Growing up, there was one central message to Christianity: be afraid.
My parents didn’t teach me that. My parents are good people who taught me that there was a God, Jesus was his son and that when I died, Jesus would take me to heaven and if I did something wrong, I should tell God and the person I wronged that I was sorry and to try and make it better.
All very benign, and dare I say, a pretty healthy way to introduce concepts of Christianity to a child.
No, I learned to be afraid of God through Christian schools, churches, and Sunday Schools did.
God wasn’t the loving father sitting on the porch waiting and searching for his lost boy. God wasn’t the desperate woman searching a house for a lost coin. And God wasn’t really the kindly shepherd searching out the lost sheep.
No. God was… holy. And God hated sin because He was HOLY. And God, my friends, was watching you. Always. God saw those impure thoughts you had about the girl in your class. And that was just as bad as adultery. God saw you cheat on your test. Cheaters are liars. God hate lies. The devil is the father of lies. Are you sure you’re really a child of God and not a child of… Satan?
God was watching and God was itching to punish sin and bring some holy Old Testament wrath on your evil sinner’s behind. Push Him too far and BAM! God just might kill you like He did some of the Corinthian believers who didn’t respect Him enough. Or like Ananias and Sapphria whom God killed for hypocrisy.
God was like an abusive and potentially homicidal Santa. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness’ sake… or he might chastise you to ‘get your attention’ or ‘wake you up’. This chastisement might be as simple as a verbal tongue lashing from a preacher’s sermon or a bus hitting your car.
And let’s not even get into hell and how fucked up it is to teach a little child that God is pissed at them by default because they’re not perfect and if they don’t say the sinner’s prayer with sincerity and beg for forgiveness, God is going to throw them into a torture chamber where they will burn alive being devoured by worms forever and ever and ever without mercy, hope, respite, a moment’s worth of rest or kindness. Only the torments of an angry Deity and the Amens coming from all of the saints who made it to heaven including your parents.
So you can understand why I grew up terrified of God.
Oh, it was all, of course balanced by ‘love’. Oh, but God really loves you. Even though you’re a dirty piece of sinning filth and deserves to be tortured every day forever. And even though it was your sins that caused God to kill Jesus.
This isn’t to condemn the teachers or pastors who taught or gave me this image of God. They were otherwise nice and dedicated people doing their best to explain their story of the gospel to kids that they were convinced were in real danger as long as they were on the outside. And they were trying to use that image of holiness as something to impress upon us the need to be good and moral people.
It doesn’t make the fear or the distorted image of God any less damaging.
To this day, I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, fear, and anxiety about God. It happens less now that I’ve shed much of the earlier toxic beliefs I held, but it’s hard to undo and there are times when I still find myself cringing when life is going well or when I’m having a good time because there is a part of me that is afraid that God is just waiting to drop the other shoe on me for some sin I’ve committed.
And, of course, using fear as a motivation for people doesn’t stop when you grow up. It’s still very much present in the church, especially in that most evangelical and most American part of a service: the altar call.
I’ve been through several altar calls and they generally follow the same pattern. The preacher spends a good 20-40 minutes talking about your sin and all the ways in which you have failed God miserably as a human being and really for simply existing in a flawed state, and the fate that awaits unbelievers (the aforementioned eternal torture chamber) and how even the church isn’t doing enough to meet God’s expectations what with your going to work, paying your bills, watching that ungodly TV, checking out unholy pictures of naked people online, and how God is very disappointed and America is going to hell in a handbasket and it’s all your fault, because if My People would just humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then God would heal the land. And so on and so forth. And then comes the final sales pitch: the altar call.
If you’re feeling sufficiently miserable and afraid of God now, recognize that you can join team God and experience this every week and escape the fires of hell! Don’t think about it too much. There isn’t any time. This is a limited time offer! You must act now! Or don’t you know, you might get into a car accident on the way home and die! Or Jesus could show up and rapture the church at a moment’s notice and you’ll be Left Behind to suffer seven years of famine, war, plagues, demon locusts, and the Antichrist! And then it will be too late! No more mercy or love for you, just angry God. The window of God’s grace is closing! You must come forward now! Now the worship band will play an emotional song and just come on down before it’s too late!
(Makes you wonder what would happen if someone were to suffer a heart attack on the way down the aisle. Do they get into heaven or because they didn’t say the actual sinner’s prayer are they hell bound? Maybe purgatory? I digress…)
It also makes you wonder just why this form of Christianity has to prey so much upon people’s fears. If they have the legitimate truth, you’d think they’d be willing to give reasons for their faith, and not just stoke peoples’ fears. You’d think they’d want people to think about and examine the truth they claim to have.
Thanks for letting me vent for 1,200 words now. I am in the process of finding freedom now and it started with one particular realization which I’ll discuss in my next post.
Caveat: The last church I attended wasn’t big on altar calls and the pastor did invite discussion and provided arguments for his own points of view. While I no longer agree with him on his theology, he is a good and caring man that didn’t use fear as a cudgel.