Life Isn’t a Role-Playing Game: Part One

15 August 2013, 06:00

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Image courtesy of wallsave.com

“Your face…I don’t know what it is, but it’s like it’s glowing!”

That comment was made by a character in one of my favorite role-playing games (RPGs). For those who don’t know, RPGs are a fascinating video game genre in which the game player must create a character and develop his or her skills, abilities, morality, and relationships with others while undertaking an epic quest that provides the backbone of the game’s story. In this particular game, one of the consequences of picking morally good choices is that the character’s face looks more peaceful and pleasant. Conversely, choosing the path of evil leads the character to look more aged, not unlike the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Additionally, nearly every choice you make carries with it some sort of consequence. If you’re talking directly to a paragon of virtue who is traveling with you on your journey, you can pretty much count on gaining his or her favor through morally upright actions. If you’re dealing with an evil person, then acting like a rogue or saying something sinister typically elicits a positive response. Completing various tasks in these games is also a fairly linear process. Doing so grants you experience points (XP), the accumulation of which allows you to “level up” to advance the aforementioned skills and abilities, at least until the game’s “level cap” is reached.

If you have ever been in IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles), and all of this sounds familiar, it’s because IBLP operates on similar linear principles. The story you’re about to read will probably sound a bit different than some of the others on this site. Thankfully, by the grace of God, it doesn’t involve rampant sexual abuse or dictatorial parents. However, it does involve the subtle, unchecked inclusion of linear IBLP teachings into one’s life, and unfortunately, that can still be quite damaging.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that my family and I were never really all that involved with IBLP. We attended the seminars and used their materials for homeschooling, but that was about it. When both of my parents had come to a saving faith in Christ,  they first started attending the seminars back in the 1970s, a time when the Christian “subculture” that was beginning to ostracize itself from an increasingly broken world was certainly perplexed.

And then came Bill Gothard, the man who seemed to have all the answers neatly tucked away in a cozy red binder.

I don’t know everything that my parents experienced in the 1970s as they attended Gothard’s seminars. What I do know, however, is that my dad began to examine his faith more closely as a result of Gothard’s teachings. My mom was eager to learn; her faith was still relatively new, and anything that seemed to suggest a deeper understanding of Christ certainly sounded appealing. Everything seemed to make sense at the time. IBLP was certainly not as far-reaching as it is today with respect to how many areas of life Gothard’s materials addressed. Coming from two very different but still broken families, my parents were beginning to connect the dots: it was very evident that their families weren’t following Gothard’s seven principles; therefore, that must be why their families broke down! As they continued to attend the seminars, they were eager to commit to homeschooling once I came along, at least so that I could avoid the turmoil that they had to endure in public school and spend more time with them. After several moves and job changes, my family welcomed me into the world in 1988. My dad started a new job with a company with which he has remained to this day, while my mom left work permanently to take care of me.

From the very start, my parents wanted to see me succeed. They had only the best of intentions when it came to raising me. They tried to adhere to many of the basic principles and philosophies espoused by Gothard, beginning with the reading of Scripture while I was still in the womb, though they certainly weren’t so keen on Gothard’s more radical tenets, such as adhering to Mosaic dietary law. It wasn’t until I was about to turn five that they presented me with the idea of homeschooling. I was quick to accept it, as I really had nothing else to which it could be compared. And how could I resist spending more time with the parents I loved? As time passed, I began to truly enjoy it. I’d be eager to do “wisdom searches” through Psalms and Proverbs with my mom while Dad was away at work, and I’d come up with new noises to make each month to replace “Selah” after the ends of certain verses in Psalms. I’d even take all the Greek vocabulary flash cards that IBLP sent us and would start finding interesting ways to teach Greek to at least one of the waitresses we requested at a restaurant my mother and I would frequent! Outside of the IBLP homeschooling curriculum, I got involved with activities such as piano lessons, a local community children’s choir, activities at my church, and Awana (a Christian program that focused on Scripture memorization) at another church.

Despite my involvement in those activities, I still felt incredibly alone and ostracized. I am to this day an only child. I had no siblings with whom I could bounce ideas off and discuss what I was being taught. All I had were my parents. Even when I would get out of the house and mingle with others, I was unaware of how I should interact with them. I faced the challenge that many IBLP kids felt the need to achieve: setting oneself apart from the rest of the world, even one’s own church family, to the point of isolation. Add to that the perpetual bullying I’d receive at church because I was the “different kid” with the huge dorky glasses, and it’s not too hard to see why being an underdog felt like the norm.

From the very beginning, I’ve struggled with an insatiable desire to prove myself to the rest of the world out of pure pride, as well as a tendency to condense life down into neat, packaged formulas where every choice was supposed to be obvious. IBLP and its materials put the pressure on and were even more fuel for the fire. Despite my parents’ best efforts to sanitize much of the curriculum, I can’t tell you just how many times I’d run into some sort of true/false quiz in a Wisdom Booklet or some piece of supplementary material that presented life in these terms:

(1) You can either follow God by choosing the more “godly” option presented in each false dichotomy, or forsake God by settling only for the “good” (and often still biblical) option.

(2) Following the “godly” option or achieving a satisfactory score on the quiz would reap blessings, whereas settling for less than “God’s best” would lead to God removing his blessings from you.

And thus, my journey toward this brand of linear, results-based thinking began. This sort of paradigm seemed so ideal for someone like me who felt so small, lonely, and helpless. If I were to just follow the seven basic principles, exhibit all the character qualities, set myself apart from everyone else just enough, make sure my countenance and smile were bright enough—it would all be worth it in the end, right? All that bullying, all the teasing I’d have to endure, all the disagreements—it wouldn’t matter because God was all that mattered, right?

The worst part about all of this was that for the most part, this way of living was actually much more successful than I had anticipated.

For example, I had a friend at my childhood church named Brian. Brian was, in essence, one of the few direct links I had to the “outside world” throughout my childhood. In many respects, he was directly the opposite of what I was. He went to public school. He had a brother. And he loved listening to Christian rock, which we were told was evil. But though I stood up for my “convictions,” he respected me, and we agreed to disagree, making our friendship even stronger. So I figured I must have been doing something right! Alongside that, the rock music issue was the source of much conflict between my parents and our church, as any music that was loud and had a strong back-beat was immediately denounced as immoral. For a while, I bought into this philosophy hook, line, and sinker and earned the attention of some of my Sunday School teachers who wanted to play some (very light) Christian rock, many of whom actually looked up to me for “standing up for my beliefs.” Their response only encouraged me further. After all, I was earning respect—maybe not from all my peers, but certainly respect from adults! And that was more than I could have ever asked for. Another example came up when I was in 6th grade. I was invited to a “preview” of a junior-high Awana meeting only to find out that they were blaring (gasp!) DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak”! But somehow, by the time I actually moved into the 7th grade, the leader responsible for it had left and was replaced by an elderly lady who had quite different tastes. My parents and I were convinced that it just had to be God and that He was blessing us for our efforts. Considering that our minds at the time were not ready to change, perhaps it was.

During my time at church, I became more curious about the people around me, though I can’t say my relationships with them were particularly deep. Still, I wanted to get to know them more. The opportunity to know people more intimately was just irresistible. I hadn’t truly shared life deeply with anyone my own age at the time, after all. I even had my first real crush on a girl—actually, the only girl in our group for quite a while. Even at the age of 12, I tried approaching her in an effort to “court” her by awkwardly asking her about a “godly project” we could work on together. But it all came to an abrupt end when my parents approached me with life-changing news: we were going to move from California to Texas. More specifically, we were going to move to Longview, an East Texas town about 30 minutes away from the ALERT Academy in Big Sandy. We weren’t moving there because of that, but rather because my dad’s dad, who lived there, was in poor health and was not in any capacity to take care of himself. I had to say goodbye to Brian and my small band of friends I was just beginning to know.

When I first arrived in Texas, I had no idea what to expect. Everything was so much quieter. A seemingly quick five-minute drive down to the local yogurt shop felt so much more laborious than the long 15-20-minute excursions to neighboring cities in California for piano lessons, chiropractor appointments, and church services. At any rate, the slower pace gave our family much more time to think. We attended one of Gothard’s “Anger Management” seminars in Big Sandy, and it was there (and especially at a Basic Seminar my entire family attended in 2004) that I continued to question his exegetical school of thought. After a while, it became increasingly obvious that IBLP just wasn’t cutting it anymore academically as I was entering high school. Around the time I transitioned to high school, my parents abandoned our IBLP materials for the satellite program from Bob Jones University (BJU). Whatever ultraconservative tendencies people may talk about regarding BJU, the material in their classes for my age group was certainly less imbued with continuous references to authority and the “evils of ungodly music” than what I had heard from IBLP for much of my life. In many ways, it was a welcome relief—and I could tell my parents thought so too. For all intents and purposes, they put IBLP behind them.

But despite all of that, the linear tendencies that I had built up from years of being fed IBLP material still remained. To me, life was still an RPG. Throughout most of my life, I had grown to become a competitive perfectionist. I refused to settle for less than the best. Additionally, I had developed a purely black-and-white view of the world and of situations around me. In hindsight, it’s not too hard to see just how IBLP contributed to all of this, but it was difficult for me to discern at the time.

And it wasn’t until I faced the reality that not everyone would follow Gothard’s formulas that a truly new way of living would make itself more apparent.

To be continued… Click here to read Part Two; Click here to read Part Three.

J.B. is a twenty-something who grew up in ATI and IBLP during his childhood. In recent years, he has just begun to discover the beginning of his journey in finding true freedom in Christ rather than fruitlessly searching for fulfillment in his accomplishments. He currently works as a marketing specialist and is a pianist, photographer, swimming enthusiast, and puzzle designer in his spare time. Most of all, he loves spending time with God, family, and the fellow believers God has placed in his life who have walked with him in the latest stage of his journey.

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.

21 Comments

  1. Tosh August 15, 2013 Reply

    I am a little concerned with what I fear you are trying to say here..... If you think that it is not important to live out God's best and seek His best for your life, then I fear you have fallen into a very false belief. The linear principle idea does have a lot more truth than you give it credit for. Though I do not in any way believe that if you do everything 'right' that things will go perfect and in order, but I do believe that every choice does have a consequence. It is straight truth.
    God has a plan for each one of us, and we must seek that out - that being His best, or Will for our lives. Our choices must reflect on His will - His basic will for all in what is right and wrong, and also His specific will for each one of us. Basically our role in life.
    As a note I want to let it be known that I do not promote Mr. Gothard and his 'ministry' - ATI. There are many dangers and I can't give them any credit. But that is not to say that there is no truth in any of their teaching.

    • J.B. August 15, 2013 Reply

      Tosh,

      I understand your concern, and I apologize for the ambiguity of this part of the story, especially the "If I were just to follow..." bit. More will be explained in the parts to come. I wasn't trying to insinuate that living for Christ and following His commands weren't important. Obviously, doing so is pleasing to God, and we ought to do so out of our love for Him. I was just trying to point out that because I was focused so much on the "doing 'A' will lead to 'B'" nature of IBLP's teachings, I assumed that God would always bless me in this life for making the right choices, and as a result of the blessings, I could forget all about the isolation and loneliness. That was what I was trying to get at in that paragraph.

      I do agree that we can establish linear relationships of cause and effect between actions and consequences, as many choices we make carry natural consequences with them. Obviously, grieving the Holy Spirit is a consequence of choosing to sin. There are, of course, earthly consequences for sinning that are immediately noticeable. The danger I was trying to point out (and will touch upon more in Part 3 of this story) was the karmic inference that often accompanies many IBLP doctrines, which has the potential to affect our view of God. That is, if we make Godly choices, we will ALWAYS be blessed, and if we don't, God will remove His blessings from us. This is why I used role-playing games as an analogy here - because they often carry this level of predictability.

      If we as Christians adopt a decision-making paradigm of choosing the right choices merely because God will bless us, then we've already started to elevate the blessings above the Blesser. It is, in many respects, another form of the "Prosperity Gospel." Even if they may not carry the same trappings as the teachings of, say, Joel Osteen, many of Gothard's anecdotes encourage this form of thinking. I remember hearing many of his stories growing up, and the ones that burned into my mind the most were the ones in which someone made a choice to adhere to one of the Basic Life Principles or to commit a sin, and, as is usually the case, the results of those choices were blessings and curses, respectively. The presentation of those anecdotes, as well as many of the aforementioned true/false quizzes in IBLP's materials and heavy focus on the "blessings and curses" portion of Deuteronomy, heavily suggested that God would ALWAYS work under these terms, which, as Job and many others could testify, is not always the case. In the end, the distinction I was trying to draw was between living for Christ just for His "stuff" and living for Christ out of a deep gratitude for what He did on the cross.

  2. Gracekissed August 15, 2013 Reply

    My husband and I LOVE RPGs. As games. I can definitely see the parallels you are drawing. Can't wait for the rest of this series- thanks for sharing!

    • J.B. August 19, 2013 Reply

      You are welcome, Gracekissed! I admittedly used terms like "paragon" in that opening explanation as a sort of Easter egg for my fellow RPG players...:-)

  3. Alfred Corduan August 15, 2013 Reply

    J.B.: You make good points . . . since God's world is far deeper than the simplicity of our "games". Yet . . . The Savior said that the way it really is would be obvious to the children, while some of the big, important people would miss it. Meaning . . . there is some simple sense to it all.

    Based on your comments I know you would not discount this crucial Scripture:

    "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith." (Galatians 6:7-10)

    You can see how a person would come away with the notion that - like the sowing of seed - the harder you work at embracing the right things and not pursuing the wrong things, the more you will - eventually - get back.

    The balance is in stories like Job where the reaping is delayed or interrupted. Some of the reaping may be in the glory of eternity. But however it is, when the sun sets, everyone will be forced to say that the ones who took the Lord and His wishes seriously make out far better then those who decided it wasn't worth their while. Nobody who ever - like a little child - tried to find and please the Lord will ever say, "It was a waste time."

  4. J.B. August 16, 2013 Reply

    Alfred,

    Please know that I never said or believe that living for Christ is a waste a time. I'm just trying to draw a distinction between living for Christ out of my love for Him and living for Christ out of a love for what He can do for me (as well as living for Christ by drawing upon Christ and living for Christ by drawing upon my own strength - but more on that in the parts to come). IBLP and its materials are presented in such a way that the latter in each case is often emphasized or, if not, would otherwise be the modus operandi used in the practical application of its materials. It's the bait that is so easy for us as finite human beings to latch onto, especially when earthly rewards are promised. Job may have rewarded with possessions on earth after his trial, but his decision to trust God included no request for that as a string attached. He chose to trust God because he still believed God was just, not because he would get something in return.

    • Alfred Corduan August 18, 2013 Reply

      My point - perhaps, and I want to read "the rest of the story" :-) - is that it is equally wrong to declare that there is no cause-effect relationship between obedience, "sowing to the Spirit" and blessings as it is to declare that those blessing occur in a certain manner and time. THAT is the problem with "prosperity Gospel". The believer will always "end up" . . . but . . . just like the Savior's victory looked to all human eyes as an absolute defeat, so our pathway will also be at times. The point is not to judge the conclusion by what happens in the middle phases.

      Note the careful phase here:

      Hebrews 12:2 "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God."

      Note that it is interesting that it is not emphasizing His love for us in this context . . . but . . . joy! And we also can suffer anticipating joy, just like He did.

      • J.B. August 18, 2013 Reply

        Alfred,

        I'm trying to understand what your point is in even bringing this up, because I totally agree with you. I believe that living for Christ is our calling as believers. I believe that following His commandments is worthwhile. I believe that there are objective moral principles lined out in Scripture and through natural law to which we are called to adhere. I believe that in some way, God will bless us for doing so - if not here, then in the life to come.

        If I can be as clear and honest as possible: the issue on which I'm concentrating in this story is the way the Christian life is "sold" to people through IBLP (and the consequent building up of its members' expectations) by placing an undue emphasis on God's blessing being a major reason for following all of the principles, formulas, and guidelines - which is just one of many issues with the program. My testimony concerning this can be corroborated by others that have been told on this site. As a former IBLP student, I will be the very first to admit that there is much, much truth in IBLP's materials. I also believe that it's very likely that Bill Gothard and company approached the formation of the program with very God-honoring intentions.

        But regardless of how much good intent or truth is contained in all of it, that doesn't change the fact that its emphases, presentation, and approach have damaged so many lives and families. Yes, I understand that there have been abusive fathers who have misused Gothard's principles about authority to extents outside of their original purpose. Yes, I understand that there have been some families who have been blessed by IBLP to a degree. But what I also understand is that Biblical truth exists independently of Bill Gothard and IBLP, and it can be found through other channels in which actual intimate relationships, a more Biblical definition of grace, and freedom in following Christ and His commands are much more abundant and emphasized.

        My purpose in writing this story was to proclaim that there IS great freedom in following Christ and His principles when our focus is on Him, not on amassing His blessings. We can apply this principle to the most important decision we could ever make: if salvation was nothing more than a checkbox to mark off to gain the blessings of heaven, then that would make Christianity no different than any other world religion. The possibility of a relationship with the Creator of the universe is the key difference - and it's that beautiful relationship that ought to be at the center of our decision-making. Perhaps that emphasis on earthly blessings wasn't what you found in your experience with IBLP. But as a young person who had no other life experience, being promised blessings by following all of Gothardism's key tenets (some of which are decidedly extra-Biblical) and being shown only affirmative outcomes in the form of "ideal" families on the conference stages and thrilling anecdotes about how God provided for people who followed Principle X or Formula Y, many times almost immediately after they made their decisions - while glossing over everyone who tried and tried their hardest and didn't get what they were promised - naturally led to this mindset: "A leads to B. B is attractive. Therefore, A is nothing more than a means to getting B."

        And again, I know I'm not the only one who has arrived at these conclusions based on other testimonies that have been posted here. The other reason why I wanted to share this story is to encourage others who have been through similar experiences and assure them that they are not alone. Yes, I may not have written down all the "right answers" to the theological missteps that I found with Gothardism. And yes, I'm still learning and deepening in my relationship with Christ. I just wanted to tell my very raw, very honest story in a safe environment where it wouldn't be dissected by others.

        Is that too much to ask?

        • MatthewS August 18, 2013

          Please don't worry too much about Alfred. He pretends to ask honest questions but he often does not act in good faith and often hijacks threads.

          I believe that Dave's comments to him a while back were very enlightening:

          http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/03/stolen-treasures/#comment-15733

          http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/03/stolen-treasures/#comment-15788

          http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/03/stolen-treasures/#comment-16020

        • J.B. August 18, 2013

          Thank you, Matthew - reading through that thread was very enlightening.

        • Alfred Corduan August 19, 2013

          If the moderators are in agreement with Matthew, I would ask them to please say so. Beyond that, I am wondering if he can stop the personal attacks. I am getting weary of it.

        • Administrator August 19, 2013

          It is fair game to point out repeated actions. Matthew's comment was mostly a link to someone else's comments; all of which are reasonable comments.

        • Alfred Corduan August 26, 2013

          Just to clarify, am I permitted to post dismissive lists of unorthodox and possibly offensive statements of those that oppose me, even if not even remotely related to the topic at hand as a way of turning people against them?

        • MatthewS August 26, 2013

          Alfred, you are playing the victim again. Your tactics are consistently lowball. You were starting down the same old road with the author of a piece and I felt it might be beneficial to repost links about where your repeated behavior was being called out, going back to online communities that existed long before this one. Your reputation preceeds you. If you don't like that, then instead of whining about it change your behavior. I will point out again that you have been given infinitely more space to do your thing here than anyone would ever be given on Institute-hosted sites, even if they were acting entirely in good faith.

        • Alfred Corduan August 30, 2013

          Curious what you, Matthew, consider "lowball". What did you find offensive in my posts here? The Lord knows I have no ulterior motive . . . I have a problem with the notion that investing in the Lord just doesn't work out. I was exploring where the author was going with this. Maybe it would be worth taking a few extra minutes to actually read what I am writing . . . and consider the possibility that I am a real person who really loves Jesus and really truly want His kingdom advanced.

          I am getting tired . . . perhaps that means you win, if that is your intent. Since you have overtly declined my invitation to get to know me better I leave you to your evil surmisings. But, Matthew, it is wrong.

        • J.B. August 30, 2013

          "I have a problem with the notion that investing in the Lord just doesn't work out. I was exploring where the author was going with this."

          That would be an interesting conversation to have...if I actually even believed that at all. But, as I've stated multiple times, I don't.

  5. LJ August 16, 2013 Reply

    Looking forward to the "rest of your story." I understand what you're saying--how many of Gothard's teachings are black and white. Do this and you will be blessed. Do anything that doesn't follow Bill's teachings (unfortunately not always the same as what the Bible teaches) and you will have sadness, problems, lack of God providing for you, etc. I'm so thankful that the God of the Bible isn't like that. Yes, there are consequences when we sin and choose to be disobedient to the Bible. When we truly serve our Lord out of love and gratefulness, we want to follow His teachings. Very different from following them because of the threat of some great mishap and lack of God's blessing in our lives if we don't.

    • GuyS August 19, 2013 Reply

      I agree with Matthew. First post

  6. Pingback : Life Isn’t a Role-Playing Game: Part Two | Recovering Grace

  7. Pingback : Life Isn’t a Role-Playing Game: Part Three | Recovering Grace

  8. GuyS August 24, 2013 Reply

    "(1) You can either follow God by choosing the more “godly” option ....And thus, my journey toward this brand of linear, results-based thinking began.... If I were to just follow the seven basic principles...it would all be worth it in the end, right?"

    Love your article. I am over twice your age and embarrassingly have similar struggles. It has been 14 or 15 years since I had anything to do with bg or an ati church. You might think I would be over it by now.

    For many years one of the verses I kept in front of me was "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This is a good verse and I am sure we all need to be reminded of it.

    However, there are other verses that should also be emphasized and kept in the front of my thinking. For instance recognizing the kindom of God is "righteousness, and peace, and joy"

    There can be a very heavy burden of guilt with only focusing on sowing and reaping. If anything bad happens the self-examination not only begins (a good thing) but relentlessly continues until there is resultion In other words, it is probably my fault. If I just repent of enough sins or more importantly find the one sin God is disciplining me over, then everything will become good again.

    Repentance is good, and I am sure that should probably be one of my first thoughts when something bad happens. However, for years I took it much further (a lot of it from my upbringing) and it became morbid introspection.

    Another way to say it is there should be room in my worldview for the story of Job.

    A month or so ago I friend told me he smelled diesel exhaust in my van. I could not smell it. It was such good news. A mystery solved about my health. I had been driving my van for several years with that leak and the resulting health problems.

    Diesel exhaust is worse than regular gas auto exhaust, and regular exhaust can kill you.

    It was so liberating to know that it was not all my fault. There was nothing wrong with the exhaust system. What was found was a hidden hole in the body, not common.

    It is possible I might have had the energy to investigate and find the leak earlier if I had not been so caught up in my obsessive introspection.

    JB, thanks for writing your story. Freedom always trumps bondage.

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