“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As a child, I felt guilt constantly. I felt constantly bombarded with my failures and short-comings, despite the fact that I acted like the new intellectual savior. I was and always have been a perfectionist. With each flaw and error in my life and choices, I saw these as direct representations of my immortal soul, and I thought that I as a person was inherently flawed and would do nothing but fail.
Unfortunately, the Bible backed me up.
I grew up hearing Bible stories about great kings and wicked men who tried to stop them. I knew Abraham, Moses, and David. When I heard the creation story and learned about the Fall of Man, I felt angry for God. “How dare humanity disobey our creator? What were they thinking?” With Southern Baptist sermons as my succor, I learned about that “Ol’ Sin Nature” that every person harbored in their heart, and the only way to defeat it was with the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit.
I often took things too literally as a child, and when I heard about the “Ol’ Sin Nature” I was determined to do all I could to avoid being a depraved, immoral person. I would pray and go to church and I tried to respect my parents, but like all children I failed regularly. I didn’t understand how to fail with grace. Each time I failed, the guilt would eat up at me, seemingly swallowing me whole. I would look at my failures and wonder why I couldn’t just get it together. I had prayed to the Holy Spirit and had been saved. The fault and evil must have lain within my very heart.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” as Jesus said in Matthew 5:48. The Sermon on the Mount felt like basic tenets, but right there he demanded perfection. I wanted to make Jesus happy, so my standard for “good enough” became “Godly perfection.” Once I read those words, my guilt spiraled out of control. I felt guilt for things I had done, but also things I hadn’t done. I just wanted to make Jesus proud and I was making myself miserable.
The Bible also told me to be joyful, so with my misery came more guilt. I went to church camp and heard about “Melancholy Moses,” and thought I could potentially justify my anxieties and frustrations with comparing myself to Moses, but then he never made it to Canaan. He was left to die on the outside border. Not only that, he was a murderer, and obviously displeased God. I couldn’t use Moses as a way to excuse my feelings.
Most likely, I had been prone to depression from birth. Studies have shown that children who feel extreme guilt often develop depression later in life, but I found my pain fixated on religion. Above all else, I wanted to be a woman God was proud of, but my preachers said that that was impossible. I would always fall into sin because I could never be good, and no matter how many good deeds I do, I’m nothing without God.
Eventually, I started to believe them. I kept attempting to be good, but each time I failed I just learned to accept it with a sigh: “You’ll always be evil and helpless.” If I accidentally hurt a friend, I would apologize profusely, but internally berate myself: “Why do you bother to have friends? You’ll only hurt them and ruin them.” I thought I ruined everything I touched. I went so far as to develop strange coping mechanisms. If I had failed at yet another task, I couldn’t allow myself to expect more. I’d repeat “No one loves you, no one loves you,” under my breath to remind myself that I didn’t deserve any love or respect because deep down in my heart of hearts I was a depraved, evil human being. Even though I had Jesus, I never seemed to have that peace that was promised.
Of course, the Bible has messages about inherent self-worth, but those aren’t the messages that I heard. Those weren’t the messages that rang in my ears when I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake thinking, “Why would God waste his time on me? I’m completely evil and everything I do inadvertently dishonors him.”
I wanted to please God, and I eventually changed my tactics to just trying to be a kind person. I decided that perhaps that would be the way for me to find peace and perhaps become a good person, a Godly person. Unfortunately, around this time the group I spoke to about religion had several discussions on what “goodness” meant. They reached a resounding conclusion: God defines goodness; we can’t be good beyond him. It became clear that no matter what I did, what good I attempted, I’d be evil forever because God had deemed it so when my ancestors’ ancestors made the misjudgment of eating fruit.
This entire time my friends attempted to change my mind. They told me how kind I was, how I had so many good qualities. Part of me wanted to believe them, but I held fast to my doctrine. I couldn’t be good. No part of me could be good. I was nothing more than a sinner in need of God’s grace, and any assertion that I could be good was false and immoral. I held fast to the stories and lectures I had heard because if God said I was evil with no chance of redemption without his son, then I was just that. I couldn’t be good just because my friends said I was. I had to be intrinsically evil because God said so.
After years of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, I eventually told my therapist. In the month I had to wait before seeing the psychiatrist, I attempted to deconstruct the lessons I’d always been told about human nature and human capability of goodness. If eating the fruit made humanity evil, and the only capability of good was through Jesus, then everyone who wasn’t Christian had to be evil. That contradicted all the stories I’d read about people who’d done good despite what harm could come to them.
I kept digging and found so many contradictions in books I’d read. One Christian book which aimed to improve your Christian life declared the Christianity was the only religion that cared about others, and all other religions rejected charity in favor of self-preservation. As a religion major, I knew this was an all-out falsehood. If people could do good without having Christ, I began to wonder if I could just manage not being evil.
While I still have some anxiety and depressive tendencies, in many ways I feel relieved. I generally don’t assume that I destroy all I touch, and my first reaction to failure isn’t to blame humans who supposedly existed thousands of years ago. Rather than being able to break free of the dark feelings that surrounded me, I felt trapped in a sea of theology. My logic felt sound: when you sin, you displease God –> when you displease God, you should feel bad –> you’ll always sin, so you should always feel bad.
More than likely, I’ll still have moments where I fall back and assume that despite what my friends, family, and therapist say, I am just evil and horrible. Those who love me will assure me otherwise and wait for me to come back down and remember that I’m not so bad. I can be more than evil to my core. I can be more than a person without hope, and I think that’s the best news I could have ever heard.
Holly Baer grew up in Flowood, Mississippi. An alum of the Mississippi School for Math and Science, she studies religion and gender studies at the University of Mississippi and writes her own blog at HollyBaer.com. Feel free to contact her by emailing Questions@HollyBaer.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @hawlibear.