One day, in the near future, there is going to be a post (or two or three) about my road to becoming an ex-Evangelical. It’ll be neatly done and have a cutesy title that does not reference an angsty musical. This is not that post.
Today, I have questions and no answers, so I’m throwing these things out there into the void (or, more hopefully, in the direction of the #Exvangelical community) in the hopes that any of you might have suggestions, support, anything, really.
This was supposed to be a quick poll-type thing but then it got lengthy and weird af and not at all eloquent, so you’ve been warned.
How do you pray when you don’t know how to pray any more? How do you pray without feeling like a fake? You’re unsure what exactly your faith consists of any more–you believe in God, you believe in the Holy Trinity, but so much of what you spent 20+ years being told by people and institutions you trusted is wrong. You’ve spent nearly a decade trying to untangle yourself from the spiritual abuse of the evangelical church that even a simple dinner prayer is wrought with anxiety — never mind the tough stuff. And there is lots of tough stuff.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have OCD. I also have hypochondria and what a previous primary care doctor of mine said was PTSD from having a variety of “medical-related traumas at a young age.” (I was in and out of doctors/specialists offices and the hospital from birth to about 5 years old.)
Anyway, as an adult, this has translated into I HATE GOING TO THE DOCTOR. I HATE GOING TO SPECIALISTS. Which is bad b/c I have autoimmune and neurological things that require routine, not-scary-at-all maintenance appointments. I go through alternating periods where I either go ALL THE DAMN TIME FOR EVERY LITTLE THING (literally: is that a speck OR IS IT CANCER? what about that mark? has it always been there? OR IS IT CANCER?) or I PRETEND THINGS DON’T EXIST AND DON’T GO FOR MONTHS OR YEARS (this last time was pretty bad. If you have autoimmune issues or really any chronic health stuff, DON’T LET THAT SHIT GO. JUST DON’T.)
I’m saying all of this embarrassing stuff to get to my point…which is…when I’m worried about my health (which is p much always) or even if I’m just having a bad day, I feel like I have been robbed of one of my longest-held, most-basic coping mechanisms: prayer.
Not only that, but it turns out that this basic coping mechanism that seemed to get me through so much was mired in some weird-ass and also harmful beliefs. The churches I grew up in taught that if something was wrong with you physically, not only did God want this to happen, it could very well be because of something you did. So you want to pray for what’s ailing you but you also have to pray for your spirit. It’s not a simple “God, please let me recover from ______. Thank you, Lord, Amen” or “God please let me get through ______. Thank you, Lord, Amen.” It’s “God let me recover from _____ if it’s Your will. Also I’m sorry for taking _____ for granted. And for not being where I need to be spiritually right now. And for not having compassion about XYZ the other day…etc…etc…And please give me Your Peace which surpasses all understanding…Amen”
And for me, the OCD kid-then-young adult, there was the added fun of immediately repeating this sort of prayer at least once, but usually a couple of times with some variations, as to cover all my bases, because what if I said the wrong thing? What if I asked for recovery from this sickness but not from this other thing it might also be and God ONLY covers the one thing because literally, friends, I grew up with this whacked-out idea that God was gonna throw my words back in my face if I didn’t pray super-specifically enough. At the same time, they taught us in Sunday school and youth group and Bible studies that the Devil was lurking around every corner waiting to trick us. I’m not sure when I began to equate both God and Satan with Willy Wonka screaming at Charlie Bucket that he’d stolen fizzy lifting drink and had now LOST, but here we are.
Looking back, I realize how crazy this all sounds, but at the same time, it now makes so much sense that prayer could have all kinds of loopholes because with the Evangelical church, prayer was not a simple ritual, though it was pretty formulaic after a point. It was, like everything else, as legalistic as could be. It was a way to control through guilt. It was a way to keep believers in line and a way to compare ourselves to others. We bragged about getting up early for morning prayers. Intercession or hand-laying were important gifts. I mean how many times did we hear (or say ourselves), “God told me…” and “God wanted me to tell you…”
No wonder I was worried about exact wording: we were regularly told things like “Be careful what you pray for — you might get it.” That one still freaks me out. Like…I said I wanted patience, so now God is going to send me someone or something to test my patience??? Really???? That’s??? How??? It??? Works?????
Relevant to that, there was also the idea that one could “waste” gifts or opportunities. If you weren’t using your gifts or the opportunities God gave you, he could easily take them away–which is something that still sends me into a tailspin. I only have sight in one eye. I’m also a writer and creator-of-things. Any time anything happens related to the health of my good eye or with my hands, my immediate thoughts are still, “well, before I can pray for recovery/health, I need to pray for forgiveness for wasting my gifts” and that if God takes my sight or the use of my hands, it’s my own fault/I deserve it.
We were also always asked to consider things “prayerfully” — especially big life choices we didn’t necessarily feel comfortable making. But we prayed for really small things, too, and believed that God had a part in literally every tiny thing that happened in our day–from parking space availability to basic coincidences. You know those super-cringey FB posts from your old fundie friends or relatives. “Needed a cup of vegetable oil for dinner and had just one cup left! God answers prayers!” Like, really, Karen? Yes. We were all Karen. Or our mom/grandparent/friend was Karen.
Considering all of this, no wonder my OCD self was very preoccupied with making sure my prayers fell within certain carefully-worded, thought-out parameters. And repeated again just in case I’d messed it up.
Despite all of this, as a child (later, adult) riddled with anxiety, the part that was calming was when I got to the end: I’d jumped through the hoops, hopefully guarding against Satan’s trickery (…or God’s??? idek any more) and arrived at “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Sometimes, I’d just zone out on a loop: “please give me Your peace that surpasses all understanding, please, please, please…” And eventually, I’d fall asleep or start breathing normally again, convinced that God’s magic peace had fallen over me. Whatever I was going through wasn’t important any more–at the least, it seemed fixable. I wasn’t dying, I wasn’t going to Hell, I wasn’t failing at this or that. I could function again, at least until the next problem or anxiety attack.
I don’t know if God’s peace that surpasses all understanding is real, but it always felt real, even if it was temporary. It was real to me. And I want it back, and I don’t know how to get it back. I don’t know how to pray without bogging myself down in loopholes. What starts out as a simple “Lord, please help me get through ______” or “God, give me peace…” turns into arguing with myself: “It’s your own fault you’re in this situation, why would He help you through it? This is what you get…” and “You can’t just pray and expect anything to happen if you never do anything for God any more…” or, ultimately, “You don’t even know all of what you believe any more…how can you then ask God for anything?”
I…I don’t know? How can I? How do you? How do other exvangelicals (whether you still believe in God, call yourself a Christian, or don’t) cope? How do you pray, even for basic, daily things? Do you still pray the same way or for the same things? What’s changed in how you pray?