Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Christian Perspective on Spiritual Bypassing (and why it will never help someone with chronic health issues)

Dear Reader,

As a Christian, most of us are aware that it is not a one size fits all.  In fact, there are over 40,000 denominations, and of that, there are independent churches with no affiliations.  And of course, anytime you have humans involved in anything - you end up with a full spectrum of things, both good, bad and everything in between.  But something that a lot of Christians engage in (and something I myself am working on!), is spiritual bypassing.

What is it?  Why do we engage in it?  Why is it so invalidating at best, and destructive at worst?  And if we should disengage in it, what can we say to people who are struggling, and suffering, with chronic health issues??

Well, before we get into all that, here's a pin you can save for future reference:

bohemian catholic spiritual bypassing chronic health issues christian

So, what is spiritual bypassing?  You can read up on here, here, and here, but basically it's a coping mechanism that results in bypassing (i.e. avoiding) a painful or difficult emotion, with socially accepted spiritual tools.  It was first penned by a psychotherapist (and Buddhist), John Welwood, in the 1980's.  It hasn't received a whole of lot professional study, so some people, especially Christians might be weary to consider it a legitimate concern.

After all, aren't we supposed to uplift each other?  Tell each other that our faith will carry us through?  That if we only believe, everything will be okay? 

Well yes, we are supposed to uplift each other, and treat each other with love and respect - like icons of Christ, as God's creation (to read on how to do that, check out my blog post, "Powerful Ways To Be An Icon Of Christ (In Three Profound Steps)" [ LINK ] ).  BUT if you find yourself trying to tell someone that their faith should keep them "happy" all the time, then you aren't helping them. 

Let's look at it from another perspective - as Christians, we are called to be like Christ.  We will always fail at this, because we are human, but so was Christ (fully human, and fully Divine). 
Jesus knows the pain we endure.  Because he endured it, too. 
There are three times that the Bible records Jesus weeping - and surely there were more than these! - and there are several times our Lord and Savior was upset, exasperated, and even angry (table flipping at the temple anyone?).  And though we all love to imagine a happy, hippie like Jesus, He didn't shy away from His emotions - or say, everything would be great once we follow Him.  In fact, he said the opposite: "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world." - John 16:33 (and for more verses on the subject of what it means to follow Him, click here).

bohemian catholic spiritual bypassing crucifix church

Okay, so we know what spiritual bypassing is ("just have faith, and then you won't be sad!"), and one can see that Jesus never wanted us to sell Him off as a cure all for all emotions if one just has enough faith . . . but He is the Comforter (Matthew 11:28-30), and wants to uplift us, just as we uplift each other.  And that very human emotion makes us want to "fix" ourselves, and others.  What's easier: suggesting a prayer can fix a tough season in life, or going to therapy, and/or acknowledging the feelings, work through them, so they don't cycle back in patterns in our lives?

I would love it if a novena prayer would cure me of my genetic condition, but alas, that hasn't happened yet.  And so, (albeit it mostly well meaning) fellow Brothers and Sisters in Christ have told me over the years, "If your faith was stronger, you wouldn't be sick" (yes, really).  It's not that these people were trying to dismiss, or punish or add on or anything else of the sort -
but they have failed to understand that being sick is not a punishment from God. 
Jesus understood this fully!  In biblical times, sick people were often cast aside as a burden - some resorted to begging for scraps on the side of the road.  And yet, Jesus healed countless people of their afflictions, often assuring them it was their faith that healed them.  So naturally, it's easy to assume that if one has enough faith, one does not have to be sick. 
But one then forgets that sometimes God says, "No", and that our bodies are sometimes not meant to be restored on Earth, but in Heaven.
Eventually I'll write a whole other post about the Catholic viewpoint of "suffering", "victim souls", and "redemptive suffering" (it really does deserve its own post).  But needless to say, there are ways to embrace the suffering we have from illness, and the work that needs to be done around it, without slapping a band aid on it with spiritual bypassing that is dismissive of the human emotions endured with the suffering.

Here are some examples of spiritual bypassing and what we can do instead:

When a Christian says, "I am dealing with cancer." - our immediate response shouldn't be, "Well Jesus will restore you if you pray about it."  Our immediate response is to sit with that person, help them to not feel alone, and comfort them both with prayer and with words.  It doesn't mean we don't ask Jesus for healing, but we can do BOTH things where we pray, and acknowledge the person who is experiencing something terrible.

When a Christian says, "I am struggling with depression" - our immediate response shouldn't be, "How?  With God there is always hope - and thus happiness!"  A person who is struggling with a mental health issue is no less a Christian than the one who isn't.  We must understand that mental health issues are not a sin, or a sign of an unhealthy Christian, it is an illness.  For more on that, please click here to read an article on about "coping with depression in a Christian way" (it might surprise you!).

When a Christian is dealt with an unimaginable loss, such as the death of a lost one, our first response should not be, "Well go to church, you'll feel better."  We need to acknowledge that pain, the hurt, and accept that grief is a normal part of life.  Jesus wept, and we should not rush someone to pretend they are okay so we can feel more comfortable.  (Quick disclaimer: though there is no wrong way to grieve, if you find yourself struggling with self medicating to cope than please look into professional services that can help.  Self medicating is not part of the grief process and will only delay the inevitable process that is needed to move forward with your life).

But how do we sometimes do this to ourselves?

We might seek a "spiritual journey" or "retreat", saying we will be working on things - but it turns out to be more of a stagnation.  We give our bodies a break, but don't do the mental and spiritual work.  So when we return, we find the issue didn't resolve itself, and now we are even more overwhelmed. 

We might be struggling with a tough day, and tell ourselves we aren't allowed to, because as a Christian we should have hope/happiness at all times.  Pushing our emotions down can result in psychological trauma that is enforced on our bodies to process subconsciously, and often times detrimentally.

We might forgo seeking medicinal help (either for treatments, or psychologically), because we believe that faith will fix our bodily ailments.  Though we do live in a culture that is overly medicated, or sadly quick to rely on pills - before other therapies are explored.  That does not mean medication, therapies, or a combination of both are unnecessary.  Only you and a team of medical experts can decide what your body and mind need.  Allow your church to fulfill your spiritual needs, but do not ignore your medical needs in exchange.  The two can flow together nicely!

All that being said, this does not mean we ignore our spiritual health.  In no way am I suggesting we "back off" from Jesus or do not encourage someone to form a relationship with God.  What I am trying to point out is that as human beings, in human bodies, struggling with life's tribulations - is that we need spiritual health AND physical and mental/emotional health as well.  And we want to mindful before we engage in dismissive talk, that might make someone feel bad for struggling with human emotions. 
Especially if we are doing this because we are unsure of how to help. 
If you are unsure - just say so.  A lot of times, a person just wants to be heard, not fixed.  Not told it'll be better.  Not that there feelings reveal something "wrong" in them.  Just heard, and to know they are not alone. 

Have you ever examined yourself for spiritual bypassing?  Did any of these things bring up a memory of something you've experienced or perhaps engaged in yourself?

Much love

Stock image credit: Michael Morse via

Disclaimer: please know that I am not a certified doctor, or therapist of any kind.  I am sharing my own life experiences, and minimal training from years of PCA, foster care, and pastoral ministry - but I am not a professional in field relating to mental health.  You can read more about my general disclaimer HERE.  However, if you find yourself having depressive thoughts that last for more than two weeks, and/or suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the HOPE foundation.

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