On Evangelical Guilt and Inadequacy

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I can’t stop thinking about David’s comment:

Guilt and inadequacy are, I think, a natural consequence of growing up evangelical. I’ve noticed that there are very few socially acceptable ways for evangelicals to say something *nice* about themselves, but dozens and dozens to talk about how bad they are. Your average evangelical could cure cancer *while* building an orphanage and still be convinced she was a terrible sinner unworthy of praise.

Isn’t that so true?

I wonder where the guilt and inadequacy started. The Protestant notion of sinfulness? Calvinism? An obsession with heaven and hell? The urgency of making a decision for Christ? The emphasis on our faith, our decision? The fear of works-based salvation? Fear in general?

Or is it not the doctrines, per se, but rather the people hearing those doctrines — i.e., Christian millennials growing up in Christian households, hearing that they’re going to hell for all their childhood disobedience and crushes and mistakes — that fall into a cycle of self-criticism? It always seems to be Christian kids with good hearts and high hopes who burn out and quit, suicidal and psychologically strained.

Is it legalism? I don’t think that is the answer. I ditched the legalistic rules a long time ago, and that doesn’t stop the guilt and inadequacy.

There’s something more self-sustaining than a legalistic community’s rules — something that keeps us coming back to communities or doctrines or lifestyles that burn us out. I don’t know where it started, but I do know it looks exactly as David described — an impossible search for virtue, where no good deed goes recognized or unquestioned to death.

I do to myself what others have done to me, a particular kind of shame tactic that always keeps you down and never allows yourself to have succeeded or accomplished anything good. When I was first coming out of the stay-at-home daughter lifestyle, I worked hard to get good PSAT scores, land a National Merit scholarship, and get accepted to Hillsdale College. It was the start of a new life for me.

But that wasn’t enough for the anti-fundies. “A National Merit scholarship doesn’t mean much, anyway.” “Hillsdale College isn’t that impressive.” “She’s still stuck in conservative world.”

Nothing, nothing was good enough for them.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

This sort of manipulation turns virtue into vice, and leaves you feeling inadequate and guilty all the stinkin’ time, even if you are building an orphanage. But with religious guilt, it’s a self-manipulation. It’s something you carry with you even if you block the manipulators from speaking into your life. It’s a mindset that poisons how you see yourself.

Poisons everything, really.

As I was driving home from holiday festivities, I realized that my problem wasn’t knowing who I was. I know very much who I am — my talents, my dreams, my beliefs, my faults. I’m a self-aware person, generally. But that self-awareness was no match for the guilt and inadequacy. I wasn’t confident being who I was, doing the things I loved to do, speaking the things I believed. Who I was wasn’t good enough, wasn’t right, wasn’t blameless, wasn’t like this or like that, wasn’t…well, there must be something horribly wrong with me.

Of course, there was no going back to the person I once was or the beliefs I once held, but there didn’t seem to be anything going forward, either.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

That’s what I’d like to work on this year — finding the source of the guilt and the inadequacy, putting it in a little box, and smashing it to pieces so it never finds me again. I took the big leap of paying for therapy, so we’ll see if that gets me anywhere. I’ll let you know.

Did you ever find the source of the guilt and the inadequacy? How did you smash it?

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57 thoughts on “On Evangelical Guilt and Inadequacy

  1. Alyssa

    Guh, this is so familiar and hits so hard.

    In my case, the source was probably my mother and the fact that homeschool culture fed all *her* unresolved issues, which meant she had that much more to take out on my siblings and I (I’m the oldest of three and therefore got the lion’s share of that funfest). I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to figure out whether anything else was involved, but it always winds back to her.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oof. It’s so tragic and frustrating when the guilt grabs hold of the people who ought to care for us, turning them into people who then guilt *us*. Kudos to you for trying to break that cycle.

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      • handtothyplough

        Is this what happened to you? Did those who cared for you guilt *you*? Are you trying to break the cycle? Do you not agree with what your family believes? Are they Christians in your opinion? I am asking to try and get an understanding of where you are coming from. By reading your blog posts I surmise that you come from an evangelical background and that you believe them to be completely wrong in what they believe and how they live out their faith. Almost every blog in one way or another seems to come back to belittling the conservative evangelical community. It sounds to me like you have some unresolved issues from your childhood that you have directed towards conservative evangelicals. I am positive that your therapist will come up with the same conclusion although most likely in a more psychological array of blaming your parents, homeschooling and/or church for your feelings of inadequacy.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Oh, you found me out. I’m just a bitter, whiny person who blames everything on my parents. There’s no way I could have REAL complaints or pain or a nuanced understanding of my background. ;) I’m not interested in having this conversation with you. Your tone comes across as accusatory, and you don’t sound open to hearing me, just desirous of pointing out my flaws and making me feel “lesser than” for having them. (You’re criticizing me for getting therapy? Really? Ouch.) If I misread your intentions or tone, I apologize.

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      • handtothyplough

        I apologize if I come across accusatory and for questioning therapy. I hope it helps. Is it a Christian or secular therapist? Bitter and whiny? Where did I say that? By saying you come across as being against evangelical conservatives is not calling you bitter or whiny. It is me commenting on what I read. If you perceive this to be a flaw which makes you feel “lessor than” then that is what it will be but I never said it was. I do point out things that I do not agree with or are worth questioning. Would you rather I only applaud what you write like most of the people on here? I hope not for that would be boring and end all possible learning. If you would prefer I could be all flowery with my language as well so it sounds nicer. Just let me know. I have asked you five questions on my previous post and also gave the reasoning of why I was asking. You ignored them all and chose to comment mainly on the ending of the post. Why?

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      • Bailey Steger

        I appreciate your apology. Thank you. I chose not to answer because I am uncomfortable with your tone. I don’t like discussing things with people who come here on this blog purposefully to question, challenge, or disagree with everything. My regular commentors are not flatterers, and I resent you characterizing these thoughtful, diverse, and gracious people as such. We disagree about many things, big and little, but they are always respectful and ask questions in order to understand, not to criticize. I am blown away by their ability to offer up different opinions in a winsome and respectful way, and I try to respond like them. I am very zealous of guarding that sort of dialogue on my blog, for my readers’ sake and my own. The way you are firing off criticisms and questions at me and my readers makes it sound like you just want us to realize we’re wrong, rather than share your perspective and take ours into consideration, as if you’ve already decided the truth and are here to tell us what it is. To me, there’s a big difference between sharing an opinion and trying to prove somebody wrong. Perhaps I am unfamiliar with your style, but it’s coming across to me that you’re only here to criticize and prove people wrong. If that is not the case, I hope we can understand each other better.

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  2. Elizabeth

    I don’t think this is a strictly evangelical problem; I mean, Catholic guilt has is own complete Wikipedia entry! However, I think it does come back to a sort of pietism in the American evangelical’s history. I’d have to dig up some of my old poli-sci notes from my classes, but my professor talked about the fact that the early settlers – Puritans, I believe – basically held to the idea that in order to have a “true” faith, it must manifest itself in the form of good deeds in your daily life. So, it wasn’t legalism per se (because you weren’t saved by your works), but the works provided “evidence” of salvific(?) grace in your life.

    I think a lot of this is still within evangelical culture. We can fall victim to questioning over and over whether we’re “truly saved”, and may pray the “sinner’s prayer” more than once, just to make sure it takes. We “recommit” and hope this time, the Holy Spirit really *will* come and fill us and BOOM we’ll sprout good deeds and energetic “churchiness” which will prove forever, once and for all, to ourselves and everyone else, that we’re really and truly saved.

    I suspect this has some sort of theological cause, but maybe its a universal thing to all seriously “religious” people? Do Muslims feel guilty for cutting out on fasts or skipping prayers? I just mean to say, we may be pegging this as an evangelical thing because that’s our history, that’s how we view our world. However, couldn’t it be a religious thing? Or even an American thing? Americans *do* have that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” protestant work ethic embedded in us — maybe we’re just experiencing the religious, evangelical manifestation?

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    • Bailey Steger

      I have often wondered the same, particularly because many people come to evangelicalism from Catholicism or other religions/denominations and find relief. I hope I didn’t communicate guilt as a *uniquely* evangelical problem; rather, this is the evangelical manifestation of that (perhaps universal) type of guilt.

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    • korie

      I was also trying to wrack my brain about the connection to the puritan settlers of America… I think the guilt and personal responsibilty is something particularly strong in American culture.

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      • Elizabeth

        Yeah, because I can tell you my husband, who is Latino Catholic, feels ZERO guilt about skipping Mass on Christmas or New Year’s Day, whereas I would be ate up with negativity about it. I mean, how can you skip Mass on CHRIST’S MASS? Sheesh. And during the Spanish New Year’s Day service this year, the pews were very sparse compared to the average Sunday. So I do think there is some sort of connection with American culture at large as well. I don’t think that Latino Catholics necessarily experience Catholic guilt in the same way and Irish-American Catholic would, for example.

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  3. korie

    I’ve been reading your posts for a few months, and I’ve been thinking about how to respond. I know exactly what you are talking about. I can resonate so much with your words. I knew that guilt and inadequacy. I lived it for years…. and now I don’t. Now I live with zero guilt, zero shame, and more freedom than I ever thought was possible. Like, it’s actually real. Like I can actually say, “I have a lot of joy all the time.” without needing to tell myself that joy is “just a feeling deep inside that everything will be okay.” Like, no. I am actually happy. And I’m very much a follow of Christ and very much not evangelical.

    I just tried about 5 times to explain how and why this happened, but I can’t. It comes out wrong every time. I think this is part because this understanding is something that isn’t able to be explained… it has to be experienced. You are on the right track. You’re in the middle of the process and I have faith that it will be brought to completion.

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  4. Allison Caylor

    “The Protestant notion of sinfulness? Calvinism? An obsession with heaven and hell? The urgency of making a decision for Christ? The emphasis on our faith, our decision? The fear of works-based salvation? Fear in general?”

    I grew up thoroughly surrounded by Evangelicalism, from fashionable Christianity to dying country Southern Baptist churches to ATI and what I call the Family Churches. The guilt and inadequacy (and its twin, the constant faking) are REAL. However, I’ve been in a Reformed Baptist church and community, which truly is different from any of those groups in almost every way. These are not things that have plagued me. Not truly. Like anyone, I wish I were smarter, prettier, cooler, and more accomplished, and like all Christ’s people I long for his holiness and hate when I run away from it. But I think I was pretty much comfortable with who I was as young as 15 or 16, and I can say the same with some certainty for not only my siblings but all those of our group of friends. That self-confidence is the most dramatic difference I noticed between the friends I had within my church and those in movements like Vision Forum and ATI.

    Why? Who knows, exactly? But just looking at my experience, I’d say it could be the Protestant notion of sinfulness or Calvinism. It could very possibly be the rest of the things you mentioned. In the Reformed faith we place great emphasis on the Christ part of “faith in Christ.” The way we see the gospel, he gives you that faith, and if you trust his power and willingness to save you, he will never, ever let you go. Believing that is so freeing. You don’t hold the responsibility for keeping yourself saved, or saving anyone around you — you just live your life with all your heart according to godliness, and he turns others’ hearts to him as he’s turned yours, or he doesn’t, and either way, you can rest in his goodness.

    There’s my two cents, just based on what I’ve seen in myself and Evangelicalism around me throughout my life.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I remember coming out of evangelicalism and finding comfort and solid ground in Reformed theology. It’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty is truly a HUGE RELIEF compared to evangelicalism’s emphasis on “making a decision for Christ.” I no longer believe in Calvinism and am no longer Reformed, but I have fond memories of those days and that theology. I wonder how my spirituality and my self-image would have turned out if I had been immersed in the Reformed community, rather than the Baptist/evangelical one.

      When I say Calvinism, I’m thinking specifically of double predestination. I personally find the idea of predestination very comforting. And when I say the Protestant notion of sinfulness, I’m thinking specifically of the uniquely Protestant idea that ALL our good deeds are tainted with sin even after salvation. I didn’t word those things well.

      Thanks for bringing the Reformed perspective to this conversation! As a side note, wasn’t Vision Forum theoretically Reformed? To be honest, I don’t remember; they talked so much about family and rules and biblical manhood and womanhood and rarely about doctrine or the Gospel. But from what I remember, they were like a weird hybrid of fundamentalism and Reformed. ATI is just straight up fundamentalist, right?

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      • Allison Caylor

        I would like to add that I see the lack of self-confidence (really, peace!) in mainstream Baptist Christianity as well. They are constantly weighed down by the pressure to be more emotional about God, to experience direct leading from him, to go on more mission trips, to adopt more children from third-world countries, to “have a heart” for a specific ministry… and the list goes on. The women always seem to bear the heaviest load, as they’re expected to be rockstar mothers, work out like supermodels, run their own businesses, be involved in their kids’ schools, be the driving force behind every church program, have faithful and intense times of personal devotion, fill their homes with Pinterest-like creativity and beauty… and somehow also be “messy” and “real.” Without exaggerating, I can say I’ve caught a guarded, fearful look in more impeccably smoky eyes than I can tell.

        I’m sorry if I seem to go on excessive rants about “my church.” It’s just that the peace, confidence and joy I’ve found, and seen so many others find, makes me passionate to talk about it—particularly because no one seems to know that this sort of thing exists. Baptist, but not wishy-washy about important questions. Reformed, but not afraid to be anything but an echo. Overflowing love for Christ and each other with thoughtfulness and care about what we believe. I’ve never seen another group that so beautifully allows you just to BE. To wake up every day and just be your own, different, Jesus-loving, crazy self. To find joy and peace in the everyday, knowing that right here, loving those around you and trying to know and be like Jesus, is exactly where you need to be. I do earnestly want to share this. And, I’ll be honest—I have trouble saying anything without several paragraphs. :P

        I didn’t quite realize that that view of sinfulness was specifically Protestant. It’s definitely wrong to say that we can’t do anything good as believers. The Spirit does work in us, or to speak humanly, we CAN DO GOOD. Not perfectly all the time, of course. But God’s not leaving us wallowing in the mud, either. He’s making us like him. I think that having a good hold on this in your mind is a huge part of letting go of guilt. So, yes, I guess “the Protestant notion of sinfulness” is probably at fault!

        About Vision Forum… you are EXACTLY right. Who could even know what they believe, except for exaggerated femininity and masculinity?? (And how you should never do anything apart from your large family.) I do know that when “Voddie Baucham’s church” in South Texas considered joining the Texas Area Association of Reformed Baptist Churches, it was eventually decided that there was some sort of serious doctrinal difference found, but I don’t know what it was, exactly. However, one of the churches planted by that church, having moved away from their mother church in some ways, is a part of that association. It’s clear to me that anytime you have a huge mis-emphasis in a church movement, and/or leaders who fall into sexual scandal, you have a core issue with the gospel. As for ATI, I’m not sure what the definition is of fundamentalism, but they seem to just believe whatever Bill Gothard says, haha…

        Sorry for writing a book on this post. :) I’m loving the discussion that has sprung from it, and I could go on and on about this. Freedom from guilt and pressure for God’s people is so near to my heart. Thank you for your sweet welcoming attitude to all sorts of comments.

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      • Bailey Steger

        I love love love hearing you talk about your church community! One of my most influential friends is from a Reformed Baptist community, and she’s always telling me I need to meet more Christians like them. I guess I only hung out with the, like, heresy-hunting Reformed guys who seemed to criticize everything as sappy or blasphemous. I was hanging out with the wrong Reformed crowd, apparently. :)

        That’s more information on VF than I ever knew. I always felt that, deep in my soul, that were dangerously sacrificing the gospel for their paragons on familial virtue. That’s why Jasmine Baucham was so refreshing. She came along in that community, from that mindset, and made the conversation about the Gospel again. Not sure if you’re familiar with her, but I loved her blog back in the day. Even though we don’t see eye to eye on probably anything now, I still admire her.

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      • Allison Caylor

        I’m certain that every religious group has a flaw that people in it tend toward, and that gives others a bad taste for the whole group, even if most of them don’t fall into it. And we probably all know that for the Reformed tribe, that’s a temptation to be harshly critical of everything that doesn’t fall EXACTLY in line with what we consider correct doctrine, or even to eschew anything emotionally influenced in church life. To forget grace in finding truth (which has to mean you haven’t found the truth at all). I don’t deny that about the Reformed movement. I suppose that’s why I go on so about the freeing side of Reformed life. Because I firmly believe that harshness is a failing in ourselves, not an inherent problem with Reformed theology (or in knowing your theology in general). When you know that where you’ve come in life is 100% the work of God’s love for you, it ought to enable you to pour that love out to others no matter where they are in their own journeys. And despite the harshness, that does come out in the Reformed community.

        Probably the other biggest failing is a tendency to flaunt our craft beer and fine cigars… haha.

        I didn’t read Jasmine’s blog back in the day, but we have a mutual friend in that church I mentioned that’s now part of TAARBC along with my own church. Whatever Vision Forum’s problems, she seems to be a jewel. (And possibly I shouldn’t be lumping Voddie Baucham in with VF. I’m not sure what their affiliation is or is not.)

        Thanks for your encouraging reply. :)

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      • Bailey Steger

        Craft beer and fine cigars — YES!!! Haha I love people like you who are self-aware enough about their beliefs to know when and at what to laugh. You have such a refreshing way of loving your beliefs without condemnation of others’, and that, I think, is the most winsome way to get people to consider your views. Keep on being that winsome, honest, passionate voice!!!

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      • David

        So I have an incredibly dumb question for Bailey and Allison both. Or anyone, really.

        I’m *really startled* to hear both of you talk about Reformed thought as something that’s, gosh, not only outside the evangelical mainstream but outside of evangelicalism *period*. As an outside observer looking in on the evangelical world, I had thought that “Reformed” was, I dunno, one of the many many flavors that evangelicals could come in. Probably the most common flavor, actually.

        Plainly, I was *wildly* wrong and will need to do a bunch of rethinking… out loud and at length, because that’s how I roll. So maybe just skip down to the last paragraph, where I actually have questions for y’all. :)

        So what is it that puts Reformed Christians on the outside of the evangelical circle?

        It sounds like the answer’s gonna come down to soteriology. In fact, it sounds like that should’ve been a giant red flag. But honestly, in my tiny little secular heart I thought the details of theology were window dressing. :( So instead I looked at how Reformed Christians showed all the *cultural* markers of evangelicalism, and I noticed that you never hear evangelicals distancing themselves from Reformed theology or practice (contrast this with how evangelicals talk about Pentecostals), and I went, “Well, if it quacks like a duck and none of the other ducks seem to mind it…”

        But like many other duck-based tests in human history, this one seems — in retrospect — a little light on rigor.

        So, for Bailey and Allison and anyone else who by some minor miracle has read this far down, here’s my question. How *can* I tell evangelicals apart from other conservative Protestants? What are the key markers to look for? What puts someone firmly outside the group (or, and this is arguably even better to know, firmly *in* it)?

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      • Bailey Steger

        Allison would be able to answer this question more accurately, but here are my observations:

        (1) I am not terribly familiar with the Reformed community as a community. I’m only familiar with their theology and some of their intellectual trends.

        (2) I wouldn’t say Reformed communities are well outside the problems of mainstream evangelicalism, because they can share some of the core things of evangelicalism (Sola Scriptura, literalist interpretations, an obsession with certainty and sometimes with who’s in, who’s out, etc.).

        (3) Reformed people seem to be more intellectually open in that they value other forms of knowledge and ways of knowing than rigid Biblical literalism. They are still rooted somewhat in traditions and church history, so they avoid some of evangelicalism’s trends. They are very interested in living life well and thinking well, as opposed to striving and being on fire for Jesus and evangelizing the heck out of everybody. They just have a more well-rounded view of humanity and spirituality that isn’t just “obey the Bible, convert people, and love Jesus.”

        (4) They aren’t as legalistic. They enjoy the good things in life, and they find reasons to do so in their theology and creeds.

        (6) Come to think of it, the “new evangelical” (the more tolerant, less fundamentalist, open-minded, moderate evangelical) looks a lot like Reformed people.

        (7) Calvinism. Calvinism is a very different thing from the emphases mainstream evangelicals push, and that, I think, makes a huge difference. There’s less emphasis on “making a decision” and more emphasis on God’s sovereignty, who, by the way, WANTS to have a relationship with you and is in complete control of that, so you don’t need to strive or freak out or wonder if God wants you. It’s helpful to remember that a lot of Reformed theology was prompted/influenced by Luther’s own existential angst with Catholic teachings….it’s very accessible to the striving, burnt-out soul, I think. Also, speaking of Calvinism, I’ve encountered TONS of hostility toward Calvinists from all over the place, so while technically they still may be “in” with the evangelical crowd on the basis of their other beliefs, Calvinism is no crowd pleaser among non-Calvinist evangelicals.

        (8) Folks like Presbyterians are still sacramental, and I think sacramental theologies are more human and holistic, making them different from the disembodied spirituality of evangelicalism.

        Basically, that’s just what comes to my mind about what makes Reformed it’s own distinct “flavor” of mainstream, conservative evangelicalism. As has been mentioned elsewhere by others, evangelical is such an ambiguous term. :P

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      • David

        Thanks, Bailey! That was a phenomenal answer — information-dense in all the best ways. I really appreciate you takin’ the time to respond. So helpful!

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      • Allison Caylor

        David – Gosh, what a big question. Not dumb at all! And yes, the difference is a soteriological one — so, a very important one. (Having to do with salvation, yes? I had to look that word up real quick.) Reformed Christians are very, very passionate that the gospel be preached carefully and firmly, because the way we see it, the gospel is Jesus Christ dying so sinners can be reconciled to God through faith, and anything other than that is not even the gospel.

        The infamous 5 Points of Calvinism were drawn up in response to the 5 Points of Arminianism, which is the belief system of (to my knowledge) all other evangelicals, although they might not realize it. So, while this list is not to be mistaken for everything or even the most important things we believe, it is useful in comparing the two groups. I’ll try to go through this really quickly as it’s so easy to get the wrong impression from reading the awful-sounding theological terms generally used. I’ll use C for Calvinism and A for Arminianism.

        1. C: Every person is sinful. Not that he has no good, but he has no hope of “gooding” himself into God’s favor. We’re dead in our sins. A: There is just enough good in each person for them to perhaps “reach out” and finish their salvation.
        2. C: God chooses whom he will save, not based on anything promising about that person. A: God might choose, but it’s because he sees that the person will choose him back.
        3. C: Jesus died only for those on whom God will bestow saving faith. This does NOT mean that some people seek God and can’t find him — it just means that those who die clinging to their sins are not covered by Jesus’ death. A: Obviously, Jesus died for EVERYONE, whether they believe in him or not.
        4. C: If the Holy Spirit is working in a sinner, turning him to believe in Jesus, he will believe in Jesus, period. God does what he will with us. A: Jesus is knocking at your door, and you decide whether to open it or not.
        5. C: Once you’ve placed your faith in Jesus’ death for you, you are set. God is going to keep you believing, through dark times and bright, no matter what. He’s not going to lose you. A: You can stop trusting in Jesus if you aren’t careful.

        I hope that was relevant enough to this post. :) The thing is, these are extreme differences in belief. And really, Calvinism is a bad, bad word among most evangelicals, even if they don’t know what it is (and they usually don’t). Because these are things that get at people’s hearts.

        There are differences in community and lifestyle too, which I went into in another comment. But they’re minor compared to the soteriological differences.

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      • Allison Caylor

        Thanks for asking this. I didn’t quite know how to articulate this and my comment was already so mammoth, I didn’t want to go on and on about it. But it is key to what I was saying.

        A LOT of church movements (even religious groups in general) emphasize the doing of certain things outside of ordinary life, whether it’s working in VBS to homeschooling to mission trips to passing out tracts to saying certain prayers to Lent. And I’m not saying any of those things are bad. Most, thankfully, don’t even say they’re necessary for salvation. But pressure (and thus guilt) build and build on people who just work hard at their jobs, hang out with other believers, and love their families. The way I/we understand the Bible, the thing that believers are supposed to do is live quietly and peacefully among their brothers and sisters in Christ, being ready to give an answer to those who wonder about the hope that they have. The Great Commission is given to the WHOLE church together, not to each individual. So almost everyone’s duty is to just provide for and teach their families and live and love in their own church, while the best of the elders are chosen and sent to the mission field with the support of that strong church of quiet and peaceful believers. That is godliness. A few passages in the Bible that help draw this picture are 1 Peter 2:13-17, James 1:27, the second half of Ephesians, and Micah 6:8. The emphasis throughout all the Bible is on one’s inner character, one’s love for the Lord, and on basic righteous living, not on the necessity of any other “good works.”

        I hope that answers your question! Am I making sense?

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      • Bailey Steger

        Allison, you may already know this, but I recently learned that the Great Commission passage is more accurately translated “As you are going,” not “Go,” which also supports the view of Christian life that you’re explaining.

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  5. Allison Caylor

    I’m sorry, I made an awful typo. I meant to say: “But just looking at my experience, I’d say it couldn’t be the Protestant notion of sinfulness or Calvinism.”

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  6. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Gosh, I hear you and feel for you. It’s kind of interesting reading your thoughts here on the back of a debate I’ve been having with a reformed friend recently.

    To clear up any confusion on where I stand theologically, I go by the oxymoronic label conservative pentacostal (or as I once heard, closet charismatic). All the feelings you describe here? Know ’em well. Here’s the thing: I knew all those things about who I was, but didn’t really do much for making the core of me okay with who that was. Growing up in conservative homeschool circles, it was less people, but more concepts that beat home the fear of “backsliding” or “falling away”, so being afraid I was a lousy Christian took up much of my brainspace through my teen years. It led into desperate striving (for what, I’m still actually not certain… to look like a good Christian? To be content? To truly be a good follower of Christ? To love God more? To please people? To be like all the other good Christians?) and works based salvation (I wouldn’t say I believed that, but actions really do speak louder than words). The truth of it was, I was just trying to be perfect. I didn’t fully understand that I didn’t have to because Christ already did that. Knew it in theory, but not application.

    Since then I’ve been on one long journey to discover who I really am, and what it really means to be a Christian, regardless of denominational labels. I’ve discovered that who I really am—a child of God—what that means—I am loved by Him—and what a Christian is—someone who believes in the goodness of Jesus instead of their own goodness. I’ve been lapping up anything I can get my hands on about the love of God, not a fluffy, feel-good emotional quest, but a deeper, stronger, life-giving understanding of what the Gospel of God’s love means for us. It’s been setting me free from the fear, and giving me so much more insight into who I am that liberates me from guilt and shame.

    In the debate with my reformed friend, he was saying how important it is to preach sin so that people know they are sinners before we preach the Gospel (something I disagreed with strongly). Later as I was pondering how much emphasis was on sin, God’s wrath, and the law in our conversation, I recognized the old feelings of fear and striving rising up in me, and it occurred to me that I had not felt those things for a very long time. It came as a surprise, and it made me grateful to God for setting me free by His love.

    Interesting point I once heard was that when you read Paul praying in the NT, pay attention. The apostle that wrote most of the New Testament is worth noticing the prayers of. His most frequent prayer was that people would come to know God, and to know the length, breadth, height and depth of His love. Coincidence? I think not.

    Sorry this became an essay. I hope at least some of it was helpful or encouraging!

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      ^^^All of this. All of it. YES. Your explanation of your journey, of the inadequacy, was so spot on. And I completely agree with you….I think there’s way too much emphasis on how horrible we are. Honestly, we’re not able to look at ourselves and our sin and our imperfection without knowing we’re loved. We’ll either cover up our sin with a desperate quest for perfectionism, or wallow in despair at our awfulness.

      Like

      • Jasmine Ruigrok

        Boom! And you know what else? If we have to build up sin/ourselves to be horrible enough before we can know the Gospel, we’re doing it wrong. The Gospel should be (is!) so vastly, impossibly more awesome than anything this world has to offer. People don’t need to be convinced of how awful they are, they need to be convinced how awesome the Gospel of God’s love is, despite all they have ever done. If we need to understand sin before we understand grace and love, it’s no longer “Good News”, it’s merely “Okay” news.

        Our faith guarantees us access into this marvellous kindness that has given us a perfect relationship with God… But that’s not all! Even in times of trouble we have a joyful confidence, knowing that our pressures will develop in us patient endurance. And patient endurance will refine our character, and proven character leads us back to hope. And this hope is not a disappointing fantasy, because we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us! For when the time was right, the Anointed One came and died to demonstrate his love for sinners who were entirely helpless, weak, and powerless to save themselves. Now, who of us would dare to die for the sake of a wicked person? We can all understand if someone was willing to die for a truly noble person. But Christ proved God’s passionate love for us by dying in our place while we were still lost and ungodly! And there is still much more to say of his unfailing love for us! For through the blood of Jesus we have heard the powerful declaration, ‘you are now righteous in my sight.’ – Romans 5:2-9 TPT

        Ain’t no guilty striving needed there.

        Like

      • Allison Caylor

        “If we have to build up sin/ourselves to be horrible enough before we can know the Gospel, we’re doing it wrong. The Gospel should be (is!) so vastly, impossibly more awesome than anything this world has to offer. People don’t need to be convinced of how awful they are, they need to be convinced how awesome the Gospel of God’s love is, despite all they have ever done. If we need to understand sin before we understand grace and love, it’s no longer “Good News”, it’s merely “Okay” news.”

        I LOVE the way you put this!! Spot on and so important.

        Like

    • Elizabeth Erazo

      I love the idea of a “closet charismatic”. I think I’d fall into that category too. I got so sad and frustrated because I truly was raised to believe God was limited in His ways with us – now I’m more open and free not only to the love of God, but also the work of the Spirit than before! Still no tongues for me, though ;)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bailey Steger

        So is “closet charismatic” someone who believes the miraculous gifts are still operable but doesn’t possess any, or a person too afraid to say that out loud in their church community? ;) I’m in this awkward place where I believe the gifts are still theoretically operable but also doubt the heck out of anyone claiming they have them.

        Like

      • Jasmine Ruigrok

        Fistbump to a fellow closet charismatic, Elizabeth!

        Bailey, for me, a closet charismatic means that I believe the Holy Spirit is as alive and well today as He was in the Acts church, which means I believe gifts of the Spirit and miracles are still very much available to us, and able to be practised in a way that is not full of hype, emotionalism, or drama which is often typical of pentacostal churches. Short version, I’m not a cessationist, but I don’t believe in charismania. ;) I understand your skepticism, I really do. As someone from a conservative background myself, I know it first hand. That’s where the “conservative” part of my label comes in. I believe prophecy, praying in tongues (I could give my testimony on that one, but here is not the place; feel free to email me if anyone wants to take up that discussion) and the like, but that it doesn’t have to involve over-spiritualizing, or transe-like touchy, feely emotionalism. Hopefully that makes sense.

        Like

  7. David

    I wanna give you a big thumbs-up for going to therapy — that’s quite a step you’re taking. How are you finding the whole experience?

    I ask because a LOT of religious patients find their first few sessions jarring. Often they can’t quite put their finger on what’s so uncomfortable, and while I have thoughts about why that might be, it occurs to me that maybe — instead of offering them — I should just ask if you’re even /having/ an issue.

    So, uh, are you? Or has it been a pretty smooth experience so far?

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Well, (1) I’ve seen a (school) counselor before, but not about this particular issue. The only discomfort I experienced was feeling terribly awkward and horrible for talking about my feelings and thoughts all the time. I knew it was his job, but it just felt self-absorbed of me to be talking about ME. He was an excellent counselor and threw in his own life experiences, which helped. (2) I haven’t started therapy yet because I’m waiting on the company to match me with a counselor and there’s no one available in my state right now, blah blah. I don’t have time for real therapy because I’m a teacher, so I’m trying a text-based therapy called Talkspace. I’m really focusing on my spiritual/existential issues this time, so I’m curious as to whether I’m wasting my money or not. I know I’ll probably freak out about talking about spirituality with a secular counselor and actually (God forbid) taking his advice. I’ll keep you posted if anything interesting develops. Thanks for asking. :) And I’ll never turn down a heads up as to what my little soul will probably do once it encounters therapy, sooo feel free to warn me. ;)

      Like

      • David

        Hi again, Bailey! I DEFINITELY didn’t read this three weeks ago, start to reply, then get distracted, wander off, and forget all about it. Nope. Defs not a thing I would do.

        But now that you’re an Internet superstar ;D, I suddenly remembered it! Congrats, by the way. I know it’s a big unexpected development, and those are stressful and scary even when they’re good. But hey now, kiddo, let’s reframe it! This is proof — proof that you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you. :) So I say mazel tov!

        Uh, but getting back on topic, I wanted to say that text-based therapy is a really good start (in fact, it sounds like a perfect way to dip your toes in the water!), *but* you’re right to draw a distinction between that and real therapy. I hope you graduate to Skype or in-person sessions pretty quickly.

        Now, can text-based stuff be helpful? Oh my gosh, yes! In fact, I bet Talkspace will be super useful; the fact that you blog suggests you process your feelings by writing about them. But talking is much better than writing, ’cause tone and body language convey a *lot* of information ’bout the speaker’s emotional state. And it turns out that therapy is way more effective when the therapist /can actually tell how you feel/. Shocking, right? So yeah, TL;DR: definitely make use of TalkSpace! But move beyond text to something more personal as soon as you can.

        That said, hi! I’m an internet stranger. Let me tell you how to run your life! ;D So feel free to throw my advice in the garbage if it doesn’t work for you — especially since therapy is intensely personal and you’re the only arbiter of what works and what doesn’t.

        Like

      • Bailey Steger

        Hahaha!! No, no, I take advice from random people on the internet all the time! (But actually.) I’m hoping to graduate to real-life therapy once I have more time (maybe summer?).

        Like

  8. Rebekah

    Every religion can produce guilt. Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock jokes about his “Catholic Guilt” and there’s the infamous “Jewish guilt” (which is cultural not so much religious). I think it’s do with self-esteem development in childhood. If you’re constantly criticised and put down as a child, that can be very harmful. The early years are so crucial and if you put so much pressure on children and make it impossible to live up to expectation that can have so much long-term damage. That’s why socio-emotional development is so essential.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I completely agree. Do you see any sort of doctrines (whether a twisted or legitimate interpretation of a religion’s tenets) as responsible for guilt, or is it all/mostly socio-cultural? I’m just curious as to your perspective on it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rebekah

        I think legalism and the pressure to confirm to a certain ideal plays a huge role. I mean if you look at discipleship, we are all called to follow Jesus and carry our own crosses. It’s between us and Jesus, not for someone else to determine, decide, etc. Bonhoeffer says in the Cost of Discipleship the beauty is that there is no set path, programme, model… when we try to make it concrete and turn a relationship into rules that’s where I feel the danger is

        Like

  9. Abigail

    Your comment prompt seems like an invitation to write my memoirs, so I waited a while to distill what I wanted to say. It will still be long, but I’m sparing you a lot!

    I dealt with severe guilt and inadequacy from approximately ages nine to fifteen. Health issues impacted my behavior, making me feel more sinful than I would have felt otherwise. I totally lacked self-control at home, but since I could keep it together in public (under great strain, exploding in the car afterwards), everyone outside of my family was under the delusion that I was a wonderful, lovely, Very Nice girl. I tried to convince church people that I was actually terrible, but they took that as a sign of evangelical guilt and tried to reassure me. This left me unsatisfied, because I couldn’t move forward without my real, actual guilt being acknowledged.

    I did have a mild complex of typical evangelical guilt, but it was overshadowed by more pertinent issues, and I got past unhealthy ideas when I moved towards Reformed theology. My fundamental needs were for health improvement and belief that I was forgiven for my bad behavior, wrong attitudes, and horrible thoughts. While I was listening to a sermon in my new church, I finally grasped that Christ was my righteousness, not just my ticket to heaven or a begrudging pardon, and that God didn’t look at me any differently on a good day or a bad day. This changed my whole perspective. It’s been an ongoing journey, but that was the beginning of a very different story. I could accept grace because my sense of justice was satisfied. Sure, many of my issues were related to my mental health, but the beauty of this full and complete forgiveness was that I didn’t have to parse out what my levels of personal responsibility were in different scenarios. It was all paid for, done, and put to death, and I had something to replace it: Christ’s righteousness, not my attempts at atonement or feeling bad enough. Understanding this made me read all of Paul’s letters differently, finally seeing what certain passages really meant, and I experienced profound heart change that I can’t even put into words.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      This sounds EXACTLY like me as a teenager…same problem, same journey, same (turns out temporary) resolution in Reformed theology. I totally resonate with wanting to be understood but still loved as sinful. It drove me up a wall, how nobody took my problems seriously because I was a “good girl” from an exemplary family. Good girls are sinners too!!!

      Like

  10. Elizabeth

    I want to back up David’s question re: Reformed theology and evangelicalism. I’ve pretty much always included the reformed under the evangelical umbrella, so I find the characterization of it as a sort of relief from evangelicalism interesting!

    Like

  11. Nate

    Another stranger on the Internet here (coming via Christopher Stroop’s retweet of your wonderful Jan 21 essay “When Belief Becomes Work”) but yeah, I’d like to add my thanks for what you’re blogging here. I’d probably class myself “conservative Pentecostal” in origin too, but currently Anglican, (and it’s fascinating to me that modern ’10s US Evangelicals consider Reformed theology something way off the side of their experience, because in my experience it’s very close to the heart of modern evangelical thinking. Or at least what, having crossed “outside” of the evangelical world, the valley in the global church landscape I would now call Evangelical looking back in. )

    Long story short: grew up in a _very_ strict withdraw-from-the-world conservative church, left that in 1989 and have journeyed left since. And yes, therapy was definitely part of the mix for me, and was terrifying at first. But it got better, and I found that I didn’t have to give up my faith in Christ in order to think more clearly about certain church cultures I was rejecting.

    One thing I would say: the politically left / theologically-liberal Christian community as currently constituted, I think, is not the only possible future for those exiting from spiritually abusive conservative/right-wing churches. The world is a wide place but public opinion tends to get locked into very narrow modes of permissible thought; the current two-camp model of politics and religion is not the only way of thinking about issues, and won’t last forever. Currently the political right is more abusive than the left; but that hasn’t always been the case. And conservative churches do have some valuable ideas which the mainly-secular left can’t currently see.

    For example, there is an obsession with reductionist physicalism and neuroscience on the left (or at least in secular society as a whole, whether politically left or right); the ideas are widespread that there is no wider spiritual world, that matter is all there is, that religion is a social delusion that should not be tolerated, and that “conservatism is an objective brain disorder”. I think that’s deeply problematic, and books and articles like those (even coming from esteemed brain scientists, eg ) are unhelpful to those wrestling with a conservative heritage. Telling a conservative that the social values they’ve been struggling all their lives to conserve in the face of the storm winds of modernity are all evil is a bit like telling an ecologist that the world would be more efficient with all the trees chopped down. It’s not just unsympathetic and counterproductive, it’s… deeply missing the point, to say the least. (Can I say “wrong?” I think this belief is actually wrong.) Not everything ancient is dark and false, and not everything modern is wonderful and true. Some of our inherited “baggage” may be treasures we really do need to protect.

    But I also think that while Jesus’ thought doesn’t divide neatly into modern “liberal” and “conservative” categories, he was a good deal more like today’s liberals than today’s conservatives. At least in the sense of embracing personal freedom and not trying to set up authoritarian systems of control.

    Regards, Nate

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Nate — thank you. I so appreciate hearing your perspective, and I wholeheartedly agree. That’s what makes deconstuction so hard, in a lot of ways. It’s not just rejecting all of conservatism in favor of liberalism. It is, in fact, learning how to truly be moderate — to really listen, to really understand, to really believe, to really hold fast, without relying on a liberal or conservative “movement” to keep you up. I see much lacking in liberalism (I don’t speak about it as much because it hasn’t burned me as badly as conservatism), and I see certain values in conservatism that do indeed need to be conserved. You articulated this all so much better, but yes, I agree!!!

      Like

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