At the height of my sickness, I spent most of my days confined to my mattress. Every now and then, friends or church members prayed for me. The first five or ten times this happened, I leaned in, clinging to any shred of hope. I wanted relief, and my understanding of God led me to believe prayer could heal me, if I only asked. I did ask, dozens of times, hundreds even. For some reason, however, my words weren’t penetrating heaven’s atmosphere. So I welcomed prayers from outsiders, hoping their words could pierce the veil, awaken the Ancient One from his slumber, and he would visit me in my suffering and maybe – God, please – take away my pain. It never happened.
After a few dozen of these intercessions, I began to wonder if I was missing something. Is healing the point? Does suffering exist so God can heal it? Is that its only purpose?
I noticed something else. After someone petitioned to God on my behalf, he or she would say Amen, and anxious energy filled the room. They didn’t remain afterwards, not for long. I began to wonder if they cared about my plight or used prayer as a way to absolve themselves from having to feel the full weight of my suffering.
I don’t recall one person in all the time I was confined to the bed who spent more than a few minutes with me. Maybe my posture wasn’t inviting. I’m sure it wasn’t. But I wanted someone to sit with me. I wanted someone to say, “Frank, I’m just gonna come sit with you this afternoon. You don’t have to say a word. But I’m here if you need me.” That’s what I wanted. I wanted to feel the presence of another human, to break the barrier of isolation that grows and strengthens with chronic pain.
We avoid suffering and pain because it makes us uncomfortable. I think we know folks who suffer need presence as much as prayer, but we rarely provide the former and so easily dispense the latter. The former asks us to lean into discomfort. The latter makes us feel good about ourselves, an attaboy for the ego.
We often use God to avoid discomfort. Rather than confront hard emotions or deal with unresolved conflict, we dismiss them with spiritual explanations. “I’m giving it to God” or “I’m gonna pray this away” or “All lives matter” or any host of other responses.
There’s a term for this. It’s called spiritual bypassing.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL BYPASSING?
Spiritual bypassing is using God-talk or spiritual exercises to avoid hard emotions or difficult situations. Spiritual bypassing is also toxic to spiritual growth. It keeps you small and shallow and rigid.
What is the goal of our short time on this earth? Wholeness, that’s the goal. To become whole, however, we must follow the eternal pattern: life, death, resurrection. You can’t grow unless something dies. Often that death is painful, and often it involves confronting deeply held truths about how you see the world and God. That’s what spiritual bypassing seeks to avoid. So, if we want to become like Christ, we must become aware of the ways we use God to avoid becoming like God.
Here are 6 signs of spiritual bypassing.
1. USING SPIRITUAL WARFARE TO EXPLAIN AWAY HARD TIMES
When someone dies, we blame Satan. When our marriage falls on hard times, we blame the Evil One. When a random bout of depression strikes us, we chalk it up to the forces of darkness. In doing so, we miss out on an opportunity to grow, to learn, to lean into our discomfort and become more human. Suffering is integral to living. Satan isn’t responsible for your best friend’s cancer. Cancer is part of the brokenness of the world. It just happens.
Spiritual warfare is one of Christianity’s greatest attempts to make sense of every awful and tragic thing. Not every bad thing is the work of the devil. Not every tragic circumstance is the result of the powers of darkness. That’s a clever disguise by the ego to keep you from living in reality. In reality, not everything resolves and some circumstances don’t have a cause-and-effect. And as long as you live in a black-and-white world, you avoid the real work required to grow. You avoid the crucible of pain that forges the road to change.
I’m not sure whether spiritual warfare exists. Maybe it does. That’s not the point. The point is we can’t grow unless we live in reality, unless we accept that things don’t always resolve.
2. AVOIDING NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
Good Christians aren’t bitter or angry. They don’t struggle with cynicism or fear or anxiety or any of the other emotions we, humans, label as negative.
This is hogwash, of course.
Good Christians do struggle with negative emotions because they are human and all humans struggle with all emotions.
I was not taught this in the church of my youth. Or the church of my adolescent or adult years. Too often, Christians gather in a bubble of positivity, and there is no place for negative emotions. We assume evolved, faithful followers don’t struggle with darkness, so we gloss over it with happiness or joy, and that is like covering a hole in your head with a gauze pad and assuming you don’t need medical treatment. You go on like that long enough and the hole will become infected and you will end up in a much worse state than if you stopped to treat the wound properly.
Christian maturity is the realization that emotions aren’t good or bad, and therefore, we don’t need to suppress them. Sometimes life is hard, really hard, and the last thing you need is to pretend it’s not. We’re all a collection of emotions. Learning to express the full scale of these emotions in healthy ways is essential to spiritual growth.
3. USING SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES TO AVOID ACTUALLY CHANGE
We do this, as Christians, don’t we? We read the Bible, pray, go to church, and yet we’re still addicted to porn. We know it affects every area of our life. But we don’t take the steps necessary to change. We do a lot of spiritual things, but we avoid the one thing that could transform our lives. The one thing that will change our lives, though, is also the hardest thing to do. It might involve us actual having to look honestly at the man in the mirror. That’s too hard. So, we read the Bible and go to church and call it good.
We do a lot of Christian things, so we think we’re fine. But we’re not. We’re using God to avoid becoming more like God. We fill our lives with God-talk and God-activities, but never actually do the hard work of change.
If your marriage is struggling, prayer won’t fix your problems. You need a counselor for that. You need to look at yourself and how your own flaws have contributed to your fractured relationship.
If you’re depressed or know someone who is, all the Bible reading in the world can’t fix it. Maybe you have a chemical imbalance in your brain and you need medication. Or maybe your depression is seasonal, and its presence signals a toxic or misguided worldview. You don’t need to pray it away, but you need to examine the internal narratives that contributed to your low mood. Do you believe some false truths about yourself?
Sometimes asking for help is the most Godly thing of all, much harder than saying a prayer or reading your Bible. It’s also the one thing that will transform your life. Don’t use spiritual disciplines to avoid the hard work of change.
4. BELIEVING EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes people die, and it has nothing to do with God and it has nothing to do with Satan. It’s just life. Sometimes amazing things happen. We get that job or whatever, and it has nothing to do with God. It just happens.
The point is we use God to satisfy our desire for control and our ego’s desire for everything to make sense. But the Bible doesn’t paint the picture of a God who remove chaos from our lives, but a God who dwells with his people through it. Sometimes life is tragic. There’s no explanation for it. And we need to rest in our discomfort and anxiety and sadness rather than using spiritual jargon to explain it away.
5. PLAYING THE VICTIM
Playing the victim is a powerful form of spiritual bypassing. Not only does it makes you believe you’re right, but it also leads you to believe that the world is against you. You cannot and will not change if you play the victim.
If you want a good example of the toxicity of victimhood, the evangelical church is a decent place to start. Rather than look honestly at the ways our theology has marginalized women, black people, gay people, and so on, we assume the world is out to get us. We point fingers. We double down on our beliefs. Rather than listening to opposing narratives, we cry foul. We take our ball, and we go home. This is tragic and immature and reflects how the evangelical church loves power and status as much as it loves reconciliation and healing. Maybe more.
Jesus never played the victim. He didn’t blame or point fingers. He didn’t throw pity parties. And he is the only human ever who had a legitimate reason to do so. He never sinned, yet his own people demanded he die for no reason at all. He never demanded retribution. And in doing so, he gave us Life.
Go and do thou likewise.
Jesus is our model for Life. If you want to experience deeper intimacy with the Divine, greater peace and joy, you must stop pointing fingers and look honestly at your own failures.
6. EXCESSIVE FOCUS ON THE AFTERLIFE
As a teenager, Christians often asked “What would happen to you if you died tonight?” In other words, would you spend eternity in heaven or hell? I’ve never liked that question. It’s rooted in fear and escapism.
Here’s a better question: What would you do if you woke up tomorrow?” In other words, how would you live? Especially in evangelical circles, we devote far too much energy to the afterlife. Meanwhile, Jesus seemed much more concerned with how we live right now. He rarely talked about the afterlife.
When I long for heaven, it’s often because I’m experiencing something hard in my own life. And when I’m going through a hard time, longing for heaven won’t help me become more like Christ. Focus on the afterlife is often spiritual escapism. It’s removing your mind and heart and body from the present moment because you don’t want to deal with hard parts of being human. But in the hard parts of being human, we find God. We find a deeper experience of True Life, of peace and joy and connection.
How you care for creation matters. How you treat people matters. How you deal with your own demons matters. Heaven is something you experience right now. Stop using the afterlife to avoid living in the present life.
Spiritual bypassing is an invisible cancer of the soul. It leads to narcissism, superficiality, blind allegiance to toxic leaders, codependency, and so on. It explains why so many people can claim to love God and look nothing like God.
The solution is simple, but hard. Transformation is always that way. It requires no special knowledge, only courage, a lot of courage. You must live in reality. You must look honestly at your own heart and mind. You must be willing to let go of perceptions and biases that hold up an outdated or unhealthy worldviews. You must be willing do the next right thing. May we have the courage to address the way we use God to avoid change.
Grace and peace, friends.