comments 37

Being good

Last week someone phoned me up and asked if I would play the organ in the village church this morning.

It’s been ages since I last did this. I used to play in the village church most weeks, or sing in the choir. I’ve always been to church, on and off, starting from the time when I used to attend an evangelical church with my family.

Last year I stopped going. I left because being in a church no longer made me feel good but instead made me feel tight, sad and angry. It was sad losing that part of me, because there had been lots of times when I’d felt lonely or empty, when being part of a church helped. I had always been a person who wanted to believe. Wanting to believe was what took me through the motions of it, as if being the shape of someone who believed and took part in church life would make it true inside me. It was more than a defence against loneliness. It was a replacement for the feeling I’d had as a child that any real person might want to be with me, or find me good enough. In the absence of this, I wanted to be absolutely wanted, to find out absolutely how to be good.

I held on for a long time to the idea that if I were good enough, then I would be rewarded. If I could make sure everyone was pleased, I would be happy not because of this, but because I was a person who deserved to be happy.

Of course, not only is this completely illogical, but the opposite is true. Striving to be ultra good sets you apart from other people, and stops you from forming proper relationships. This, of course, is what evangelical Christian churches (such as the one I grew up in) encourage – the idea that your religion sets you apart from humanity (apart from those who believe the same as you), and that this is something you have to bear…

Anyway, after I’d decided that, it wasn’t even a question of wanting to believe or not. I just couldn’t bear to be there any more. I was so sad and angry with myself that I’d wasted such a lot of time trying to be something so narrow that I had stopped living. I thought the tight, angry feeling might have gone away but I realised this morning that it hadn’t, so I probably shouldn’t play the organ again.

There’s definitely something in feeling unwanted that makes people eager to find some structure that will show them that they are good enough. For a start, looking at the teenagers who used to go to church alongside me, for many of them it seemed that religion was a reaction to feeling unwanted. In the biography I am currently reading, Kathryn Hughes describes an early, evangelical phase of George Eliot’s life, when she was attempting to come to terms with the fact that her mother had never shown any interest in her. Also, there’s my sister.

My sister works for a missionary society. I have found her difficult to get on with for a long time and it’s much worse now my views on religion have changed. I realise even more how she judges others’ motives and relationships from a “godly” point of view, and how she sees herself as a person with immense wisdom and responsibility because of her views. For some reason, it’s a lot worse when it’s your family. I don’t think I’d mind if it were an acquaintance or a friend, but I still identify so closely with the fear and insecurity about the outside world that feeds the need elevate your point of view above others, and it fills me with horror that I might ever have come across in the way she comes across. I suppose too there is a sense of loss too, that despite the difficulties we shared in childhood, I will probably never have an open, supportive relationship with my sister because there is this barrier between us, of things that I can’t take into her world because she has chosen not identify with them.

There are many things that I still hold onto, like the idea of forgiveness. I also like the idea that everyone is given gifts and that people aren’t better than each other because they have more gifts, but everyone has different gifts. And I do miss the sense of spirituality I used to feel. One day, when I feel less raw, I would like to find a way back to the place where I last felt contentment.

But I really don’t miss the obligation to be good.



  1. I can really relate to what you’ve said about your sister Denise. It took me a long time to get over the sense of loss I felt over my half brother (I never had much of a bond with my half sister). Once it wasn’t so raw and emotional I realised that the things we went through as kids was the only thing we had in common. If he were just a friend I’d have walked away from him years previous. He’d caused me so much heartache, and I simply couldn’t allow it to continue.

    I’m glad you didn’t actually have to play the organ inside the church to realise it wasn’t a great idea. Really hope you find your contented place soon. Hugs xxx

    • My sister has never done anything intentionally bad to me. She would never dream of doing bad full stop. For a long time, our joint goals of being good were a thread that held us together. But all we talked about were what hapened in our choirs. Now we don’t have that in common any more. Sometimes, though, when we talk about books and arts, I see a glimmer of the person she used to be. But we have always been hampered by not talking about emotions and I’m not sure how we could ever change that.

      We did have a bond when we were younger. I remember when I was about twelve bargaining with God that she should never feel as badly as I did about things, and could I somehow be the one to suffer so that she wouldn’t have to?

  2. I’m trying to remember whether I knew you played the organ and forgot? I seem to remember something about it. I used to play the organ in church, too.

    Your feelings resonate in me deeply. I have a really difficult time being around “churchy” people. I try not to judge them (while I’m feeling judged), but if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that I almost never feel comfortable in a church group. I feel like theres an auto-immune disorder going on in the community; like a body so on the attack that it’s attacking itself.

    Gotta run, more later…

    • I was having so much trouble with not feeling comfortable in church that I never mentioned the organ playing here. I wanted to for a long time but it went so deep that I never did. It was so emotional. The singing was worse. That was the first thing to go. I love singing and harmonies and one day in the middle of a service I couldn’t get the sound out any more. My heart wasn’t in it.

      Individually, some of the church people are so good and understanding and compassionate that they positively glow with it. To talk to, they are very kind and caring. When I get back to being spiritual, I will take their example with me. But others of them have got to the state of goodness that they want to attain by ignoring a lot of life that does not fit in and I can’t deal with that.

      • I understand–sometimes we have to get away from, distance ourselves, from people who have been involved in the cause of our pain. I know that at times I’ve needed space for healing, and I couldn’t handle the constant opening up of wounds.

        Church communities are like families. Some are healthier, some are very dysfunctional. None are without problems. I figure when they’re hurting more than helping, it’s time to get away.

      • Glad you weighed in, Sherri. I lived in an area where one of the first questions people would ask me after meeting me, was, “So where do you go to church?” The answer supposedly told them everything they needed to know to type-cast me according to intellect, socio-economic class, racial attitudes & political views. I always mumbled something about being new to the area (for years) and that I hadn’t found a church home yet.

      • Would this be before or after that other question, “So, what do you do?” And the answer is: I’m a writer who hasn’t found a church home yet! That must raise a few eyebrows 😉

      • Yes, it does.

        And it completely leaves them speechless when you answer in pig latin, “I’may an iter-ray oo-hay asnt-hay ound-fay an urch-chay ome-hay et-yay. ! 😉

      • I think you and Tracy are two of those “glowing with spirituality” types of people, without being preachy or judgemental.

  3. Jennifer

    I could never find that kind of spiritual fulfillment in a Christian church or even in the Christian doctrine. I found the idea that we had committed sins and needed to atone, disgusting. I found that other people attending the church I grew up in were hypocritical, snobbish and felt they were above everyone. I left church. Organized religion to me is organized social pain. I follow the bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion) now and I am content knowing that I all by myself, can make me feel whole. There’s lots to explore in the realm of spirituality! One of my favorite books is The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda – also Vashishta’s Yoga which are both available at Amazon. Give them a try –

  4. Maria

    Denise I really enjoyed this post. I’m sorry that you’ve been feeling tight, sad and angry and stopped going to church as a result. I find it fascinating when I read about Western Christianity and the impact it has/had on individuals. I can relate in the sense that at school (in the UK) was where I was taught about Western Christianity and it was so very different to the Eastern Oriental Christianity that I had been taught and observe at home. I rarely go to church in Britain and yet every time I’m in the Middle East I go to church without fail. In fact the first place I visit when I arrive in lebanon is to a monastery where Saint Charbel (whose work and philosophy I love) is buried. I think it’s sad that religions tend to create divisions almost more than anything else.
    I find Western interpretations of the Bible (New Testament) very interesting because of the differences from the Aramaic script of which some (Oriental theologians) suggest has been lost in translation.

    • I need to get my History of Western Philosophy out and brush up on the Eastern branch of Christianity.

      There was so much central control in the Western Church that it’s difficult to know what was original and what was man made. But then if you question too much, it’s almost as if the whole thing falls apart. How can you interpret something from so long ago that not even scholars can agree on?

      Another interesting thing to take from History of WP is the way there were so many weird and wonderful viewpoints in the ancient world and then everything got closed down and restricted once the Church took hold of the academic world.

      • Maria

        During the “dark ages” in the western world the Middle East was going through its golden era. Now the middle east is going through a semi medieval era and no one talks about it because it would be politically incorrect. If only that part of the world would read WP and see how dominance of the Church lead to oppression of society then they may learn a thing or two.
        On another note if you’re ever interested in reading history of Oriental Christianity I can recommend many books to you. Did you know it was only towards the end of the last century that the Catholic Church and western churches “recognised” many oriental Christian sects and no longer referred to them as “heretics”?

  5. Funny how similar yet how different sisters can be. Me and my sister were brought up with no religious input in our lives outside of the hymns we sang in assemblies and the harvest festival etc. we got through our C of E junior school. My dad is an atheist and I have grown up with a very sceptical attitude to organised religion as a whole (made even more so by studying Marx’s theory on religion being the opiate of the masses in A’Level sociology!). But my sister longed for – I’m not sure, acceptance, belonging, a sense of community, a connection with something spiritual – and so she converted to Catholicisim years ago which the rest of the family found a bit weird. Now she has given it all up again because, over the years, she has come to realise that the church community can be a negative place too where lots of demands and expectations are put on you and you are made to feel like you are letting everyone down if you say no, even if its killing you. I’m secretly glad she’s come back out of it again because organised religion felt like a false friend who was taking her away from us sometimes into a place I couldn’t ever hope to comprehend. I’m glad you were able to say no and walk away too even though its much more complicated for you having been brought up within an organised religion…

    • I can remember being on the inside of religion and feeling besieged. I think that is where the demands and expectations come from – it feels as if this good thing that gives you security and purpose, is something the world doesn’t care about. I think that’s where the demands and expectations come from. For me, I was the main person who put the demands and expectations on myself (although I can well see that communities create those atmospheres). Now I am out of that way of thinking, I figure that if God exists and is so powerful, he doesn’t need our puny human input to survive. But it was a definite step for me to make that connection.

      I can totally understand your feeling of your sister having been somehow absent and I am glad she is back with you. With my sister it often feels as if I am not talking to a person who inhabits her own sentiments and opinions, born of her own pain and experience, but someone who has arranged her life to avoid anything that is not as it *should* be.

  6. Denise I never knew you could play the organ?!

    Yes some people in the church environment can make you nauseous. My daughter went to a Christian school her last three years of High School and although it was a good choice for her at the time. (Close to our house, able to escape the one hour bus ride two ways everyday, etc) some of the parents were so Evangelistic that I found it hard to be with them. I always was escaping to the bathroom!

    But the urge to be “good”…..I think it’s important to feel “good” by your own standards. And that’s enough.

    • Funnily enough I don’t that being good to my own standards, which I have had to work out how to do recently, has led to anything bad. I think I was wasting a lot of energy before in things I thought I *should* do but that in the bigger picture, were insignificant. But I think my daughters have been much happier since I changed. I never looked after myself enough before. But by extension, if I was looking after everyone else first, it meant that sometimes I didn’t look after my children first either. I am a lot more relaxed now and everything at home is much calmer.

      But you are right, it’s very important to feel good by your own standards.

      • One of my biggest gripes about churches is that they need volunteers to run their programs, and guilt people into taking time away from their families in order to satisfy the church’s agenda. I’m so glad for you and your daughters that you figured out that God doesn’t need you to take care of the world.

      • One of my friends (English but lives in America) says that even going to the service where she lives is a major deal. You can’t just go along and then duck out home back to your lunch and the rest of the day, you’re expected to stay and socialise and be “part of the family”. Needless to say she doesn’t go any more, because she has her own family to look after.

        But yes churches rely a lot on volunteers and I have seen people get really burnt out.

      • I am so glad you are looking after yourself more now and that it has made such a difference in everyone’s life. I find this so hard to do. I think with people like us, with do many different interests and activities, we get do caught up in that and so busy that often we over compensate by trying to please or be good.

        BTW, I was in NYC and the reviews of your books guided me in The Strand bookstore! Thank you!

      • I hope you bought some good books and enjoy them!

        I definitely used to over compensate. But I think some people can cope with that scenario. What is very difficult is when you are brought up not to put yourself first. It’s soooo difficult to break habits of a lifetime. It’s like your personality takes a certain shape and you have to remember to stretch against it in a different direction to stop falling into the shapes of the past that you know don’t work.

        Make sure you look after yourself too. xxx

  7. This rings a chord for me too, Denise. I also dislike the moral pedestal that religious people sometimes make for themselves and the lofty condescending attitude some of them have. There are some aspects to religion that I quite like too though. For instance, I think there are some good values that religion teaches, like being nice to people and forgiving as you have mentioned. But I think it would be better for everyone to learn these values in school under the umbrella of philosophy. More specifically, ethics.

    • Another good thing that I associate with my religious values as well was being frugal and not wasting things, valuing the gifts of the earth we were lucky enough to be given. Although there are branches of Christianity who see environmental disaster as God’s will, because it says in the Bible that the world will end in this way. Crazy – you an argue anything.

      Ethics in school would be an interesting idea. Pre-Christianity, a lot of decisions in society would have been argued over by the philosophers.

  8. Gwen Stephens

    Oh, can I relate, Denise. There’s so much hypocrisy and judgement in organized religion, which seems to go against the grain of what it’s meant to stand for. My husband likes to say “The problems with religion start when you get people involved.” It’s a humorous take meant to lighten the topic, but it’s the truth, isn’t it?

    • I think the hypocrisy in organised religion is particularly bad in the Abrahamic religions because they are so centralised. Even though as you say it is not what they are supposed to stand for, once people start having control over other people (even if it’s only in the accepted interpretations of the tenets) it seems inevitable that hypocrisy and judgement will follow, especially as no-one has found a system that works in over 2000 years.

  9. Trouble is, churchy people tend to be a bit blinkered in their outlook. I think they probably mean well but tend to be out of touch with reality. I call them the God Squad and try to avoid.

    • I know some lovely churchy people who are relatively normal, but they are very much in a minority. Also, lovely though they are, I know of none that I feel I can really be myself with.

      I think it’s inherent in the church culture to feel beleaguered by the world and its worldliness (cos you are always getting told about the risks of this in sermons) which is bound to lead collectively to a feeling of not wanting to engage with the world, but to make it what you want it, in your unworldly world, to be. Hence, as you say, out of touch with reality.

      I can imagine the God Squad giving you a wide berth. You might convert them to a different way of thinking!

  10. Oh Denise, I can relate to all you share here. Your words, ‘tight, sad and angry’ describe just how I feel about going to church. I am a Christian but I haven’t been to church for many years, having made a conscience decision to stop going for the simple reason that every time I went, I left feeling lonelier and more miserable than ever. Many years ago I used to attend bible studies and church groups and that’s why I had to reply to Tracy’s comment above, as I came away feeling the same. However, yes, as you say, there are some very fine Christian people who are genuine and I believe truly live life as it should be….not about being ‘good’ but about being alive and knowing that they are doing what they are truly called to do, whatever that might be. The point being, if there is no joy then something is wrong.
    I had no idea you played the organ…you are one talented lady missy! I am sorry though for the difficulties with your sister. It makes me so sad that ‘religion’ makes people this way. It comes down to a heart attitude and I really hope that one day you will be able to feel that sense of joy you once felt in your private spiritual walk and then you will be lead accordingly. And still have lots of fun along the way without feeling that your are not being good!!!! Not a licence to do whatever we want, but a gift from God to enjoy this life, to life and to laugh, which goodness knows can be hard enough at the best of times. 🙂

    • I used to go to bible group as a teenager and it made me feel like I belonged somewhere. Especially the bit where everyone put forward something to pray about – that was really my outlet for talking about my week to a group (well, the leaders really) who I felt was listening.

      Some of the most gentle, accepting but also compassionate and strong people I know are Christians. I think of you as one of those people! It definitely can add an enviable spiritual richness to your life.

  11. Rick

    Like I did, I hope you can find your Red River Gorge. A place where you can feel God, and have a true realationship with God free from human distraction. Once you find that the other stuff won’t matter anymore.

    • Thank you, Rick. I would love one day to find a peace and contentment similar to that which you have found.

  12. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been feeling this way recently Denise. Like many others that have previously commented I can, in some way relate to issues that surround religion. I am not from a highly religious family really but I was Christened, attended a C of E school and went to church quite regularly. I can totally relate to feeling the need to fit in and be good. I have always been the ‘good child’ in my immediate family. Not that my sister was or is very bad but we are like chalk and cheese. I have always felt a high level of expectation following me everywhere I went as a child whether that be by my family, how I was perceived by the wider world or doing well in school etc. When I semi-realised about my sexuality I was still most definitely a believer in God and couldn’t fathom how these two parts of me combined. I started to pray a lot when I was alone and then constantly used to panic and worry that God (and family members who had passed away) could see me from heaven and I was disappointing them all. Reading that now it sounds utterly ridiculous but for a pre-teen I was convinced that bad things would happen to me or that I would become bad for having the thoughts that I did.
    I’m not entirely sure when it ended but I stoped praying, stopped going to church and said atheist when anybody asked of my religion.
    Now I say I am more spiritual than tied to a religion or having no beliefs at all. I do believe that there are forces out there all around us but I no longer focus on a ‘one true God’.

    • It doesn’t sound ridiculous ,about being watched. I remember feeling a similar thing and I think it’s a natural thing to think if you take on board the idea of a supernatural being, and perhaps an afterlife where people we knew live on.

      I used to feel very conflicted about my sexuality and about God. Like you I was pre-teen when I realised I was at least as interested in girls than boys, and in some ways much more so. But for so long my way of coping with conflict was thinking my way into a compromise or thinking my way to acceptance, and yes, praying about it too.

      I didn’t think bad things would happen to me, but isn’t it strange that fear of “becoming bad”?

      • Yes I agree with that. It’s funny how something such as religion that is meant to unify us and make us stronger actually made me weaker and more afraid than I ever was without it.

  13. I’m so happy for you. You have a chance to design your own life, just the way you want it. You can believe anything you like, because you have taken charge ad responsibility for your own beliefs and are no loner following the rules and regulations made up by someone else. It’s never a good thing to believe what others say until you examine each thing and decide if it makes sense or if it’s right for you. 🙂 After all, no one truly knows more than anyone else. No one is ever better than another person. We might all know different things but you just have to find those people who think the way you do, not the other way around. Personally, I don’t believe in gifts. I think that everyone can do stuff. It’s part of who we are. People sometimes practice a lot and get good at something they love…not a gift but a passion. You can’t measure people, you just have to enjoy them and have fun. Family, well, they are just people too. You don’t have to listen to them or do what they say, just because you happen to be related. You can be neutral and just go on your way and live your own life, which is pretty much the reason we are here:) Have a good time figuring it all out. One thing, don’t take any of it too seriously, just laugh a lot and keep going.

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