Have you ever talked to somebody who tells you one thing but tells someone else something entirely different? We call such a person two-faced and we don’t generally like or trust somebody like that. Mitt Romney very famously “flip-flopped” his way right out of the running for the White House, sometimes reversing a position during the same sentence. And when I was a Christian, my god seemed to do the same thing all the time to me.
Last time we talked here, we focused more on denominational differences and large movements. Today I want to focus on how people can construct opinions based on their own personal subjective experiences of the divine and a few times I ran into this problem personally. I figured this post might be long so I wanted to break ’em up a little, so here we go:
When I first became a Pentecostal (after a long journey through Catholicism to Southern Baptists to the UPC, for the newcomers, and btw, welcome to you!), that denomination was my first brush with a “holiness” church. “Holiness” is Christianese for a strict dress and behavior code. Holiness church ladies don’t cut their hair (though ladies of color wore the most amazing hats to the Sunday night services and nobody said boo to them about it) or wear makeup, and their clothes are “modest,” which means generally calf-length skirts and no pants, no low-cut or revealing blouses, no short sleeves, and a host of other shifting standards. These churches think that a woman can be devalued or sexualized by what she wears, so ironically, while claiming that “holiness” elevates and de-sexualizes women, they devalue and sexualize her to the point where she must be as inoffensive as possible to all the men of the church, who regard themselves as ravening beasts who might just, if tempted too much, drag an immodestly-dressed woman off into a hallway and rape her mid-service, and if that happens, it is her fault for making him “stumble.” (Some churches might add a mealy-mouthed “mostly” to that fault assignment, but I don’t think anybody would be fooled at all.) Holiness also involved not going to movies, drinking, or doing “worldly” things, but for the most part, it manifested among the Christians I knew as a serious obsession with women’s bodies.
But “holiness” was presented to me as something that was an inborn “conviction,” which is Christianese for being convinced that your god wants you to feel a certain way or do something particular. It was assumed that all of these ladies at the church dressed that way and did their hair that way because they had gotten “convicted” of the necessity for doing it–not because the church itself really wanted them to do it, of course, or because the culture itself really frowned upon anybody who didn’t do it. No no, they had freely chosen to dress like they were in the late 1950s or earlier and do their hair in profoundly unflattering ways and skip obvious makeup because they’d been convicted that they should.
I didn’t feel that conviction. So I didn’t dress that way or do my hair that way or stop wearing makeup. It was the late-1980s, which was a great time to be a teenager who liked being in fashion, and I really liked the way I dressed, did my hair, and wore makeup. I loved all that girlie stuff.
This drove the church elders crazy, apparently, because one of them finally told me, a couple weeks after my re-baptism (the first couple–one as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, the next in a Southern Baptist Church–hadn’t taken, you see, so I’d chosen to do it again just in case), “I’m praying that God convicts you about how you dress.”
I looked down at myself. I wasn’t wearing anything immodest. Nobody’d told me I couldn’t wear certain things to church. I realized right then that all that fidgeting around me had happened for a reason; they were all genuinely twitching about the idea that I hadn’t been “convicted” about my clothing. Our god was supposed to “convict” me into dressing just like all the other ladies. I was making people really uncomfortable because I seemed absolutely immune to this “conviction.” The elder hinted that I might be in rebellion or have a hard heart, which is one of the worst accusations you can fling at a Pentecostal woman short of calling her Jezebel; he suggested I pray more and study the Bible about it.
I told him I had indeed totally prayed about it, which–trust me–I totally had, and our god hadn’t said anything to me about how I dressed. Curiously, the topic hadn’t even once come up in our discussions or in the Bible studies I’d conducted as assigned regarding the subject.
The elder said that I should pray and study more. He looked a little distressed when he said it.
See what was happening here? He was convinced that his god would of course tell all women to dress a certain way, but that god was telling me something else entirely: that what I wore was immaterial to my heart and soul. But social censure was another matter, and shortly thereafter I began to wear the Pentecostal Burkha. You can bet that people exulted over their god “convicting” yet another woman to dress “modestly.” But I knew the truth. I did it with as glad a heart as one could, telling myself that I was being obedient to my elders and maybe these older, more mature Christians knew something I didn’t as a new convert, but it always bugged me that I’d prayed and studied so much and hadn’t been “told” the same things the elders had.
That was only the first time I noticed that my god was telling people totally different things, and it sure was not the last, though it’s important to note that I didn’t take especial note of these perceptions at the time (many of these memories I’m about to impart to you came from the journal I kept at the time, where my innocent contemporary observations took on ominous import when viewed years later). Especially as touching women’s rights and liberties, our god seemed to tell all sorts of people all sorts of things. And especially as touching people’s lives, what they should do, how they should live, who they should love, this god seemed to tell people whatever the hell they wanted to hear to get them to keep believing in him–sorta like a two-faced politician, really.
When Biff and I got married, I had a terrifying brush with precisely this inconsistency.
The night before my wedding, I got a phone call from a guy at church who I thought of as a friend–more Biff’s friend, really, but still a friend. Big David (there was also a Little David at our church, of course) and I had hung out in Youth Group from time to time and served on choir together (the church put him in the very back because while he was very enthusiastic, he couldn’t hold a note in a bucket). This was a couple of years before he ran off to that Waco cult down the road from David Koresh’s cult, but already I saw threads of extremism and weirdness in how my friend saw religion. At the time, though, he was one of the church’s rising stars; a recent convert like me, he’d come in shortly after the 1988 Rapture scare that’d converted me and had quickly impressed everybody with his profound fervor and deep desire to live for Jesus. He was cute, too, in a gangly farmboy kind of way, with amazingly, shockingly handsome and intense blue eyes and a shock of black hair that never seemed to lay right, and a raft of freckles across his nose. His innocent, boyish demeanor made that evening even more of a nightmare.
His voice shook on the phone call as he explained that he had to stop me. He couldn’t let me get married to Biff. The hilarious part was I was actually in Biff’s dorm room at the time; he’d called my dorm room, been told where I was by my roommate, and had called Biff to talk to me. Biff was sitting right next to me. Since David knew he was calling Biff’s dorm room, he absolutely had to think that Biff would be somewhere close by, which unnerved me completely. “David, what are you talking about?” I asked, my voice low and shaking; Biff had been goofing around with something he was drawing, but I remember him turning slowly as he heard the alarm that must have been obvious in my words.
Big David told me that he’d been praying for a year now for our god to “convict” me about marrying Biff. He was convinced that our god had promised me to him, not Biff, as a wife. I was meant to marry him, not Biff. But I had somehow not broken off the marriage like our god had promised Big David I would, and worse, had not gotten the clue that Big David thought he was in love with me. I can tell you that up until then, I hadn’t even thought of him in a sexual way; he was quite possibly about the least sexual adult in that church and it was astonishing to think of him having a crush on anybody, much less wanting to marry anybody. He’d tried to show me the depth of his devotion, but apparently demons had stopped me from seeing the truth. Apparently he and I had even at some point prayed together about my wedding, which I hadn’t remembered, and I’d come out of it convinced that I was supposed to marry Biff, which had utterly dismayed him.
What Big David did not know is that I had actually tried to break the engagement about a week previously, and Biff had convinced me that our god really truly meant for us to be married. But at that time, I hadn’t even gotten a whiff of our god’s voice telling me that I really should be looking at Big David instead.
At this point, I had a real problem on my hands.
Now, our god could not possibly be telling all three of us the truth here. Either I was meant to marry Big David or I was meant to marry Biff. Secretly, I didn’t think I was supposed to marry anybody; I wasn’t actually very enthused about getting married at all, but everybody around me, from the pastor and our denomination’s top leaders down to the cute tiny blonde child who was locally famous for speaking in tongues at three years old and who was set to be our flower girl, was totally convinced that it was our god’s will that I marry Biff, and I felt quite trapped.
But Big David was scaring the shit out of me, so I made a command decision right then and told him that he must have been hearing our god wrong, because I was positive that I was meant to marry Biff. Big David got increasingly agitated, eventually threatening to bust up the wedding if need be, and given that he was the son of a police officer, I had a sudden fear that he meant to do some violence to somebody. I told him I didn’t ever want to talk to him again, and that he needed to consider himself disinvited from the wedding. I warned him that the next call I made was going to be to the police. He settled down, withdrawing the threat, and that seemed to be that. I still remember Biff’s wide eyes as he realized, through hearing my end of the conversation, what Big David was raving about doing. We talked for about an hour as I tried to calm the overwrought young man.
I still called the police, who said they’d keep a good eye on the venue, and thankfully nothing happened; Big David stayed away, and after the wedding we maintained a careful distance for the rest of his time at that church. He did apologize for scaring me after he returned from the Waco cult. But it always rattled me that three different people could have come away from earnest, careful prayer with three totally different ideas that were diametrically opposed.
Biff, Big David, and I could not all be correct. One of us had to be wrong–or maybe all three of us were. There was no way I could marry both Big David and Biff, or not marry either, and them both be right as well. So which of us wasn’t really hearing our god’s voice accurately, and how could anybody tell who was and who wasn’t? By what objective means could I be sure that any of us were right? “Just pray real hard and study the Bible” never seemed to reconcile everybody completely. How could the same god be telling so many different people so many different, irreconcilable things?
It didn’t end with the wedding, of course; Biff spent our entire marriage convinced we were going to have at least a couple of children, when I had told him for our entire association (a 3-year-long engagement, and a 5-year-long marriage) that I was not ever having children; that’s actually why I’d tried to break the engagement–because I’d realized what a mistake it was to marry someone who wanted children. That night he told me that our god had told him to put that desire “on the altar,” but he was lying through his teeth yet again; he just meant he was going to pray lots and lots and lots for our god to change my mind. He was very open about telling me at any opportunity that our god had told him that I would change my mind. Church elders and friends also told me constantly that a woman’s duty is to bear her husband children; I even heard that my body was designed by that god to have children and so therefore I had to do it (it was designed to go into shock, too, but that doesn’t mean we just let it happen!). But I’d prayed lots and lots and lots too, and I was totally convinced that our god was perfectly okay with me being childfree because the purpose he’d assigned me (which I hadn’t identified quite yet but which I was sure I’d learn one day) precluded having kids anyway. Biff eventually took things into his own hands by committing contraceptive sabotage to try to force the issue, as about half of all abusive male partners do to their female victims, but thankfully, it didn’t work because by then I’d learned well that I’d married a sneaky, abusive, lying bastard. But it always bothered me enormously that our god was apparently telling him and the rest of our church one thing and me another entirely. I could write off Biff’s insistence that he was positive he was hearing from our god, but the whole rest of the church? How could that be?
If you think this observation was restricted to just me and my immediate circle, I was noticing it as well in politics (when our politicians didn’t win after our god had told oodles of us they would), in divine healing (when people insisted that their god had promised a healing, but the target died horribly anyway), and in simple numbers (a revival that didn’t result in the huge influx of newcomers that our god had promised everybody; a witnessing target who steadfastly refused to convert despite telling us to expect a conversion; a cultural revolution that somehow didn’t emerge even though we’d all gotten “words of the Spirit” that it would).
I was coming to the very uncomfortable realization that maybe all of our prayers had been subjective, and maybe we were all hearing what we wanted to hear or thought we should hear. Maybe there either was no divine voice telling people what to do, or else we were hopelessly inept at hearing or interpreting it. It did not help that my church–like many I’ve heard about since–taught that sometimes “our flesh” tells people things, and so do demons. They teach that “discernment” is needed to sift what is really from their god and what’s from just our own desires or evil influences masquerading as our god.
But we also called our god “Father” and insisted that all sheep know the shepherd’s voice. I mean, I haven’t talked to my dad in a long long time (lonnnng story and irrelevant here), but I assure you I’d know his voice out of a million; hell, when my biological father located me when I was 22, I hadn’t heard his voice in 15 years but I still knew exactly who he was when he called. And I could be in the middle of a mob and know my dead mother’s Baltimore-accented voice. And, too, if my mom or dad had ever found out some asshat was impersonating them to do me wrong, either one of them would have acted definitively to put a stop to it. So why did Christians seem to have so much demonstrable trouble figuring out what their god really was saying? Why did their god let demons or “the flesh” impersonate his words so easily and well? Why did we need so much education in how to have “discernment?”
If we had that much trouble hearing and interpreting what our god said to us in prayer, then how could we be sure anything we did was really what that god wanted?
The effect of this uncertainty on me was dramatic: I really had a lot of trouble trusting myself or my own judgement in interpreting what I thought I heard from my god. I ended up relying upon the judgement of people I trusted or who were already in authority over me, like my pastor or my husband. While convinced that I was talking to a god every moment of my day just about and hearing back from him, I actually, in reality, had no earthly clue if any given thing I was hearing was him, me, or demons–even something that seemed in keeping with the Bible might not really be from my god. When I left the religion, it was super-hard to learn how to make my own decisions; I tended to totally freeze when presented with hard-to-answer questions, or make snap precipitous decisions that weren’t well thought-out.
What makes this whole topic even more painful to me is that if you’d asked me, while I was a firm Christian, this exact question of why it seemed so difficult to hear that god’s voice, you can bet that I’d have had a very ready answer for you that I at the time thought I believed with all my heart. I’d have been able to lay out the conditions under which one can be more certain of what one is receiving during prayer; I’d have been able to explain all the tricky ins and outs of how to tell “fleshly” feelings from divine ones. And all those words would still have come down to nothing objective at all. It was not until deconverting that I began to see just how one-sided my “relationship” was and just how impersonal my “personal” god was. It wasn’t until I left the religion that I realized that I very likely had not once contacted any supernatural entity at all and that all of the things I’d thought “god” had told me were just stuff I’d thought of myself.
The Christians who think their god talks to them often try to turn this imagined communication into one of the “facts” they use to bolster their faith, just like I once did, and they even frequently use it to try to convince outsiders of the validity of their religion, and the terrible part is that this facet of prayer is absolutely not a fact at all because there is absolutely, positively no way to tell if someone is just imagining a god’s voice, hearing it, or hearing some other supernatural voice entirely–especially when two sincere, zealous, heartfelt, genuinely faithful Christians are hearing two completely, utterly, wildly contradictory things from what they think is the same god. They cannot both be right about what they’re hearing. But they could both be wrong.
So I understand if what I’m saying here makes Christians bristle. I’m not attacking anybody’s religion, just that element of it that makes some (not all) Christians think they’re hearing divine words when they aren’t and encourages them to use those imagined words to try to control or mistreat other folks. I don’t really care what someone thinks he or she hears, as long as it is not presented as some kind of fact that requires me to listen or change my views, and until this communication is proven and demonstrated to be a fact, it cannot be considered one. Until you’re through the other side, you might not be able to understand that the powerful but subjective feeling you get while praying isn’t actually objectively real communication, and I get that, and that’s okay. It was hard for me to see it while I was in the middle of it too. What I wish Christians would take from what I’m writing here is that I wish they had, as a group, a little more humility about recognizing that they may not actually be quite as in-tune with their god as they think they are, which makes their extremist elements’ efforts to dominate other people doubly obscene.
Not long after the Waco confrontation, Biff began hearing that our god wanted us to move to Japan to teach English. Apparently our god had laid it all out for him: we were going to get rich, spread the Good News to those heathen Japanese, and build a horse ranch on Hokkaido, the northern island of the country. I had not gotten any similar news from our god, though this might have been because I was just about done with my deconversion, but I took his word for it and we went to Japan. We’ll talk about that next time, because living in Japan was a pretty eye-opening experience for me. Buckle your seatbelts, since there might be turbulence!
A Related Postscript:
* If you are a fervent religious type and think that you really are hearing from an honest-to-goodness supernatural being in your prayers and you’re upset about what I’ve said, instead of protesting that you think I’m totally wrong, save your breath, read the RoE in the blog header, and then go win a million bucks by proving it. If you don’t need the money, I bet somebody or some group you know of does.