In light of the recent tragedy in Atlanta, Georgia, it has come to my attention that projection is a severe problem within the religious community. For those unaware, in March 2021, a man described as deeply religious by those who knew him opened fire upon three Asian-owned spas, killing eight people. The man stated that he was motivated by how the spas were sources of temptation for his sex addiction, conflicting with his religious beliefs. I will not get into how this is not an isolated incident in terms of anti-Asian violence within the United States because there are far more qualified people than I to explain. I recommend that everyone reading this look into it. Instead, I will discuss what this event is symbolic of in terms of religious people: projecting our weaknesses onto other sources.
The shooter in question (whom I refuse to dignify by sharing his name) has reportedly been treated in the past for what he describes as a “sex addiction.” The man wanted to “eliminate the temptation” that the spas (which are not confirmed to offer sexual services and his actions should not be justified even if they did) enticed within him. Ergo, he blamed other people just doing their jobs for his poor impulse control. This kind of projection is relatively common among us religious types; maybe not always to this extreme, but our anger often gets displaced towards what we think is the cause of our suffering rather than at our own issues. However, God gave us the ability to overcome these issues, and employing those is a true sign of serving Him.
Yes, Jesus Himself once stated, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter a life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire,” (Matthew 18:9, ESV) However, note that the verse states to remove your eye, not to obliterate what makes you consider sinning. What this verse means is that we are responsible for our actions and the consequences thereof. We are accountable for removing ourselves from the temptations that plague us, even if that means throwing out your Netflix subscription and going without the newest water-cooler conversation piece to stay on the straight and narrow. The only thing in this world we have any actual control over is ourselves.
I am also guilty of this kind of projection, especially recently. Without getting too deep into it, a coworker and I had a falling out, and I have been triggered by anger every time I see them, even if they are being respectful in not engaging with me. I try to shrug them off, but their constant presence and annoyances (related or unrelated) pile up and fuel a wave of anger that’s difficult to suppress in a stressful environment. I keep hoping that they will apologize or go away, and maybe then I will stop being upset every time I see them walking around, but that’s not on them. It is my responsibility not to be angry anymore, and I desperately want that. I cannot entirely remove myself from the situation for various reasons, but what I can do is seek help for my anger issues and take the necessary steps to move on. They aren’t my enemy, and even if they leave my life altogether, the hurt inside won’t leave.
We are all broken and hurting, and demonizing what tempts us doesn’t absolve us from our afflictions. There is no instant cure for temptation, even if one vows their life to Jesus. Truthfully, it’s an ongoing commitment full of struggling against one’s desires. Those temptations will always be within us, and external factors are just reminders; projecting our poor impulse control onto these reminders is dangerous to our spiritual growth and those around us. It stagnates us, makes us unable to realize our potential as disciples of God in full. In extreme cases, tragedies like Atlanta occur. However, accepting responsibility for our choices allows us to take steps toward healing.
Whether our temptations are toward an object, a person, or a feeling (which most addictions are about, honestly), it is our choice when we give in, not that which tempts us. It’s not pizza’s fault that I can’t stick to a diet, and it’s not the internet’s fault that my free time is so skewed. Equally, we are never justified in blaming others for our impulses, nor should we turn our anger inward, nor that external factors are never elements in our failures. The world outside will continue to exist, and we will continue to interact with it until Jesus calls us home. The important part is how we, surrounded by these factors, perform within the world. We must be better than our impulses, for God gave us the ability to reason.