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The Psychological Cost of Dying to Self and Deflecting the Praise of Others

self denial

While I have been able to shake off much of the psychological damage done to me by my Evangelical upbringing, Bible college training, and the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry, several pernicious, frustrating problems remain: my inability to see myself as someone capable of doing good things and my inability to accept the praise of others.

This inability stems from Evangelical teachings on the nature of man, pride, and self-denial. I started out in life being told that I was a vile worm of a boy, who if left to his own devices, would turn out to be a sin-filled, lustful, degenerate man; that the only hope for me was to repent of my sins and accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; that if I would do so Jesus would miraculously change me from a Hell-bound sinner to a Heaven-bound saint. Like most saved, sanctified, bought-by-the-blood, filled-with-the-Holy-Ghost Christians, I spent most of my life trying to live according to the impossible teachings of the Bible and the church. No matter how “good” I was, there was always unmortified sin lying deep within my soul, ready to come to the surface if I but for one moment thought that I could live my life in my own strength.

I heard and preached that the Bible says, “without me [Jesus] ye can do nothing,” that in and of ourselves “dwelleth no good thing,” and that our ability to walk and breathe was dependent on God. Those who dared to go it alone were sure to find themselves shipwrecked on the rocky shore of sin and destruction.

Evangelicals are taught that any good they do is because of God, and that any bad they do is because of Satan and/or the flesh. This is why so many Christian athletes thank God for their athletic prowess, thinking that they never would have scored the winning touchdown or crossed the finish line first if it had not been for Jesus. Never mind all the training, practice, and single-minded devotion to their sport; all that is nothing when compared to what God does in and through them.

By the account of others, I was a pretty good public speaker as a preacher. I say “others” because I have never thought of myself as a very good speaker. When people would praise me over my sermons, I always felt uncomfortable, not wanting the praise that only belonged to Jesus. Of course, I now see things in a different light. You are damn right, Skippy. I did preach a lot of good sermons, even a few oratory gems. You know why? While my preacher friends were busy golfing with their buddies, I was diligently honing my craft. While I was a pretty good extemporaneous speaker, I rarely engaged in such preaching. Instead, I meticulously developed outlines for my sermons, making sure that they were not only engaging, but supported by the biblical text. Putting together a minimum of three sermons a week required a significant amount of time, time I gladly gave, believing that the people who called me preacher deserved to hear sermons that they would remember. Far too many preachers are lazy, giving little time to their most important task — teaching the Bible. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard where the pastor just got up in the pulpit and winged it, thinking that nobody would notice or care. Well, I did. Maybe my thinking here is due to the fact that I’m a perfectionist and I am plagued with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Regardless, I am of the opinion that if you are going to do something, do it well. So, as I look back at the things I did well in the ministry, I can see that I did so because I felt them to be important. It’s too bad that Jesus got all the credit.

I am a firm believer now in giving credit to whom credit is due. When the Gerencsers gathered together last Thanksgiving Day for dinner, I didn’t bow my head and thank the good Lord above for the food we were about to eat. Why? The Lord had nothing to do with it. My wife, Polly, did the work to earn the wages for which the food was purchased. She, along with our daughter and daughters-in-law, prepped and cooked the food. The only people deserving of my vittle praise are they, not God.

I am frequently given praise over something I’ve written or said. I often receive complimentary comments about my photography work. Deep down — wherever “deep down” is — I appreciate the kind words of others, but I often have feelings of guilt when I do so. I have similar feelings when I experience good things in my life; you know like coming into some money, being able to put on my shoes, finding that one of my children didn’t eat the last piece of pizza, or getting laid. When life is good, I far too often either think it won’t last or that I don’t deserve it. When “shit happens,” I tend to think it’s what I deserve. These screwed-up feelings about life trace squarely back to my immersion in Evangelicalism and its teachings. I suspect that I am not alone when it comes to thinking like this. Evangelicalism, especially if people embrace it totally, can and does cause great psychological harm. I hope readers will share in the comment section their own experiences with the Evangelical teachings I have mentioned in this post.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Exactly this. Everything that you have written in this post rings true for me. I feel guilty (or self critical) for the smallest thing, from buying myself a needed article of clothing to teaching myself a new hobby. In fact, I was criticizing myself harshly just this morning simply because I dropped something while I was fixing breakfast. Ridiculous, I know, but that’s how deep my wounds go. It’s that feeling of never being good enough no matter how hard I try.

    Most of my self doubt and fear comes from my former faith. I know I would feel like a more worthwhile human being had I never been poisoned with biblical teaching. Once a person drinks the poison, it seems like there is no cure.

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    Bruce's Harem ;)

    My mom has the ‘I probably deserved ____’ mentality.
    She’s a friggin’ martyr, actually.

    I find myself feeling a little embarrassed when people praise something I’ve done, never really stopped to track down the cause, but now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure it’s just a God hangover.


  3. Avatar

    I can clearly remember the first time I struggled with this openly.
    Back in 2011 I ran one of The ROCs thrift stores. It was in a tough neighborhood. We had no advertising whatsoever.
    On average a good was making $1,000 or more. I worked hard whether we were slow or busy.
    However, the asshole “Minister Of Finance” would always say after a good day, “God is good!”. However, on a day we made say, only $400 I would get asked “What did you wrong?”
    So….when the store did good, God got the credit (in spite of the fact that I worked sales hard) but when the store did poorly I got the blame (I worked sales hard). It was here when I started to opey acknowledge the doubts that I had and stopped denying them. This was the start of my house of cards started to crumble.
    And they say it’s not the churches fault I left the faith lol!!!

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Evangelicals have Catholic guilt! Who knew? 🙂

    Seriously, ex-Catholic here, but I don’t think it was religion that influenced me as much a mother who suffered from extreme anxiety and wanted a perfect daughter, along with screwed-up brain chemistry that pushed me toward depression. The thing is, once you have that you-are-good-for-nothing tape in your head, whether by accident or design, it’s really, really hard to overwrite the thing. You can turn the volume down, but it’s still there, whispering at you. Even if you’ve abandoned religion, it’s easy to see every good thing that happens as good fortune, and every bad thing that happens as proof of your worthlessness. You can learn to accept complements gracefully, but it is very hard to internalize them. And it’s difficult to ward off accusations or wrongdoing, even when you haven’t done anything wrong.

    The important thing is to never give up fighting. The rational you knows that you aren’t worthless. If nothing else, you can see your worth in the eyes of the people who love you, and the words of the people who are touched positively by you. It’s critical to cling for your life to these reinforcements, and stomp on that damned worthlessness tape every chance you get.

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    Bruce, it brings me tears to read your words. I lived them; not your preaching, your diligent preparation for sermons but the lifestyle of self-harm as you write it is exactly what I lived. Karen the rock whisperer is very accurate in including the parentals in the debacle. It is human damage that sets the stage for freak show called evangelical belief. The self-harm is certainly psychological but as one is freed of faith, it becomes clear that the harm in the mind has also damaged the body. Christianity is not healthy exercise, quite the opposite. It is an excess that in my opinion ranks with cutting oneself or poisoning the self. The complete mindfuck that is performed on us as children hurts us forever in our lives. Once you have been in the gulag as a child, there is a part of you that never comes out again.
    I know the truth now. I did not subject my children to the love that is hatred, the self-harm manual Bible, the song of self-denial. It is so so sick and yet so very popular. People pay weekly to be harmed, to be told what wretches they are unless they worship the one true God. All over the world, God’s name is invoked to justify wanton murder and destruction of innocence.
    Religion is the fruit of delusion. Thank-you, Bruce, for being brave enough to face your childhood and tell the truth here. Thank-you for sharing your present life here. You are a great encouragement to me, not only as somebody who has survived ‘faith’ and is still on his feet but someone able to allow others to share as well. Perhaps one day the scourge of evangelicalism will be lifted from humanity. Not by inauguration day of course as America stumbles into the horrorhouse ego of the Donald but perhaps one day.

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    Daniel Wilcox

    Bruce, You wrote, “Deep down — wherever “deep down” is — I appreciate the kind words of others, but I often have feelings of guilt when I do so. I have similar feelings when…When life is good, I far too often either think it won’t last or that I don’t deserve it. When “shit happens,” I tend to think it’s what I deserve. ”

    How tragic:-( I have read thousands of accounts of former Christians who have grown up with similar negative feelings toward themselves and their good actions.

    Christianity was a very bad influence in their lives.

    However, it does baffle me.

    Nothing like this ever happened to my sister and me. Growing (and now as adults) we didn’t have such a theological load of guilt. And we were the kids of the Baptist minister:-) and I became a Baptist minister.

    On the contrary, our religion was a source of hope. Yes, as kids we had to deal with the 12 Baptist no-no’s including no movies. But after I experienced my first movie, I realized there was nothing wrong with good movies. Heck, my parents even started attending movies:-) in 1964.

    So many different Christianities!

    Based on your sad account, and so many others, however, I realize that our particular version of Christianity was obviously an exception to the genera negativity.

    Overall, I do think that religion generally poisons and harms people.

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    “When life is good, I far too often either think it won’t last or that I don’t deserve it. When “shit happens,” I tend to think it’s what I deserve.”

    Me too. When people are genuinely friendly and kind, I sometimes can hardly bear it and feel like a fraud. Like I don’t deserve kindness because I probably did something wrong sometime or other. Like I will only be allowed to accept goodness and kindness when I am perfect, but I will never be perfect, of course, so I’ll never be allowed anything good? That’s not a pleasant prospect! At least I can now reason myself somewhat out of that negative mindset.

    In a way it is all about power. If people feel bad and sinful, they won’t question the teachings that keep them in their place. They won’t have the self-esteem to do it. It is pretty cruel and nasty, and insidious also.

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    Sirius Bizinus

    I grew up Lutheran, but my mom definitely had more fundagelical leanings (in addition to her general rural Wisconsin outlook on life). In my upbringing, I quickly got cured of being proud of my own achievements, since it either led to sin, was sinful in itself, or didn’t glorify the Christian deity enough. Over time, this led to feelings of self-hatred whenever I received a compliment. This still happens today.

    It’s negatively affected my ability to function, to put it mildly. Even years after not believing anymore, I still have those beliefs that I need to not believe praise from others or that I’m secretly undeserving of even the most minor accolade. For me, I spend a lot of time just trying not to punish myself whenever someone likes something I write or being afraid that people might like me for who I am.

    All I can say is that it’s a lot of work trying to undo the more pernicious mental scars of faith. The process is worth it, if for no other reason that it might inspire others to start recovering from their own religious scars. Great post.

  10. Avatar

    As a hardcore christian I would get annoyed at other Christians constantly feeling guilty for no reason. A guy I was mentoring said he felt he should give up the guitar as he couldn’t see how it honoured god. I nearly yelled at him ‘why would god give a shit’!

    Perhaps this highlights the problem with religion – that you can never really know what a silent invisible god wants.

    We know idolatry is wrong but when does enjoying the guitar cross from a hobby to an idol? To a sensitive person perhaps it is when you spend an hour playing but to someone less prone to guilt like me perhaps when constant playing means you havent eaten for a day. God never shows up to say whether we should feel guilty or not.

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    I have come to ironically conclude that feelings of worthlessness and self-blame are actually my ego getting in the way. Seriously, do I really cause every bad thing that happens to me? It’s like I am now able to step back and realize the universe does not revolve around me. Shit happens, no matter what we do. On the other hand, when something good happens, many times it is a direct result of my hard work, talent, skill, etc… I will gladly take credit for that. If things don’t turn out the way I’d hoped, it isn’t my fault; things just didn’t go as planned. That being said, it’s been over 25 years since I drank the fundy koolaid, so the things I was taught in my earlier life don’t affect me much now. But I do remember hearing all the crap about dying to self, putting love for God above myself, etc. It was all pretty much designed to break us down so we could be controlled.

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    Arthur Sido

    Last week I was driving some Amish girls around and they were signing as they often do while in the van and one song prominently featured wonder that God would care about terrible people like them. I doubt any of those girls had done anything worse than grumble about mopping the floor in their lives but here they are singing joyfully about what miserable people they are.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    This thing about ” denying self-“so popular in churches everywhere, yet I can’t remember one pastor or minister denying THEMSELVES anything. Different churches have their own versions of this doctrine, but what it always boiled down to was let yourself be abused by your spouse, parents, boss,etc. Just endure it. That’s how self- denial was presented. Above all, don’t go no- contact. For Pentecostal sects,it was don’t go to college, don’t work, stay with your parents until you married. A recipe for madness if ever I’d heard it !

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I remember as a child of, oh, 11 or so, cooking my first family meal solo. It was undoubtedly a simple one, because our meals were usually simple, but I was 11! My mother had been teaching me how to cook simple things for a while then, although the stove was still kinda high. I was tall for my age and managed. I could cook and strain pasta, cook crumbled ground beef, heat pasta sauce, and overcook summer squash with the best of them.

    Anyhow, I proudly announced to my father that I’d cooked all by myself that night! And my mother laid into me. Daddy had earned the money to buy the food, farmers had grown it, and so forth, and for maybe the only time in her entire life, did she invoke the efforts of every human being in the food chain to provide the ingredients for that damn meal. She also emphasized that I wasn’t being thankful enough to God. I went from feeling accomplished to worthless in about the same time as a sports car goes from 0 to 60.

    We never discussed that incident as adults, so I don’t know what her reasoning was, but a whole lot of her self-worth was tied up in how well she could cook. She’d entered her marriage being almost hopeless in the kitchen, because she’d grown up on a Midwest (US) farm in the early 20th century, in a family where there were many daughters and few sons. Along with her brothers, she’d grown up as a farm hand rather than a kitchen helper. And so, in the days before the Internet and YouTube, she’d needed to put forth a lot of effort to learn to cook. Having an 11-year-old be able to cook a simple meal might have challenged her own self-worth.

    All that is a long-winded way of pointing out that there are very secular reasons, rooted in human insecurities, for putting people down. When they can be weaponized using the power of religion, it hurts other people badly…and this is the important bit…it lets those doing the hurting off the hook for their bad behavior.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Wow, Karen ! That sure was some blatant oppression coming from your mother. Her ego threatened by a daughter who was only applying knowledge of cooking the mother had been teaching. Jeez! I’m sorry that happened to you. If your mother is still living, she owes you an apology.

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Bruce Gerencser