“The hardest part is realizing you’re in charge” – Helen Bishop, Mad Men

One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.

The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.

This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.

So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself.  Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.

But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!”  Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.

Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.

On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.

Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.

I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.

The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.


Sarah sent me this update on her school funding situation tonight! She’s almost set for college — just a few things left on her Amazon wishlist, and she leaves on Monday. Thank you to everyone who helped!

I’d like to say a giant “Thank you!” to all the wonderful people who
have helped me with my first college funding drive. The results of
your efforts are really remarkable and will be very helpful to me in
financing my first month of college. Currently, we’ve raised over $650
in cash donations and purchased over 60% of my wish list. These funds
should cover the vast majority of my first month’s expenses as I
return to college. Most of the really essential and expensive items on
my wish list have been purchased, which is absolutely wonderful! There
are still a few items that I could really use, so if anyone wants to
help out, they’re more than welcome to do so. Thank you to each and
every one of the amazing individuals who are making my education a
reality.

You can read Sarah’s story here, and more on her blog.


I’ve used my blog to share the story of a friend’s sister after she got kicked out of her QF family home for being vegan, and you wonderful people chipped in to raise $10,000 for her to replace her clothes, art supplies, and go toward her college tuition in the fall. 

This time, a 24 year old QF daughter, Sarah, reached out to me to share her story with you–she’s a beautiful person with a knack for words, and she wrote up her story here for you to read. Sarah just started blogging at The Pathway Maker, and will be doing a series of posts on her story in longer form. We set up a PayPal account specifically for donations to her tuition fund, and she made an Amazon wishlist for her school and apartment supplies that you can help her out with, too. 

Sarah: QF survivor, age 24

Sarah: QF survivor, age 24

***

My world spun inside my head, each thought more terrifying than the last. I would lose my soul. The demons would get in if I ate that food. They would get in.

Then my father was there, forcing the spout of the water bottle between my clenched teeth, jamming it into my mouth. I struggled and fell. My father bent over me, forcing the water down my throat as I choked and cried out in panic. Over a decade of my internal tortures had come and gone, but now things were worse than ever.

I hadn’t always been like this. My early childhood had been reasonably happy, despite the anger and the yelling and the spanking. But these had never crushed my spirit, and I had been a carefree child in many respects. But then things changed.

I began struggling with scrupulosity as a young child. My labored confessions were the first signs of the mental illness which would destroy me for years. As if this growing inner torment were not enough, I began to struggle to see the physical world around me and learned, at the age of 8, that I would one day be legally blind because of an incurable retinal disease.

I lost my sight gradually over a period of several years, and at the same time, struggled increasingly with my mental illness, later diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.*

When I began exhibiting signs of OCD, it manifested in the form of terrifying, uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) that prompted ritualistic action responses (compulsions). Because my OCD was religious in nature, it was only exacerbated by my fundamentalist, Christian Patriarchal, Quiverfull, homeschooled upbringing. My fear of hell and demonic possession drove me to pray for hours, forego food and sleep and pace for hours in the middle of the night.

My family treated my OCD like silliness or sin that could be rationalized or prayed away. Worse, while they disregarded my obvious need for mental health assistance, they treated me as though I was already possessed by demons. My father claimed he could hear other voices when he talked to me, and once began pleading with the “demon” to let me speak to him again. I listened to this, both terrified of the idea that I might be possessed, and hurt that my father was trying to speak to a demon instead of to me.

I managed to get out and go to a Christian college, but dropped out a couple of years later because of my mounting mental health issues. I returned home, where I received sporadic treatment for my mental health. But I mostly lived at home, isolated and controlled, and struggling with OCD and depression so strong that I had trouble eating, drinking, and sleeping.

And that’s when my father began to physically abuse me, when I was so physically and mentally weak that I couldn’t even fight back. One night he crawled into bed with me and began hitting my head with the flat of his hand, hard enough to make my head ring. He force-fed me multiple times, threw food on me, hosed me off outside with the icy water from a garden hose, bit me, tied me to a bed, and at one point, attempted to strangle me.

His rationale? He wanted to show me what he said I was doing to myself.

After over a decade of untreated mental illness, I finally found a good counselor and a good psychiatric prescription, and I stabilized within a year and a half. As I recovered and began to show greater independence, my parents became increasingly alarmed at their loss of control. I changed my church, my wardrobe, and started classes at the local community college. I also qualified for Supplemental Security Income — not much, but it was mine, and it helped.

Then this summer, I signed up for an online dating service, and this proved to be the last straw for my parents. They kicked me out of the house and now limit and monitor all my contact with the family.

I have a temporary place to stay, and I’m returning to school full-time this fall to study clinical psychology at a university with a reputable program. After my traumatizing treatment because of my disability and mental illness, I’m very interested in helping other people with disabilities and mental health issues, both with counseling and advocacy.

But a good education is rarely free, and though I’ve got some need-based aid, and am trying to pull together loans, funding is difficult since I was never allowed to get much of a job or establish any credit. I’m looking at almost $50,000 in school loans by the time I finish my undergrad. If you’d like to help me realize my dream of higher education as I try to rebuild my life from the ground up, consider donating to my tuition?

* Many people think of OCD and imagine someone who might be a bit of a neat freak. It’s a quirk, they think, the trait of a humorous side character in your favorite TV show. In reality, OCD is a form of mental illness which can be extremely emotionally distressing and seriously threatening to its sufferers. Mental illness is not an adorable personality quirk.

***





Dear readers. You’ve been following Jennifer’s story, here and here. You’ve rallied with gifts and notes and advice on the best tools for this budding graphic concept artist.

I thought we’d be doing really well if we raised $300 for her.

Today the count totalled just over $10,000. Most of that was donations of $5-15–individuals giving what they could, writing notes of encouragement and sending it on to Jennifer with love and goodwill. And then we got a couple very generous gifts from extraordinarily kind individuals, one of whom wants us to start a trust scholarship fund for Jennifer’s college tuition.

We’re still working out the details, but we’re hoping to find a church that will manage the fund for her and use the funds (less $1,800 designated specifically for her laptop and a portion of that earmarked for replacing her lost clothing) for her college tuition. Once that’s established, I’ll let you know so that if you still want to donate, you can send it directly to the scholarship fund at the church that we end up working with.

I cannot tell you how amazed Jennifer and her sister are at your overwhelming kindness. It means so much to discover that regular people like and care about you for you–and you all have really made that tangible with your generosity.

So, on behalf of Jennifer: thank you.


Update: We’ve hit $1,087!

THANK YOU! I’ve sent the full amount to her sister, and they’re setting it aside for either a tablet or a laptop, once she knows what exactly she’ll need.

Any additional gifts will be put in a separate fund for Jennifer’s college tuition in the fall.

-h

Today something amazing happened. We raised $490 (so far) for Jennifer.

But I’ve been thinking, and talking with her sister about what exactly she plans to do with art, and apparently she wants to do concept design for creatures for video games. After seeing her sketchbook on Sunday, I think she’s got a really good shot at doing that if she gets the right training and tools.

The plan to raise $500 for a computer was intended to get her a base model PC laptop, but if she’s going to do design and art like she hopes to do, she’s going to need an Adobe suite subscription and probably a Mac.

If you haven’t chipped in yet, would you consider doing that? I would really love to see Jennifer given the opportunities she needs and not be set back financially (like so many of us were when we “got out”).


Last Sunday night, I got a call from one of my post QF/CP buddies–we’re both the oldest from big homeschooling families with some unhealthy dynamics, and we both left that world when we got married (which torqued both of our fathers, for different, but similar reasons). She and I have been discussing with some of our post-QF/CP peers the needs of new adults trying to get out of borderline abusive or codependent or controlling family situations.

“Hännah,” she said. “I need advice.”

And then she spilled a story about her family’s downward spiral into isolation, fear, and control (increasing after she left and got married as a reaction against how “bad” she turned out), about how her sister “Jennifer” was demeaned by daily screaming from her mom, Bible-based lectures from her dad on why her interest in being vegan and an animal rights activist were rebellious and wrong. Despite many requests to be allowed to make herself vegan food, she was never given permission to even make herself a salad. She wasn’t allowed to touch fruit or vegetables unless given permission, which sometimes meant that food would rot in the fridge even though she wanted to eat it. Jennifer’s parents also threatened her pets, telling her that if she did not eat meat for dinner, she would wake up the next morning to find one of them gone.

The final crushing moment came last weekend, after her high school graduation, when she wasn’t singing in church (out of self-consciousness) and so, in a fit of anger, her parents removed all of her access to the outside world, taking away the power cord to her computer and her cell phone charger. She managed to get a few calls out, begging for help, with the battery power left on her phone.

She called her sister, and asked her to come get her out.

Her sister called me. “What should I do?”

But we knew there was really only one option, and so she and her husband put in 28 hours of driving in three days and went to rescue Jennifer. They got her out after a confrontation with her parents that required police backup, and cost Jennifer her three pets, her graduation gift iPad, her computer, her art supplies, her summer clothes, and her life savings of nearly $3,000.

Jennifer plans to become a concept artist for computer games, and wants to start college classes in the fall in order to pursue her art, but she will need a computer and art supplies and a number of other essentials to start life over in a new state with little to her name.

So, dear readers, I’ve never done this before, but I think this is a worthwhile cause. Would you be willing to chip in $10-15 to help raise $500 for Jennifer’s new laptop?

Update: Use the button below! Comment with your email address below, and I’ll email you my PayPal address and get the fund directly to her–and I’ll tell you how much we raise sometime next week!

I’m also putting together a care package for her, so if you want to write her a note of encouragement (Jesus jukes need not apply) or send her a gift card for clothes or art supplies, let me know and I’ll send you the details on how to make that happen.

Thanks, everyone, for all your support. It means so much for those getting out to know that they’re not crazy or alone, and that good human relationships should not involve conditional love or manipulation.

Jennifer is a pseudonym. Names have been changed to protect identities.


Trigger warning: spanking.

There are two things I’m afraid to write about, for myself. The first is music, and my relationship to it. The second is anger and my fear of myself when angry.

SGM taught that anger is a sin. I remember my mom coming home from care group and telling me that it made so much sense now that she had been enlightened to see it: anger is a sin and it grieves God.

And so I fought my anger for years, like I fought against desire. It’s absurdly obvious, now, how interrelated those two were with the levels of stress in my life at the time. I was angry a lot. I was horny and masturbated a lot. And I really, really hated myself. I was so afraid of who I was becoming and I didn’t know what I could do to change. I prayed all the time, I only listened to Christian music and sang worship songs, I read my Bible every day, I journaled. And I cut out reading any mystery or fantasy, in hopes that I would get my spiritual life in order so I could overcome my two deadly vices.

I still don’t quite know what to make of anger. I’m reading a book that talks about how some kinds of anger are healthy and good, piercing facades to motivate change and wholeness. How some, bad forms of anger are only out to consume and devour. I’m not sure what to think of this.

Anger is really lonely. Anger, for me, was/is usually driven by fear — of not being good enough, of being misunderstood and thus rejected, of being abandoned or neglected.

Today I read two articles. One was a HuffPo piece on Post-Partum Depression and how it causes rage. And I read it and I suddenly was back to last year, when I was on a BC that didn’t work well with my body, which caused mood swings and made me so afraid of being alone. Something would trigger it, and I’d get intensely afraid, and my ex wouldn’t hear my fear, but only anger, and he’d need space and walk out the front door, and then it would become anger. And I’d angry cry myself to sleep and have nightmares of being abandoned.

And I’d remember, when I was crying that when I was a kid, I only every cried when I was angry. I remember telling people this as a sleepover trivia game piece. “I never cry. Only when I’m angry because they don’t understand.”

You have no idea how fearful it is in a legalistic home, with an authority who practices that smoldering, quiet anger, to be misunderstood as the one at fault. You’re brought into the bathroom and you plead and beg and say that there was a mistake, you were loud because the other sibling did x, it wasn’t you’re fault, and you get told to pull your pants down.

And you take it. Because you’re the kid who plays at being orphans, and you read The Whipping Boy and Anne and Little House and you want to be bold and brave and so you don’t cry or wince. Five or six smacks with a strip of tarred conveyor belt, and it’s over. Your face is hot and you look the parent in the eye, and they lean in and put their hands on your shoulders. And oh, they have bad breath from lunch. And they look at you and tell you they love you, but you need to learn x, and you maybe fuss back a little, but in the end you’re apologizing and they’re prompting your apology speech for the sibling who’s waiting outside the bathroom door with a smug look of the one who got away with it.

When it’s over, you carry on like nothing happened, because you don’t want to make a scene and you have to set an example for the younger kids, because if you fought a spanking and they saw, all hell would break loose.

You live like that because it’s right, it keeps order, and avoiding crisis is what surviving in a big family looks like.

But there’s another part of it, too. I read Elizabeth Esther’s post about being spanked and spanking and turning off emotions to break someone, and oh. Her story, her talk about the anger and the cold and the spanking–that is why I am afraid to have kids. My ex would tell me he wanted 10 kids and it’d be great and he’d be a stay-at-home dad and homeschool and I could still work…and I would know, yes, he’d be a great father. Yes, that could work. But I couldn’t escape the chill in my soul at the thought of being a mom.

My parents didn’t use the Pearls’ methods. My mom was a bad authoritarian, thankfully. My dad was a very businesslike authoritarian.

But I still learned to turn off my emotions when I was in a fight with someone “below” me in the family pecking order. If I was an authority, I could become a sociopath to get my way. And I ended up babysitting my siblings a lot. When that happened, they’d push my buttons and I’d snap. I could feel it. I suddenly stopped empathizing. Controlling the situation was all that mattered.

And what made it worse, is that I’d babysit for other people also, all the time. When I did, I’d be fine. All feeling and kindness and firm structure. I could do it. I really enjoyed it, actually. But with my siblings, the boundaries were set differently, and I would be so frightened of myself when I got cold. It’d be an out-of-body experience, watching myself get angry from a distance. We’d get into full-out wrestling matches over who had the ability to phone mom and dad, who had to do the dishes, who had to change the baby. It was ugly. Those evenings, when I was babysitting and things would get out of control and I couldn’t fix it and I got angry? Those are the worst memories of my childhood. It was so wrong. And I’m so appalled by it — even then, I was horrified by it. I didn’t know how to be different. And it scared me.

Just some late-night ramblings on the memories stirred up by those articles, but also: I don’t plan to spank my kids, if I ever have kids. And this is why. This is why I try the best I can to be thoughtful about respecting other people’s bodies, comfort zones, rights. Because I know who I can be. It’s ugly shit. I can be better than that.

(And I don’t think it was just total depravity that made me capable of that.)


I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?


I often struggle with jealousy. I go to a wedding where the couple is wholeheartedly celebrated by their parents on both sides, and I feel small and petty watching them from the sidelines as they make toasts and can’t say enough positive things about their children. I would hear friends talk about how restful their mid-semester breaks were at home and how much their family went out of their way to make them feel welcome, and I fight resentment. I see newlywed couples who glow idiotically and have no financial woes or inconveniences, and I wish them well and bite my tongue. I feel like these people haven’t earned their blessings, and I resent that no matter how hard I worked to keep everyone happy and do the right things, I never had what they have.

Yesterday I was plunged into this lonely place again (which is never about the other person, just about the contrast they provide)  during a sermon on baptism, when the pastor started talking about unconditional love in families.  He was saying, how in the kingdom of God, you are unconditionally loved once you’ve entered in (he was alluding to entering the “family of God” by being baptized as infants, and how there’s nothing the baby does to earn this welcome and this family and this unconditional love), and it’s never, ever about performance. The relationship with God is to be a safe place where you are loved by the Father without regard to how you’re performing or pleasing him. Whether or not you are agreeing with him. Whether or not you’re “good.”

Then he commented that this is how it is in healthy families–the parents love their kids by the merit of being their kids, not by merit of obedience, or agreeing with the parents’ viewpoints, or performing or behaving a certain way. The love doesn’t change, because the relationship between parents and child can’t be affected by any of these other things.

And I shriveled up inside, tuning out the rest of the sermon in my effort to not cry, there in the choir stalls. I have never known that kind of love in my family, in general. My mom understands it and gives it, but she is spread so thin that it cannot change the the overall tone of interactions in my family, which is (and has almost always been, for generations) marked by a tone of “what have you done for me lately?” and “why should I help you?” and “you don’t meet my standards, so I don’t have to care.”

The first time I saw real, unconditional love was in Kevin’s family. When I met him, the way he talked about them was just so exuberantly positive that I wasn’t sure it could  be genuine. As I got to know him a little better, I learned that he felt that he was sort of the “bad kid” (comparatively–they are such well-mannered people. I think this just happened because he was louder than the rest of them), and then when I met them all, and saw how they gushed over him and held him in such high regard, I was floored. Even if he wasn’t just exactly the way they hoped he might be, they still adored him and were so pleased to be his kin.

And being there with them was like a balm to me, though I did fight jealousy when I saw the contrast. Unconditional love can exist in families. It’s not a myth. You can disagree with each other over serious ideological issues, and still have a deeply loving, nuturing family.  It’s possible. I kept arranging my breaks from school, and later my weekends so I could spend more time with them, soaking up the healing atmosphere there.

I ache, wishing that I had that in my own family. Maybe it’ll happen one day, but probably not for years. And until then, I’m reminding myself again and again: Kevin and I can do it differently. We can be like his family.

But I’m still not whole, and sermons about unconditional love make me ache. I have to unlearn so much. My jealousy is a holdout of both my own pain and my still-twisted mindset of needing to earn good things, of needing to perform a certain way to get love. I’m hurting my marriage with this mindset, and I’m realizing I’ve damaged a lot of friendships because I loved conditionally and never realized how ugly it was because I didn’t know anything else.

Conditional love is a damning thing.


I’m terrible about reading my Bible regularly. Reading the ESV or NASB still gives me flashbacks to sermons from my spiritually abusive church, or to high-stress mornings with my family during our years at that church.

But my relationship to Jesus hasn’t been stunted. It’s grown stronger, and I’ve stopped being afraid like I used to be.

Talking with a friend today, I realized that one thing that helped me to see God as a caring Father and allowed me to respond to Jesus without fear was when I chose deliberately to change the words I used in my thought and discussions of God and religion.

In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it’s common to say “God,” “Christ,” “the Father,” and in other circles I interacted with, people used “the LORD” (in writing) or “the Lord” (spoken), and even that phrase so often repeated like a verbal tic in oral prayer: “Father God.”

When I left SGM and spiritually abusive environments behind, I had to find a way to stand the idea of God, to reassure myself that I hadn’t believed falsely, and that God was kind, intimately caring, patient, loving, forgiving.

I left fighting panic every time I opened my Bible.  I found myself unsure if I could ever pray sincerely again.

And then I started reading the Gospel of John in The Message, and I realized: God is a useful word, but it’s an abstraction. Abstractions are hard to connect with if you’ve been hurt.  So I did an experiment. I would use the name Jesus instead of all those other names. If I could bring myself to pray, I would pray to Jesus. If I talked about my faith or lack thereof, I would use his name. If I was journaling, I would write about Jesus, not God, not the Father. Jesus.

As I did that and as I kept reading in John, my anxiety eased up, just a little. Seeing Jesus as the man who loved women, loved the broken and hurting, who understood and was patient with those without strong faith–this is the same God I intellectually knew I worshiped. But just seeing him as Jesus, instead of Christ or God, helped me feel just a little bit safer, a little closer to healing.

If you’re hurting, if your Bible is terrifying, if prayer is deafeningly silent: take a step back and reintroduce yourself to Jesus.