God Can Either Love Us Or Try To Control Us—But He Can’t Do Both

By Alan R. Allard

What attracts people to a certain faith community often ends up being what drives them away.

Thirty years ago I was a therapist in private practice in the Chicago western suburbs—and a member of a large and growing high-control church organization. I witnessed first-hand how toxic theology damages and sometimes ruins people’s happiness, confidence, sense of self-worth, and relationships. Especially their relationship with God. It also became clear to me that the same toxic theology that attracts people to a faith community often ends up driving them away.

My former client “Jim” illustrates what I’m talking about. He came to me because he was feeling “depressed and anxious.” A few sessions into our work together, Jim said, I know this is therapy but can we talk about God? I just can’t seem to live up to his expectations. I don’t read my Bible enough or pray enough. What’s wrong with me?”

Feeling something is wrong with you is a horrible feeling. I’ve been there. And if you know what it’s like to feel that way, you know how destructive it is. It turned out that there was nothing wrong with Jim. Yet, his beliefs about what God was like made him feel like a spiritual failure and that stoked the fire of his depression and anxiety.

After a bit of listening to Jim, I said, “You’re paying out of your own pocket to talk about God. Maybe you love God more than you give yourself credit for.”

I’ll never forget what he said. “I don’t deserve any credit. You don’t get it. This isn’t me loving God. It’s me being self-focused when I should be thinking of others first.”


This is some of the toxic theology Jim had learned and what he believed:

• He isn’t important—but everyone else is.

• He could never please God.

• Even when he did something right, his motivation for doing it was suspect—or worse.

• His problems in life were due to not living as God told him to live—if he wanted his life to go better he had to do better.

• He could never feel good about himself because the goal was to become less and less like “self’ and more and more like Christ.

I wasn’t surprised then that Jim was suffering. The theology he learned was perfect for suffering.

What do we do with theology that creates suffering? That leaves us feeling unimportant, guilty, and ashamed. What do we do when we are told we are sinners far more than we are reminded that we are made in God’s image? What do we say to people that are hurting and believe it’s all their fault? That something is wrong with them?

Here’s the essence of what I shared with Jim. “What if God just wants you to be happy with yourself and your life?” What if God doesn’t have expectations of you the way you were taught? What if God isn’t threatening us with awful consequences if we don’t live up to his demands? What if we believed God is our partner in creating a wonderful world to live in right now and enabling us to fully be who we want to be? After all, isn’t that what parents want for their children?”

Back then, my office was filled with people who came to me for many reasons: depression, anxiety, marriage problems, addictions, eating disorders, and more. In one way or another, they were hurting and confused—and they were seeking help.

I’m not blaming all that on toxic theology. Not at all. I am saying that toxic theology is often a key part of people’s depression, anxiety, and various struggles in life. Genetics, medical conditions, childhood conditioning, life challenges, lack of resources and support—all these things play a part in our struggles with our happiness and well-being. Yet, theology can either help us or hurt us if we’re hurting or heading that way.

Here’s an example of what my former church taught (and what many “conservative” churches today still teach):

• To complain about or oppose a spiritual leader is to oppose God.

• Women have to have sex with their husbands even if they don’t want to because that’s what scripture teaches.

• Sin isn’t always the reason you’re depressed or having marriage problems but that’s usually the case and the first place you should look.

But wait (unfortunately) there’s more! Church members were told that their faithfulness to God could be measured by their church attendance, tithing, and evangelistic outreach. Control, shame, guilt, and fear were used to ensure the behaviors the church leaders wanted.

Any spiritual environment like this leaves people on the side of the road, beaten up, and left to fend for themselves. All the while, the church leaders and members step right over them as they go about “obeying God.”

It’s not like what I describe above was taught overtly every Sunday. It didn’t have to be because it was woven throughout the culture. It was often communicated in subtle ways. I learned the hard way that something is tragically wrong when we’re told that our obedience is more important to God than our happiness and well-being. I learned how tragic it is when we’re told that if we trust and obey God, our happiness and well-being will follow.

Of course, all this is being taught by “spiritual leaders.” These are the people who we were told to listen to. We were told to be humble. We were told to trust. The problem was I didn’t see leaders being humble. I didn’t see leaders listening to anyone but themselves. The higher up they were, the more isolated and insulated they were. That meant they were listening to almost no one but themselves.

I began to question how spiritual leaders who admit to being fallible could claim anything they taught was anything more than their opinion of what the Bible says. I began to think, “How can they say, ‘This is what the Bible clearly teaches” as if they couldn’t possibly be mistaken? How can anyone say, “God is saying this, not me” while admitting they are just human and fallible?

I began to see that the perfect way to try to control others (even if it’s not intentional) was to claim to know the truth of God and to say they are speaking the truth of God. It didn’t take me long in my private practice to realize that so much of what I had been taught about God wasn’t helping people. It was hurting people.

I began to see that teaching about a God who threatens and punishes people to gain compliance results in frustration, resentment, anger, and even hate in the very people who are trying so hard to love God and to love each other.

A God who wants to control us and threatens us when we don’t love him back is a God who fosters anxiety, depression, anger, and rebellion. And that kind of a God would deserve people resisting and rebelling.

My office was full of people who desperately wanted to be happy, have healthy relationships, who wanted to enjoy their careers, and who wanted to love being in a community of God’s people! Yet, the theology they were taught created and nurtured fear, not faith.

A fear-based, guilt-based, and shame-based theology is not compatible with happiness, healthy relationships, success in life, and feeling at home in a community of God’s people. It’s only compatible with creating environments, within the community and within each person, that sets us up for being unhappy, depressed, angry, and wanting to fight back and stand up for ourselves.

The kind of theology I’m talking about takes away one of the greatest gifts of God: our autonomy. Even the most “humble” person is unable to be healthy and happy if someone else is demanding compliance “or else”! It’s impossible to love someone who demands we love them back.

We get that when it comes to our marriages and friendships. We even get that when it comes to the workplace. The old “Command and Control” leadership style is not so easily accepted any longer—even though it is still prominent. Control makes us less human. It turns us into an object without dignity or rights. It makes us want to fight the one controlling us, not love them.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see all this until I became a therapist and saw people hurting so much. It took that for me to see how bad theology creates enormous human pain. My clients were people who loved God. Yet, they never felt they measured up to God’s instructions, demands, and expectations. They just didn’t feel “good enough” when it came to God and in many other areas of their life as well.

Ultimately, they all just wanted to be happy. Yet, many (not all) even felt that wanting to be happy or successful in life went against “seeking God or his Kingdom first.” All because of toxic theology!

It took me working with people one on one, in all their pain, to realize that much of what I had been taught growing up and as a young adult (about God and the Bible) not only didn’t help people, it hurt them. It hurt them spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. It kept them in their depression and in their anxiety. It kept them in toxic relationships. It kept them in fear, guilt, and shame. It kept them from being whole and from being healthy.

I eventually concluded that a God who controlled people or threatened people didn’t know how to love and couldn’t be God. I came to believe that God can either love us or try to control us—but he can’t do both. And what’s interesting is that if God is trying to control us, he’s failing miserably.

Alan Allard is a former therapist now coaching clients on how to thrive in life. He is an expert in treating trauma, including spiritual abuse and religious trauma. Alan has been quoted in The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, California Executive, and other media outlets. He is married to his high school sweetheart and together they have five grandchildren who all live within a mile of each other. Find more at Alan’s website: www.alanallard.com.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love