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I Taught You to be Afraid: A Letter to My Children

The last time I felt the I-did-this-wrong guilt this heavy was the day your big sister died. That day and for weeks (months?) after, I agonized over every minute of her last day, wondering what if she died because of my mistake?

Today, I fight back tears and the urge to rend my clothes and don sackcloth and ashes over something I know I did. This guilt has no what-if escape hatch.

I taught you to be afraid of God. And you learned well.


Last night, you sobbed into my arms as you confessed that you don’t always believe. You are afraid that you will go to hell if you don’t believe, but it doesn’t make sense and what if hell and heaven aren’t real anyway? Worse, you seem terribly ashamed of the thoughts you think and the questions you have.

I am so very sorry. I’m sorry for telling you fearful things and exposing you to others who told you these things too.

When you talked about your doubts, I heard you speak my own words back to me. You heard us talk about God being sovereign, controlling all things. And you asked the next question, the one I can’t answer either: why did God make Satan? Why would a good and holy God make and ordain evil? How can you say that God is sovereign and in control and also say God is good and is not the author of evil?

I don’t believe that way about God anymore. But I guess I never told you that. I should have.

Now, I cling to Jesus, the gentle kind merciful man I see in the gospels. When nothing else makes sense, I believe in Jesus.

But when I said, “Jesus loves you,” you whispered so quietly, “I didn’t think Jesus would love me until I believe.” And my heart shattered.

In my mind’s ear, I hear angry preachers yelling “God hates you” and “babies are vipers in diapers” the way you heard them. I’m instantly haunted by all those arrogant churchy words I absorbed for so many years about the depravity of humans, our spiritual deadness, and God’s wrath and hatred of sin and sinners.

I taught you about a wrathful God who hates the human beings God made and condemns them to eternal judgment unless they submit to him. No wonder you fear making the wrong choice. No wonder you don’t believe that Jesus loves you.

I have been so caught up in untangling the lies I have believed about myself and God that I didn’t see how you were tangled up in them too. I am so sorry.

I want to remind you of some things that you never have to doubt.

I love you. I will always love you, even if you decide some other answers to your questions make more sense.

I have thought all the same things. I have asked all the same questions. Do not be afraid of asking or thinking or learning. You are using the brain you were given and I am so proud of you for not just accepting what someone says without question.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” – Frederick Buechner

Will you please forgive me for teaching you fear instead of love?

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  1. Thank you, Joy. This is one that I will be sleeping on. “Brave” plays in the soundtrack of my mind as I read it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  2. My daughters have been asking some of those very same questions recently. I’m in the midst of my own faith crisis, and have no answers for them. I just keep answering, “I don’t know.” I feel like I’m failing them, but I don’t want to give them anymore bullshit answers either. It’s a pretty helpless feeling for this mom who was raised to know and always have all the “right” answers.

    • It’s difficult. Ultimately, I wonder if there are good answers to this question, or if this is, at the core, one of the primary reason more and more people feel alienated from church and list “no religious affiliation” when asked.

      Hell is falling out of favor rapidly – but what is the replacement ? We talk about being “saved”, about Jesus as saviour. But as an alternative to what, if not hell ?

      What happens to a nonbeliever when he/she dies ? Does it differ at all from what happens to a believer ?

      If no, then what separates christianity from atheism ? If yes, then aren’t people right to be afraid of God ?

  3. Oh Joy. What a letter. I am crying. Thank you for this real.

  4. Yes….Amen….I see such love, grace and wonder. Our God uses all things but especially, I believe, our desire to be open and real with our mission field, that being our families. Thank you Joy for showing us how to learn and grow even through the tough times.

  5. Right now I have a 16 year old who just can’t get her head around God. Losing her sister has just left her in doubt but also she does understand those that speak of Gods love yet don’t show it. Its a journey for her and my heart aches because whilst I know I still struggle i know that i trust. Maybe its called blind faith because i have to trust without all the answers.

  6. Best response possible, Joy. Honest apology, open arms. Such good growth, honey. Love what I see happening in you.

  7. Oh. Peace, friend. This moment right here is why we left a destructive theology. The thought that haunted me was the moment you are describing right now.

    What I know for sure – from my own experience with my parents – is how much kids are healed by their parents’ humility. I’m so glad you wrote this. Peace to you.

  8. Joy – you say that you “don’t believe that way about God anymore.”

    But what do you believe instead ?

    Is there any distinction at all between what happens to a believer who dies, and what happens to a nonbeliever who dies ?

    If there’s a difference, and being a believer is preferable, does this not mean God is in some sense punishing nonbelievers ? And if there’s no difference, then what exactly is the point of being “saved” — saved from what, exactly ?

    This precise point is the core of my problem with christianity. I can’t manage to make it make sense.

    Either God *does* punish people in some way for believing the wrong thing, and if so it’s right to be afraid of him and to consider him a evil tyrant.

    Or he doesn’t. But in that case, what’s the point of christianity again ?

  9. Corey Nohmer says:

    Been quietly reading your stuff for a few months. Since your child has such a fear, have you explained why the gospel is such good news and why “perfect” faith is not what is required. This seems like such an obvious open door. I’d thank God for it. I don’t know how old the child is, but some information is not really sharable to a young one. They do not think like adults and often blame themselves for stuff. It is easy to see how a tender conscience can fear hell. I did. Why not deal with that directly and explain what Jesus’ death was all about. Comfort them with the truth.
    By the way, that is such a blasphemous cartoon. Did an atheist create it? It is such an awful caricature of the gospel.

  10. Lovely. Thank you for sharing.

  11. thank you. I am working through the fear that I was taught was love. I have been trying to write it out but it gets so complicated I feel like I have to just throw up my hands and stop talking/typing.
    the journey is important and I am believing that our mistakes on that journey are just as important as our perfect-nesses. thank you for sharing some of yours. it helps.


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