I’ve asked and been asking myself for years why I struggle so much with Bible reading and prayer. I’ve finally gotten to a point where I can talk to God a little bit, but I wouldn’t say we were on close speaking terms. Bible reading is very difficult, and I rarely pick up a Bible or want anything to do with things that remind me of it.
This didn’t happen because I left the church. It happened because I was in it. It happened because the words that were supposed to comfort me were very often used against me instead. People who professed to be Christians did what they could to undermine my faith and that of others, in order to lift themselves or hide their own failures, and not just a few times, but repeatedly, until what I hear when I read, no matter what it is, brings a flood of bad memories rather than anything good.
I wasn’t raised in what most people who read this might consider a Christian home. We went to Sunday School, we read Jesus storybooks sometimes, but Bible reading was in preparation to teach, and prayer was mainly before extended family meals, not part of daily life. I struggled with some things in my own life, and at 9 I went to a camp where we were ‘encouraged’ to have daily devotionals and to memorize scripture. I was a strict rule-follower and very much took these new rules to heart. When I got home, though, I quickly learned that it was not to my advantage to follow them… I hid to memorize verses or to read my Bible, and most of my prayer time was done after lights out or high up in the top of a maple tree where no one would know. (When my sister found out I was reading my Bible, the next time we were in trouble for something she chimed in to Dad that I should know better because I was reading my Bible… and she got off the hook while I was punished, because he agreed with her.) Still, even touching the Bible brought me a kind of peace and calmed me in a way that nothing else had been able.
Throughout my childhood there was a feeling that I should be following the rule, the discipline, of quiet time. I wasn’t very faithful with it always, but the thought was there that I should be. Going to a Pentecostal church backed that thought. I jumped into that rule and others very eagerly–the concept of rules associated with church was familiar to me, and I liked having rules… they brought order to areas of my life that were very chaotic otherwise. One problem with this was that it led to legalism… the other was that not everyone followed the same rules.
Bible reading, particularly, went from being something positive to a chore within just a few years. I craved the recognition of getting my Bible reading certificate (for reading the Bible through in a year), but it was easy to fall behind and it was hard to catch up. There were other obligations, there was life… and more and more a piece of paper and a few minutes of applause for the hours and hours of ‘faithfulness’ in a year wasn’t enough. I started to recognize that the recognition was unfair when the youth were challenged with a point system — a point for every minute prayed or chapter read. Well, goodness, I could pray and drive but I sure couldn’t read and drive, and I could speed read but I wouldn’t get much from what I’d ‘read’, but this was how to rack up points. And a chapter often took a whole lot longer than a minute of prayer. There would be no recognition for ‘slow and steady’ in the point system. I think that is the first year after joining that I didn’t get my certificate. It didn’t matter any more.
Within three years of that, I was thrown out of a church. I fasted for a week before I was thrown out, having been warned to somehow change whatever the pastor disliked, even though I wasn’t sure what that was. Fasting didn’t ‘fix’ me, and it didn’t prevent me being thrown out. I’d been the only one going to the church to pray, the only one going to the prayer room before church at least sometimes, definitely the only one ‘interceding’ in tongues for the services, but I was the one thrown out. I didn’t understand how this could happen. Being thrown out made me doubt myself and my routines of prayer and fasting. What difference had they made? Not only was I told not to go back there, but I’d actually had the pastor tell me he didn’t know if I COULD BE saved.
I experimented a little while with other options, but in the end I moved… to a place that ended up just as bad or worse. Within months I was no longer reading, praying other than before church as required, or fasting if I could avoid it without getting called out. I’d try. I was guilt ridden when I didn’t, and fearful that I’d be ‘caught’, but even the fear and the guilt weren’t adequate motivators. Not that they should have been; by that point I had THAT unhealthy a perception of “Christian disciplines,” though.
It’s not easy to get out of that level of legalism or that degree of unhealthiness.
Tonight I found an article about the type of church I grew up in. It reminded me of that group’s “five steps to salvation” and the emphasis to a 9 year old camper of the importance of daily Bible reading, memorization, and prayer. It reminded me of the beginnings of a legalism that would take me, finally, to a place where I wondered if there was a god, to a place where I’d sit stunned as someone told me they were a Christian but didn’t have devotionals and didn’t think they were even necessary… to a place where I would wish I could believe the same, to find again a place with God where the rules didn’t matter, but just the relationship.