The Distant vs. Personal God
and on cultiness in churches
I think a lot about religion these days. What makes a religion culty? What makes a religion toxic? What makes a religion …helpful and beautiful? Where do the lines get blurred? How often does it happen? Does it always happen? Can it ever be good?
I used to believe that all organized religion was culty. Point blank. No nuance. Some more than others obviously, but I was generally against all organized religion. It was allllll culty.
Apparently, according to me pre-2023, any group with a shared belief system? Culty. It wasn’t necessarily a full blown cult but… it was on it’s way. Just give it time.
I was my own little self-made cult expert. My fascination started when I compared obsessive diet mentality to cult mentality… our way is right, we’ve figured it out, this is the only way to stay safe. The more research I did on how cult mentality operates, the more I saw cult mentality everywhere, not just in religion, or “diets,” but also in politics, schools, activist groups… it’s truly just an unfortunate human tendency. Tribal mentality. “We are right and you are wrong. We have it all figured out.”
To be clear, a formal cult is different from a group that becomes culty. A formal cult has a charismatic and often narcissistic leader, who takes on a God-like role, or claims to have some special authority, either by being extremely intelligent or “closer to God” than others, which helps the leader to manipulate and control the beliefs of the group, and the people themselves. An “us vs them” belief system usually takes over, alienating the members from the outside world, and instilling paranoia and fear, with a belief that only the group/leader can save them.
Without the manipulative and charismatic leader, “culty” groups are less likely to be formal cults, and more likely to just have big overlaps in psychology and the existence of the mob mentality/group-think….
I was so resistant to religion, that during my conversion to Christianity, I was so incredibly turned off by the term “Christianity” that I had to call it “my Jesus situation.” I didn’t want any of it to be happening. I didn’t want to believe in Jesus. I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t even want to say or write Jesus’ name out loud. I didn’t want to believe any of this. AND I CERTAINLY DID NOT WANT TO BECOME RELIGIOUS. AND EVEN WORSE THAN RELIGIOUS… CHRISTIAN.
I mean really. I was distraught. My worldview and my identity and career and life as I knew it had already crumbled and disintegrated and I didn’t think I could take one more change. I didn’t have the will to become even weirder and more fringe and judged than I already had become, especially with my readers. Having a public platform made me judge it all even more, they way I knew I’d be judged. Plus, I was the girl who had always talked about cults. I had to stay the now- more moderate girl who judged every group as being “culty.”
…But at the same time, through my unwanted and unexpected conversion, I was being… saved from myself. From the darkness I had let in. From my own panic and anxiety and terror over the world. My anxiety had always been there, in one way or another, but at this point my panic over “what was happening in the world” had nearly taken over. And, my panic over what was going to happen in my life. But the more I learned about how all-powerful and loving God really is… and the more I started experiencing it, in response to desperate and confused prayers, it became clear that God’s goodness was stronger and more worth it in my life than my preconceived notions and judgements over Christian things.
A Distant God
Before all this, I believed in some kind of God. I really did. I believed in the spiritual. But it was all so vague and impersonal. It was distant. Conceptual. The universe was a blob of everything. I was part of the universe. I contained multitudes, apparently. God was everything, and everything was everything, and I was everything, and I was God. Or god. I didn’t know if I was capitalized or not. I didn’t know and I didn’t really care. I believed that all the separation we feel is just us forgetting that we are everything and God is everything and we are God. There were tools to hack this universe-consciousness-blob-everything-is-everything matrix. But ultimately, the tools weren’t helping my anxiety at all. These tools and practices were used to manifest what we wanted and deserved. To get out of our own way. Tools to remind myself and the universe: I am you and you are me and we are everything and I am god (kind of) and I want money! And poof, you get everything you want. If you have problems? Darkness? Pain? That required shadow work. You gotta… like… feel it and integrate it and then remember that you are everything and… yea. Something like that. There were also spirit guides who would help you do stuff, or whatever. All spiritual stuff was “Source.” God was source. Spirit guides were as much source as we were source and so… spirit guides were kind of God. I don’t know. To be honest, I am SURE there are many “new agey” spiritual people who have more specific and solidified beliefs than I had. But at a certain point, I had listened to so many slightly different beliefs about how spiritual stuff worked, that I’d mashed them all together, and figured no one REALLY knew and it was some sort of semi-logical combination of everything.
My beliefs were vague. I dabbled here and there. And the belief system that I landed on in the past many years was… that we needed to process stuck energy and emotion and trauma, and I got to a place where I generally believed that if we could process all the stuck stuff, “the shadow,” if you will, then everything would fall into place. You’d be able to manifest with ease, and live a life of … bliss or whatever, because there’d be no resistance in the way anymore.
Though to be honest, beyond a year or two of devotion to energy work and “processing” the “stuck energy,” I wasn’t that engaged in really using these tools after 2018-ish. It was just a vague belief about trauma that I held. And I still believed that God, or something like God, was real. And I believed that this God-thing had helped me many times before. I knew it. But beyond that, it was all very vague and confusing.
The Personal God
I’d hear people talking about a personal relationship with God sometimes, and sort of… tune it out. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly so I didn’t even really think much about it.
But now I know what it means. And I will say, that beyond the specifics of Christianity (in very short: that God so loved the world that he came down to walk among us, and die for us, giving us all access to the Holy Spirit to reunite us with him), the personal relationship with God is one of the biggest differences between my spiritual life before, and now.
Before I prayed only rarely, almost only in desperation. And whenever I prayed in desperation I did imagine some sort of personified, personal God who heard me, but my usual belief in God, was something more impersonal. Far away and distant. I did think that I was in a constant energetic exchange with the universe matrix thingy, but God… whoever God was, was farther away. Mostly because I put him far away. I never really thought about God at all. I rarely prayed. Though, I think I actually did go through phases of doing things that helped me hear God. One was my chronic fatigue phase, where I did a lot of lying around in bed. In desperation and exhaustion, I did find myself asking for help and guidance. I didn’t know who I was asking, but I did anyway. And then my years of writing morning pages, I think those sometimes took on a prayer-like activity for me, and helped my take time to reflect and connect… and God would break through. But I didn’t know if it was just some reflection of my inner wisdom and higher self, or an actual GOD, who was separate from me, and separate from the universe.
The difference now to me, is that… not only is some kind of God real, which I always believed. But God is God. I am not God. God is God. God is not the universe. God is not spirit guides. God is God. And despite how messed up life often is, God is Good. And most importantly God is personal. You don’t have to control your thoughts and beliefs to enter the perfect mantra-equation into the computer system that is the universe-matrix, to get your perfect manifested outcome. No. God is personal. God hears you. God loves you. God helps you. God makes you go through things that are shitty and hard but make you into the person he wants to make you into. You mess up. You pray. You ask for forgiveness and guidance and help. You ask for specific things you may or may not get. And sometimes, you get something better, and totally different.
Problematic is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscribers get access to my voiceovers and occasional exclusive content :-)
It’s funny… I recently wrote an instagram post about “God being personal” and some triggered person wrote a comment saying: “If God is so personal and intimate, why do you keep writing about it? Shouldn’t you keep it to yourself?” I was like…. uh, the f*ck? But really… first of all, I don’t mean “Your relationship with God is too personal to talk about.” No. I mean that you can relate to God in a human and personal way. God is not impersonal and cold and only working in an energetic exchange. God sees you as a person. You can talk to God like a person. God is writing a story through your life, and everyone’s lives. God will “speak” to you and interact with you and help you in ways that you will come to understand if you remain open to listening. God sees your whole life, and He is not just a universe reflecting back whatever you put out.
But on the subject of keeping things private… there is so much I have not shared about my past 11 month conversion. I have probably shared… 5% or less. I’ve had so many thoughts. So many questions. Have consumed so much content. So many conversations with (like-minded) friends about all of this. So many small experiences. So many answered prayers that are too strange or personal or difficult to explain. There are so many things I have not said or written about.
There is so much I had to, and still have to, process by myself. Just me. And God. But… that is not what I mean about “a personal relationship with God.” I mean that it’s relational. You go to God, all the time. For everything. And you include God in your life. Every day. You keep asking for help in trusting God. You keep ask for deepened faith. You ask for help surrendering to God’s will and plan. You ask for help trusting that God’s plan for your life is better than your own plan for your life. Because, it is.
In conclusion… back to cultiness
So I think, if I believe in God, and I do. And if I’ve found peace and solace and meaning, and have a belief in a religion’s certain version of God, which I do, how do I make sure it doesn’t get culty?
Because, as resistant as I was to religion, it was still religion that preserved a message about God that has helped me so much. It was religion that was willing to teach me about that message, for free. It was organized religion that offered me a way to connect with others, also for free. No payment obligated to request prayers from a prayer group at my church. There are so many beautiful and loving and supportive and charitable aspects of religion, that I never really considered, when I was broad-strokes comparing all religion to cults.
But, as we know… religion does get culty. Just to take Christianity for example, the amount of culty religious off-shoots of “Christianity” is staggering. And it’s often when charismatic leaders come in, claim to be closer to God than anyone else, and twist the core message into something more controlling. And this can happen in subtle ways that are harder to discern, or in big dramatic ways.
There are so many examples of different sects of Christianity that become culty and controlled. There’s so much weirdness in so many churches.
And yet, I really do believe that, when applied correctly, Christianity should lead to everyone’s deepened personal relationship with God. Not to a highly controlled, rigid group that follows a charismatic and manipulative leader, who twists Biblical doctrine in order to get high on control and money, but instead to a group of people willingly meeting together, with freedom and autonomy, who are changed by God’s love and God work in their heart. Who love and help each other. Who love their enemies. Easier said than done, but way easier when your heart is being changed. A group of people experiencing the “fruits of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. People continuing to gather and worship their loving God, because of the obvious goodness that flows out of a life in surrender to God.
But, as we know, that is not the utopia we live in …There is no way to enforce this. There is no perfect way to ensure that churches don’t get culty. There is no way to account for what can happen when a charming and manipulative, or simply foolish and selfish leader gets hired. There is no way to stop humans from doing what they do, and twisting things, and adopting mob mentality. There is no way to avoid the inevitable. With humans, things will go sideways. Groups will get controlling, if people aren’t on the lookout. It happened in all groups, not just religion. Humans are dumb. Humans are corrupt. Humans are foolish. Humans mess up. And, if I believe in an unseen battle between good and evil, which I now do, of course evil is attempting to creep into churches and corrupt anything that could be good and beautiful and loving and Godly. Of course there is corruption in churches. There’s no way to avoid people who corrupt something that could be so so good. There’s no way to avoid people who manipulate and twist things to make themselves feel better.
I don’t have anything else really to say on this for now, except that, even though I’ve decided to become “religious,” I still will always be wary of the signs of cultiness in any church I am involved in. It’s good to be wary. It’s good to be discerning. Because humans are going to keep messing things up.
And I guess… what’s why we need God.
Paywall below is to keep the voiceover just for paid subscribers