Come to Jesus: How the Way We Portray Jesus as a Partner – and God as a Parent – Can be Spiritual Abuse
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Let me tell you about a new phrase I learned.
There’s a student at the school I work at who’s been a handful. He's consistently absent/late, misses assignments, pays little attention in class, and maintains little to no communication with faculty/staff. As much as we’ve tried to help, his attendance and grades are almost to the point of no return. While he says he wants to stay, his actions are working him out of the program.
Now, there was one last chance the Director of Education came up with to help him stay. He could pay to retake a course he failed. If he paid and passed, he'd barely have the hours and grades to stay a while longer. If not, then he’d have to be withdrawn immediately.
Here’s where the new phrase comes into play.
His Program Director and I were preparing to sit down with the student to present that plan. As we headed out of the office to find him, she said we were going to have a “come to Jesus meeting.”
Excuse me…a what?
I’m not sure why I never heard the saying before, but my coworker was surprised I didn’t. She explained the phrase meant our meeting was the student’s last chance to save himself, just like the idea of coming to Jesus is the last chance to save oneself.
I’ve been fascinated with this phrase ever since! On the surface, the phrase reminds me of lessons about hope that I learned growing up. Jesus is my saving grace. Jesus is the only one who can save me from hell. Jesus loves me so much he'll give me an infinite number of last chances, as contradictory as that may seem.
Yet, there’s more to it than that. When my coworker used the phrase, I didn’t sense hope. I sensed fear. We weren’t trying to give hope to the student. We were trying to scare him into getting his act together.
To be fair, the original religious context of the phrase is supposed to be one of hope. According to Bloom (2016), to come to Jesus means to believe Jesus is the Son of God and our savior. However, the phrase has taken another meaning to it.
Let’s take a look at the use of the phrase in a business context. McGrath (2015) explains the phrase through the example of a boss using it towards an employee in order to better her work performance:
Yes, she is doing better, because she is afraid she will be fired! And, if the employee truly has integrity and wants to be a good employee, she is disappointed in herself for letting you down and she WANTS to do better. The problem is, employees in this situation will do better out of fear, and any emotions they are operating off of for results can only last about 60 days before burning out, at which point the employee goes back to status quo. (McGrath, 2015).
“Afraid” and “fear” are the keywords here. There’s an underlying sense of fear that arises when one hears the term “come to Jesus meeting.” The problem with that is too much fear leaves a person vulnerable to manipulation.
Let’s look at the most popular definition on Urban Dictionary for this phrase. InkedMayhem (2016) defines it as, “A time when a polite ultimatum is given, generally followed by a less polite ultimatum, then a threat or final option.”
Of course, I recognize Urban Dictionary isn’t a scholarly source. However, there’s something to be said that the most popular definition is one with terms like “ultimatum” and “threat.” More than just fear, these are words associated with power, control, and abuse.
Spiritual abuse is real and it’s happening all around us. In my experience, it’s not as talked about as other more recognized forms of abuse, but it’s been getting more recognition as of late. Mathews (2019) defines it as “the abuse of the human spirit.” The National Domestic Hotline (2015) gives several examples of spiritual abuse, including “uses their partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate or shame them” and “uses religious texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors.”
An example of this comes to mind from a therapist-led workshop I attended during my social work graduate program. The goal of the training was to analyze why abusive men do what they do. I’ll never forget the real-life example shared to us.
The workshop leader ran a mandatory therapy group for domestic violence perpetrators. In one of his groups, there was a Christian pastor who bragged about how he got control over his wife again.
One Sunday, he brought his wife to the altar to pray. He let the congregation know he and his wife needed prayer for their struggling marriage, which was on the verge of divorce. He publicly prayed something like, “Dear God, please help my wife, who is ruining our marriage. Only you know what she has in her heart and why she’s done what she has. Please help her, Lord. You know I love her. We stand in front of this congregation to keep her accountable. I know you’ll answer this prayer. Amen.”
His wife left the altar in tears.
It’s easy to see how this pastor committed spiritual abuse. He shamed his wife through her religion by exposing their marital problems at the altar. He also manipulated the congregation into believing the entire problem was his wife.
Yet, there’s another side of spiritual abuse. How many of us have heard Christians use Bible versus to defend mistreatment of people of color, women, and the queer community?
According to Ray (2018), slaveholders would use Genesis 9:18-27 and Ephesians 6:5-7 to keep slaves in their place and obedient to their masters. Comfort (2019) explains that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has been used to justify how women who are raped should marry their rapists. Erickson (2019) points out that the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah is repeatedly used to portray gay sex as a sin since the group of men demand to sleep with the visiting angels, while little is said about how the term for this is actually “gang rape.”
To be fair, mainstream society is getting better at condemning all abuse. Even mainstream Christianity has begun to speak up about how these marginalized communities have suffered abuse at the hand of the church.
In my opinion, though, there seems to be something more going on, specifically with the person and portrayal of Jesus. Now, this may be unpopular and I’m open to conversation, but please keep in mind that I’m speaking mainly from my own spiritual experience.
Throughout my life, my relationship with God through Jesus has always been one of love. How I’ve viewed that love has changed, surely, as the years have passed. Yet, I never stopped loving that which is spiritual and beautiful in our world.
The older I’ve gotten, though, the more I’ve realized that the way I used to view that love was unhealthy. Dare I say, even toxic.
Up until I went on my first mission trip in college, my faith was all about buying my way into heaven. How could I check off this laundry list of good deeds to do – and beliefs to have – in order to make Jesus happy? What was enough to convince him to let me go to heaven and not send me to hell?
It got to the point that whenever I believed I sinned, I’d agonize for days, weeks, or months. I tormented myself mentally and hated myself. How could I let Jesus down? How could I hurt him? What kind of person was I? My spiritual self-esteem would get incredibly low.
Then, whenever something bad happened, I was sure Jesus was punishing me. I deserved that punishment. I didn’t deserve salvation. How could I be any different from those whom I judged as deserving of hell? Then again, who was I to judge them? I’d fall further into the hole until I’d have existential crisis after existential crisis.
Eventually, Evans (2014) taught me this was called “pond-scum theology”.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Nelson (2010) explains it’s the belief that “[h]umanity is completely sinful, unable to save itself and unable to earn God’s love and mercy.” The term also implies that “God finds us disgusting” (Nelson, 2010). This belief became prominent from Johnathan Edward’s famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon (Evans, 2014) and continues to be encouraged through “profile pastors like Mark Driscoll” (Nelson, 2010).
The problem here is that instead of love for God and us as God’s creation, we learn to live in fear of God. We get subliminal messages to not only be humble, but to downright loathe ourselves for the sin we were born with, even though it was out of our control.
This leads me to the point where I’d get incredibly upset. If Jesus was so loving, how could he send people to hell? If God was all good, why would there be punishments?
Like Evans (2014), I couldn’t stop thinking about people from different religions or across the world who never heard about Jesus. What were the odds that I’d just happen to be born in the one religion that’s right? If I’m blessed, why aren’t they? It’s not their fault they were born into other religions or never heard about Jesus.
Like Evans (2010) explains, while people say that this is a missionary’s job, until that missionary arrives, people keep giving birth and dying without hearing about Jesus. If it’s our sin for not evangelizing enough to the world, then why are they punished to hell for not accepting Jesus when they haven’t heard about him?
Many told me I got this all wrong. Salvation is a gift. I don’t have to do anything for it. God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. We as sinners choose to go to hell by sinning. Like a parent, God doesn’t want to punish us, but we need to learn our lesson. Jesus can’t save those who don’t want to be saved. All we have to do is ask for forgiveness and Jesus will give it. Just accept Jesus as your savior and that’s it.
As for other religions, the Bible says in Exodus 20:3 that we’re not to have other gods. So, we just have to trust God will have mercy on those who’ve never heard about Jesus. However, those from other religions who have heard about Jesus, but haven’t accepted him, are going to hell. Anyways, I shouldn’t question so much. Satan is clearly always at work.
Maybe this is just me, but for some reason, it seems like even these “basic tenants” of Christianity seem abusive to me. Let me explain why.
It’s been mainstreamed to portray God as a heartbroken father who hates having to punish his kids for misbehaving. Yet, I see this portrayal not as a tired parent who has to ground the rebellious teenager yet again, but as an abusive parent. God is looming over his children with a celestial belt just waiting for us to do something wrong. Then, we better ask for forgiveness or else we’re going to eternal time out.
Except, it’s not time out, is it? It’s torture, at least in the way we describe it with demons, fire, and pain. It’s further abuse, but it’s not his fault. We chose that abuse by acting out of line. We didn’t follow his rules so we deserve it.
Do what God says or else.
That consistent threat and ultimatum manipulates us into behaving like good little Christians. If we fail, we’re shamed back into “pond-scum theology.”
Then there’s this portrayal of Jesus as the love of one’s life. I remember hearing on an Irenicast podcast by Manildi and Tinnen (2018) that Tinnen used dating Jesus as a beard while he was in high school to hide the fact that he was gay.
Yet, even that’s problematic. Jesus is portrayed as all you need. There doesn’t need to be sexual intimacy. You don’t need those friends who aren’t Christian. Heck, I even had a blog post when I was a teenager that said, “The only man I’ll let lead me on is Jesus” (Rivera, 2014).
Oh, but wait! Don’t make Jesus angry or jealous. If you don’t dress modestly enough and you get sexually attacked, it’s your fault. If you’re learning about other religions, denominations, beliefs, or philosophies that aren’t in line with Christianity, you’re flirting with danger. You’re basically cheating. Aren’t you supposed to be Christian?
Don’t you dare leave Jesus for someone else. If you do, you better come back truly repentant or else. If something bad happens to you, you asked for it by sinning. Jesus is looking at other religions with contempt because he’s better than any other gods, prophets, or spiritual leaders. He’s better than you.
This is how you’re manipulated to stay. The abuse makes sense, right?
I refuse to believe this anymore. I’m tired of being scared that God is going to send me to hell. I’m tired of thinking Jesus is judging my every thought or move. I’m tired of living my life like I can never be good enough to deserve God's love or questioning my own repentance to make sure it’s legitimate.
Why can’t God be that heartbroken parent who lets the prodigal teen deal with the natural consequences of their actions? Why can’t God let the teenager know that just because they messed up, that they will always have a chance to change their life around? They can always come home to God. They don’t need to do anything. Forget having to win forgiveness. God understands and forgives even when the teen can’t articulate the words, “I’m sorry.”
And why can’t Jesus be that partner who says, “You know what? If you’re happier with someone else, that’s okay. I’ll be here for you in any way I can, even if it’s just as a friend. I’m always here with a non-judgemental ear if you want to talk. And while I don’t wish harm on you, if something happens or your other relationship doesn’t work out, I’ll always take you back. I forgive you now and always. There’s nothing that could make me stop loving you.”
Now those are the kinds of healthy, and loving, spiritual relationships that I can get behind.
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