The other day, a Christian band I follow on Facebook, and I don’t know why I still do because I’m not really a huge fan of their music, wrote as its status, “Finish this sentence: I am afraid of ___________.” Naturally, I was humored by this and I wanted to respond by writing the name of the band. I was curious what other people wrote, and the first entry said “Disobeying God.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in Christian culture, so I know what this means.
A lot of non-religious people who grew up in Christian culture take a kind of self-deprecating approach and will say they fear God will zap their ass with lightning or jokingly say, “I’m going to hell for that.” I think this is generally funny and comes from a place of security in their belief or lack thereof in religion, so I think that’s cool.
But when an evangelical Christian expresses fear of anything to do with God, they really mean it. In talking about (dis)obedience, most evangelicals hold the belief that God has some special purpose for their lives, something they may be aware of or are still searching for. So to obey means to “follow the will of God”, which is to fulfill that calling, and disobedience would naturally mean doing the opposite of that.
The problem is, it’s fairly impossible to know what God’s will for their lives is. There’s nothing written down anywhere that they could point to and say it’s what God wants them to do. Oh, there are general things that are the worst of evils, like not tithing the right amount (the question of what is the right amount is another issue altogether) or being gay. God’s will according to evangelical circles is just an ambiguous life direction that’s kind of undefinable.
These people truly believe there is something God wants them to do in life. So, they spend a lot of their life trying to identify that if they don’t know what it is, and then trying to go about doing that thing if they happen to figure it out.
The upsetting part is, if things don’t work out the way they’re hoping, they start to think, “maybe God’s upset with me because I’m outside of His will” or sometimes, they see adversity as an obstacle in the way of completing their life’s purpose. It’s all very difficult to figure out and even harder to explain.
But to fear that when things aren’t going your way, that means God is upset with you and punishing you, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place, is a maddening experience (and I don’t mean like videogame football). Not only will it drive you insane, but it’s also very frightening, because you may worry that if God gets too upset with you, He’ll tear you asunder and send you to hell or have you get swallowed by a giant whale like Jonah.
Life is difficult enough trying to live up to the expectations of your boss and your family and your parents and paying bills and just trying to survive for so many people. The spectre of a God who will be disappointed if you don’t accomplish so many minute details in life or do the wrong thing at the wrong time or don’t do whatever it is that you’re supposed to discover that you’re supposed to do is just so much weight upon a life that is already weighed down by so much.
And the problem of fear of disobedience doesn’t just stop with the believer. It carries into their relationships with their family, friends and the rest of the world. Many parents who are disappointed with their own lives will project that same disappointment onto their children by holding them to ridiculously high standards and showing disapproval when they fail to live up to them. If a person feels like he or she is a disappointment to God, then they’ll project that onto the people around them. Not to mention that most evangelicals believe they’re supposed to convert others to their religion. You know those religious nuts that you hear go on and on about preventing “perverse” sexuality and think the nation is going to hell or whatever? You better believe they are worried about God being disappointed in them and the entire world.
It’s no wonder that in a country where a person’s image is so important that people, especially deeply religious people, will go to such great lengths to make themselves appear to be perfect and judge the rest of their world by their own standard they don’t even live up to.
And such a culture is rife for manipulation. It’s easy to use fear tactics to control a group of people. You can get a lot of people to do what you want them to do or believe what you want them to believe by saying God will be disappointed in them if they do otherwise.
In ancient times, religious people tried to explain evil and tragedy by pontificating on the supernatural. It was almost superstitious. But if you don’t have a great knowledge of the world, then how else do you explain a great flood or an earthquake, when you are aware it’s not the natural order of things. It’s easy to say, God must have done it, and those people must have done something to deserve it. Thinking that doesn’t make it true. But I could see how such thinking could cultivate a fear of God.
I can also see how it could easily be used to rationalize committing atrocities, like genocide. If one group of people doesn’t like another group of people, the first group can adopt the position that God is on their side and the other side and everything they do must be evil. And if you win, then it must have been God’s will.
But in a more educated and rational time, like the present, I don’t think religion should serve that purpose anymore. If there is a God who created the world and everything in it, then I don’t think it should be something to fear. I mean, if God orders the universe and makes it good, then what is there to be afraid of? I know there are a lot of theological questions to go with that that I don’t know the answer to, but I think that view of God would be much healthier.
I think a healthy fear of karma or something similar might be a positive thing. I think it might be natural to fear a life of mediocrity. Fear can be a good motivator if it leads to treating others well. But to be afraid of a vengeful God watching your every move who is ready to zap you when you step out of line, like a dog with a shock collar inside an invisible fence, I don’t think that helps anyone.
I’m writing this because I know what it’s like to be an evangelical Christian living with this view of life. I think I’ve managed to escape it, though I still find myself falling into this line of thinking from time to time. It’s freeing most of the time, but when I find myself thinking this way, it’s a difficult time.
If you’re going to believe in God, let it be a positive force that helps you work for the good of the world and the people in your life. But to spend a life worrying about “disobeying God” is scary, sad and even tragic.