Does Evangelical Christianity Cause Emotional Damage? Part 1

Does Evangelical Christianity Cause Emotional Damage? Part 1 February 26, 2013

by Bruce Gerencser

Evangelical Christianity teaches that humans are, by nature, sinners. Humans do not become sinners, they are sinners. Humans are born with a sin nature. From the very moment they come into this world they are sinners. This is the lot of the human race. No one, except Jesus, is exempt.

What is sin? Sin is transgression of the law of God. God is Holy. He hates sin and those who do it.  When Jesus came to earth he came to settle humanity’s sin debt. Humans deserve to be eternally punished in the Lake of Fire for their sin and Jesus came to earth to take that punishment upon himself.

When Jesus was on the cross the wrath of God the Father was poured out on Him. Wrath that humans deserved. With his death on the cross, Jesus satisfied humanity’s sin debt. (unless you are a Calvinist, then Jesus only satisfied the elect’s sin debt)

Evangelicals believe in justification by faith. Simply put, justification by faith means that God looks at a saved (born again) sinner “just as if they never sinned.”

How is this possible? God hasn’t changed! He still hates sin and those who do it. He still throws people in the Lake of Fire to be tormented for eternity. God is God and this is what God does.

Even after salvation, God still views sin and and the sinner the same way. But now there is a go-between, Jesus the crucified and risen Savior. Jesus stands between God the Father and the saved sinner. God doesn’t see the saved sinner’s sin. All he sees is his son Jesus and his atoning work on the cross.

What I have just written is Evangelicalism 101. It is classic substitutionary atonement, justified by faith, Protestant theology. Understanding this will be key to what I write next.

How is the Evangelical to understand themselves?

  • I am a sinner. I sin daily in word, thought, and deed.
  • Even now, I deserve hell and punishment from God.
  • The only difference between me and the worst of sinners is that I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The blood of Jesus covers my sin.
  • No matter what suffering and pain comes in my life, I should be grateful that I am saved and that I have escaped the eternal punishment of the Lake of Fire.

Most Evangelical pastors, especially the extreme Fundamentalists, spend a lot of time preaching about sin. They really can’t be faulted for doing this. As People of the Book, they must preach what is found in the Bible and the Bible spends a lot of time talking about sin.

In the Old Testament alone there is 635 laws. Then there is the New Testament with all the new laws Jesus, Paul, John and Peter added. Add to this the pastor or the church’s personal interpretation of the laws, commands, and precepts found in the Bible…….well there’s plenty of sin to preach about.

Needless to say there is a lot of guilt in Evangelical churches. For all their talk about grace, guilt permeates the Evangelical church. Despite being miraculously saved, the Evangelical still sins. No matter how often the pastor preaches on this or that sin they still sin. In fact, the Evangelical sins as much and as often as non-Evangelicals. Evangelicals commit sexual sin, get divorced, commit felony crimes, etc. at the same level as non-religious people do. In every way they are just as sinful as the next person.

But….they are not supposed to….the preacher thunders from the pulpit. How DARE they sin……look at what Jesus did for them! How dare they, who have been freed from sin, continue any longer therein?

God even gave the Evangelical a sin meter called the Holy Spirit. When temptation comes the sin meter starts saying, NO! NO! Don’t do this! Turn! Run! Leave! Stop!

Yet, even with Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and a thundering Preacher, Evangelicals still sin like everyone else does. This ever-present reality results in a lifetime of guilt.

Altars are routinely lined with people “getting right with God.” Churches hold revival services so Church members can get their lives straightened out and return to walking the straight and narrow. Pastors spend hours each week counseling church members who find themselves ensnared by Satan, caught up in temptation and sin. Preachers themselves are routinely caught up in this or that sin. If the preacher can’t walk the talk how can anyone do so?

For all the talk about forgiveness and deliverance, sin is still the number one problem the Evangelical faces in their day to day life. No matter how much they pray and ask forgiveness, sin keeps returning, spoiling their attempt to live a Godly life.

A lifetime of this kind of living makes a people an emotional train wreck. Over time, they learn how to “hide” their sin. They learn the right things to say when asked about how things are in their lives. They learn how to play the “I am right with God” game. They, like most who have come before them, learn to have an outward façade that masks the reality of their life.

They know they are a fraud, a hypocrite, yet they dare not admit this to anyone. Little do they know that EVERYONE, including the pastor, is just like them.

Some people, after decades of being on the sin roller coaster decide to get off.  They crave an opportunity to live an authentic life, a life that is free from the emotional weight of frequent condemnation.

Getting off the roller coaster is not easy. The emotional baggage weighs the person down. Isn’t their walking away the BIGGEST sin of them all? Doesn’t this prove they never were a real, bought-by-the-blood, sanctified follower of Jesus? The church, the pastor, and their Evangelical family will condemn them for leaving. Someone will surely quote the Bible, they went out from us because they were not of us. For if they were of us, they would have continued with us.” Leaving is PROOF they never were the real deal. No matter how many years they faithfully walked the straight and narrow…….their life was a fraud.

Once free……….an interesting thing happens. The guilt begins to recede. The emotions start to settle. For the first times in years they experience peace. It took leaving the Prince of Peace for them to experience peace.

Instead of a life dominated by a sin nature, they learn to live their life by doing good. They learn that many of the actions the Bible, the pastor, and the church called sin is not sin at all.

As time goes on their list of “sins” becomes smaller and smaller.  Perhaps they learn that there isn’t really any such thing as sin. People do good and bad and should be judged, not by a moral standard found in an antiquated book, but by a basic humanistic, common morality. A morality that respects the private acts of consenting adults. A morality that recognizes that many of the acts of other human beings are none of their business.

They now have the freedom to live their life on their own terms,  according to their own morality. People from their past warn them that they have made themselves their own God and that if they are not careful they will become a reprobate. The threatening’s no longer have the desired effect.

The preaching, Bible quoting, and condemnation falls on deaf ears. Freedom is sweet and like the Israelites of the Old Testament, having left Egypt on a journey to the Promised Land, they have no desire to return to the bondage of Evangelicalism.

Once free…….having experienced the peace that passeth all Evangelicalism…..they will never return……Like the old Southern Gospel song…….They have gone to far to turn back now!

Comments open below

Read everything by Bruce Gerencser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Bruce Gerencser blogs at The Way Forward.

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 32 years. They have 6 children, and five grandchildren.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Personally, I think that the main problem with Evangelicalism is that it focuses too much on sin and the sinner rather than on the goodness and grace of God. I had to move away from my church and original teaching to figure that out.

  • validated

    *applause* Bravo!! This article made my day. It is like you reached into my head and articulated the mess swirling around in there. Well-said and dead-on!

  • SAO

    I’m struck by reading NLQ how much of the so-called sin seems made up. For example, the question, Is buying insurance a sin? There’s an effort to evaluate insurance, based on a few words in the bible — which was written at a time when modern insurance didn’t exist, not based on whether you are fundamentally doing something we all know to be basically wrong. I mean, the bible doesn’t talk about insider trading, but we know it is wrong because it is, at core, cheating to get money.

  • Red

    I feel like the term “Evangelical Christianity” is pretty broad. I went through similar emotional turmoil, but for me, the experience of moving into grace came when I moved from one more legalistic group of Evangelicals into another less legalistic group of Evangelicals. I didn’t have to leave the movement altogether to experience the emotional transformation you have described here.

    While the Evangelical church as a whole tends to lean too much this way, you may be overstating your case by implying that all (or even most) of Evangelicalism operates at such an extreme level. I’m almost 30 and have been a Christian my whole life, and I have definitely seen certain denominations of the Evangelical tradition being more this way than others.

  • Kimberly

    You didn’t seem to cover sanctification. I was taught that as we grown as Christians, our propensity to sin is always there, but it becomes less and less of a temptation or problem. I have found that to be true in myself. I do wish evangelicals would focus more on loving rather than sin hunting and would acknowledge that while we might be born into sin, we are made in the image of God. So we can’t be completely sinful and terrible. There are some amazing people in the World–and even some horribly sinful gays–(sarcasm) who are way more loving than many of the evangelicals I know. And I really never hear taught Psalm 8:5 that God has crowned people with glory and honor–all people. How about evangelicals celebrating peoples’ worth in God’s eyes and perhaps treating everyone as having great worth?

  • Barbara Brooks

    I suppose the author came from a very negative destructive church. In the church I go to, we emphasize right living rather than talking on and on about sin. Yes, many things are sinful, and we try to help one another avoid sin by showing each other better ways to live and becoming closer to God in prayer. I find guilt motivates me to take steps to make sure the sin doesn’t happen again. I don’t dwell on guilt, but if it weren’t for guilt, I’d probably choose the easy way, rather than the right way, against my better judgment much more often.
    With the megachurch movement luring in people with appealing words, many people have come into the church who have little committment and will not submit to even reasonable authority. I have found that Christians who are strict, but not fanatics, loving, but not sentimental, sensible in practical matters, but willing to sacrifice for others have a much lower rate of every sort of negative social practice. However, many go to church for social or emotional reasons and have no intention of changing their basic outlook or lifestyle or giving up things they love to be a better person–and many churches don’t preach that it’s necessary or if they do, they don’t provide loving support. It’s not the view of man’s nature that is the problem in evangelical Christianity–it’s the lack of separation from worldly practice and lack of supportive brotherhood that has led to evangelicals living like their unbelieving neighbors.

  • vindicated

    I think comments like “well OUR church doesnt do it like that, the one you were at much have been wrong/flawed/etc.” are also overstating, generalizing and kind of dismissive to the person sharing their experience. I promise you, as wonderful as you feel your church (pick a religion, any religion) is, somewhere in there is someone who feels quite differently.

  • Sarah

    I do agree with other commenters that this is really only true of some Christian churches and not at all of others. I also agree with them that one needn’t leave Christianity entirely to be free of the problem.

    But to be fair to you, Christianity, and especially fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, is so fractured, that no matter what you say about it, you will hit the nail on the head for some groups and be completely off when it comes to others.

  • Eva

    You are telling the same story that the author highlights… that human ERROR is the cause of the imperfections that christians share with every other human population… Lack of separation and lack of sport.
    This judgment, admittedly self policed and not necessarily from the pulpit, can cause just as much guilt and hypocrisy, if not more. Questions like, ”why is my support lacking” and ”why can’t I just separate myself from the world properly?” Lead to the same guilt and hiding pattern that is described above. If they don’t have the ”right” system of support and separation, they must not be ”real” christians, no matter their sincerity. Worse it gives opportunity to create dissension because it gives the opportunity to blame your own personal failings on others…your brothers who lack the correct supportive nature.

  • Eva

    I can understand the perspective of those who say, ”well MY church doesn’t have this problem”, because it took several years of being out of the church (a very loving church community wise) for me to realize all the subconscious guilt triggers I was dealing with even though I was a very faithful christian (youth leader and missionary, etc.), following the recommendations of my faith very closely. And it was a not terribly restrictive, pretty normal (not cultish) church.
    I think the very important point this article makes (and makes very well) its that the very basic, fundamental doctrine that EVERY christian church embraces, leads to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. For example, staying with an unhealthy relationship because you don’t want to be worldly and get a divorce, and because the other party is ”trying” to live under grace and you have to trust in their redemption instead of acknowledging their destructive behavior.
    Or one I have to combat in myself every day as a parent… The belief that any action of your childs that is out of line is caused by their sinful, rebellious ”nature”, instead of the likely true cause that that are exploring their environment and either forgot, didn’t know, or are developmentally not ready to follow that particular social guideline.