Last time, I talked about the voices in my head that were so loud that I felt like I couldn’t feel God’s love anymore. I was spinning and trying to get even a little bit of a footing so I could regain my balance. That happens when you’re deconstructing narratives that have been unhelpful or holding you back. It sucks, but it’s good. I just needed to get out a few thoughts to make room for something new that might actually help me. And it seems to have worked.
I’m feeling much better now, safe within a loving universe, and I want to tell you the story of how I got here in just a couple hours.
First, thank God for good friends. As I shared the last post with a couple of my closest friends, their responses were understanding and empathic. Their experiences, thoughts, and questions, after a good dose of “you’re not crazy,” sent me on a new train of thought that led to a clearing. And the voices are gone. For now.
I was asked where the voices were coming from. The church? The people in the church? As I really dove into those questions I realized that the voices were all voices of authority. I know there can be varying definitions of that word, so let me clarify that when I say “authority” I mean an expression of “power over” by someone or something. (“Power over” is a concept first identified in business management psychology by Mary Parker Follet in the early 1900s, when she departed from her peers’ techniques and posited that “power over” damages company cultures while “power with” can restore unity and functionality, just in case you’re interested.)
The voices I experienced fell into one of three categories of authority: a priesthood leader, the church handbook, or the Book of Mormon. These three things have had authority in my life because it’s been trained into me to respect the authority of the priesthood as God’s own authority, the authority of the church as Christ’s own church, and the authority of the Book of Mormon as the most correct book, and the best, if not the only, way to fully come to God.
These three authorities were the foundation of my relationship with church, and thereby have largely been the foundation of my relationship with God. The voices that come from these sources have felt like they trump all other sources, even personal revelation, because I’ve been told that personal revelation has to fit within the bounds of these authorities. This gives them “power over” my experiences and interpretations. Even when something from authoritative sources feels off for me, I have that voice telling me to get back in line.
I don’t have the same experience with women leaders or the Bible, because I was never taught to respect them as authorities. Women leaders and the Bible can say all sorts of unenlightened things and it doesn’t phase me much, because I know they don’t have authority. Most of the men in my life would get up to use the bathroom when women would speak during General Conference, which definitely taught me how I should be relating to them. And I was embarrassed by these women speakers, and developed my own distaste for their talks. See how messed up and sticky this is getting?
Now, this isn’t to say that all of my experiences with priesthood leaders, the church handbook, or the Book of Mormon have been “power over” experiences. I’ve had many beautiful moments of growth with each. But in those moments, I wasn’t relating to them as authorities. They were simply tapping into the same cosmic truths that I sensed myself, and we were discovering love in meaningful ways together. This had nothing to do with any supposed authority. My Bishop who helped me heal after my years of wandering was standing as a witness of Christ’s love for me. Period. No part of the transformative love I felt from him had anything to do with his priesthood authority.
So, back to the authority thing, because this is huge for me. I have this super weird relationship with authority. I both hate it, and I crave it. Like a drug. I really want those who have authority to think highly of me, and I’ve struggled with this for many years. But I also hate authority because there is something about it that feels like it obstructs my sense of a benevolent universe. I had another friend respond to my previous flailing with a reminder of this beautifully kind universe. And I remembered that there is no place for “power over” when benevolence runs in and through all things. So, how did the approval of those in authority become so addicting to me? How can I have both of these feelings at the same time?
The thing about “power over” is that it can only exist when it replaces “power with” with a strong narrative of its own essentiality. Authoritative power has to convince you that you are powerless unless you have someone or something in authority to step in and bridge the gaps. And most theology relies on those tactics heavily. Many of our atonement theories are based on Christ’s power over sin and death, thereby doing what we cannot do ourselves. I’ve done a lot of work with atonement theories, and I’m not going to get into this here, but that is not the only way of viewing the atonement. And I’d argue it’s not necessarily always a healthy one either. Certainly it hasn’t been for me.
So with all of the talk of authority in the church I grew up in, I began to see it as the only thing that could save me from myself. I trusted it to take away my reproach, and it began to replace the enabling power of Christ, which needs no authority over the elements or anything else to be with me in my journey and be my Savior. He and I both know that I’m already safe in an always loving universe, and he’s here to help show me the way. He’s with me. Not over me. But in those inevitable moments when things get hard, when I cry out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” I turned to the expediency of rational authority to rescue me instead of patiently waiting for the permanent healing power of Christ’s solidarity in my suffering. And in my impatience, I allowed authority to replace grace.
The more I continued on this path, the more my brain set up the addiction. It knew where to go for quick hits of stability when my perceptions were wobbly. It relied on both the approval from and the words of those in authority to get me quickly through any temporary struggle. And it produced a nice fat hit of dopamine to go with it so I’d stick with the plan. My brain is awesome like that, always finding the quickest and easiest ways to get where it wants to go, but it isn’t all knowing. Sometimes it messes up. And since I didn’t tell my brain to check in with my heart, it ran away with the addiction and set me up for this fall.
At some point, the wiring my brain used to support this addiction was going to fail. And that’s exactly what happened today. My brain’s pull for this hit from authority created these strong narratives and voices to bring me back to it when I would start to go in a different direction. Every “you’re already always worthy” was followed by a “check with authority first before you go acting on that.” Every “God’s love is unconditional and free” was followed by a “don’t be deceived, the devil can appear as an angel of light.” Every taste of the good fruit of the love of God was followed by a demon telling me that it wasn’t as good as the fruit of knowledge and authority it wanted me to eat. The closer I got to not needing authority anymore, the louder my brain needed the voices to be, until it freaked the hell out and I had a breakdown.
Game over. Now I knew something was up. And thanks to some great friends who were willing to mourn with me and ask me some great questions, I was able to pull the curtain back on this wizard in my mind.
I let authority, with my complicit brain, set up a narrative that something should be between me and the universe where I belong. I belong in this universe, and I’m loved here. Authority broke the connection I had with that true belonging, and set itself up over me with the story that I needed it in order to fit. And I sought the approval of authority to repair that connection because that’s what it promises. But it actually couldn’t do that because the broken connection wasn’t real. Then I felt disappointment which made me feel lost, and I thought I just needed more authority. I became addicted to it.
This realization instantly made the voices go away. I know they aren’t gone for good. Addictions don’t usually go quietly into the night. But now I see that I just need to treat it like an addiction. I can call it what it is when it pops up, and return to my loving universe. The voices are just my brain’s way of saying, “but you’ve gotten so many hits off of authority, if you stray too far we might die,” and I’ve just got to lovingly remind it that we’re in a safe universe and everything is going to be okay. I can thank my brain for it’s honest efforts, and bring my heart to the party.
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us… For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 38–39)