Religious Guilt and the Total Depravity of Man

Much of my identity was centered around the idea that I, at my core, am a sinful and wicked individual. I heard from my parents and faith community that a human from birth onward is a sinful and wicked creature. My childhood church refers to this as “Total Depravity of Man.”

“We believe mankind was created in the image and likeness of God. But through Adam’s sin, the race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God. Man is totally depraved and unable to remedy his lost condition.”

My Ex Church’s Public Statement of Faith

As an example, my father will openly state in total sincerity how infants and toddlers (his grandchildren) are “little sinners” when they act out or disobey. Within fundamentalist circles, parents are told to raise their children with this thought in mind. Children are reminded of their sinful and horrible natures when then disobey and are punished accordingly. See books like To Train up A Child and Growing Kids God’s Way for examples of this (I really want to do a series on these books when I get a chance). Strict and swift justice is enacted on evil and depraved sinners.

My point is from childhood onward I was told I was evil and depraved. And I believed it. Every little minor “rebellion” or sin would confirm this to me. When I was disciplined for my sin I would be sat down and reminded of how my sin hurt god and my parents.

One of the first verses I remember learning as a kindergartner was “A” – “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23 ” This was a part of my education and an “aid” to help me learn the alphabet. I can remember reciting the alphabet letter and then the verse using these cards with my mother.

Recollecting back some of things I considered to be deep offenses were merely childhood play or curiosity. Playing in the snow in my church clothes after Wednesday night church – after being told not to. I stayed up late at night, anxiety twisting my heart over my sin, over that one. Or my theft of chocolate chips from the cupboard. Playing with matches and candles o – that particular sin earned me what I remember as being my last spanking as a preteen. All of these and endless more around that time, in my mind, confirmed my sinful nature.

One of the things that kicked this off was recalling a song that I would often listen to as a middle schooler. The name of the song is Flood by Jars of Clay. There are a lot of metaphors in the song, much of it centered around the biblical flood.

Cast down all the waves of sin
And guilt that overthrow me

Lift me up – when I’m falling
Lift me up – I’m weak and I’m dying
Lift me up – I need you to hold me
Lift me up – Keep me from drowning again”

Emphasis Mine – Lyrics are from https://genius.com/Jars-of-clay-flood-lyrics

The first two line of the quote hit me hard. As a child and teen I was drowning in those waves of guilt, and told that god would lift me from them. So I repented and asked for forgiveness – over and over again. But the guilt and shame stayed.

By the time I reached my teen years, I fully and wholly believed I was a horrible person. My mind and body was evil and depraved. And because of that I couldn’t trust it. My teenage mind lead me to sexual thoughts and desires. All of which were wrong – evil, deprived, wicked. I hated my wicked mind and my “perverted” body.

That hate and guilt nagged at me and grew. Confession and repentance failed to clear my guilt, and I would vow to do better. Only to fail to keep that vow a day or two later.

I think it’s hard to describe the pain of that guilt. And I think I need to add more context to this. Imagine being told your sins and wrongs forced your religious leader to their death. The way I was reminded of the severity of my sin was a mental picture of Jesus nailed to a cross slowly suffocating and pushing up for a breath in agony with my sin at the forefront of his mind. I killed my savior, and as I sinned I added to the sorrow and pain he suffered for me.

I would flog myself with the phrase, “Why couldn’t I just control my thoughts?” In my mind even my thoughts of sin were already a sin against god. Something that I was taught by purity culture books that I read as a teen. And I would try to correct my thoughts and avoid any “evil” thoughts, but I would continually fail.

My body and heart was in constant pain. I asked for forgiveness, but never felt it. I wasn’t worthy of it. I was taught to hate sin. How could I feel relief and let go after a prayer for forgiveness? I wanted relief but never found it.

My mind focused on the sin and stayed there. I know my family would point out that they countered the teachings of sin with god’s forgiveness. But I would remind them and others that for so much of my life the focus was always on the sin. Forgiveness seemed like an afterthought.

I heard and saw around me judgement around me for so many other’s sins. Saw how this family or that group within my church was considered to be an outsider because of their “sinful lifestyle” despite their belief in the same god and bible. It was modeled to me that forgiveness is and always will be conditional. If you want to be forgiven you can’t repeat your sins, or so I saw modeled in my home. If you want forgiveness you better act repentant. And don’t you dare cross the line into something your community has already decided is “unforgiveable.”

Until one day I did cross that line.

How does one ask for forgiveness for something they know everyone will talk about behind their backs, laugh at or mock? One doesn’t ask, they hold it in their core and let the bitterness and guilt eat away at their soul. Daily kicking themselves for the mistakes they made and the sins they committed.

This pain and anguish follow me, and to this day I struggle to lift it off of myself. I laugh when I hear other’s claim it’s the holy spirit. Because I know I repented and asked god for forgiveness, and nothing would relieve the agony of my heart wrenching guilt.

When I write about the “depravity of man” or in my post about “original sin” this very anguish and guilt is why. I still fight against these feelings – that at my core I’m a sinful person deserving of punishment. That I’m a wicked and horrible person. And I know my family and fundamentalist friends would read that and conclude that it’s just my guilt leading me to god. But I would tell them that I begged god to take the sin and shame from me, and I never felt that very relief I asked for. I prayed and pleaded with their god and felt silence as my response.

So please, before you teach your child how sinful and rotten they are, stop and think of how they could internalize that feeling. You may mean well, but it may affect them in ways you wouldn’t expect.

3 thoughts on “Religious Guilt and the Total Depravity of Man

    1. Yes it is. It’s does seem like so often very little was mentioned of the love of god. At least within my own home and church, god’s compassion and forgiveness seemed to be often overlooked.

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