My sister says I'm going to hell

I have a faith of my own, but my sister says it's her way or the hell way

Published August 15, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My sister told me that she believes only members of her particular church will be going to heaven. I have been in a state of mild shock ever since I hung up on her. She is a longtime active member of a (let's call it) "God's Church" in North Carolina.

I am a semi-regular attendee of a Baptist church in Louisiana. I'm not a strict every-single-Sunday attendee, but my wife and I have an earnest desire to serve, and this church has appealed to us and is one we could join. My sister speaks of matters of eternal life with exacting terminology and rock-hard conviction. She is that clear on the steps to salvation and heaven, the right way to live, to pray, to BE a Christian. She is that sure of her reading of the Bible's truths, or of the way they have been taught to her by her church.

She is so sure of her status as the chosen and elected of God that she has no compunction at all about telling anyone who wants to talk about it that if they ain't doing worship and living her way — the right, God's Church way — they ain't getting into glory. And she does it very sweetly, almost apologetically — she hastens to tell you she can cite the scriptures that totally support her position, and it's almost as if she feels sorry for you in your sorrowful, lost state.

Mind you, she's not the one who is saying that only God's Church members are going to heaven. She is polished and practiced and prepared on the fine point that it is God himself who is saying that. So it's pretty easy to understand that a person wouldn't have any ready comeback, after being walloped by this. I mumbled, "I don't think we'll be talking anymore about church ... I'll talk to you later," and hung up before waiting for her goodbye.

This is huge and heavy for me. I am trying to maintain (I'm sure my sister would differ and say I need to establish something before I can maintain it) a daily relationship with my God as I understand God. If I am doomed unless I find a God's Church, follow the specifically prescribed steps to salvation and eternal life as they say they are laid out in the Bible, and strive to obey sufficiently so that I can be deemed as saved by God's Church, then I am doomed — because I don't see that happening. I will talk to people I consider grounded in these matters. I will pour out my heart to my God as I understand God, and I will hope that my sister, whom I cherish and who has been the closest to me in my family for my whole life, and I can find a way to go forward from this. I'm not sure what you can give by way of advice for this situation, but I knew that I didn't have the answers in my head, and I knew that this has troubled me as deeply as anything I can remember.


Dear Shaken,

This is not about God. This is about you and your sister. You placed great trust in your sister. Now she condemns you and your way of approaching life. That would be painful no matter what the religious or philosophical context. It is the breaking of a sacred bond of love between siblings, a love rooted in innocent childhood.

So ease yourself into the pain of this and remember that your religious beliefs are yours and no one else's. Your religious beliefs are between you and your God.

But this is not about God. This is about two human beings having a relationship. It is about her apparent disregard for who you are.

So for now, distance yourself from her. Let her go.

People change. Things happen that they won't talk about, and we lose them. They retreat into dark, impenetrable recesses where they speak a private language of suffering, and we cannot find them, and when we try to find them they lash out at us as if we had trespassed against them. We see them on the streets; we work with them; they are in our families; they go about their days in dark and secret woundedness, alone and angry, unloved, unwilling or unable to admit what trauma or degradation or series of gradual insults turned them away from us. They find solace in glamorous leaders and fanciful beliefs and poisonous cults in the same way that having reached the limit of one's endurance of pain and loneliness and demoralization, one turns to a drug.

It is a shame when this happens, when we forsake the human community for some crazy sham belief, when we allow the airy and forceless phantasms of our own minds to threaten us as though they were real.

The torments that drive us to such craziness are innumerable: our bafflement about our own mortality; our anger that we did not get what we dreamt of getting; our sore and lasting romantic wounds; our persistent physical needs; our nagging desire to be heard and understood and perhaps even admired; the self-hating litanies that play in our heads; a soul-wearying sluggishness of the body; a festering resentment at those who — if only they would hear us out! — would see us for the good, bright ones we know ourselves to be; our powerlessness to change others; the loneliness and longing that plagues us before sleep; the dread of another day that falls on us like a dead body upon awakening; a deep fear that God has abandoned us; the gray ravages of depression; the wracking sense of bad luck that accompanies the memory of chance misfortune; the Why Why Why of hindsight; the slowly sagging visage that greets us in the mirror, our growing cognitive decline; failing eyesight; encroaching deafness; low energy; growing obesity; an increase in our sensitivity to real or imagined slights; hopelessness about the future; anger at national events over which we have no control; our undeservedly low place in the social hierarchy; an unacknowledged need to be nurtured which we sense only as frightening weakness and vulnerability; the inability to think logically about the things we believe and thus an abiding fear that they might not be completely true; and finally a tendency, given all these inner doubts and torments, to be ever more strident in defense of the crazy ideas we cleave to with desperation.

These are the many things that plague us as we go about our daily lives.

So of course we seek answers. But just how likely it is that out of all the great sages, saints, philosophers and scientists of the ages, all the characters in our many religious stories and texts, all the novelists and filmmakers and statesmen and yogis and ministers and popes and poets, out of all the billions of humans who have lived and died on this planet, your sister would be the one who holds the ultimate answer to right conduct of life and a happy hereafter?

Just how likely is it that your sister has the answers to questions that our greatest geniuses have struggled with since antiquity?

I think you will agree that it is not very likely. Your true problem is more personal: How do you accept this painful break with her? A relationship that used to be tender and warm has turned hard and cold. You had a good relationship with your sister, but something happened and you lost it. You have no idea how it happened or why, but it has happened, and you have no power to change it. You have lost her for the time being. It is a bit like a death.

Take some time to let this truth in. Sit with this loss until you are no longer fighting it and looking for a way out.

Your relationship with her may come back. She may temper her beliefs in time. But do not cling to such hope. It may happen or it may not. Meanwhile, there is nothing you can do to change her. Just sit with this and accept it for what it is right now.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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