Skip to main content

What I Wish I Had Known About My Sunday School Teachers

By Graham Stoney ~

When I was a kid, I naively looked up to any adult as an authority figure. Adults always seemed so old and wise compared to me. It was like they were from another planet, and I assumed they knew pretty much everything there was to know about everything.

Doubly so for the adults in authority positions over me, like Sunday School teachers, ministers, Scripture teachers and primary school teachers. As a boisterous young boy, I was constantly pushing the boundaries against these teachers: I wanted to run around, play, and explore the world; whereas my Sunday School teachers wanted me to sit down and learn about Jesus.

I wanted to play and have fun. I didn't like getting in trouble all the time with these authority figures, who appeared to think that they knew best what was good for me. Faced with a wall of opposition, I eventually caved in and learned to sit down and sing dicky songs about Jesus instead of doing what came naturally to me: having fun exploring the real world around me.

I remember times in Sunday School where I would learn about some biblical story, and think "That can't be right!?!", like Jonah surviving for three days in a big fish. In other stories from the Old Testament, God seemed unnecessarily harsh like when he turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt just for looking back at the fireworks being reigned down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Or Jesus cursing a tree for no good reason, causing it to wither. And these stories were juxtaposed against the idea of loving this harsh God who had his own son Jesus executed... neither of which ever showed themselves in recent history in any way that I could see.

I always loved knowing how things worked as a kid. I would regularly be pulling household appliances like mum's clock radio or the television apart to see what was inside, so I naturally became fascinated with science. As I grew up, I had to work hard to suppress my doubts whenever what I was being taught at church didn't seem to correlate with the reality around me. One day I realised that the "New" testament was actually almost 2000 years old; which hardly seemed all that new to me. Even as a young boy I realised that most of what we knew about how the world around us worked had only been learned in the last few hundred years, so surely there was a lot that couldn't possibly be included in the New Testament if it was written so long before.

Yet my Sunday School teachers insisted that everything I ever needed to know about life was already written in The Bible. All other worldly wisdom was supposed to be foolishness.

Well, I wasn't too sure about that. Turning the other cheek didn't work so well when I was bullied at school; it just seemed to give the bullies even more ammunition, and it hurt to just let other kids walk all over me like that.

Something seemed wrong with the whole Christian thing, but with the support of the authority figures in my church, I learned to suppress my doubts and take on the idea that the problem was me and my sinful nature. God was holy but I was not, so the problem lay with woeful me.

Up until I was 33 that is, when the wheels finally came off the Christian cart for me. When I took a long, hard look at Christian teaching, I decided that the God at its centre simply didn't exist; at least, not in the personified form of Jehovah being taught in the Bible. And Jesus was more likely a charismatic teacher causing trouble for the Romans than the son of a deity, whatever that really means. All the supernatural business in The Bible was the product of an over-active collective imagination of frightened people desperate for a sense of security and belonging in a challenging and dangerous world.

The most painful thing about learning to suppress my intuitive doubts about what I was being taught regarding God and Jesus, was that I was actually learning to suppress my true self.What I had failed to realise as a child in Sunday School was that the adult authority figures around me weren't anywhere near as omniscient as my childish naivety led me to assume. My Sunday School teachers were fallible human beings whose own lives probably weren't working anywhere near as well as they would have liked. They were doing their best under their own personally challenging circumstances of the human condition, as are we all. No doubt they had their doubts too. I now know that teaching a subject to someone else is one of the most effective ways of reinforcing your own understanding and faith in the topic being taught. Most likely my Sunday School teachers were struggling with exactly the same questions of faith and doubt that I was, and one of the ways they dealt with their doubts was to teach me to suppress mine.

I had Christian friends in late High School who were Sunday School teachers at their churches, and I knew at the time that their lives definitely weren't together. No adolescent's really is. Yet they'd turn up to church on Sunday morning after the usual week on the adolescent roller-coaster, teach children younger and more naive than them about Jesus, and go home feeling better about themselves.

It took me a long time to put the pieces together and realise that the people who had taught me about God really had no idea about the truth. Even on the occasion when they felt certain, they were at best misguided. Ironically it was at a Christian conference where I heard a speaker talk on the topic "It's possible to be sincerely wrong". At times I'm sure my Sunday School teachers were sincere and at others were putting on a brave face as they suppressed their doubts and hid from the fact that what they were teaching didn't work so well in the real world.

I continued to miss the clues for a long time as a young adult in the church. I even became an elder and started teaching other people to suppress their doubts too. Many of the elders meetings I went to spent an inordinate amount of time arguing, debating pointless issues and getting side-tracked from what we were trying to do as we all played out our unresolved insecurities away from the outside world.

But for me the most painful thing about learning to suppress my intuitive doubts about what I was being taught regarding God and Jesus, was that I was actually learning to suppress my true self.

Being forced to go along with something I knew deep down wasn't real distorted my childhood world view and massively undermined my confidence over time. I still feel embarrassed over how long it took me to make the connection.

But at least once I had made it, I could start the therapeutic task of undoing all the suppression of religious indoctrination and begin recovering my true self.

The insidious thing about religious indoctrination is that it destroys your sense of self, and the emotional impact of this didn't just disappear simply because I threw out the dysfunctional belief system behind it. That was merely the start of a long journey of recovery for me as I dealt with all the deeply entrenched negative beliefs about myself.

I can only hope that the next generation of potential Sunday School teachers pay more heed to their doubts, remove the log from their own eyes and begin their own journey of spiritual recovery before inflicting negative beliefs on their students.

Growing up in a conservative evangelical Christian church had a major influence on crushing Graham Stoney's confidence and self-esteem. Now he helps other men from similar backgrounds recover their sense of self at The Confident Man Project: