Listen, I know there are some of you who are already disgruntled at the title. Yes, this isn’t going to be a glowing advertisement for Adventist culture. If you want that, I made a blog post a month or so ago about the things I love about my church. Because I do love it, deeply. But although God is perfect, his people, including me, are imperfect and so are the systems and cultures we create.
I read a research paper a few months ago about the common problems that crop up when engaging in psychotherapy and counselling with Adventists. It stated that some of the common problems were rigid perfectionism, unintegrated sexuality and problems of self worth/esteem. As I sat there on the bed in my onesie, bag of sweet and salty popcorn in one hand, I started laughing and crying at the same time. Laughing because there was something almost hysterical about how pointedly accurate it was and crying because it resonated with me personally.
I thought twice about writing this. Once because I didn’t want to get too critical. Twice because I didn’t want to get too personal.
I’ve always been a perfectionist whilst at the same time having a tendency towards being quite far from perfect in a lot of ways. Understandably, that poses a lot of problems.
I can’t blame it all on Adventism. I can partially blame it on the burden of being a naturally smart kid. The sort of kid who had an existential crisis in when she got her results for the year 5 end of year exams. 82% in science. What happened to the other 18%? And if I I could get 18% wrong, what if the next time, another 18% went missing?
I can also probably partially blame it on having a Mother who despite her flaws, is probably as close to a perfect person as anyone I’ve met. And I can definitely put some of it down to my own neurosis and unchecked thought processes.
I can’t however, let Adventist culture get off scott free.
Adventism, like any other denomination of Christianity, is a fairly broad church. Pun intended. There are liberals and conservatives. There are those who are fully committed and those who are non-committal. There are nice people and nasty people (on both the liberal and conservative side). The conservative or liberal labels are sometimes applied lazily because of our desperate need to categorise each other, but they aren’t entirely without merit.
I grew up in what would be considered by some accounts, a fairly conservative family. (Liberal to those who were left of us and conservative to those who were right of us – see how labels are problematic?). During my teenage years I found myself drawn to a brand of Adventism that was even more conservative than what my parents brought me up in. I was sincere in my efforts to be like Jesus. I honestly just wanted to do the right thing and I didn’t care how extreme that looked to anyone else. I went to conferences, I watched sermons online, and I studied avidly. One thing that was emphasised over and over again was the high standard that God called us to as Christians. We weren’t supposed to be like everyone else. We spoke differently, we dressed differently, we ate differently, we used our free time differently – with God’s strength, we could be perfect. My skirt length increased and my Bible highlighting became more creative. My virginity was firmly intact, powered by fail-proof curfews and myriad books on purity. I demanded excellence of myself in every facet of my life. And didn’t always succeed.
The central tenet wasn’t in and of itself theologically incorrect. The idea that Christianity is supposed to be a radically transformative experience that affects every aspect of your life is one that I hold to and one that I believe many churches and denominations have lost in an age of feel-good spirituality and blurry TED talk-esque sermons. Intent and outcome though, are often two very different things, and although the intent may have been to challenge young people to live lives that were dedicated to their faith, the outcome of constant messages that emphasised high standards was often young people who became obsessive about avoiding ‘sin’ whilst forgetting the principle of love that is supposed to underpin our faith.
You could argue that it’s unfair to blame a preacher or conference for my failure to find the perfect marriage of love and high standards, but when so many young people I know experienced similar struggles with feeling unworthy, unloved and unforgiven, there has to be some self-examination on the part of the leaders sharing these messages.
The acknowledgement that along the way to becoming the person we want to be there will probably be a plethora of wrong turns and false starts was nodded to quietly but quickly dismissed with the exhortation that God’s grace and personal effort meant that those wrong turns could and should be minimised. And isn’t that true? Don’t I believe that my faith is a sat nav that gives me instructions for my journey? I do. But I’ve also come to accept that as the driver in this complicated and sometimes tiring journey we call life, sometimes I get distracted and don’t listen to the sat nav. Sometimes the music is too loud or there are other people in the back that I listen to when really I should be listening to the sat nav. And so I take a wrong turn. But as long as the sat nav is still charged, switched on and in front, it will keep telling me to u-turn or try another route to make sure I get to my destination. One thing I know for sure about sat navs is that they never give up.My route might be different to someone else because of the times I didn’t listen to the sat nav, but the most important thing is that I’m trying my best to listen and that just like the sat nav, I’m not abandoning the journey.
The journey is difficult enough without people adding extra baggage that you don’t really need. There is no doubt that God requires a certain way for us to live as Christians, but sometimes I’ve found that humans are really good at adding and taking away things and encouraging others to do the same. People’s intentions might be good, but the effect it can have on your spiritual path can be disastrous.
I’m not here to make a case for low standards or tell you that mistakes don’t have consequences. I’m not here either to make a case for specific lifestyle choices (although I believe in them and will happily share them in person). I’m definitely not here to suggest that sin is anything less than it is or that we can’t overcome it. I am here though to make a case for grace, forgiveness and a little bit more self love. I’m here to make a case for defining yourself by the love of an all forgiving and willingly forgetful (of our mistakes) God. I’m here to speak to the other very imperfect perfectionists.
Someone reading this blog has been beating themselves up because they’re not ‘there’ yet. Beloved, the person you look at that you think is ‘there’ wasn’t always ‘there’. They probably aren’t even ‘there’ now. I’m definitely not.Becoming like Jesus is the work of a lifetime. Be open to the fact that you will make mistakes and so will others. Know that you are loved and essential despite your mistakes. Keep listening to the sat nav. You’ll get there.
P.S. If anyone wants to know more about my particular theological leanings on certain things (from what I’ve studied), shoot me a line in the comment section, facebook, twitter etc.