Jesus-bombing [verb] (also: Christianing at): The act of inserting statements of Christian faith or religious opinions into an unrelated conversation, usually for the purpose of appearing righteous, derailing the conversation, or proselytizing. Note: this does not pertain to offering statements of faith or religious opinions in a relevant conversation regarding those beliefs or opinions.
Useage: “She tried wanted to discuss sports, but she was Jesus-bombed instead.”
“My mother is Christianing at me.”
Example: A mother and her atheist son are having a conversation by letters, attempting to reconcile some serious differences between them. The son feels he has been wronged and presents his complaints to the mother and asks for an apology. The mother replies:
“I admit I haven’t been perfect and I messed up. I confess that I continually fail at honoring Jesus Christ. I am a spectacular failure! That is why I am so thankful for such a great Gospel—for it is the only remedy for great sinners, like myself. Despite the wickedness of my heart, He is faithful. He loves me, He forgives me and He has a plan for my life. My life’s goal is to love, honor and desire God above all and to see and love others the way He does. I may be billions of miles from that goal, but His grace bridges the gap and I am so grateful! “
The son has been Jesus-bombed. Rather than addressing the son’s actual complaints, the mother indulges in an unrelated discussion of her personal religious beliefs about failure and forgiveness. This serves the three purposes stated above:
Appearing righteous: the mother may cloak her language in faux humility, but she also eagerly discusses her special relationship with god, her dedication to him, and her position of favor with him.
Derailing the conversation: the mother does not want to actually apologize for her mistakes. Instead she brings up her beliefs about Jesus and states that he has forgiven her, thus implying that there is no more need to dwell on her failings. In addition, she may be Jesus-bombing in attempt to bait her son into arguing religious topics with her rather than continuing to draw attention to her mistakes and misbehavior.
Proselytizing: the mother knows that her son is not a Christian, so she chooses to bring up her faith as frequently as possible in hopes of drawing him in again. She finds excuses to remind him of the parts of her religious beliefs that she finds most attractive (having a relationship with god, being forgiven for all mistakes, etc). She hopes that by doing so, he will be influenced to join her religion again.
(Yeah, I’m the son in this not-so-fictional example and yeah, I’m irritated.)
I’m posting this to facilitate a conversation that I began on the wonderful blog, Darcy’s Heart Stirrings. There, a commenter going by the name Josh made the following statement (emphasis mine):
If you really understand the whole narrative of the Bible it will always point to two things. God Loves you and He is always working for you to destroy evil, to destroy sin. If you honestly look at the Bible objectively its impossible to not see the love and care God has for us.
Josh went on to insist that, if I held a view of god that did not include his love and care for humankind, then I must be reading the bible in a biased and subjective way. Now, I agree with Josh that my view of god as described in the bible is subjective. However, I assert that his view is subjective as well. I disagree that Josh and everyone who agrees with him about god are somehow immune from bias in their reading of scripture, while everyone who comes away with a different opinion are failing to be objective. We could debate about how the character of god is depicted in the scriptures, but to me, it’s a purely academic exercise. We could argue about whether we felt that King Lear from Shakespeare’s play is a sympathetic character or not, but there is no such thing as reading King Lear objectively to find the real opinion of his character. In the same way, there is no way to objectively surmise the character of god from the bible. The very act of reading the bible and interpreting the words into meaning imposes our own biases and subjective values onto it. Josh claims that I can “objectively” read the bible and, if I do, it will be impossible to come to a conclusion other than his regarding the nature of the god depicted there. I just don’t see how that is possible. By what manner do I objectively read the bible? How can I test my level of objectivity or his?
He might object a little to my King Lear comparison if he claims Shakespeare’s play describes fictional events, while the bible describes historical events. That’s a fair objection, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. All it means is that there is a “right” answer to the question “what is the nature of god?” but it gets me no closer to figuring out how to objectively obtain it from the bible. For example:
The bible states that “god is good” and the bible also states that god ordered genocide against entire nations. There are a million viewpoints to take on this. One might say “clearly this is a contradiction and god can’t both be good and genocidal.” Others might say “those people deserved to be wiped out because they were evil. Therefore, god can both be good and order genocide.” Others might say “the bible misrepresents god here; he never ordered the genocide, but the Israelites claimed he did.” Others might say “clearly when the bible says god is good it means he is good only to people he likes.” Others might say “I don’t know why god committed genocide, but since he is good, we must assume he had good reasons.” On and on.
My question to Josh is not “which one of these is right” but rather “which one of these viewpoints (or others) was obtained objectively, without any bias from the person proposing it?” I claim none of them were. All of them are affected by biases: either biased because of our personal opinion of what “good” means, or biased by our assumptions that god must be good, or biased by our opinion of whether the bible is god’s word, or biased by our assumption of if the bible is telling the truth, or biased by our very understanding of what “god” means, etc etc etc. If there is an objective interpretation, I wouldn’t even begin to know how you’re supposed to find it. So Josh can tell me his preferred interpretation if he wants (I’m not telling mine or if mine is even on the list :P) but unless he can explain why his opinion is objective it’s not really answering my question.
One last thing: I do think that some people approach the bible more objectively than others. In other words, you can open the bible thinking “I believe that god is good/evil and the bible is going to prove it!” and read it that way and you will definitely be more strongly biased in that one respect than someone who says “I’m going to form my opinion after I read the book.” But even the latter person will be subjective in his or her assessments, no matter what they try to do to avoid it. It’s inevitable.
I am inviting Josh to respond here on my blog if he wishes to clarify his statements or answer my questions.
I want to start this part with a disclaimer. Religious belief is upheld in my country as moral and necessary and it’s a stigma that non-believers are constantly trying to overturn. Because of this, I want to emphasize that religion is not necessary or good for me. In fact, I am much happier and better off without it. All the same, losing my religion was deeply painful and I am still in the process of grieving it in some ways. I will discuss all of the wonderful things about being free of faith soon. But for now, I want to confess this truth: losing my faith hurt. And that’s what this part is about.
You see, I didn’t want to stop believing. I desperately wanted god to be real. He had been a part of my life as long as I could remember. He had been my friend, companion, comforter, and someone to rely on. My life, experiences, and personality had all been shaped by my former beliefs (I’m still not sure if in good or bad ways). I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted to still believe he was there. I didn’t want to give up.
Unfortunately, I had no choice in the matter. I was rapidly learning that we don’t actually choose what we believe. Sure, we can choose to go to church and surround ourselves with people who agree with us and repeat our doctrines back to us. We can choose to read scriptures and look for meaning in them. We can choose to pray or meditate. But we can’t really make ourselves believe something. I can’t make myself believe that the sky is green. I can’t make myself believe that the earth is flat. I can’t make myself believe that the president is a lizardman. And I couldn’t make myself believe that god was real. No amount of saying “I believe it” could trick my brain into accepting something that it knew there was no evidence for.
I was heart-broken. It was like a close friend had utterly betrayed and abandoned me.
And that made me angry. Yes, just like so many Evangelical Christians’ wet-dream, I was a non-believer who was angry as hell at god. It’s a little odd being angry with someone that doesn’t exist. But I was. I was pissed that he didn’t exist. More specifically, I was pissed that I had made him a part of my life for so long. I had spent so much time and effor serving, reverencing, and prostrating myself to this god, sacrificing my safety, wants, needs, and health to honor him, following his “leading” and performing his “requests” only to find out he wasn’t even there. It was equal parts heart-breaking and humiliating.
Christians trying to re-convert me just made it worse. I was alternately treated like a petulant child or a criminal. As far as they were concerned, I could not possibly have lost my faith due to honest seeking, valid experiences, and years of consideration and examination. No, either I was too stupid to see The Truth (and thus needed to have some more scripture and 1st-grade apologetics beaten into my head) or I was rejecting god out of some sort of malicious intent. Many of them were angry with me for not believing what they believed. My very existence was a threat to them; it was unfathomable that I could have reasonably and rationally come to a point of unbelief. They would stamp their feet and demand that I needed to read more scripture, try this church, talk to this person, read this book, pray more, seek more, and jump through more hoops before I was “allowed” to not believe. I had just finally broken free of their shame-based religion, so it was miserable and infuriating to have more blame heaped on me for it. As a result, I withdrew from Christians and anything church-related as much as possible.
Even so, for a while, I kept hoping god would turn back up. I picked up various different religious scriptures and read through them curious if anything would change my mind. It was fascinating, but ultimately futile. The qur’an was just as trite as the bible, which was just as trite as the ancient Hebrew and Gnostic myths and scriptures I read. Indeed, expanding my religious horizons just reaffirmed my lack of belief as I realized one religion’s Truth was no truthier than anyone else’s Truth. I sometimes prayed absently, usually starting with “well, I don’t think you’re really there, but…” It was partly habit, and partly wishful thinking. As expected, nothing happened. Little by little, I grew tired of yelling into an empty room. If god wasn’t interested in answering or wasn’t there, maybe it was time to stop.
Let me say something to any Evangelical Christians out there: do not dare tell me that I “walked away from god” or “hardened my heart against him” or any other such bullshit. Don’t you dare tell me that god is still trying to reach me and I just won’t listen. Don’t you dare pretend that I’m responsible for the break-down in the “god relationship”. I didn’t turn my back on god; I chased him to hell and back again. I struggled to hold onto him for years. I only let go at the point where it was physically impossible for me to believe any longer. That might be uncomfortable for you. You might hope that you will have some trite and simple answer for me, like “just pray more” or “just ask god to show himself to you” or “just read these verses” or (most annoying of all) “just believe.” Trust me, I tried all of that. I prayed, I begged, I read, and I wanted so badly to believe. But I can’t. If god is out there and he wants me to believe in him, he should either give me some evidence of his existence, or he should not have given me a brain that requires evidence for belief. If he’s out there, he only has himself to blame for losing me.
Alright, that’s enough gloom. Next time I want to talk about what I love about being faith-free.
Despite my misgivings, I continued to search for answers. The more questions I asked, the more flimsy god became. One after another, doctrines that I had once believed crumbled away under the weight of serious scrutiny. Hell was one of the first to go, and it’s the one that dealt the fatal blow to my faith.
Losing my belief in hell was as simple as reading a 1-sentence argument online. “Infinite punishment for finite sins is not justice.” That was it. I am certain that it could not have been my first time hearing some form of this argument but it was the first time I actually let myself consider it. I realized how cheap and petty the idea of hell was. In fact, god’s entire reward/punishment system started to look pretty asinine. God loves us, and yet is willing to let us be tortured for eternity rather than giving us a second chance? God has to send us to hell because he is holy and cannot exist with sin, and yet he has existed with us in our sinful state for the past thousands of years without any sort of spontaneous combustion? God is just and merciful, and yet thinks that our actions in a 100-year-or-less lifespan are enough to determine our eternal fate? How did any of this make any sense whatsoever?
Deciding that hell was a bunch of hogwash didn’t cause me to stop being a Christian. After all, Christianity and hell need not go together; it was easy to find expressions of my faith that did not include it. But all the same, it was a pivotal moment for me to realize that taking things on faith had allowed me to be so thoroughly duped by this lie. Hell, it wasn’t even a good lie. It was a lie riddled with glaring inconsistencies and with a pathetically obvious motive to manipulate and control church-goers. It was about as realistic of a threat as putting a dollar-store ghost costume on and wiggling my fingers while saying “woooo.” And yet I had swallowed it 100% and allowed myself to be fucked by it just as it was intended. I had let it so deep into my mind that, even once I realized how silly it was, it still could wake me up in the night, scared shitless. It made no sense. None! What had I been thinking?
If taking things on faith had caused me to abandon good sense this badly, what other obvious lies might I have accepted? What other inconsistencies might I have papered over with the pretty but flimsy excuse called “faith”?
I decided that simply saying “I believe it” was no excuse to fail to prove my doctrine beyond reasonable doubt. If something was true, there ought to be clear, impartial evidence for it. I was not going to be duped again. My rational mind was finally turned on full-throttle and it couldn’t be stopped. Unfortunately for god, he was no match for it. No matter where I turned for proof, he failed to deliver. Proof of Jesus’ divinity? Nope. Proof that the Christian god is the right one? Nope. Proof of god’s interference in the doings of men? Nope. Proof of miracles? Nope. Proof of god’s existence? Nope. Sure, I could squint and tilt my head and say “if you look at this from just the right angle and say the right things and believe it really, really hard, you can see god there.” But if I looked at it face-on with both eyes open, god vanished into the patterns and complexities of reality.
At my work, I was often the lone skeptic. I don’t mean to say I was the lone non-Christian. No, the school I taught at was full of astrology-following, Reiki-practicing, modern-medicine-eschewing, conspiracy-theory-believing instructors, both Christian and non (and I loved them, despite my occasional frustration with their strange theories). I once found myself pitted, almost completely alone, against the entire Massage Therapy department in a debate on the existence of auras. But I digress. The topic at hand, one day, was whether or not Reiki was an effective healing tool. After I presented studies and they presented anecdotes, they asked me if I would be open to changing my mind if I tried it and found it to be successful. “Sure, I’d consider,” I said. “But I would go into it skeptically since I don’t have any reason to think it would work.”
“Well, if you don’t believe it will work, then it won’t work for you,” they said.
“You know, the number one sign of a scam is when you’re told you have to believe something is real before you’re allowed to see the evidence,” I said.
I might as well have been reprimanding myself. If god was real, why could I not verify his existence independently? Why did the evidence only appear if I already accepted the premise? The sunset only looked like god made it if I already believed god made it. The bible only appeared to be perfect if I already believed that it was perfect. God only worked miracles if I already believed he would work miracles. God only seemed real when I believed he was real. I was required to trust in the conclusion before I could see the evidence. It was a scam.
Somewhere around that time, despite desperately wanting him to be real, I stopped believing in god.
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.
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:
Being raised Pentacostal meant adhering to the strictest possible modesty standards. Long before I had any idea of what sex was, I knew that it was a sin for women to wear pants, jewelry, modern clothes, cut their hair, or do anything else that might distinguish them from the illustrations in the “Little House on the Prairie” books I read. The reason given was “modesty” which I understood in the vaguest sense to be a way for women to not exalt themselves or draw attention to themselves. A loud woman was an immodest woman, by my reckoning. I’m sure the church would not have disagreed with me there.
At an older age, however, I was introduced to Josh Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” series, and all of the toxic purity drivel that came with it. Suddenly I had a new idea of modesty. It wasn’t about the woman at all… it was about the man. It was explained to me that men would be caused to sin if they were attracted to me. To think, that a passing glance at an attractive person could condemn an otherwise good man’s soul to hell! It was terrifying to contemplate. Suddenly, women who dressed in modern clothes weren’t just prideful people… they were actively dragging men to their deaths. I admit, I felt hatred towards women who would risk peoples’ lives for the mere sake of looking appealing or feeling good about their bodies.
Now, let me take a break to point out how ludicrous this notion is. Positive body image was being presented to me as something harmful to others. Needless to say, I did not have a positive opinion of my body. In fact, I did not really have much of an awareness of my body at all. I was oblivious of the changes my body was going through and avoided looking at myself in the mirror. The female body was just not something that I felt comfortable looking at… not even my own.
But my skewed vision of my body is a story for another day. In addition to causing me to disdain women who dressed in clothes that showed their form, purity teachings caused me to deeply distrust men. It was very alienating to me to realize that the other sex was constantly on the verge of horrendous sin. It seemed that they were creatures without self-control, who were just waiting to violate me spiritually at any second. After all, there was no distinguishing between attraction and lust in these teachings. Finding someone sexually attractive was, in itself, a sin equivalent with committing adultery. It was little wonder, then, that men suddenly seemed strange, foreign, and dangerous to me. It didn’t help that I had long identified myself more as a man than a woman and enjoyed feeling like “one of the guys”. This divide opening between the two sexes was confusing and dismaying to me, since I no longer felt I could keep one foot in each.
Unintentionally, these beliefs set up men as the enemy. While I was in highschool, a friend of my mother’s thanked my family for making my sister and I dress in baggy, “modest” clothing. “It is so hard for my teenaged boys not to lust after women, and it is a big help that your daughters aren’t tempting them,” she said. Even at the time, I was upset by her words. I felt violated by these disgusting male sinners that might be trying to commit adultery with me in their hearts. “Why can’t they just not lust after me on their own?” I wondered. “Why is it my job to make them not look at me?” Clearly, their mother didn’t understand the difference between attraction and lust either. I feel sorry for these boys, in retrospect, for being taught that their human instincts were basically visual rape of a woman. How guilty they must have been every time they felt any desire.
Being unable to distinguish between attraction and lust also led to a dreadfully warped idea of sexuality. I felt that a relationship could only be fulfilling if the partners were not attracted to each other. After all, any sexual interest would be sin, which would mean the relationship was out of favor with God. Surprise, surprise! I was not attracted to my ex-boyfriend at all, but assumed that this was a sign of a healthy relationship. I stayed in the relationship for over two years, trying to fight away his sexual advances and feeling revulsion anytime that I caved to them. I truly believe that having a healthier view of sexuality could have saved me a lot of unwanted physical contact, because I would at least have been able to recognize my own sexual desires or lack thereof. Instead, I was wrapped up in the moronic idea that my boyfriend pressuring me for sex and me being repulsed by the idea was the way things ought to be. After all, I was a woman and he was a man. Men lust and women do not.
This misunderstanding also tainted my view of homosexuality. I was taught that practicing homosexuals were mentally ill or purposely rebelling against God, but I also assumed that the attraction itself was a sin, not just the sex acts. I honestly suspect that this is the reason that many Christians still condemn homosexuals, without regard to whether or not they are actually having sex. Saying “I am gay” is already akin to committing the act of sodomy in the minds of certain religious people.
I have since come to a much healthier understanding of sexual desire (corresponding in part with coming out as a lesbian). I am not afraid of my attractions, and I am not threatened by the attractions of others. I recognize that a person’s thoughts are not harmful to anyone, so long as their behaviors stay within the appropriate bounds of consent and respect. Attraction is not sexual obsession. Attraction is not mental adultery. Attraction is a healthy, normal part of being human. Claiming otherwise is imposing moral oppression on a child, damaging the way men and women relate to each other, and setting up future relationships to fail or be strained by unrealistic ideas.