When I was a very little girl, before my parents were introduced and inducted into an apocalyptic millennialist cult, I had a child’s assumptions about God. I didn’t consider God to be scary. He was more like a large, grandfatherly “person” who would watch over me, but who also saw when I did anything bad and was mildly upset about it. Santa Claus was scarier than God—especially since if one was naughty, one was excluded from the Christmas bounty; which, to a kid, is THE thing about Christmas that stands out. God was, well, GOD. When I was told that “God loves” me, I didn’t see the avenging God of Jonathan Edwards. “God is watching” didn’t cause me to feel fearful. I felt protected. It was, as much as I remember, a sort of cozy feeling. But, then, I was only six, and children look at most things through a trusting lens. I regarded angels the same way. Demons and Satan I only stereotyped in my child mind. I didn’t really fear the dark forces. I was a child. I thought as a child. I had not yet been introduced to the God of Specific Doctrine. The God of Fear.
When we started going to this church, switching to it from a weak version of Methodism, I began to hear about a God of punishing anger. A God who would allow—no, MAKE SURE–those who hadn’t heard of the “truth” (i.e. their version of the truth) to suffer through the coming “great tribulation”. To the ministers of that church—who loved to expostulate on the subject in sermons that would last for two or more hours—that punishment from God for non-conformance meant famine, pestilence, torture, and death. Most of this was to occur at the hands of Germans, who allegedly were the Aryans of the Bible, and who, in the views of the elite of this organization, would rise again and attack the United States. I remember having horrible nightmares. Nightmares in which Germans would invade my house and tear up my “stuff” (I was only six, remember). And then would take us away to a horrible fate. Nightmares in which my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and beloved cousins would die horribly because they were non-believers. I had nightmares of demon possession, another favorite subject of those who “ministered” to the congregations of this cult. These nightmares I remember 49 years later. Nightmares largely due to my introduction to a God of Fear.
Of course, fear of this God kept me pretty much on the straight and narrow through my pre-teen years. When I would slip, I would feel terribly guilty and fearful; after all, this slip of mine could very well cause the horrifying deaths of all of my immediate family. If I was bad, God would no longer afford me or those I loved his protection. But, being on the straight and narrow meant more than just following what the Bible teaches. It meant conforming to a certain interpretation of those scriptures. Which I felt guilty about, as well. Because I just could not get my mind to wrap around and embrace what I was taught to believe. It just did not make sense. But, after the normal period of teen-age and early adulthood rebellion (about which I also felt extreme guilt), I settled into a life which centered on these beliefs. I gave in. I conformed. Outwardly. Inwardly, all I felt was guilt, confusion, and anxiety. As well as resentment and fear.
Eventually, my parents began to seriously consider leaving this organization. I was also ready to leave—what my parents did and said had great influence over me, even after my first marriage, because I felt that to displease them was to displease the God I feared. Although I was an adult, and had been baptized into this religious organization (albeit with multiple misgivings), I still feared that, due to my inward rebellion, bad things would be heaped upon my head, and the heads of my parents, of my then- husband, of my children, by God. So, I lived with the guilt of not believing. And the fear that terrible things would happen because God knew everything I doubted, everything I resented.
My then-husband took great pleasure—especially after the consumption of quite a bit of alcohol– in describing to me, with great detail, what was going to happen to my parents because they were questioning the higher authorities of “the church”. I was torn now in three ways: go with my husband, go with my parents, or follow my own way. To follow my own way was unthinkable. I was too weak, both in mind and body (I had one small child at the time and a complicated pregnancy was followed by the birth of premature twins) and too beat down emotionally. I now had three small children to think about, and out and out rebellion during these transition years would have been disastrous to my marriage. Although I was very good at putting up a strong false front, I was torn apart inside. And, I really didn’t have a spiritual “plan”. All I had was what I had been taught. And that included letting others who were more spiritually “mature” guide me. Within a few months, however–and during my pregnancy with the twins– my then-husband and I mutually decided for us to leave the mother organization, and we–or, mostly, he–started going to the services of the main offshoot of this organization. This turned into attending church with multiple splinter groups of several connected organizations as—I realize now– he was looking for a religious “home”. Each with their own version of God.
Basically, I followed where I was led. In spurts of rebellion, I would balk or even outright refute what was still considered to be the “truth”. But, due to religious imprinting, fear, insecurity, guilt, or whatever, my rebellion stopped when fear took over. I was spiritually trapped—and, because leaving the organization did not, in most ways, affect the doctrinal beliefs, it was the same trap as that which had imprisoned me since I was a child. It was merely the matter of changing the face of the organization. While a few “doctrines” shifted, the main reason for the split and splinters was, and IS, due to power struggles within the top echelon. So, nothing much changed, in terms of the “big” doctrines (i.e. holydays, a coming tribulation, the seventh-day Sabbath, et cetera). Nor did God seem to be any more loving to me in these groups, even though most of the participants talked about a loving God. But, this loving God had certain people he had chosen to know the “truth”. And that “truth” certainly did not set me free. Because I kept thinking something was wrong with me that I could not accept this God. Yet, I feared this God.
I struggled on for years, alternating between spurts of rebellion against the God of Fear and earnestly seeking a God of Love. I tried several different paths. Ultimately, I realized I would never be free unless I left, not only the religious belief system in which I was brought up, but those who tied me to it. I had a circle of close friends, as well as my mother, for support. But, leaving was the only choice. And, I was not just leaving behind home and family, but I was leaving behind a God that I feared. I hoped. While there were other reasons for dissolving my 25+ year marriage, one of the main reasons was that I quite simply just could no longer tolerate being torn, feeling guilty, feeling stupid, or fearing that maybe…just MAYBE…I was wrong. That I would, inevitably, be punished. I, quite literally, ran away from, not only a religion, but from the God of that religion.
But, running away doesn’t solve anything. I still felt that everything that went wrong in my life was punishment from God. I thought finding another spiritual “home” would solve things. Maybe another expression of God, another religion, another perspective, was what I needed. I converted to Roman Catholicism during this time, largely because the first homily I heard was about God’s love and forgiveness. My new husband was, at the time, basically a non-practicing Catholic and we both felt this was a spiritual path with which we would both be happy–even though we both disagreed with many Catholic doctrines. The formal conversion process took a little over a year. The RCIA program solidified my resolve to give this a chance. I really thought my journey was complete. For a long while I was quite happy—even though I did not agree with many of the doctrines, with many of the “rules” one had to follow to be a good Catholic. I thought that as long as I kept my mouth shut, I could feel comfortable and safe in my new spiritual “home”. Until I started feeling the same way I had as a child. That, as long as I kept my mouth shut about not believing in the “rules”, I was left alone. That, even here, where the concept of a God of Love was taught, that same God was going to punish me for not believing. I’m not talking about moral rules, ethical rules, or just the rules for being a good person. Rules that tell me that I am wrong because I support a woman’s right to choose. Because I do not believe in the virgin birth of a savior only one time in the history of the universe. Because I do not believe that the historical figure of Jesus was the only begotten son of God. Rules that both my husband and I questioned. I could not swallow the myth, even in this form. A completely different religion—in fact, the religion which the old church considered to be the epitome of the false church of the book of Revelation—a completely different set of doctrines, and the God of Fear was still there, just expressed with a different message. Coated with love this time, but watch for his wrath if you don’t conform to the rules. And, if not wrath, then a nice vacation in Purgatory.
Of course, the story of my religious journey is much more complicated than I could ever put in a post. And, much more private. But, over the years, I have come to realize that, while some people are happy with the Christian version of God, I am not. Some people do not see a God of Fear underneath their version of a God of Love. For some, the God promoted by various organizations, denominational or non-denominational, and by various spiritual gurus, is a God of Love. That’s fine for them. I don’t see it. I see, underneath, a vengeful God, the God of Jonathan Edwards. A God created by Man. A God made in the image of those who profess to serve him. A God so concerned about specific doctrines that he would condemn all who don’t conform to those doctrines to a horrible fate. A God I grew up and spent most of my adult life fearing. Maybe it was early imprinting. Maybe it is because I tend to dissect everything to death. Maybe I think too much. But, I no longer believe that if I don’t follow a set of man-made or man-written doctrines that God is going to punish me. Because that God just does not exist. I don’t believe there is a Christian God. Or a Muslim God. Or a Jewish God. There is JUST GOD. A God with no specific book. No specific religion. No specific name. A God that cannot be anthropomorphized. A God that has many forms, many faces. A God who just IS. A God in whom I CAN believe. With no qualms. With no guilt. With no fear.