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Confessions of a “Good Christian Girl”—Countering Toxic Christianity

“Confessions of a good Christian girl”—these words came to mind when I sat with my songwriter friend Evangeline during our one-on-one catch-up.

Over dinner, she shared the ups and downs she’s had in ministry, and it reminded me of my own experiences. It was refreshing to relate with each other as we traded stories of how we often started out with good intentions but would somehow end up burned out.

Evangeline and I are often known in our circle of friends as “good Christian girls”, and sometimes we do take pride in that. However, we also began to reflect on what “good” meant in that sense. The world has conjured for us the image of the “perfect Christian”—that everywhere we go, we are to have squeaky clean conduct, language, and lifestyle, and always be doing good deeds. After all, didn’t our God ask us to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48)?

For Evangeline, being the “perfect Christian” meant:

  • serving faithfully every Sunday
  • obeying everything her pastors and leaders said without question
  • following everything the Bible said without asking why
  • being “super well-behaved” in conduct, and
  • feeling personally responsible for the stability of her faith.

Her words resonated with me. Would it be heretical to say that I, too, find obedience to some parts of the Bible difficult (and would occasionally even differ from my pastor’s take on the application of Scripture)? And of course, there are days when I feel drained and unable to put on the joyful disposition others would expect. As we both wrestled over these thoughts, we decided to capture our struggles by putting it into a song.[1]

 

Chasing Perfectionism Can Lead to Toxic Christianity

When Jesus asked us to be perfect as our Father is perfect, He didn’t call us to a futile task. In the context of Matthew 5:48, the word “perfect” implies completion or maturity. To live in a perfect way means to allow God’s love to become complete in us and flow through our lives to everyone, including our enemies.[2]

As for “goodness”, we tend to link this concept to performance or behaviour. However, in the Bible, goodness comes from putting on Christ’s goodness (or “righteousness”). Only by receiving Him do we become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21), and so become good.

Following Jesus as the model of goodness means, with Him in us, we increasingly take on His servant heart and conduct, His dignifying of people of all social groups, His sacrificial love for His enemies, and even His human struggle in accepting God’s will for Him.

To become Christ-like certainly collides with our sinful flesh and requires a change of heart that goes beyond short-lived behaviour changes. Which is why, not fully understanding the whys of God’s commands and focusing only on the “how-to’s” leads to what I would describe as “toxic Christianity”.

 

What Is “Toxic Christianity”?

Toxic Christianity resembles toxic masculinity in that both deny/reject any hint of vulnerability and weakness to comply with the society’s definition of being “strong”. But since every human being has weaknesses, being “strong” all the time is not a load we’re meant to bear.

Here are two things that toxic Christianity leads to:

1. An unrealistic faith

It focuses on external appearance and places an unhealthy expectation on Christians to constantly keep up “shows of faith”, such as: perfect attendance for every church meeting, not questioning difficult passages in Scripture, and sharing only thanksgivings and “acceptable” prayer requests (excluding honest confessions about struggles with sin).

Focusing on outward displays without heart change opposes what the Bible says about growth. Jesus talks about abiding in Him to bear much fruit (John 15), while Paul explains how it is the Holy Spirit who brings about growth (1 Corinthians 3:6, Galatians 5:22). For me, abiding in Christ means prioritising time with Him just to worship, journal, meditate on Scripture, and pray.

2. An ungracious spirit

It neglects to extend grace to those who are works-in-progress and judges certain sin in others. This may look like projecting one’s own spiritual growth trajectory, personal strengths, or own set of spiritual gifts on others. Jesus condemns not showing grace to those whom the Father accepts (c.f. the elder son in Luke 15:28-32).

What Can We Do to Address Toxic Christianity?

To move away from a toxic Christianity and embrace biblical goodness, here are two things for us to reflect on and embrace:

1. A realistic faith that rests wholly on Jesus’ sacrifice

When we take on Christ’s finished work on the cross, we no longer need to strive our way toward heaven, nor do we need to fear others’ judgment of us. Instead, as we immerse ourselves in His abounding love, we are freed to bless others with what we’ve been blessed with.

Evangeline and I realised how we had unconsciously developed the expectation that God would “do more for us” (e.g., reward us with a greater social acceptance and strong romantic relationships) if we “did more for Him.” In this case, our “doing more” included signing up for Bible studies, sermons/podcasts, and looking out for ways to build our weaker spiritual disciplines whenever we felt we were lacking in a certain area.

Along the way, we forgot that what we were doing were not required for the right relationship with God. Christ had already done all that was needed.

2. A gracious spirit that leans on God’s ongoing sanctification

Knowing Jesus is the Author and Perfecter of our faith helps us understand that it is God who gives us the desire to obey Him (Hebrews 12:2). As we walk closely with God and submit to Him, we can be confident that He will bring about Christlikeness in us.

In church, extending grace to one another may look like offering a listening ear to a brother who needs a break from cell group due to a tiring season at work, or journeying alongside a sister who has doubts about what the Bible says on a sensitive topic. It is okay to ask questions (to show that we are exercising discernment), have doubts (as part of our maturing in faith) and express tiredness (because we are only human).

By sharing openly to trusted brothers and sisters in Christ about our weaknesses, we can bear each other’s burdens, remind each other of God’s promises, and cover one another in prayer.

 

The image of growth in 1 Corinthians 3:6 came to me when I was chatting with a fellow Christian colleague earlier this year. A seed is usually planted below the surface, and it only cares about one thing—receiving nutrients so that it can stay alive and grow. It doesn’t consciously think about how the fruit comes or even its resultant quality.

In the same way, God has planted His Word in us. And if we have received it in faith, we let His truth take root in our hearts, and leave the results of our faith with God.

 

[1]The song “Confessions of Good Christian Girl” captures the songwriters’ struggles to be “good Christians” and their journeys of rediscovering dependence on God as what it means to be “good”. It’s available on Spotify.   

[2]Referenced from the Zondervan NIV Quest Bible (note on Matthew 5:48).

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