Remember what I mentioned last time about promises? We’re going to talk about that a little more today. There’s something about promises that I need to show you.
Dale Arden Got It All Wrong.
In the 1980 movie Flash Gordon, the heroine Dale Arden has decided under considerable pressure to marry Emperor Ming. She’s agreed to be as good a wife to him as she can if he’ll spare two rebel leaders, Prince Barin and Dr. Zarkoff. Ming has assured her that he will spare their lives in return for her compliance.
Upon hearing about this agreement, Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, is shocked. She tells Dale, “My father’s never kept a vow in his life!”
Dale looks at her with resignation and tells her, “I can’t help that, Aura. Keeping our word is one of the things that make us [Earthlings] better than you [the aliens].”
I saw this movie as a kid and I still remember the first time I saw that scene. I was just flabbergasted. Furious, even.
Dale hadn’t given her word or made a promise, in my opinion; she’d struck a deal. And a deal depended upon both parties acting in good faith. In my young and naive mind, if one person proved to be a liar or didn’t do what s/he agreed to do, then the other person wasn’t beholden to the deal anymore either. To hold a person to a deal struck in such bad faith seemed beyond cruel and idiotic. It struck straight to the heart of everything I considered fair and just.
But Dale didn’t see it that way. She was resolved to follow through on what she saw as a promise even though Ming had no intention of following through on what he’d agreed to do. To Dale, though, a promise was a promise, and promises had to be kept no matter what. Ming, of course, didn’t feel the same way at all, but was happy to take advantage of her foolish resolution.
A One-Sided Deal.
In the same manner, when I deconverted, one of the first things Biff did when he realized I was serious was to wave in my face my earlier resolution to die in the traces at me as if that was some good reason for me to reconvert again. I’d made a promise to serve Jesus, so I had to serve Jesus no matter what doubts I had. I’d promised. That was all that mattered.
But I hadn’t made a promise. I’d struck a deal. In the same way that medieval peasants struck a deal with their feudal lords to exchange service and freedom for protection and care, I had exchanged my freedom and my time for various things this deity had promised. And this deity’s promises had turned out to be false–in fact the deity very likely did not exist at all. Thus, I did not view myself as being bound by that deal anymore. I’d made a deal in good faith, but the other party hadn’t acted in good faith (again, and may not have existed at all). I’d signed a contract whose premises had turned out to be fraudulent. I was free to go my way without guilt for “breaking my promise;” I was no longer forced to live under the terms of the contract.
Biff didn’t see things that way.
There are a lot of reasons why Christians might go this route to cope with a spouse’s apostasy. Some of those reasons are charitable, and some really aren’t. Biff, obviously, wanted me to reconvert because my reconversion was important to his image, and my apostasy was damaging that image very badly. His pride as a good and effective
slave-master leader was being affected, while his ability to lead others was being called into question by his superiors at church. I really don’t think he was as worried about my soul as he about his own image and the effect my apostasy was having on him.
Though he took the reaction to extremes, his attitude is reflected in the stories I hear from other ex-Christians. Of course our spouses are worried about our souls to some extent, if they’re any kind of loving people at all. But the promises they wave in our faces also speak to the other person’s starring role in the movie of his or her life. When we leave Christianity, our spouses are stuck in a movie without a romantic co-star and a script that no longer applies. That movie’s successful wrap depended on our cooperation, but suddenly we’re not cooperating anymore. Of course the other person’s going to be upset. They’ve got a good reason to be upset.
When someone deconverts, those old promises often come back to nip at the ex-Christian’s heels like a particularly annoying little dog (as L.M. Montgomery once wrote). Our still-Christian partner’s sense of betrayal and pain is even deeper, because some of those promises feel like they relate to the marital bond. Remember, Christians generally believe completely (and utterly without any good reason, may I add) that a marriage should–even must–be based upon shared faith in Jesus Christ. And they almost never understand that a person’s spiritual walk is in many ways a two-way deal, not a one-sided promise, nor do they generally understand that you just can’t force a belief to continue to exist when you’ve figured out it wasn’t true. (You try it sometime with unicorns, Zeus, or Santa Claus!)
When one spouse deconverts, the table loses a leg. The foundation cracks. Not only is the facade fading, not only is the illusion dissipating of that happy Christian family the other spouse always thought he or she would have because s/he followed all the rules, not only is the remaining spouse’s sanity and good sense coming into question for still believing something s/he knows the other thinks is nonsense now, but there’s a sense of betrayal that the promise that person made about the future, about reality, about how their relationship is going to run, has been broken. There can be a real sense of stung pride and disappointment for the still-Christian spouse.
And I totally get that. I got it back then. I still get it now.
Gaming Saves the Day, Again.
It’s not just Christians who react to broken promises like that, though, obviously.
After I left Christianity, I spent a while volunteering for an online game. One of the other administrators had promised to teach me how to do something code-related that the game desperately needed before he left it for good. But he didn’t follow through. I learned fairly soon after he’d left that he’d failed in his promise because he’d had a lot of serious personal stuff happen.
I was furious–and hurt. The game was now suffering for the lack of someone capable of doing what he could do, meaning that now one of the remaining staffers was going to have to figure out how to do it from scratch by wading through zillions of lines of persnickety spaghetti /src code (which is just as fun as it sounds, and if you’re wondering, it was writing softcode to handle ingame object creation).
Over time I realized that I was being a twit. He’d struck a deal in a way–to do this thing for me if he was able to. He’d stopped being able to. Frankly, his personal issues far eclipsed whatever he’d said he’d try to do for an online game. It wasn’t about me. It was about him and what he needed to do for his family and his sanity. I had to get past those feelings so I could be a friend and give him the encouragement he needed to get his personal life figured out. That sounds easy, but it wasn’t.
The incident definitely helped me understand why Biff was concentrating so hard on this imagined promise he thought I should keep even in the face of deconversion. He was one of those “fake it till you make it” Christians who thought quite seriously that if I had doubts, why, I should just keep going to church and raising my hands and praying and doing all that Christian stuff still, because sooner or later the “fire” would come back to me.
I knew that no amount of prayer, church-going, or anything else was going to give me any evidence that would make me feel compelled to re-join the religion, though. I knew that. I wasn’t shy about saying so, either. Biff’s constant entreaties to go back to church were not only tiresome but felt deeply disrespectful. I would require evidence and proof and all this crazy unreasonable stuff in his opinion, and all he had in the toolbox was an insistence that I just keep doing the same stuff that hadn’t helped me keep my faith alive in the first place, except more of it (remember the definition of insanity). And his constant reminders that I’d broken a promise to be a Christian wife didn’t help, because he didn’t understand that in my mind, that promise had been made based on an understanding that had radically changed.
The more he insisted that I go to church and tried to shame me about the promises he thought I’d broken, the less loved and cherished I felt. Did he not understand just how abhorrent I found that religion? Did he not grasp just how false the deal turned out to be? Did he not get how betrayed I already felt about being so very wrong about something so very important? I felt like he didn’t care about me, just about the facade that I’d destroyed by deconverting.
So as coping mechanisms go, insisting on doing Christian stuff in absence of faith and shaming me about these perceived broken promises were definitely failures.
When a Promise Must Be Broken.
To the Christian spouses in the UYC, I’d say this: if you signed a contract for something and the person who’d offered that contract turned out to be a liar and thief if not an outright threat to your life, and you found out this deal you’d struck would, if you kept going in it, result in harm done to yourself and those you loved, would you still fulfill your side of the contract? Of course not, and nobody’d blame you for walking away from it.
In the same way, if you promised to give a child a peanut-butter sandwich but then discovered that this child was wildly allergic to peanut butter, would you still fulfill your promise? Of course not. If you promised to babysit for a neighbor and contracted for the evening to do so, but discovered upon arriving at the house that the neighbor also wanted you to clean the whole house top to bottom, would you be obligated to do the cleaning? No, that’s just silly–and you’d probably never return to babysit again, either (no, I’m not bitter).
What if you’d gotten a job and discovered your employer didn’t want to pay you or give you something promised in the interview? Would you be obligated to show up every day and go through the motions every single day regardless, in the hopes that one of these days the boss would finally pay you and give you what had been promised? Or would you be fully justified in leaving and making a flouncing video about it for YouTube?
I’ve heard this is actually a stunt, but it’s still funny.
Promises depend upon conditions. They’re made in good faith with the understanding we have. When those conditions alter, when the understanding we have turns out to be false or wrong, then it’s not fair to hold someone to those promises anymore. It’s not loving, and it’s definitely not charitable. But many Christians will do so, and they’ll do it even when pressing for that “promise” to be upheld would destroy the sanity of their spouse.
I can’t even make a significant other go to a movie or restaurant I know he’d hate. It just isn’t in me. No matter how much I enjoyed it, I’d always know my companion loathed it and didn’t want to be there. The illusion of togetherness–the happy facade of being there together-would be destroyed by knowing that he was going to that trouble just for me and wasn’t enjoying himself at all. To me that’s not love.
I don’t want illusions and facades. I want what is real. I want what is true. I want what is genuine. I want what is loving.
Love is not about making someone do something s/he hates just because it makes you happy or comfortable. Love is about wanting to delight the other, about treating that person with grace. It’s about doing stuff together that both people enjoy, not just one, instead of inflicting something the partner hates on him/her–and let’s be clear, there are millions upon millions of things to find to do together for two people who are sympathetic and happy in each other’s company. It’s about showing respect for the other person’s needs and desires.
And it’s about getting all that stuff in return.
A Road Not Traveled.
Instead of strong-arming or shaming me, how very different it would have been if Biff had asked me, sincerely and not just as a springboard from which to launch a reconversion attempt, “Why don’t you feel bound to this promise anymore?” In the ensuing years, you can imagine I’ve certainly given some thought to that question.
I think I’d have answered. We’d have communicated–probably for the first time in our entire relationship. We’d have built a new promise together based on the understanding we had now and where we saw ourselves going and what we wanted out of life.
Yeah, I know–that’s a lot of honesty flying around. That’s a lot of illusion-dispelling and facade-slashing and curtain-tearing. I can see why it’d scare someone to plunge into that wine-dark sea, into that lusty reverberating swamp, into that forest canopy filled as it is with strange birds making calls we’ve never heard before now, to set one’s feet upon an unfamiliar road or to move in a direction different from that which was originally expected.
But love is worth honesty and respect.
Love is worth sharing and communication.
Love is worth respecting the other person’s growth and evolving understanding.
Love is worth fighting past illusions and facades, past disappointment and hurt, to build something new and true and real.
Love is worth it.