Spiritual bypassing and Emotional Maturity

I grew up with a dry emotional well. I didn’t want to know more because I didn’t know there was more to learn- we didn’t discuss feelings. We didn’t do vulnerability. If we happened to get so overwhelmed by emotion that tears or a look of fear physically breached our tough veneer, we were promptly and not-too-subtly reminded that emotions don’t fix problems – they make them worse.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong

This past week, I’ve seen a meme floating around on facebook. Perhaps you did too. I’ll go ahead and post it now (I do not know who the original artist/author is. If you know, please leave a message or use the contact form to tell me. I will credit them):

At first glance, I nearly wrote it off as empty Christianese. Then I took a closer look, and I found myself deeply bothered by the messages. This isn’t empty Christianese. This is harmful teaching. This is the kind of teaching that keeps therapists in business because of how deeply it can wound the soul.

This list is reflective of Conservative Christianity’s desire to push away big emotion and vulnerability. These statements exist to shut down any conversation that might make someone uncomfortable. Once you tell a person that they are “unworthy” because they are going to hell, there’s not much room for a conversation to continue in any healthy direction.

By spiritualizing these things, it ensures that the conversation is being contained. If it should trigger an emotional response from you to be told that you can only solve depression by turning to God, well then that’s a sign that you are either rebelling against the truth or the Holy Spirit is attempting to reach you. Which is another excellent way to shut down any meaningful discussion.

Everything you can possibly say to any of these spiritualized responses will always be met with claims of, “you’re a hell-bound sinner” or, “Jesus can fix it.”

No need to get too deeply invested in the conversation or in the person you are attempting to “fix.” Just stick to these ready-made answers and you can walk away feeling satisfied that you did God’s work and you’ve ministered to someone.

In reality, you didn’t do a damn thing. Except, perhaps, wound the person you were just talking to.

This is what we call, “Spiritual bypassing”, defined by the originator of the term, John Welwood, as:

“spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.” The goal of such practices, he claimed, was enlightenment.

Diana Raab, PhD, What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing is a favourite tool used by many within conservative evangelicalism to prevent people from looking too deeply within themselves or to avoid dealing with complex feelings and situations in which the Bible/Church/Church leaders are not equipped to give us easy solutions to our problems.

If we believe that personal/mental/emotional issues all have a route cause of sin, it’s easy to divert one’s attention away from the self and give a pat answer that appears to offer a solution when, in reality, it doesn’t even begin to address it.

The hard truth? Nothing changes unless we are willing to face our issues head-on, sit with whatever emotions arise, and find ourselves resources that actually do address them.

The person who wrote this list seems unable to properly deal with concepts of self-worth, trusting emotion/instinct, and mental health. I assume that this is because these are not concepts that are properly understood by fundamentalist Christianity.

To allow a person to understand themselves and their feelings is to grant them agency. And when a person is aware that they have agency, they become much harder to control or have them conform to whatever the group’s image is of what a righteous Christian “should” look like.

And I say all of that because, if you had asked me 10 years ago, long before I had any real understanding of any of those concepts, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with the above meme. I would have felt deeply uncomfortable with allowing the idea that feelings could be addressed by any source outside of my trusted church resources. I had been taught well that I was worthless and couldn’t trust myself, and that was why I needed my church leaders. If I can’t trust myself, at least I felt safe in trusting them. And they told me that all my issues stemmed from being a hell-bound sinner and that Jesus came to save me from myself and my trials. I just need to trust in Him. If I am struggling, I just need to trust even more.

I did not understand my own emotions or need for mental health.

I did not understand my own feelings or instincts or why I should trust them when they spoke to me.

I did not understand that I was so deeply loved by God that the very idea of damning me to an eternity of torture just because I exist spoke more strongly of my own self-image (and the self-image of those who taught me this doctrine) than it did to God’s character.

I had to learn how to reckon with my issues before I realized how short-changed my theological culture left me in my own self-awareness and development.

Things cannot be wrapped up neatly in a little bow by assuming that everything can be addressed with, “You are a sinner,” or “Jesus will fix it.” Thinking in this way will only compound the issues we are struggling with because we are refusing to acknowledge very real issues in the hopes that pat answers will make them go away.

God did not create us for such a lazy approach to life or faith.

To end this post, I want to address a few points on the above meme. Because this stuff needs to be said:

  • Jesus will not cure depression. God did not come to rescue us from anxiety. but God has gifted us with psychiatrists and therapists to help us address it head on. He has given us the ability to do hard work and learn new skills to change how we speak to ourselves, view ourselves, show up in our relationships, etc… Mental healthcare is not a quick or easy path to thriving, but we have to acknowledge the need for it before we can ever even begin our journey to health.
  • We are not worthy of Hell. We are the sacred creation of the God of the universe, called into existence because He saw that it was good to create us in His image. He did not create us for eternal torment in a lake of fire. He created us for relationship. And when sin interrupted our relationship with The Creator, Jesus’s death reconciled us to Him, saying with His last breath, “It is finished.” (John 19:30). To say that, because we are human and we exist we are worthy only for the pit of Hell, is to blaspheme God. If God is good, He cannot create something so evil that all it is fit for is to burn in Hell. It is important that people understand that we are inherently worthy of love, goodness, self-care. etc… because we exist and because God called us good. And how dare we ever call evil what God has called good?
  • Follow your heart. God gave you emotions and instincts for a reason. Where religion tries to tell us that the heart is deceitful above all else, have you ever taken a good hard look at the character of God as revealed through Scripture? God is a feeler. God feels anger. God feels compassion. God feels joy. God feels regret. God mourns. Feelings are not bad. Feelings act as a gauge. Are they telling us that we’re unsafe? We need to get curious about why that is. Maybe we’re angry because someone wronged us, and that anger is there to move us to change (either in ourselves or the relationship itself). They may be signs that we need to seek outside resources in the form of a therapist. Feelings are not bad. They good. They are holy. And we can follow God’s lead when it comes to feeling our feelings: He never once questioned His emotions, as we are often taught to do. He leaned into them.

May we learn to do the same.

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