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

19 August 2013, 06:00




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This is Part Two of a three-part story. Click here to read Part One.

During my early high school years, I was very blessed to find an incredible youth group with leaders who valued relationships over rules and encouraged guys and girls to know each other more intimately as friends instead of remaining isolated from each other. The leader of the group was thrilled to have me on board but was concerned that I would have a difficult time stepping out of my comfort zone to share with others.

Part of me thought it was weird at first. Up to that point, most youth groups I visited took on two formations throughout their meeting time: [a] the kids would clump into little cliques and talk amongst themselves for as long as possible, and then [b] they’d reluctantly gather in a large room and sit with their faces and chairs turned toward their youth pastor, who would deliver a message. But this was different. This group, unlike the others, formed a circle. Every time. And no one sat in the center of it. I recall on one of my first nights there, we played a game called “Stacks” in which we had to move around a circle of chairs such that we eventually formed clumps of four or five of us sitting on each others’ laps. Physical contact between a guy and a girl? This was unheard of! Sometimes we’d do incredibly silly things, like sitting around a circle, verbally writing pieces of a random story and stringing it all together. Again, part of me wanted to resist. This wasn’t a “godly” activity; it was frivolous, right?! There wasn’t any tangible result I could see myself working toward because of it! But like a parched man dying for water, I eagerly jumped to share with others and soaked up the friendships. I had been yearning for relationships like these all my life, even though I didn’t realize it until that point. As we continued to experience life together in intentional, beautiful community, I started to see all I was missing out on. And in our circle, no one person felt excluded. We were truly there as equals at the foot of the cross and treated each other as fellow beggars who yearned to spread the word about where the Bread could be found.

But about nine months after I joined the group, my old way of living began to surface once more. I wanted results. I idolized them. And I figured that deeper relationships were the result of hard work and adherence to the right formulas. For the first time since I was there, two of our own started dating. Part of me frowned in jealousy—the girl was someone I had hoped to court! And on top of that, the two of them were beginning to separate themselves from everyone else. A few of their own friends even agreed. This just would not do. After all, I could do a better job with being in a relationship with her, right? I had Gothard’s courtship formula beside me, so how could I fail? After mustering enough courage, I took the two of them aside and explained to them how their relationship was making “the rest of us” feel. Just minutes later, our youth group leaders lovingly took me aside and explained why that wasn’t appropriate—and then spoke to my dad about it. The conversation that followed was rather life-changing. My dad began to tell me, “You know, not everything in life is so black-and-white, especially when it comes to relationships. Sometimes, you’ve got to remember that there are shades of gray.”

Wait a minute—did I just hear that correctly?

Shades of gray? This was a new concept! For years prior to this incident, “gray” was an area that we who wanted “God’s best” for our lives were never to touch. If we didn’t have an IBLP-sanctioned [Institute in Basic Life Principles] formula beside us, we would inevitably fall into sin. I remembered seeing the word “Compromise” written in green, gooey, slimy-looking letters in one of IBLP’s Men’s Manuals. Even back when we were handing out IBLP’s “Is Music Amoral?” pamphlets to folks in our church, I’d always equate the principles espoused in there (especially with respect to Christian rock) to math, with an analogy like, “You know, when you multiply a positive number and a negative number, what do you end up with? A negative number! It’s the same thing here!” My mom heard that at the time and was convinced that I had been granted an “extra measure of sensitivity to the Holy Spirit,” and I know she was just speaking what she thought was right, but now…. shades of gray? What was I supposed to make of this? Was it possible that maybe—just maybe—there wasn’t a formula or answer to every single quandary in life? Was it possible that perhaps some of the IBLP formulas weren’t even biblical to begin with?

Despite that conversation, my IBLP roots still held together. My attempts to work “hard enough” and apply the principles I was taught weren’t achieving the desired result like they used to, and I just couldn’t understand why. Furthermore, many of the girls in whom I was interested already had their eyes set on someone else. So it was time for a new tactic. If one formula wasn’t going to work, then that must have meant that another held the key to success. I may not have directly approached dating couples about their behavior during my high school years, but that didn’t stop me from taking it upon myself to portray myself as an expert on dating and relationships (despite my total lack of experience in that field) based on everything I learned about courtship. And if I couldn’t reach the kids, perhaps I could reach their parents.

Basically, I became “Bill Gothard” to many people.

I knew that presenting them with a formula for courtship wasn’t going to win them over, but I knew just how far to take it. My underlying train of thought was, “Oh, come on. These relationships in high school aren’t going to last, right? They’re not following the correct path [read: formula] like I would if I were dating. What’s the whole point of them getting their hearts broken anyway?” What was really damaging about this was not only that I was looking down on them and completely ignoring how God could be working in these relationships, but also that once again, my approach seemed to reap rewards. Even if some of my perspective contained a kernel of truth, the intent behind it was severely flawed. These parents would often agree with and praise me for my perspective because they all figured their kids would just break up with their significant others anyway and find new relationships in college. For many of them, that ended up being the case, which just urged me on. If it was a parent of a girl I wanted to court, that was even better. I found myself getting along more with these adults than I ever did with their kids, and as a result, I thought I had mastered maturity.

Contributing even further to this warped perspective was that I succeeded in pretty much everything I did during high school. During my freshman year, I had joined the 4-H program. In just four years, I managed to work my way up to the State 4-H Council of Texas and even earned an officer position at that level, an honor for which thousands of 4-Hers in our state who had been in the program since age eight would give anything. I won a giant area-wide piano competition after performing Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat, a complex piece I had dreamed of learning since I was 12. My drive for achievement had reached a fevered pitch. Combined with my desire for deeper relationships, I easily fell into the trap of people-pleasing, which did nothing but confine me in an endless cycle of self-condemnation. And once more, linear thinking made a reappearance when I found myself in situations where the mantra was basically “work hard, and you’ll be rewarded.”

While that was certainly true in many respects, the inference I gleaned from it, combined with my IBLP background, was that life would always be like that and that I would be entitled to God’s blessings in this life as the result of my hard work. At the time, life felt amazing.

The irony that defined this phase of my life, though, was that God was glorified through me despite the fact that I was trying so hard with my own human, finite strength to accomplish something for Him, not because of it. I didn’t make that distinction, though. Whenever someone who wasn’t of the faith approached me after finding out that I was a Christian and told me that I was representing the commands of Christ well and was showing true, genuine love toward others, I knew God was working somehow, but I thought it was because I flashed an encouraging smile at people at just the right moments, spoke all the right words, and talked to the most well-connected people according to the diagrams I drew depicting how well all my acquaintances knew each other. (No kidding—I actually did this before social networking hit the world.) My kindness was, in many respects, a power play. I knew what I wanted, and I went after it. Deep down inside, life was still all about me, not about Him. I never once stopped to consider the possibility that God could be glorified even in my weakness—especially in my weakness—and that nothing I did by my own strength compared to what He could do through me. I was ultimately living for the blessings, not because I loved the Blesser.

Before I entered college, I had to make a tough decision. Throughout much of my life, I was determined to be the best at piano that I could possibly be. I had been taking lessons since I was five years old and was rapidly on my way toward becoming a concert-level pianist if I kept up the standard I had established. But along the way, God was nudging me. I may have enjoyed the music, but my motivation for learning and playing it was prideful in nature. I wanted to be better than everyone else, advance further than they could. And sure, the music was great, but the accolades and praise I received from people felt even better. My motives were put to the test as I begun to see my older ivory-tickling friends going off to college to major in piano performance. Seeing their dedication to their craft was truly convicting. The hours they spent in the practice rooms had nothing to do with the externals—the crowds, the other pianists. They desired to be the best they could be because they truly loved the music, not because they wanted the blessings of praise from others or the satisfying feeling of surpassing other pianists in skill. I knew I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. God was directing me elsewhere and was encouraging me to examine my motives. But little did I realize that there was more truth in those contrasting approaches to studying piano than I initially thought.

Upon entering college, I had no idea that my results-oriented paradigm was about to shift in a major way. For once, everything I knew was about to turn to dust. I was about to discover that for too long, I had been concerned with effectiveness. I was about to learn that I needed to be concerned with holiness.

To be continued… 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.


  1. LJ August 19, 2013 Reply

    Thank you again for sharing your story! My heart broke as I read the part about playing fun games at youth group and thinking it might not be right because there wasn't a Gothard principle being attained. Of course, this was what the "program" taught and you had learned it from a young age. May the Lord use your honest sharing to help others struggling as they move away from Gothardism.

    • J.B. August 19, 2013 Reply

      LJ - you are welcome! And thank you. I didn't want to go until too much more detail on this in the story, but one factor that made that process even more of a difficult adjustment was that the youth group in our home church in California actually WAS frivolous. We had a youth pastor in that church who wasn't exactly much of a leader. He had fun with the kids, but in the end, he just blended right in and was just another one of them. Thus, it was much easier to believe that youth groups in general were programs in which adults stooped down to the level of kids to "reach" them, which wasn't unlike some of the grievances Gothardism has with such programs.

      What really set the youth group in Texas apart from the others was that it was so intentional - and for the right reasons. We set rules - not an overbearing, exhaustive checklist - but simple rules to ensure that we didn't put each other down and that the environment we were in was to be a safe place, a family. We tried to be honest with newcomers and let them know that they were probably going to be uncomfortable at first but that we were there to love on them. And as much as possible, we encouraged "blending" (the practice of sitting in an alternating pattern of guys and girls so we could be mixed up). Even the "fun" wasn't just a segment of time that the leaders facilitated so we could exhaust our energy and give them a break. It was all about the relationships. They encouraged us to grow together, laugh together, and cry together during all of it. It was such a breath of fresh air.

  2. Ruth August 19, 2013 Reply

    Wow. Ouch. You bring up some memories for me. I can totally relate to the shock of hearing we were supposed to allow the gray.

    I chuckle at how sold we were on the IBLP legalism. What good little cult followers we were....

    • J.B. August 19, 2013 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Ruth - it's so refreshing to not feel alone. Perhaps we were so easily sold because we had nothing else to which we could compare the IBLP lifestyle that wasn't denounced as evil and leading to utter ruin. It seems like the more life experience we go through, the more we notice that there are Christians who have close relationships with Christ and fellow believers - people who aren't feeling obligated to adopt the personal convictions of others or to check off a bunch of boxes just to achieve a result that ultimately can't be attained through human effort. That's what finally encouraged me to take a closer look.

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