When God Plays Favorites

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Let’s just admit it – we all have our favorites. It isn’t that difficult, then, to believe that God has favorites too. Consider, that one of the main narratives of the Bible as a whole, is preoccupied with the notion that the Israelites are God’s chosen people, God’s “favorites,” so to speak. Favoritism is sort of a harmless construct, but it can affect a lot, particularly when the stakes are high.

Over the last year or so, I’ve tried to limit my direct criticisms of the President and his administration. I have, generally, erred on the side of limiting my sound that would contribute to the raging noise on the subject that has seemingly overtaken all news media in the most exhausting way. But, for the moment, I must be vocal.

Over the course of the current presidency, and the election cycle that lead up to it, there have been a number of Christian leaders who have insisted directly, or passively implied, that Donald Trump was chosen by God to lead our nation. Even one of the pastors at my own church (the church I left a week after the election) went as far as to post to Facebook that Trump’s win, “was a total miracle of the Lord,” implying that God’s “favor” was upon him. These beliefs, while benign in and of themselves, can lead to malignant consequences – issues we are seeing played out currently.

This favoritism is not new, but has been a hallmark of the religious right since its inception in the 1970’s. In ‘73, two landmark decisions occurred that would shape the views and policy concerns of hegemonic Christians for decades to come, even today. In January, Roe v. Wade would be decided by the Supreme Court, granting women the legal right to an abortion. In the same year the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a huge victory for the Gay Right’s movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Favoritism is not always indicative of people, specifically. Sometimes favoritism comes into play with policy. Just like people, we all have policies that we care about more than others. Ever since these issues came to the forefront of pop culture and the media, religious zealots have deemed abortion and homosexuality to be immoral “sins” that undermine traditional gender norms, and disrupt the sanctity of the nuclear family. The purported “moral majority” have held great political influence by galvanizing churches and their members to vote, always, for the pro-life, anti-LGBT, Republican candidate under the guise of God’s favor. It never mattered who the individual was, as long as they supported the “right” policies.

So, here’s the thing about favoritism, it can either work for you, in your “favor”, or it can work against you as discriminatory. As an example, in the Bible, being God’s chosen people started out great for the Israelites, but how do you think the Canaanites felt when they were massacred through genocide? That’s something not enough Christians think about, because the Canaanites were the enemies of Israel, so why care about them, right? So, If God truly does favor some people or some policies over others, then what does that look like today? What are the present-day affects?

One affect appears to be blatant hypocrisy, for starters. I was nine-years-old when news broke about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. Still, I remember, quite vividly, sitting in the back of my mom’s ’93 Ford Escort and hearing the auditory clip come across the radio of Bill Clinton’s infamous lie, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” I remember the attitudes of my fellow Christians at the time, who felt that the actions and lies told by Clinton were morally repugnant and unbecoming of the office of President of the United States.

When news broke prior to the election about Donald Trump’s, now infamous, statement about grabbing women by the pussy, what was once considered morally repugnant by the religious right was now considered the misguided musings of a, “baby Christian,” to quote James Dobson. And in 1998, in response to the news about Clinton’s lies, Franklin Graham asked an important question, “if he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?” But when Graham was questioned earlier this year about Trump’s alleged affair with a porn star, he stated, “this thing with Stormy Daniels is nobody’s business.” Apparently when you’re God’s chosen president, you can get away with much more than when you’re not.

Another current affect to this perceived favoritism is the apathy and complacency of many Christians, even the ones who don’t insist that Trump was chosen by God. The favoritism of certain policies alone is coming at a huge cost to our integrity as Christians, and as a nation. The irony is the religious right have become so hyper vigilant about policies in support of traditional family values that they’ve become blind to the fact that actual families are currently being torn apart through hostile immigration policy practices. What’s worse is, there are those within the Trump administration, particularly Sarah Sanders and Jeff Sessions, who are using the Bible to support and justify these measures, and few to no one in the hegemonic Christian camp is breaking from their ranks. Speaking truth to power only applies when the power is someone we, apparently, don’t like.

Immigrant children are living in cages after being ripped from their families, but it’s okay, because American exceptionalism requires that our borders be secure – no matter what. LGBTQ individuals still face rampant discrimination, marginalization, and violence, but it’s okay, as long as Christian bigots can still refuse service to people that make them “uncomfortable.” Palestinians are being murdered in Gaza, but that’s okay too, because at least we got the embassy where we wanted it. This is what happens when favoritism is used at the expensive of the un-favored. This is what happens when we dehumanize the cultural or political “other” to push our own narratives and beliefs.

The selective outrage, and conversely the selective silence of these Christians shows an obvious display of partisanship. As angry as I am by these actions, I can’t tell who to blame when I, myself, was primed from birth to believe that, as a Christian, God valued my life over others. It was never quite articulated that way in Sunday School, but one thing that favoritism does is it sets you apart, and distinguishes you from another in an “us vs. them” type of way. When you’re in the “us” camp you have access to an abundant amount of grace, just as Trump has been given by a number of Christians, when you get relegated to the “them” camp however, Christians can’t wait to tear you to shreds, just as they did to Obama (assumedly for his pro-LGBT stances), and Clinton before him.

With all of this said, I want to ask my Trump-supporting, Christian friends some questions: do you believe God values the life of a Billionaire, playboy, President over the life of migrant children? Do you consider it ironic to call yourself pro-life and pro-family but then degrade migrants in search of better lives for their families? And how do you reconcile Christ’s call to love our neighbor, even our enemies, and to care for the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, and others, with administrative policies and practices that degrade entire groups of people, that denigrate welfare recipients and the welfare system as a whole, and that demonizes immigrants and the working poor?

I would wager that when it comes to Christ, the one we supposedly are to base our faith upon, that He would favor grace, love, mercy, and peace, over laws, policies, and even people that seek to exploit the least of these for their own authoritarian aims. I don’t want to necessarily say that those favoring the law are in the wrong, but one must consider that the law, itself, does not always favor justice. “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”– Barbara Brown Taylor

Shadrach, Mechach, Abednego, & the NFL

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We will soon be entering our third NFL season where the attention, for many, will not be on the game, solely, but, on the conversation of racial inequality and police brutality against persons of color. This conversation (started by Colin Kaepernick in August of 2016) is still ongoing but has taken an unfortunate turn. For this upcoming season, the NFL owners have chosen to create an internal policy requiring players to stand for the National Anthem when on the field with the intent to prevent protests and suppress the voices of those who were calling attention to the issues caused by systemic racism.

Today, as I write, it is with the specific frustration that the acknowledgement of my white, male, Christian privilege is not shared by many of my fellow white, male, Christians. Truth be told, I wish I didn’t have to speak or write about this topic as it generally leads to a discussion and debate among them that I am already tired of. And yet, I must be vigilant in reminding myself of the privilege I possess. Opting to turn a blind eye or ignore a problem simply because it is exhausting is a luxury that isn’t afforded to everyone. These conversations matter as they affect the very lives of people of color; and they don’t have the benefit of looking away when they get tired.

What’s become the most frustrating thing about this topic is the way that it is regularly framed: as a protest against our actual Anthem and flag, and, by extension, the government, specifically military service-members and veterans. Rather than waste time explaining why I believe this logic is false and flawed – I feel it is prudent to point out the idolatry in it, particularly when the argument gets perpetuated by my fellow white, male, Christians (emphasis on the Christians).

There is a story within the Bible in chapter three of the Book of Daniel. This story concerns three young men, Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego; and if you’ve ever been to Sunday School – it’s a story you are most likely familiar with. The “TL, DR” version, for those unfamiliar, is that the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, created a large golden idol, set it on a plain in Babylon, and commanded everyone to fall down and worship the idol whenever they heard a specific piece of music (starting to sound familiar?). Our three protagonists were turned in because they didn’t worship the idol as commanded and thus faced the punishment, which in this story was death. However, spoiler alert, they didn’t die, but instead, their example was used as a testament to their faith and their beliefs.

As a Christian, I am frustrated because this is an example of the kind of story I grew up with in church. A story that somehow gets lost in translation when compared to modern society. Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego were Hebrews living in exile, in a foreign land and given foreign names. They were commanded to worship an idol representing a king and an empire that essentially sought to rob them of their Jewish heritage, identity, and beliefs. So, instead of conforming to the imperialistic status quo, they literally and metaphorically stood in protest against the injustices they had experienced as Hebrews at the hands of the Babylonian autocracy. For Christians, this is a story of courage, bravery, and standing in faith for what one believes in, but, when it comes to these practices during the U.S. Anthem prior to a football game, most Christians no longer seem to value these principles.

Today we live in a nation not too different from Babylon. We are guilty of slavery and mass genocide in the names of colonialism and imperialism. We have a long history of racist and discriminatory practices, not just against people of color but also of gender, sexual, and religious minorities. Many like to claim that these practices are far from view in our history but they’re not. And instead of getting mad at the injustices occurring around us, hegemonic Christians (most of whom are also white males) would rather get upset at the few who (in our present-day situation) choose to kneel when our Anthem gets played.

What I don’t understand is how Christians today can read a story like this in Daniel, but be so blind to our flaws as a nation and the harm that’s been caused to our brothers and sisters in Christ. What’s worse is, rather than caring about the message and the reasons for the act of protest, many would rather condemn the very act as disrespectful or unpatriotic.

Now, please don’t misconstrue my message. I see nothing wrong with standing during the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think it’s wrong as Christians to show support and honor for our country, though some Christian traditions like Mennonites and other Anabaptists choose not to recite the Pledge or Anthem specifically because they believe their first allegiance should be to God (and I’ve never heard hegemonic Christians complain about them). But, when Christians hold these patriotic practices above our call to share the Gospel of reconciliation – this is when these practices turn from patriotic gestures into acts of idolatry. Racism, especially at the institutional and systemic levels, is a Gospel issue. When we demean, suppress, and try to prevent those with a platform to address racial injustices from speaking and protesting – we have effectively perverted the integrity of this Gospel. Christians are missing opportunities to heal, restore, and reconcile with those most affected by racism because we would rather demonstrate allegiance to an empire than deal with the sins of that empire.

I will reiterate, there is nothing wrong with showing love for your country, but don’t let the gospel of patriotism pervert or dilute the Gospel of reconciliation. So, to those of you, particularly my fellow white, male, Christians, who continue to claim you are down with this message, this Gospel of reconciliation, but continue to insist that maybe this isn’t the time, place, or best way to protest these issues – I have nothing more to say or offer, personally, but to leave you with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“…There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. … [W}hen the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust. … Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. … I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counsillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’…” – Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Authoritarian and the Finisher of My Faith

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I have a love/hate relationship with institutionalized religion. I love the church, and I miss being part of a local church, but I can hardly abide what the church has become, particularly the modern-American church.

There are times when I find myself pointing out all the bad and others when I’m defending any good. I’ve seen the church help a lot of people, yet I’ve seen a lot of harm done as well. And it’s not always clear to me who’s to blame in a system that’s built on an unseen, unheard authority figure.

We were taught in church to give “double honor” to those who held authority. We read First Timothy 5:17 to demonstrate that this was a biblical principle, followed by verse 19 where it loosely says, “don’t accuse your leaders of anything wrong, unless you have a lot of people willing to back you up.” Not that it was ever stated this directly, but, essentially, the message was, fall into submission to the leaders over you, and don’t question them, or their directions.

Obedience was revered as a quality of a morally upright person. It was akin to righteousness and disobedience or disobedient persons were always made the example of what not to do or how not to act. To be disobedient was to be rebellious and this was always demonized as the worst sort of behavior at the root of all other sins.

There is a study conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961, aptly referred to as The Milgram Experiment. The purpose of the study was to examine obedience to authority. Participants were asked to administer levels of shock to a “learner.” The shocks weren’t real, unbeknown to the participant, and the learner was an actor who was part of the study. Participants were told this was a study in learning and tasked with asking the “learner” questions. They had to administer shocks when the learner answered incorrectly. The shocks were incremental, ranging from fifteen volts to four-hundred-fifty, and each time an incorrect answer was given the shock level increased.

The true test was to see how far participants would go in the study and what level of shock they would administer to the learner. The actor playing the learner would even cry out and scream in pain as the shock levels increased, and eventually went silent, causing the participant to assume they’d been seriously hurt. Eighty percent of the test subjects shocked the actor past his screams to the point where he fell silent. Sixty-two percent of the subjects completed the study, administering shocks (to their minds) up to four-hundred-fifty volts.

The reason so many participants in Milgram’s study continued to shock the learner, even as he voiced duress, even as he screamed, some of them, even after he went silent was due to obedience. They felt compelled to finish the study because they were in the presence of an experimenter, someone who represented an authority figure. The experimenter was someone else in on the study. He would instruct participants to continue with the study when they showed reservations about shocking the learner and wanted to stop.

Milgram’s study demonstrated that obedience to an authority figure can cause individuals to act in ways that would harm others, individuals that might otherwise have no malice within them or a propensity to inflict harm. Under the right circumstances and prodded by the right person, anyone might have the capacity to hurt another.

This study is one of significance to me because there was a time when I would have done anything I was told by the leaders at my church. I passed on opportunities that I had pursued. I stayed in ministries long after I wanted to. I even took a job one time because it was suggested to me. And regretfully, I also hurt others through my actions and my complicity in a system that required blind obedience.

In church, when we want to model a particular behavior we don’t “shock” people. What we do is sometimes worse. I have seen fear and other emotionally and spiritually abusive tactics used to manipulate behavior. I’ve witnessed people called out and shamed in small groups and in church services. I’ve seen guilt used against people who made honest mistakes in their personal lives or in their ministries. I listened when we were told that we should avoid people or conversations with people, particularly those who had left our church. And I partook in gaslighting individuals who had legitimate criticisms and, instead of listening, insisted that they had a problem submitting to authority.

I spent so much time basing right and wrong on my ability to toe the line that I lost a sense of what right and wrong even was. Eventually, I lost trust in the system and those in charge of it after realizing the damage that’s been done to so many. There is a calculable degree of harm that could be measured had the shocks in Milgram’s study been real. What’s difficult to measure are the effects of subservience to authoritarianism, generally, and hegemonic Christianity, specifically.

Authoritarianism is a style of leadership that demands obedience to a figurehead with limited transparency and no accountability. Hegemonic Christianity can be defined as the systemic and pervasive sociopolitical and cultural dominance of Christian “values” at the institutional level. The amalgamation of the dominant Christian culture with authoritarianism are spiritual leaders who work to confine the thoughts and actions of parishioners and people as a means of maintaining a parochial form of control. Within the sects of religious hegemony, congregants are conditioned to conform to a rigid system of right and wrong. Morality may be based on a greater theology or on the Bible itself, but how these are interpreted are left to the discretion of those in charge. Those who don’t conform to the prescribed meaning or status quo are treated as subversive.

Authoritarianism is not unique to Christianity, in fact, we see it exemplified in many hegemonic cultures. What is unique to Christianity, or, more broadly, religion, is the perception that leaders who have been exalted into positions of power carry with them some special, divine anointing, direct from God. Religious leaders have that benefit – of not just having authority in a secular sense, but of having the perception of God’s authority in a spiritual sense too. Some believe that to question or oppose church leadership is to question God himself, and religious authoritarians know this and use it to their advantage. They use God and the Bible as tools to maintain their power and control.

See, it’s easy to believe God is the one in charge. It’s him and his word we assumedly follow. But the issue is, God isn’t the one who harms people. She’s not the one that shuns. He doesn’t divorce Himself from those that believe in a different doctrine or hold another faith. She doesn’t manipulate, shame, guilt, or gaslight people into acting or conforming to a certain way. We’ve done this. The church and its leaders have done this.

I left church over a year ago thinking I could just take some time off from organized religion – that eventually I would find a new, less autocratic, church. I thought I’d feel more secure and ready to move on by now, but I’m not. God supposedly gave us free will, and yet so many of his followers seem hell-bent on exploiting the sovereignty of others. I know that there are good churches and good church leaders out there, but I’m not ready to hand over trust to another spiritual leader in an organized religious setting. There are too many totalitarians out there and I don’t feel like taking the risk. And, at this point, I’m not sure I ever will.

Does My Therapist Need to Be a Christian?

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I’ve heard this a few times myself. It could just be me, but tell me if this sounds at all familiar.

Maybe you need therapy for a mental or behavioral health issue. Or you’re looking for family or marital counseling. Maybe you don’t know what you need, but you’d just like to speak to a counselor about some issues you’re facing. You ask your church friend or family member, elder, or pastor what they think, or perhaps you’re just telling them about it in confidence. They say something ambiguously positive but then respond with something along the lines of, “just make sure you see a Christian counselor,” or they ask, “okay, but is the therapist you’re seeing a Christian?”

I understand why some might say, suggest, or inquire about it, but the motivation behind this “concern” is all wrong.

For one, this is a prime example of the disconnect between the needs of the mental health community and some faith believers. As a Christian, would you be concerned with the religious affiliations of your medical physician? Probably not, you’d just want them to be good at their job. So why be concerned with the religious affiliation of a mental health clinician? Presumably because you still primarily view mental health or life issues as the result of a spiritual problem. I won’t say this can’t ever be the case, but that would be the exception, not the rule.

The mentality that a Christian counselor should be sought over a secular one also demonstrates a larger distrust in counseling professions as a whole and the academic disciplines behind them such as psychology or social work. One concern appears to be a non-Christian counselor lacking “discernment” on the spiritual “problem” behind a clinical issue. Or worst, what if a secular counselor affirmed a client’s same-sex attractions, supported a patient’s desire to leave an abusive marriage, or something else that might go against a traditional religious belief? These examples drive many conservative religious people to hesitate in directing others to seek professional, clinical help when they need it.

The fear that this could happen to someone is fairly rational if you grew up in a tribal religious community with a rigid belief system. One tends to be skeptical of anyone outside he or she’s group, particularly those that might offer a belief or opinion that contends with the belief of one’s tribe. But it’s important for conservative faith believes to know that licensed therapists are obligated not to interfere with the personal values, culture, and self-determination of patients, regardless of their religious beliefs.

What this means is a therapist isn’t supposed to dictate a client’s decisions especially if that decision conflicts with a religious or, more generally, a cultural belief. Additionally, therapists aren’t meant to impose their ethics, values, morals, and yes, spiritual beliefs onto a patient of theirs. There are even public health boards for licensures in each state that hold clinicians accountable should they act unprofessionally and unethically by imposing their own biases and beliefs onto a client.

A counselor may offer a query or consideration during therapy that challenges a patient’s notion or belief about something. But ultimately the choices and the courses of action are always determined by the patient. A client can be exposed to solutions by a secular therapist that might not be suggested by a Christian with a rigid belief in right and wrong, or what’s appropriate and not appropriate. But, a counselor cannot manipulate a client into opting for the solution he or she might not be comfortable with because of his or her beliefs.

Now, for the person who does want a Christian counselor because you need someone that can empathize with a religious or spiritual problem, then to seek one is perfectly okay and possibly necessary. Some clinicians specialize in particular issues like depression, substance abuse, or trauma. These specialties also include religious issues like spiritual abuse, crisis’ of faith, or faith-based counseling, etc. If you’re searching for a clinician online, you will also see bios where it lists the client focus or population that a therapist works with regularly and this can include religious persons, generally, or Christians, specifically.

Just be sure, when looking for a Christian counselor, to look for a licensed counselor that either work with Christians as a population or Christian/religious issues as a specialty. The person you’re seeking therapy from, Christian or not, should be professionally licensed and held to the mandates and standards of the licensure they hold. You may come across people who offer Christian counseling that aren’t licensed as counselors. A non-professional who just offers their advice on an anecdotal level may intentionally or unintentionally be prone to manipulate your decisions and impose their own biases and beliefs onto you. This will hinder you more than it will help you in the end.

So, let me just put this out there – if you need to see a therapist of any sort for any reason other than a specific religious or spiritual issue, they do not need to be a Christian. And even if you are experiencing a spiritual issue, a clinician unfamiliar with your religion or your religious beliefs can still be of help and may still be worth a try if you’re unable to find a qualified, licensed counselor who specializes in religious issues or regularly deals with Christians as his or her client focus.

Navigating the therapeutic process and finding a good counselor to help you understand or deal with a circumstance in your life can be tricky but also highly beneficial. The beauty of speaking to a professional counselor is discovering that there are people who can listen to your circumstance non-judgmentally and offer constructive feedback through various therapy techniques to help you find solutions to your problem that don’t compromise your integrity.

Depression and The Dark Night

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For a long time in my late teens, I championed the testimony of one who had experienced a bout of depression but had miraculously been delivered of this mental affliction. However, there would come a time when I would stop sharing this testimony; because how can one testify of an experience that no longer holds true? In other words, what happens when the depression you think you’ve been delivered from comes back?

I still remember elements of my initial experiences vividly. I have flashbulb memories of my sophomore year of high school in which I began to feel enveloped by overwhelming thoughts and emotions. There were some real-life causes to the fear, anxiety, and sadness that quickly overtook me but there was also a lot of perceived issues that were most likely the byproduct of adolescent developmental angst.

Everything in my life seemed to be suffering, and I couldn’t tell if it was suffering because of the depression, or if I was depressed because it was suffering. I had terrible migraines all the time. I was putting on weight. I flunked English and had to go to summer school, and my other subjects weren’t much better. I was also removed from ministries in church because of my school performance. There were other, more personal, issues going on, but, in general, everything just felt like shit, to put it bluntly.

During the worst moments of this period, I contemplated taking my life. I was tired of feeling the way I felt. I was sick of being tired. And I was easily overwhelmed by everything. I couldn’t see past the day in front of me, and when I could, I only saw more cause for worry and sadness.

Eventually, I found my way out of the “fog” I was in, and it was as if there was a great calm for many years before the actual storm began. I made it through the rest of my teen years into early adulthood with relatively few upsets. Even when I went through a period of unemployment shortly after returning from my first overseas missions trip, I still had a resilient and optimistic attitude about my life. Even in this time of financial and career uncertainty (which lasted about nine months) I never succumbed to the level of anxiety or depression that I had previously.

Shortly after turning twenty-four is when my depression resurfaced again. I experienced a series of events that would lead me to question my faith and my core values as a Christian. This was something I hadn’t dealt with previously since I had only viewed my depression as a spiritual issue and not as a psychophysiological or, otherwise, mental problem. It never occurred to me to question the worldview I was given. I made sense of my first experience within the context of my religious beliefs and mainly pointed the finger of blame at myself for my sadness.

Now here I was nearly a decade later, and life felt like it was caving in again, but this time I was less inclined to blame myself. This time I couldn’t make sense of things solely within a spiritual context, or at least the one that I was given. So, I had an epistemological breakdown.

Essentially what I had was an existential faith crisis otherwise known as The Dark Night of the Soul. I began to question the integrity of who I believed God was supposed to be. This had a domino effect causing me to question many of the other religious beliefs within my community.

I had spent much of my life in James Fowler’s stage three of faith development – Synthetic Conventional. Faith at this juncture is strongly influenced by an authority figure or the majority within a community, and acceptance is based on conformity. I had convictions but I never critically examined them as asking too many questions was discouraged. So, in addition to the depressive symptoms and trying to figure out what I believed, I felt I had to hide what I was going through from the people I was closest to.

The last four(ish) years have seemed like a ceaseless battle in trying to hold a conviction that is truly my own and not based on a poor literal translation or accepted with the purpose of fitting into a particular group. I just want to feel closer to God, but instead, I feel more like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, and perhaps this pursuit along with everything else is vanity. Everything is meaningless. Everything is hevel.

I think it was George Carlin who once said, “inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” Much of my struggle comes from trying to find meaning in the life I’m living. I went from a proverbial worldview of black and white, right and wrong, wisdom and folly, to an ecclesiastical view of still recognizing and pursuing wisdom and good deeds but understanding that, regardless of my pursuits, there are no guarantees. Life is just a vapor, there one moment, gone the next. It’s hard not to feel disillusioned and a tad cynical by this understanding.

There are days when life just doesn’t make sense to me. I wake up only to do the same things over and over. I get panicked at the thought that there just isn’t a purpose or a meaning to what I’m doing or a purpose to this life. I try to appreciate the good and the beauty in the world but, like a vapor, it can’t be grasped.

And in the midst of trying to find meaning in my life and my spiritual beliefs, I still deal with depressive symptoms at times. I know what it’s like to feel so anxious, and tired, and afraid that you can barely leave your bed some mornings. I know what it’s like to be consumed by your thoughts and emotions that you feel like the only way to shut it all off would be to end your life. I know what it’s like to feel alone, and misunderstood, and unable to share or explain these feelings; even with a great family, and friends, a spouse, even a therapist there to support you.

You won’t hear me testify and tell you I’ve been delivered from depression anymore because it’s something I still cope with. You won’t hear me tell you that God exists to take away our mental health problems because I don’t believe that’s His function. What I can tell you is, having depression, whether it’s related to spiritual doubts and crisis’ of faith or not, doesn’t make you less of a person than someone without it. It doesn’t make you less of Christian or a faith believer in general.

Growing up, Jesus was always portrayed as the be all, end all, solution to any problem one might face. Plus, there was always this correlation between joy and Jesus. I used to think that if you were depressed, that meant either Christ had abandoned you, or you messed up somehow and had been irrevocably cut off from His love, joy, and peace. But maybe joy isn’t the only place God resides. Today I believe Christ stands with us in the dark nights too.

Life may be a vapor, but try to grasp it anyways. Our dreams may seem vain and meaningless, but pursue them anyways. And if you should ever reach a point when you feel you can’t continue, don’t give into the futility or the cynicism. You’re not the only one trying to find meaning and purpose in life. Trust that you are loved and know that you’re not alone.

Why Christian?

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Jesus, whether people believe he was real, myth, or real but only human, was a social advocate who spoke against the empirical power structures of Rome and the institutionalized power structures of the Pharisaic Jews. He was scapegoated as divisive because instead of buying into the fight for power and dominance he taught a message about the meek inheriting the earth. And he lived this message. My faith has changed so much to the point where I often wonder if it’s worth still calling myself a Christian. I’ve gone through the gamut of emotion from losing many of my beliefs and the regret of realizing the harm they caused, harm that I was complicit in for so many years. It would be just as easy to call myself a secular humanist but the message of Jesus still inspires me. It still gives me hope. If Christianity can return to this simple message of faith, love, and care for our neighbors then there may be hope for it too.

The Bible Clearly Says…

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One thing that irks me as a post-Biblical literalist is the reminders I get from so many who take the Bible as inerrant on what, “[it] ‘clearly’ says.” It’s as if my twenty-seven years of living that life never happened. Like I didn’t go to church thrice a week for nearly three decades and hear the same teachings and messages that everyone else heard. And while I don’t have the Bible memorized as well as others, now I get treated like I don’t know what it says at all, and that can get frustrating all too quickly.

Biblical literalists don’t seem to comprehend that there is a difference between what the Bible says and how it reads through a critical lens. Literalists also like to treat the Bible like a book of law or a rulebook in general, which it isn’t. And even when specific laws are outlined like in Exodus and Leviticus – these laws are historical in context and were meant for a specific group at a specific time; most do not apply in modern society. What these scriptures mean to us today is always a matter of interpretation.

For example: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13 KJV). The following are some justifications and interpretations as to when and why it might be okay to disregard this commandment though:

  • “Thou shalt not kill,” unless you’re called to war. It’s okay if you’re a soldier with a duty to protect our “Christian” nation. It’s okay because you’re either proactively or reactively fighting an enemy in a cosmic war against God’s people. As long as it’s for your country, it’s not a sin to take a life. The Bible says, “thou shalt not kill,” but that’s not what it means in this context.
  • “Thou shalt not kill,” unless it’s self-defense. If someone comes at you or your family, or breaks into your home you are morally obligated to protect them and yourself. Use any means necessary if you have to. If you happen to kill the attacker or intruder, it’s okay. This isn’t what the Bible meant when it says not to kill. Self-defense isn’t murder. Self-defense is self-defense, and whoever attacked your family or broke into your home is responsible for their death.
  • “Thou shalt not kill,” but some people deserve to die. Capital punishment is an acceptable form of punishment for those who have committed egregious crimes. Besides, advocating for laws in favor of, or resisting laws against, capital punishment isn’t the same as killing someone. If someone is executed, it’s done by the state in which they reside, not by a random individual. And even for the executioner(s) themselves, they’re not violating what the scripture means. They’re not just arbitrarily killing anyone. So, it’s okay.
  • “Thou shalt not kill,” but there’s nothing against owning a weapon intended to kill. In fact, you should definitely own a weapon intended to kill. It doesn’t mean you’ve violated God’s law because you won’t actually use it for its intent. Unless of course, you have to if someone attacks you or your family or breaks into your home. But again, self-defense isn’t the same as murder, and so it’s not a violation of the commandment. And since it’s not a violation to kill for self-defense – then you should be prepared to deliver your personal brand of capital punishment. Get yourself a gun and if ever provoked to use it – shoot to kill. God will understand.

Now, of all the laws or instructions littered throughout the Bible, The Ten Commandments are probably the most well-known and also revered as the highest set of laws. If there were a hierarchy of the most important things to follow from the Bible, I would imagine most Christians would place The Ten Commandments towards the top of this list. I’d also imagine that, of the natural laws within the Ten Commandments, not killing someone would be at the top of that list

I think it’s safe to assume that we’re all on the same page as to why murdering someone is wrong. We all agree, not only that this is what the Bible says, but that this is what the Bible means. But if that’s the case, then why do we have so many justifications for when it’s okay to take a life? Why is it okay to approve of war on an institutional level or go to war on an individual level? Why do so many Christians approve of the death penalty? And why are so many so active when it comes to gun rights but passive when it comes to talking about legislation to limit the, roughly, thirty thousand deaths that guns cause annually?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against self-defense when it’s necessary. I’m not against gun ownership, generally speaking, and I’m not a pacifist. The death penalty is the only example I use that I’m broadly against. But my point is, if staunch literalists can understand the difference between blatant murder and self-defense, then how come so many can’t understand the difference between two adults of the same sex who love each other and an adult that commits sexual assault or rapes someone of the same sex?

The way in which we interpret, “thou shalt not kill,” today is with the understanding that there are mitigating circumstances where it would be legally and religiously permissible for a person to disregard a chief commandment, one of the Ten Commandments. We know the difference between murder and self-defense, even though the Bible makes no “clear” distinctions of this nature for us. Many, however, still struggle with understanding the difference between sexual orientation and exploitative practices like pederasty, prostitution, and slavery.

Perhaps this isn’t the best comparison, I know. But if you can distance yourself from the ingrained biases and precepts about what the Bible “clearly” says – maybe you can take some time to critically examine the passages you believe condemn the lives of your LGBTQ brothers and sisters who embrace their orientations. Maybe you could stop referring to their love as abominable and instead reserve those types of accusations for those who sexually exploit, harm and abuse others.

Leviticus doesn’t speak against homosexuality. And Paul doesn’t speak against homosexuality; not any more than The Ten Commandments speak against self-defense or acts of war. There is a distinction, and it’s time more people understood that.

For more information on the Bible and homosexuality: check out The Reformation Project and Matthew Vines’ God and The Gay Christian.

Hearts Without God

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A self-fulfilling prophecy is when people blame a circumstance on a vague but seemingly objective evil in the world and use it to justify a narrative when the situation occurs (as was claimed or prophesied).

Example: in America, we don’t have a “gun” problem, we have a “sin” problem. When someone commits mass murder, and happens to use a gun to do so – the issue is never about his weapon of choice and access to it. It’s about his heart. Making the argument about sin, or the poor hearts of people in our country positions the conversation away from gun control and into a state of learned helplessness where the rest of us are just supposed to accept the outcomes of these atrocities as normative.

And then we all sit back and watch as gun violence, and mass shootings wreak havoc. And we watch everyone argue about what they think the problem is and their solutions that the prophets claim will never work. Meanwhile, nothing is done, and the condition persists. And the prophecy is fulfilled time and again while the prophets get to claim that they were right all along – that the evil in the word can’t be solved by laws or regulations, so why bother attempting to change anything. The true problem in America isn’t gun violence, it’s hearts without God, right?

Hearts without God has been the “end times” battle cry of many fundamentalists, and it’s becoming very costly. Not just relating to gun violence in America and the 30 thousand lives that guns claim annually, but even natural disasters and issues such as climate change have become conditions that can’t be properly addressed. We’ve become too preoccupied with whether the problem exists rather than working to prevent the damage that’s already happening.

Like most large, systemic issues, there is rarely a simplistic, singular answer to why bad things happen, particularly on mass scales. There are typically many factors to consider. But the easy solution for Christians has always been to blame the hearts of people and sin in various forms. This is part of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Referring to gun violence as a sin issue or a “heart” problem creates a premise that can be difficult to argue with sensibly. It removes any obligation to limit access to guns or even to study the epidemic properly to prevent future deaths. And when another shooting does occur the prophets get to reiterate and perpetuate their premise.

What’s worse are the end times edicts that are used to justify why God might allow these horrible things to happen. Pointing out the decline of conservative religiosity has been one general tactic. The rise of greater LGBTQ equality including the legalizing of gay marriage is another “sin” that gets blamed for atrocities. Also, more recently, commitments to nationalism, or lack thereof, was another item blamed for mass shootings, and our recent natural disasters have been referred to as God’s judgment upon America for our overall sin.

The end times narratives in and of themselves are another self-fulfilling prophecy. Belief in an “end time” and the eschatology behind it is why many Christians, particularly those that believe in the rapture, are disinterested in working towards solutions to problems like gun violence or climate change (assuming they even acknowledged these issues as existing). The Bible tells us that the hearts of mankind would turn from God in the “end” and that violence and atrocities would take place. Those who take these verses as fact like to have incidents of mass shootings and hurricanes to point to because, in a way, they validate their belief. Even if there were solutions readily available, why bother acting on them when you believe the world is going to end soon?

So, hearts without God is made the issue but, it’s a cop-out. It doesn’t matter if a gunman mows down lives on the Vegas strip or inside of a school. It doesn’t matter if a hurricane displaces people in Texas or Puerto Rico – making the problem about spirituality instead of policy is the lazy thing to do. It’s the easier option if people were honest with themselves. Taking a tragedy and calling on God for solutions instead of policymakers is one of those things that make some warm and fuzzy but worse, they make others zealous in furthering religious nationalism.

The problems our country faces have little to do with the heart or spirit of a nation, not in the way it’s been insinuated. By all means, come up with a narrative that allows you to make sense of these atrocities, but also work towards limiting them. To paraphrase James, “faith without works is dead.” The circumstance is, many believe some situations are normative, which is where their faith is at. Because of one too many self-fulfilling, aka false, prophets, few people have faith enough to believe that there are changes to be made that can limit gun violence and even slow the effects of climate change. But if these things aren’t worth working towards, then I dare say that’s where the poor heart condition lies.

Gospel Gaslighting 101

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For those unfamiliar with the term – gaslighting is a manipulation tactic used to exert power over a subject by causing them to question their subjective reality and possibly their sanity. This form of brainwashing works by eliciting doubt and confusion as a means of undermining and marginalizing the views and beliefs of others. It’s a way to control other’s behaviors by first distorting their thoughts.

For some, control can be necessary to maintain a sense of order. Sometimes individuals and leaders feel the need to gaslight those who are out of order for the greater good of the churches and communities they serve. If this applies to you, then here are some basic tips and scenarios to help you get started:

  • Create near unobtainable expectations for spiritual standards of living or religious commitments. Then, criticize those who can’t meet such expectations. Continue to emphasize your expectations, but throw in a thought or message about grace and the importance of self-care. Demanding high expectations with occasional positive reinforcement through grace is a surefire way to get the confusion started.
  • Question or make strong, negative inferences about someone’s allegiance to their faith, God, or the church. But, be passive about it. Tell them that obedience and servanthood are fruitful signs of the faithful, and maybe they should examine their commitments outside of the church.
  • Use hyperbole and, if need be, outright lies. If a parishioner takes issue with something you’ve said, change the meaning. Tell them they misinterpreted you even if they didn’t. Then reframe the scenario so that they second-guess their assumptions. Pro tip: if you do this with a false sense of compassion, you can even elicit guilt on their part for thinking you might have been or done something wrong.
  • Talk down to people. This can be literally, from your platform or pulpit – don’t be afraid to call people out in public and minimize them or their feelings through a little public shaming. You can also cause others to question their integrity as faithful believers, and it will help discredit them should they ever dissent.
  • You can talk down to people in a more figurative sense too. Be confident, assertive, and project onto them. They’ll become so distracted by their insecurities that they’ll start to take your word and trust in you more than their conscience. And this will limit possible dissension.
  • Make insinuating claims or sweeping generalizations that might offend or upset them. Then, direct the subject towards their feelings. “Why are you upset all the time?” or “There’s something in your spirit that is causing you to be angry with me.” This will make them question their reactions and the motives behind their emotions. With practice, you can make them feel as though they are too sensitive, that they constantly overreact, or that they have an inherent problem with your leadership.
  • When consulting with people that have told you they’ve prayed about a decision and are at peace with a course of action that you don’t like or agree with ask them, “but have you really prayed about it?” Use repetition when necessary. Make sure they know that you speak for God and because you don’t agree with their choices that they’re probably wrong no matter what peace they feel.
  • Also, question where the answer came from in their prayers. Use prompts such as: “Was it God that was speaking?” or “Are you sure you aren’t just listening to the world to hear what you want?” Don’t worry about insinuating that they’re intentions aren’t pure. In fact, let them know you think their intentions are good. Let them know you believe they’re a good person who loves God and wants to do the right thing. But then, reinforce that they’re probably still wrong. A little condescension can go a long way.
  • Use the Bible against them and in your favor. Let them know that they’re ability to correctly hear from God and read his word might be compromised. Only a true believer, by your definition, can glean from God’s word and since they’re not a true believe they can’t possibly divine something from His word. You want to limit their chances of concluding scriptural interpretations on their own.
  • When someone you’re actively gaslighting hesitates in responding to your questions when you confront them, or if they waver at all in their answers – point this out. Let them know they seem confused and use this against them. Explain that this is probably an example that they are wrong and you are right. Infer that they might not know what they know because they aren’t as prepared, or as well versed, as you. Remind them that you know more and that you’ve seen this before and that you alone can help them with their doubts or disagreements. This will help solidify the distrust of their instincts.
  • When the person you’re gaslighting is finally at the breaking point of confusion about what to believe, what to do, and who to trust – remind them that you are always there to help them. Gaslighting works best when a façade of trust is built up, and your subject can’t see the strings your pulling to control them. In the end, they should be too unwilling to speak up, express opinions or emotions but, if they do, they should also be readily willing to trust your judgment instead of theirs.

If you’re reading this and you haven’t caught on yet this shouldn’t be taken literally, then I’m sorry. It’s important for these behaviors to be exposed so that they can be prevented. And if you are someone who deems it necessary to exert control in this or any way, then you need to understand that you are harming more than you are helping. You’re not serving God; you’re serving your ego.

If you read this and you identify with the side of feeling confused, too sensitive, and you are having trouble trusting your judgments, making decisions, or are too anxious to express these things openly – then you are probably a victim of this type of manipulation. It may be necessary to remove yourself from the relationship, situation, or community that is causing this – spiritual or otherwise.

If you have ever experienced gaslighting, specifically within a spiritual community, or if you have any tips or scenarios that you’ve seen used or have been used against you – please include them in a comment below.