Learning to Be Human Again After a Lifetime of Self-Denial

self denial john macarthur

Originally written in 2009. Edited for grammar and clarity.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that followers of Jesus must practice lives of self-denial. Self is the problem — the flesh wars against the spirit, the spirit wars against the flesh. Far too many Christians, thanks to this teaching, live guilt-ridden lives. Guilt over giving in to the flesh, guilt over letting self have control.

It goes something like this…

Anger is bad. Anger is a sin. Yet, anger is a common, normal human emotion. In fact, people who never get angry have either taken too much Zoloft or there is something seriously wrong with them. So Christians perpetually battle with anger, often becoming angry over being angry. They tell themselves the Holy Spirit lives inside of them. There are no reasons for them being angry. They need to get right with God. Prayers are uttered, sins forgiven, slates wiped clean. Dammit, why did that idiot cut me off in traffic? Can’t he see that makes me angry?  Now I’ve sinned against God.

And like children on a merry-go-round, around and around go Evangelicals, from sin to forgiveness, sin to forgiveness, over, and over, and over again. Is it any wonder then, that many Christians live such conflicted lives?

Let me pose a question to my readers:

What if it all is a lie? What if the very premise of self-denial has no basis? What if envy, pride, lust, greed, anger, and the other venial and mortal sins are a normal part of the human experience? Perhaps self-denial is the problem and not the solution. The flesh, who we really are, is not evil. It just is.

Evangelicals profess to believe that God created everything, including the first two humans, Adam and Eve. The creator God gave to humankind emotions. Evidently, God thought emotions were a good, even necessary part of being human.  But along comes Christianity with the beliefs of original sin and depravity. All people are inherently sinful, broken, and living lives without meaning, purpose, or direction. Unless people accept the sin “fix” of the blood of Jesus, they will live lives of desperation, ultimately dying in their sins and going to hell.

In accepting the sin “fix”, newly-minted Christians are expected to lay their lives at Jesus’ feet. They are told they must deny human nature, even going as far as to die to self. When Evangelicals get up in the morning and look in the mirror, the only face looking back at them should be the visage of Jesus. Yet, no matter how much they try, the only face they see in the morning is their own.

This is, of course, an impossible way to live. I have come to see that self-denial, at its basic level, is a lie. I can no more deny the emotions of self than I can survive without food and water. Certainly emotions can run wild and there is always the danger of extreme and excess, but denial is not the answer.

I spent most of my life suppressing who I really I am. Few people know the real me. The man they know is not who I really am. They only know the caricature. They know the façade.

As I attempt to find the real me there is some ugliness. A life of repressed emotions, a life of self-control, once freed from the constraints of Christianity, tends to be like a wild horse freed from a stock pen. Once free, the horse will never willingly return to its prison.

Maybe you are saying to yourself, I could never let my emotions have free reign. If I allowed my emotions to control me, I would certainly do terrible things. Are you sure? Or is that just what you have been told?

Evangelicals are taught that there is a slippery slope that must be avoided at all costs. The Bible says that Christians should avoid the very appearances of evil; that every thought, word and deed must be brought under control. The slippery slope argument goes like this: look at an attractive woman and say nice ass and you are on the path to becoming a rapist. If Evangelicals entertain anger in their hearts, according to the slippery slope theory, they are well on the way to becoming murderers. Many Evangelicals believe drinking alcohol is a sin. One drink and they are on their way to becoming alcoholics. Extreme? Sure, the Bible does say that Christians should pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands if they cause them to sin. Sounds pretty extreme to me.

Evangelical church members get a steady diet of sermons about the importance of denying the flesh. They are warned that if they give in to their desires, they are setting in motion things that will lead them to disaster. It is the same logic that suggests that watching violence on TV makes people violent, or that viewing porn turns men into sexual deviants. Countless hours are spent in therapy trying to undo such thinking.

Do some people who watch violent TV programs commit assault and murder others? Sure, a very small percentage pick up firearms and kill people. But the overwhelming majority of people can watch a horror flick without turning into Freddy Krueger. Do some men who look at pornography become child molesters or rapists? Sure, but again, most men can look at naked women on a computer screen and not turn into sex offenders.

Most of the ex-Evangelicals I have met through this blog have had to go through an extended period of reconnecting themselves with self. They have to relearn what it means to be human. They have to dredge up thoughts and emotions that have lain buried for years in the bottomless pit of repressive Evangelical faith.

The journey out of Evangelicalism is one of rediscovering who and what we are. This trek is exciting, frightful, ugly, and often contradictory, but it is honest and authentic. Shouldn’t that be the goal for all of us?

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11 Comments

  1. Geoff

    It seems to me that the problem religion has caused, certainly fundamental, is that it has attempted to impose the suppression of emotions when what is needed is the control of emotions.

    If you teach your kids that it’s wrong to do bad things then they learn how to deal with their feelings. You tell them it’s wrong to get into fights, but it can be okay to defend yourself. Or it’s okay to be attracted to a pretty girl, but if you want her you have to ask her out, and be ready to be rebuffed. All part of normal, sensible, growing up.

    The evangelical method seems to be that you aren’t even allowed to think these thoughts. You aren’t allowed to get annoyed with other kids, nor have sexual feelings for those of the other sex. In reality this leads to all sorts of tendencies to mental anxieties and all the accompanying problems, together with a greater tendency to be likely a greater danger to society. I haven’t studied surveys but I’m going to guess that the majority of rape, child abuse, and gun murder is committed by those who have not been brought up properly to understand their emotions, and that a large proportion of those are evangelically based.

    There’s also my favourite theory when it comes to this discussion, that fundamental christianity is the ultimate in totalitarianism, because it is the only regime that punishes you for thought crime. Stalin understood the method, but I doubt many Christians see the irony.

    Reply
  2. Scott

    Brilliant! One of your best posts imho!

    As a former Calvinist I detest m
    MacArthur’s teachings!

    Reply
  3. Scott

    Brilliant! One of your best posts imho!
    As a former Calvinist, I detest MacArthur’s teaching!

    Reply
  4. Brian

    Geoff, I certainly agree with your assessment of fundagelical ‘faith’, that it is based in denial and teaches denial. As far as ‘teaching’ kids, we as parents have a lot of learning to do. Children do not need to be taught to honor their parents. The love naturally and if they are loved, the honor is built-in and does not need to be preached at all. In fact, most of what we think we need to teach kids is about our own fear for and of them: We can barely let them be! You must obey! You must you must! There are lots of resources now to help adults with all their problems and that is the primary answer to parenting, not teaching kids. Their brains are gloriously alive and always learning without parental controls. They just need to be loved and supported, not brought-up.
    Oh, and regarding Christianity being an ultimate totalitarianism, don’t forget the dysfunctional family. It all starts there…. Extreme religion is just good business planning: You see a need out there and go meet it! Deny yourself! You are a dysfunctional and evil scumbag and God hates you unless….
    You know, Bruce’s image of Jesus in the mirror is really very Kreuger if you meditate on it. It is a psychotic break that you are supposed to long for and await like a kid waits for Christmas morning…. scary stuff (when you come from inside the labyrinth.)

    Reply
  5. Melody

    “Evangelical church members get a steady diet of sermons about the importance of denying the flesh. They are warned that if they give in to their desires, they are setting in motion things that will lead them to disaster.”

    This bit stood out to me. There’s this book about toxic shame which has helped me a lot: it’s about not just being ashamed for mistakes that you may have made, but for your entire being or existance. For me, this is very much tied to the teachings I grew up with.

    Anyway, it’s called: Healing the shame that binds you, by John Bradshaw, who’s a former alcoholic turned counselor. What really applies well to this blogpost, is that he says people who are severly shamed either want to be better than human (superhuman) or worse than human (total loser) which looks so much like a strict version of Christianity: I am a worm and no man, I am the worst sinner ever (Paul) etc. You either have to be a perfect Christian, denying the flesh, which is impossible or you’re an afwul vile sinner. There’s no in-between, no space to be a normal human being who’s doing all right, who’s simply ordinary, who makes occasional mistakes but isn’t evil because of it.

    Although he’s a christian, the book does mention christianity often in a negative way as well. He says people cover up their shame with all sorts of behavior, one of them being extreme christianity and self-rigthteousness. Religious rules can serve as a kind of addiction as it can alter your mood: make you feel better than (before, or better than others) It also covers a lot about dynamics within families.

    Reply
  6. That Other Jean

    Congratulations to John MacArthur! He has found the perfect recipe for making people miserable for their entire lives. I had thought that Christianity was about doing good in the name of Christ, not feeling terrible because you’re human. Apparently I’m wrong.

    Reply
  7. Kenneth

    Well said, Bruce!

    Some former (and current) Christian’s just need to know it is OKAY to live life without God. It doesn’t all end without him. I feel much less pressure in life since my deconversion and not much else has changed otherwise….other than a relief that my life is actually in my own hands. I now feel I’m “real”, no longer have to live in an imaginary world, and can be myself–with the good, the bad, and ugly. And that is OKAY. I can also truely say my life is going about the same as it would if I was still stuck with Christianity. I have good days and bad days just like anyone else. If anything, I now have time to think about stuff that really matters in this life–and it certainly isn’t always black and white or good vs evil. I’m sure others who went through deconversion can also say this. Life still moves on just fine, believe it or not, even when God is out of our lives. Yes, Bruce, it is time for us all to be true to ourselves.

    Reply
  8. Angiep

    This post has elicited some of the best comments I’ve seen on this site. I’ll just add that MacArthur’s rant is so awful because of the reverse of Pascal’s wager: if he is wrong, you’ve spent your one chance at life actually hating it and yourself, with no afterlife bailout. (Of course we can observe that most Christians don’t follow this teaching at all; in fact they LOVE the things of the world. To wit: prosperity doctrine.) And the graphic is ironic: a silhouette of a man holding his arms up in victory, as if hating himself throughout life is a great triumph. Wouldn’t a more appropriate image be of someone groveling at the foot of the cross? Just gross!!

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  9. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    The quote from Macarthur is an example of how someone who is seeped in the Calvinist interpretation of the bible creates too many people who become emotionally sick and crippled by such preaching and theology.

    That people are required to “hate” themselves to enter eternal life is often interpreted by many of these fundamentalists to mean that Jesus requires his disciples to loathe themselves. Jesus also said that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves and such love requires Christians to love their enemies.

    Macarthur seems to think that a proper self love and a proper sense of self esteem will lead to self gratification and self preoccupation (if I have interpreted him correctly) but I think that such a view is mistaken, Certainly, hating oneself isn’t good for anyone. If people have compassion for themselves and are kind to themselves then they have enough love to give away to others. Rather than being self preoccupied and self focused such compassion and kindness often ennobles and uplifts a person and enables them to reach out to others with the same kind of compassion and kindness that they show towards themselves. To loathe oneself is likely to make a person so inward looking and self focused that they are not able to see others in their pain and suffering and reach out to them.

    Maybe Macarthur would become more compassionate in his theology and preaching if he became a progressive Christian or read some of Buddha’s writings?

    Shalom,

    John Arthur

    Reply
  10. Kittybrat

    Yes, Bruce. Many of us are, indeed, learning to be just human.
    Personally, it is so tough emotionally when I get angry, or when I behave in a way that disappoints me…you see, I do have a very high standard of behavior, yet I am human. Still trying to be kind to myself. Also, this comment has too many self references. Your post is spot on, and has got me tears, for some reason.
    If only religions did not cripple people, so. Imagine actually embracing emotions and riding that roller coaster with enthusiasm!

    Reply
  11. AT

    “Evangelicals profess to believe that God created everything, including the first two humans, Adam and Eve. The creator God gave to humankind emotions. Evidently, God thought emotions were a good, even necessary part of being human. ”

    Ah. Is this true? Did God grant actually human emotions to the first 2? Or did he build them from dust to just wander around the garden, without emotion like automatons? Perhaps emotions arose as a result of the fall, emotion=sin and suppressing emotion is seen as a method to get back to the state before the fall, and usher in the return of Jesus Christ. Although I’m not sure if that’s ever mentioned in the bible as a requirement?

    Reply

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