If you’ve ever felt like your pain was invalidated by a well-meaning person telling you to “pray harder” or insinuating you’re struggling physically or emotionally simply because you don’t have enough faith, you may have experienced “Spiritual Bypassing”. The term “Spiritual Bypassing” was coined by psychologist John Welwood in the 1980’s to describe a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” In simple terms, spiritual bypassing is using spirituality to prescribe a “one-size fits all” answer to complex human needs that may be painful and not easily explained away. It is an avoidance tactic that minimizes or eliminates uncertainty or negative emotions in favor of cliches and over-simplified bible verse answers without considering the complex needs of the individual.
People who engage in spiritual bypassing mean well. They want to help. They are, however, seeking simple answers for nuanced and complex questions. Whereas the intention is usually to be supportive, spiritual bypassing oftentimes leads recipients to feel like they can’t be honest because they may be viewed as “unspiritual” if they seek God’s healing through medicine or counseling or another avenue.
Here are a few examples of Spiritual Bypassing:
- A faith leader giving spiritual answers when the person seeking help needs a variety of support including physical, psychological and spiritual measures.
- A well-meaning bible study leader indicating that your problem is because you “Just aren’t praying hard enough.”
- Assumptions that all physical or emotional illness is a result of demonic oppression without considering psychological, biological or environmental factors at play
- Avoiding present reality completely because it’s “temporary” and not eternal
- Pretending that everything is okay out of fear that you’ll be viewed as less spiritual if you have any challenges or bad days
- Toxic positivity— An approach that only focuses on “the bright side” or meets with pain with “at least it isn’t…”
- Anger phobia- Fear of anger is common in spiritually bypassing environments. Anger is viewed as “unspiritual” and is, therefore, not allowed to be expressed. However, we don’t have to be fearful of anger when we understand it’s purpose. It is possible to invite God into your anger and not let it control you.
- “The Lord will not give you more than you can handle” (this is simply not true)
In spiritual bypassing, physical and emotional realities are bypassed with the attempt to explain away what’s happening with a solely spiritual solution. This is quite challenging because humans were created, by God, with a body, soul and spirit. Therefore, if we avoid the necessary healing measures for the body and soul, it’s quite likely we will get stuck in physical or emotional pain. Then, because we’ve diminished the value of physical and emotional needs and don’t address them, we may not get the results we seek solely through prayer. When this happens in a particularly rigid religious environment, we may come to one of two conclusions:
Either God isn’t good and loving (or He’s ignoring us)
We aren’t praying hard enough.
Our theology would say that God is perfect so where does that leave us? That we aren’t spiritual “enough”. Individuals may leave these encounters feeling more shame than when they arrived in our office/church, because they were seeking support and we bypassed their various needs. The issue is also compounded because now their spirituality, which was once a source of support, is now a source of inferiority or invalidation because they are believing if they were just “spiritual enough”, their pain or difficult situation would be remedied right away… and it’s not.
The beginning of spiritual embodiment (and the end of spiritual bypassing) is recognizing that pain is not an anomaly and uncertainty can actually lead us into deeper faith. The Bible gives us a clear understanding that we are all going to face great challenges while living in this world. There are no guarantees that living christianly will keep you from significant problems. In fact, when we work through the problems (not around them), God can meet us within them. He can teach us, mold us and prepare us for all the many beautiful and challenging experiences life holds.Often, people of all faiths attempt to pray away all suffering, when in the midst of working through suffering, we become stronger and find hope –through healing, not bypassing.