Why Christianity Works So Well (On Some of Us)

When talking about my past relationship with Christianity, I talk a lot about shame. When I think back over the thirty-odd years I lived as a Christian, as far back into my childhood as I can remember, what stands out most to me is the guilt and shame I carried for all my sins, past, present, and future.

I’m often told I had a wrong understanding of my faith if shame is what I endured more than anything. Christians tell me all the time that if I had really understood the gospel message—if I had gone to a different church or adhered to a different theology—I’d realize that Christianity is all about love and forgiveness. Many Christians, if not most, think if I’d just understood the right version of their faith, I’d still be in it.

[Related: “What I Hear When You Say ‘Not All Christians’“]

I don’t believe this is the case at all. Even a cursory reading of Scripture will reveal its view of mankind is unbelievably dismal, and any evangelical church service will confirm that we are all sinful and in need of a savior, hence the obligatory call-to-salvation at the end of every sermon. If they can’t remind you of the problem, then they can’t offer you their solution.

But I’m not interested in that part right now. I’m not interested in pulling up every chapter and verse that confirms the Christian faith sees humanity is depraved and in need of salvation, at least not right now. What I have on my mind is why some people who attended the same churches I attended and listened to the same sermons I listened to and read the same Scriptures I read can say that I had a skewed understanding of sin and shame and then can go on their merry way feeling pretty good about themselves.

A Natural Bent Toward Shame

I think it’s because Christianity works best on people who bear a natural inclination for self-loathing. It works best, or worst depending on how you look at it, on highly introspective and empathetic people, or as a friend once termed us – “spiritual masochists.” For those of us who claw out our insides in hopes of digging out every single fault we might have, who flagellate ourselves spiritually and emotionally in hopes of becoming our best selves, Christianity not only gives us the hope that one day we will succeed in this effort. It also first gives us the confirmation that we are indeed as wretched as we believe ourselves to be.

Not too long ago I endured a litany of insults hurled at me. Regardless of whether a single one of them was true—and even though I can’t even remember now specifically what they all were—I did nothing but dwell on those insults for months afterwards. In the back of my mind, I find myself still wondering, “Was that true? Am I really those things? Is what I’m doing right now evidence that I really am what this person says I am?” While this person’s opinion of me should not even factor one iota into my life, it has stripped me of my confidence regardless, and I can’t help believe it’s possibly all true.

Over a year ago, during the earliest stages of my divorce, I received a text message from a friend a mile-long detailing everything that was wrong with me and everything I did to ruin my marriage. Even though at the time I didn’t really think any of it was fair, I was devastated and spent months thinking about all the things she said and wondering if all of it was true. Even now, a little piece of me still believes everything she said was maybe actually right.

I was married for twelve years. My ex and I are on pretty good terms, but every time I see myself the way I imagine he must see me I see a completely different, and uglier, version of myself. And even though I know divorce clouds our judgments of the person we once loved with all our hearts, I can’t help but think that since he’s the person who once knew me the best, this projected version of me must be true on some level. I really must be that unlovable.

This is why Christianity worked for me, and this is why I remember only the guilt while others in the same religion remember only the forgiveness.

Christianity is supposed to be about the forgiveness of our sins, but no one asks for forgiveness until they believe they really need it. My natural inclination is to believe that I am wretched, to believe the worst version of me is the real me, to assume that if I don’t see the negative things other people see, it’s because I’m blinded to my own faults, not that I’m misunderstood by others. Therefore, if anyone is in need of forgiveness, it’s me. That’s why Christianity worked for me.

A Cure That Feeds the Disease

When the Bible told me that my heart was sinful and desperately wicked, I just knew it was true. I had already felt it. I had already experienced it more times than I could count. As a small child, I felt deep shame when looking at my naked body in the bathroom mirror after a bath. Adam and Eve were naked in the garden, and when they realized it, they were ashamed.

Being ashamed was in my genetics; it was in the milk from which I was weaned, in the mashed carrots from which I was spooned. The first time as a little girl I was told touching myself down there was naughty, I was mortified and never did again – not until I was married. When I called in sick to work once in college when I wasn’t actually sick, I became sick from the guilt of lying. Literally, my stomach twisted into so many knots and the guilt was so overwhelming that I wanted to call my boss back and tell him it had a been a lie so I could be forgiven. But I didn’t do that, so the guilt festered.

When during my first year of marriage I realized I had a tiny crush on someone else, nothing harmful, nothing I was ever going to act on, I felt so much guilt I confessed it to my husband, and it nearly destroyed our marriage before we’d even gotten started. Twelve years later, a lie turned into the monster that did destroy my marriage in the end. And the guilt of my actions claws at me every day.

Christianity works on people like me, because it tells us that there is a way out of that guilt. It tells us that you are as evil as you know yourself to be, but the good news is that there is a savior who can rescue you from that. There is a punishment you more than deserve, but Jesus can save you from that punishment if you’ll just follow him. So follow him I did, as hard as I could, to free myself from my guilt and shame. I believed with all my heart I needed that forgiveness, and so I grasped it with all my might.

In some ways it worked. I believed I was free from my sin, or at least from the punishment for it. Yet in between the major mistakes, when my behavior and attitude was good, I knew that I was still sinful. I had been told that every one of us sins multiple times a day. I knew that to be true, when I thought about it. Every uncharitable thought, every lustful glance, every self-centered desire, every moment not spent for the glory of God were sinful moments, so there was no such thing as good days.

As a child I often tried to test this theory by striving to go a whole day without sinning, but I always failed, whether it was by sticking out my tongue at my brother, stealing a cookie, or thinking a mean thought. The older, more nuanced me understood that if I ever believed I’d had a good day, it was proof that I was further from God than I realized. It was proof of my pride, which was in an of itself a sin. It was only when I recognized my wretchedness the most that I was in the best standing with God. For in my disgrace, he could bestow his grace upon me.

Yet, if I saw myself as depraved on my “best” days, then I had no option but to fling myself into depression on my worst. And that is what I did. When I screwed up the worst, that’s when I doubted my value as a person the deepest. That’s when I could only imagine escaping my shame with death. How could anyone who is even remotely good screw up so badly and continue to live with herself?

And Christianity had an answer for that too. The biggest heroes in my Bible were also the biggest screw-ups. If David could have an affair with Bathsheba and have her husband Uriah murdered, and God still loved him, God could still love me too.

This is why Christianity worked for me. It saved me when I couldn’t possibly save myself. But it came with a price – a daily reinforcement of my own unhealthy view of myself as desperately wicked.

It’s In My Blood Now

I’ve been screwing up a lot lately. All over the place. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’ve made a few less than perfect decisions. Maybe those decisions were made with care and consideration and a lot of forethought but in the end might’ve still been less than advisable. However you slice it though, in my mind the entire pie is spoiled, rotten, and ought to be thrown out with the garbage. Each mistake I make, no matter how small or large, is a fat crayon grasped tightly in my fist, and I use it to scribble all over my image of myself with bold, unforgiving strokes.

This is why Christianity worked on me, and this is why my memories of it drip so thickly with the lingerings of guilt. Even now, almost five years after leaving the faith, I still stir in guilt with my morning coffee and spread shame over my bread roll at dinner. Guilt and shame are in my blood, and that’s without the Bible reminding me over and over again how much I suck.

Christianity works best on people who already believe the worst about themselves. It works best on people who are desperately trying to escape their shame. Unfortunately, the outcome is rarely what is advertised. Rather than finding our escape, more often than not, we are sucked into its shame spiral instead. Read the Bible. It’s all right there.

Maybe the reason so many people I know who went to the same churches, heard the same sermons, and read the same Bible think I had the whole thing wrong is that not all people share the same penchant for self-deprecation. Maybe they can see themselves as redeemed, or redeemable, or maybe they simply don’t see themselves as that sinful. Maybe they don’t see themselves sinning multiple times every single day. Maybe if I’d been one of those kinds of people, I’d have seen Christianity in the pink and fluffy way that they do.

Or maybe it wouldn’t have worked on me at all, because I wouldn’t have needed it so much.

[Image source: Unsplash]
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Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.

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