Interpretations of God come in many forms. The deities of Islam or Hinduism. The tenets of Buddha or Confucius. Gods found in nature, science, or the cosmos. Or the modern gods of fame, money, and power.

Even in Christian tradition, the way we see the divine is varied. The Santa Claus god who only reserves wonderful gifts for those who are good enough. The genie god who grants wishes whispered in bedtime prayers. The vindictive god poised to punish sinful deeds. The old man in the sky who watches earthlings from afar. The taskmaster who controls every terrestrial event from hurricanes in the Caribbean to traffic lights that miraculously turn green as you approach. The indifferent god who created the whole universe then washed his hands clean of our existence, leaving us to fend for ourselves. The Dr Feelgood god who is ultimately powerless but will sooth your soul and make you feel alright.

There are Christians who believe in and worship one (or some combination) of these versions of God. This smorgasbord of godly variation allows believers to pick and choose a way of seeing the supernatural in a way that makes them most comfortable. The abundance and diversity in how Christians explain the divine also inspires the opposite of faith. Atheists see these descriptions from their Christian friends, coworkers, and neighbors. They are unable to believe in that kind of god so they believe in no God at all.

If my childhood church preached the gospel of Santa or taught me to pray to a genie in a bottle, I probably wouldn’t believe in God. Nor would I continue to follow a religion if I believed our creator was some punishing tyrant waiting to smite me the moment I make a mistake. I would have abandoned any faith community who encouraged me to worship a distant and aloof god.

Instead, the small Nazarene church my family attended taught me about a God who loved me. It was ingrained through preschool praise choruses: ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ This sentiment was echoed in sermons, Sunday school classes, and midweek youth group meetings throughout the first nineteen years of my life. My peers at church all knew the words of 1 John 4:8: “God is Love.”

I am thankful for the pastors, teachers, and youth leaders of my younger years from the church in Marysville who imprinted this version of a loving God in my psyche. I still believe in THIS God, perhaps now more than ever. I am grateful they taught me about a God who loved me. However, I wish they had also taught me that it was OK to love myself.

The conservative evangelical community of the 80s and 90s was a weird place. The church was caught in a culture war, mostly in a defensive strategy. They were reactionary, hoping to combat the excesses of brat pack movies; glam metal; new wave pop; and the overt sexuality of artists like Madonna, George Michael, and Prince. They were fighting to overcome the scandals of Bill Clinton; the anger and cynicism of grunge music; and the profanity, drugs, and violence of gansta rap and inner city culture. The Christian church that raised me saw evil and hedonism in every corner of secular society. Their reaction was to condemn and forbid all of it. If any of us were to indulge in watching a R rated movie or attending a school dance, it was thought we had gone astray and needed to repent immediately.

There was a consistent message: anything you liked was bad. Your interests were sinful. Without God, you were a horrible human being. You existed in total depravity. But God was good, and God loved you. It was OK to stumble because God would always forgive you. Even mired in sin, we were God’s beloved.

To avoid falling into Satan’s snare, evangelical culture promoted humility as the most important quality. It was as if a humble spirit was a balm to heal the scars left by our sinful past and the bruises of present temptations. We shouldn’t give credence to Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech or abide by the chorus of Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunity, “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.” We were told to sit down. Be humble.

image courtesy of Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records

Humility, like many of the values in my childhood church, was a biblical concept governed by non-biblical rules. For example, the bible prohibits drunkenness but not drinking alcohol. To prevent drunkenness, my church condemned any consumption of alcohol, even if done in moderation. Pride is biblically immoral, with a scriptural call to humility to be the counterbalance. However, my church took the command to be humble to extremes.

In conservative evangelical culture through the 80s and 90s, humility was achieved through radical rejection of self esteem. Jesus told his followers “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” and church leaders interpreted the denial of self to mean a hatred of self. Asking for stuff you want, saying you needed something, or pleading for help was considered selfish, and therefore sinful. Nothing about it was genuine. It was a self-loathing faux humility, smug and self-righteous. We could have ended arguments by yelling “I’m more humble than you.”

As an adult, these childhood lessons of humility have manifested in my self-deprecating sense of humor and my defeatist coping mechanisms. Even today, I struggle to express my wants and needs. I’m practically incapable of speaking my deepest desires. It’s physically painful to admit when I need help. I can’t explain how completely dysfunctional that makes me feel. In prayer, I still find myself approaching God with that same fake humility a whole generation of pastors and Sunday school teachers taught me to possess. I have no problem praying for other people but struggle to pray for me.

My childhood beliefs are slowly coming undone. I’m unlearning all of those supposedly Christian teachings that had no basis in scripture. I’m deconstructing all the damage done by unhealthy religious dogma. I’m discovering what it means to love myself and be humble at the same time. And I’m clinging to the concept of a God who loves me, even when I mess up the balance between ego and humility.

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