Lots of helpful thoughts in these pages.
Chapter 2: Finding Shalom
Carol Howard Merritt’s main point in this chapter is that spiritual problems need spiritual solutions. This makes sense at face value, but becomes difficult to implement because it requires that people who have religious trauma engage with religion–in a new way, of course, and a way that brings healing, but they still must return to the place that has caused their deepest pain.
Such a plan can feel ridiculous to the one who needs healing. As Merritt tried to find religious solutions to her spiritual problems, she asked herself, “Was I like an assaulted spouse who remained inexplicably bound in a relationship that caused brutal pain?” (pg. 26). I myself asked my therapist a very similar question: “Do I still go to church because I have some weird religious version of Stockholm Syndrome? Can I just never be free of my captor?” It’s complicated.
Although this chapter is rushed and sometimes disregards other viewpoints (like Jewish orthodoxy), I mostly agree with Merritt here. This entire blog was born out of my desire to finally make peace–find shalom–with my fundagelical past within a religious present. I have given so much thought to just walking away from the whole Christian thing and starting fresh, but for my own reasons I know I have to stay here and wrestle with it. I want to stay. I want my spiritual problems to find spiritual solutions.
Chapter 3: Healing Our Image of God
In this chapter, Merritt encourages the reader to separate God’s identity from one’s experience of being wounded. It also has my favorite quote thus far:
Every time we talk about God, we attempt to know the unknowable. So if experiencing God means we might stray from the dogmas of dead white men, I suppose I could be okay with that, especially since [a man needing healing] was returning to such an important realization: God is love.
Merritt also offers a very creative interpretation of Matthew 7:13-14, the passage every evangelical knows as the admonition to “enter through the narrow gate…for wide is the gate and easy is the road that leads to destruction” etc. In my life, and Merritt’s, this verse has been used to show that you must live perfectly or close to it in order to “go to heaven” when you die. It’s a verse that instills fear, suspicion, self-doubt, and shame. These are not the hallmarks of the presence of a loving God, but fundamentalist and evangelical pastors don’t really care.
Merritt’s interpretation of this verse is that it is easy to use religion for destruction, and it is hard to use religion in the way it was intended: to create life. She writes, “I had to find the narrow gate and some sort of life-giving message. I had to find new paths that lead to a more compassionate faith.” (pg. 54).
The wake-up call for me, as it has been for so many others who have left conservative Christianity, was when I realized that my religious beliefs were killing me instead of giving me new life. When I walked away from my old church, and my old husband, it was with the shaky understanding that I could stay there and die (perhaps literally) or leave and stay alive. It was definitely a Huck Finn “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” moment.
Beyond that, some of us realized that our religious beliefs required that we deny abundant life to others, which of course cannot be sanctioned by a God who creates and sustains life. Sometimes we leave for ourselves and sometimes in solidarity with others, but all of us seek the narrow road that leads to life.
Chapter 4: Recovering Our Emotions
This chapter confronts the tendency of evangelicals to deny the existence of their anger or pain. Merritt writes, “God gave us our full, rich interior life, so it must be okay to inhabit every room of it.” (pg 68). This is a topic I incorporated into my college lectures regularly, particularly when it came time to study the psalms. Many evangelicals believe that to experience (and–God forbid–express) negative emotions, like anger, despair, depression, or vengeance, is to sin. This theology makes sense if God always wants people to joyfully do the right thing, or to cheerfully turn the other cheek, or to praise God happily in all situations. But that is not what God wants–God wants honesty, truth, and healing.
God wants people to do the right thing, or go the extra mile, or give praise, but not at the expense of honesty, and not half-heartedly. If God wants obedience, God wants it to be produced by wholeness and health. The existence of the psalms prove that. There is no need to clean up your emotions and put a pretty bow on your prayers like they’re some sort of mindless gift box at a department store–if you’re ticked off at God, tell God. If you’re disappointed in God, tell God. You’re still engaging in relationship with God through prayer–and isn’t that the whole point of religion anyway?
Emotional honesty, with myself and with God, began to open me up to a mutuality in relationship that I never knew was possible before. Now I disappoint God, and God disappoints me. I ignore God, and tell God it upsets me when God ignores me. I tell God when I don’t think God is being nearly as helpful as God had promised to be. This kind of praying hasn’t gotten me on the wrong end of a lightning bolt. Actually, it’s made me more aware than ever of God’s gentleness and faithfulness–even when I tell God exactly what’s going on down here, God doesn’t mind sticking around. Emotional honesty is making it easier than ever to believe that God actually is benevolent, wishing good things for me. And not just horrible, painful things that are “for my own good”, as the evangelical church used to teach me, but actual good things that help me heal.
Can you tell I’m enjoying this book?