“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways submit to him,
And he will make your paths straight.”
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
And do not resent his rebuke,
Because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
As a father the son he delights in.”
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
I have to start this post with a confession. This is a painful subject for me. Recalling these verses and looking them up was a painful process. Typing them out word-by-word stings. These wounds are old, they are deep, and they are still healing. But I’m ready to talk about them now.
These words have echoed through my mind for most of my life. Every thought, every idea, every notion I had about what I should do or who I wanted to be was augmented by these ancient words of Biblical wisdom. Particularly that first one. I was taught from a very early age that I was not to trust myself—not overtly, but subconsciously; I was instructed to question my every instinct. I was taught to be grateful for discipline, and that in fact I should yearn for it. I was taught that God’s wisdom is the only wisdom. I was taught that I am sick, plagued by the same disease that has infected my ancestors since whenever evil crept into God’s creation.
I was also taught that I am beautiful. I was raised to believe God loved me and created me according to his pleasure, simply because calling me into existence filled him with immense, profound joy. I was taught that my disease made God sad, and that through the redeeming work of his son Jesus he had reclaimed his creation and brought me back into the fold, that I could never be separated from his love, and that I was not only forgiven but actually celebrated and treasured by my creator, and that I was to await, with deep gratitude and ardent hope, the day that I would be made spotless and holy both spiritually and bodily in the presence of my Creator, whether through death or through the eventual return of Jesus to renew his creation.
Even now it is difficult for me to know where to begin unravelling these principles. Here I was, a teenager in high school, affirmed and loved at every turn, but feeling like complete shit. It didn’t make any sense, and although I didn’t acknowledge it at the time (because I habitually denied my own self-love), I was a very, very sad boy. I had my mind made up rather tidily over how my worldview informed my attitudes toward others and toward myself, but for all my rationalizations, the results just weren’t adding up. I didn’t feel love, or acceptance, or even forgiveness, because I alienated myself from my own. This is at the core of what was happening, and I knew self-love was a thing that I should be doing, but I had no way of knowing what that was supposed to look like. My concept of self-love was buried under layers and layers of the remains of the sins of my ancestors, and the sins of my own past, and the sinful selfishness of my present contemplation of my own plight rather than being grateful for the life God had so graciously given me.
Before I continue, I want to make something abundantly clear. My goal here is not to de-convert my Christian friends. I want you to see things the way I have seen them. My goal in expressing my truth is to bring my readers into community, not to draw them out of another. Division arises when we see communities as disparate and incompatible, rather than acknowledging their profound interdependence on one another. And while I am presently not actively part of any Christian community in the sense of sharing that mission and purpose, my past is tightly interwoven with my present, and my own Christian community still surrounds me. If my experience resonates with your own, I would encourage you to contemplate what that might mean for you, not to be confused with what I know it has meant for me. Also, and this should be obvious but I’ll say it anyway, what I believed and what I describe below do not reflect the beliefs and opinions of all Christians at all times and places.
How did I begin this journey out of what I had been raised to believe, these truths that had been so deeply ingrained, these principles to which so many in my position might have clung out of fear, or desperate hope, or for lack of any viable alternatives? Certainly it took quite a bit of courage on my part, but I owe many thanks to the teachings of none other than 16th century French theologian John Calvin.
Among this famous theologian’s many controversial teachings stands the core pillar of Predestination. There are volumes written both by John Calvin and by religious scholars on this one teaching alone, which means my explanation certainly can’t come close to the measure of exegesis necessary to have a critical understanding of this concept. But I’ll do my best.
In a nutshell, this is theological determinism. Everything that will happen will happen, precisely because that is logically where we arrive when reality is governed by an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (in every place at all times) creator God. Everything is predetermined, which means there is a group of “elect”, that is, human beings who will be saved, and by extension, human beings who will not be saved. There is no steady measure of agreement among Christians regarding these teachings. Some embrace them wholeheartedly; others reject them outright; and still others add their own shades of nuance to adopt what they believe is a more balanced view.
What does belief in Predestination accomplish? Believing this could give you a very dark and jaded outlook on life; after all, you’re powerless over your destiny, and the destiny of others, so why bother with anything? What Predestination is meant to accomplish, however, is to reinforce the idea that God is taking care of things, that we needn’t worry about whether we are damned or saved because it lies beyond our control to change. It means God’s love is eternal and unconditional and those to whom he has granted salvation and forgiveness need not fear that it will ever be revoked (again, there are many nuanced views on this, many that do not entail any kind of damnation, but I’m just dealing with a very base-level explanation here).
You have to believe that God is good in order to not be terrified by this concept; if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then he not only allows for everything to happen, he is actively in control and in fact making everything happen. Belief in God’s goodness is the only way to soothe the cognitive dissonance of the existence of evil, and that (in my opinion) takes an extraordinary amount of faith. In fact, how Christians draw a line between God’s control over everything that happens and God’s responsibility for everything that happens is still something I don’t entirely understand.
What does Predestination have to do with my journey out of Christianity? Well, I believed in Predestination, and mostly for those “God’s love can never be taken away” reasons. It also informed my outlook on mission; that I was to spread the gospel, but not in a manipulative or coercive way (i.e. the Alma Heights Christian Academy method: desperately try to convert everyone I know). I knew that if God wanted his truth to be known, it would be known, and that my sole purpose was to express the love and gratitude that had been poured into my own life, and that that radical expression of love was, in fact, visible and tangible evidence of the power of the gospel. Predestination, for me, was simultaneously a very lovey-dovey and rational approach.
All Christians experience doubt, and I was certainly in the deepest trough of doubt I had ever experienced toward the end of my sophomore year of college. There were so many external pressures keeping me in the faith (mostly disappointing and/or causing distress amongst my friends and family), but the biggest reason was fear: specifically fear of separation from God. Not fear that God wouldn’t love me, or even fear that I would lose my salvation (though for many, I daresay the majority, that is probably the case). I was afraid that separation from God would make me miserable, and that I’d waste a lot of time being miserable in order to learn that I needed Him in my life. I didn’t want to waste time “finding out the hard way”, I just wanted to understand what I was getting wrong and fix it. I wanted to find out why I shouldn’t press the shiny red button rather than press it and then find out why I shouldn’t have. It took a long time for me to allow for the possibility that maybe pressing it was the only way to find out, and that it might actually not be such a bad thing after all.
This was when I finally out-determined determinism. I told myself, “Okay. I know that if God is real, if he really is all-powerful and all-knowing and ever-present, I won’t be damned or lose my salvation or alienate myself from his love if I decide I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. If following Jesus is God’s will for me, then it will become apparent to me again someday and perhaps I’ll come back actually understanding why.”
I took a deep breath.
“Okay.” I said aloud to myself, and only myself. “I’m not a Christian anymore.”
The Beginning of Wisdom
I still remember how I felt after speaking those words. It’s something I can’t really describe and it may be that I never feel something like that ever again. It was freedom, and it was relief. I felt lighter, as though I had come out from under the cross I had carried for 20 years. I felt fragile and vulnerable, but tremendously powerful. I did feel alone. But that was nothing new.
Coming out was the next big step, though I didn’t exactly plan it that way. I was feeling sad and lonely and depressed, and I didn’t really know (or want to acknowledge) why, so I decided to pursue therapy, not even to come out specifically—though in the back of my mind I thought I might bring it up one day—but more just to explore general reasons I might be unsatisfied. Self-denial was the issue here, and denying my sexuality was just one (significant) consequence of this self-denial I would gradually and more fully come to terms with. After being outed by a routine questionnaire (“Do you like girls?” Yes. “Do you like guys?” Yes.) I got set up with a gay male therapist. We only had a couple sessions, as my therapist was mostly concerned with getting me involved in the gay community, and I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. But my takeaway from this experience wasn’t so much that I could finally tell people I’m queer—it was that I was finally ok with being queer. The hardest person to come out to, hands down, was myself.
Finally, I had allowed my worldview to expand, and I had begun to accept who I am. In addition, I began to discover who I was capable of being. It certainly wasn’t a smooth ride and I definitely stalled out a few times (more about that here), but through therapy and conversations and community and time I have found healing, and beyond that I have summoned the strength and courage to talk about my not-so-distant past.
Christianity is a painful subject for me because it invokes all those feelings of guilt, loneliness, confusion, and truly awful self-hatred that subconsciously defined me throughout my time as a believer. I can’t help but fantasize about what might have been if I had the capacity to break free sooner. Or if I somehow had the capacity to keep my faith and simultaneously allow myself to be everything that I am. I think of all the people who are and were in the exact same position I was, and how I might have been able to help them had I only known how to help myself.
For a couple years after I left the faith, I did something I’m quite good at: I suppressed my feelings about it. I didn’t want to feel or remember that pain so I just smoked a lot of weed and did fun things and thought that over time I would just figure things out and that I wouldn’t need to really address it. But I did, and I still very much do. As I have already said, my past cannot be severed from my present. Who I presently am and the opportunities I presently have are determined in no small part by where I came from.
In the process of healing, I have had to go back and try to understand who I was and why I thought and felt the way I did, and in so doing I have come to understand a lot of the struggles I still face today. Delving into my faith, and what that made me think and feel, was and is a crucial component to arriving at this understanding.
Reclaiming My Cosmic Innocence
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
-Robert Lowry, “Nothing But the Blood”
Perhaps the most fucked up thing I believed about myself was that I was a sinner. I believed I was weak, easily tempted, depraved, imperfect, selfish, and in desperate need of saving. I believed I was cursed by original sin, that even my best efforts were marred by my tainted, sinful nature. I believed that it was only through Jesus’ death (which happened to be a brutal, horrific, obscenely graphic crucifixion) and subsequent resurrection that I could be saved. I believed that Jesus was perfect, blameless, spotless, and that he had taken the ultimate punishment for my sins, that he had stepped in and taken my place on the chopping block, and that I owed my deepest gratitude to him for making my relationship with God possible.
I also believed that this depth of gratitude was what should serve as my primary motivation for following Jesus—not out of any obligation on my part (Jesus took care of that with his sacrifice), but out of love and a deep desire to become more like Jesus, and in so doing I would become more like my true, perfect self. True freedom was found in Jesus, because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”, and becoming who God created me to be was the ultimate expression of freedom.
Now I’ve come to understand that I’m not a sinner. I’m a human being. The world we live in is so much more complicated than a simple matter of “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong”. Sin is a childishly simplistic concept. It’s a control mechanism. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Operating under the mentality of working toward becoming “the person God created me to be” is enslavement to someone else’s idea of who I should be, even if I could somehow believe that who I am and who God created me to be are one and the same. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative concept, but it opens the doors for abuse, it allows us to create things like “pray the gay away” therapy and mindless acceptance of authority. You have to explain away a lot of passages in the Bible that talk about sexuality, gender roles, and family structure (among a plethora of other heteronormative constructs) in order to be okay with being your queer, gender-nonconforming, empowered self. I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to give a damn about what the Bible says about anything in general, much less with regards to the kind of person I should strive to become.
I haven’t fully figured out who I am, and perhaps I never will, or maybe I’ll just become one with everything and dissolve into a blissful state of nothingness. What I do know for sure is that I can strike “sinner” off that list of possibilities.
Reclaiming My Inner Beauty
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.”
I believed that I was beautiful because God made me beautiful, and all the beauty within me was a reflection of God’s beauty. In fact, the beauty of the world we live in, the goodness of creation, is all like a giant mirror reflecting the vast and unknowable beauty and goodness of its Creator. I was to consider myself amazing and beautiful because of how amazing and beautiful God thinks I am, because that amazingness and beauty IS God. Not just spiritually, but physically, everything in this world is treasured and loved and redeemed by God.
My first realization, as I have already described, was reclaiming my cosmic innocence. But this next realization was more complicated, because the belief that God’s beauty is in everything and is what makes it beautiful seems rather benign and perhaps even quite pretty to someone who hasn’t thought of things that way before. But when you couple this with the sinner complex, you get a magnified sense of self-denial. And even without the sinner complex, there’s this underlying notion that I have no agency to claim anything, to create anything, to inspire anything, outside of the divinity that God has bestowed upon me in the act of my creation. How can I stand up and say to the world, “I’m sickening; you’d better eat it” when the material I’m serving isn’t even original? No. I need my beauty to be purely and intrinsically my own in order to call it mine. And the only reason I have to believe that my beauty is actually God’s beauty is that the Bible tells me so. Once again, I can’t be bothered by what some old misogynists who lived thousands of years ago think about where my beauty comes from. No ma’am. SWERVE.
Beauty from Without; Beauty from Within
The greatest artists inspire as much as they are inspired. Bullies inflict harm on others because they are victims of harm themselves. Our actions send out shockwaves into our communities, and our exterior appearances often betray our inner insecurities. When I talk about claiming my beauty (and beyond that, my very identity), I am not saying that it doesn’t come about as a result of the indelible mark that every person and every experience has left on my life. No one exists in a void, and no one was born of a void. My beauty comes about as a result of those things; those people only I have known the way I do, those events and emotions and places and things that only I have experienced in my own way. My beauty is my synthesis of reality: it is shaped from without, but composed from within.
I sought beauty and redemption from an external source for a long time. I thought my beauty came from God, and that my salvation came from God.
Is it any wonder that self-love could never form under those circumstances? There was no SELF to love! The only person I could love was the person I could never be, and therefore I had no love to spare for the person I was.
This is why I left Christianity.
I want you to know something, if you’ve made it this far. I want you to know that there are people in this world who love you, who have loved you, who will love you. And there are people you love, who you have loved, and who you will love. But none of that will make a positive impact in your life if you don’t spare any love for yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you’ll reject the love others give you, and you will pour all the love you have into the world without thinking that you deserve love in return, as I did for so many years.
At the root of it all, you can’t love yourself without acknowledging that you exist. And in my own journey, it wasn’t until I left God’s embrace that I finally began to feel my own.