I’m terrified of my growing attraction to Christ

Dear John,

I need to ask about Christian conversion, and I need to ask someone I can trust to help sort it out.

I want to believe in God: I see myself working so hard to fit into a spiritually satisfying life rhythm. But what I don’t want is a religious conversion—at least not now and not in the way I am assuming it happens. Because I’ve been converted before. When I was six to seven years old, my family were Presbyterians. But by the time I was ten we had fully committed to the dysfunctional cult of fundamentalism. When that happened my whole world got turned on its head.

The truth is I’m still scared that could happen again. Fundamentalism remains much of my core emotional context when it comes to Jesus. I have deep synaptic memory ruts that still say to me, for instance, that those outside the true church water down the truth, ignore biblical laws, commit countless blasphemies: they are, at best, false friends with a false religion.

That’s all patently ludicrous, I know. Yet it is the only real experience I know of Christianity. And it’s not anything that I want anything to do with.

Yet over the past five months, through your writings and your lovely sacred blog space, I have been getting the feeling that all these years between my childhood and now I’ve been missing out on something really pure and really beautiful. It’s a thought and feeling that frequently wrenches open my heart—while I’m at work, when I’m driving and barely seeing the road through tears, when it’s past my bedtime and sleep eludes me.

I’m feeling my loneliness acutely—not so much as being alone per se, but more as missing out on what I could have had, and might have yet—on what I believe, actually, to be a birthright of mine that somehow I’ve never been able to quite get my arms around.

I uncovered my soul by leaving the fundy church all those years ago. I heard my own voice for the first time in therapy. I discovered my spirit through my long and winding esoteric journey. And now I feel as if I’m beginning to find my heart again in coming back around to Christ.

Is it wrong of me that I’m terrified?

It’s never wrong to have any emotion: emotions are messages from our own heart and spirit that we’re supposed to heed. And how could you not be afraid of Christianity, which in the past has hurt you so? It’s a testimony to the enduring strength of your relationship with God that you’d even consider letting Christ back into your life. I don’t think I would. I tend not to visit houses where I know crazy people live. And you spent a lot of your childhood in one crazy group home.

On the other hand, you’re obviously these days about the business of discerning the indelible truth that is stronger than any of the lies pounded into you by fundamentalism, which is that you were not at all damaged by God, but rather by people grossly misrepresenting him/her.

It’s also clear from your letter that you’re carrying that emotional rawness that is the stamp—the personal legacy, the inherited imprint, the mark—of fundamentalism. You can say a lot of things about fundamentalists, but you can’t say they’re not intense. They’re not sometimes intense. They’re not intense between eight and ten on Sunday mornings, or when they’re singing special hymns, or whatever. They’re always operating at pretty much maximum intensity, because to them everything is about God. Nothing is neutral. Nothing is ambiguous. Nothing is irrelevant. Everything is about the biggest, most dramatic stuff possible: heaven, hell, evil, righteousness, morality, immorality, the will and purpose of God.

Man. Just thinking about all that makes me want to have a nervous breakdown.

Before sitting down to write this I put on the clothes I’ll be wearing when my wife Catherine and I go to the gym after she returns home from the college class she’s taking. Not once whilst donning my gym duds did I stop to wonder if it’s an offense against God for me to go to the gym, where I’m certain to be surrounded by lots of pretty women in colorful skintight outfits working their bodies in ways that would make any straight man want to die and come back to life as a hamstring machine. I didn’t wonder if it’s right for Cat to be at that same gym, grunting and moaning away in public. I’ve not thought about God being against Cat attending college.

But now that I am thinking about it, that Jezebel!

How dare she learn stuff?!

That’s it. Tonight she’s making dinner.

Har! But you see my point. You’ve lived that point: you know the truth that having everything be about God tends to keep your emotions pretty close to the surface. From your letter I’m guessing that emotional legacy has remained with you: that today you still tend to see things in intensely contrasting blacks-and-whites.

It seems to me that what’s happening now is that essentially you’re fearing your own intensity. You’re afraid harkening to the voice of God will end up costing you more than you want to pay—that if you leap into the pool of Christ you’ll sink and drown.

For most people in your position I’d recommend taking it slowly, wading in bit by bit, testing the waters before you go deeper. But I don’t think that’s going to work for you. You seem like an all-in or all-out person. You’re a diver, not a wader.

So to you I say: cannonball in. Jump! Why not? You’re not stupid. You know how to swim. You know the difference between the real God and the perverted version of him with which you were traumatized as a kid. You understand that it wasn’t God/Jesus who hurt you, but people. It was your parents, which is terrible. But despite that your heart is still hearing God. And clearly God is still calling to you. He knows that you got a seriously mistaken impression of him the first time around. I think he wants to correct that now. I think that through the Holy Spirit within you Christ is telling you that he yet desires a real relationship with you, one that’s not twisted beyond recognition by people who prefer their own frenzied passion over the peace he offers them.

Jump in! The water’s more than fine: it’s cleansing, and healthy, and nourishing, and fresh and clear and bright. There’s nothing in it to fear. It’s the clean spring that’s been waiting for you from the day you were born.

It’s not a matter of “converting.” It’s a matter of agreeing with what’s already on the table, of simply accepting what’s being offered you. Nobody wants you to become stupid. You’re not supposed to believe in Jesus Christ and then immediately turn off your brain. That being a Christian means also being a slave to dogma is just a wrong thing that you were taught as a kid. As you may know, I had a full-on, out-of-nowhere conversion experience (which you can read about here), and I didn’t simultaneously become a Christian and an idiot. I was exactly as smart going into that experience as I was coming out of it. All in a moment Christianity became a way for me to understand, process, and appreciate the awareness of God that I already had. There was nothing more to it than that. (Since, really, how could there be? That is, after all, everything.)

All you have to do is the one thing that it was ingrained in you as a kid not to do, but which you’ve clearly already taken great strides to: Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your intuition. Trust your knowledge. Trust that you will remain in control of your own heart and mind.

God doesn’t want that control for himself. He doesn’t want you to be a mindless puppet. That’s no fun for him.

All God wants is for you to be the happiest, most peaceful you that you can be. He wants you to feel unafraid, and free of the emotional legacy—the karma—of all bad things ever done by or to you. So he manifested himself in corporeal form, and came to earth, and as Jesus Christ played out the terrible drama he did in the hopes that forever after people would understand and accept that he was here, that he is here, that he’s watching, and that everything’s going to be okay.

That’s no reason to be afraid.

That’s a reason to never be afraid again.


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  • My own indoctrination wasn’t as harsh as it could have been but I still struggle with the oh-this-is-so-wrong-God-will-hate-me feelings. I have to sit back and actively put in my mind that God loves me no matter what and I will make mistakes and that’s ok. Letter writer, God is love and will never lead you down the wrong path.

  • Hannah Grace

    Well, that’s one of the best responses I’ve ever read. Thanks, John.

    I’d also like to say that it’s safe to respond to God quickly if you trust yourself and don’t lose yourself, but for me, I was so wounded and so scared I had to spend a lot of time ignoring religion and just letting everything heal. Maybe you’ve already gone through that. After that, being religious has been a long, scary road of constantly feeling like I was being led away from God, when really, I was being led BY God to safety and wholeness outside of that whole crazy mess, and into grace. I feel like grace is the entire meaning of the cross, upon which everything else rests, and no God who loves me unconditionally and whose grace is deeper than the deepest ocean could be harsh to me or anyone else do dearly and wholly loved.

    Here is a prayer from my church I like to use to find who God is, and also to seek to grow:

    You are not the accuser, but the liberator,

    not the destroyer, but the rescuer,

    not the executioner, but the saviour,

    not the scatterer, but the gatherer,

    not the traitor, but the deliverer.

    You do not pull down, but lift up.

    You do not knock down, but stand upright.

    You do not curse, but bless.

    You do not take revenge, but give grace.

    You do not torment, but comfort.

    You do not wreck, but create.

    You do not shake, but steady.

    You do not trample, but console.

    Lord, help me be like you.

  • Tim

    Both John’s main post and Hannah’s are wonderful.

    My first thought was to commend you on getting spiritual/emotional/psychological help. One should never underestimate the value of having people who have been there or been trained to help you, help you.

    Second, I think John is right. At some point, people like you and I just have to jump in. I had too been scarred, by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I actually jumped into an that eddy where from one side you can fall into the cesspool of fundamentalism and on the other you can swim into that wonderful pool of grace. In general, I have trusted myself and trusted God on that journey, gotten farther and farther from overt fundamentalism while still maintaining the good things their intensity, rigor, and certainty gave me for the short while I was there.

    In short, there are more ways than it is possible to count for God to bring you in, heal you, and show you just how much you are loved. Enjoy the ride.

  • Christy

    Beautiful, John. A knowing smile escaped in several places. Well done.

    Yes. Trust. Trust this. Trust this yearning, dear Letter Writer. Trust that it is the Ground of All Being, innate in you, and follow where it leads. Pay attention. Look with new eyes. Notice what has been right before you the entire time. See the people and places and events in your life who have been and are the rock cairns along this path – guiding, reassuring you that this is The Way and illuminating the road ahead. Step by step. Know that by paying attention we see and by seeing we are able to see more. Trust that is is not the end…but the beginning. Trust yourself. And love yourself enough to not be afraid, knowing that perfect love drives out fear. Blessings on your journey…

  • Elizabeth

    I’ve been *saved* three times. Once, baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church. Once, by a mega-church Baptist minister when I was eight. And the last time at sixteen, by some clueless kids at camp who didn’t know me well enough to ask if I’d been saved before. It was scary, out in the woods, and they suddenly grabbed and laid hands on me.

    Scratch that. It was terrifying. It totally turned me off of Christianity. Who do these people think they are?

    But, as it turns out, I am Christian. Despite those people. A deeply-flawed, penitent one. I’ve tried (almost) all the other religions, and when I ask for help, the Christian God comes through for me. Best of luck on your journey.

  • oh my goodness , that is a beautiful poem/prayer.

  • Jaki

    Wow. Reading your letter, it felt like I was the one talking. I’ve been down a very similar road with regards to Christianity, and it sounds like many people here can sympathize. In addition to John’s beautiful and profound response, I’d like to add two brief suggestions from my own beliefs. You can feel free to pick and choose what you like from these!

    *One of the foundations of my belief is that your religion should be strictly personal – because, in the end, it’s between you and your God. No one sees God in exactly the same way, and no one communicates with God in exactly the same way; so how can ANYone else tell you how to deal with God on your terms?

    *I firmly believe that a relationship with God as an adult should be approached as a relationship between equals. This is not to say that I think we are equal to God, but I do feel that God wants to meet us as a FRIEND, not as a mindless follower, and the only way to have a true friendship is to establish some level of equality. Don’t be afraid to be yourself – but don’t be afraid to discover new ways to improve yourself, either! Discuss things with God like you would any other friend. You’d be amazed how helpful that can be!

  • Thank you, John. I was in tears reading this.

  • If it helps… I was raised fundie, but even as a child didn’t go in for that “intensity” and crazy hate-filled b.s. thanks to some decent parenting and grandparenting. iI separated from the church in my college days because it seemed like such a toxic environment. The joy and peace I personally felt were just run over by the bus of crazy fanaticism if the folks around me. So much crazy drama!! Many years later, I earned an MA in Mythological Studies. I fell in love with the Greek pantheon, understanding it as a gorgeous map of the human psyche. It became easier for me to reapproach the Christ of my youth (not the Church) by understanding him and my attraction to him as a part of my own psyche. It feels healthy and satisfying to me because truly, what character could be more loving, caring, courageous than Jesus Christ?

  • charles

    as a charismatic- unfundy I have to say that the “church” is a pretty confusing place in general.

    I think John has always encouraged one to follow Gods’ voice in these inner dialogs- because it seems He contradicts those who claim to “speak on his behalf” an awfully large part of the time. And truth be told, there are just a lot of “bad” Christians out there….

    my moral compass has certainly changed over time, and now I simply have to consider the notion of Matthew 22:37- “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself” as my ground zero of my faith. All else is secondary to those commandments for me.

  • Brian

    One of the most important lessons I learned in the last 20 years was that my faith is not some set of beliefs dictated by the Bible, a pastor or church community. It is “my” relationship with Jesus – “my” higher power.

    I was privileged to spend some time with close friends of mine after their daughter was born. I witnessed for myself how fully formed her personality already was. She received that from the moment of her conception. What is clear to me is how damaged we can become as we live life.

    Salvation; “being saved,” is more about healing than it is about being saved by a lifeguard. Jesus is the essence of unconditional Love. He is the healing ointment or salve (in salve-ation) we can use to help us become more ourselves by becoming “whole-y” ourselves; not “holy” some arbitrary, human idea of what is perfect.

  • Jill H

    In homelife situations like that, nervous breakdowns are par for the course. They also serve a valuable purpose—they literally break down the insanity that passed for normalcy. And I thank God for mine.

    I can only echo praise of the voices here, as I am stunned and speechless yet. This is a masterpiece of compassion.

  • Warren Adams-Ockrassa via Facebook

    If a relationship is perceived as abusive, it’s no wonder someone wouldn’t want to reenter anything even remotely resembling it.

    I suppose the trick here is avoiding the propaganda and remaining focused on the relationship itself. The only time I can recall the gospels mentioning a vengeful Yeshua was when he found commerce at the synagogue, so it doesn’t seem to me that he was particularly angry about most things, and that his message was not anger-focused.

    That might be one way to help be sure one’s faith is ‘on message’; if it starts getting accusatory, it’s time to reevaluate.

    Of course, I’m an atheist, so what do I know? 😉

  • I really appreciated that letter. John, you have a way of empowering people to speak openly. Let me add a note of caution, speaking as a skeptic (fundamentalists would say I am an atheist, which doesn’t offend me).

    My advice to the letter-writer would be similar to John’s. Go for it, what do you have to lose? At worst, you will find out that it is a blind alley. Be aware that you will encounter group-think and be careful of confirmation bias. You probably have the ability to distinguish truth from fantasy. Good luck.

  • Jill Hileman via Facebook

    Atheists and non-Christians, I have found, often get the core of Jesus really well! I learned so much more about the care and respect that was meant by Christ’s words during my agnostic years with other like-minded people than all the years before.

    But it’s true of any group, like Warren said– what is the focus? Love or judgment? Compassion or anger?

  • Paul in Canada

    Dear Letter Writer – I can relate. An ultra-conservative evangelical upbringing did everything but destroy me. It has taken years, if not decades to de-program my brain. But like you, I constantly heard a ‘call’ from the Eternal, deep within myself. I suspect that was/is my soul/spirit/higher conscience responding to God the eternal source of all creation. My road back to God, the Divine, has been through Buddhism. A path, without theology and dogma, that simply points to being ‘present in His presence’. Psalm 46 (?) says we “should be still and know that He is God”. It’s really that simple. We only meet and know God in each and every present moment. Not our painful past, and not someday in the perceived future. Just now, right now, as we let go of our ‘self’ and open our inner-self, mindful of His presense. May the peace of God’s eternal sacredness touch your heart each and every second.

  • Patty

    I can so relate to the letter writer and just wanted to say how much I appreciate John’s answer and the comments as well. There is such freedom in the TRUTH. I wouldn’t trade what He’s done in my life for anything. The winds came, the rain fell, the house built on the sand of my crazy religious efforts crumbled….and it was good because a new foundation began. GRACE. Thanks for blogging

  • Ellen

    It’s very cleansing to the ex-fundamentalist (of any flavor) to get away from god-stuff for a while. We need time to learn to get used living free and exercising our newly-developing muscles of joy, love, and grace. God is still here, and will wait. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…but moving away from God is only the beginning of the journey, and maybe we find at the end, we return to God…although God was there all the time….there’s nowhere we can go that is outside of God (Ps. 139).

  • Chris

    Dear Letter-writer

    Are you in New Orleans? Come to First Grace UMC, on Canal Street.

  • Jill H

    Such a super nice invite– I’m in the upper Midwest or I’d take you up on it. 🙂

  • Mary

    Hang in there! You will find your own way…. in your own time. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t “feel right” … it probably isn’t. I am also a product of a fundie upbringing. For whatever reason, as a very young child 7-10 years old, I saw through all the “trappings” of this branch of Christianity. I remember my mother telling me to NOT play with the kids down the street that I dearly loved to play with. They were a large family (I think there were 8 children), they lived on acreage & had chickens & goats & all kinds of fun things. Anyway, I asked her why I couldn’t play with them anymore & she said, “because they are Catholic”. I responded with, “that’s stupid” & “I’m going to play with them anyway.” My childhood is full of stories like this. Needless to say… I was the “problem child” because I wouldn’t conform. My inner spirit, even at that young age, told me this judgmental attitude of my parents wasn’t right. Anyway, I survived. I don’t attend a church, but consider myself a follower of Christ. I am now 62 years old & probably the happiest I have been in my life because I know who I am & what I believe.

  • Jill H

    Reading and re-reading these testimonies, I simply couldn’t have known so many thoughtful and loving people know what this process, this journey is like through any other means. This blog space serves as a bridge of trust and of kindness between people of any background or belief.

    If I hadn’t couraged-up about it and said something, I would’ve done what we mortals do when we can’t find satisfying answers–just live around it, ignore it, be perpetually mad at it. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to live those regrets.

    But I’ve begun to see that finding emotional resolution will be part of the journey of exploring my opportunities of faith, and not the starting point. Maybe I’ll be either a nervous wreck or an emotional one each time I attend a new church, IDK. Maybe I’ll be all cool and ride the wave. Maybe I’ll discover something new inside myself, having trusted and dared myself to try again. Maybe it will all lead me back to a deeper knowing of who I’m meant to be in this life, or maybe what I know of myself will change deeply. Such is the excitement and challenge of trust!

    I’ve always misquoted yet love to say that ‘I may not be perfect, I just want to be more than I was yesterday’. I see that I am ‘more’ because of these experiences here and because of everyone’s supportive comments. If only I had the means, I’d be flying each of you out to join me at my first Sunday service in about 17 years!

  • Elizabeth

    Jill, as we say in the ‘hood, I got your back. God has it (if I may be so presumptuous to speak for Him), and I have it. You’re well on your way.

  • vj

    Isn’t it weird that people keep getting so hung up on “following the rules” about God (religion, really), when Scripture is so consistently telling us that God wants our HEARTS!

    I have been struck recently (as I finally get around to reading the *whole* Bible), that even in the OT Scriptures there is such clear evidence that God wants our hearts to turn to Him, and is NOT so much about following the rules (which is basically the hallmark of any kind of fundamentalism)…

    For example, in 2 Chronicles 30, when King Hezekiah called all the tribes to celebrate the Passover at a newly restored temple: “18 Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone 19 who sets his heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”

    20 And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.”

    And again, in Isaiah 28, in a prophecy scathing of the corrupt leaders, we find that “do this, do that; a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there” is both the cause of God’s displeasure and the means by which God rebukes them – which is an echo of Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

    As charles has pointed out below, it really does come down to this: “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself”.

  • Jill H

    Paul, I love Buddha for this reason. When fundamentalism taught me how to live in emotional chaos, Buddhism showed me how to calm the chaos. Thank you for these thoughts.

  • Matt

    I’ve been doing some reading lately, and it turns out that the whole “turn off your brain and just trust God” thing the fundies spout is not new. It was a reaction of the early church to the Greco-Roman tradition of rational thought.

    Understanding Christianity in its cultural context helps us be clearer on what’s the creation of humans, and what being a Christian actually means. It’s confronting reading, but it really does help you grow immensely as a Christian.

  • You would not believe how much I am right now totally sunk into writing a book on this very thing, Matt.

  • Jill H

    Matt, any books you’d steer me toward? I feel overwhelmed by choices and not enough clarity. Thanks.

  • Jill H

    This is so great, vj. I’ve always appreciated your thoughtful comments here BTW.

    You’d think what you just said would be that easy (about ‘the rules’). It should be that simple. And yet I can hear in my head the indoctrination I was fed as to why “you’re wrong”. (You’re not wrong FYI!) So this is a journey of finding a rationality and context in scripture interp that I haven’t seen before. Looking forward to finding it! 😉

  • Beautiful and encouraging. Thank you, Ellen!

  • Don Rappe

    “Is it wrong of me that I’m terrified?” Neither wrong nor surprising. When angel Gabriel spoke to the maiden Mary he began with the words “Fear not!” When we begin, against all odds, to become aware of the Holy Presence, it is a shock to the system of many of us. Fundamentalists seem to believe that they learn about God from the writings, but I find it is more true that the writings help me to understand the God who reveals himself directly to me. In the book of Mathew, Jesus tells the rich young man that the way to “inherit eternal life”, about which he is inquiring, is to enter into the covenant with God, accept its duties, and to be one of God’s people. As God said to Moses and his people at the Mountain, respect yourself, respect God (the Holy) and respect each other.

  • vj

    Lovely, as always, Don 🙂

  • vj


    When all else fails, I find it helpful to remember that *God* gets that last word on Who He Really Is, not people…..

    But yes, it can be hard to rewrite deeply ingrained ‘scripts’!

  • Jill H

    I love reading Don’s words of wisdom. Instant comfort.

  • Matt

    Right now, I’m reading “The Closing of the Western Mind: The rise of faith and the fall of reason” by Charles Freeman. It’s dense, but I saw at at my college’s library and was hooked.

    Reading any biography of the Renaissance European monarchs (Catherine de Medici, Henri VIII, Francis II, Elizabeth I, etc.) can illustrate beautifully the struggles between Christian doctrines, the state, and political power.

    I just know that, having been steeped in the spiritual/Biblical view of Christianity for so long, seeing it from the cultural/historical perspective has been hugely refreshing.

  • Jill

    This is very helpful. I am reading this again with a changed vantage point, and it is just the clarity I needed in the moment. Thanks Warren, five months later!

  • KJB007

    That is so beautiful. I love it.