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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