Last night, as my third movie of the day, my bed cluttered with discarded socks and dirty spoons and me wearing the same pjs I woke up in, I watched Jesus Camp, the acclaimed 2006 documentary that follows a pentecostal christian children’s summer camp. Half-numb with quarantine fatigue, it was the kind of day to let productivity slip and quietly absorb the ideas and activity of others.
So I was sleepy and open when suddenly I was nine again with my arms raised in worship and tears running down my face as grown ups with microphones tell me I am responsible to change the world, or I’d be lukewarm and Jesus would spit me out of his mouth. Revelation 3:16.
The church highlighted by the documentary was more extreme in expression but identical in content with the evangelicalism that formed my childhood self. And I went to those summer camps, where we worked each other into a frothing fever jumping to music, weeping at altars, speaking in tongues, gripping each others hands while crying out for forgiveness. I knew even then those intense spiritual experiences could be illusions, my more subdued church body warned us kids of these “mountaintop experiences.” It was your responsibility fight to keep that fire when you returned to daily life, or it meant nothing. I never managed it.
I’d forgotten how it felt to be a young child in the church until I heard those young voices, so serious and earnest, saying the same things I used to say.
I want to share a concern with parents and children’s church pastors who are born-again Christians, who either accepted Christ or recommitted as adults. Children do not have the abstract reasoning of a fully-developed adult brain. They hear your lessons differently than you do. Move gently.
I was three or four when I accepted Christ. The immediate purpose was not to enjoy God’s love and joy and peace, but to rescue my soul from the eternal damnation I already deserved. I’m three, so my sins are as small as I am. I scowl, I lie it was my brother who drew crayon flowers on the wall, I refuse to eat my peas. I am told that I deserve death. Me and my toddler transgressions are worthy of my tiny body being picked up by adult men, stripped of my clothes, and nailed to a cross. Blood sweat should roll down my round pink cheeks, I used to look in the mirror and imagine it. Thank God I prayed the sinner’s prayer. As I grew older I got in the habit of praying it over and over again, terrified that I didn’t really mean it the first time (or second, or third).
Jesus is coming back any day now, what will He find you doing?
When you’re an adult, you’re able to hold God’s judgement and forgiveness in balance. But a child’s mind is not as organized. They know that they do bad things, and that God hates bad things enough to kill people for it. They are told God forgives them, but they are constantly punished (often even with the physical pain of spanking – reminiscent of the physical pain Jesus experienced on the cross) for doing bad things that make God sad. That’s the language often used by parents, that their disobedience isn’t just against their parents but against God himself, and that’s why they deserve to be punished. In a child’s mind, it’s difficult to separate the anger of their parents and other adults of spiritual authority from God’s anger. If adults punish them, they must still deserve God’s punishment too. They experience the ritual of sin and punishment, while God’s forgiveness remains abstract and inaccessible.
A very young child is still learning that their mind is separate from the world, and that other people can’t hear their thoughts. Your mind already feels exposed. But now there are holes where the devil can come through, and God sees sins you don’t even know you have yet. Be rigorous, a five year old is told, to root out sinful desires. But what does a five year old know of these secret ways of sinning? They start rooting out healthy plants with the weeds.
In my very first journal entry (in a fuzzy leopard print diary embroidered with purple butterflies) at seven years old, I wrote:
“I troubel myself with such things. Trying to look like a grown-up or a Teen Ager probely because of pride I’m so pridefull I want to be better than anybody. When anybody says the boys will fight and save you I say I will fight too. I’m so pridefull.”
I wanted to grow up. I didn’t want boys to save me. Two incredibly important, natural feelings. But by seven I’ve already learned my feelings can’t be trusted.
Desire leads to sin, sin leads to death.
When I danced, I wondered fearfully, am I dancing for Jesus or for myself? When I did something kind, I wondered, am I doing this to feel good about myself or for God? No moment was safe from sin. And I was told tiny sins grew into towering trees whose roots would leach all goodness from my heart. And it would be all my fault.
At eight or nine I began to be tormented by a voice I believed was God. It demanded I adhere to arbitrary rules and tasks like standing on one foot for five minutes, counting telephone poles, never cracking my knuckles, saying amen like “AY-men” instead of “AH-men” because that sounded like omen which was sticky with demonic connotations. If I didn’t obey, my family would die. I knew God was a violent God, so it checked out. After all, God killed King David’s son to punish him for his sin. And I’d been told that small sins like lying were just as bad as murder in God’s eyes.
I developed bipolar disorder very young that often manifested as psychosis until as an adult I was finally diagnosed and medicated. But why did it manifest that way, with an obsession with pure thoughts and obedience under the threat of violence? To me, it seems like the natural extension of an adult expectation of righteousness distorted inside a child’s mind.
Bulimia, too, which I developed in my teenage years, reflected the religion I was struggling to maintain. Only it simplified it. The rules were clear: eat this, don’t eat that, and here’s how much. I didn’t have to suffer over pure motives or clean thoughts. I just had to stick to my diet. And when I failed, there were simple, concrete steps to “repent” and get back on track. Purge, starve, run. I played out the cycle of sin and redemption in a way that I could control and understand with a clarity impossible to achieve in a religion obsessed with the purity of slippery motives and desires.
What a weight for a child to carry on her shoulders! It sounds innocent for a child to say she finds peace in God’s forgiveness, and it can look so sweet to see a child’s sincere devotion, sobbing on their knees in repentance during a worship service with a faith that seems older than their years. But sometimes that devotion comes from a deep, chronic sense guilt and shame. Be cautious. Be gentle. Remember that they don’t have to be grown ups just yet.
Image: Melissa Askew