails to mention what a tampon is, fails to mention that girls may experience cramping, does not discuss what a normal flow is, does not discuss the emotional changes that can happen, does not discuss any other symptoms a girl or woman might experience during her menstrual cycle (like bloating, discomfort, breast soreness, appetite changes, etc). He does say that girls should ask their mother if they think their period is abnormal, but since Dobson never explains what is normal, I have no idea how he expects a young woman to know when she has cause to be alarmed! I know I certainly didn’t! The ONLY other thing he mentions in the female puberty section is that girls will develop larger breasts. He fails to explain that women will grow body hair, may get acne, their body fat distribution may change, etc.* Apparently knowing about the miraculous-special-amazing-super-delight-miracle of menstruation and enlarging of breasts is all women need to know!
*EDIT: I did find in glancing through it a third time that body hair is mentioned (it was easy to miss) and acne is discussed in a different section. I would say that my initial lack of notice of it is mostly because of Dobson’s incredibly poor organization and his disproportionate focus on certain aspects of development that made it easy to miss other details. He in fact spends a short section discussing acne, but it is placed in between the sections for boys and girls so I missed it when glancing through.
But the section for boys is not any better. He describes this much more briefly and without all of the fairytale language (which makes me think that “special” is the word Dobson tends to repeat when the conversation he’s having makes him uncomfortable). He describes growth spurts, growing body hair, and changing voice. He also says that your “sexual organs will grow to look more like that of an adult man’s” but he never explains what that actually means or what that will look like. He also fails to even mention the word TESTICLES anywhere, so presumably a boy will have a startling surprise when those descend. There are no pictures anywhere in the book, so neither sex will have any idea what the body of the other sex looks like and, in my case, I never really even knew what my own body looked like because I was too nervous and ashamed to look down there. But we’ll get to that, when Dobson discusses…
SEX: I think a large reason that Dobson is so attractive to Christian parents is because he holds conservative Christian views, but he actually discusses sex in his book. Supposedly. Let’s see what he actually says about it.
He starts with a full paragraph, explaining that many people are shy about the topic of sex or avoid it, but that he’s going to treat his readers like adults and be open with them and withhold no information whatsoever. He then explains what sex is in two sentences. And that’s it. Two sentences. Those two sentences explain that a penis becomes hard and straight, a man and woman lie together and the penis goes in the vagina, they move some, and then they get a “tingly sensation”. That’s it. He does not mention ejaculation. He does not even have it in him to use the word “orgasm” or explain what that is. He does not make any allusion to the idea that orgasm may be difficult or easy or that sex should be done carefully to ensure that it is comfortable for both partners, since it can otherwise be painful. And, fundamentally, his entire 2-sentence description flew over my head when I was a pre-teen reading this book because I still had no idea what a penis really looked like or how it can get “hard and straight” or how to get it “in there” or anything else that might help me understand. Dobson claims to withhold nothing and treat his readers maturely, but there is nothing here that actually would enlighten a kid that doesn’t already know everything (and thus would have no need for this book).
So, after the first paragraph explaining that he will withhold nothing, and 2 sentences explaining what sex is, what does he spend the rest of this section on? Misinformation and shaming! To his credit, he first states that partners may have sex often or not, depending on what works for them, which I think is a good thing to note and is sometimes overlooked. But then he spends a couple of pages explaining how dangerous and horrible sex is if you have it before marriage. Now, I’m not going to complain too much about his aversion to premarital sex here, because I am sure many readers would agree due to personal convictions. Rather, what I take issue with is the WAY that he addresses it and the disproportionate amount of time he spends on it. Two sentences to explain sex… multiple pages about how terrible premarital sex is. And Dobson goes to horrifying lengths in his attempt to scare kids away from sex, relying on ignorance, misinformation, and outright lies. He claims that if you’ve had sex already, you will NEVER appreciate it with your current partner and will never be fulfilled (how horrible must that be for rape or abuse victims to know that they will never be able to enjoy sex with their life-long partner???) He claims that people who have premarital sex will often experience a change of personality to become cold and bitter and miserable (so having premarital sex is not just bad, it will turn you into a bad person!). He also warns of STDs that could kill you or make your life miserable (although he goes into very little detail) but never actually explains how to avoid them aside from “you and your partner must never have sex until you marry.” Well, that’s nice, but you can only control your own behaviors, not your partner’s. So what if a young man or woman meets a partner that HAS had sex before? There is no discussion of how to protect yourself, get tested, or anything. Just “getting an STD could be a DEATH SENTENCE” and then “but you don’t have to worry about it as long as you and your partner both have never had sex.” How is this remotely safe for a teenager? And throughout all of this discussion, he never once mentions redemption. He never mentions forgiveness or renewal or being able to rebuild a happy life even if you “messed up” and had premarital sex. Nothing. Just “if you have premarital sex, you will never appreciate sex with your current partner, you will become a cold, miserable person, and you might die. So don’t do it.” This is just blatant scare tactics and manipulation based on lies and it is a horrible and unhealthy message for children to absorb.
SEXUALITY: I am separating this from “sex” because I want to discuss Dobson’s ideas of attraction and sexual interest. First, Dobson states that boys will start feeling an interest in girls’ bodies. He says they will become fascinated with “curves, softness, even their feminine feet”. Honestly, I find his description of what makes women attractive to men very limiting and a little ridiculous (not all women are curvy and soft!), but I’ll give it a pass. He then says that girls will not find boys’ bodies attractive in the same way, but rather they will be attracted to personalities. He later repeats this, saying that men are attracted physically while women are attracted emotionally. This is JUST NOT TRUE. Books like Dobson’s led me to believe that women do not experience sexual attraction, only emotional attraction. This is a very confusing and damaging message to internalize. It taught me that if I wasn’t attracted to my boyfriend, that was normal and good. It taught me that if he pressured me for sex and I didn’t want it, that was normal. It taught me that if he wanted to be physical and I didn’t, that was normal. I did not realize that I was attracted to women until I was in my 20’s, because I had always assumed that my disinterest and revulsion at the idea of physicality with men was NORMAL.
And speaking of homosexuality, he mentions it only once in this book (which is probably good). He says “homosexuality is a sign of serious problems, but it is rare and it is not very likely that you will be one.” If your child happens to feel attraction to the same sex, this is a good way to deepen their shame and hopelessness. They have a rare condition that is ominously described as a “sign of serious problems.” How is a child supposed to do anything but hide their sexuality in fear if this is the only thing they are told about it?
Oh, and before I leave this section, I should add that Dobson has a list of questions near the end of the sex/puberty chapter that he says are common questions that young teens might have. One of them is asking if God will punish them for sexual thoughts. Rather than answering the question, he simply states that “you will likely experience sexual thoughts as you go through adolescence. You may feel guilt or shame about this.” That’s it. No indication that a teenager need not feel guilty for their thoughts and feelings or that sexual attraction is nothing to be ashamed of. Just a statement that they will feel guilty and ashamed. I assume this means he thinks the guilt and shame is normal and good. Ugh.
GENDER: Dobson believes in gender essentialism, so he thinks that women and men are inherently very different and their “woman-ness” and “man-ness” is an integral part of their being. I have no interest in arguing with this, as I assume many readers will agree. However, I will again take issue with the way that he addresses this. It is confusing and terrifying as heck.
Dobson discusses this as a side-note at the end of one of his chapters. He states that it is of extreme importance that boys learn to grow up to be men and girls learn to grow up to be women. He expresses many times how IMPORTANT it is that boys and girls learn the correct way to be masculine and feminine. But after putting so much enormous weight on this, he then leaves the reader with absolutely no understanding of what that’s supposed to look like. He suggests only that a child find role models to try to model their behavior after. This is not a bad idea, except that how is a boy or girl supposed to know which role models are correctly “masculine” or “feminine”? Dobson does not care to define it, so teens are simply left with a ringing warning about how improper it will be for them to fail to live up to their gender, but no indication of how to go about it. And, for the record, these sorts of vague admonishments frequently result in girls and boys feeling guilt and shame if they do not fit all of the stereotypical behaviors of “masculine” and “feminine”, even if the parent themselves had no intention of restricting their children to quite such a rigid set of behaviors.
RELATIONSHIPS: I could not bring myself to re-read ever page of Dobson’s relationship section because I was so turned off at the beginning, so my discussion here is limited. All I can say is that he opens up the section by painting an imaginary storyline of a couple that falls in love young and marries. Apart from the couple being young, Dobson seems to paint them as doing everything right. They meet, they find they share interests, they really enjoy each other’s company, their families like them, they spend time together, they fall in love, they get married (no premarital sex). And then, for some reason, Dobson states that they start fighting on their honeymoon. They lash out at each other and then suddenly feel bitter and resentful. Rather than making up, going to counseling, or improving communication, he says that their life spirals into a hell of fighting and hating and avoiding each other for the rest of their days, wondering what went wrong, and inflicting pain on their child who will forever know that his mommy and daddy don’t love each other and will grow up miserable. Wow. That escalated quickly.
This catastrophe is all because… well Dobson doesn’t even really fully explain it, apart from indicating that the couple may have been too young and that their love apparently wasn’t genuine. But honestly, it just isn’t made clear HOW they could have known that their love wasn’t genuine. All that is implied is that it was wrong and somehow the couple involved should have just been more godly or something and none of it would have happened. This is again just blatant scare tactics, trying to frighten teens away from having relationships, without giving them any tools for knowing what actually IS a good relationship. I can understand if his point is to encourage teens not to rush into marriage or to be selective with their dating partners, but that is not what this story accomplishes. It simply says “you might feel like you’re doing everything right, you might love and respect your partner, things might seem to be great, but you might be wrong and you will be miserable for the rest of your pathetic lives!” and then leaves it to an emotional, confused and ignorant teenager to try to figure out how to avoid this catastrophe. Let me tell you from experience: it did not work for me. What is the point of giving teenagers this horrifying picture of what a failed marriage might look like without explaining to them how to avoid it, besides “don’t marry until you’re in your 20’s?” Turning 20 does not magically make you know what makes a good marriage partner!!!
DISABILITY: This part just makes me angry. Much of the book is devoted to discussing avoiding peer pressure and navigating social aspects of adolescence. He talks about not being mean to people and trying not to compare yourself to others. Throughout this discussion, he brings up a couple of children he knew who had disabilities. I was shocked in re-reading the book at how unkind he is in his discussions of this. One boy he discusses as having a hearing difficulty, but he felt embarrassed to wear a hearing aid because it made him stand out. Rather than discussing this dilemma compassionately or actually dealing with the pain and struggle of having people treat you like garbage because of a disability and how horrible that can be, he states that he feels sorry for the boy for being so foolish as to let other people influence his decision to wear a hearing aid. Yes, he MOCKS a child for feeling shame and pain over the torment that his classmates give him about his disability. He gets even more cruel when discussing a blind girl who refused to let people lead her from place to place. He makes a joke of having seen her walk into a pole once, and then again chastises her for being foolish and avoiding assistance because of the way other kids treated her.
THIS IS WRONG. Look, I agree that a disability is certainly nothing to be ashamed of and that we should encourage children not to feel like there is something wrong with them. But the way to do this is NOT by making them ashamed of feeling self-conscious or mocking them for wanting to fit in. Besides, particularly in the blind girl’s story, he makes the assumption that she refused to have people walk her places because she was ashamed. He does not consider that maybe she had learned her way around well enough that she felt confident and had set a personal goal to travel around school without assistance. The possibility that she was trying to become more independent, or had been working towards this for a long time, or that her lack of guidance my be an act of bravery rather than cowardice does not seem to even cross his mind. She is just the butt of his joke to demonstrate that, if you cave in when other kids tease you for being different, you’ll just make a bigger fool of yourself.
Overall, this book is poorly written, woefully unhelpful, full of lies, misinformation, and scare tactics, has cruel and harmful messages for teens, and does not even do a good job of presenting conservative Christian views of sex or adolescence. PLEASE look elsewhere. If you have already decided to use this book, PLEASE at least find other resources to supplement it with because your child will not know what he/she needs to know about adolescence just from reading this book! It is not comprehensive and it is harmful and it is not a good Christian alternative to a proper sex education.
My fiance had a few things she wanted to discuss about Evangelical culture, so I will be offering her space on this blog to add her thoughts and experiences as well. The following post is about the common mythologies of prayer.
I have a problem with prayer: it is selfish.
Prayer is by nature self-centered. I am not saying that that’s a bad thing, per se, but it is only useful when used for the self. It has power to help you find peace, or to center yourself, or to try to figure things out. It can bestow perspective and clarify the mind and relieve stress. Interestingly, brain scans have shown that prayer and Buddhist meditation work in very similar ways, and help the brain to maintain itself and connect with the world.
I am of the general opinion that we may connect with a higher power when practicing these things. I will not completely discount those who say God has spoken to them during these times. I do think that there should be a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with any such experience or retelling of an experience, however, as thinking or claiming to hear from God is dangerous. More often than not, I have found a peculiar correlation between what someone wants to hear from God and what they claim to hear from God.
There are some limitations I believe prayer has, that many people don’t seem to realize, along with a few things it can do:
- It cannot change the world. People changing the world can change the world.
- It can’t solve world hunger. Donating food and money to food banks, or legislating that the government takes care of the people can. (Not getting into politics here, just stating that that would indeed feed hungry people.)
- It cannot change weather to bring rain or make it leave, etc. The physical laws of this world can. Even as a Christian I believed that God had put in place the physical world and mostly left it alone, because he had created an intricate machine that would work on its own.
- It cannot change a person’s mind. Only they can. You cannot pray for a politician to change his mind or for someone you know to be ‘brought to Christ,’ and expect it to actually happen. That would be a violation of free-will, which is the foundation of Christianity. We were given free-will so that we might know what it is to sin and what it is to be redeemed. Therefore, God cannot or will not change anyone’s mind. It follows that you cannot change someone’s mind by praying for them. You cannot make them choose what you want or leave the ‘lifestyle’ they’re in. If you could do so by prayer, then you would be manipulating them into your will. If you pray for God to ‘show them the way’ then do not be surprised when the prayed-for person does not ‘find the way.’ Think instead that either God won’t manipulate people like that, or he does not agree that your way is the correct one.
- It cannot save a life. Doctors and rescue workers can. Prayer can help the pray-er by calming and de-stressing them, but there has never been any evidence that a prayed-for person recovers any faster from ailment than one who is not prayed for. See the natural laws thing with the praying to change the weather paragraph. Medical science has advanced a long way, and sometimes can work ‘miracles,’ but it is the resilience of the human body and mind and the skilled people and medicines and machines that save lives.
- Prayer can also make a person complacent. “Why donate money or time when I can pray for the person? God can help them better than I can.” This I liken to the facebook ‘slacktivism’ that has people change their profile picture or repost a sentence to supposedly end violence or child abuse or whatever it is. It is so, so much easier to send up a nice thought than it is to do something, or to sacrifice something.
- It can allow you to start believing God spoke to you. That only you know what is true. It’s easy to feel feedback from ‘God’ while praying. The funny thing is that it’s very often either what your conscience is saying, or simply something you want to be right, anyway. While it could be God, it is far, far more likely that it is your brain practicing its powerful sway over you. It is also entirely possible to have multiple people, all saying God spoke to them, and all saying different things. This is impossible if there is one true God: either some are lying, or they all truly believe that they heard God’s will. Related to that is that prayer leads to a lot of confirmation bias. You want something, you pray for it, it happens, your prayer must have worked. You tend to forget all the times that it didn’t work, or explain them away by God saying no. You tend to recieve the answers you want, or expect, when you ask for guidance.
So prayer has a lot of limitations and downfalls. There is another part of it that is problematic: the saying “I’m praying for you.” By itself, there is nothing wrong with this phrase. I had a Bible study teacher once say “we may not know if prayer works, but praying is how we know we care.” That is true. While I don’t believe it actually does anything supernatural to help someone else, praying about something is a way to show you care. Saying that you’re praying is a nice sentiment and expresses sympathy, if it’s done in a caring manner at the right time and with the right tone.
It is often joked about in the south, how you can say anything bad about a person, and if you follow it with “bless his heart,” it makes it okay. Suddenly you weren’t mean or hurtful. In southern culture, you are not allowed to be angry or impolite, or to express dislike in any way besides passive-aggressive measures. Similarly, anger and related emotions are practically taboo in Christianity. They have to be tamped down and only released with the select passive-aggressive words.
Telling someone “I’m praying for you,” becomes annoying or downright hurtful when they know that it really means “I don’t like what you did. Only God can save you now,” or “I’m praying for God to make you straight so we can love you again.” “This person did these awful things, but see how I am better than him? I can pray for him!”
I like how Jesus says we should pray in closets, in secret, so that no one knows. I heard in Sunday school how in those times the Pharisees would go around praying loudly so that everyone could know how holy they are. These days, I often see posts on facebook asking for prayers, with twenty people replying saying “praying for you!” Or posts saying “Praying for so-n-so.” “Praying for America.”
I have heard that some believe in power in the number of prayers, which is their explanation for why they post that they are praying for someone. This either gets into a weird ‘spiritual warfare’ area (which has its own problems, to be discussed elsewhere), or makes God one of those attention-whore parents who posts pictures of their kids holding a ‘If we get two-thousand likes Mom says we will go to Disneyland!’
The only other reason for trumpeting your prayer life to the public is because you want the attention, the kudos, the feeling of being superior. Christianity is like all other cultures, and in each culture there are status symbols. Unfortunately, actually following Jesus and helping the needy and praying privately are difficult to turn into status symbols, so then it becomes who prays the most/loudest, or who has a fish on their car, or how many ‘souls you saved.’
Now, onto the spiritual warfare. When I was younger, I read a book by Frank E. Peretti. I don’t remember which one, but that doesn’t matter, because after reading the summary of another book by him, I realized they were all the same:
Bad things start happening in town. Bad things are due to demons. Angels come to fight demons, can’t until local Christian population starts praying hard enough and with enough people that they are given power-ups and can drive out the demons.
This is what I believe people mean when they talk about spiritual warfare: there is always a fight going on over souls between heaven and hell, and prayer helps the good guys win.
I concede that if you believe in God and heaven and angels, it follows that there is a hell with demons and Satan. An interesting side-note is that Satan wasn’t always the super-bad-guy he’s portrayed as now, but seemed to have more of the role of a being who tests the faithfulness of God’s people. He only appears in a few texts, and not usually is directly named. The idea of spiritual warfare is problematic: it is not biblically-founded, besides the mentions of casting out demons. Prayer never was a big role in it, that I can recall. In any case, much of what is now used as a biblical basis for it was more metaphor than instruction, like Paul’s ‘armor of God’, or the entirety of the book of Revelation.
I can give that we don’t know what else may be out there, in another dimension or what have you. Perhaps there are angels and demons battling. The problem comes when a person claims that someone else is experiencing ‘spiritual warfare,’ or demons, or what have you, and then uses that to completely invalidate that person’s own viewpoint and memories. Telling someone that their experiences are invalid because they were besot by demons is demeaning and almost laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. Believing that if only you had prayed harder and the demons would have left must be a horrible burden, but it also must be nice to have an easy excuse for any bad in the world: demons did it.
If God expected people to pray in order to bolster his forces, he probably should have said so. Otherwise we are just writing our own fanfiction of the Bible to make ourselves feel more important than we likely are. Yes, it is written that we casted out demons and did miracles. Never does it say that was done with prayer alone. Not even in the story of Peter being freed from prison is it clear that prayer was the cause of the angel’s arrival. Even if we do implicate prayer in that miracle, that is the only instance (that I am aware of), and it is not theologically sound to base an entire doctrine off of anything that is only mentioned once in the Bible.
Prayer is a healthy activity, a useful tool, and a calming exercise for the brain. It is also an easy route to feel better about yourself for not doing anything, a tool for abuse, and a badge of honor. It can harm as much as it heals, and it is promised to do much more than it does. As with much Christianity, if what you prayed for didn’t happen, you weren’t praying hard enough or your faith wasn’t strong.
Links to the brain scan research: