Do a Google search for children’s ministries and preaching materials, and you’ll find a fairly standard message aimed at kids: an invisible entity/Jesus loves you like a parent does. Messages and Bible stories get presented in a manner where good people have a good relationship with a deity and bad people don’t. The idea is for kids to grasp that they want to have the good relationship with an entity that loves them no matter what. Churches and messages vary, but eventually it’s that bad relationship that gets more attention.
It runs counter to the whole message of unconditional love, or it would if there wasn’t a ready excuse.
This excuse is that individuals are always to blame for not feeling the love. I found a really good example here, a post directed specifically at atheists, but it contains some thoughts that get applied to everyone. To paraphrase the article, it argues that atheists specifically do not experience the Christian deity because of a desire to know things, no desire to find wisdom, and a pride which refuses to get out of the way. Depending upon the audience, this message translates only slightly.
Don’t believe me? There are a ton of faith blogs out there which praise being broken by a deity, coming to find a deity at their lowest point in life, wishing their own pride didn’t get in the way of loving this deity, and the list goes on. When things don’t work out the way anyone wants, it’s a teachable moment to remember that this deity is in charge, and wanting that whatever wasn’t supposed to happen. Cue the inward search to find out what a person did wrong.
In other words, people are encouraged to blame themselves.
Not everyone hurts themselves until they bleed, though. Really, there’s no telling how that sort of thing will affect people. I mention this to point out that some people reading might be going, “But that’s not how I think it works.” And if you never really opened a wound trying to dig for your personal faults, that’s fine.
Some people open the same wound over and over again. Every fault or disappointment becomes a new opportunity to reflect on how this is a shortcoming in the eyes of a cherished deity. Not being able to enjoy the relationship with a deity like other people do can cause some really spectacular panic and genuine worry over whether one person is doing the faith wrong in a meaningful way. There are points where people can get really desperate because what they’ve been promised will happen doesn’t happen. Their only conclusion has to be that they themselves did something wrong.
It’s real easy to not feel the love.
Despite being told over and over again that this invisible friend wants to love everyone, there are a ton of excuses and conditions which get thrown out as to why it doesn’t happen at all. Such excuses fly in the face of the promise that this love is unconditional, eternal, and is never a bad thing.
Putting it differently, what’s the point of promising unconditional love if it’s so easy to not deliver? Unconditional means no strings attached, no hoops to jump through, and no work required to earn it. It just exists, like light from the Sun. Actually not really, because nobody promises that the Sun will always shine on you if you believe it will.
To believe a promise like that, people need to avoid asking the obvious question. That’s why asking it is considered prideful and wrong. That’s why people will be harsh to those who ask the obvious question in public.
To stay away from seeing the inconsistency, losing your self-esteem is entirely fine.
This is something I shudder to admit doing. I grew up thinking that people who didn’t believe in deities were foolish and silly at best, and liars at worst. What I was really blind to was the fact that I resented having to hurt myself to stay in the faith. Wanting out wasn’t an idea to consider. It was another prompt to punish myself for being weak. That punishment was supposed to be a good thing because it kept me believing.
Is that what a loving relationship really is? For the longest time, I thought it was. I thought it’s supposed to make me come crawling back to an omnipotent being who can’t pick up the phone or give me a break.
On the outside looking in, I see now that it makes no sense. Love doesn’t erode self-worth; it adds to it. Self-esteem is something people need to hold onto. It’s not pride or any other awful thing to want to learn and live and be happy.
It’s just a normal part of being human.