Please note: My parents and I have a pretty good relationship. They’ve expressed to me that they don’t read my blog, and we all agree that’s probably for the best. So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t contact them about my writing. If they don’t want to read what I write, it’s kinda disrespectful to bring it up to them. Also note that I won’t tolerate criticism of them in comments, either. Please be respectful of me and my family, and understand that analyzing a belief system and the behaviors that come from that system is very very different from criticizing people. I’m grateful to have them as my parents, and none of my writing is a criticism of them as individuals or as parents. Thanks for understanding.
Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie recently shared his conversion story on his blog, talking about the difference between converting and deconverting. This, of course, made me extremely nostalgic and introspective, as I am wont to be anyways. In part, I began to contemplate my journey in and out of Christianity — particularly my three conversion stories, and what they tell me about how my former faith operated.
(I’d like to let you know ahead of time that I’m going to talk rather frankly about suicide, self-harm, and disordered eating in this post.)
The first time I Became a Christian, I was 3 years old, grocery shopping with my mom. She says I saw someone in the store and asked, while she was loading me and the groceries in the van, why he was so sad. She replied in the simplest way she knew to answer toddler-me: he probably didn’t have Jesus. Not wanting to be sad like that man, I bowed my little head and asked Jesus into my heart.
Second time, I was 7. We were at a West Virginia Bible conference, and the teacher that night really hammered home the idea of hell. I was terrified. I mean, I was an already anxious child who’d already quietly attempted suicide multiple times. I was beyond terrified. I talked to my dad for a long time that evening and prayed again. I considered this my Real Salvation until…
I was a month shy of 14 years old. I remember the date for this one, actually — March 11, 2001. I’d been suicidal off and on my whole little life, but concentratedly for the past couple of years. I was self-harming, over-dosing on whatever painkillers I could find semi-regularly, and anorexic. I kept trying to find comfort in the Bible as I was taught to do, but I’d just downed another fist-full of pills. In the aftermath, waiting for the familiar numbness to settle in, I opened my Bible to read Romans 7. Verses 14 – 24 were my sort of “mea culpa” — I often turned to them them over and over again to remind myself of how wretched I was. Verse 24 in particular stuck with me — “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” I broke down in convulsive sobs at this point, feeling so akin to the phrase “body of death” and feeling in my bones that there was no deliverance from the hell that was my existence. Then I read the next verse: “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I slowly stopped crying as a weird sort of peace flooded my body. I put my Bible and journal down, went to bed and slept all night for the first time in months.
At 3, at 7, at 13, I was deeply impressionable. My entire life, everywhere I went, revolved around fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity. Of course I believed. But I took it even further than that, from ages 14 – 24. I considered my last conversion story to be my true conversion story, because after that night I was a different person. I’d always believed in Christianity, believed in Jesus. But now it was my decision, not just a decision-by-proxy. Now I was really His and consciously dedicated to Him. I started more deeply internalizing and personalizing what I’d always been taught at home, Christian school, and church: I was so broken and worthless without God, so my only hope was to cling to Him as much as I possibly could while trying to trust that no one could pluck me from His hand.
That was easier said than done, I’m afraid. Funny how mental illness can’t just be wished or willed away, even with help from On High, particularly when the fundamental understanding of your entire outlook on life is that you’re inherently devoid of goodness. So I’d tamp down my fears and anxieties and depression best I could through Scripture and hymns. If I failed, I’d admit I was living in sin through entertaining such thoughts, for not taking every thought captive, for being led astray by unreliable feelings. I studied the Bible on my own voraciously for the first time without anyone telling me to, memorizing large passages, applying patterns and principles I gleaned from the text to my life and trying to apply them to the lives of my classmates and peers (most of whom were less than enthusiastic with my new-found fervor).
When something didn’t make sense, it was because God’s ways were higher than my ways and I just needed to trust that He knew what He was doing. I had no other tools to examine nonsensical things. In fact, I’d been explicitly taught my whole life to accept instruction from the Bible and my authorities without question. So when life experiences didn’t line up with what the Bible or my mentors taught, I believed I was the problem. I didn’t even think to examine the teaching. When depression would overtake me again, it was because I wasn’t putting my full trust in the Lord, not because depression is a serious chronic illness that can’t be cured by wishful thinking and prayer. When I began exhibiting signs of PTSD from being sexually assaulted in college, my fear was not of God and was proof that I wasn’t fully trusting in His perfect love that was to cast out my fear, not a physiological response to trauma.
I also became hyper-focused on what my role as a woman was in the church and in the world. I’ve talked about this many times before: the more I studied and listened to sermons and thought through biblical teachings, the more things I cut out of my life. Things like music that wasn’t “honoring” to the Lord, having short hair (because it was a shame for a woman to have short hair), performing music publicly (because that was taking on a leadership role), speaking at all during Bible studies (because I was to remain silent in the church, and the church was whenever believers gathered).
Not only this, but I took my “spiritual gift” of “exhortation” quite seriously. I was the person who would tell my unsaved LGBT friends that I loved them too much to not talk to them about Jesus and what He thought about their “lifestyle.” I told a friend in an abusive marriage to remain with their spouse because divorce wasn’t pleasing to God. I meddled in relationships when I thought they weren’t godly enough. I rebuked friends for not being appropriately respectful and obedient to their parents. I was absolutely dedicated to being as Christ-honoring as I could while trying to be a positive influence on the rest of my friends for the same end.
Until I couldn’t anymore.
Until the questions wouldn’t go away anymore.
Until the depression and suicidal wishes were so constant I found myself twitchy around my art knives or driving across bridges on tall mountains.
Until I couldn’t stop wondering what the discernible difference was between nonexistent deities and ones who demonstrably didn’t intervene in the realms of their creations.
Looking back over my conversion stories, one particular paragraph from Neil’s post jumps out at me:
For most of us, churches got to us while we were still young, and they roped us in before we were old enough to really think for ourselves. They taught us how to think about these things before we had the chance to develop our own critical thinking skills, and then they took advantage of our emotional vulnerabilities during our teen years in order to get us fired up about the things that matter most to them.
There had always been a disconnect between what I was taught and what I observed and experienced, between blind faith in invisible things and repeatably testable evidence. But as a child, as a teen, even into early adulthood, I wasn’t given the words to recognize the disconnect, or even the tools to inspect or deconstruct my beliefs to see if there was any merit to them outside of wanting them to be true.
And so, when I came home, disgraced, from BJU, I started reading. Voraciously. The internet is such a beautiful thing sometimes. I learned about consent, boundaries, healthy relationships, what good arguments look like. I followed everyone I could — LGBT+ communities, atheist communities, progressive Christian communities, Plymouth Brethren communities. I wanted as complete a picture as I could create for myself so I could examine all the pieces and see what held water and what leaked. Beyond purely academic learning, I started making friends, friends who encouraged me to think for myself rather than insisting on controlling me, creating tiny safe spaces for me to ask the questions I’d squelched for years. The people who were safest to me, who were genuinely good and empathetic and wonderful people, were everyone I’d been taught to fear and convert.
I discovered that I’m not broken. That I’m not property. The stories I’d always believed about myself, how depraved and unworthy I was, were the greatest possible exacerbaters of my existing depression and anxiety. Goodness existed outside of supernatural input, and the more I contemplated and searched for compelling evidence, philosophically or scientifically, that a supernatural realm or person existed in a meaningful way…the more I realized there simply was no evidence.
It was utterly terrifying, this realization. Terrifying enough to keep me relatively silent for almost a year. But in the end…in the end, the shackles were gone and I could breathe freely.