I can still remember where I was standing and what the Sunday school classroom looked like when I was in third grade and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. Since then, I have been to a zillion Sunday school classes church services, Chapel meetings, and retreats. I have led women’s Bible Studies, volunteered at Vacation Bible School, sent my kids to Christian camps and on church mission trips, and visited churches in other states and countries.
The other day, I had posted a silly little picture of my fortune cookie. The cookie said, “Organize your life around your dreams and watch your dreams come true.” I received a response from someone I’ve known for a long time. It read, “No, sorry, that’s the world’s way but Christ says…”Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and He will do this.” Psalm 37:4-5.
The irony in receiving this message, especially from this particular friend, was especially poignant. Years earlier, I had listened to her in our weekly Bible Study as she emphatically voiced her loud disapproval of others. I would suddenly make myself scarce as it made me uncomfortable to hear the derision of Christians and non-Christians alike. At the time, I was faced with a struggle myself- actually two, each one being significant in my life. It was during this time that I had arrived at church one morning, hoping that I would find comfort in God. I had done all that I possibly knew to do – consulted with experts, researched, prayed tirelessly and sought fellowship. So there I stood in the middle of a cavernous church hall near the refreshment table amidst the chattering parishioners when the aforementioned “friend” approached me.
I had not wanted to come to church that morning in particular because my son, who at that time was the source of one of those struggles, had just gotten into trouble for something or other, of which I now cannot recall (At that time, the “incidents” were so plentiful that they ran together.) Regardless, the eyes and whispers which fell silent when I sat down in the PTA meetings or teacher back to school nights, felt like steel darts I could not escape. In those years, I couldn’t “join the girls for a margarita” or indulge in mom trips because I needed to be hands-on and adulting at all times. (The irony here is that I could have definitely used a drink – too bad I don’t like alcohol).
And so it was there in church, that my friend, the good Christian, walked over and stood with her hands on her hips, and exclaimed, “What ever are you going to do with your son?” Boy, as if I hadn’t asked myself and his father the same question 10,000 times. I had no. answer. I had come to church for those answers, or at least peace and comfort. As difficult as it had been to put myself together that morning -distraught, concerned, and sleepless from the night before – I forced myself to hold back the tears. I had been fighting battles behind closed doors that, by any standard, were unimaginable By now, I had grown a fairly thick skin, but apparently not thick enough. If I hadn’t learned to brace myself against the hushed murmurs of the Bible Study set years earlier, I might have dissolved into a heaping ocean of tears right there. Instead, I walked out of church… and didn’t return for at least a year.
I never told this friend what impact she made on me. After years of attending Sunday school and church as a child, teen, and adult, and then as a parent, I had come to a realization. My God is loving and inclusive, and His judgment at the end of my days is the only one that matters. I find it ironic that her version of Christianity is what sometimes gives Christians a bad name and yet I am sure her righteousness makes her feel closer to God. And while I think a lot about God and religion, and people’s hearts in general, I knew that God never failed me, it is the behavior of those who sometimes proclaim His name the loudest that disappoint me.
Many of my clients are devout Christians. One of the most sobering aspects of being a therapist has been bearing witness to the lasting impact and invisible mental devastation that religious shaming leaves behind, even decades later. Toxic shaming, judging and hypocrisy do not further the word of God or increase our value as Christians. How can we promote new ministries in far away countries in order to bring others closer to God and yet drive those away in our own backyard? How do we choose compassion over contempt? How do we open our hearts to God but close them to His creation? The wounds of toxic shame are deep and wide and their invisibility does not make them any less real. Just something to think about.