Their loved one was palliative with only a couple days to live. Everything medical that could be done had been done and her cancer ravaged body was plain worn out. The goals of care were to keep her comfortable. Her husband vacillated from ‘this is Gods will’, “fighting the enemy to the end” and “staying positive because faith will heal his wife.”
His wife died a day later. He was devastated. His wife was gone. God didn’t come through the way he wanted him to. He wrestled between the guilt of not having enough faith and then he would push all that grief down deep inside himself and pack it in tight with “it was Gods will” through a tortured smile.
As I’m sure you can imagine, it was a dreadfully painful period in his life and over our time together I helped him begin to unpack and think about working through his pain. Part of this process was helping him gently deconstruct some unhealthy beliefs about God that he was using as a means to avoid acknowledging his legitimate pain.
The above illustrates an example of Spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism that often uses spiritual ideas and practices as a means of avoiding dealing with significant emotional pain, unresolved emotional issues - resulting from psychological trauma.
While there are indeed plenty of positives to living a healthy faith with its meaningful practices, there are instances where our spirituality and practices can be an effective way of avoiding reality and most especially our strong negative emotions coming from a variety of loss and trauma. This is when our faith can be unhealthy. Even the most sincere faith can be toxic when used as a defense mechanism.
This presents a significant challenge as it can be difficult to discern when someone is slipping from healthy life-giving faith into toxic spiritual bypassing. It is here an experienced spiritual care person or therapist can be a great asset.
Here are a few ways that we can slip into spiritual bypass:
“Christians should be victorious overcomers”. “We don’t grieve as the pagans do” - Pain from loss is real and the pain we call grief is a natural and normal response to a loss of any kind. Denying this, even from a posture of sincere faith, does nothing to heal our hearts. As grief is cumulative, you may post pone dealing with it but the grief will take some form in your life until you we deal with it.
“Its Gods will” - Some of the more extreme views of sovereignty are not helpful during times of emotional pain and loss to help deal with what we are going through. In some cases, it also puts us at odds with God himself. Making this more complex is if we are not allowed to question God or be angry at God. This kind of thinking demands we stuff down all the pain we aren’t ‘allowed’ to feel (acknowledge) in the name of having faith.
Word faith / Positivity - Where faith is a currency that one exchanges for Gods goodies, or having positive thoughts so the universe responds the way we want makes no allowance for acknowledging or dealing with our heartbreak, Grief is the normal, natural emotional response to a loss of any kind. Genuine faith is not denying, avoiding or escaping reality but engaging it with faith in the good God-who-loves.
Extreme detachment and acetic practices - via fasting, extreme worshipping, meditation, self-flagellation are also spiritual tactics we employ to avoid reality and our pain. Some heavenly experiences and spiritual titillations can be a part of healthy spiritual experience but when used as a means to avoid pain and escape reality it becomes unhealthy. True spirituality connects us more authentically with God, creation and with our own humanity. Our humanity includes our experiences - good and tough stuff alike.
Crusading - I have personal experience with this kind of bypass. There was a significant tragedy in our community 20 years ago - a person close to us personally was tragically murdered. In the shadow and swirl of terror, grasping trying to make sense of the event, it made sense to us to work to make changes in our community to help reduces the chances of such a situation occurring again.
In many ways, it was a reasonable thing to do - except when by doing so one avoids dealing with their own trauma and rationalizing away the pain as the fuel to fight the good fight. The problem is this kind of fuel cannot sustain us, and the unaddressed pain creates an inner swamp that sets one up for burnout, bitterness and a whole host of the negative physical and mental symptoms of unresolved grief. Tragically, after we have crashed and burned, the pain is still waiting for us to address it.
Using spiritual practices and theologies to avoid dealing with our pain is not healthy spirituality at all because it isn’t honest, it denies our humanity and works against our movement towards wholeness. Avoidance, even adorned in our finest religious veneer, is NOT healing. Healthy spirituality connects us in deeper ways to what is real in our life and this includes all the wonderful things, and yes, the tough stuff as well.
Let’s not let this talk of spiritual bypassing diminish the benefits of healthy spirituality in any way. Healthy faith provides genuine comfort, support, and can be a wonderful asset as we confront our pain; some studies have suggested healthy faith can speed up healing and improve outcomes.
To this end let us engage life; the good, bad and ugly it can often be, with rugged healthy faith - not escaping, avoiding or denying in the name of God. Rather with the help of a thoughtful therapist and the Spirit engage all of life from that place of safety and support that flows from the God-who-loves without measure.
What others ways can we slip into Spiritual Bypass?
Share your ideas below in the comment section.