Social Issues

Christians taught me I can’t trust my deceitful heart

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9

That verse got quoted at me … well, a lot. Looking back, it seems to be one of the most common refrains of my childhood, right along with “foolishness is bound in the heart of a child.” Looking back, I’m unsure how these concepts got tied to things like honor your father and mother and in the multitude of councilors there is wisdom and your word is a lamp unto my feet but somehow, they did.

The end result, though, was that I grew up absolutely convinced that I couldn’t trust my own understanding of myself. That anything I thought about my needs, wants, desires or even my identity was suspect. If I thought something might be a good idea, I couldn’t trust it at all– it had to be subjected to a thorough and exhausting review by parents, councilors, pastors, and a conservative interpretation of Scripture. I couldn’t take the chance that my corrupted sense of self was leading me astray, lying to me about what I thought was “good.”

Most of the time I didn’t dwell on this. Most of the time I’d ask my parents or other people I respected about should I do such-and-such a thing or does my character have such-and-such problem, and they’d agree with what I wanted to do or how I saw some personality or character trait. I was a good little fundamentalist girl, so it was rare for me to come into conflict with authority figures, the people put in place above me to illuminate my deceitful heart.

It wasn’t until I became an adult and started going through individuation at a much later age than is typical that I started having problems with this collected bag of teachings. The first real time I diverged from my authority figures’ expectations, it knocked me for a loop.

I’d decided I wanted to go to Liberty for grad school, and it threw everyone I knew into an uproar. My childhood Sunday school teacher chastised me for even considering going to a “party school,” my friends said they’d “pray that God would show me his will,” and the administration at PCC let me know in no uncertain terms that I was making a mistake, that my heart was deceiving me and that attending Liberty would ruin my Christian walk. Even my parents cautioned me against going, and when I declared that I was going regardless of what they thought, I got a speech about how I couldn’t let my heart trick me into going against my parents.

Eventually my parents came around and I tuned out all the other naysayers, but it was the first time I’d ever trusted myself and my own decision-making process and it was terrifying. I stuck to my guns, but the entire time there was this splinter prying at me with are you sure? How can you possibly trust yourself?

This indoctrination hasn’t just affected my ability to make decisions– the most drastic way it’s affected me is that I still can’t trust my opinion of myself. I can ask myself am I a decent person? and the only thing that echoes back at me is I don’t know. All my life I knew that my heart was wicked, corrupted, sick, and incapable of being honest. If I had the thought “I think I’m a nice person,” I had to run it by someone in order to confirm it– and most of the time, they wouldn’t, because, after all, we’re all disgusting, lowly worms deserving of nothing but hell.

It worked because of JerkBrain. JerkBrain tells me I’m worthless, and fundamentalism agreed with it– erasing any possibility of gaining self-esteem or self-respect. What other people think of me is still, to this day, far more important than what I think of myself. If someone doesn’t like me, it’s not because of personality differences or something equally insignificant and ordinary, it’s because I’m unlikable. If someone– anyone, even trolls on the internet– says I’m a “bitch” or “mean” or “disgusting,” the indoctrination kicks in and I have to fight with myself not to believe it.

A few years ago I was trying to explain how I identified with Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory and how he has social protocols he follows– he’s not good at the people/relationship/interaction thing, but he tries to observe what he’s supposed to do. I frequently joke that my automatic reaction to a friend’s distress is “tea?” not necessarily because I think tea will actually help but “it is customary to offer a hot beverage” is a social protocol I know for that situation.

The person I was speaking to responded with it’s “not that I don’t understand social interactions well, it’s because I’m mean and I simply don’t care.” If I cared enough, this wouldn’t be a problem– I’d just be able to magically respond appropriately. It wasn’t a lack of information, it was that I had an inherent deficiency in kindness.

It took me years to quit believing that. For a long time, because it came from a person I trusted, I thought that I am a mean person who doesn’t care about people. And, frustratingly, I stopped believing it not because I came to the opposite conclusion on my own, but because Handsome told me it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard, that it directly contradicted everything he’s ever learned about me. He had to repeat, consistently, that I actually do care about people and that I am kind and that I’m not mean in order for me to overcome this belief.

Self-awareness is not something I’m good at not for lack of trying. I try to say things like “I am a decent person” and then do my best to ignore the instant barrage of JerkBrain using the heart is deceitful above all things as ammunition.

Photo by Cory Harrup
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  • This verse is one of several that’s just…completely fucked me up. It was always used against me if I came to a conclusion on my own — even if I could support my conclusion biblically, because I somehow couldn’t be trusted to discern God’s will or word on my own (unless I came to the same conclusion as whichever spiritual authority I was talking to). It was even used against me when I started becoming more conservative than my parents. There was really no winning.

    Granted, I also used the verse against others. 😐 I particularly remember telling a friend to stay with their abusive spouse despite all reasoning, because “you’re clearly rationalizing your sin, which is proof of the deceitfulness of your heart.” Thankfully, they did leave their spouse in the end and they forgave me for my insensitivity.

    TL:DR — verses like that in the hands of a fundamentalist are nothing short of abusive.

    • Yeah… and wow, I had a phase of becoming more conservative than my parents, too. ^^

  • I also grew up with this passage and others that made me think I could never trust my own thinking process or conclusions–every conclusion different from the received tradition was thinking like the ‘world’ thinks. But I have a question: If the heart is deceitful and wicked (no matter how sincere a person is), then how can we trust our advisors and detractors? Aren’t their hearts deceitful and wicked as well?

    How is it that we are safe in following a tradition of interpretation developed long ago by other people whose hearts were deceitful and wicked? How can we trust this authority? It is not even a matter of trusting the authority of trusting ‘God’s word’ (the Bible); it is rather trusting in a particular understanding of the Bible. How can we trust the authorities who established those understandings if all our hearts are deceitful and wicked?

    • Another_Matt

      Because God put them in authority, and if they were to pray hard enough and listen closely to His answers, He wouldn’t let them be wrong about anything so important.

      • Matt, I cannot agree that God put these people in authority over us; we are responsible directly to God and God alone. And when I look around at what some ministers teach it is obvious that they are not exempt from being wrong, and sometimes terribly wrong.

        • Another_Matt

          Oops, I’m sorry – I was explaining the awful reasoning I was taught about authority. Like others in the thread, this all nearly ruined me and I’ve spent half a lifetime discovering who I am outside of any religion. This is off topic a little, but I’ve heard identical reasoning about why the US has to support every one of Netanyahu’s actions – woe unto anyone who stands against Israel, or against the one whom God placed authority over Israel.. You can trust that God will always put the right thing in his heart, but even if he rebels, God still expects you to support him.

          • I understand, so I actually support your point. I also agree about supporting Israel. I think much of that sentiment is due ultimately to dispensational theology.

  • Beroli

    The person I was speaking to responded with it’s “not that I don’t understand social interactions well, it’s because I’m mean and I simply don’t care.”

    Even if I hadn’t read anything you’d written, I’d know that was a ridiculous thing to say. Why would you be talking about problems with social interaction if you didn’t care about them? I don’t spend a lot of time talking or thinking about my inability to do things I don’t care about doing.

  • gexpl

    Ugh, this verse very nearly killed me. There’s something horrible and sadistic about teaching people to distrust and deny anything that they want or need and to “crucify their flesh” (yeah, literally fucking torture yourself to death). And yeah, I nearly did.

    It’s taken me a long time to try to learn to accept and embrace my wants, needs, and feelings. For a very long time I’d say to my wife “I don’t like it when they do X to me and I would like them to stop. Is that valid?” and “I feel angry about how Y treated me. Is that valid?” The answer was always “yes” but I simply couldn’t believe that until I had bounced it off of someone else. I’ve finally mostly moved past that and can actually state “I don’t want X” and “I am angry about Y” but it’s been years to get here and I still have to actively keep myself on track.

    • “‘crucify their flesh’ (yeah, literally fucking torture yourself to death). And yeah, I nearly did.”
      ME TOO. Me too.

      • poetrymafia

        I was always told that “self-esteem” talk, supposedly so popular in secular schools, was BS, and to have pride or love for yourself was selfish. So I successfully destroyed my own self-worth and then was told I was sinning because God loved worthless little me and I shouldn’t hate myself… a little confusing to say the least

  • Tenel Ka

    “The person I was speaking to responded with it’s “not that I don’t understand social interactions well, it’s because I’m mean and I simply don’t care.”

    ^ One, that’s just ridiculous to say to someone. Two, WOW does that remind me of how my early adulthood with my counselor was. He was a huge step up from my controlling, negative parents, but I *constantly* endured that same refrain “It’s not that you…”.
    So…

    *repressed/uncertain fundie teen reaches out and expresses how she feels she is*
    – counselor comes back with “it’s not that you..”
    or “Well *I* think you.”
    or “No actually you’re…”

    It took me a long long time to realize even he wouldn’t let me trust myself on my own perceptions and expressions and this was extremely damaging!
    He even did it to me in conversation 2 years ago, but I got pissed and stood my ground (“argued”). I shouldn’t have to put up with that, uhg!

    All that said, I was in the same place you were with that verse. It’s so incredibly damaging. I have the hardest time trusting myself and sometimes I wonder: deep down am I really just an evil monster? How far would I go to get what I want? I’m not *really* Good.

  • CynicMom

    That Jeremiah verse cuts both ways. If an authority disagrees with you it could just be THEIR deceitful heart.

  • I’ll need to remember that verse for future reference. I’m often preached at by evangelists of various sorts, mostly fundamentalists, and when I challenge them as to how they know that their version of their religion is true, they almost always fall back on some version of “I know my interpretation of the bible is true because I feel it in my heart”. But if the bible says that their heart is deceitful, then their very own book is telling me not to believe them.

    • poetrymafia

      pfft this made my day

  • Christopher F.

    A common cult tactic is to keep it’s members confused and unsure of their own ability to make decisions for themselves, so that they will be more willing to look to an external leader for guidance.

    Its actually pretty damned scary how many “good Christian traditions” are identical to cult tactics.

  • Catnip

    I didn’t grow up particularly religious, but I got a lot of the same feedback from my mother, who is emotionally abusive and a narcissist. (For examples of what she was like, see Mother Goethal in Rapunzel. “Mother Knows Best” nearly gave me a panic attack, it was so familiar.) I still have trouble with self-esteem and acceptable boundaries, and there’s always that tiny voice in the back of my brain that says, “What if they’re right about you?”

    This post sounds so much like my thought processes. I’m glad Handsome gave you some pushback on those thoughts.

    • purpleprose78

      I also got a panic attack at mother knows best. I refuse to watch Tangled because I find it triggering. I had a friend who was triggered by Agent Carter and apologized to me for not being able to watch it with me. I looked at her and told her. “I’m triggered by a cartoon. I’m so not judging you for this. Don’t apologize.”

  • Timothy Swanson

    “For a long time, because it came from a person I trusted, I thought that I am a mean person who doesn’t care about people.”

    That one hits close to home. I was told for years that I was “insensitive” to others, and would have difficulty working with women in particular because of that, and I believed it. However, once I left home, I found that the real problem was a personality conflict with an emotionally unhealthy person. If anything, out in the real world, I get asked to work with supposedly “difficult” people, because I can be objective and fair. While I think the source of the problem was primarily ordinary human blindness, I think the Fundie view that authorities are always right made it hard to believe that I might have a more accurate assessment of a relationship than my “authorities.” I wish I had been able to trust my own instincts a decade earlier, as I think I may have been able to draw boundaries at an earlier stage.

  • I wonder how the reaction towards grad school would have been different if you said you were treating it like a mission field. I find it interesting that we are called to go out into the world and make disciples, but at the same time it’s also a ‘threat’ to our Christian walk.

    I encountered that “heart is deceitful” message in seminary myself, and it makes me wonder how even a decision to act on what we perceive as God’s will isn’t a deception of some kind. I always thought my conscience was a gift.

  • I used to hate myself pretty strongly, but I was told that the Bible says we can’t hate ourselves, so I spent years suffering under the idea that my heart was so self-decieved I couldn’t even tell love from hate (never mind the eating disorder, depression, and suicidal urges – I loved myself too much!).
    And, though I no longer hate myself, I’m still working through the ingrained idea that *I am a bad person.* I simply cannot trust myself to accept any compliment or good belief without becoming prideful or self-decieved into thinking I’m better than I really am. To be fair, other factors certainly cemented this belief in even more than religion, but hearing “your heart is deceitful above all things” didn’t help. Hurrah for therapy. 😉

  • I identify with this to a scary degree.

  • HypercubeVillain

    This kind of doctrine strikes me as the religious equivalent of negging: leaders condition people to doubt their own capabilities so they’ll be open to accept the leaders’- I mean, “God’s will.”

  • Adele

    This post makes me really sad, and unfortunately, I have no idea what to say that might be even remotely helpful. I’m so sorry. 🙁

  • YES. It’s so messed up how we were taught we can’t trust our own hearts and minds because we’re so thoroughly sinful. Say, for example, I believe that it’s not a sin for me and my boyfriend to live together. It doesn’t matter what kind of reasons I have, what kind of arguments I can make, how much I can show that my beliefs are based in the bible and in my understanding of God’s character, etc etc. Everyone knows it’s a sin to live with one’s partner while unmarried, and I can’t trust my own mind to be able to handle logical arguments related to this- I’m so deceived by sin.

    Basically, this line of reasoning makes the system immune to questioning. If you question, well, you can’t believe what your own sinful mind is telling you. Better just trust what the church taught you.

    Related: the idea that all non-Christians secretly know that Christianity is true, but they’re deceived by their own sinfulness. (I was totally taught this. Because Romans 1:20.) And that if I doubt God’s existence, I have to question “am I really doubting for legitimate reasons, or do I just subconsciously want to rebel against God?”

    • Also related: the people who preach “the heart is deceitful” also tend to be the people who don’t believe in institutionalized racism, the patriarchy is bad, etc. Somehow, apparently a bunch of humans who are fundamentally evil have created a society where everyone has equal opportunities and no demographic is disproportionately hurt by others’ sin. Yeah okay.

    • KarenH

      “… the idea that all non-Christians secretly know that Christianity is true, but they’re deceived by their own sinfulness. …”

      Which is silly because so often those kinds of Christians also behave as if non-Christians have never even HEARD of Jesus or Christianity, which at least in the US, is ridiculous in the extreme, without even touching on the dichotomy of “Well, if they’ve never heard of Jesus, how do they truly know Christianity is true and they’re just denying it?”

  • I can empathize with this so much. I went on a very similar journey. (Though mine was also riddled with abuse… as people were constantly telling me my thoughts and memories were wrong and I couldn’t even trust what I wrote in my journal. And these were all Christians too.)

  • Alice

    Sometimes people feel mean and heartless or fundamentalism tells them they are, when really they are deeply caring people who burn out and shut down for self-preservation. Between my personality and how I was raised, it is easy to get overwhelmed by other people’s emotions and problems.

    Fundamentalism teaches “Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.” Other people’s feelings, desires, and needs always come first. Yours are not important. You’re supposed to cheerfully serve other people all the time and not expect anything. It’s selfish to say no.

    When I was a preteen and teenager, my mom and a peer used me as an emotional crutch, and I allowed it because I didn’t have anyone else. I resented that the relationships were one-sided and often prayed that God would make me more loving and patient. I used to feel like a freaking magnet for one-sided relationships because there have been so many.

    Nowadays, I am better at setting limits, practicing healthy detachment, and speaking up for myself. I know now that trying to see someone else’s perspective in a conflict doesn’t mean my perspective doesn’t matter.

  • KarenH

    Maybe it’s a social construct that “offering a warm beverage” in such cases came to be, but maybe it came to be because not everyone in distress needs people to talk to them–they just need something warm and comfy and a friend who cares enough to give it to them and then just listen.

    For years, I’ve felt inadequate in the face of other people’s distress and have often turned to “tea?” when I simply didn’t know what else to do. And then sat there with them. And then one time, my distressed friend turned to me and said, “You are so wonderful; you always know that I don’t want a sermon, I just want a good friend to sit with me.”

    Uh…… I did tell her at a later time that tea and silence was my automatic, “I have no idea what to do next” reaction. She laughed and said I had good instincts.

    I’m glad you had Handsome to refute the person who truly was mean and didn’t care. (Because, yeah, telling you that was really mean.)

  • Stefanie Musser

    But isn’t it funny that at the same time people always say stuff like: I just know in my heart that it’s a sin.
    I was talking one time with a more conservative friend about my support for marriage inequality and she just told me that she knew it was a sin. I asked her how and she said: Well I just know in my heart that it is a sin. And I was thinking, well you can’t really trust your heart now can you.
    I know this is very different from what Samantha writes in her post, but for me it kinda just shows that you can twist it however you like.
    You want to tell someone they can’t follow what they want to do tell them their heart is deceiving them.
    You want to tell someone what’s a sin, but you don’t have any proof…well you just know in your heart that it’s a sin.
    Come on people pick one.

  • snosnap

    This is spot-on with all that I learned in a similar not-quite-as-fundamentalist-but-close-enough culture from years of church teaching, retreats, studies, books, and and Bible commentaries – which strongly support that we can’t really trust our mind, emotions, or really any decision-making mechanism at all that most people consider to be normal. Thanks Samantha for giving words to something that’s so difficult to pin down, like trying to tack jello to a wall.

  • YES YES YES.

    I actually wrote a series on how I had to learn to feel every emotion all over again. Because they were all evil, apparently. http://eleanorskelton.com/2014/09/22/emotional-hypothermia-part-1-the-heart-is-deceitful/

    “It wasn’t until I became an adult and started going through individuation at a much later age than is typical that I started having problems with this collected bag of teachings.” YUP. Which sucks. Because everyone else has figured it out more so by our age, or at least it seems. Meh.
    I also find it amusing that PCC hates Liberty so much, because my A Beka 7th grade world history video teacher Mr. Duby is now a professor at Liberty. 😛

    TL;DR: I identify with this so much. It’s hard, learning that you aren’t 1) evil 2) stupid 3) unworthy of love and then not revert back to the old perspective.

  • Trevel

    The interpretation I learned was more of a “feelings are impermanent, stand by REASON.” So instead of doubting all my choices I just ended up avoiding all feeling. I suppose it’s nice to know that there are other ways that verse damaged people? It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve stopped joking that I had no emotions.

    Might have been helpful if Jeremiah had written “The JerkBrain is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” instead — that would actually have been helpful advice for me in the past few years. Although, I think from context, Jeremiah was actually talking about how other people can trick you — verse ten talks about how The Lord knows hearts, and will judge people, and then verse eleven is talking about people getting rich unjustly. I don’t think it’s a passage about doubting yourself; it’s a passage about not knowing OTHER people’s hearts.

    (“Will ___ make a good leader? I don’t know — the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”)

    Also, I never know what other people are feeling — it’s possible that I’m incapable of it. Thank goodness my implied marital contract includes “neither partner is responsible for knowing what the other person is feeling or thinking unless it is explicitly brought to their attention.” I can understand, though, how for a person who CAN do that, they WOULD be mean if they didn’t bother — it just never occurs to them that other people can’t. We just don’t often take personality differences into account — perhaps a little better at it when it’s a named condition, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were beaten for being left-handed, because they just weren’t trying hard enough to use their right hand. Sigh. Humans.