Jesus was everything to me. For as long as I can remember, it would not have been an exaggeration to say that Jesus was the reason for my existence. As a kid, I was steeped in an evangelical faith tradition and I continued to pursue this path through the majority of my twenties. There was something comforting about sensing that I was doing whatever Jesus would have me to do. At the time, I would say that I longed to be found doing the will of God. After all, God was a jealous God, I was told. He coveted my worship — a phrase I never could understand given that coveting was something that was covered in those ten rules on the stone tablets from the movie. I was also told that I was created to worship. The whole reason I was born, they said, was for me to worship God. Practice, is how it would sometimes framed. On that glorious day when I died, I would be worshipping for the rest of eternity in heaven. These two ideas set up the perfect complementary relationship — God craved my attention and had the power to give me life and my job was to be thankful and to give God what was expected.
This arrangement worked for a long time. By worked, I mean that I did what I needed to do to keep God happy and God tended to hold up his end of the bargain, too. Whether health or finances or job security, there was never a time when I felt genuinely in need of anything. I took this to mean that I was on the right track towards a significantly nondescript target. When things got tough, I always had the promise of God not testing me beyond what I could bear — a phrase that passed as encouragement in those days.
This cycle can have a dark side, however. I’m not talking boils and sores and unrelenting devastation like the book of Job here. The requests were never that dramatic and they always came with the promises of our agreed-to terms. I worshipped. God blessed. I poured out. God would pour in. I stayed true to the rules and expectations. God refrained from opening the floodgates of guilt and shame. All the while, I was convinced that what I was doing was keeping the whole thing moving forward. By doing what I felt like I needed to do, I was tempering heavenly rage and anger and keeping things calm for another day. God has needs, I believed, and I, the capacity to meet those needs. Any troubles that I encountered along the way were light and momentary in light of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. He freely laid down his life so that I could have life. Over time, the relationship begins to become the most important thing. My own individuality gets swallowed up and I lose my sense of identity apart from what I do.
In order for this relationship to function well, a couple of important premises had to be agreed to. First and foremost, that I was nothing without Jesus. Human beings had no inherent or redeeming value outside of this arrangement. We were sinners and, by definition, we were excludable. We were expendable. Redemption was conditional on agreeing to the terms of service and admitting that our value was not found inside of us but rather based on external circumstances. Therein lies the second premise. Only God can fill the void. Only God can grant value. Only by admitting to our worthlessness and complete ineptitude and confessing to the need for a hero who could take away our pain would we be worthy of acceptance into the family of God.
The wildly dysfunctional, codependent family of God.
It would be disingenuous of me to imply that there were no lessons or ideas that were of value to me. I’m grateful that I have an understanding of family and community that connects me to every other human being on the planet and that we in my mind is a collective without bounds. Generosity and compassion are two ideas that I hold close to my heart. These are important lessons that I learned in the church and my experience with evangelical Christianity has given me much to be thankful for.
I would also be remiss were I not to be clear about the damaging, unhealthy patterns that I learned from that culture. The more that I’ve reflected on my evangelical experience, the more I’m convinced that my relationship with the divine was deeply and unmistakably codependent. Like most people who find themselves in a codependent relationship, I considered it to be completely normal at the time. In hindsight, the God that I experienced in evangelical Christianity was deeply troubled, rattled with insecurity, and I was the enabler. God was the drunk, abusive husband and I was the subservient, enabling bride.
I know. Harsh.
When you look at the symptoms that typically show up in a codependent relationship, though, it feels pretty clear. There were times that I wouldn’t live up to the expectations. Times when I would fail to meet these needs, whether by omission or commission, would be followed by intense feelings of shame and guilt. I was never fully aware that I could act out of my own sense of desire, focusing on pleasing God instead. Sometimes, this looked like pleasing the church community or my parents — anyone who could plausibly be seen as representing God on Earth. I was never sure of a sense of boundaries or knowing where God ended and I began. It felt like my self of self was lost, dependent on someone else to release me. Negative comments, criticisms, or disagreements were all taken very personally. I was the cause of God’s displeasure and the only way to make God happy was for my behavior to line up with God’s expectations. I didn’t live in freedom. I was walking on broken glass.
Worse still was the double-bind created by this dynamic. I could never be vulnerable with my doubts, my fears, or my mistakes at the risk of bringing even more shame — to me and to God himself. Why would I ever want to embarrass God by admitting to screwing up? If I were able to share about my doubts and fears, I would be told that my faith wasn’t strong enough and that I needed lean further into the relationship that seemed to be so unhealthy to begin with.
I was left with an intense, ravaging anxiety. Years of doing what I believed had been expected of me, of ensuring as best I could that I would be found to be doing God’s will, resulted in an accumulation of anxiety greater than my body was able to withstand. There were panic attacks. There were days where there was no sense of hope and, certainly, no known possibility of escape.
There was rock bottom.
There was realization.
My relationship with God was codependent and it had to end.
Today, in my work as a therapist, I am a first-hand witness to the intense work required to untangle the complex webs of codependency. Codependency is a long and disruptive set of patterns that reinforce the lie that I, as an individual, cannot be complete without you. There is something fundamentally lacking in me that only you can provide. Unconsciously, I agree to be emotionally indebted to you. I agree to change myself in order that you might be happy. The concept was first coined in the recovery movement and came to describe to enabling partner of the addict and the behaviors we typically see in those situations. The enabling partner in a situation like this might take on too much responsibility for the addicts behaviors or to compensate for the missing efforts that are missing. These individuals may be hurt if they don’t feel noticed or an overwhelming sense of guilt or shame for wanting to make their voice known. The debt that I owe to you keeps me ensnared in this behavioral pattern that keeps both of us from being our best selves.
You might also read about codependency being described as relationship addiction. It’s not such a bad definition. If I believe that I’m fundamentally flawed and I find a relationship pattern — however unhealthy — where I suddenly feel needed, the hit of self-worth and appreciation can be a potent cocktail. These patterns often come at the expense of our own mental well-being. The momentary satisfaction can feel amazing but, over the long term, these relationships only serve as a temporary relief from the panic-inducing unknown. It can feel like I need you — not that I want you or that my life is better with you in it. My relative pain and fear is completely mediated by how close I feel to you in any given moment. It’s not my love for you that draws me close. It’s the overwhelming need to calm my own anxiety.
Wellness for these couples — for all couples — is founded on the understanding that within each person is the capacity for wholeness and completeness, independent of any other. The romantic climax of the movie, Jerry McGuire, is a bold-face lie and you should reject it right now. No one completes anyone. Our value and our completeness is inherent and essential to what it means to be human. It is not contingent on a partner’s satisfaction or approval. The one does not need the other. What emerges from the commitment of two individuals understanding of their completeness has the most potential for beauty. It can be free and balanced and realistic. It honors each person. It is life-giving and a source of joy. It is not dangerous or volatile; it’s safe and stable and secure.
It’s not that different when we talk about the concept of having a relationship with God. There is not a Jesus-shaped hole that only He can fill.
When I realized that I didn’t need Jesus, I truly believe it saved my life. I began to heal from hears of shame and guilt and sense that I was neither good enough nor capable of being so. There was a haunting set of lyrics that always weighed on my heart: To be like Jesus, this hope possesses me; in every thought and deed, this is my aim, my creed. It was an impossible sentiment to live up to a man described as perfect in every way yet it felt as though it was expected of me if I was going to be permitted to continue in my relationship with God. The relationship always felt on shaky ground and it was always my fault. How many times did I hear some variation of this idea: *When you feel distant from God, it’s not because he walked away; it’s because you did? I had to let that go.
Now, thankfully, these feelings of codependency are all but gone. Jesus is free to be whoever or whatever Jesus needs to be and I’m able to be fully and completely me. I not worried about God’s approval or acceptance or eternal life. Only codependent relationships hold us in that grip of the fear of rejection and usually for only unhealthy reasons. Yes, it was a difficult perspective to unlearn, but there are ways to relate to the divine that give us life here and now rather than after we die. I’m passionate about justice and redemption and acceptance. I’m an advocate for the idea that all of us are beautiful and created in the image of the divine. I’m free to love and dance with spirit in ways that I never could before.
The great news is that Jesus doesn’t need me either. It was a lie that I believed for far too long. How else was I supposed to feel when I heard the story of a man who laid down his life for me except eternally and hopelessly indebted? How else was I to respond except to try and repay on that impossible debt? Any sense that Jesus needed me, to worship the father in spirit and in truth was the faulty mechanism by which I felt important and that I had any value whatsoever. The truth that has been there all along is that we — you, me, all of us — are OK just the way we are. We are not the missing puzzle piece, essential to the functioning of the universe. We’re free to live and laugh and love and choose to add to the joy in the world.
God does not need you. God does not give you value. You are beautiful and loved and worthy. Relationships are the most rewarding when you’re free to live. It’s only then that you can experience real and lasting love.