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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

learning the words: self-esteem

[art by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli]

Today’s guest post is from Rachel. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

A boy, about two years old, realized that his parents had left the house. It was a big house, so he wasn’t sure. He ran from room to room sobbing and bellowing out his fear, anger and frustration. I followed him to make sure he was safe, knowing that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had searched the whole house– he would keep crying with the abandon of a two-year-old until he got tired of it or was distracted. I’d seen it before. His crying didn’t offend me. My frustration was that his parents left without telling him so they could avoid dealing with this scene.

That day an adult who was respected in the Christian community I lived in also watched this scene unfolding. He made a comment about this little boy being “bad.” Although I was just a teenager I challenged this idea. He was just upset. How could that be bad? And the answer was only surprising in that it was applied to this particular situation. It was an argument I was very familiar with: we are all bad. Born with sin. Separated from God and incapable of pleasing Him. In short, on our own, we are worthless. Apparently, even a two-year-old who threw a fit when his needs weren’t met was evidence of this.

It was, I think, a fairly “mainstream” evangelical community, made up of members of a number of different denominations from a number of countries. They were missionaries – people who had fairly extensive training in biblical interpretation and who had committed their lives to reaching the “lost.” Although they tended to share the general evangelical suspicion of secular psychology, they generally had not written it off completely.

But the term “self-esteem” was sometimes criticized. Phrases like “We shouldn’t have self-esteem, we should have God-esteem” rattle around in my memory. When a counselor asked my teenaged self why I had poor self-esteem I was confused. Was there any other kind?

Whenever I hear someone criticize the concept of self-esteem I think: “Everyone has self-esteem. It has to do with our understanding of who we are. It just refers to the idea a person has about what they are worth. Healthy self-esteem is a realistic sense of worth. Unhealthy self-esteem is an unrealistic sense.” It doesn’t mean being proud or having an inflated sense of our abilities.

For a while it seemed pretty simple to me. As Christians, why shouldn’t we have not only a realistic sense of our worth, but even a positive one? After all, God thought that we were valuable enough to die for. He wanted to have a relationship with us. He made us his children. Lists of our identity in Christ just confirmed this idea to me.

But in spite (or because) of this complicated dance of “I no worth on my own but I great worth with God” I realize that I have spent most of my life feeling that I am falling short. Whatever God might think I’m worth, the “me” I deal with every day is still a raging two-year-old demanding to have my needs met. There is still a gray-haired man standing by declaring that I am bad. Maybe if I were healthier, more athletic, less emotional, more organized, or spent more time reading my Bible I would feel more worthy. Maybe I would actually be able to see myself the way that I have been taught that God sees me.

Or is the problem that this is a really muddled way of seeing the self? Do we really know ourselves in relation to how God sees us? Can that really be part of our everyday consciousness? My pastor, a wonderful man, often starts out his sermons saying, “I have nothing worthwhile to say. But I hope that God will speak through me.” This bothers me a little, since he is a man with skills and abilities. I feel that he should take some credit for the work he has done and the thoughts he has assembled.

For some people, maybe it’s all about being filled up and directed by God. But for me I suspect that there’s the spiritual reality I’ve been taught about, and then the physical reality I know from experience. The one where people evaluate me and give me grades. The one where I don’t keep my house clean and last autumn’s leaves are in the process of killing this spring’s grass… But I know that I’m a good cook. That I’m good at having empathy for people. I think I’m good at listening to my children. I desperately want to be good at helping them have a healthy sense of who they are.

So I don’t know what to do with the “We are all worthless sinners without the grace of God” mentality. I guess I start by saying that Jesus died for us before we made the decision, so our worth is not based on whether we get that part right. Because I look at my beautiful baby and I know that he is so much. That even if he never believes right or does right he is worth everything I pour into him. And I hear my five-year-old say “I’m really good at tracing” and I want him to hold on to that satisfaction. I want him to be comfortable with who he is – to feel that he is enough. I want him to know that striving is good, but it doesn’t give us worth. I want them both to know that having needs doesn’t make them bad.

I want self-esteem for my children to be about something other than fighting the sense that at their very core they are worthless sinners. Or even fighting to hold on to the idea that they are loved by God. I want them to have a sense of just themselves. I want them to stretch out in their skins and know that it’s acceptable for them to scream out their rage, to dance out their joys and to rest when they are done playing. I want self-esteem to be about knowing that they have a place in the world that they don’t have to earn. I want them to know they have a value they don’t have to prove.