It’s a tragic thing that religion, culture, and our families can all rob us of ourselves and our freedom to live fully, authentically, and courageously. We are told how to think, feel, and behave to such an extent that our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions are no longer our own.
But if we are to find our best, most vibrant, and most meaningful lives, we will need to do the work of finding ourselves again. We will need to reclaim our freedom and own our thoughts, feelings, and actions again.
An authentic spirituality is one that empowers us to think for ourselves, feel and express our emotions honestly and healthily, and act in alignment with our personal values and priorities while contributing to the greater good. And only such an authentic spirituality can truly empower us to show up fully, authentically, and courageously in our lives and relationships.
If you want to reclaim your freedom and embrace your most authentic life, then this podcast will guide you on the journey.
You know, when I was a minister, I realised that people could say what they liked to me and they could do what they liked to me, but I was not allowed to respond freely. I couldn’t be angry, I couldn’t shut them out, I couldn’t tell them why their behaviour was unacceptable and why I wouldn’t tolerate it. If I was anything but gracious, I risked losing them and then being judged by others because they’d left. And of course, a loss of attendees and a loss of income as a result of that would threaten the jobs of my staff. But being gracious and tolerating their rubbish meant that I taught people that they could treat me that way and I would be ok with it. And honestly, some people took advantage of that and were nothing less than abusive. I wonder if you’ve ever experienced anything like that?
You see, faith can mess us up actually. It can rob our freedom to be human. It’s like our thinking stops being our own. Our feelings stop being our own. Our behaviour, our likes, our dislikes, our desires, all stop being our own. They are all dictated to us by our church.
I remember in the year that I was ordained, I was on a retreat and we were preparing for the ordination service to come. And one of the conversations was around what we were going to wear as ordinands for our ordination. And the decision that people were making was that we would wear black. Black shirts with our clerical collars, black pants, black shoes, black preaching gown over the top of that. And I remember saying, “Guys, I can’t do this in black. I’ll feel like I’m going to my own funeral.” And one of the retreat leaders a ministerial colleague said, “But John, that’s exactly what this is. You are going and you’re laying your life down and coming out as a new person, a servant of the Church. I ended up wearing black, but with red socks and white braces under my preaching gown. But I struggled with that idea that I was going, in a sense, to my own funeral to lay myself down.
In the last little while, I’ve been aware of how we sing about these kinds of things. There’s a song in particular that struck me a few days ago where there’s a line in the song that says, “Rid me of myself…” Rid me of myself. What a horrible thing to sing.
Now, I know that for some people religion is freeing. For some it gives them back themselves and leads them into a deeper and richer life. But that’s not the truth for everyone. For many of us, religion is filled with so many subtle and not so subtle messages that being ourselves is not ok.
And part of deconstructing our faith is about facing all the ways we lost ourselves. The legitimate thoughts and feelings and behaviours, likes, dislikes, desires that were lost or sometimes stolen from us. And then it’s about finding ourselves again. And that means learning, little by little, to give ourselves the freedom to think our own thoughts, even the ‘unacceptable ones’. Feel our own feels, even the ‘unspiritual’ ones. And choose our own actions, even if they’re viewed as ‘sinful’ by the religious establishment.
And so how do we go about doing that? How do we go about reclaiming our freedom? Here are some thoughts. And to begin with, it’s about thinking our own thoughts. That’s a good place to start because nobody can control what you do with your mind. We’ve spoken in the last few weeks, about the voices that have been installed within us and the voices that shape us from outside. But what about just finding our own authentic voice? Our own authentic thinking? It can be tremendously liberating to embrace our own unique perspectives, to wonder our own wonders, to be awed by what really awes us, to ask our own questions? It can be hard to know what we actually think about things when we have so many voices within and without telling us what we ‘should’ be thinking.
And sometimes we need silence to find our own truth—to give time and space for the authentic voice of our own souls to emerge.
Now our thinking won’t necessarily be worked out, or logical, or consistent. And that’s ok. The first step is just for it to be our thinking. Ours. And then we can always work out later if it needs to grow, and change, and be made better.
So think about your thoughts now. Think about your opinions, your questions. The things you wonder about. The things that awe you. How much of that is really your own? How much of it has been passed on to you and is kind of second hand from others or from your Church?
What can you do to connect more deeply with your own authentic thinking? Even—maybe especially—if it doesn’t fit the narrow box of so-called acceptability? Maybe you could start journaling your thoughts each day for a week. And then assess how many of those thoughts truly resonate with you and can be called your own. Then follow where those thoughts wherever they may lead you as you nurture your own thinking more and more.
So think your own thoughts.
Following on from that, finding our freedom is about feeling our own feels. Have you ever found yourself shutting out the so-called ‘bad’ feelings and only allowing yourself the ‘good’ ones? Who told you that some feelings were bad and some were good? And who defined which were which?
My whole life I’ve been judged for the power and depth of my emotional experience to the extent that I’ve learned to bury it, to hide it, to not let it show. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel these feelings—I still feel very powerful emotions. I just try really hard not to let other people see me feeling them. Sometimes they break through because they can’t really be held in, and then inevitably, I feel guilty and I feel regret and I notice how others treat me differently because of it and how they see me, it often feels like, as somehow inadequate. But mostly, I put my emotions away and then I process them when I’m alone. This isn’t always healthy. And maybe you’ve experienced something like this.
So what feelings have you disowned, buried, hidden, denied, or kept to yourself? And what happens to you when you disconnect from your heart like this? How easily do you feel what you feel? And what can you do to become more comfortable with your feelings, to own them, and to listen to what they’re trying to tell you? Because after all, our feelings are just communication from our deepest selves.
So are you ready to own your emotional self, to feel your feels? Can you reject the belief that you have to feel what others tell you to, or you have to hide your feelings in order to keep others feeling ok, or that you have to let others define your feelings for you, to tell you what you’re feeling, to give you the labels for your feelings? And if you’ve felt those things can you let go of that?
Again, maybe you can make a practice of journaling your feelings for a week or so. Notice when you’re tempted to reject or deny a feeling and then slow down and give the feeling time to emerge and make itself known. And be sure to note whatever your feelings are trying to tell you.
And then lastly, claiming our freedom is about choosing our actions. Have you lived your life always trying to be ‘good’ and not doing what you’ve been told is ‘bad’? And yet how many of the bad things really were bad? Just as an example, how many of us were told that sexual ‘purity’ was eternally important and that sex was bad? How many of us had our normal sexual development stunted by this? How many of us have had to deal with all sorts of body issues, and fears of how we dress and act?
Or maybe we were told that swearing is bad. Although actually it can be quite therapeutic according to some studies.
Or maybe our behaviour has been controlled in other ways—whether we choose to have children or not; what we’re going to weigh or what we’re going to eat or whether we’ll do yoga or dancing? The list goes on and on.
What if you just started choosing what works for you? Obviously not deliberately harming others, or being completely horrid in your narcissism. But can you trust that your freedom isn’t toxic? And can you claim an authentic, liberating freedom for yourself?
And once again, it can be helpful to journal the things you want to do compared with what you actually do. Make a note of things that you’ve been told are bad but that are actually perfectly fine. Think about times when you’ve held yourself back unnecessarily. And think about what you need to do to give yourself permission to break free a little.
There’s a well-known verse in the New Testament that says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” And yet how many of us really feel that we’ve honestly been set free? Or are we discovering that actually we were living in a religious, ora cultural, or a relational cage?
And what if we could find the courage to embrace our freedom, to let ourselves be ourselves—even when it entails making mistakes along the way?
I hope you’ll think about these questions. And that’s it for this episode. I really hope it’s going to help you to find your freedom a little more. And I hope that you will make setting yourself free a spiritual practice—in some of the ways we’ve spoken about today and in others that you may think of. And I hope all of this will empower you to show up more fully, authentically, and courageously in your life and relationships.
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