The Religious Party Pooper Gets a Little Crazy

This is a continuation of my previous post.

I nervously invited the two, attractive, college freshman girls to join me for lunch. I hardly knew either of them.

After they put their yellow trays on the table, I took a deep breath and formally stated my intentions.

“Ladies,” I said, “before we pray over the food, there’s something I want to make clear: When I invited you to my table, I was not hitting on you or trying to turn this into a date. We’re just three people having lunch, okay?”

They looked at each other, then at me, and then began nervously stuttering and stammering, trying to clarify that, indeed, they only wanted lunch – just lunch – nothing more.

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad we got that cleared up. Do y’all mind if I bless the food now?”

As I mentioned in “Top-That-Testimony!” my long foray into suffocating obsession with religious legalism started with exaggerating the dirty details of my conversion story. Once I settled on a version of my past that was disgusting enough to impress my target audience (other disgusting sinners), I decided to seal my salvation experience with a hard-core commitment to turn my life around. It was time to purge my life of all the influences from my previous 18 years of not-so-hard living.

For direction, I looked to my new friends, a dynamic group of earnest believers. They had separated themselves from several aspects of their old lives – and necessarily so. As former alcoholics, they couldn’t afford a sip of beer. As former drug users, they needed to avoid the hangouts of their cocaine-snorting buddies. And as men who had histories of disrespecting women, some of them needed to take a break from hitting on the ladies.

But unlike those guys, I didn’t have much salacious stuff going on in my life. I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or shoplift. And shortly after joining their church, I had gotten rid of cursing, movies with sex scenes, and watching MTV’s lame dance show, The Grind. Beyond that, there wasn’t a lot of external cleansing to do (I somehow failed to notice all the pride that was gurgling around inside).

Without a cocaine habit to beat or a fifth of vodka to stop drinking, I did the best I could. I zeroed in on the details.

The TV was the first thing to go.

I was inspired to throw out my television after a 19-year-old sage from church told me how he had stopped watching TV so that he would be more focused on God. “Very holy,” I thought, and I followed suit, but not without a struggle. Tossing out the TV meant letting go of NBC Thursdays and ditching Dallas reruns on TNN (embarrassing, but true).*

*The anti-TV guy started watching TV again about two weeks after inspiring me to quit the habit. Don’t worry – I held out for six more years. Hooray for me.

Although it was a struggle to let go of my old friend, the TV, I noticed that I immediately felt more full of the Spirit (or myself, perhaps). You wouldn’t believe the opportunities it provided to demonstrate the joy of the Lord. For example, one time I was visiting my sister, Lawrie. As we sat in her living room, she began flipping through the channels and came across a scene on Dallas, my old entertainment staple.

“Hey, look,” she said. “Dallas is on. Do you want to watch it?”

For a brief moment, I quivered with temptation but then overcame. I looked at her with disdain.

“I don’t watch that trash anymore,” I said.

“Well, then,” Lawrie huffed. I knew she was annoyed, but I didn’t care. I was barreling down the highway of holiness in my heavenly church van. And if I had to plow over my sister while on my journey to find Jesus, then so be it. To God be the glory.

Next on my holy hit list was dating. This one was a lot easier for me because, in addition to the fact that almost nobody at my church was dating, I was already insecure with women. The no-dating policy sanctified my social awkwardness with ladies and gave me an easy way to distinguish myself from practically everyone at college.

I not only received moral support from my church, I also received a good deal of anti-dating support from the American Christian evangelical subculture. At the time, the evangelical church was going gaga for 22-year-old Joshua Harris’ prolific tome, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (try following it if you never want to get married). Harris’ book, while very well-intentioned, inadvertently validated an entire generation of insecure, evangelical men like me who were too afraid to ask a girl out (and too cheap to pay for dinner).

I have to admit that, in a moment of weakness, I did try to date this one girl from my church. It broke down a month into the relationship due to a number of super holy, complicated factors, including the terror I felt as we began pushing physical boundaries.*

*Translation: During a hug goodbye in a public parking lot, I felt like she breathed a little too heavily in my ear.

I saw my recent “conversion” as the big turning point in my history, the moment when I had really cleaned myself up for Jesus. But when I sinned, it felt like I lost a bit of the shininess of my salvation – that my redemption somehow became a little less genuine because I continued struggling. Guilt followed, bringing with it a heavy pressure.

Obeying the rules helped me release the pressure. It assured me that only a super-saved person could pull off such high standards of moral virtue. But it was never enough, so I kept adding one exhausting rule after another, going further and further down the road to becoming a spiritual Debbie Downer. I hoped – but didn’t know – that Jesus loved me, so I decided to do everything in my power to show Him I had earned it.


  1. It's amazing. Many teens I knew who grew up in Christian homes (including myself) went through a very legalistic phase if they were interested in Jesus at all. I remember in middle school being shocked that my youth pastor listened to non-Christian music. The horror! Is this an inevitable phase?


  2. Good gracious, I hope not.


  3. Rakel, I think I know the thing you're talking about. What you and Josh are describing does seem like a development phase, a way a young person might explore/develop their own identity. It takes a lot of trial and error to become an adult self. I too went through a legalistic phase (in my early 20s) and have spent a long time since then wondering if I would have been better off staying that way, or, if not, trying to figure out what purpose it did serve, what sense to make of it. Josh, your uncovering of the hypocrisy and pride that can build up is a valuable perspective, and it's the thing I too was hoping to bypass having to think about when I was pursuing purity/legalism above all else. thanks for your posts!


  4. josh, during those years in college as a girl in this group, i felt so rejected by the guys…because i had NOT given up dating nor just wanting to be friends with the guys, but none of them would even look at me and some would not talk too long to me because they were too "holy" to date (at least that is what i thought then). i was asked out by people who were not spiritual at all and went sometimes because I wanted to feel that i was wanted. too bad for this phase. it led me to feel rejected. when i graduated and moved back home, it was refreshing that guys from church actually wanted to be friends with me. it was refreshing and healing…. although, i understand the need for some to go overboard with rules in order to eventually find a balance.


  5. You might find my blog of interest where I critique Josh Harris's book. http://www.ikdg.wordpress.comI Kissed Dating Goodbye: Wisdom or Foolishness? Unfortunately Josh Harris is quick to point out the problems with dating but reluctant to share any of the problems with his approach. Hope this helps.


  6. Sounds like you were also "barrelling down the highway" of loneliness. Isn't it funny – we grow and learn and heal through relationships…yet we sometimes isolate through our "better than" attitude. Glad this is all past tense for you!


  7. Ohhhhh goodness!!! Debbie Downer!!! LOVE HER!!! Just think about all the yesrs you missed out on watching Dallas reruns!!!


  8. If you didn't know about Jesus' love being an unearned thing, then I agree that this is very serious, particularly if you thought you were capable of earning your way to salvation, because anyone who thinks that at the time Jesus returns or they die will not enter Heaven.However, in other ways, I don't see what you were so worried about. To me, the phrase that everything is possible, but not all things are expedient, means that just because something is not explicitly forbidden, it doesn't necessarily mean it won't hinder your spiritual development.Television: – I fell out the habit during my first year of university as I had to buy a TV licence, but wasn't inclined to spend the money (even though for the time I previously spent watching TV, it would have been great value). It is very easy to waste time watching unprofitable things on television, even if one isn't saved.As for kissing a girl passionately who you aren't married to, that's not something I want to do. As far as I'm concerned, that is something I should only do if I am stimulating her just before she receives me sexually, given that this is how God has wired up our bodies.Alcohol and susceptible alcoholics, yes, that is a good reason for total abstention, though I don't think there is a scriptural case for obligating everyone to abstain completely.


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