Two springs ago, I fasted from church, for lent. I suppose this raises a lot of questions including, “what do you mean?”
I mean, I stopped going to buildings on Sundays during the one-hour block which is broken into thirds, of music, expository teaching and community announcements. What I do not mean is that I decreased the importance of my relationship with God or people.
You see, I had developed an allergy. Most of us have at least one. I do not mean we get the sniffles when pollen shows up or our throat itches when we have shellfish. I mean, there are things in our lives that we just cannot be around without reacting to with a strong fight or flight response. We react in a way, over and above what seems reasonable, against the stimulus. For some, it is looking at snakes. For others, it is taking a test. For others, it might be the mere suggestion of asking someone out. For people with PTSD it is more serious and reminders of a season of trauma can put them right back in the middle of it.
One trigger, for me, is a specific phrase. When I am in a church building, and someone says “the Word of the Lord”, after reading from the bible, my anxiety goes through the roof and I have trouble making small talk after the service.
In “church” settings, I had been told that there are some people going to hell and some heaven, that there are clear requirements for this life if only you will take the bible seriously, read it and find them. Having doubt or anxiety was evidence that you may be on the “hell track”. Lack of confidence was evidence of uncertain security in death.
In light of this worldview, on one occasion, as an adult, I read the entire bible in a week and a half trying desperately to find the requirements for heaven’s access. I lost sleep and developed an acute anxiety response. When someone says “The Word of the Lord” I wonder again, “Have I missed the detail that gets me in?” “Am I likely going to hell since I already feel scared of death and doubt my security?” “Which instruction about being right with God is the important one that gets me safety?” This is not a phrase that comforts me. It feels like a threat.
There are other triggers besides this one, for me. Certain music, certain verses, a pastor’s tone of voice and even the expectation to bow one’s head.
When I have little defense against these fears and since selective numbing is rarely successful, I numb completely and none of the potential joy of a church service permeates my defense. Depressed and internally shut off from feelings, I want to stand and shout “Don’t say that!” but fear the rejection of having a dissenting view. Burdened with conflict, little healing or joy comes through during time in church. Church often feels lonely.
Like allergies to proteins, there are various strategies to deal with allergies to social stimulus. For pollens, Benadryl limits allergic reactions. For anxiety, there are medications too. However, depending on the reaction severity you may need to avoid the stimulus entirely. Think of this like anaphylaxis. If you are shutting down emotionally due to your anxiety response in a situation, it may be that you would benefit from just not being around that stimulus. Give your emotional immune system a rest.
This may be disruptive to the idea that conventional faith expression is always helpful. Sometimes people, like me, have become allergic to an aspect of a faith culture. In those cases, a fast might be helpful. It does not need to be permanent. You might consider it a “cleanse” to give your body and mind a rest. Reduce the reaction intensity and perhaps try returning with small doses of the given stimulus. That is, if you want to return.
I have gone to church a handful of times since that spring: usually to see a friend or participate in a small group discussion. I do not react like I used to and my defenses are slowly relaxing.
Does your emotional immune system need a rest? Is there a thing that triggers your anxiety so much that you shut down? Is there anything you can set aside to allow healing to take place? What would that look like?
Thoughts and feedback are welcome.