One of the great joys of living in the Bible Belt is that you can hear Christian music played overhead almost anywhere you go. One day not to long ago I had to make stops at a coffee shop, a gym, a doughnut place (I know, the irony), a fried chicken place, a clinic office, and a pharmacy, and every single one of those places was playing Christian music.
There are banks in my area with marquees that scroll Bible verses in between mortgage rates, and there is even a Christian skating rink where you can skate your heart out to the latest Christian ripoffs of popular tunes (plus the occasional Chicken Dance and the Hokey Pokey).
So Long, Self
The one that bothered me the most was the local gym. I cannot fathom why the management at my old gym thought it was a good idea to max out your bench press to the whiny sounds of a worship leader in skinny jeans going on about how weak and deplorable he is, and how he just can’t go on without someone else’s help. I can’t imagine this puts people in the mood to workout.
By the way, if you want to know what Christians believe, don’t watch their debates. Listen to the songs they sing.
There is a song they often played at the gym that was once on my running music playlist back in my Christian days. I used to love this song, and even ten years later the upbeat tempo feels like the right kinda jam for a morning jog. It topped the charts when it came out, and it remains among the favorites for Christian radio stations everywhere. It’s called “So Long, Self” and it’s sung by Mercy Me, the same group that brought us the perennial funeral standby, “I Can Only Imagine.” Here is a sample of the lyrics of the song:
So long, self! Well, it’s been fun, but I have found somebody else
So long, self! There’s just no room for two, so you are gonna have to move
So long, self! Don’t take this wrong but you are wrong for me, farewell
Oh well, goodbye, don’t cryyyy…woahoah so long, self!
Does this strike you as a subculture that teaches people a healthy view of themselves? Me neither. And lest you think I’m making much ado about nothing, I maintain that you can learn a lot by listening to the songs people sing, especially when those songs were specifically written to reinforce centrally important theological ideas the way songs do on Christian radio stations.
A Fundamental Flaw
I’m bringing this up for at least a couple of reasons. First, I see this as a fundamental flaw within the Christian worldview. I mean besides the more obvious stuff, like believing in invisible beings that don’t exist. I’m talking about more practical stuff—stuff which we can actually parse out in conversation without necessarily getting bogged down in metaphysical arguments and epistemology.
For several years now, I’ve been teasing out the most basic definition of “Christian” I can find, trying to nail down what is The Christian View™ on anything at all, and let me tell you that is no easy task. As I’ve often said, religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise, and that means that you will scarcely be able to distill the diverse family of religions we call Christianity into a single, universal definition without alienating at least three or four subgroups. Put differently, there is not one single, monolithic Christianity. There are many christianities, and each one is pretty sure theirs is The Right One and all the others have it wrong.
But there are at least a handful of essentials which seem to undergird everything that can reasonably called “Christianity,” and this appears to be one of them: In order to need a savior, you have to feel there is something you need saving from, and that means you have to believe that you really suck. You have to feel that you need saving in the first place. And that means taking whatever your current view of yourself happens to be—no matter how low it already is—and lowering it even further.
At a bare minimum, you have to believe that your flaws, taken together with the flaws of the rest of humanity, are so egregious and offensive to God that someone had to be tortured and killed in your place. The most widely accepted versions additionally maintain that eternal, conscious torment awaits anyone who doesn’t properly come to terms with whatever it was you did that provoked God to do what he did to Jesus on your behalf. You must really be one messed up character.
This isn’t just the fundies, either. Not everyone does the Hell thing, but even the more “progressive” Christians I’ve spoken with have expressed an inability to get around this notion of fundamental brokenness. I’ve tried getting them to restate the fundamentals of their faith without this element, and they just can’t do it—or won’t, at least. I finally addressed that problem in an article entitled “We Are Not Broken.”
Not too long after my deconversion, I subjected myself to a year of weekly therapy sessions with a Christian counselor in an attempt to save my marriage (it didn’t work). I recall this particular issue coming up in our sessions from time to time. I suggested that the faith in which we were raised taught us to think very poorly of ourselves, but the therapist shot back with: “No! Absolutely not! There is no better view of the self than the one we get from the gospel!” I’ll spare you his tortured rationalization for that statement, because it ignored the fact that according to his perspective all human worth is derivative—it comes from what someone else has done for us rather than anything inherent in ourselves.
I didn’t push back much at all during those weekly sessions, and I regret that now. If I had that chapter of my life to do over again, I would have spoken my mind a lot more openly. At the time I was trying to be as cooperative as possible, because I really wanted to make this work. But you cannot say that your worldview gives people a positive self-image if it also tells them they deserve to be tortured forever. Those two ideas don’t mix.
I will never forget the day someone very close to me appeared in a pre-recorded video segment during the worship service at my family’s megachurch. She is one of the most hard working, conscientious, principled, and self-sacrificing people you will ever meet. You will scarcely find another person more committed to “doing what’s right” on the planet. But when it came time to frame her testimony, introducing herself and her own character to the listening audience, she couldn’t resist maligning her own personal character. The very first words of her testimony began:
Left to my own devices, on my best day,
I am hopelessly selfish and cannot make a good decision.
I can’t tell you how much of a punch in the gut that was for me. She could have chosen any way she wanted to introduce herself to the thousands of people who were watching her presentation that day, and she started with abject self-deprecation. This woman, who is one of the most selfless and resolute people I know, chose to denigrate herself in front of everyone by calling herself selfish and unable to make good decisions. Those are both lies, and she should know better…except she doesn’t, because that’s what she was taught to believe about herself.
Positive self-image my ass.
I know exactly why people say things like this. It’s a part of the gospel formula: You have something to offer people but they have to feel a need for it before you can offer it to them. It’s the same thing with any other sales situation. First you highlight the need for whatever it is you are selling, even if it means having to greatly exaggerate how badly anyone needs what you have. Then you explain to them how easy it is to get what you have, and once you see they want it, you go in for the sale. Evangelism works exactly the same way. It’s a sales transaction, and it follows all the same rules.
But after the deal has been closed, people are still stuck with a skewed view of themselves which gets reinforced in church Sunday after Sunday (plus Wednesdays and some weekdays as well). And now through the wonders of technology, especially if you live in a place like I do, you can be surrounded by this message everywhere you go, all the time. I can’t even walk into a doughnut shop or a coffee shop in my area without hearing a message overhead declaring that humans are weak, selfish, hopeless, morally unfit creatures who need saving from themselves.
Related: “The Dark Side of Grace“
It is very much like living in an abusive relationship. You are taught to see yourself as hopelessly worthless outside of what your captor can accomplish on your behalf. Left to your own devices, you are weak and helpless. Yes, just keep repeating that to yourself over and over again.
This is not good news. This is psychological abuse, sugar coated though it may be with the vocabulary of love. It’s only made more sinister by its pretty packaging and by its aggressive marketing toward children. The church knows it has to get to them before they are old enough to say, “Wait, these are awful things to say!”
I see at least four things that result from this persistent and pervasive message of self-loathing.
Four Kinds of Damage
1) It makes you easier to control. I’m not necessarily saying the people who developed this message intentionally engineered their religion to rule over others. But that is in fact one of the off-label benefits, and as a result those traditions which hit this message the hardest retain their members the longest. People are too scared and self-doubting to leave.
Go check the stats. Those traditions which push a positive self-image among their members tend to have a higher attrition rate—they lose their members in time because plenty of other traditions offer the same self-affirming message. Not so with the church traditions that make you feel like a maggot. Those churches are still going strong, and will continue in their strength because they have convinced their people that apart from the grace of God (mediated through their denomination alone) people will only collapse under the weight of their own depravity.
Even their ability to question and critique this anti-humanistic dogma gets checked before it can even begin because, hey, who are you to question God’s Word, you reprobate?
2) It teaches you unhealthy self-talk, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It deprives you of any sense of accomplishment because you begin each endeavor rehearsing a script declaring you unfit for whatever is the task at hand. Even if you accomplish what you set out to do, you will still credit someone else for your success instead of yourself.
This is not a healthy way to live. It’s self-hatred (which I would argue is thoroughly biblical), and it’s holding us back as a species.
3) It gives you an overly negative view of the rest of humanity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the good deeds of other people get shot down by cynical Christians who believe that “good” is the enemy of God. For evangelicals in particular, the human pursuit of goodness and progress is a dangerous thing which must be opposed. Just like Yahweh in the Old Testament objected to the building of a tower that was “too high” (just wait till we invent space travel), so evangelicals resist any major advance in science or technology which instills us with “too much confidence” in what humanity will be able to accomplish.
On a personal note, I must also point out that their view of non-believers is even worse. They denigrate themselves plenty; but people who don’t share their faith are infinitely worse. I have watched person after person after person in my life interpret every move I make in the least charitable light possible. They assume everything I do is motivated by self-interest, greed, lust…you name it. Pick a character flaw. Some of them have even told me I am being controlled by evil spirits.
How do you address a belief like that? It is futile. If I could dismiss these people, I would. But they are my own neighbors, co-workers, and family. It’s not always as simple as “Well, just pack up your things and move somewhere else! Simple!”
4) Finally, it damages your ability to have healthy relationships because it teaches you to invalidate your own personal needs. Some people didn’t learn this message as thoroughly as I did, but this one really did a number on me. There’s an evangelistic PR movement called “I Am Second” that’s been circulating on YouTube for a number of years, and it teaches people to testify that Jesus is more important than they are.
My upbringing went one step further. As an evangelical Christian, I was taught to see myself as third: Jesus first, others second, and myself third. Semantics aside, it’s the same message: Your needs, your aspirations, and your accomplishments are not as important as the needs of others.
Give someone a steady diet of that ^^ message for 30+ years and you’ve got yourself a formula for self-neglect and dysfunctional relationships. Looking back over relationships that have gone badly over the course of my life, I see that one thread running through each one of them is this tendency to push aside—to suppress—any awareness of my own needs in order to take care of everyone else.
That sounds noble at first, I know. But it lacks balance. Healthy relationships are based on a mutual give-and-take. It’s not always giving, giving, giving. They tell you it will work out fine because each person in the relationship will be focusing on the other so that everyone is taken care of. But that’s not how real life works. One person will almost always be better at giving, and the other will end up taking advantage of the arrangement.
In real life, you have to balance the needs of self with the needs of others. That’s the only kind of relationship that’s sustainable. It’s not always about “dying to self” and ignoring your own needs in order to take care of the needs of others. That may be the most “Christian” way to love, but it is a recipe for neglect, dysfunction, and even potentially abuse.
[Image Source: Jesus Daily]
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