In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.


  • I read this holding my breath & fighting tears.

    I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

    Absolutely. It’s such a hard place.

    …yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

    Ahhh, yes. This happens to me a lot, especially with friends from childhood or my family. “But you loved this!” Actually, I didn’t. Or maybe I did, but I sure don’t anymore. I like the idea of trying to introduce yourself to yourself as you are. Overwhelming, absolutely. But it has to be so helpful.

    Basically, thank you for your openness and honesty. And I hope you get to know yourself better as the years go by. And like yourself. And be proud of yourself. Because you are a pillar of strength, and you are wonderful.

  • ajoy

    this is so good. because how can we learn what it means to be loved by Jesus or anyone if we don’t feel at all. and how can we have hope for wayward hearts without divine love.

  • I resonate with this so much. Ugh, grief.

  • Kiery

    ugh. yeah. this. a lot. <3

  • “Systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head…” Oi. This is who I was. And it led to dissociation and overwork, because even when I was doing something I thought I liked, I wasn’t really doing it in a way that brought me joy because I didn’t think that was really important.

    “Why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied
    than constant self-control and vigilance in rational,
    Church-people-approved life choices?” All I can think is that true faith is supposed to lead us deeper into knowledge and love of ourselves and others, not away from it.

    Thanks for putting this into words.

  • courtneyjoy

    “Why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied
    than constant self-control and vigilance in rational,
    Church-people-approved life choices?” Yes. This.

    I’ve never been able to put this into words. Thank you for writing this.

  • “evangelical Gnosticism” = perfect description

  • How ironic: this Reformed church who tried to beat you down with the notion that your heart is desperately sick and wickedly sick is the same Bible and Reformed theology that teaches that our delight is in the Lord and He will give us the desires of our heart. Not because our hearts are wicked and sick but God took away that hard, cancerous, sick heart and gives you His soft tender heart so that you can love Him and enjoy Him forever.

    Or as our father Augustine once said: “Love God and do whatever you want.”

    I am so sorry

    • To that end, how many of us Calvinists (especially us new ones) who completely stopped thinking about the doctrines of grace because they worked themselves out logically instead of having that same theology continuously work itself into your heart to constantly produce sweet worship to our loving God?

  • So Done

    Though I did not grow up in a SGM church or the like – I was saved in one and spent 12+years in one until recently…I and my family are now in the process of leaving. And you have put into words so clearly my thoughts, struggles, and feelings.

    Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

    Yes and yes. Every decision down to the smallest.

    I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative.

    And – even now when I reach to draw or sew or just sit on my couch and watch a movie…I still feel guilty. Words still come back to haunt me – and the teachings I sat under still hinder knowing that God wants me to enjoy those things too.

    Thank you for your blog – there have been several posts I have saved to remind myself that I am not alone.

  • Quiara

    I’ve always loved reading your writing, but I especially love this. It’s beautifully articulated and heartbreakingly accurate. It’s also one reason I am suspicious of people who’ll lift a verse out of context like that. It’s a poem about a heart that IS wicked — because it’s a poem about Israel being unfaithful. Poetry says stuff; it’s not supposed to be literal. But bringing up genre with some is like waving a flag saying “I’m an unredeemed skeptic; dismiss everything I say or write on the basis of my not taking the Bible ‘seriously’!”

    I’m glad you’re you. I just wish it hadn’t been such a rough road for you to become yourself.

  • Emilie

    I follow you on Twitter but haven’t read more of your writing until today. Thanks so much for your depth and insight, your honesty. Coming from a QF/Fundamentalist background and now identifying myself as an atheist, these were healing words. It IS a big deal, and we’re told that it’s a minor issue, that we’re just setting aside selfish, petty desires for the good of others.
    The truth is, that doctrine does more work destroying the human heart and pushing it more and more towards empty desperation than any Cinderella movie ever did.

  • Abigail Kimball

    When I was freaking out about whether or not to date Garrett (because I sort of wanted to, but worried that since I found him attractive, I was probably letting my feelings take too much (read: any) role in my decision making) a wise lady said to me that we should always try to be logical about important decisions and attempt to make them Biblically. Here’s the thing, though, she said the funny thing Christians forget is that after becoming a Christian, your entire being is slowly being transformed and sanctified. That means that over time the Holy Spirit is teaching your heart (feelings, gut) to want GOOD things. And that means if something makes sense logically, and our gut wants them really badly, too, we should not shy away from our gut–it can be trusted just as much (and perhaps as little) as our brains to want godly things.

    • Someone

      Awwww. That’s so adorable, and kind of her. 🙂 Sometimes these wise people can see exactly what’s going on with us, and know just how to say something helpful in a way we are willing to recieve it. 🙂

  • Oh my God, this is me. Not being able to answer the seemingly simple question of what do I dream about. Not having an answer for what my strengths are, except maybe confirming to hierarchy and standards. Thank you for this post. Exactly what I needed to hear tonight.

  • Miriam

    Thank you for your humanness. I had strong emotions (like-minded thinking, too) about your history. My biggest resource for helping myself is Al-Anon (for friends and family of alcoholics). I didn’t grow up with alcoholics (quite the reverse) but in the past almost 9 years (thanks to the encouragement of my best friend, who has almost 35 years of sobriety in AA) I have found a safe, nurturing place to learn how to care about and care for myself (and it’s not a selfish thing to do). I love your blog…..:-) Miriam

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