Tag Archive: Self Denial

So, You Love Those Bears More Than You Love Jesus?

teddy angelsMy life as a Christian can best be described as passionate, committed, and devoted, yet at same time be described as wild, chaotic, and ever-moving. Years ago, I read a passage in one of Thomas Merton’s books wherein he talked about how people often judged him based on his past and not on where he was presently. As a devoted follower of Jesus, I often experienced similar judgment. I was an ever-moving target, and people bent on judging me often did so based on the past and not where I was presently. This happens even today. Evangelical critics will zone in on a particular point on the timeline of my life and use my beliefs, practices, and experiences at that point in time to render judgment. This, of course, totally misrepresents my journey and leads to faulty conclusions. In particular, critics will focus on what they consider the AHA! point in my résumé; for example, that I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. They think they have me right where they want me; however, I reply, yes, but I wasn’t always an IFB pastor. I left the IFB church and moved on to Calvinism, generic Evangelicalism, and then progressive Christianity. Always restless and moving — that best describes my life, even to this day.

I always envied Christians who were steady-eddies; people whose Christian lives never changed or moved. Of course, I couldn’t understand such staid living. Weren’t we to always challenge ourselves with the teachings of the Bible and be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Ghost? Weren’t we supposed to follow the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit? Why did it seem that God was ALWAYS leading me to take up my cross and follow him or sell all that I have and give it to the poor, but he never seemed to be leading my colleagues in the ministry to do the same? Why was I willing to do without to advance the kingdom of God, yet most of the Christians I knew weren’t willing to do the same? I often wondered why I seemed to be on a spiritual wave length different from most Christians, including men who labored in God’s vineyard.

I believed, for many years, that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and that its words were to be read, meditated over, and obeyed. The Bible wasn’t a book of suggestions. Yes, it was a book that spoke of God’s grace, but it also had hundreds of laws, commands, and precepts Christians were commanded by God to follow. I never viewed these commands as optional. The Bible — at least to me — was clear: Do THIS and thou shalt live. Obedience led to life eternal, and disobedience led to God’s chastisement or Hell. Passage after passage in the Bible talked about the importance of following in Jesus’ steps and keeping his commandments. Solomon, in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, summed up the whole duty of man this way: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Jesus himself summed up the laws of God this way in Matthew 22:36-40:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

These verses described my heart’s desire: love God with all my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. I thought, at the time, these verses are in every Christian’s Bible, yet why do so few Christians take them seriously? By the way, I STILL wonder this to this day. Most Christians live lives indistinguishable from those of atheists, agnostics, humanists, pagans, and the adherents of religions deemed false by Evangelicals. Outside of what they do between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, there’s very little difference between saints and sinners.

When it came to material things, Jesus said:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

These words come from a passage of Scripture (Matthew 5-7) commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountain side and taught them what it meant to be his followers; what would be required of them if they were to follow the Lamb of God withersover he goeth. I believed then, and still do, that Christianity and the world would be better served if the followers of Jesus actually read and practiced the teachings found in Christ’s hillside sermon.

I am in no way trying to paint myself as once having been a perfect Christian. As this story will later show, I ended up living a life no different from most Christians. I was far from perfect, daily breaking the commands of Christ in thought, word, and deed. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between how I lived my life and how most other Christians lived theirs.

In the late 1990s I felt convicted over what I perceived was my materialism and that of my family. Hell was hot, souls were lost, and people were dying, and I believed God wanted me to do more to reach the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Thanks to my oldest to sons, who were living at home at the time and paying rent, along with Polly working at a local manufacturing concern, and me drawing a modest salary from the church, the Gerencser family was starting to take on the look of a typical middle-class midwestern Evangelical family. There were four cars in the drive, a TV in the living room and master bedroom, a computer in the office, and newer furniture in the living room. Polly and I were able to take our first vacation since the 1980s — without the children. We had money to go out on dates, buy clothing/shoes, and enjoy a bit of the American dream. But, thanks to Jesus and his teachings, I became increasingly uncomfortable with our way of living. I thought, how can we live this way when there are billions of people in the world who don’t know Jesus? What kind of example was I to the church and other Christians? These judgmental questions and others began eating at me, and soon I believed that the God want me (us) to embrace simplicity and frugality, giving our excess money to the church, missionaries, and other groups who were engaged in building churches, evangelizing the lost, and ministering to the poor. I began selling off things I thought I didn’t need: firearms, hundreds of books, electronic equipment, and a large collection of political memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s given to me by my political junkie mother (letters from notable politicians and campaign buttons/literature.) I dutifully and happily sold these goods and gave them to the Lord’s work. I was gladly willing to do without for the sake of gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last, went the Evangelical mantra. Little did I know that this time, my wife wasn’t willing to join me in suffering for Jesus. (One night, I gathered up all the things I had collected over the years from the various churches I pastored, including sermon notes and tapes, and set them on fire in the back yard. In my mind, this was me setting fire to the past and telling God I was ready to be used by him in any way he saw fit. I sure wish I had these things today!)

polly gerencser late 1990s

Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

Polly loves collectible bears. As our finances improved, I started buying Polly Teddy Angel bears for her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and other special days. As my great sell-off continued, I noticed Polly wasn’t joining me in giving a burnt offer to God. We had a few “discussions” — Greek for Bruce talking and Polly listening — about her unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus. I specifically mentioned her bears. One day, after yet another round of eBay listings and nothing given to the cause by Polly, I said to her, “So, you love those bears more than you love Jesus?” “No, I really do love Jesus,” Polly replied. “It’s just that some of these bears have sentimental value.”  I asked, “what bears, then, don’t have sentimental value?” One by one, I picked up the bears and asked, “This one? This one?” I learned that almost every bear had a story: “Mom gave this to me for my birthday, you gave this to me for Valentine’s Day, you gave this to me with a letter that told me you loved me.” In what would be one of the greatest regrets of my married life, I badgered Polly — in Jesus’s name, of course — into selling many of her bears, regaling her with stories about what would be accomplished with the money gained from their sale. With tears in her eyes, Polly gathered up half of her bears and gave them to me to sell. I remember saying, “see that wasn’t so hard!”

Brutal, I know, but if I am going to honestly and openly tell my story, I must tell it, warts and all. Quite honestly, I am embarrassed to even write this post. All I can visualize is the love of my life crying over giving up her bears. She had few things to call her own (as did I) in our married life, yet here I was asking (demanding) that she give up reminders of some of the happy times in her life. Gifts were far and few between for both of us. We didn’t buy each other Christmas gifts, so, for Polly, all the gifts she had from me were bears, Fenton glass, and other collectibles. Small tokens of love, yet each of them carried great meaning for Polly. I grossly underestimated how much these things meant to her. At the time,  I saw her attachment to these things as a sign of love for the world; an unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus.

This phase of my life would pass, never to return. I finally realized that I was standing alone on this matter, and that every other Christian I knew was busy pursuing houses, lands, cars, and material wealth. I realized while still a Christian that I had been a fool; that I had sacrificed my health and financial security, and to what end? Hell was still hot, souls were still lost, and people were dying. Bible verses that spoke of laying up treasure in heaven no longer satiated my spiritual desires. I wanted the lives other people had, as did Polly and our children. I became, I suppose, just another preacher who loved Jesus, but also loved the good life.

I left the ministry in 2005, and left Christianity in 2008. Since decoupling from Christianity, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the religious and psychological forces that led me to a life of servitude, self-denial, and poverty; that led me to demand that my wife and children follow in my steps. Had I been single, the only harm caused would been to self, but as a married man with six children, I harmed those I loved and cared for the most. There are not enough lifetimes left for me apologize for the harm I caused to Polly and our children. I now know that I spent much of my life serving a myth; and that my sacrifices and voluntary poverty accomplished almost nothing. I say almost, because I know the money and material goods I gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless helped them, so my giving had some effect, but all in all, my life of devotion to Jesus was “a waste of time, money, and talent” — to use the line oft recited by Baptist preachers when trying to goad congregants into doing more for Jesus. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars, and even more when not-taken salary is added in. As with all past misdeeds, there’s nothing I can do to undo them. The past is the past. All I can do is learn from past mistakes, pass what I have learned on to others, and spend what life I have left living one hell of a hedonistic, sinful life — that’s sarcasm, by the way, for the Evangelical dullards who happen upon this post.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

The Bible Says Our Good Works Are as Filthy Rags

works are as filthy rags

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Evangelicals believe that humans, Christian or not, are incapable of good works; that all goodness comes from the Christian God; that works apart from God that “seem” good are actually done for the wrong motivations and reasons. According to Isaiah 64:6, our works are as filthy rags, the rags, according to many Evangelical preachers, that lepers wrapped around their putrefying flesh. In other words, our good works, apart from Jesus working in and through us, are puss-filled, awful-smelling bandages. One reader told me that she heard one pastor say that the filthy rags in Isaiah 64:6 were the rags used by menstruating women. Gross right? That’s the whole point — to make people see and believe that “their” good works are filthy and vile before the thrice-holy God.

This kind of thinking, of course, causes great psychological damage to people who, with good intentions, try to be loving, kind, and help to everyone. Be overheard “bragging” about your good works and Sanctified Sally or Pastor Blowhard will most certainly rebuke you for taking credit for what Jesus did. Evangelicals are beaten coming and going when it comes to good works. They are reminded of the fact that the Bible says, faith without works is dead and work while it is yet day, for the night is coming when no man can work. Congregants are cajoled over their lack of devotion and commitment to Jesus and their lack of shining-in-the-light-of-day good works. And what happens when they change their ways and start working day and night in Jesus’ vineyard? They are warned about taking credit for their works or finding satisfaction in helping others. Pastor Blowhard thunders from the pulpit, Jesus alone deserves all the praise, honor, and glory for our good works. Without him, our works are but filthy rags.

Is it any wonder so many Evangelicals are downright discouraged and depressed? Being told over and over that one is a worthless piece of shit and that one’s life is n-o-t-h-i-n-g without Jesus is sure to ruin any thoughts of self-esteem. Pastors frequently remind congregants that the Bible commands them to deny self, to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. It is this notion of denying self that lies at the root of so much of the damage done by Evangelical preachers. Self is viewed as something that must be crucified, put to death. The Apostle Paul repeatedly told first century Christians of the importance of crucifying the flesh. Paul also talked about Christians presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God. This thinking has led countless Evangelicals to deny themselves not only material gain, but normal, healthy human emotions.

Somewhere along my life as a Christian, I died. My life was swallowed up by God, Jesus, the church, and the ministry. I lost all sense of who was Bruce Gerencser. It took me several years after walking away from Christianity to reconnect with self, with my emotions. I was shocked to find how buried my life had become under the weight of living for and serving the divine taskmaster, the Christian God; the deity who demanded everything from me and gave me little in return. No matter how hard I worked in Jesus’ coal mine, I still felt vile and dirty. How could it be any other way, right? I was a sinner, and my only saving grace was Jesus, not any of the good that I had done. I remained, as Isaiah 64:6 says, a dirty, vile, puss-filled rag.

Did your pastor or other church leaders use Isaiah 64:6 as a weapon to destroy your self-worth and good works? If so, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Evangelical Writer Allison Barron Says None of Us Deserves Happiness

allison barron

“I don’t think most of us realize how centered around feelings we are. Every day, we make decisions and evaluate our circumstances based on how we feel at the time. Plus, our culture is constantly telling us to “follow our hearts” and do whatever feels good because we deserve it. We are amazing and wonderful, and we deserve happiness (often in the form of a new hair care product or prime rib sandwich or shiny SUV or whatever that billboard on the side of the street is trying to sell us).

Well, sorry, culture, but we don’t deserve happiness. We’re human beings who lie and cheat and steal and fight and hold grudges and hurt our loved ones, and we don’t actually deserve anything. I strive to be a good, caring person, but I still make mistakes and end up hurting people. However, God gives us the opportunity for a beautiful, pain-free future with Him because of this amazing thing called grace.”

— Allison Barron, The Gospel Coalition, Debunking the Myth of Happiness, March 14, 2017


Allison Barron is a Calvinist, so her beliefs about original sin and total depravity color her thinking when she says that we humans not only don’t deserve happiness, we don’t deserve ANYTHING! That’s right, saved or lost, all of us are worms, undeserving of any of good things that come our way. If we experience blessings and happiness, we mustn’t think that we deserve these things. We don’t. Unregenerate sinners deserve the wrath of God and, after death, unrelenting torture in the Lake of Fire. God might be the creator of everything, but because Adam and Eve ate some fruit they shouldn’t have, God has turned away from humanity, judging them unworthy of his love, grace, mercy, and compassion. During the days of Noah and the flood (Genesis 6-9), God determined that the human race was so vile the he had to destroy every living thing, save Noah and his family, the animals on the ark, birds in the air, and fishes in the sea. God slaughtered men, women, children, and the unborn. (So much for God being pro-life.) Why? Because he could; because he deemed the entire human race unworthy of redemption. Think of all the animals that were killed during the flood. What did they do to deserve such an ignoble end? At best, they were props in an object lesson: mess with God and he will kill you.

Even the elect, those whom God chose to save from before the foundation of the world, are, apart from Christ, viewed in the same light as the non-elect. According to the substitutionary atonement theory, Jesus stands between God the Father and the saved. When Jesus died on the cross, his Father brutally tortured him because of the sins of the elect. All that Jesus suffered on the cross was because of the sinfulness of the elect. (According to Calvinism, Jesus only died for the elect. The non-elect have never been a part of God’s redemptive plan.) If it weren’t for Jesus reconciling the elect to God the father, they too would be under the wrath of the Almighty.

Calvinists such as Barron go groveling through life, believing that they are unworthy of any kindness, goodness, or blessing that comes their way. These things indeed come their way, but only because of God’s grace, not because of their good works, effort, or luck.  Calvinists spend their lives tamping down any thoughts they have of worth, of deserving that which they worked for, or stumbled upon out of luck. All that is good comes from God, and God alone. Any thoughts of self-worth or self-esteem are viewed as affronts to the righteousness and holiness of God. This thinking is what drives the self-deprecating speeches and interviews given by athletes, musicians, and actors. All the glory, praise, and honor go to Jesus/God, they say, ignoring the fact that who and what they are is due to many factors, the greatest of which is their personal effort and hard work. If all the glory truly belongs to God, why bother to work at one’s craft?

Surely Lebron James and Stephen Curry and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Clayton Kershaw and Joey Votto — all-stars and future hall of famers the lot of them — are good at what they do because of God’s grace, right? Why spend hours a day, virtually every day of the year working on their skill set? If their greatness is due to God alone, then no practice is needed. Or, perhaps Barron’s God is a work of fiction, and those who achieve much in this life do so primarily because of their diligent, hard work. Certainly genetics, environment, social status, education, and a healthy dose of luck play a part too, but without committing themselves to excellence they would never have become household names. Again, exactly what part did the Christian God play in their development?

As most Christians do, Barron looks to a time after death when she will have a wonderful, beautiful pain-free life with God. For now, she and fellow predestinarians must endure life, awaiting that day when Jesus will return to earth, resurrect and judge humanity — sending the saved (elect) to God’s Trump Tower® and the lost (non-elect) to the Lake of Fire — and then God, with his mighty power, will make ALL things new. The redeemed will spend eternity loving and praising the God who took credit for all the good things they did while on fallen earth. Imagine spending eternity with a husband who never worked a day in his life, but took credit for your hard work. That’s God.

Calvinism is a dour religion, one that demands its adherents endure to the end if they hope to have any chance of getting a room in Heaven. Even then, there will be Calvinists who will diligently persevere to the end, only to find out that the joke is on them, they never were among the elect. No Calvinists can never know for sure that they are saved. They hope so. They hope they are among the elect. They hope they will persevere to the end. They hope on judgment day to hear God say, well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord. 

Count me as one person who is glad he walked away from Christianity and its denial of self and personal worth. None of us is perfect, and when we cause harm to others, we need to make things right. As much as lies within us, we should be at peace with all men. If we live long enough, we will meet people who don’t deserve love, kindness, or respect from us. There be assholes in this land of ours — unworthy of one moment of our time. For the people we call family, friends, and colleagues — those who make our lives richer in every way — I hope we all can say that they deserve the goodness, kindness, and blessing that comes their way. While life certainly isn’t fair, and bad things far too often happen to good people, in general we reap what we sow. If I want to reap a life filled with love, mercy, and kindness, then I must be willing to sow the same. What goes around, comes around, no God needed.

Unlike Barron, I know a number of amazing, wonderful people. Barron might object, saying that she does know such people, but they are amazing and wonderful because of God and not their own inherent goodness. And therein lies the problem. God clouds Barron’s view of others to such a degree, that all she sees is J-e-s-u-s (what boring view).  For the uncircumcised, unwashed Philistines of the world, we have no need of a God blocking our view.

As an atheist, I can clearly see those who deserve goodness and blessing; those who deserve good jobs, nice cars, wonderful houses, fancy clothing, and big-ass 60 inch LED televisions. My dear wife endured a life of self-denial as a pastor’s wife, living in a 12×60 foot trailer with six children and a workaholic husband. She did without nice clothing, shoes, and the finer things of life, all for the sake of the ministry. Both of us sacrificed financial security and health, believing that our poverty was a sign of our devotion to Calvin’s God.  There’s is not enough life left for me to shower my wife with all that she deserves — all that SHE deserves, not God.

Now that we are free from a God who demanded absolute fealty and servitude — a God who demanded all the praise, worship, and glory — Polly and I are free to reward not only each other, but our family and friends, with all the kindness, goodness, and love they so richly deserve — all that THEY deserve, not God. We are also free to spread the gospel of a God-free, sin-free, judgment-free, hell-free, heaven-free life. Live each day to its fullest. Enjoy each and every day. Pour your life into those who matter. Eat, drink and be merry, and make sure you have a designated driver. Work hard, doing the best you can. Strive to be a better person tomorrow than you were today. Life is all about living. To riff on an Evangelical cliché: only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done now will last.

Let me leave you with the words of Wendell Berry in the Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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 25 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’m a pretty good public speaker. 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 preached thus. Instead, I meticulously developed outlines for my sermons, making sure that they were not only engaging but supported by the biblical text. Putting together several 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. 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 some readers will share in the comment section their own experiences with the Evangelical teachings I have mentioned this post.

Evangelical Dualism: It’s Not Me, It’s Jesus 

crucifying the flesh

Christians will tell you that the good works they do are all because of Jesus. Recently, an Evangelical woman by the name of Pam left several comments detailing her battles with perfectionism. It was only when she learned to let go and let God that she was able to find victory over her perfectionist tendencies. According to Pam, the flesh is the problem, and the only way Christians can live fulfilled, happy lives is to die to self and allow Jesus to have absolute control. It was Jesus himself who said to those who would be his disciples, let a man deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. It was the apostle Paul who said that without Christ he could do nothing. Paul reminded Christians that they must deny the flesh and give themselves over, without reservation, to Jesus. In First John, Christians are reminded that if they love the world and the things that are in the world, then love of the father is not in them. In fact, the writer of First John tells Christians that if they sin, they are children of the devil.

Now, everyone knows Christians sin. We know that Christians live lives that are, for the most part, indistinguishable from non-Christians. How then, do Christians square what the Bible says about how they should live their lives with how they actually live? Christians believe that humans are either bipartite or tripartite beings — body and soul or body, soul, and spirit. This dualistic understanding of human nature allows Christians to rationalize and reconcile conflicting teachings in the Bible about human nature and God’s demands. It’s the body that sins. It’s the flesh that Satan can take control of, resulting in Christians committing all sorts of sinful acts. The Bible teaches that Christians are to walk in the spirit and not the flesh. Over and over, the Bible reinforces the belief that Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are dualistic creatures that will spend their lives on earth in constant battle with competing desires, needs, and influences.

For 2,000 years, Christians have been practicing some sort of self-flagellation that is meant to crucify the flesh, rendering them dead to sin and alive to Christ. Over the years, I heard countless illustrations (and gave many myself) about the battle between the spirit and the flesh. I remember one pastor saying that this battle is like having two dogs — spirit dog and flesh dog. The strength of these dogs is determined by which dog we feed. If Christians want to live victoriously, then they must feed the spirit dog. Feeding the flesh dog leads to lives of sin, carnality, and the chastisement of God. This cosmic battle between good and evil can be illustrated many different ways. What most Christians don’t know is that this dualistic understanding of human nature comes from Gnosticism, a system of belief judged heretical centuries ago. In fact, if you listen carefully to what Christians say, you will quickly conclude that in 2016 Gnosticism is alive and well. This is no better illustrated than with the way Christians explain the constant tug and pull in their life between good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, and the flesh and the spirit.

In Romans 7, the apostle Paul talks about this battle:

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

From these verses, and others, Christians include that their flesh (body) is sinful and that the good deeds they do are not their own works, but the works of God who uses them for his own purposes. This is why Christian zealots can ignore the commenting rules on this blog and post comment after comment filled with Bible verses, sermons, and other acts of Evangelical masturbation. You see, it’s not them saying/writing these words, it is Jesus. They are just conduits through which Jesus speaks to poor deluded atheists and other unbelievers. In many ways, these zombies for Jesus are not much different from Madam Zelda, who channels dead loved ones so she can give messages to those they have left behind. Evangelicals must daily crucify their flesh. The use of the word crucify reminds them to the degree they must be willing to go to be used by Jesus. Jesus was willing to be brutally, viciously beaten, ultimately dying on the cross, so that human sin could be atoned for. Wanting to be like Jesus, Evangelicals physically and psychologically flagellate themselves, hoping by their acts of self-denial that Jesus will find them worthy and use them for his purpose and glory.

Lost on Evangelicals is the fact that their very acts of self-denial are they themselves doing works. They are the ones dying to self. They are the ones crucifying the flesh. They are the ones taking up their crosses and following Jesus. No matter how far along the Christian experience you want to go, eventually human action will be found. This is why I have argued that Christianity, at its heart, is not a religion of faith/grace. It’s all about works, and it always has been. If God is the same yesterday today and forever, then he cannot and will not change. The Old Testament is clear, God had a prescribed way his chosen people were required to live, under the penalties of judgment, death, and eternal damnation if they did not. In the Gospels, Jesus made it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that if people wanted to be his disciples they would have to live a certain way. Paul continues this works-based thinking in his epistles when he contrasts the works of the flesh and the works of the spirit. James says that faith without works is dead and the writer of First John spends five chapters listing the works that must be in the lives of those who say they are followers of Jesus. Even salvation is a work. For sinners to be saved, they must accept the gospel message, repent of their sins, and believe in Jesus Christ. They must put their faith and trust in Jesus alone. No one becomes a Christian by sitting at home and just waiting for it to happen. The new birth — being born from above — requires an act of volition. Christians will go to great lengths to explain why these acts of the will are really God’s doing, but the fact remains that it is unbelievers who are making  conscious choices to either accept or reject Jesus Christ.

Dualism, of course, is a theological construct that is used to explain the contradictory teachings of the Bible. There is no possible way to reconcile Jesus, Paul, James, and John without resorting to some sort of dualistic magic. Those of us who are atheists have an entirely different view of human nature. We recognize that our lives are affected by genetics, environment, personal choices and decisions, and being at the wrong/right place at the wrong/place right time (to name a few). We also know that luck plays a big part in who and what we are. Most of us would agree that choices and decisions are not made in a vacuüm and that every action results in a reaction. Choices have consequences,  and while we can look at the various reasons that people make the choices that they do, at the end of the day all of us are responsible for the choices we make.

My life is in admixture of good and bad works and good and bad decisions, with a healthy dose of neither good or bad. As a Christian, I ascribed the good that I did to Jesus and the bad that I did to Satan and/or the flesh. As an atheist, I accept full responsibility for what I do, and when I do good things I rightly accept the praise and approbation of others. After all, it is I, not God or some other person, who did the good work. While I may deflect the praise of others through humility, realizing that others often play a big part in the good things that I do, I now know that is okay for me to say (and for others to say) good job, Bruce. I also know that when I do bad things that I need to look no further than me, myself, and I. While my wonderful, loving, awesome, super, fabulous, beautiful wife of 38 years can irritate the hell out of me, if I respond to her in anger or impatience I have no one to blame but myself. I am in control of my actions, words, and, to some degree, my destiny. I can look back over my life, as I am wont to do, and see how the various decisions I have made have affected where I am today. While I know the reasons for my health problems are many, some of which are beyond my control, I also know that choices that my parents made and choices that I have made play a part. Who among us hasn’t said, I wish I had done __________. I believe it was George Foreman that said that his obituary will one day read that he died of one too many cheeseburgers. Foreman understood that connection between choices and consequences. Our lives are complex mixtures of many factors, all of which are rooted in naturalism and materialism. I need not look far to find the reasons and answers for who and what I have become. Voltaire was right when he said, “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her. But once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich, stated, “You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.”  While I certainly don’t take Hill’s words as far as those who believe that by mere thinking and believing they can cause things to happen, I do understand that the life that I am now living is mine alone and that to a large degree what I do with it is up to me. Believing that a deity is the master of my universe and the controller of my rudder complicates things, so cutting him out of my life allows me not only to make my own decisions but also accept responsibility for what good or bad comes as a result of the choices that I’ve made. While I still have moments when I wish there were someone to blame — say the devil or the flesh — I know that when I look in the mirror I see the one person who is responsible for how Bruce Gerencser lives his life. To quote an oft used line, the buck stops here.

How did dualistic thinking affect your life as Christian? How have things changed for you now that you no longer believe? If you are a progressive or liberal Christian or the practitioner of another religion, how do you view your life and the decisions you make? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Groveling at the Feet of God to Whom All Praise, Honor, and Glory is Due

tim tebow

Tim Tebow, giving God all the praise, honor, and glory.

Dear Human Worms,

You are NOTHING! It’s all about me. I am your King, Lord, Sovereign, and master. Nothing happens that escapes my eye. I hear, see, and know everything. I am the one who gives you the ability to breathe and move your legs. I am the one who is in control of every aspect of your lives. I am the puppet master of the universe. I spoke the universe into existence and I alone have the power to give and take life. Get it into your head, worm — it’s all about me, me, me!

Now, grovel before me, worm. 

God

Millions of Christians believe that what I have written above accurately portrays God and their subservience to him. Simply put, with one voice these worms cry, You are everything, oh Lord, and I am n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Each and every day countless Christians do good works, yet, if they are true to the teachings of the Bible, these do-gooders never take credit for their acts of love, kindness, and compassion (or touchdowns, winning baskets, or walk-off home runs). No matter how much effort  and time Christians put into helping others, they must never, ever take the credit. If they do, they are reminded of the fact that the Bible says, without me [God] ye can do nothing. God is everything, everything, everything. Christians are nothing, nothing, nothing.

Why then, do Christians do things such as tell their pastors, great sermon, applaud when singing groups or soloists finish their songs, clap when church children perform, and thank others for doing a good job? Why then, do churches advertise the name of their pastors? Why do churches praise the hard work of Sunday school teachers, missionaries, youth leaders and junior church workers? Why do churches put “IN MEMORY OF . . . ” plates/labels on things, reminding everyone of who gave the money for this or that item/project.  Shouldn’t imprints of human effort be stripped away, and God alone be given all the praise, honor, and glory?

The truth is, Christians love receiving the approbation of others as much as the rest of us. I am a big believer in giving credit to whom credit is due. I appreciate it when people thank me for the work I do on this blog. Their support helps spur me on, be it financial support or a short email that lets me know they appreciate my writing. When people do well, we should praise them. I know I don’t do it enough.

My children have turned out to be good people. They aren’t perfect, but neither is their father. My oldest son was recently promoted to a management position with a large manufacturing concern. My youngest son was recently promoted to team leader at the same company. Son number two is a network administrator for a local wireless internet provider and phone company. Son number three is an expert automobile mechanic. My youngest daughter continues to sharpen her seamstress and furniture restoration skills.

Eighteen years ago, Polly started working in the auxiliary services department for a large manufacturing business. We moved away from Northwest Ohio several times, yet each time we returned, Polly’s previous employer immediately offered her a job. Last year, Polly was promoted to the position of shift coordinator. She is responsible for second and third shift auxiliary services employees. If you had asked me 20 years ago whether Polly was supervisor material, I would have said no. Yet, here she is, supervising two shifts, and, by all accounts, doing a great job.

My children and wife have one trait in common: they are all hard workers. When Polly and I first married, our meals consisted of whatever came from boxes or cans. Today, Polly is an excellent — dare I say superb — scratch chef. Unbeknownst to Polly, I ordered her an immersion mixer. It arrived today. Her glee was a sight to behold. Why, if I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that I bought her a vibrator with a lifetime supply of batteries.

As many of you know, I have someone who edits my writing. While I am a better writer than I was a year ago, there are days when my writing, due to fatigue, pain, or entrenched bad habits, can still be a pain in the ass to edit. While she tells me it is not necessary, I thank my editor from time to time. Why? Because I appreciate her hard work.

Yes, many people are lazy slackers whose goal in life is to do as little work as possible. These workers tend to be the people whom we complain about on social media. Sadly, some people just don’t care. But, others do. When cashiers, waitresses, restaurant workers, and customer service representatives — to name a few — do a great job I try my best to say thanks. If they are wearing a name tag, I address them by their name. It takes all of two seconds for me to do this, yet it reminds those serving me that I appreciate their efforts.

And that’s the point of this post. Why should a narcissistic, demanding employer — God — receive praise for that which he did not do?  Everything you and I do today, tomorrow, and until we end up ashes in urns is because of our own hard work and effort. Granted, none of us got to where we are today without the help of others (Thanks, Mom!). Hillary Clinton is right; it takes a village to raise a child. My life is the sum of all those who have touched and helped me in some way. It is important that I recognize this lest I turn into Donald Trump. I would not be where I am today without the help of others. When I write the acknowledgement pages for my book, I will rightly thank all those who helped me along the way. But, none of them will expect me to grovel at their feet, giving all the praise, honor, and glory to them. Only in the Christian world are people expected to die to self and give God the praise that should be theirs.

deny self

Is it any surprise, then, that many Christians have poor/no self-esteem? I know it has taken Polly and I many years to regain any sort of respect for self. Hammered by a lifetime of preaching meant to destroy self-worth, is it any wonder that, to this day, we have a hard time accepting praise from others. Our lives were swallowed whole by God’s absolute claim on our lives. We were called on to be bond servants (slaves) of the most high God. We worked seven days a week, from early morning hours to late at night — never once expecting the praise of others. We do it for you, Jesus, we said to the ceiling, believing that none of our good works would have been possible without God. Even when people broke with protocol and threw some praise our way, we quickly deflected it, throwing it back to God. We are just his humble servants, we told those who thanked us. Without him, we are nothing.

If I have learned anything post-Jesus, it is that without him I have come to understand that I am someone who is deserving of the approbation of others. I have worth and value. I matter to my my wife, children, and grandchildren. I matter to my friends and extended family. And yes, I matter to many of the readers of this blog. And I can say the same about those who have positively touched my life. We matter, not because of God, but because we are fellow travelers on the road of life. While we are all headed for the same destination — a soylent green factory — how much better and fulfilling is our journey having people by our side.

How about you? Were you taught that all praise, glory, and honor belonged to God? How did these teaches affect your view of self? What have you done to regain a healthy view of self? Do you still have a hard time accepting praise from others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Difficulty Accepting the Praise and Approbation of Others

self denial john macarthur

Here is some of what the Bible had to say about pride:

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate. (Proverbs 8:13)

 These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look… (Proverbs 6:16,17)

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (I John 2:16)

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished. (Proverbs 16:5)

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

Evangelicals are frequently warned about the dangers of pride — of thinking more highly of self than one ought to. We owe everything to Jesus, Evangelical preachers say, and without him we have no power to do anything good. Readers who are on Facebook and have Evangelical friends likely see regular reports in their news feed of how awesome Jesus is. Something good happens in the lives of Evangelicals and their status report reads, ALL PRAISE TO JESUS for ____________________. Last night, I watched the thrilling North Carolina vs Villanova college basketball championship game — a contest which Villanova won on a last second jump shot. One of the sideline reporters interviewed one of the heroes of the game and the first words out of his mouth were I THANK MY LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST! Earlier in the day I had read report about a nanny saving a baby in a stroller from being hit by a car — giving up her body to bear the brunt of the accident. Nearby witnesses rushed to her aid, lifting the car off of her body and giving her emergency medical treatment. The local sheriff considered the story to be a miracle of God!

Where, oh were was God or his son Jesus? As I watched the basketball game, I didn’t see any dunk shots by J.C. I didn’t see God setting picks or making fouls shots. The same goes for the accident. If what happened was a miracle from God, exactly where was God? From what I can tell, it was PEOPLE not God who helped the nanny — likely saving her life. Despite there being no evidence for God doing anything, Christians continue to give God praise, honor, and glory that he does not deserve.

Evangelicals are taught that is always wrong to take credit for doing anything; and yes I mean ANYTHING. According to the Bible, Christians have no power of their own. According to the last part of John 15:5, Jesus told his followers: for without me ye can do nothing. Why, without God, we wouldn’t even be able to draw the next breath. No matter how much hard work Evangelicals put into something, the praise always goes to Jesus. He alone is the reason Evangelicals do good works. I could spend hours studying for a sermon, yet if my sermon was well received and well delivered it was all because of Jesus. Simply put, Evangelicals believe that they are a conduit through which God does his work on earth. According to the Casting Crowns song, If We are the Body, Christians are supposed to be the words, hands, and feet of God.

Evangelicals are frequently reminded of the importance of self-denial. Jesus first, others second, yourself last, goes the Evangelical acronym for JOY. How this works out in real life is that serving Jesus and others is ALL that matters. Self is a hindrance that keeps Christians from fully and resolutely living according to the teachings of the Bible and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. (Please see I Did it All for Jesus: My Life of Self-Denial and Learning to Be Human Again After a Lifetime of Self-Denial) I have been accused over the years of taking Christianity too seriously. The reason, according to these critics, that I left the ministry and Christianity is because I didn’t have a balanced life. If I had just learned to balance my Evangelical beliefs with my personal and family wants, needs, and desires, all would have been well. Are these critics right? Consider these verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24,25)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:14,15)

Who is it, then, that takes these verses seriously and attempts to pattern their lives after them? The balanced Christian? Or Evangelicals who push their pots into the center of the table and say, “We are all in”? Are these Evangelicals to be faulted for taking God at his word? Are they to be faulted for desiring to pattern their lives after Jesus and his disciples? Shouldn’t Evangelical preachers see in the Apostle Paul the epitome of what it means to be a man led by God?

without jesus I am nothingThe book of Revelation speaks of those who follow the Lamb (Jesus) whithersoever he goeth. That was the kind of follower I wanted to be. Blinkered like an Amish horse, all I saw was Jesus ahead of me leading the way. While I failed many times, my goal was always to, without reservation, follow and serve Jesus. The only way to do this was to get self out of the way.

Living this way brought much heartache, suffering, and economic deprivation. (Please see How Fundamentalist Christianity Affected My View of Money and Material Things) I now know that self (and family) does matter. I now know that it is healthy to put self first. I have spent countless hours in counseling trying to reconnect with Bruce Gerencser. I spent the bulk of my adult life burying self. When I deconverted, I had no clue as to who I really was. Even today, I am not at all certain that I have reached a place where I am free of the damage wrought by a lifetime of self-denial, metaphorical self-flagellation, and prostrating myself before God and his son Jesus. Having spent most of my life on my knees, I still find it hard to stand up and walk by my own power.

One area that I need to work on is accepting the praise and approbation of others. When I take a photograph that I know is pretty good, I find it hard to accept the praise others heap upon this example of my photographic skills. Polly has taken to getting after me about this, reminding me of the fact that I put hard work into improving my photography skills. I have the same problem when readers complement me over something I have written. I know that my writing has helped thousands of people over the years, but I have a hard time accepting praise and gratitude from those I have helped. There is still deep within me the feeling that I do not deserve anything. Even when I come into some sort of economic windfall, I find myself thinking, I do not deserve this. Try as I might, I have been unable to shake the notion of self-denial. Certainly, I have come a long way and I am in a much better place psychologically that I once was, but I know God and his demand of personal sacrifice still lurk in the shadows. Perhaps someday I will be able to accept the kind words of others without feeling some sort of shame for accepting what should only be given to God.

As many former Evangelicals know, God can still lurk in the shadows of our lives. I am almost eight years removed from the day I walked away in the Christian church, yet I still battle with what I call an Evangelical hangover. I suppose this is inevitable. After all, I spent 50 years in the Christian church and 25 years in the ministry. I spent the vast majority of my adult life praising and worshiping Jesus. I preached thousands of sermons and read countless Christian books. I immersed myself in the pages of the Bible, and rarely did a day go by that I did not spend time reading it. While I can point to the date when I attended a Christian church for the last time and the date when I said to myself, I am no longer a Christian, flushing my life of residual religiosity and faith is a day by day process that continues to this very moment.

How about you? Do you still have some sort of Evangelical hangover? Do you have a hard time accepting the praise and approbation of others? Has it been difficult for you to regain a sense of self after years of denial? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

[signoff]

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?

How Fundamentalist Christianity Affected My View of Money and Material Things

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2

Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us. We paid $2,800 for it. I tore out closets, replaced floors, etc to make it livable. We heated it with wood and coal. Such memories of the good life, right Polly?

These and other verses were the guiding principles of my life for many years:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Matthew 6:19-21

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Matthew 6:24-34

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10

I was a Baptist. Not just any old generic, run-of-the-mill Baptist either. I was an Independent, Fundamentalist, the-Bible-is-the- inerrant-inspired-Word-of-God Baptist. There were five things that every good Baptist church member was expected to do:

  • Read the Bible every day
  • Pray every day
  • Attend church every time the doors of the church were open
  • Witness
  • Tithe and give offerings above the tithe

I will come back to the last of these, tithe and give offerings above the tithe, in just a moment, but before I do I need to write a bit about how I looked at life in general.

I was a committed follower of Jesus. I believed God spoke to me individually through the Bible, prayer, and the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. I believed that God led me or directed me to do certain things. It was important to “wait on the Lord.”and NOT trust my own understanding. My life verse was Proverbs 3:5.6:

 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

I knew God had saved me and called me to the ministry. For every church I ever pastored I believed God led me to that specific church. It is important to understand this point because this line of thinking permeated my entire thought process.

cars I have owned

One of the many junk cars we owned over the years. Polly HATED this car and the kids were embarrassed when I would drive up and pick them up from school. Isn’t Jesus Wonderful?

When a small church came calling and wanted me to be their pastor, I never concerned myself with how much they could pay me. I thought, “If God wants me to pastor this church he will make a way for me to do it.” As a result, I developed a willingness to live in poverty if it meant doing what God had called me to do. No matter how much suffering and difficulty it caused my family, the only thing that was important was being in the center of the will of God. I now see that God’s will was actually my own will and that the passivity that led me to “wait on God” wreaked financial havoc in our lives, a havoc  from which we have not recovered  to this day.

The most I ever made as a pastor was $26,000 a year. Most years my pay was more in the $10-12,000 range. I never had health insurance or any of the work related benefits that almost every church member had. I am not complaining as much as I am explaining. I sincerely thought this is how God wanted me to live. I gladly sacrificed my financial well-being for the sake of THE CALL.

I did work secular jobs on and off over the years. Pumped gas. Sold insurance. Delivered newspapers. Managed restaurants. I always made significantly more money in the world. I viewed these jobs as a means to an end. Out of the 25 years I was in the ministry, I worked secular jobs for about 7 years.

Even when I worked a secular job, I still worked full-time at whatever church I was pastoring. I was of the opinion that every pastor should be full-time regardless of whether he had a secular job. I was taught this way of thinking in Bible college and it was a drove me to burn the candle at both ends for most of the time I spent in the ministry. When I was wasn’t working a secular job, I would take the extra time I had and devote it to the church. Either way, I was a consummate  workaholic, rarely taking a day off or taking a vacation.

My view of life, God, and my call to the ministry deeply affected how I viewed money and material things. God was first in my life, the church second, the souls of others third, and my family came in a distant fourth.  As a sold-out lover of Jesus I knew I was expected to die to self and live only for the glory of God.

jesus loves the poor

Keeping the church going so it could be a light on a hill in the community was very important. My personal finances and well-being didn’t matter. All to Jesus, All to Jesus, All to Him I freely give...the song went and I was quite willing to give everything to make sure the work of God continued on (and I taught my children to do the same). We tithed. We gave love offerings. We supported missionaries. We gave money to people who were poorer than  we were. We gave cars, appliances, computers, and clothing to people in the church. We sold household goods so we could give the money to missionaries, evangelists, or help with some need in the church. We were givers…and we shouldn’t have been.

About year 20 in the ministry I began to see how foolish this kind of thinking was. I started looking around and I noticed that while I was busy sacrificing and giving most other Christians were busy building their kingdom on earth. They were buying houses, land, and cars, contributing to their child’s college fund, and preparing for retirement. I was living in the here-and-now; with no thought of tomorrow, no thought of retirement. I had planned to die with my boots on. I realized I had been a fool. I came to see that neither God, Jesus, nor the church was going to take care of me or my family.  (I was still a Christian and a pastor when I came to this conclusion.) If the church didn’t care about my financial well-being while I was their pastor, they sure as hell weren’t going to care about it when I retired. (I could tell numerous stories of pastors and their families who were left destitute by churches who promised to care for them when they were old)

After realizing the error of our ways, the first thing we did was stop tithing. If the church couldn’t pay me a living wage it made no sense to give money to the church so I could have less of an unlivable wage. The second thing we did was that Polly went to work so we could have a better income and health/dental/life insurance. By the time we made this decision I was already starting to have health problems.

These two decisions dramatically improved our lifestyle. For the first time in our marriage we were able to enjoy life a bit. It was refreshing not to have to sacrifice our financial well-being for the sake of the church. Either the church stood on its own two feet or it didn’t. We still gave money to the church, but not like we used to. No more Sundays when the offering was bad…telling the treasurer…don’t pay me this week…I’ll be fine. I expected the church to pay me. After all, a laborer is worthy of his hire.

Decades of living at the bottom of the economic ladder have hurt my wife and I greatly. Low or no wages means a lower social security check when we retire. I never had a retirement program so there is no extra money come retirement. We will have to adjust and try to make it on social security. Hopefully, Polly will be able to work for another 10-12 years and perhaps my in-my-head-book will become a reality and make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. All we know to do is move forward and do what we can. We have no choice but to play the cards we’ve been dealt. Hindsight is a great teacher, but it can’t undo a lifetime of ignorance and stupidity in the name of God.

As an atheist, I have no God that is coming to rescue me or see me through to the end.  I know that financial security comes through hard work and making a good, livable wage.(and a good bit of luck)  I know planning for the future is important. While there is not a lot we can do about our own affairs, Polly and I have tried to teach and show our children a better way. We are quite happy about how they have taken to this better way. All of them are light years ahead of where we were when we were their age.

I am sure some well-meaning Christian is going to say, it seems Bruce that becoming an atheist has made you selfish and more focused on your family and not others. Yep, and I make no apology for it. I am still a giving person. I go out of my way to help others, BUT I am not going to sacrifice my financial well-being for the sake of a deity that doesn’t exist or to meet a need in the life of people I do not know. I do what I can, but I now realize that my wife, children, grandchildren, and yes. myself, come first.

A family we know very well is an excellent case study. They are lifelong Christians with 40 years in the ministry. They are retired now, and their health is declining. Their house is falling in around them and it is in a neighborhood that is now all rental properties. Their house has lost 50% of its value.  Month to month, they barely make it. Yet, no matter how tough things are they tithe, give offerings, and contribute to every cockamamie financial appeal their pastor comes up with. What do they need to do? Stop giving to the church. They have sacrificed enough. They have given enough. Let others pay the freight now. Take that tithe and offering money and fix the house or buy medicine. But, I know they won’t. Jesus and the church come first. After all, the Bible says:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Malachi 3:8-10)

For many years, I shuddered at the thought of robbing God. These days I think…God deserves to be robbed. He has all he needs. He has become a robber-baron who cares not for the suffering of his peasants. If he did care he would pass a note along to all those preachers who say God talks to them and tell them to STOP fleecing the flock. Maybe they could tell their congregations that God doesn’t need any money in 2015. Maybe they could tell their congregation God doesn’t need a new building, gymnasium, the latest AV equipment, or the latest, greatest sure-to-make-the church-grow magic trick. How about emptying the church’s bank accounts and giving a rebate to every person who has sacrificially given their money so the pastor could have the best of everything.

I feel Polly shaking me…Bruce, Bruce wake up…you’re dreaming.

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[signoff]

 

I Did it All for Jesus, My Life of Self-Denial

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2

Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. Baptized a Lutheran and later making a public profession of faith in a Baptist church at the age of fifteen, I had been a part of the Christian church most of my life. I preached my first sermon at the age of fifteen, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college as a young man, and pastored churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I never went through the angst many people go through when determining what to do with their lives. At the age of five, I told my mother I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. From the age of fifteen to the age of fifty, I was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had no doubt that God had called me to preach to sinners the unsearchable riches of Christ.

I am an all in kind of guy. I have little tolerance for doing things halfway. When Jesus called to me and told me to leave my proverbial nets, I did so immediately. I was a devoted, committed, sold-out follower of Jesus Christ. My passion was for God, his church, and the Word of God. For twenty-five years, my life was consumed by the ministry and the work I believed God had called me to do.

Up until I started blogging in 2007, no one had ever doubted that I was saved, that I was a devoted, committed follower of Jesus. A person who years ago knew me quite well, was shocked when she heard that I was no longer a pastor and that I was now an atheist. She said, Butch (my family nickname) was the real deal. It is important to understand this point. NO ONE…out of the thousands of people I came in contact with, ever expressed doubt about my salvation. Not one teacher, not one deacon, not one evangelist, not one church member, not one fellow pastor, ever expressed doubt that I was a Christian or that I was a God-called preacher.

Those who now contend I was never a Christian or that I was a false teacher make their judgment based not on the evidence of the life I lived, but their peculiar interpretation of the Bible. For the Baptists, Calvinists, and many Evangelicals, the only way to square my life with their theology is for them to say I never was a Christian or that I still am a Christian Arminians have less of a problem explaining my life. While they are “troubled” by my apostasy, they recognize that I was a Christian. In their eyes, I fell from grace, and I am now no longer a Christian.

I realize that I am a rare bird. While there are many men who leave the ministry, few leave it as I did so late in life. Many of the notable preacher-turned-atheists, apostatized and left the ministry in their twenties and thirties. I left at the age of fifty. This does not make me special in any way, but it does make me an exception to the rule. And this is why Christian people have a hard time understanding how it is possible for a man to be a Christian for most of his life and to pastor churches for twenty-five years, to then just walk away from it all and renounce Jesus.

Those who know me personally have a difficult time wrapping their mind around Pastor Bruce being an atheist. To quote Nicodemus in John 3, how can these things be? But, whether they can understand it or not, here I am. I once was a Christian, I once was a man of God, and now I am not.

My life was motivated by the following verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24,25)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:14,15)

These verses, along with my commitment to follow every command in the Bible, led me to a life of self-denial and economic simplicity. While most people around me were focused on earning a living, providing for their family, and accumulating material goods, I was focused on making just enough money to keep a roof over my family’s head. I took seriously the command to “learn in whatever state I am to be content.” I practiced a Baptist version of voluntary poverty, and as the head of the home, I led my family to do the same. I figured that whatever money and material goods we had was what God wanted us to have. To desire, require, or want more was a sure sign that I was in love with the things of the world.

somerset baptist church mt perry ohio 1983-1994

Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, my family and I were economically at or below the poverty line. For many years we drove junk cars and for five years our family of eight lived in a three bedroom 12’x60’ mobile home. I paid $2,800 for the mobile home and parked it next to the church. It was a ratty old mobile home to which I had to do extensive work so we could live in it. As I look back on it now, I see this mobile home as a snapshot of my/our life of self-denial.

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I woke up one day, looked around, and realized that our family was the only one living this way. Everyone else, pastor friends included, were busy building their kingdom on this earth. Their focus was on their job, career, home, land, education, and retirement. My focus was on living a voluntary life of self-denial so that I might preach the gospel. I saw myself as following in the steps of Jesus and Paul. Why wasn’t anyone else living this way?

I still think my interpretation of the Bible was essentially correct. It wasn’t that I took Christianity too seriously, it was that most everyone else didn’t take it seriously enough. After all, did Jesus not say:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (Matthew 6:24, 25)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19,20)

My heart was squarely focused on Jesus. I treasured the Word of God and preaching the gospel. I saw the world neatly divided into saved and lost. As a saved man, one who believed in a literal hell, how could I idly sit by while knowing that most people did not know the saving grace of Jesus Christ? I spent most of my married life hustling for Jesus. Preaching, teaching, witnessing, preaching on the street, preaching at nursing homes, visiting prison inmates, knocking on doors, visiting bus routes, handing out tracts, and starting churches.  Like the Apostle Paul, I believed, woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!

somerset baptist church 1983-1994

Our son Jaime, and our two girls, Bethany and Laura.

I took seriously Ezekiel 3:17-19:

Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me, When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

I believed that God would hold me accountable for every soul that went to hell because I did not witness to them. I felt I was duty bound to warn sinners of their wicked ways and of the judgment to come. My preaching, methodology, and lifestyle reflected this. Even though I was more committed than anyone else I knew, I also knew I was far from perfect, that I was far from being as committed as I could be. I pleaded with God to give me more of his power, more of his Spirit, just like he gave to great preachers like DL MoodyHudson TaylorDavid BrainerdJohn WesleyCharles FinneyAdoniram Judson,  and Charles Spurgeon.

I left the ministry in 2005 and I left Christianity in 2008. It is hard for me not to look back on my/our life of self-denial with bitter regret. Yes, I helped a lot of people and yes, in spite of our poverty, we had a good life. But, a lifetime of self-denial has put my wife and me in an economically difficult place. We are by no means poor. We have more than enough money to pay our bills and live a comfortable life. We still live simply, and outside of a 2015 Ford Escape sitting in the driveway, our home and its furnishings are modest. When we bought our home in 2007, we bought a fixer-upper and we have been fixing it up ever since. Our life is comfortable, dare I say blessed. But, I can’t help thinking about where we might now be if I had not been so focused on living a life of self-denial? In about three years, I will officially “retire.” I will draw a minimal social security check because I didn’t pay social security tax for most of the years I was in the ministry. I have no other retirement plan. Polly will likely have to work after she reaches retirement age. I deeply regret this, but decisions have consequences, and because I made a decision years ago to not pay social security tax and because I thought Jesus and the church would take care of me when I was old, I made no other plans for the future.  After all, I planned on dying with my boots on.

Life is one long lesson learned. How about you? Were you a devoted follower of Jesus? Did you take seriously the verses I mentioned in this post? If so, what did your life of self-denial look like? Did you do without for the sake of Jesus and the church? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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