Searching for Identity (Spiritual Abuse)

When I was in high school religious people held a tight grip on me. I’m a thinker – I like understanding the best way to do something, and from what I could tell, the religious people knew the best way. They looked clean and sounded wise and commanded respect with the theological phrases they could spit out. They had it put together and I wanted to be put together. So I followed.

I remember one of these religious people gave a sermon once. He’s a popular guy but to me he was God. Everything that he said was truth. I needed to do what he did and say what he said. In his sermon he was talking about how disgusting we are in our sin. God is pure and white as snow, and we poor sinners are dogs returning to our own vomit. There’s a lot of disgusting images of sin in the Bible. It was pretty hard for me to imagine me eating my throw up but he said that’s me so it must be true. Then he said something that scared me, “If you aren’t brought to tears by your sin, you just don’t understand.” And this is where the Christian community gets confusing. The really religious people know how to sell how terribly sinful they are. And if you aren’t weeping over your sin, well, sorry buddy but you might not be coming to heaven with us. What? This scared me. But even more so it left me confused.

So let’s look at a beautiful diagram to help us out a little.Identity - Spirituality Drawing

This is a look at the surface level me and the honest me. Floating on the surface are the words that I wanted people to view me as and maybe even the things that other people saw in me. However, submerged at the bottom are the words that I honestly felt about myself (Yes I was too lazy to erase the second “unsure”). You can see the disconnect from these two selves in the middle. You can also see Benton the whale and Thor the fish.

It is this disconnect that dis-integrated me as a person. And this is where a lot of spiritual-identity conflict arose. The truth is, I wasn’t weeping over the stuff that I did wrong. No, the thing that was killing me was that I thought God didn’t like me because I wasn’t crying. And that made me cry. I distinctly remember standing in the shower, crying because I wasn’t distraught over my sin.

So what did I do? I lied even more. I played the part of someone who loves God, all the while the submerged part of me was still incredibly confused and scared. I tried to bridge the gap between my two selves by proving that the surface me – the religious and wise and lover-of-God me – was actually true. I cast myself as Ben, the relaxed and happy and devoted Christian. I would go to Monday Bible study and talk about some theological truth I had learned the past week. During worship I emphatically raised my hands and maybe even kneeled on the ground if I was really trying to sell it. In youth group I would make the small group leader smile with some doctrine I knew from Romans.

To be honest, it felt good playing that role. The surface me was being validated left and right. But the more I played the role, the less people connected with the real Ben. And insecurity started to creep in. What would people think if they really knew who I was? How could I receive validation if they knew I wasn’t a real “super Christian”? And looking back, the saddest part was that I wasn’t able to actually connect with God. I suppose this act that I put on made me resent connecting with God. I mean, if this is what it means to be a Christian – constantly hiding, always lying, living as an actor– I want no part in it; it was draining my soul.

But God isn’t in the business of draining souls. No, he is all about reviving souls, refreshing them, making them whole. And he does this by connecting with us, the submerged us. He dives into the cool water, swims past Benton and Thor, and pulls our submerged souls up to the surface. And he doesn’t care how grimy they are. He takes us for what we are and utters, “I love you.” He exposes us for who we truly are and says, “Here, let me help you with that.” The person with the least obligation to love who we really are hugged us first, loved us first, died for us first.

I’m glad to say that the religious people don’t hold such a tight grip on me anymore. Yes, I still struggle with what people think of me, but I’m not alone in that anymore. My soul doesn’t writhe with the pain of isolation.  All because I have this Dad, this loving and gentle Dad who tells me, “If you aren’t brought to tears by your sin, let me love you just a little more.” And that gets me. That restores my soul and floods my eyes. I mean, who can love like that? I want to know him more.

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