When Spiritual Advice Does More Harm than Good

Harm Spiritual Bypassing

The danger of using spiritual bypassing as a form of support

I pulled up my Twitter feed and saw that one of my favorite Christian authors had just posted. She wrote, “Fear begs us to focus on our problems more than God’s promises.”

Her tweet had hit too close to home as I continue to wait for the results of my son’s latest biopsy report. The past couple of mornings I’ve been near tears, fearful of the outside chance his cancer is back.

An old familiar feeling of anger stirred within me, as I thought, What?? Is feeling fear wrong? Does that mean I’m not a good Christian if I have that kind of emotional reaction?

I couldn’t resist hitting the comment button and writing a quick response. I tweeted, “I see fear as an indication of where I’m unsure of God. Where I’m insecure in my relationship with him. I see it as a conversation starter rather than something to be avoided.”

A few days later, I saw several people had left other comments, all in praise of her post, whereas there had been no response to my push-back.

Figures.

Spiritual Bypassing

It wasn’t until I heard a podcast on a term I’d never heard of before, spiritual bypassing, that I understood what had been bothering me about my fellow Christian’s seemingly sweet tweet.

Spiritual bypassing was introduced in 1980 by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He defined it as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” It’s a type of defense mechanism commonly used in religious circles.

That’s was it! Intentionally or unintentionally, the author’s posted comment encouraged her audience to circumvent their emotional experience instead of doing the harder work of processing it. Of course, it also implied those who continued to feel negative emotions, such as fear, are failing to trust God enough.

Substitution for Real Support

Unfortunately, this kind of advice is all too common within Christian circles. I’m ashamed to admit that at one point in time, I’ve been guilty of it as well. It’s easier to label someone as spiritually or emotionally immature than to come alongside them during a difficult time. We slap on Christian advice and think we’ve done our job of being a good friend.

The truth of the matter, however, is when we do this, we have failed them. We’ve used Christian-ese to label hurting people as lacking faith while simultaneously, we’ve abandoned them when they need us the most.

Spiritual Bypassing Occurs Too Often

I hung up the phone a few minutes ago after talking to my dear friend for an hour. She shared she’d received a note from her long-standing church group asking her to take a break from attending their meetings. An email from the small group leader explained that her needs were exceeding their abilities. Hurt and angry, she asked if she’d done something wrong. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so transparent about the illnesses in her family, she wondered.

Shame and rage tinged the conversation. Confused, my friend shared how hard it had been to trust this group. After four years of building a relationship with these Christian women, she thought she’d found a safe place. Now, she’d discovered that that wasn’t so.

Dangerous Practice

Spiritual bypassing is dangerous. It leaves those of us who use it feeling superior and smug as if we’ve contributed or helped out. It does neither. It is just a fancy way of washing our hands of the situation while maintaining our pride. Dr. Ingrid Clayton, in Psychology Today, writes, “Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in — and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”

Ouch.

Real Support Requires More than Words

If we want to help, we need to step into the trenches and sit with our loved ones who are suffering. We need to remember that if it sounds cliche and glib — especially if it’s wrapped in spirituality, then it’s probably an indication of avoidance on our part. Real support is often messy, painstakingly long, and complicated. It requires tolerating what often is uncomfortable.

God love us, especially when we are fearful, broken, and at our worst. Aren’t we called to be imitators of him? We do no one a favor when we encourage spiritual bypassing.


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