Faith or Fear: How fear has been used to coerce belief.


I’ve written a lot lately about how mission boarding school and growing up on the mission field has influenced my faith and my journey to practising Presence. Today — I want to dive into the darkness of the journey from a culture of fear, into learning to lead from faith and love.

A topic I have been ruminating on recently: How many of my choices and decisions in life are made based on faith? What decisions were fear-based?

Where does the fear come from? Unfortunately — indoctrination.

I recently read this description of “the church”, which could just as easily apply to New Tribes Missions:

This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

When I have made choices about my career or finances — in particular — were these based on a faith in the abundance of the Source of all Good, or were they reactions based on avoiding pain or fear? What was the role of shame and guilt? And what does this type of decision-making say about my belief systems?

It’s my hope, that by sharing this post, changes might begin to happen in the way we raise children within the Church. That we stop focussing on “ scaring the hell out of them “ and start introducing them much earlier on to “God is everywhere present”, “God is love” and “Love is God”.

As I think back to my childhood, and especially to my time in boarding school, I recall doubting salvation. Not just once — many times!
Had I said the words right?
Was it from the heart when I said it?
And I would repeat “the sinners prayer”, just in case.

For starters, I couldn’t actually remember “getting saved” or even getting baptised — although my missionary parents quite proudly touted that I had “ accepted Jesus as my saviour “ at the tender age of four and insisted on getting baptised with everyone else!

That — like many other moments of my childhood- simply do not exist in the data stored within my conscious memory — one of the human mind’s amazing mechanisms for survival. Boarding school, however, had a particular kind of culture. In that culture, I learnt to simply be unseen: the unseen were never singled out or punished.

I want to dive deeper into what I understood to be Christianity from those experiences — even though today my read on the Bible takes a totally different perspective!

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — rising up to faith:

I want to begin by introducing our Hierarchy of Needs because I’m going to be talking about what “motivates” us in life and faith. I particularly want to talk about how this was, consciously or unconsciously, used in the mission to coerce compliance. And yes, I use the word coerce intentionally.

The foundation of our needs ( physiological) are very simple: air, water, shelter, food, sleep and clothing. I can say that these might have been occasionally rationed, but I was never in fear of not having them. I might have feared for my soul after death, but not for the most basic of human needs.

Nestled above our physiological needs are vital external needs — particularly safety, which includes our physical and personal security. This was put in jeopardy within the confines of the dorms and school environment (for example, you can see the Fanda Eagles site). I might even include here the fear of eternal damnation — the safety (or lack thereof) of my soul for eternity. Or perhaps that should be on the very foundation of the needs for survival.

In the social needs, are the needs of being loved, belonging and inclusion. Nonetheless, at boarding school — as well as in certain church settings — this hinges upon your good behaviour and meeting the standards of the group to which you belong. Guilt was a tool used to ensure that you “belonged” — as your actions or omissions were judged. While I felt loved by my parents, they kotowed to the rules and regulations of the mission (in order to not be expelled and sent home in humiliation). Belonging was certainly conditioned — not an expression of being loved.

Instead of esteem, there was shame and a lack of self-esteem or self-worth. Status, recognition, strength and freedom hung by a tenuous thread of conformity. And for some, it was simply beaten out of them — as they tried to beat the devil out of those kids who had inner strength and failed to conform!

Self-actualization — something you hoped to achieve when you finally left and went off to college. And yet, achieving one’s full potential was most certainly limited to “doing God’s will” within the narrow definitions in which it was explained to us. For most, this meant: you finish high-school, and you go to Bible College, then Boot Camp — and then become a missionary “just like your mum & dad”.

I hope I haven’t drawn for you too negative a picture of the environment we grew up in. Don’t get me wrong — I have some, perhaps many, childhood memories — but I am still dealing with the unconscious beliefs that lie beneath the surface of my strength, independence and self-sufficiency.

What motivates you spiritually?

Eternal-Damnation & Fear as a Motivator:

As a child, I was terrified of coming home and finding no one there.
Had the rapture happened?
Was I left behind, not really a Christian?
There was much too much talk of the rapture and judgement day to provide any sense of security and safety to an overly imaginative child!

Especially when images, like the one below, were the common publications from New Tribes Mission. Consider how much easier it is to control a group of twenty 6 to 8-year-olds through fear than it is through love.

Fear works! And dorm parents and teachers worked it!

Through fear, we teach compliance — external, rather than internal. So, when Jesus says that adultery is not what you do with another person, but what happens in our mind — he was challenging these very rules and messages. Unfortunately for us, that message was not the one relayed to us!

Jesus loving us was all about death, blood and dying. It was never about living and loving! It was not about living in faith, but hoping that your begging prayers had been heard by a judging God. My prayers, for many years, were fearfully presenting a list of needs to God, in the hopes that perhaps God would deign to meet them.

How do you teach your child to choose to be loving and kind — when there is no punishment for being selfish or mean? And yet, if you teach them that there is hell and so they simply acquiesce to the external behaviours, but in there heart no change has happened — does it really matter if they are outwardly compliant? So that you, as a parent, or as a church or a mission, can look good?

Warning #2 — beware that you lose your salvation! If you continue to misbehave and disobey the rules, you will lose your salvation and go to hell.

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

Hebrews 10:26–27 (NIV)

This has nothing to do with truly understanding that God lives within us, but rather is simply the avoidance of the “wages of sin” — well, because no one wants to die and get sent to that raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Especially not when you are eleven years old!

I wonder if they ever cared that fear is self-serving — it’s about focusing on your personal survival and safety.

There is nothing authentic about a life of faith that is based on fear!

We didn’t serve others from a love for others or love of God. We served others to avoid the immediate physical repercussions or eternal damnation.

Let’s be honest — this was not about knowing God or even fearing God.

What we feared were death and hell!

Those had become our idols and motivators! Fear may get external compliance, but it doesn’t really give you a change of heart. You choose to “believe in Jesus” because you want to avoid the devil and the demons. I’m pretty sure that if anyone had come along with another option of how to avoid death, demons and damnation — we would quite easily have been convinced to take that option and solution! Is that faith when you are merely trying to avoid unpleasant consequences?

As we continue to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the motivating factors become weaker. So, while fear may be the strongest, with guilt and social acceptance being another strong external motivator, when you reach shame (internal), the power it holds over you lessen.

Nonetheless, shame as a learned behaviour is something that carries with you all your life! The effects of the manipulation and emotional abuse are scars carried until healing takes place on a deep level.

Guilt as a Motivator:

While “salvation” might come through Jesus’ death on the cross — everything after that depended entirely upon me! It was “put upon us” that we had to fight to keep our salvation — and there was a level of perfectionism built into the guilt.

If you imagine the effect of guilt upon a child — when we make someone else feel bad, “I caused this”. If I feel bad, then I must have caused this as well. Psychologically, children are survivors — and in order to cope with guilt, we take on “I am responsible for this” because it provides a modicum of control over the situation in which we find ourselves. If I have some control, then there are parts of this situation that I have the power to stop or alleviate the pain.

Unfortunately, how were we to know that we were playing with a misconception of right and wrong, and our ability to change a course of action? Guilt is about renewing the feelings of a past moment in the present time. We felt guilty for how we looked and how we were perceived by others if it was anything less than perfect!

We were warned against being rebellious because that would have repercussions on our parents. If we were too badly behaved, they might even get thrown out of the mission! And that would be “your fault”.

“If your parents get kicked out of the mission, they won’t be able to preach the gospel to those poor indians that are going to hell, and it will be your fault that all those people went to hell. You don’t really want that on your conscious, do you?”

It’s a lot of guilt for an 8 or 10-year-old to carry on their shoulders! But it wasn’t just me. This was the same guilt-trip that we were all fed.

A few of the “wiser ones” realised it was all brain-washing and mind-fuckery… and they were the “trouble-makers” who were constantly in trouble and who were risking getting their parents expelled!

But, that wasn’t the end of the “us” versus “them” mentality in the social triggers. We were told not to play with those “sinner” neighbour’s kids because we were “the chosen”, the “elect”, and the “righteous”. As opposed to those “heathens”. Superiority and segregation were the name of the game in our “true faith”. We could preach to them, but we couldn’t play with them.

But if you take duty as a motivator — the social element of guilt — there was a manipulation into compliance, playing on our sense of belonging.

Avoiding guilt is simple self-interest.

Once again, you achieve outward compliance of “Christian behaviour” — but no real change of heart. We talked about God’s love. I certainly didn’t feel or experience it!

Can I tell you how relieved I am that my parents were eventually expelled from the mission, in order to facilitate a cover-up? The worst possible thing that could happen, happened. Guess what — I didn’t die! Yes, my world came crashing down. But we survived, and I’m so glad my little brother didn’t go to boarding school!

Shame as a Motivator:

For God so loved the world… “you better be happy God did this for you, otherwise your sorry ass would be in hell”.

Okay, I accept, I might have used more colourful language than what any dorm parent or mission member would have used! But that was basically the message! You are a sinner and should be ashamed of yourself.

Continually ashamed.

You are only saved by grace and will never be good enough to be worthy of this salvation.

Salvation, the way I learnt it, was not about “sonship” or “children of God” — we continued to be sinners all the time, we were just “lucky sinners” that have said the sinners prayer and so saved from the fires of hell.

But we continued to live in shame.

The only thing we could not be ashamed of was the gospel of Christ!

This meant, at least for me, living with weakened self-esteem and self-worth. I grew up with an unrealistic measure of self-worth — this dichotomy between who I should be and who I was.

Never enough.

Internalized shame was constant because we were never allowed to externalise anger, sadness or any other “bad” feelings. We swallowed them down, suppressed them, and by obligation put community and reputation first.

Failure to conform -in any way — was, of course, shameful.

Once again, what kind of motivator is this? Yes, you’ve achieved outward compliance — but where is the true and deep transformation of the soul? Where is the presence of God and the Spirit in each child’s life?

I would guess that more than half of us felt we’d had our spirit’s crushed!

We got really good at pretending!

Hiding any anxiety, anger, depression, or other “unacceptable” ways of being. Of course, all of this waiting to come pouring out once we are released from the confines of that environment.

Knowing God:

The problem with fear, guilt and shame — they cannot produce lasting change. The change only lasts for as long as you are within the confines of that environment where those chains hold you. They may have lasting effects upon your mental and emotional well-being, but once the conditions are altered, the behaviour alters as well!

So, of course, many of those missionary kids — like me — abandoned all ties with the church (any church) the moment our parents left the mission field. So many stories to tell, so many experiences.

But I don’t know how many would say today that they base their decision making upon faith and love of God as a motivating factor!

Did we really “know God” as a result of that upbringing?

Or did we simply pretend to, by external compliance?

How many children in churches today continue to live up to these rules and expectations, motivated by fear, guilt and shame?

I count myself among the lucky ones. I did therapy for a couple of years with a Christian psychologist who used regression therapy, hypnotherapy and NLP to help me work through some of the mental and emotional trauma. She understood the environment I had grown up in and enough to say “was that God or was that men who deigned to say they spoke for God?”. She was perfectly happy for me to abandon the Christian faith in order to find reconciliation with God (although obviously that was not what she wanted)!

Since then, I’ve done more work with another psychologist as well as hundreds of hours of personal coaching.

If you are responding from a place of fear, guilt or shame — is that true faith?

Not from where I sit. There might be outward compliance — but that is not actual faith. No change has taken place on the inside!

Therein lies my disdain for this system of control through fear!

What kind of prayer life do you have when you believe from a place of fear? How is this different from prayers of faith?

Finding Love and Faith as Motivators:

I’ve spent the past ten years questioning my belief systems and faith, not just revisiting what I was taught, but daring to ask “do I actually believe this and if I don’t what does that mean for me?”

In the end, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that no matter how well-intentioned any of the teachers or dorm-parents may have been in their concern for saving our souls, they did much more harm than good.

A bad motive can’t achieve a good end;
double-talk brings you double trouble.

Proverbs 17:20 (MSG)

We never reached a level of motivation from love and acceptance.

Unfortunately, as we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization is the least of our needs! It’s much easier to manipulate and control the masses through fear, group membership and acceptance, and even shame than it is simply to focus on self-actualization, faith and love.

But being transformed by the renewing of our minds — that can’t be done at the levels of safety, social needs or even esteem. It only takes place at the highest level — when we no longer feel we “need” it, and have the freedom to choose it for ourselves.

How many people would simply choose Love of God and faith with that level of freedom? With no obligation?

In my own search for faith and for practising the presence of the Divine — my personal discovery is that this is the only level on which I am prepared to make that commitment. To choose Divine Love — voluntarily, with no coercion.

Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

I found this article on Faith or Fear? by Sarah Schroeder really helpful when I was making my initial notes to prepare this blog post.

Originally published at on September 5, 2019.

blogger, coach, and international law consultant. Writing about faith, growth, transformation & change.

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