A brief reflection of my childhood
I grew up in a family that did not observe religion very closely. For the most part we identified as Christian, but with very little commitment to its practices. I was never forced to attend church and neither of my parents made religion a major part of life at home. We did believe in God, we also lived on the principles of respect and kindness to others.
At the same time, as a child I experienced a lot of emotional instability in my home environment. It was anxiety provoking and often left me feeling like my life was meaningless. I yearned for a stronger sense of identity and belonging in the world.
I figure this is why religion was so attractive to me.
My early days as a denominational Christian
In my early teens I was introduced to a particular Christian denomination that I was baptized into eventually. The zeal and passion of many of its members drew me in! I do not refer to all the members, but a majority of the ones who occupied the religious spaces I attended.
Before I knew it, through deep association, I too slowly became a religious fanatic. What do I mean? I was on a frantic quest to tick all the boxes to embody holiness. I idolized a form of what other people taught me as holiness. I was working hard to maintain a persona that would ensure I was accepted and respected by the members of my ‘in-group’ all the while thinking I was doing it for God.
This was all about self-elevation and not about God’s love. I had a lot of pride in my heart because I felt I was growing closer to the standard than the others around me. I was the Pharisee who prayed the prayer of pride saying, “Thank you Lord that I am not like all the non-believers” Luke 18: 9-14.
When it all started to fall apart
My religious fanaticism severed the many meaningful relationships I had with my family, friends, and my community. It made me turn a blind eye to the needs of others and the social injustices that were around me. It made me judgmental, and I had very little tolerance for people who were different to me. It also ultimately exhausted me.
I was tired.
Tired of working so hard to maintain an aesthetic of perfection. I looked like a godly young woman who had it together on the outside, but I was withering away on the inside.
The psychology behind religious extremism
Religious extremism has a psychology behind it that keeps people stuck in a cycle. It is driven by a phenomenon called ‘group think’. Group think leads individuals to sacrifice their personal beliefs and convictions for the sake of group identity (Griffin in Janis, 1991). Group think also leads members of the ‘in-group’ to believe that they are more supreme and always right compared to those outside of the group
Religious extremism robs us of our spiritual autonomy and freedom in God. Often, I was deemed as a rebel when I questioned issues of faith, lifestyle and worship practices. Church tradition and institutionalism was placed on a hierarchy above God’s word.
The Bible tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Salvation is a personal experience that can only be maintained through a personal relationship with God, Acts 8: 37.
Over a series of months, I was met by trauma and inexplicable pain through very unfortunate circumstances in my life. Suddenly all that intellectual knowledge became insufficient to remedy my pain. Many of the church members whom I had depended on for so long suddenly distanced themselves from me. It was like I had leprosy because I could no longer keep up an appearance.
This was rock-bottom.
My comfort and wholeness came from a personal God who could sympathize with me.
He knew me deeply and loved me all the same.
Ever since, I have been on a journey to know Him and love Him deeper. This has led me to love others deeper each day. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent, John 17:3.
God’s love has renewed my once frail and dying soul with the greatest life-giving force I have ever known. It has given me joy and peace that surpasses human understanding. By beholding Christ daily, I am transformed by His power and grace.