I was chatting with one of my friends from Jr. High in the comment section of one of my Facebook posts recently. The photo I shared was basically making fun of people who add to the bible based on personal preferences. I shared it after seeing a conversation in a Christian moms group that included condemnation of women who wore clothing that revealed armpits or ankles. You ladies can have my sandals and tank tops when hell freezes over, only because I’m sure I’ll be wearing something warmer then.
After being raised in a legalistic environment, I go from amused to pissed off in a matter of seconds reading this kind of garbage. There were multiple attempts by these women cherry picking scripture and appealing to the original language when they themselves have never learned the original language (which I’m not saying knowing the original language should be a requirement for Christians – far from it- but if you are going to appeal to it for your extra-scriptural arguments then it might be a good idea).
I followed the discussion up until everyone finally capitulated to there being various interpretations of scripture, but not without several women using their last words to declare that God had revealed these ideas to them and they were not merely personal convictions, but moral convictions for all of us. Funny how that didn’t make it into the bible…
Anyhow, my friend who has long since apostatized from the Christian faith was remarking about how Christian groups tend to cannibalize each other like this. “Never go to a group church when you need help.” He said.
For a moment, I admit that the thought crossed my mind that someone might argue with him, because I’ve seen a lot of Christians who do not like being criticized, which is understandable, but I found myself finding validation and dare I say, comfort, in his words.
I have never once felt safe sharing my worst struggles in any of the Christian groups I’ve been in over the years. They were so perfect. None of them had the problems I did, and the people that did problems like mine were singled out by these people as being spiritually afflicted or damaged. They deserved it. That was what I heard.
Sure, there were girls that shared that they’d been molested or raped, and, of course, they were welcomed with open arms, but when your problem is something you’ve done to yourself? Well, you’re an outsider. They don’t understand because they don’t want to. Either because they don’t want to believe it could happen to them or someone they love, or because it is their struggle as well and they don’t want to give away anything that could pin that unforgivable problem to them. They don’t want to be associated with “crazy”.
There was one time, in a bible study, that we were going over a verse in Ephesians 5, and I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense, but I didn’t have the capacity to reason why at the time and I certainly wasn’t going to say anything. It was a bible verse that I had heard before and it had always given me pause for thought. It wasn’t any of the “controversial” passages on men and women, at least, not directly…
“After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” – Ephesians 5:29
The most obvious objection I had to this was that I literally and intentionally didn’t feed my body. I was using my elaborate form of self-harm, my crutch, my only constant, to dull my pain. My anorexia was at one of the worst points it had ever been and all I heard was that I’d done one more thing wrong. One more thing on top of not being modest enough because my bra strap slipped or that my baggy basketball shorts that were past my knees were still too short. One more thing on top of not being pure and virginal enough, at least in thought (and because no one told me women struggled with lust, I thought I was alone). One more thing, on top of one more thing, on top of one more damn thing.
It was crushing. I was constantly reminded that I was breaking God’s law, without being told that I was forgiven.
Clearly I was doing something wrong, I thought. For as long as I could remember, I had hated myself. I didn’t think any of my friends hated themselves, but I did. I hated my weaknesses, my body, my spirit. I was the weakest one because of all my flaws and I hated it. I was the one who renounced my faith and my Creator in my darkest night only to wake up with a heart that still beat and the feeling of being truly and utterly alone as I thought I had been all that time.
I hated everything about myself. I was destroying my body, what was supposed to be my temple, slowly killing myself from the inside out. No one could see it, and I almost felt as though it might be better somehow if they could. Maybe if I got piercings, or tattoos, or did something radical, someone would finally see I was drowning. I wanted to be strong, like my friends and the people I saw behind the stain glass windows of all the churches I’d ever walked into.
I got my wake up call in the eyes of someone I loved. The darkness I’d known so intimately in myself shown back at me and it shattered my heart in a way that I could never put it back together the same way again. Someone I thought was a strong, faithful Christian. If self-harm and mental health issues were something we deserved for our sins or spiritual affiliations from a lack of faith, then I knew that no one on earth would be spared.
The years went by, and I stumbled through them blindly hanging onto my pain, added on to by knowing that everything I’d believed about the strong Christians I knew was a lie. I was dying, and so were they. We were burdened with things far greater than what God had asked of us. There was no peace, no mercy, and no grace.
We were supposed to be perfect because we were supposed to be the poster children for Christianity, especially once we got to college (at least, those of us who were allowed to go to such secular establishments). It would look bad, on God (read: the legalistic powers that be) for us to be anything less than healthy, happy, intelligent young men and women. Christians shouldn’t have any reason to be mentally unhealthy, or depressed, or even forbid have some kind of serious mental health issue. I mean, what would the atheists think? What could we possibly have to be depressed about anyways?
In reality, the atheists I met during college saw through the perfectly spun lies the moment they laid eyes on me. People who had once been as I was, people who were “good little Christians” with secret struggles that had finally reconciled their inner struggle between their faith and their demons by casting away their faith. And to be honest, I didn’t blame them. Because at one point in time, we shared something in common: a man-made deity that was angry, vindictive, unforgiving and oppressive.
They helped me, probably in more ways than any of us will ever know, but there will always be problems.
You see, just like an abusive ex-boyfriend who beats you and then comes back declaring his undying love, so too is my relationship with legalism. It keeps finding me, and I keep recognizing it as something relatively harmless (at least, now that I am no longer surrounded by it) from my childhood. An almost whimsical weakness falls over me and in order to relive the parts of my life that I cherished so much, I allow it to swallow me whole. I knew something about it was right, and because of that, I didn’t want to let it go or “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and risk losing my faith. I thought it was worth the pain that it caused to hold that part of my life close again.
Until the depression sinks in. Then the anxiety. And then the old familiar voice of my personal abuser, anorexia. In such a short time, I become consumed all over again by what I can only describe as a religious version of Stockholm syndrome.
It wasn’t that bad, I told myself. The people who walk away are worldly, that’s all. I was a heathen for ever straying away from the rigorous standards. After all, they were just trying to keep me safe from the big, scary world.
But it isn’t true. None of that is true. Legalism is a poison, destroying the spirits of the children of God by placing restrictions and rules that God Himself doesn’t even call us to abide by onto us. But ya know, train a child up and all that jazz.
The reality is, nothing we ever do is going to be good enough. Thank God, literally, that Jesus died for us for that very reason. Oh but wait, we can’t talk about that because our time would be better spent talking about how other people are falling short. Because of their mental health, their clothing, their words, or their scarlet letters. It is way more productive to discuss how other Christians aren’t really “true Christians” rather than to genuinely listen to the depressed elderly woman down the street, or the girl you found purging in the bathroom at church, or the boy with the marks all over his body. And not just listening to gossip about it the next Sunday, either.
I’ve made, and continue to make, a lot of mistakes. And I’m scared to talk about them with other Christians because of how I’ve been treated in the past, by what has been said to me and about other people like me.
But because I hid my problems in the past, I missed opportunities to help other people, especially those most important to me. There are few things more painful to me than finding out years after the fact that I shared problems with people I loved, but because I didn’t say anything out of fear, there were permanent scars we all carried, both physically and mentally.
The truth is, I trusted people who didn’t teach the bible. They taught what suited them and their agenda. They spun their words, narcissism guiding their every move. I tried to find people who were leaders who actually taught the bible correctly, only to be disappointed again. There is Legalism and then there is an equal and opposite doctrine in which no one is a sinner and we are all going to heaven, and that isn’t right either.
There is one way to find out who God really is and that is by listening to what He has plainly and clearly said He is.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” – 1 John 4:8
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
I am thankful that, despite that fact that I will probably always hate myself, I am forgiven by my patient, kind, and merciful Heavenly Father. My only regret is the number of years I didn’t know or believe that. I’m done putting on a show of the perfect little Christian girl (or at least my best version of it), and I have been for some time now, though I haven’t been as vocal about it as I would have liked to because some of the legalistic influences still linger in my life.
My anorexia, depression, and anxiety don’t make me any less Christian. They are my burden to bear from simply living in a fallen world and let me assure you, no amount of telling me they shouldn’t exist will automatically poof them out of existence (though if you try that you might find yourself poofed out of my circles).
My faults don’t bring my God down, despite what many Christians seems to believe. On the contrary, His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Christians shouldn’t have to keep up appearances of perfection. Not only has it been damaging to my mental and physical health, but it undermines the gospel. If we are all perfect, what need to we have for our Lord’s death?
For now, I’m still wandering, trying to find people like me who understand what it is like to be raised in Legalism, but have made the choice to remain faithful to God, despite being lied to about His character for years. Unfortunately, as my friend pointed out, it is hard to find the grace and support I desperately need among many other Christians, however well-intended they may be.
“Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong
So I tuck it all away, like everything’s okay
If I make them all believe it, maybe I’ll believe it too
So with a painted grin, I play the part again
So everyone will see me the way that I see them”
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