Preface – A Recent Reflection on the Framework of Thought and Faith in My Childhood
So I want to start this by saying, I have a faith, and it is tremendously important to me. It has been built, shaped, adjusted, destroyed, and rebuilt throughout my life. Anyone who believes that their framework for understanding themselves and God will last a lifetime, is either in for a road of great personal delusion and restriction of learning, or disappointment, pain, and disillusion. Recently I have finally found myself with enough distance to see how my early life faith framework impacted the development of my personality, and who I became as an adult. I will preface this with saying that I have at several points in my life served as the counselor/facilitator for others who were processing their own past and disappointments. My bag of tools for addressing these types of issues was pretty full, but it was not until recently that I was able to honestly acknowledge my experience.
My Childhood and Faith Seen as Performance
In the enneagram personality assessment, I am a 3, the achiever/performer. More specifically, I am the “self-preservationist 3”, which essentially means that my personality developed as a high-performing, pragmatist, jack-of-all trades approach, with an odd mix of self-depreciation and detachment from my feelings. People frequently come to me because I usually have a solution to just about any problem. I have a can-do attitude, and jump in to help because I genuinely care. A friend from my faith community recently shared a photo-copied section from a book on the self-preservationist 3. One particular line stood out to me: “People with this sub-type (self-preservationist 3) often had a childhood in which they didn’t have enough protection and resources”. In the past, I would have cut short this kind of thinking, honoring the amount of physical needs that were met in my childhood, but as I meditated on this, I realized that I did not have the emotional support I needed. I remembered about eight years of my childhood specifically where I felt very alone to navigate all the expectations of the world.
I was raised in a house where there were exceptionally limited ways to connect with my father. He is a performer in his own way, still reacting to his own childhood, being the strength and stability that his family never was for him. If I wanted my father’s respect, it came through achievement in education, sports, or religion. I was competitive in sports, but would never be better than middle of the pack. So somewhere around middle school, I gave up on sports mostly, and vested significantly in performing in education and religion. I feel bad for my classmates now in retrospect. I achieved in nearly every subject. At the end of the school year, I always walked home with a stack of achievement certificates. I was the king of nerds. In terms of religious achievement, I was on several committees, ministry teams, started several faith-based groups at school, and ultimately went to bible school and into inner-city ministry right out of college.
Unfortunately, I was “that guy” who could suck the air out of the room with a mix of zeal, and truth. I was not hiding some secret life of compromise, as many do. I really was living what I said. I just happened to have a really disciplined life, which was an indication of my unhealthy drive. Achievement was my disease, and it has been growth for me to allow myself to be rough around the edges, to be honest about my weakness.
Somewhere between elementary school and bible college, I came to believe that God was just like my dad. He (and of course God was a He in my mind, who I normally addressed as Father or heavenly father) had a perfect relationship in mind for me and Him, but I needed to perform. I needed to achieve. I needed to be productive and awesome. If I believed the right thing, lived the right way, and found the right plan for my life, it would be a life of amazing awesome spiritual outcomes (this is the part where you are supposed to hear an electric guitar solo peel away during an exceptionally moving praise song).
The Inevitable Collision of Expectations and a Rigid Doctrinal Theology (i.e. thought I knew it all)
Then around age 25 it all came crashing down around me. Life happened. My framework for understanding my own value and God no longer fit. I remember one particularly vivid point where I quite literally shook my fist in the air at a distant God who had caused me so much pain. Knives freshly in my back from a variety of spiritual performers and leaders, I could not understand how my life was turning out so poorly when the efforts had been so good, and I was so close to believing the right thing. I must have missed it somewhere. I was frantically searching for my blindspot where I did or believed the wrong thing.
I was confronted with a mental impasse, God had compelled my father to move us from our friends repeatedly, attending 12 different schools between elementary and high school. God had compelled me to go to Bible School to go into the ministry. God had let my whole world fall apart while I was sacrificing so much to perform. Or so I believed because the framework I had been given from my father, my childhood churches, through books and summer camps… they all said there was a perfect plan, a God-plan for my life, and if I was on the right path, I’d find myself doing great things.
Instead, I found myself abandoned, confused, broke, divorced, and injured in a car accident. Several spiritual leaders gave me a long list of things I should be doing, praying, and busying myself with to change the situation… and yet it happened. They had their ideas. I had the rubble of a life at my feet. I had no adequate words to express where I was at in life. Nothing had worked. I was ashamed. I felt like I was starting over, rebuilding my life, but looking at a pile of my broken life lying on the ground, thinking no one would want to share a life with this wrecked version of me. I was in debt. I had no degrees. I was overweight. I had no faith I could verbalize anymore. My car was totaled. I had been laid off in an office shutdown. My faith was tattered to a shred. Two things remained. Through months of tears, and loss, and getting back up again, I believed God is love, and God redeems. It was all I could hold on to. It was all that felt true in my core. To this day, it is the place I return. It is my compass, my hope.
Getting Up and A Newer, Flexible Faith – Finding my Center
I got up. Decided I needed to lean into hope and believe that God redeems the broken life. I finished one degree, then another. I paid off my debts. I took care of my body. I opened myself up to relationships, first fearing to acknowledge the rubble I was still sorting through, then realizing if someone could not accept the broken me, they were not accepting me. The other me was a lie. I think this season of slow progress would sound much more awesome if I said I had visitations from angels, or that God immediately confirmed my new framework for life, and my efforts were easy, and everyone liked me immediately, and it rained gumdrops one day. But in truth, it was slow.
My faith existed like my spiritual center, my place to return for hope and belief that love could and would win. And I worked my ass off to steadfastly, and peacefully rebuild my life. In my old framework of life, I would have expected that the moment I had prayed the right thing or believed the right thing, it would all have started working out. Or I would have instantly had the pain from my past sorted, and would move forward fully healthy and restored. It was work, diligence, and a battle to constantly return to my center. I regularly questioned my own intentions and actions…. whether I was doing things because of my old framework of performance, or because I believed it was loving for myself, my community, and my future family. This kind of sorting is hard, and I think I had a tendency to question my own motivations too much, but I had stopped trusting them. I met my wife. We made friends. We built a community for others and ourselves. Bit by bit, I sorted through the rubble, not sure what to feel of my past in most cases.
As a child I developed a strong capacity to suppress my emotions in the name of being productive, so in many cases, I was allowing myself to feel things for the first time, some 10 – 20 years later. It is the oddest sensation trying to reconcile the suppressed emotions of the childhood version of yourself with the objective, rational mindset of your adult self. I would like to say that the youthful feelings immediately jump on board with the rational thoughts of the adult self, but they don’t. Sometimes you just have to let yourself feel them, and be honest that they exist, buried, and still feeling. As you enter into them, and acknowledge them, there is freedom to simultaneously forgive and honor their presence. All sorts of dysfunction seem to appear when you refuse to honor them by denying their existence or rationalizing them, or force them to conform with your adult belief system. There is truth and beauty stored there, but it is vivid, full of extremes.
Recently I have come to terms with the system of belief I adopted as a child. It was abusive. I hate to use that word, for a thousand reasons. Most of the people I know who claim abusive moments in their lives, never move past those moments. While the actors in my childhood were diverse, the message has heard loud and clear, achieve… chase the plan of God for your life, and you will be worthy to be loved. As a child I was too young to filter out the various messages from sources I respected. Unfortunately it took it all falling apart around me for me to realize how my own woundedness propped up and supported that framework for understanding myself and God. I wanted it to be true. I knew I could achieve. I knew I could discipline myself. I knew I could be productive. If all I had to do was do well and believe the right thing, that is a pretty good offer for knowing your life will be significant and you will be loved. What I realize now is that I was loved.
What Happens When You Follow A God that is Mostly a System of Thinking
And that God, that version of God was an asshole. That version of God wrecked the first 25 years of my life with an equation for acceptance and significance that betrayed me. It set my life up as a quest to chase the spiritual carrot of living right, believing correctly, and performing so I could be accepted. That God had a systematic theology that told me what I should believe about my life, and what the final score of this game called life would be. What I have also come to realize is that I helped make that version of God, that system of understanding and relating to God that betrayed me. It was the systemization of God that poisoned by ability to rebound from life, see the joy in it, while not denying the rubble.
I am convinced for so many people it is the systemization of their own version of God that causes them so much pain in life. They either have a life that performs well for their expectations, and they slowly become more and more judgmental against people that do not accept their framework for understanding themselves and God… or their life does not meet the outcomes of the plan, and they live disillusioned, bitter, and unsure of their own value. They are flips of the same coin, neither providing a context for knowing your value free from performance. What I have come to believe about God is that God will be revealed, but not defined… that what we all get are glimpses of stories, experiences, and metaphors that resonate, ripe with love and redemption, and we inherently see God in them. It is the oddest of gifts, as we are richer for accepting the diversity of them, and hurt, both personally and communally, as we try to control them. God is like many things, and fortunately it is the many of things that help us to understand God.
As we allow our understanding of God to grow with us, we are richer, healthier, and have a greater capacity to live in the present. We are no longer tied to the defense of a dusty list of prescribed thoughts on God and a framework of expectations for our life. Instead we are able to celebrate how we and others understood God in the past, how we know God now, and how we will continue to discover God throughout life. It is an immeasurable treasure of discovery.