This week on the podcast, we're kicking off a mini 2-episode series on loving our bodies as a spiritual practice. Today, I dig into the problem of over-spiritualizing and how that does harm to ourselves and to others. Here's what we cover:
1. What is spiritual bypassing?
2. Does every problem have a spiritual solution?
3. How we spiritually bypass ourselves
4. How not to be a "friend of Job"
5. The antidote to spiritual bypassing
6. An example of spiritual bypassing from the Bible
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See Chapters 2 and 11 of The Best of You, by Dr. Alison Cook
Episode 46: People Pleasing as Survival, How Jesus Regulated Emotions & the Problem With Toxic Positivity and Spiritual Bypassing with Aundi Kolber
John Welwood on Spiritual Bypassing
The Best of You Podcast:
With Dr. Alison Cook and Aundi Kolber
Episode 47: Loving Your Body as a Spiritual Practice
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Alison: Hey, everyone. I'm Dr. Alison, and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Hey, everyone, and welcome back to The Best of You podcast. I am so glad you're here. I'm so glad you keep coming back, each week, for these conversations that are just so important. As we navigate all the challenges that we face in our families, in our relationships and, frankly, in this world. There's just so much turmoil, so much chaos, all around us. And, so, I so appreciate this time each week to center our hearts, and to just pay attention to what is happening inside our souls, our minds, our bodies, and to invite God into that process together.
Today and next week, we're going to do a two-episode miniseries called, Loving Your Body as a Spiritual Practice. I have been in a, pretty intense, process of learning what it means to honor the body that God has given me, as a form of honoring God.
This is something I do not think comes naturally for most women, in particular. And it's not something that we hear a lot about in our faith communities. I do think that message is changing. And, so, in today's episode, I want to talk about this phrase - spiritual bypassing. We touched on it in my episode with Aundi Kolber, last week, episode 46. And several of you wrote to me and said, "Can you talk more about that? What did you mean by that?"
And, so, today, I want to get into what is spiritual bypassing. And then I also want to touch on what does it mean to bring our whole body. And by our whole body, I mean our mind, our heart, our spirit, and the body, the physical body that contains our mind, our emotions, and our spirit All of those things into our spiritual practices.
So to get started today - what is spiritual bypassing? Spiritual bypassing, essentially, means using spiritual concepts, platitudes, or spiritual language to bypass or over-spiritualize the real struggles that we face. And one of the ways I like to think about it, it's saying that every single problem, every single struggle of life, can be solved with a spiritual solution.
And I want to pause there, and I want you to think about that for a minute. Because I think a lot of us might agree with that. We might agree or have even said, or have even heard, in a sermon, that every problem has a spiritual solution. And I'm going to challenge that just a little bit today.
So spiritual bypassing, this phrase, was actually introduced, it's credited to this Buddhist psychotherapist, actually, his name is John Welwood. In the mid-'80s, he began to see a trend in the clients that he was seeing, that they would bypass their pain or bypass the reality of their problems. By using, vaguely, spiritual language like, "It's all good."
"I'm just going to follow my bliss."
"I'm just living my truth."
His clients would just repeat these positive-sounding phrases, that really didn't allow them to get into the heart and soul of what they were really struggling with. And if you remember, again, in episode 46, Aundi talked about how there's a secular version, which is called toxic positivity. Which is using positive phrases to cover over pain or suffering.
But there is also a Christian version of this and it's using Christian phrases, Christian platitudes, even Bible verses, to cover over pain and struggling. Instead of owning it, naming it honestly, and bringing it into the light, where God can actually bring the healing. And, also, sometimes the practical, very embodied resources that we need.
So here are some examples of spiritual bypassing and how it might show up in a faith community. So maybe you've shared a hard situation with a small group or a member of your church community, and you've heard a version of the following response. So, for example, if you share "I'm really struggling with depression." And someone tells you, "Oh, you don't need to feel depressed, God has given you so much."
Or "You should just pray more. You should just ask God, if you pray more, god will take that addiction or that relationship problem away."
Or if you're struggling with forgiveness and you really are carrying resentment towards someone who's really hurt you. Someone might say to you, "Well, God just says you should forgive. You just need to turn the other cheek." But there's no real acknowledgment of the complexity of what that means.
And, listen, sometimes we do this to ourselves. We constantly tell ourselves, "If I would just pray more, if I had just been in the Word more. If I was just walking closer with God, I wouldn't be having these problems, I wouldn't be struggling. Everything would just, magically, fall into place."
We tell ourselves these things all the time and we beat ourselves up with this form of spiritual bypassing. "If I was more holy, if I was more faithful, if I was a better Christian, I wouldn't be having this fight, flight response and lashing out at my kids. If I had just spent more time in the Word, today, I wouldn't be behaving in this way."
Now listen, I don't want to suggest that it is not important to spend time in the Word, to spend time in prayer. To ask God, constantly, for help, meeting us where we are in every detail of the day. That is part of the work of growing in spiritual formation, of allowing God to form us on every level.
Some of these things are true. We do need to forgive. We do need to pray more. We do need to be in the Word more. But here is what I want you to hear me say, God meets us in every pain and every problem that we face.
But that does not mean that every problem, every heartache, every challenge has only a spiritual solution. I'm going to say that again. God meets us in every pain and every problem that we face. But that does not mean that every problem, every heartache, every challenge, has only a spiritual solution.
Some of our problems need very practical solutions. Some of our problems need us to attend to a jacked-up nervous system. That has gone into fight-flight response, as a result of trauma or as a result of stress. And we have to learn how to calm that nervous system through physical intervention.
Some of our relationship problems require the help of a therapist or a third party, to help us untangle the knots that have come into that relationship. And it's going to take more than just prayer. Or perhaps the way God is going to help us answer those prayers is to teach us how to bring the problems we are facing in our relationships into the light. Where people who are trained can walk us through it very practically.
Sometimes our addictions are going to take medical interventions. We're going to need doctors to help us. We're going to need support groups to walk us through it. These things don't, magically, get solved through prayer or through reading the Scriptures.
Now, again, I am not saying that we don't need spiritual solutions. What I am saying is that we limit God, if we assume that God only shows up in spiritual ways. That God cannot also show up in very embodied, physical, ways.
Think when we only hear about the spiritual solutions, especially, in our faith communities. We can start to beat ourselves up if those spiritual solutions are not solving the problems that we face.
In fact, when spiritual bypassing is used as a prescription, oftentimes, it can make us feel more alone in the problems that we face. Instead of sticking close, by you, in the uncertainty or the complexity of the situation you're facing. When someone spiritually bypasses you, in a way they're blaming you for what's happening.
"If you were just more spiritual, this wouldn't be happening to you."
Instead of helping you ask questions or getting curious about the situation that you're facing. Spiritual bypassing minimizes the struggle in the name of a superior faith. And, to be honest, it's what we see in Job chapters 20 and 22. It's what the friends of Job were doing.
They were looking at Job sitting there, in all of his pain, in all of his torment, after losing so much. And you just get the picture of these friends coming in with their little spectacles, and being academic, and being like, "Well, you must have done something wrong to be hurting in this way."
Or, "You must not have been doing enough of your praying, and fasting, and spiritual disciplines, or God wouldn't be letting this happen to you." And they're coming up with all of these platitudes to explain away Job's problems. Instead of setting aside all their certainty, all their spiritual-sounding language, and going down into the pain with Job, and just sitting down next to him.
And saying, "Hey, Job, this is hard; we don't get it either. We know you're not perfect, but we also know you're a really good guy. And, frankly, I know I'm not perfect either. And, so, frankly, I know that whatever you're going through, there's no reason why I'm not going through it, because neither of us has it all together.
So I'm just going to sit here with you, in that pain, because I don't really get this. And I don't think it's really fair that you're going through this, and I don't really understand it. But I know I can enter into it with you. And I know that together, we can beseech God for mercy. We can ask God for help because I don't have all the answers."
But you know what, Job, whoever you are, whatever your name is, and the problems that you're facing, I can enter into it with you, and I can sit here with you. I can bring my whole body, I'm not going to sit here above you, and float above your problem, and analyze it or dissect it or spiritualize it, from a safe place, far away. Where I don't have to be tarnished by the pain that you're feeling. I can stay safe outside of it." That's not real friendship.
Instead of floating above your pain, I'm going to come and literally take my whole body, and I'm going to sit next to you, and I'm going to even put my arms around you, and I'm going to hold you. And I'm going to say, "I don't get this either but I'm here with you. I'm going to help you ask questions. Together, we're going to try to find our way through this. I'm not going to leave you alone. I'm going to bring you the literal, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual presence of my whole body. I'm not going to leave you alone."
That's embodied comfort, that's friendship. That's coming alongside someone from a position of "We are all in this together." And, man, whatever you are facing, maybe, I'm not going through it quite the same way. Maybe my life looks a little less complicated on the surface. But I have enough humility to know that my pat answers are not what you need right now. Because I don't fully understand either.
And maybe I will need to speak some words of truth, as I sit with you in this. I start to notice some things, and I can hold up a mirror, and in great humility and with a lot of grace, say, "Hey, I'm wondering if you've thought about it this way." But I'm doing that with humility. And I'm first coming alongside of you, and I'm sitting with you in the dirt, and in the mud, of your pain.
I'm not floating above you with all of these easy answers, that do nothing but make you feel more alienated. That's what spiritual bypassing does. It makes us feel alone in our pain. It makes us feel like "If we were just to be better Christians. If we would just pray more. If we would just be more faithful, we could just float up out of our pain and walk around with this numbed-out bliss." And it doesn't work, and it's not the example that we see in the gospels and it's not the example that we see in Jesus.
Instead of entering into the pain of a hurting soul with compassion, humility, and the gift of loving presence, or frankly, of practical help. We minimize, we spiritualize, and we make faulty assumptions. In effect, we are wounding the already wounded.
We're saying, "If you were a better Christian, you wouldn't be feeling this way. You wouldn't be going through this." We're blaming others in the name of our faith. And we become the very people Jesus rebuked when He said, of the religious teachers of His day, this is what He said about them. Matthew 23:4 He said, "They tie up heavy, cumbersome, loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."
They're not willing to go down into the mud, in that pain, in the heartache, in the challenge, of that other person's trauma. Of that other person's pain and actually get in the mud, and get dirty, and say, "Hey, I'm in this with you. I don't have easy answers for you, but I'm here."
Instead, they stay up out of it and just scold, just judge, just spout out easy, feel-good platitudes that do not meet other people in their pain. We tell the hurting person to be more spiritual instead of doing the holier embodied, more important, work of sitting beside them in their pain.
Sometimes we do this to ourselves. Instead of seeking to understand our painful emotions or, frankly, even our reactions to other people that we don't really like. Again, those fight/flight responses, where we lash out. We just ask God to remove them or to work a miracle in our life.
And, listen, there's nothing wrong with asking God for a miracle. But what I've learned, living a few decades on this planet is we don't always get the miracle and we're still responsible to do the work.
Sometimes God answers us with a miracle and sometimes God says, "This is going to be a daily practice." Sometimes we get that miracle of healing. More often God says, "Partner with me to take brave steps each day." You have a part to play.
I cannot even tell you, and I'll get into this more in next week's episode, how much God has been teaching me that lately. I so desperately want the miracles, the quick fixes, the easy way out. And, so, often God is saying, "I'm healing you. I'm here and it is not the easy way."
It is the way that requires digging deeper and facing the truth of what's hard. Facing the truth of what I don't often want to see about my own self, and taking tiny, brave steps every single day. Floundering a lot, sometimes seeing a glimpse of grace, but all the while holding tightly to the hand of Christ.
Who says, "I am with you as you walk through it. I may not pick you up out of it, but I will not leave you as you walk through it." Spiritual bypassing, we do it to other people, we do it to ourselves, and it's not what Jesus does to us. Jesus walks with us through the valley of the shadow of our lives.[00:19:07] < Music >
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Spiritual bypassing is not what Scripture recommends. Jesus welcomes the beat-up, downtrodden, hopeless, and even doubting souls He encounters. See Job 42:7-8, Isaiah 53:4, John 11:33, and Matthew 5:3-5. Jesus does not exile those people who are hurting and in the messed up middle of their lives.
He doesn't say, "Go get yourself cleaned up and then come back to me." He says, "I'm here with you now. I'm sitting with you here at this well. I'm sitting with you here at this pool of exiles. I'm coming to you right where you are."
I think of the words of Jesus when He said, in Matthew 25, and these words bring fear and trembling to us. Because they apply to all of us and I do not always get this right. Please hear me say that, I know I do not always get this right. Here are the words of Jesus. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me."
And then, again, He goes on to say, "Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
What are we doing for people when they're hurting when they're suffering?
Are we slapping pat answers on them?
Are we telling them to pray more?
Are we slapping Bible verses on them?
Are we saying, "Hey, what do you need? Do you need food? I'll bring you a casserole and I'll sit with you, while you grieve."
"Do you need something to drink? A cold glass of water? Maybe you need a break. Maybe you need me to take out and just listen while you share with me what you're struggling with. And I won't judge and I won't try to solve your problem. Let me just take you out, and be with you, and listen to you, and bear witness to your pain."
And maybe I'll offer some insight, sure. Maybe I'll say, "Have you thought of this?" Sure. But I'm going to be with you and I'm going to listen. And I don't have all the answers, but I'm not going to leave you alone. Maybe you're lonely and you just need some company. You just need someone to show up in your house, and not try to solve your loneliness problem.
But just show up every once in a while and say, "Hey, I'm here. I'm Christ in the flesh. I'm not perfect, but I am bringing my embodied comfort to your doorstep. Can I come in and just sit with you for a minute? Not to solve anything, just to take your loneliness away for one moment."
What if we went to the friends who are struggling with addictions, with really hard challenges, and said, "Hey, I know you're in a rough place. I don't have all the solutions for you. Could I go with you to a support group meeting? Could I drive you?" And imagine, for just one moment, if that's how we all were with each other.
When we share about our own struggle with depression, or anxiety, or we share about our own marriage challenges. Or we share about something our kid is going through, or we share about a hard situation at work or a really hard financial situation. And the very first thing that we were met with were the words, "Tell me more about that. I care, I'm here. I want to learn more about what you're dealing with."
What if we first started with that?
What if we first started by entering in and saying, "I'm here."
And what if that's how other people met you, in return?
I can just imagine this way that we are actually starting to be in a community together. We're actually sitting together and listening to each other, and absorbing each other's pain. And guess what, shared pain is half the pain, right there. We're not solving any problems. We're not, necessarily, fixing all the things.
But right there is the miracle. Right there is the miracle of sitting with each other in an embodied way. Saying, "I'm here, I hear you. I'm listening, I'm with you. You're not alone." And that same person is going to do the same thing for me when it's my turn, and when I'm struggling. And, all of a sudden, there's so much trust, and there's so much safety, and we're coming together. And this is what I believe it means when we are confessing one to another, "Hey, this is the real truth of what I'm struggling with."
And it's the other person saying, "I hear you. I'm with you. Yes, me, too, I struggle with these things over here." And, collectively, we are connected to each other and we are becoming a body, an actual body.
I just had an experience, recently, with a few friends where we lived this. We came together for a weekend and we just could not stop sharing, confessing, opening our hearts and souls to each other about everything that we were dealing with in our lives. With our kids, with our relationships, with our work. With all the things that we all deal with. It was a holy weekend and it was holy ground.
We weren't solving each other's problems. Nobody went away going, "Oh, yes, I prayed more and therefore my solutions were solved." We were just living prayer in an embodied presence with each other. We were the body of Christ for each other.
Before we close, today, I want to talk a little bit about what I believe the antidote to spiritual bypassing is. It's what I call embodied faith. It's a faith that includes our hands, our feet, our nervous systems, our mind, our emotions. It's holistic, it's heart, mind, soul, body. And I want to turn to Hebrews 11:1 to just close out on this idea of what is a healthy faith. Because we do believe that God is in all of our problems, in all of our pain. That God is, ultimately, the one who cares the most about us when we're hurting. And that God is the one who leads us through the valley.
So if we look at Hebrews 11:1 "Faith is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we cannot see." That's The Message version. I want to say that again, "Faith is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we cannot see."
Now, there's a lot in that verse, and that is not a verse that encourages spiritual bypassing. Even though we are understanding faith as the foundation of everything, even all the pain that we are dealing with. If you think about it, this definition of faith, in Hebrews, brings together two contradictory ideas.
First, faith is said to be like a firm foundation. Foundations are solid, often concrete, literally, concrete. When you pour the foundation of the house, it's usually concrete. You can see, feel, and touch a foundation. There's no question it exists.
In fact, every time you walk into a building or enter your home. How often do you think, to yourself, "Oh, I'm walking on a firm foundation? There's a firm foundation under my feet." But you know it's there. You just trust it implicitly. You just trust, for the most part, that that foundation is not going to crumble out from underneath you. That's how sure our faith in God can be no matter what we are facing. Faith is that firm foundation, that God is there no matter what.
But here's the second part of that verse. "Faith is also getting a handle on what you cannot see." Getting a handle on something means to grasp something complicated, something puzzling, something uncertain. You try to get a handle on a difficult situation. You try to get a handle on a challenging personality or you try to get a handle on your anger that you feel.
It's unwieldy, it's wild. It's like, "I don't know what to do with this. I'm trying to get a handle on it, it's outside of my grasp. I don't quite have control over it." So when you're trying to get a handle on something, you're often wrestling with it a little bit. You aren't certain of how to proceed. You don't know exactly what's happening, but you know you need to stick with it. And that is, also, how faith is, it's a firm foundation under everything. It's also getting a handle on something we can't quite understand, we can't quite see.
Faith in God is a firm foundation. It's a fact God is there; we can trust Him. Faith is also getting a handle on stuff that's really hard to see, that's elusive. Where God feels mysterious, where we have to feel our way through the dark. We're not sure exactly what this wild thing is that we are facing, that we are dealing with. It's scary, it's outside our control, we can't easily grasp it, and that is also faith.
Both are true, faith is a fact and it's a work in progress, it's a wrestling. Faith is a firm foundation, and faith is a feeling our way through, sometimes, one tiny step at a time through a long, dark, tunnel. When life is going well and things are working, faith tends to be more like that firm foundation.
We can almost take it for granted. We understand that these good gifts come from God. The foundation feels solid, we're good. And it's in those seasons that it is very tempting, from our safe place, way up high, to look down on others, who are suffering and say, "They're not on that firm foundation."
When in fact our brothers and sisters, or sometimes us, when we are going through the valley, we are just as much in faith when we are feeling our way through that dark tunnel. Where our steps are wobbly and uncertain, and we do not know. And for every step we take forward, we might be taking half a step back, we are also walking in faith.
What does it mean to get a handle on faith, when it feels like the foundation is crumbling underneath you?
When you're trying to find your way out of an abusive relationship?
When you're trying to find your way through a challenging set of issues, with a child?
When you're trying to find your way through a betrayal, in a friendship?
When you're trying to find your way through a faith community that has hurt you?
When you're trying to find your way through a job that you absolutely hate and that might even be toxic, but that you need to stay afloat, financially?
When you're trying to find your way through loneliness and you can't get a handle on it?
That is still faith. Faith is still a foundation underneath you, even when you can't see it, when you can't feel it, and you can't find those easy answers. In fact, I would argue that is an embodied faith that is even more pleasing to our God. The faith of fumbling. The faith of I don't know what in the heck is happening, God, but I'm getting up this morning. I'm going to try to eat my breakfast.
I'm going to try to read the Bible, even though, right now, I don't know exactly what it's trying to tell me because I'm confused. I'm going to pray to you, God, even though I don't know what you are doing in my life. I'm going to turn my kids over to you, even though I can't see how you are helping them. I'm going to turn this relationship to you, God.
And then guess what, I am going to keep walking through this day. I'm going to keep nourishing my body with the food that it needs. I'm going to keep seeking wise counsel from people who I trust and I'm going to keep turning away from counsel from people who are minimizing or spiritually bypassing my problems.
I'm going to take one step, today, to nourish my body, to try to get a good night's sleep. To maybe move my body in a way that releases some tension, that releases some stress. I'm going to reach out to a friend to take a walk. I'm going to listen to some music that calms my nervous system."
And guess what, I'm going to continue to turn away from those voices of people, who are telling me that if I just prayed more or if I was just more spiritual, I wouldn't be having to struggle like this. Because, in fact, these very acts of taking care of my body, of taking care of my mind, of what I put into my ears, of what I put into my heart.
Of taking care of my emotions, of giving myself space to grieve, of giving myself space to be angry. Of giving myself time with healthy friends, who maybe even make me laugh a little bit in the midst of the pain, and who take my mind off of my struggles, that is me living out my faith. That is me trying to get a handle on it, God, and you understand that. You see me here struggling my way through, wrestling my way through, and it's not always pretty, God. It is not always pretty.
Sometimes I'm angry and sometimes you're hearing it from me, but I'm still talking to you. I'm still talking to you. I'm still caring for this body. I'm not giving up on myself. I'm still here with this child of mine who's hurting. I'm still here, hanging in by a thread, with this marriage. I'm still here alone because I've had to leave the relationship and a lot of people have abandoned me, but I'm still here, God. I'm not giving up on you and I'm not giving up on myself.
And, today, that act of faith might simply be that I woke up this morning and I said, "Hey, God, I'm here. I'm here today, I'm going to live this day." And that is my radical act of embodied faith. The antidote to spiritual bypassing is embodied faith and embodied faith is lived out every single day.
Every single day you get up in the morning and you say, "I'm here, God. I haven't given up on myself, yet. And I haven't given up on this person, yet, and I haven't given up on you, yet. I don't know what that's going to look like by the end of the day, but I'm not giving up today, I'm here. And that is my radical act of faith."
And I will tell you, good and faithful servant, your God is pleased with you. Your God is pleased with you when you keep showing up every single day. And maybe your life isn't that firm foundation, of just feeling all great about your faith, and about God, and about your life. But when your faith is that feeling your way through, trying to get a handle on things, trying to wrestle it through, and you're not giving up on it every single day. You are in the heart and center of a God who loves you, and of a God who walks with you.
Whether you feel it or not, He is right there with you in that faith. He is right there with you. Because when we are faithful to this work, of getting up every single morning and not giving up on ourselves, and not giving up on God, He is faithful to us. And I can't promise you that'll come in a really clear solution today, but I can't promise you that He is pleased with you. That He is pleased with you and that you are not alone in your pain. And that your pain will not go unnoticed to the God who loves you and turns all things for good, for those who love Him.
[00:16:01] < Outro >
Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of The Best of you. It would mean so much if you'd take a moment to subscribe. You can go to Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts and click the plus or Follow button. That will ensure you don't miss an episode and it helps get the word out to others. While you're there, I'd love it if you'd leave your five-star review. I look forward to seeing you back here, next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.
30h March 2023