A woman use a box to cover her face

I Was a “Good Christian Girl”, But I Felt Like a Fake

Written by Odelia Ong, Singapore

Growing up as a second-generation Christian, I was the epitome of a Good Christian Girl (GCG).

I mastered the GCG ritual at a tender age of eight, practising it religiously until it became routine. Read the Bible, pray every day, attend church every Sunday, ace the weekly memory verse—check, check, check. I took pride in achieving these tasks and thought I could earn merits through my effortsjust like how I would study hard for a test in school and pass with flying colours.

I enjoyed the praises everyone showered on me whenever I did what they expected of an “obedient daughter” and a “model student”. Doing these made my childhood years “smooth sailing”, and earned me a good reputation among friends and adults.

I continued living with this mindset for over a decade without grasping the true meaning of my faith. Even when I prayed and read (more like skimmed) the Bible, I simply did it so I could tick it off the “to-do” list. Most of the time I did not understand what I was reading, but I thought that God wouldn’t fault me since I’d “completed” my Bible reading.

I thought Christianity was performative—a list of tasks you do to be saved. Over time, legalism tightened its grip on me, binding me to a list of dos and don’ts.

I was part of my church’s Chinese congregation, which made up of mostly older people and there were only four youths, myself included, so there wasn’t a youth programme and I didn’t have peer support. I wasn’t taught how to read the Bible properly. It was assumed that we knew what to do, since we seemed like “good” Christian youths who were serious about our faith—simply because we served in church and attended the weekly services.

However, I often found the sermons unrelatable for what I wanted to know: how to navigate challenges in school and get practical wisdom to deal with the growing pains of being a teenager. I also struggled to understand some of the Christian jargons, terms like justification by faith and God’s sovereignty—I didn’t know what they meant and how they related to me, so I zoned out every Sunday.

Something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix it

Without a Christian community and a weak Bible foundation, my appetite for spiritual matters diminished and I started to care less about God in my life. It was hard to maintain a “spiritual appetite” that was driven solely by duty and fear of losing my salvation. But I tried my best to hold on to my “faith”, because I had to keep up the GCG appearance.

Deep down though, I knew something was amiss. I didn’t experience any of the satisfaction or joy that I often heard other Christians rave about. Instead, I was driven by fear, going through my religious routine day after day in the hopes that God wouldn’t retract my salvation.

The more I practised this religion, the less meaningful it was. I had perfected my GCG persona, but I was lost and empty inside.

Fortunately, God allowed me to meet Jia En, who was a youth worker at Singapore Youth For Christ (SYFC). My friend and I were studying when Jia En approached us as she was doing campus evangelism. She then brought me to my current church and introduced me to SYFC, where I began to volunteer regularly.

I thought that moving to a new church would solve my problems. While it did provide more structured sermons and Bible study classes, it also opened a Pandora’s box that I wasn’t prepared to face.

To refresh my understanding of Christianity, I attended the church’s foundation class that introduced the basics of Christian living. To my surprise, the class exposed my utter lack of knowledge towards God. I knew my Christian facts (e.g., Jesus died on the cross), but I didn’t personally know God. That was probably the first time I recognised how the core of Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ, and not just a religion filled with rituals.

Before, my knowledge of God was based on whatever the pastor or Sunday school teacher said, conventional wisdom, or based on my own imagination. My legalism somehow led me to conjure God to be:

  • an angry Figure waiting to pour out His wrath, instead of a patient Heavenly Father;
  • a calculative Host instead of a generous Giver;
  • this distant and unapproachable higher Being, instead of a joyful and relational Figure.

Everything I did was to either win His favour or placate Him, all to earn my salvation.

Realising that the core of Christianity is a restored and intimate relationship with God was a blow to me—my GCG person was a façade! My last 18 years as a “Christian” was a big fat lie, a narrative I fed myself to feel secure.

And above all the emotions—confusion, anger, anxiety—fear became the most pronounced. I feared losing myself and my identity. I felt like a fool, and this made me sceptical about the new things I learnt. I began to fear that Christianity was a lie. Maybe I had become a victim of a cult, and Jesus was just a made-up character who never actually existed.

His grace broke through my fears

Somehow this fear drove me to keep reading my Bible in search for answers. I spent hours in the Word daily, seeking to discover what the truth was.

The Lord encouraged me through the pastor’s wife, who shared with me Jeremiah 29:13-14: “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord”. In those moments where I questioned the legitimacy of the Christian faith, I held on tightly to this verse, as well as Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

It was these two verses, and the grace of God that kept me searching for answers, as I pressed onto the hope that I will find God at the end of the tunnel.

Despite having completed the foundation class, I still wasn’t able to fully internalise the idea of salvation by grace through faith.

So when Covid hit and started to spread globally, there was chatter as to whether this was a sign of Jesus’s return. I then remembered reading prophecies in the Bible as a kid: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). I saw how these predictions were coming to pass—mass shootings in the West, natural disasters and political turmoil happening across the globe.

So I connected the dots: Pestilences. Covid. Jesus’s return! While everyone was panic buying toilet paper and food supplies, I was stressing over Jesus’s second coming.

My legalistic self re-emerged so naturally, as I spent hours reading the Bible, praying earnestly, seeking God for answers and pardon. I told God many times not to come back yet because I’ve not done enough to face Him. My greatest fear was to hear Jesus say to me, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” and then descend into hell.

I could not share with anyone that I was battling these fears, for two reasons: one, I still wanted to maintain my GCG persona. After all, how could a GCG be struggling with her salvation! The other reason was, I was still relatively new in church, so I did not trust anyone enough to confide in them.

But the more I strived, the more I feared. It was an endless cycle.

God finally awakened my ignorance that led to a redefining of my faith. As I continued to study the Bible diligently, God sent other Christians into my life who constantly reminded me of His love and grace.

After completing the foundation class, I attended our church’s discipleship class, and it was there that I recognised the need to unlearn my old thinking and believe what the Bible says about salvation. Eventually, I realised that nothing I do will ever earn me a ticket to heaven. Because I’m a sinner, I fall short of God’s standard every day. But Jesus paid the price of sin so that I need not strive for my salvation but can rest in the knowledge that I am saved by grace through faith.

I prayed and asked the Lord to help me view Bible reading in a different light—to enjoy it, instead of viewing it as a means to earn my merit.

Unlearning legalism in my relationships

Battling with my legalistic self for the past two and a half years hasn’t been easy. Legalism had affected my friendships too. I was constantly trying to be a good friend so that the other party wouldn’t give up the friendship. I would resort to gifting and always try to please the other person. If they treated me well, I had to outdo what they did to prove that I am a worthy friend.

Eventually, one of my Christian friends pointed out this tendency. After she bought me some food because she thought of me when she saw it, I felt so indebted. I thanked her profusely and promised to repay her someday. She then told me that I have to stop thinking that people treat me well because of what I do. I didn’t always have to do something in return; all I have to do is receive the gift, and let others love me because they choose to.

This was a major turning point in how I saw my relationship with others and my relationship with the Lord. Finally, I was beginning to grasp the meaning of grace and love.

As with the ups and downs in life, there were exhilarating spiritual highs when I experienced the satisfaction of fellowship with the Lord, yet there was also a season of wilderness that made me question my faith. At the beginning of last year, I was severely burnt out from having to balance my studies, school commitments, and ministry work. My spiritual life crashed alongside my health, and as I tried to get back on track, I was not hearing from God or experiencing Him, which left me feeling so discouraged.

As I shared my woes with a senior from Christian Fellowship in school, she encouraged me with this verse in Philippians 1:6, reminding me it is the Lord who works in me, regardless of whether I feel like I’m making headway in my Christian walk or not. Her encouragement lifted a burden off my shoulders.

As I continued in my spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer and worship, I eventually got out of my spiritual rut. When I received my results from that hectic semester, I also saw how the Lord blessed me even through my weakest moments, reinforcing His faithfulness.

The Lord often meets me through gentle whispers, be it an encouraging verse as I read the word, the peace and joy from being in nature, or an unexpected act of kindness from others. Indeed, I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and I never want to live a life apart from Him.

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