The Perils of Worshiping a Perfectionist God

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As a child, I felt guilt constantly. I felt constantly bombarded with my failures and short-comings, despite the fact that I acted like the new intellectual savior. I was and always have been a perfectionist. With each flaw and error in my life and choices, I saw these as direct representations of my immortal soul, and I thought that I as a person was inherently flawed and would do nothing but fail.

Unfortunately, the Bible backed me up.

I grew up hearing Bible stories about great kings and wicked men who tried to stop them. I knew Abraham, Moses, and David. When I heard the creation story and learned about the Fall of Man, I felt angry for God. “How dare humanity disobey our creator? What were they thinking?” With Southern Baptists sermons as my succor, I learned about that “Ol’ Sin Nature” that every person harbored in their heart, and the only way to defeat it was with the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit.

I often took things too literally as a child, and when I heard about the “Ol’ Sin Nature” I was determined to do all I could to avoid being a depraved, immoral person. I would pray and go to church and I tried to respect my parents, but, like all children, I failed regularly. I didn’t understand how to fail with grace. Each time I failed, the guilt would eat up at me, seemingly swallowing me whole. I would look at my failures and wonder why I couldn’t just get it together; I had prayed to the Holy Spirit and had been saved. The fault and evil must have lied within my very heart.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” as Jesus said in Matthew 5:48. The Sermon on the Mount felt like basic tenets, but right there he demanded perfection. I wanted to make Jesus happy, so my standard for “good enough” became “Godly perfection.” Once I read those words, my guilt spiraled out of control. I felt guilt for things I had done, things I hadn’t done. I just wanted to make Jesus proud and I was making myself miserable.

The Bible told me to be joyful, so with my misery came more guilt. I went to church camp and heard about “Melancholy Moses,” and thought I could potentially justify my anxieties and frustrations with comparing myself to Moses, but he never made it to Canaan, he was left to die on the opposite shore. Not only that, he was a murderer, and obviously displeased God. I couldn’t use Moses as a way to excuse my feelings.

Most likely, I had been prone to depression from birth. Studies have shown that children who feel extreme guilt often develop depression later in life, but I found my pain fixated on religion. Above all else, I wanted to be a woman God was proud of, but my preachers said that that was impossible; I would also fall into sin, I could never be good, and no matter how many good deeds I do, I’m nothing without God.

Eventually, I started to believe them. I kept attempting to be good, but each time I failed I sighed and accepted it: “You’ll always be evil and worthless.” If I accidentally hurt a friend, I would apologize profusely, but internally berate myself: “Why do you bother to have friends? You’ll only hurt them and ruin them.” I thought I ruined everything I touched. I went so far as to develop strange coping mechanisms. If I had failed at yet another task, I couldn’t allow myself to expect more. I’d repeat “No one loves you, no one loves you,” under my breath to remind myself that I didn’t deserve any love or respect because deep down in my heart of hearts I was a depraved, evil human being. Even though I had Jesus, I never seemed to have that peace that was promised.

Of course, the Bible has messages about inherent self-worth, but those aren’t the messages that I heard, those weren’t the messages that wrung in my ears when I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake thinking, “Why would God waste his time on me? I’m completely evil and everything I do inadvertently dishonors him.”

I wanted to please God, and I eventually changed my tactics to just trying to be a kind person. I decided that perhaps that would be the way for me to find peace and perhaps become a good person, a Godly person. Unfortunately, around this time the group I spoke to about religion had several discussions on what “goodness” meant. They reached a resounding conclusion: God defines goodness; we can’t be good beyond him. It became clear that no matter what I did, what good I attempted, I’d evil forever because God had deemed it so when ancestors upon ancestors made the misjudgment of eating fruit.

This entire time, my friends attempted to change my mind. They told me how kind I was, how I had so many good qualities. Part of me wanted to believe them, but I held fast to my doctrine. I couldn’t be good; no part of me could be good. I was nothing more than a sinner in need of God’s grace, and any assertion that I could be good was false and immoral. I held fast to the stories and lectures I had heard because if God said I was evil with no chance of redemption without his son, then I was just that. I couldn’t be good just because my friends said I was, I had to be intrinsically evil because God said so.

After years of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, I eventually told my therapist. In the month I had to wait before seeing the psychiatrist, I attempted to deconstruct the lessons I’d always been told about human nature and human capability of goodness. If eating the fruit made humanity evil, and the only capability of good was through Jesus, then everyone who wasn’t Christian had to be evil. That contradicted all the stories I’d read about people who’d done good despite what harm could come to them.

I kept digging and found so many contradictions in books I’d read. One Christian book aimed to improve one’s Christian life declared the Christianity was the only religion that cared about others, and all other religions rejected charity in favor of self-preservation. As a religion major, I knew this was an all-out falsehood. If people could do good without having Christ, I began to wonder if I just manage not being evil.

While I still have some anxiety and depressive tendencies, in many ways I feel relieved. I generally don’t assume I destroy all I touch, and my first reaction to failure isn’t to blame humans who may have existed thousands of years ago. Rather than being able to break free of the dark feelings that surrounded me, I felt trapped in a sea of theology. My logic felt sound: when you sin, you displease God à when you displease God, you should feel bad à you’ll always sin, so you should always feel bad.

More than likely, I’ll still have moments where I fall back and assume that despite what my friends, family, and therapist say, I am just evil and horrible. Those who love me will assure me otherwise and wait for me to come back down and remember that I’m not so bad. I can be more than evil to my core. I can be more than a person without hope, and I think that’s the best news I could have ever heard.

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2 thoughts on “The Perils of Worshiping a Perfectionist God

  1. Its me again excellent subject matter and pointedly appropriate for your geographical and ecclesiastical location. Your treatment of the southern baptist (I refuse to capitalize god, jesus, or religious names) psyche and its pull on evryone around. It is a maelstrom of guild and self loathing and uou got that down on paper, There are a few phrases and some syntax that could use an artful turn of hand. “the guilt would eat up at me, seemingly swallowing me whole.” a little unwielding a suggestion ” the guilt would eat me up, seeming to swallow me whole.” I hope you don’t mind. I would waste my time if I didn’t think you are going to be a star. ” have lied within my very ” have lain”? “my pain fixated on religion.” bulky term “I became fixated on religion as the source of my pain.” ??? That is enough for tonight. You are dealing with such an intensely personal subject. As such it is difficult to go from pain to paper..

    Like

  2. In my news feed today, I see comments from “good” Christians criticizing Caitlyn Jenner because their god made Bruce Jenner “perfect” and he had no right to change god’s perfection.

    And I also see this article (via Patheos) on how Christianity and the Bible make perfection (by Christian standards and their god’s standards) impossible.

    Right. The Christian god makes people perfect and also makes it impossible for them to be perfect.

    It does not compute.

    Well written, Holly.

    Like

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