A Brief Review
In the last post, I talked about how when it came to dating, the church taught people that if (subtext: “and only if”) they kept themselves pure then God would bless them with an awesome marriage. Unfortunately,very few relationships happened the way they described it. The stories they shared, the stories that got air time? Those were exceptions that were carefully selected in order to support the narrative they were preaching.
The fact of the matter is:
A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.1
We never got to hear the stories of couples who had sex before they were married and still wound up with thriving, healthy relationships. On the flip side, we never got to hear stories (like mine) of people who had remained pure and ended up losing desire altogether. In fact, for some couples, even after getting married, they still found sex to be problematic because of the desire-denying teachings of purity culture.
And when it came to tithing, we were taught that if we tithed then God would bless.
But we never got to hear the stories of people who stepped out in faith, tithed when they couldn’t afford to, and then wound up going into debt. Those stories never made it into sermon illustrations.
[Don’t] Ask [Difficult] Questions
It took me a long time to see this pattern, primarily because questioning the obedience/faith/reward narrative meant questioning (their interpretation of) the Bible which meant questioning (their understanding of) God which meant I was a bad Christian (in their eyes). And really, there was no room to question because the only stories that got shared were ones that fit the narrative – those people who did A, B, and C and as a result saw God do X, Y, and Z. We never heard the stories of people who did A, B, and C but didn’t see God doing anything so they kept pressing on to do D, E, and F. And when they talked to their pastor about why God wasn’t showing up, maybe they were encouraged to try G, H, and I (or to go back to A, B, and C only with more gusto and sincerity).
In short, we never heard the stories of people for whom X, Y, and Z never happened – the stories of people (like me) who did all the right things in regards to dating (not lusting, not dating, etc.) and still wound up single, or people who faithfully tithed even when they couldn’t afford to and then wound up bankrupt (financially and spiritually).
And we probably never heard these stories because the people who were living them eventually stopped going to church. Or at best, they never got the chance to share.
The Lottery Cycle
And here’s the most insidious bit. The pastors who preached this formulaic version of Christianity? Many times they were also people for whom the formula had worked, Sometimes the fact that God came through for them was a large part of the reason they chose to become pastors – so they could show people how awesome (their view/understanding of) God was.
Because if it had worked for them so well, why wouldn’t they want to help others to experience the same?
And then this creates an unfortunate cycle. The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.
And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.
And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.
These people? The ones who stay, who remain faithful to the teachings and yet continue to await blessings? I was one of them for far too long. And all these years later, I’ve met with many friends who were also faithful and waiting. Many of them don’t go to church anymore. Some of them don’t believe in God anymore – and why should they? Can you blame them?
Me? To be honest, I think I’d say that I still believe in God, but barely.
And why do I believe? And what sort of God do I believe in, if not this transactional God-machine/lotery?
I’ll get to that in the next post.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you resonate with any of this, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.