Nothing Good Dwells in Me: How Baptist Christianity Obliterated My Self-Worth (Part 1)

Note: Today’s post will be less about healing from and replacing the ideas my Baptist Christianity gave me, and more about unpacking the damage that happened in the first place, so no Kickback today! But-

Nothing Good Dwells in Me will be a 2-part series, first on what I was taught and then on how I am learning to love myself despite it. Stay tuned!

A compliment? For who, me?!

Confession: I’ve got a problem. I can‘t accept a damn compliment. 

Oh, it’s gotten better over the years. Far as I remember, it used to be that even if I didn’t verbally turn away a compliment, I’d sure reject it in my head. Nowadays I accept most compliments with a litany of overjoyed thank you!s, but some still snag me. Why? Well… let’s say I’ve got theories.

Theory A: It’s kinda hard to believe a compliment is true when you were born and raised to believe that you were depraved, puny, and worthless, from birth, simply for being human. I mean. That’s a big one. 

Theory B: I loved God. I wanted to glorify him in everything. When I was smallest, he was greatest. Which meant I gave him all the credit, as often as I could.

Theory C: As a Christian, accepting praise for my accomplishments and character strengths was a swing away from arrogance. Everything good I was or did, was because of God’s “work” in me – without him I was nothing, after all. Saying “thanks!” instead of “oh no no, this is all thanks to God, he is always sanctifying me” (sanctifying = improving your Horrible Human Self) suggested that I thought I was able to do anything good without God, which, of course, was blasphemy to me.

Maybe that’s why, looking back, church sometimes seems like it was a circlejerk of self-deprecation. I mean, I wonder how many times in our frequent heart-to-heart discussions we mentioned how humanity inherently sucked. How many songs we sang that lamented failure and inadequacy as part of human nature. How many verses we memorized in Awana kids’ program (along with plenty of positive, encouraging ones) on the wickedness and foolishness of the heart.

There were no You’re Totally Depraved! sermons shouted from the pulpit (only one or two if there were), just thousands of reminders of how defective and small humans are from multiple directions over many years. It was still so damaging. And that deserves recognition by myself, contemporary Evangelical/Baptist leaders, and bloggers alike, because theology that emphasizes how Bad humans are runs a very high risk of giving people big-time self-worth issues, especially children. 

I’m sure that adults tried their best to temper lessons on human worthlessness and wickedness with “remember how much God loves you” side mentions. But it wasn’t enough to keep me from refusing to take credit for anything “good I did” (it was just God doing a work through me), while automatically assuming blame for everything bad I did or was (because I was human. Human bad.)

Love your neighbor as yourself. Or, you know, however you’d love yourself if it wasn’t lowkey sinful to

It’s fascinating that, even as I marinated in the message that I was inherently sinful and needed God to completely transform my personality, desires, and behavior in an ongoing process until the Second Coming, I had nothing but good words for other people.

And that makes sense. I mean, remove the plank from your own eye first, right? And we were always supposed to “edify” one another. Plus, I daresay that most secular-born and raised people struggle with hating themselves while idolizing other people too. It’s, I think, a human thing, or at least a product of modern Western society.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason I avoided ing others the same way I invalidated myself… didn’t have all to do with the hypocrisy factor. Or the command to encourage my brethren. Or human nature.

Maybe I knew that other people didn’t deserve to be told “you are intrinsically bad and selfish and broken and only God can fix you.”

I wish I could say that maybe, deep deep deep down, I knew I didn’t deserve it either. But I don’t think I knew that. I don’t think I ever even considered it. 

I was born into this, and I never had a chance at truly loving myself. And that hurts, because I’ve come to realize that I am a brilliant, radiant, fun, people-loving, visionary person. Yes, even despite being human.

I was worth a great treasure to God – well, despite

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lessons we had that were all about our worth in Christ. (In Christ, always in Christ. Because good luck finding worth without him.) And you could pretty much guarantee that the crux of every Christian self-worth conversation, sermon, or Sunday School lesson I’ve ever sat through was this: Psalms 139:13-14.

13  For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
14  I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.

Oh, and the sparrows one. Definitely the sparrows one. It’s Luke 12:6-7:

6  “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God.
7  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

I want to recognize and honor the attempts my church made to remind us of how precious and protected we were through God. We shared with each other passages on the “hope and a future” that God had for us, on how he would never forsake us or stop forgiving us. We saw posters like these about how God could “use” even dead people. We remembered aloud how precious we were to God, that Satan tried to make us believe we were worthless (…although I think the Bible already had that covered.)

Religion would have been far more toxic if I hadn’t had those conversations in my life. But despite those efforts, the vitriol of the Bible trumped them every time.

Because our worth was found specifically and even exclusively in how generous God was to give a damn about us.

Because I was born damaged and my value as a person was only redeemed when I became “more like Christ” – when God started changing who I was, what I wanted, and what I did according to what he believed best.

Because how valuable I was had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

Because we were insignificant as a breeze while eternally loved by God… except that love always came with a “despite,” with how sinful we were and how much we hurt him.

Because even when we had lessons on worth, they made sure to counter all the negative effects that these mixed messages had on us over the years.

Spoiler alert: If you tell a child that they are both trash and treasure, trash is gonna win every time

For every lesson we had on self-worth in Christ, we received fifty more little contradictions in songs, sermons, Sunday School and youth group lessons, and daily devotions. STRONG contradictions.

I understood. I understood that human nature was The Worst. I understood that I was weak. I understood that I was wired to hate and hurt God and others. I understood that even a baby’s cry was symbolic of human selfishness and complaining. I heard these messages. I understood them.

They said my heart was “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9)

They said of the men of Noah’s time, “Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5)

They said trusting my heart makes me a fool (Proverbs 28:26), that “Cursed is the man who trusts in man” and “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jeremiah 5,7)

They said that if I left Christianity, I would become like the unbelievers, who, as we all know, are “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing [their] days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3)

They said “acting on” my queerness is dishonoring of my body, a vile passion, (Romans 1:24and used to be deserving of death (my blood be upon me)  (Leviticus 20:13)

They said “Nothing good dwells in me” (Romans 7:18)

I call foul. No, I SCREAM foul.

Not of my own free will, I recently started attending a Baptist Bible study on my university’s campus. What I immediately noticed is that this group is actually more direct and bald about How Bad Humans Are than my church was. Last time, the teacher’s voice kept breaking because he wanted God to make him a better person. The time before that, another teacher actually said “if you follow your own desires in life, you will die” (spiritually, which to Christians is the only way that matters.) They only use the word human in a negative context, as a synonym for “Quite Bad.” Hm.

I’m not here to give suggestions to Christians on how to make their theology better. I’m 18 years old, and I am a survivor of Christianity. It’s not on me to fix popular American Baptist theology.

But I am here saying that teaching people that they’re so inherently selfish, wicked, and wrong that their very desires and personalities must be undergo a transformation literally until Christ returns HURTS PEOPLE. Even if you insert the occasional “fearfully and wonderfully made” bit. It hurts children. It doesn’t give them a fighting chance at recognizing and celebrating what about them is good, and because their flaws are a threat to their eternity, the bad and ugly take a front seat every time.

I’m still learning to take a compliment.

And the next time I receive one, God will have no part of it.

[ Photo by Quinn Dombrowski ]

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