Friday, February 11, 2011

Fear, Anger, Guilt, and God

In my first post on this blog, I detailed my life and my religious beliefs as they evolved over time. Much of my description focused on the horribly negative emotions I associated with God, including my considerable fear of His punishment, my raging anger at His egregious injustice, and the immense guilt I felt for experiencing the fear and anger, the certainty that I was a completely bad person, and the guilt itself.

Thankfully, my personal discovery of universalism eliminated a vast majority of these feelings. However, even today it can continue to be a struggle. This has always been something I find quite challenging to discuss. I suspect this is due to the guilt. When I was younger, it always felt like I was the only one combating doubts about God and religion. Everyone else was "superior" to me because they did not question (at least, I thought they did not; in reality, I am sure many of them did) God or whatever the pastor preached. This was one of the primary reasons I characterized myself as a bad person. I never expressed these emotions to anyone for fear of being reveled as a fraud.

The time (summer of 2009) around my transformation to universalism was not a pleasant period in my life. I had just recently dealt with two extremely difficult personal problems. Only two months after this transformation, early symptoms of my current illness began to show. The first time I was admitted to the hospital, a CT scan revealed a massive cyst in my abdomen, which the doctors logically assumed to be the cause of my symptoms. All of a sudden I was informed that I required emergency surgery. Up to that point in my life, I'd never even had an IV put in, let alone a major and risky surgery.  To top it off, I was at school in New York City, 1500 miles away from my family, who was unable to come and be with me.

Although it pains me to admit it, I was terrified. All the previous fear of God that universalism had taken away from me instantly came flooding back. I could not suppress the thought "What if I was wrong?" and that God might be punishing me for my new found beliefs. I began to feverishly pray silently, apologizing to God for ever doubting in Him and pleading that, if I did not survive the operation, not to send me to hell and torture me forever and ever. It was all I could do not to start crying in front of the doctors and nurses.

By the time the operation was over and I was wheeled up to my hospital room, it was after midnight. Physically, I was pretty uncomfortable; enough so that I could not sleep. Mentally, I was a disaster. I was overwhelmed with guilt. It was paralyzing, like there was a tremendous weight crushing my chest, and I struggled to breathe. For several months, I had considered my revelation of universalism a gift from God and cherished the happiness and the peace of mind it had brought me. Yet, as soon as a substantial threat had come along, it was as if I threw it all out the window. I was incredibly ashamed of myself. Worse, I was scared that God was also ashamed of me, or even angry at me.

I wish I could say these feelings were resolved quickly and easily, but they were not. It took several weeks.  Eventually, I came to understand that God was not angry for my lapse. Actually, I believe He was genuinely sorry for the terror I had endured. I realized that He wanted me to reach a position where, even in life threatening situations, I would trust His unconditional love to save me and holding not even an infinitesimal fear of being thrown away like a piece of garbage. How I recognized these things, I honestly cannot say. They are just something I know. And yes, I am very much aware of how idiotic that sounds.

I also wish I could say that situation was the end of those disturbing feelings. But it wasn't. I still must occasionally battle them. Since becoming sick, my life has been put on hold. I was forced to take time off school and move back home. There are many nights where I lie sleepless in awful pain, angry. I bitterly ask God, "Why has this happened to me?", "Why are you punishing me?", "What have I done to deserve this?". Of course, I always feel guilty for my outbursts later.

Yet, I still wish I had the answers to my questions. Basically, I long to know why I must suffer, why we all must suffer. Because of this mystery, many conclude either that there is no God or that He does not love us unconditionally. But, as trite as it sounds, I know in my heart that He does. I know that He loves me and I know that He loves every single individual He has created. I know that, no matter the outcome of my illness, good or bad, God will support me every step of the way, even when I do not even realize He is there.


  1. The lingering negative feelings about God and fear that perhaps he may be punishing you are understandable to me. I was reared in a fundamentalist Christian home and my psyche was scarred by it. I now reject those feelings for different reason than yours, but in the back of mind those "demons" of prior days still make an occasional appearance.

  2. May I ask what are your reasons for rejecting the feelings? I've done quite a bit of research on people like us who have been raised in fundamentalist Christian homes and decided to break away from that world. One of the most interesting aspects is how they deal with the emotional scars often inflicted. I think I'm so intrigued because my path is quite different from a majority of people in our situation. Many become atheists (which I have no problem with at all) and reject any kind of God. However, I have retained my belief in God. Actually, my belief has grown much stronger and more personal than it ever was when I was a child.

  3. Certainly you may ask. The problem of evil seems to my mind to satisfactory put to rest the idea of an all knowing, all powerful, and all good personal God. That being so, I no longer find plausible the idea of a judging, punishing God.

    It goes without saying, however, that there is a bit of mental reserve that perhaps I could be wrong and that the traditional idea of God might still somehow be true. But that is surely the result of the psychological scarring I wrote about. When I think about the matter in a purely logical fashion, the fears dissipate.

    I read several of your posts when I visited yesterday. You are a very talented writer. And I will go so far as to say that your theory of a universalist God is very appealing to me. It is a hundred times, no a hundred-thousand times, better than the God of my youth. But is there any reasonable foundation for such a belief, I mean beyond the desires of the heart, which - as you know Pascal suggested - has reasons that reason cannot know?

  4. First, I want to say that I completely agree with you that the conception of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God does not make logical sense considering all the evil in the world. I actually wrote a 5 part series last fall called The Omni-Characteristics of God addressing this dilemma. If you are interested, here is the first post. The traditional view of God has too many holes for me to take it seriously. I also do not find a judging, punishing God to be plausible.

    Yes, my universalist beliefs do have a foundation made of more than just feelings. Once I left Christianity when I was about 15 or 16, I considered myself an agnostic. In fact, I still do. While I do have a deep belief in God, I realize that there is no way for me, or anyone, to empirically prove that God exists. I have no scientific knowledge of God.

    During my second semester of college, I took a class on the early Christian church and I learned that many of the early theologians believed in a concept of apocatastasis, which is the universal reconciliation of all souls with God. These theologians included Origen of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandra, Gregory of Nyssa, and, possibly, Ambrose of Milan, and they believed that all souls would eventually be purified and reunited with God. Some even thought that the devil and his demons would be reconciled as well. During the first several hundred years of Christianity, the belief in universal reconciliation was actually more common than the belief of eternal condemnation, which was popularized by St. Augustine of Hippo. However, once the Catholic Church started to become a major political power in Europe and the Near East, the Emperor Justinian had apocatastasis condemned in the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, more for political reasons than religious one.

    After learning all this in class, I started doing tons of research on my own. Modern-day Christian universalists take evidence from the Bible. Many of the Greek words in the New Testament translated as hell are mistranslated. Some even believe the evangelist Paul was a universalist.

    Logically, I felt that if God did exist, it would have to be a universalist God. No benevolent God could ever punish finite human crimes with eternal conscious torture. I’m a flawed human being and I would not do so a disgusting thing to even my worst enemies.

    But, yes, emotions do play a large role. I cannot deny that. Even after learning all this information, I did not become a believer until I personally experienced God’s love. I detailed it in this post, in the second to last paragraph. I don’t use my experience in an attempt to convert others to my point of view, nor do I expect others to consider my story as evidence for God. I believe that God cares much more about a person’s actions than their religious beliefs, and I do as well. I have more respect for a good and selfless person who is an atheist than a person who agrees with my religious beliefs, yet is selfish and mean.

    As a scientist, it does bother me at times that I am relying so heavily on faith. I desperately wish I had proof. But the overwhelming sensation of God’s love has produced a certainty in His existence stronger both than anything I have ever felt before or even thought was possible.

    If you would like, I can list some websites and books that have more information about universalism, if you would like more information on the more historic and rational part of my belief.

  5. You did fine explaining. And I'm fairly familiar with church history. As I said, your universalist God is a vast improvement over the traditional idea. I'm afraid I've just moved too far away from the idea of a personal God. I don't believe the concept has any real explanatory value. It seems more wishful thinking than anything. Which I don't mean to sound like a criticism of your views. It's just the way I look at it. However, I enjoyed reading your blog and am going to ad it my Blogs I Like list at my blog. I frequently discuss God and spiritual issues from something of an agnostic, pantheistic, humanistic, naturalistic perspective. I would enjoy having you join in as often as time permits.

  6. Don't worry, I don't take it as a criticism. I do see how you have come to the conclusions you have and I do believe they are completely rational. Actually, I think, with the exception of the existence of a personal God, you and I share many of the same beliefs. I have greatly enjoyed reading your blog and will try and comment as often as I can. I also added you to my box of links.

  7. Sammy- I think all of us former conservative/fundamentalists still find that the FEAR, which is a the heart of all we knew back then, rears it's ugly head from time to time. Take heart in knowing that those times become fewer and fewer as the years pass. You stand where I was about three years ago. Keep your mind open and your heart in a place of compassion for all your fellow travelers.

  8. Sammy in regards to your statement:

    " I bitterly ask God, "Why has this happened to me?", "Why are you punishing me?", "What have I done to deserve this?". Of course, I always feel guilty for my outbursts later."

    A suggestion to get a better understanding of a possible cause of your health problems is the CDC ACE Study: Adverse Childhood Experiences. There is a decent chance that it is a result of childhood stress that you dealt with in regards to your conflict with fundamental religious views.
    Recently alot of research has been unearthing evidence that there is a very strong correlation between stress early in life, including stress of the mother during pregnancy,and negative health effects later in life.
    Also I do not know much about universalism but a book I would recommend is "A course in Miracles". I have a hard time accepting the origins of the book on a logical level but the logic and reasoning within it are entirely self consistent and are of the same nature as Universalism. It has changed my life and outlook about the world drastically.
    Hope you get better and best wishes to you and yours.