Sometimes, it’s easy for us as Christians to forget that we are free. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to doctrines which bind us through legalism. All that can ever lead to is feelings of shame. Faith in Christ cannot ever be about being ashamed, because that is not love or grace. A legalistic church environment denies basic, common human needs and feelings. When we live in that kind of space for any length of time, it leads to both suppression and repression.
We may be used to hearing the term “repression” in the context of sexual expression. It is often presented as an accusation by a non-religious person towards a person of faith and can be roughly translated as “prude.” A person may be referred to as “repressed” because he or she believes pornography to be unhealthy sexuality, for example.
Sexuality is only one aspect of repression, however, and the above example is a misapplication of the term. A person whose moral values lead him or her to conclude that a particular action or expression of feelings is wrong is not necessarily repressing anything. The reason for this is that repression refers to unconscious exclusion or avoidance of feelings or desires. A person with the value that murder is wrong is not repressing anger, merely making a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger.
This concept is markedly different from suppression, which is a conscious avoidance of feelings and desires one deems negative. Parents often suppress their own needs in favor of meeting the needs of their children. This is entirely normal when a child is an infant; it is not normal when a child is an adolescent.
At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with legalistic church doctrine. Legalism as a measure of church doctrine is a way for church leadership to control the flock. It has little to do with actual righteous living or humbly following and serving a gracious and merciful God. Legalism, when practiced as church mission, is self-serving. Its aim is to create a group of like-minded and like-behaving people in order to project a certain image. It concerns itself not with love and life but with doctrinal purity.
In the end, this leads many people within those rigid confines to both suppress and repress their natural human feelings and desires. People begin to believe consciously that their feelings are sinful, and attempt to control themselves by denying their needs for self-expression. They may also begin to subconsciously avoid certain feelings because it is too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge their existence.
Sadly, this kind of thing happens even when a church has healthy boundaries and the leadership are attempting to guide the people without legalism. This brings me to the point I want to make. One Sunday, for example, my son came home from his Sunday school class in which children’s very real feelings were denied. His sister expressed a “what if” type of concern, and I reassured her that we would take care of her. He piped up with, “You shouldn’t worry, worry is a sin.” I would very much like to know who used those words on my eight-year-old in such a way that he repeated them back to deny his sister the right to express her fears.
Children should not be told that their fears are “sin.” The world is a big and sometimes scary place to a young child. When a child has a fear, the correct course of action is not to scold a child for “worrying.” The correct response is to reassure the child that he or she is loved by God and the people in the church and that we are here for them. There are other ways, of course, of helping children feel safe, but that’s a basic beginning.
Not only that, the sentiment isn’t even Biblically true. It may be inferred if one wants to take certain Scriptures in a particular way. But the statement, “Worry is a sin” cannot be found within the pages of the Bible. We do find the idea that worrying alone, without faith, is a useless pursuit. But even that is a difficult concept to bring to children. One way it can be handled with older children is to ask if their worry has made the situation go away, or if they have had to trust an adult or pray about it. But for very young children, no more is needed than care and reassurance.
How often do churches make the same mistake with adults? Rather than helping people explore healthy self-expression, we simply tell them their feelings are “wrong” or “sinful” or that God doesn’t “want” us to have those feelings. The church becomes the thought police. From that stems the shame, leading to people denying, in one way or another, that they have those internal thoughts. People are afraid to be honest with themselves and others, and perhaps even with God.
Yet the truth is that the more open we are with ourselves, other people, and God, the deeper our relationships become. God doesn’t want us to clean ourselves up, it’s His job. He wants us to bring every part of ourselves to Him, keeping nothing back. Not because He wants to judge us, but because He loves us and wants to crack us open that we can replace (not reject) those hurting, insecure, and sinful parts of ourselves with His grace and His desires.
I admit I struggle with this. I still have a lot of trouble being completely open about some of the things in my life. But I’m trusting God to fill those parts of my life with His Life, daily making me whole.