Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Church is Supposed to Hurt

Bad Luck Brian: Tries to have quiet time. Falls asleep. Image source.
Last week I wrote a post called So I've Discovered That (For Me) Church Culture Causes Depression, about how I've been going to this church small group for a while and it's causing me to sort-of sometimes have depression.

While writing that, I realized, why on earth am I even going to this group?

Like, I read what I wrote, and it sounds like the effect that this group has on me is all bad. I seem to be getting no benefits from it at all. And yeah, that's true. No benefits, just a small sliver of hope that maybe by meeting a ton of Christians, I can eventually find one or two who accept and understand me.

(And for this group in particular, because it's young people who come from many countries all over the world, they act very open and welcoming. But I'm starting to suspect on a deeper level, they believe that same unloving theology that I'm escaping. The theology that says non-Christians go to hell and LGBT people don't know what's good for themselves. I can't believe I fell for this. I can't believe I actually believed them when they said "we're different." And on that note, go read this post by Samantha Field: On "Different" Churches: You're Actually Not.)

So my goal is to find Christians who accept me, but I guess I'd lost sight of that goal. I guess I'd gotten into the habit of going because that's what I do on Wednesday nights. (And I'd gotten into the habit of feeling nervous all day on Wednesdays.) Well... actually this is not entirely true- I never forgot that I don't have to go if I don't want to, that this is my choice.

But the point is, I wasn't paying attention to my body. I wasn't paying attention to how I felt. My body and mind were telling me about my own needs (specifically, that it's not healthy for me to put myself in that kind of Christian environment) and I didn't realize it. (Until I actually wrote it all down.)

Because the church trains us to ignore our own needs. The church teaches that following God is supposed to be hard, and that we need to obey even though it will hurt.

For example, I was taught Christians are supposed to "spend time with God" every day. Bafflingly, "spending time with God"- you know, the God who created everything, the God who is the source of every good and perfect gift, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God whose presence we can never escape, yes, that God- "spending time with God" refers ONLY to reading the bible alone and/or praying alone.

Yes, we have to "spend time with God" every day. But, I was also taught, you're not going to like it at first. It's a discipline- it'll be tough, it'll sometimes be painful, but if you keep at for long enough, you'll reap the rewards. You'll be closer to God. You'll be more like Jesus.

All this talk of discipline and sacrifice would be fine if it was something we actually had a choice about. It would be great if the church presented the costs and benefits of having a "daily quiet time" and then each person could decide for themselves if it was something that would be worth doing.

But nope, that's never what happens. Sure, they talk about the benefits. You'll get closer to God. You'll develop love, joy, peace, patience, etc. You'll become like those people the church holds up as super-godly role models. You'll learn the bible really well. But really, these benefits aren't the point. Christians don't have "quiet time" because they weigh the costs and benefits and decide it seems like it's worth doing. No, Christians have quiet time because Christians are supposed to have quiet time.

(I submit that this is what legalism is.)

You want proof that it's not about the supposed benefits, it's about "you're a Christian so you HAVE TO do this"? Try going to church and telling someone "I've been reading the bible every day but it's not really helping me become closer to God or become a better person, so I'm going to stop." What do you think they're going to say? If it was about "this is something that's worth doing because of these benefits", then they would say "oh, okay, I guess in your case, you're not experiencing those benefits, so it wouldn't make sense to keep doing it." Ha. Haha. Do you think, ever in a million years, somebody in church would tell you that?

No. Haha, no. They'll say you must be doing it wrong and you need to try harder. They'll say that satan is trying to discourage you, so you need to be strong and not give in to temptation- you need to keep reading the bible every day. They'll say yes of course sometimes it feels pointless to read the bible, we feel like we're not getting anything out of it, but we still need to do it.

In other words, you should ignore what your mind and emotions are telling you. (In fact, your thoughts and emotions may even be considered "temptation.") You don't know what's best for you. The church has a one-size-fits-all teaching which is definitely way better.

So Christians go to their weekly small group and "confess" to each other "I haven't been reading my bible." But maybe they haven't been reading the bible because they've never actually thought about if they wanted to read the bible. They've heard so many times that this is a thing that Christians need to do in order to become closer to God, but have they ever been free to make a personal decision about whether it would be useful for them?

I'm saying that on some level, they don't actually want to do it, they don't actually see it as something worth doing. And I'm aware that this kind of language is commonly used by the church to make us feel guilty- we skipped our quiet time because our rebellious sinful nature doesn't actually WANT to do it, and this is a terrible thing that must be conquered. No, I don't mean it that way. Your mind and body are trying to tell you that it's not a healthy or worthwhile thing for you, but you've bought this line that a "daily quiet time" is ALWAYS a good thing, a necessary thing in the life of every Christian, and any evidence to the contrary is chalked up to your "sinful nature."

People come to small group and say "I haven't been reading my bible because I wanted to sleep instead" or "because I wanted to watch TV in the evenings" and they feel as if those things are shameful and selfish. NO! Listen to your body. You need sleep. You need to do relaxing things like watch TV. We've created this culture where people claim to believe "spending time with God" is the most important thing, but then they don't do it because their mind/body/emotions tell them it's not actually worth it, and they can't be honest about it. They feel bad and come to small group and talk about how weak and selfish they are, how they have to work harder in the future to ignore their own needs and do what the church taught them is the right thing for all Christians to do.

The same thing is true about going to church. Samantha Field's post, the not-so-ridiculous reasons people leave church, does a great job with this topic. She writes about the memes and blog posts that get shared by Christians, mocking the reasons that people quit going to church. Those awful posts are all about how pathetic and selfish you are if you stop going to church because you don't like it, or because it wasn't actually a good thing for you, or because people judged you, etc.

Reality check: If you don't like something, why on earth would you do it? But the church teaches it doesn't matter how you feel- if you're a Christian, you HAVE TO go to church. And if you don't, you'd better have a damn good excuse, or rather, haha no excuse is good enough, you're just being selfish.

Because we're taught that our own feelings and our own needs don't matter. If the church is hurting us, or if every week we think "this is pointless, why do I keep coming here?" it doesn't matter. You have to just keep doing it, and eventually God will help you learn to like it.

Which is why it's taken me so long to realize that, hey, since this church group is pushing me toward depression, I should stop going. I have an exit plan now. I've gotten familiar enough with a lot of the group members, so it's time to track people down individually and ask very pointed questions about what they believe. If I'm not satisfied with any of their answers, I'm quitting the group. (Does this sound mean? If I treated them badly because they believe differently than I do, that would be wrong. But nobody is entitled to be part of my life- I absolutely have the right to quit interacting with people whose beliefs hurt me.)

I'm done ignoring my own needs. I'm done believing that it's somehow virtuous to dedicate myself to something that hurts me.


Christians Are Supposed To Feel Bad Over Not Reading the Bible Enough (and Here Are the Receipts)

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