What did change?
Even though I stuck with what I was calling my “Core Beliefs,” I was more willing to consider and question much of what I’d taken for granted for so long.
That will come into play heavily as the story nears the deconversion point.
One of the most poisonous doctrines in evangelical theology is the worthlessness and powerlessness of the individual.
You can do nothing in your own strength.
Your righteousness is as filthy rags.
You brought nothing to the table when you came to Christ.
To live is Christ, to die is gain.
You deserve eternal punishment from the moment you were born a fallen being.
Left to yourself, you are incapable of doing good.
If you manage to do good, but don’t do it in the power of the Holy Spirit and for His purposes, it counts for nothing.
If you accept praise for your good deeds here on earth, then they don’t even count in heaven.
You get the picture. Christians everywhere can explain their way around these doctrines for hours, even days, but the bottom line is always the same. You are nothing without YHWH/Jesus. Nothing.
Where this really takes hold is in the way you deal with sin in your Christian life. So many Christians live a vicious cycle of failure/repentance/recommittment/initial victory/failure/repeat throughout their existence, some for things that we’d probably all agree are not good, and for things that are innocuous but god decided they’re bad: gossip, swearing, fornication, masturbation, porn, cheating on your taxes, lying, stealing office supplies from work, yelling at your wife and kids, or anything else you can think of.
I struggled throughout my time as a Christian. Anger and swearing were biggies for me. Man, did I ever flagellate myself for ages over outbursts. I would pray, read from Romans (chapters 5-8) over and over again, confess to my small men’s group, recommit myself to better behavior, even read a Christian book on the subject, give it over to God, step out in faith, etc. It was such a trying burden, and even now, remembering how that cycle of self-immolation felt, I get very emotional. Years of running myself down, destroying myself and reinforcing my worthlessness, begging God to make it change, to give me strength.
In April of 2011, there was a traffic incident that, while I didn’t legally cause it, I could have avoided if I’d only kept my anger in check. The details aren’t important, and nobody was seriously hurt (the only person who was hurt at all, one of the stoners in the other car, actually popped the IV and escaped from the hospital rather than get her blood taken.) But the fact remained that I had my whole family in the car, and if I’d kept my cool, we’d have been nowhere near the other people, and there would not have been an opportunity for an accident.
T was done. She told me in no uncertain terms that, having grown up with an extremely angry father, she was not going to live with that anger for the rest of her life. She had no intention of leaving me at the time, she made clear, but I knew that if I didn’t make real change, I would find that option on the table.
So there I was. Probably my biggest issue, my biggest problem, and I had no choice anymore. I had to fix it.
My first plan of action was to pray, read Romans again, and maybe find a Christian book on anger. And as soon as I did, I was gripped with fear. I said, maybe even aloud, to myself, that this same pattern had never worked. It never worked in 26 fucking years. My thought was maybe I should try a more secular, psychological route. I could bring my religion back into it either, but maybe the cookie cutter pray/read solution wasn’t the best.
Still, I wasn’t ready to call a psychologist quite yet. So I looked for books on anger from another perspective.
The first book I found was called Beyond Anger, a secular, psychological approach aimed at men. In the first chapter, it claimed to describe me – a dysfunctional family, a broken man, a failure at jobs and at life because of my anger. Well, that wasn’t the case at all. I have a very successful career, have been a community leader for years, have a pretty decent family life, a wife who loves and respects me – it just didn’t sound like me at all. I even wrote to the author, who shot back that I was just in denial, so I gave up on that one and went searching for another.
One book that piqued my interest had for its title a contender for the weirdest book title ever: The Cow in the Parking Lot. It promised a Zen approach to managing and overcoming anger issues. I was intrigued, but religiously skeptical. It seemed heretical to take another religious approach. Seemed? It was. But it promised:
Using simple Buddhist principles and applying them in a way that is easy for non-Buddhists to understand and put into practice, Scheff and Edmiston have created an interactive book that helps readers change perspective, step by step, so that they can replace the anger in their lives with a newfound happiness.
The book emphasized the philosophical nature of Buddhism, and promised that the principles being taught wouldn’t interfere with the reader’s practice of their chosen religion.
At this point it was worth the shot, and I read it. It was a revelation to me, really. It wasn’t the end-all and the final fix. I did eventually go to therapy for a couple of years and dug down deeper into the source and reasons for my anger (in fact, I might even go back to the other book, just to see if there’s more in there that I missed because I wasn’t ready for it.)
The gist of the book is that we get angry because rather than seeing and accepting the world as it is, we get attached to the way we wish it was. We develop unreasonable expectations, then react in anger when they go unmet.
It was the first time I’d really accessed reasons for my anger that rang true, that I could actually see in my own thinking and my own emotional reactions. The book also gave very basic instruction on meditating, to clear the mind. I was really focused on keeping this Christ-centered, so I decided to meditate on particular scriptures, especially ones that I could find that focused on kindness and compassion for others. I had a couple of early brushes with Thomas Merton’s writings in my 20’s, and thought maybe that would be a good model to keep my approach strictly Christian.
It was actually some beautiful reading, and I still have a couple of his books.
But here was something that I felt was working for me, providing me some light at the end of the tunnel. In hindsight it was only a start, but I thought it was a good one.
So I bought a basic mat and cushion and put it in my office and started meditating twice a day. I started by finding a scripture to read on and think on, then clear my mind of everything, trying to shift to a mindset that would allow me to see and accept things as they are and start to put away my unreasonable expectations.
By the time we got to the end of June, it was working for me in some areas, not so much in others, but it was a start. But in all that time, I hadn’t told one person in my circle of Christian friends what I was up to. I couldn’t. I was afraid I’d end up in front of the elders and branded a heretic or somesuch.
I struggled with that for days, and eventually realized I had two choices. One, I could give up the meditation and the Zen philosophy. Two, I could tell my pastor and friends the truth and hope they’d understand.
Well, the second option wasn’t going to happen. It would have caused a shit storm, which I didn’t want.
And the thought of giving up the meditation was frightening. Could I really go back to that vicious cycle and give up the first thing that even had a hope of working for me?
And right there it hit me. Why wouldn’t the faith that I’d believed for 26 years work for me while this non-Christian philosophy did? How could that be? Could I be believing the wrong thing?
It sounded like my doubts about my marriage? Why when we were unequally yoked, was our relationship better than it had been when we both believed?
Right there, like an avalanche, all the doubts I’d ever had about the whole thing came crashing down on me.
I had a decision to make. My decision was that I was going to face very doubt I had and not come up for air until I found an answer.