Picking Up The Identity Pieces

For some context around my voice in the Exvangelical conversation, I’ll just say that I’m walking into this year with a very fresh start after drastic changes in my life in 2017. My marriage ended (mostly mutually) and I was fired from what I once thought was my dream job at an evangelical megachurch. I had only been working there for a few years, but I had been part of that church for over 11 years from the time I was 18 and had put a lot of social, emotional, and spiritual stock into that place and its leaders. In the end, the ideological shifts that my divorce sparked were enough to put a gap between the church and myself, and I was let go after expressing some concerns about my ability to thrive in that environment.

All that to say I have a lot on my mind lately and a lot to deconstruct. One thing I’ve spent a lot of time re-working is the way I’ve labeled myself a rule-follower for most of my adult life. I like structure and standards and being known by others as a responsible person. If you’re into the enneagram at all, I’m a 6, the Loyalist. That means it can be super difficult for me to trust myself, and it means that I have a tendency to put too much stock into authority figures or systems in hopes that they will guide me to the right answers.

As a kid, this labeling worked well for me. My mom was a decision-maker with a master plan. She is ordered and controlled and would probably prefer it if everyone was that way, too. And even though I am neither of those things, our parent/child relationship worked well for a long time because she made the decisions and I dutifully followed them. She was the authority figure I looked to and took my cues from, and I was generally able to thrive in that relationship.

As I got older, it wasn’t as easy. In high school and college, I naturally started to explore some of my options in life, attending a different church from the one I was raised in, leaving behind soccer for music, and starting the very tedious process of establishing my own sense of identity. I think the process of getting to know yourself is really devalued in the age range where it’s most important.

Now at 29, I feel that I’m in kind of a no man’s land. I’m old enough to have kids and imagine how I would choose to raise them but young enough to still have some attachment to what my parents may think of my life choices. So now, I think about kids who are labeled rambunctious or wild and how they are generally told to be quiet and calm and to get themselves under control. I think about kids like me who were introverted and shy and how they are generally told to come out of their shell or to not “be rude” by being silent in front of strangers. I’m not well-versed in the nature versus nurture argument and don’t have a developed opinion on it, but I do know that what our parents tell us about our personality as kids will create a kind of box for us to explore as we get older.

Of course, as we do, we’ll find that we either appreciate the box and can function in it or that we need to break it down and get the hell out of it. So along with the deconstruction of my faith, I’m also picking apart my personality, my parents’ personalities, and all of the thousands of decisions we’ve made together and separately that got me to this place in life. For most of my adult life, I’d say I’ve had an anxious personality, highly prone to fear.

I remember realizing in college that I was having an identity crisis. I was finally outside of the realm of my parents’ choices for me (kind of) and faced with the terrifying task of figuring out what I wanted for the rest of my life on my own. So naturally, instead of facing my fear and getting serious about knowing myself and what I wanted...I got married. I can see now that my marriage has come to an end how much I was relying on that relationship to define me and save me from having to figure life out for myself. I latched onto him at a time when I didn’t know how to be on my own.

I remember freezing up whenever I tried to pin down my identity, my desires, my dreams. I was paralyzed and lost, but I figured that I would eventually work things out within the context of my marriage. Of course I did eventually figure all that out, but the path that all of my previous decisions had put me on was not actually the one I wanted to be on.

So I started over. And here we are. Rebuilding almost everything and learning how to properly care for myself, not just financially but emotionally and spiritually. There are a lot of things to pick apart, but one of the most interesting ones for me is learning to believe for the first time that I can trust myself.

For some reason, there is this weird passed-down dichotomy that says if we are trusting in ourselves then we must not be trusting in God. It’s backed up with scripture with verses like Luke 9.23, Proverbs 3.5, and Galatians 6.8 that at face value tell us to deny ourselves, and somehow along the way that turns into the narrative that what we want is wrong because if we’re focused on ourselves, we must not be focused on God.

In my experience, this mindset has created an inherent lack of trust in ourselves, especially in women. Socially and spiritually, we live in a patriarchal society where power is currency and men seem to have most of it. Men wrote the bible, men decided the canon, men are typically the most highly-regarded preachers and teachers.

Traditionally, God is a man, Jesus was a man, the Holy Spirit is powerful and masculine. It can be incredibly difficult to find my place as a woman in the greater picture of the story God is writing and even more difficult to find women who are valued for their mistakes as well as their redeeming qualities the way Moses, David, and Paul have been.

A lot of times, I don’t think people are inherently trying to view certain groups (whether it’s women, people of color, or LGBTQ+) as second-rate, but what I’ve found is that when you live within a system that isn’t hurting you, there’s rarely incentive to try and change that system. This past year, I found out how my system was hurting me as a divorced woman, which also opened my eyes to how that system is hurting other marginalized people and drove me to start really thinking and picking apart what my life has been built on.

An endeavor like this will always leave you with more questions than answers, and even though some days I feel like all I’m doing is rambling to myself and my friends, I know that every conversation, every post, every tweet is opening up more beauty and wonder for me where religion has tried to shut down the fire god has put inside me. What I believe now, maybe for the first time in my life, is that God is able, willing, and wanting to speak directly to me and my heart.

The way my brain processes information, the way my emotions speak to me, the signals my body sends, all of those things are God-given and God-designed and unique to me. She put so much care into designing me and you and every good and terrible person in the world, and believing that takes more faith and grace than I think we’re used to exercising.

What it means to me right now is that finally learning to trust myself is maybe the most important endeavor I’ll ever take on. For too long, I have lived in a world that told me that a male pastor somewhere high above me is anointed to hear and speak the word of God, and there has not been much implied or taught that says the rest of us have any power to do the same. Again, that system wasn’t hurting me for a long time, so it was easy enough to live in it without rocking the boat. But last year, when I took a good, hard look at my marriage that was making both of us miserable and decided that leaving it was the best way for me to honor my experiences and receive healing from the Lord, I was met with predictable but painful resistance.

For months, language was used against me to invalidate my experiences, to belittle my emotions, to undermine my relationship with God and my ability to hear from Them directly. Even though I couldn’t make myself leave the church at the time, I knew then that my evangelical coffin was being built around me and would kill my spirit if I didn’t get out eventually.

As it turns out, later getting fired would be the best parting gift that that church could give me. Even though the last year has been painful, it’s also been so beautiful. I’m glad that I decided to start asking questions and learning how to trust myself and the word and ways god was speaking specifically to me.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend everyone do things the way I have, but if you need a reason to question things, I would love for my story to be an encouragement for you to at least start. So today, I don’t have a specific point or conclusion. I don’t have advice or steps to follow or even a clear way of describing what I’m feeling. I do think I’m in a good place to help people who are transitioning away from the evangelical church or are thinking about it.

I was a part of my previous church for over a decade, and thankfully most of that time is full of amazing memories and stories I’m proud to have been a part of. Now that the curtain has been pulled back, I can see that it is not really the place I had always hoped it would be, but picking things apart helps me hold onto the good while addressing and working to change the bad.

If you’re struggling within the bubble of your religion today, unsure of where the boundaries are and how far you’re allowed to go, my hope for you is that your mind would open just a tiny bit to see that the god you want to believe in is real and She is bigger, wider, more inclusive, and more on fire than you could ever imagine.

And They are waiting for you to be willing to release yourself from the bubble you’ve been stuck in. I know change can be terrifying, and I know from experience that seeking deconstruction will cost a certain level of community and maybe even credibility.

Deconstruction is about embracing doubt and allowing yourself to say “I don’t know” a lot more often. It’s about losing fear because fear’s goal is to keep you bound, quiet, complacent, and cold. What I know now is that seeing God in a new way for me has made me more fully alive.

Her glory is a part of me and it radiates from me in a new way because I’m finally making space for Her wonder and light. God is with me, He is tender and compassionate. God is in me, She is powerful and unruly. God is for me, They are vibrant and all-consuming in the best way, in a way that tells me I cannot do anything so wrong that they will turn from me. They tell me that I can trust myself because they are always with me, interwoven with my very emotions, with my very heart. They are not flighty, She will not separate Herself from me on a whim, and He could not be convinced by anyone or anything to turn His back on me.

It is the difference between knowledge and conviction. It’s the difference between hearing someone speak a beautiful language and learning that language for yourself, all of its nuances and intricacies, the subtleties and details. Becoming soft enough to let what’s inside you change and shift will teach you to relearn your native tongue, and the words will be the same but what they mean will change over and over again.

And it will teach you to breathe in forgiveness like oxygen because you learn that often times people don’t even know what their words are saying. Here, what has been most surprising to find is a new belief in goodness growing up inside of me that is eradicating the skepticism and cynicism and fear that used to threaten to swallow me whole.

It’s equally frustrating and beautiful to know that no matter how I speak about it, no one can understand it until they know and discover it for themselves. But that won’t stop me from speaking about it anytime soon.