How would you describe healthy as opposed to an unhealthy or destructive spirituality? We seem to be hard-wired for the spiritual life -for having a relationship with God. It’s down deep in us, at the heart of things. It would be nice therefore, if our relationship with God or our spiritual life were simple. Some people, in fact, do experience spirituality in this way -as a stable source of nourishment, encouragement, and empowerment. But that is not always the case, and in fact, it is usually the exception. While it is true that spirituality or a relationship with God can be a great source of wonderful blessing, it is also true that our relationship with God or spiritual lives can be the source of enormous suffering.
If your relationship with God -your spiritual life or walk with God -has been uneasy, complex, confusing or hurtful, then this blog is being written for you. It is not, however, just about you; it is most definitely about me too. Although what I write about in this blog is informed by my work in the chemical dependency and mental health fields and my own experiences with Christian spirituality, it also reflects some of my personal experiences. There’s nothing theoretical to this blog, I have another blog, “Motivation 4 Today” which focuses on clinical counseling and motivational interviewing approaches. But there’s nothing really abstract in the things I’m choosing to write about here. I know from personal experience that spirituality or our relationship or walk with God can go bad. I’ve seen for myself how unhealthy spirituality can erode the foundations of our lives.
Thankfully, I am also coming to know what it is like for spirituality or a walk with God or relationship with God to be a precious, grace-filled and practical resource in life. As you can see, I use these phrases and terms of spirituality, walk with God, relationship with God interchangeably, becasue for me they represent the same thing. So, for the sake of not sounding redundant, I will just simply use the term spirituality from here on out. I think you, the reader, get my point that I see spirituality as a walk with God or a relationship with God. But the point is that I have experienced God’s Spirit infusing my spirit with gifts of humility, kindness and joy at various times in life. I know what peace feels like when my spirit is free from fears, shame, and resentments. And I have tasted of the contentment and serenity from time to time that comes from sinking my roots deep in the soil of God’s grace and love.
Experiencing God’s grace and love, however, does not mean that I am no longer vulnerable to destructive spirituality. On the contrary, I am still in the process of fully understanding the ways that my spiritual brokenness affects my life and the lives of others. I have found, however, that God is eager to bless me even in my spiritual brokenness. And that is perhaps the central theme of this blog: even in our moments of deepest spiritual brokenness, when we can see nothing but ruin, God sees opportunities for blessing. Jesus put it simply: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3; NIV 2011).
Jesus’ statement here does not match the instincts and expectations nurtured in us by the toxic forms of spirituality today, but it appears to be true. Our spiritual poverty is, in the eyes of God, an opportunity for blessing and not an occasion for judgement, shame or rejection. May God be praised for that! But becasue this blog comes out of some of my personal experiences, I hope others will find a few simple answers to simple questions they may be asking in silence. I understand how complex topics, like for instance “spiritual abuse,” can be, and how difficult and painful it is to recognize that something has gone very wrong in our spiritual lives, especially in modern America (or contemporary Christianity). I don’t just want to throw out the baby with the bath water and I certainly don’t want to throw out things that are not relevant here. I understand how difficult it is to find the right kind of help when things go wrong -help that truly helps and doesn’t make matters worse.
I know also how terrifying it can be when we begin to see that our spiritual lives may need to be torn down and rebuilt on healthier foundations. I understand the desperate desire to solve the problem by adding a fresh coat of paint or doing a minor remodeling to our house. Maybe even adding a room or two. But please, God, let it be something less drastic than tearing down and rebuilding! Unfortunately, if the problem is with our spiritual foundations, then anything less than demolition and rebuilding would be a waste of time -like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Tearing down and rebuilding is what my blog is about. In our spiritual lives there is a time to tear down. And there is a time to build.
One of Jesus’ stories about the spiritual life is about a foolish man who built his house on the sand, and a wise man who built his house on rock. When the winds and rain came, the man who build his house on sand was left homeless and on on the streets while the house built on rock withstood the harsh weather (Matthew 7:24-27). When he told this parable, Jesus was not talking to people who had rejected faith but to people who were attentive to their spiritual lives -their relationship or walk with God. It is not a story about people who refuse to build houses but about the kinds of foundations that make for stable houses.
What response do you have to the metaphor of tearing down a spiritual life built on sand? Like the religious people of Jesus’ day, many who are active in their faith today build houses on sand. In this blog I wish to explore over time what it means to build on the unstable sand of self-reliance and religious striving, and what it means to build on the rock of God’s love and grace. I wish to examine what spirituality looks like when it starts to collapse becasue of a faulty foundation, and I hope to suggest some tools and even be open to others who share in reposes to this blog some tools of their own. When I’m talking of tools, I don’t mean formulas and gimmicks, but rather helpful tools that might assist us with demolishing unstable foundations and rebuilding our spiritual lives on the foundations of God’s grace.
No one sets out to build a spiritual house on sand. No one thinks, “man, I wish I could have a spiritual life or a walk with God or relationship with God that will fall apart when I need it the most.” Those of us who have built on an unstable foundation have done so unintentionally. We probably began our spiritual lives with the most solid piece of ground we could find, and we started building, hoping for the best. Some of us were tempted by a nice view or what seemed like a prime location. Some of us built our spiritual lives on land we inherited from our parents. Most of us probably built our spiritual homes in whatever was the most convenient spot, without first thoroughly examining the soil. There are lots of places to lay a spiritual foundation. but I have come to believe that the only stable foundation for a spiritual life to be built upon is God’s grace.
Thankfully, grace has already been provided for us. The land in front of us does not need to be conquered. There are no armies of people who need to be defeated. The job was done by Jesus already. The victory was already won. We cannot earn it or compete for it or strive to deserve it, becasue grace is a gift freely given to us by God. This gift is a manifestation of God’s rock-solid, faithful, unshakable, unconditional love for us. It is the rock on which we can build a stable spiritual life. What thoughts and feelings do you have in response to this metaphor of rebuilding your spiritual life on grace alone?
It’s unfortunate that rather than building our spiritual lives on the stable rock of God’s love and grace, many of us find that we have built our foundation on the unstable soil of fear and shame. Fear and shame, which comes in many forms, keeps us from being able to trust God’s love for us. We may fear that God is angry with us, is not for us, is not our great advocate, is not with us, is not truly loving toward us. Shame is, at its root, fear that we are not good enough, and never will be good enough, to have a meaningful relationship with God. These fears about ourselves are really forms of shame. We may fear that we are unlovable or that we have no value. We may experience ourselves as hopelessly damaged goods, without any possibility of repair. After all, irreparable things are thrown out and not capable of being rebuilt.
The toxic combination of fear and shame lead to a variety of desperate efforts to stabilize our spiritual house. We may try to get it right. We may try to control ourselves and others. We may try to please God and earn God’s love. We do things like these becasue we really do want to have a viable spiritual life; we long to have a relationship with God that works. Unfortunately most of these attempts to fix ourselves and others and to somehow earn God’s love lead to a spiritual life that is destructive and hurtful. After awhile we find ourselves exhausted and discouraged, and we may feel even more alienated from God -in spite of our longing for our relationship with God to be one of the most stable and helpful relationships in our lives.
When our self-reliance and religious striving are driven by fear and shame, our lives show predictable patterns of spiritual dysfunction. In this blog, as I said before, I hope to discuss more about the spiritual rebuilding process by describing how it looks and feels when our spiritual lives are built on the unstable foundations of fear and shame. I wish to delve deeper into the four most common types of destructive spirituality that are most prevalent in contemporary Christianity: spiritual abuse, spiritual anorexia, spiritual addiction and spiritual codependency. There are many other types of destructive spirituality, but I have chosen to focus on these four becasue they are common enough that many people can identify one or more of these tendencies in their lives. If at first you don’t clearly identify with any of these four patterns, keep in mind that each type exists on a continuum of severity.
Most of us have probably experienced one or more of these forms of destructive spirituality to some degree, but often we are caught up in destructive spirituality without knowing it. We may only be aware of distressing symptoms such as anger, resentment, doubt, discouragement, frustration, exhaustion or despair. Any of these symptoms could indicate that the foundations of our spiritual lives are insecure and at risk. Later I hope to write about addiction at a more deeper level from a recovery ministry perspective, but the foundation we build our lives on is of first interest and importance in this blog.
Looking at these common forms of spiritual dysfunction, we need to thoroughly assess the foundations on which our spiritual lives are built. To what extent are our spiritual foundations rooted in God’s love and grace? In what ways have these foundations become eroded or distorted? Following that assessment, we can begin to look at a blueprint for the rebuilding process. This blueprint may require some demolition of the existing foundations, and it may outline a project that, like any reconstruction project, requires a considerable amount of time and may be inconvenient and challenging. But the blueprint also promises that the security, stability and peace we experience in our relationship with God will grow stronger as the project continues.
After assessing the health of our existing spiritual foundations and examining a blueprint for the rebuilding process, we often come out on the other end seeing clearly that very few of us really have good instincts when we first observe the structural flaws in our spiritual lives. So before we can actually begin to rebuilt our spiritual lives, we will need to look at some things we are commonly tempted to do to fix our damaged spirituality -things that just don’t work in the rebuilding process.
Finally, in future posts, we will look at spiritual tools that can help us rebuild our lives on the foundations of God’s love and grace. These are some of the core tools of the Christian faith -tools with a long history. Over two thousand years, these tools have helped millions of people come closer to God. Unfortunately, they have also been widely misused and have caused much spiritual harm and abuse, so we will examine these tools carefully in order to understand how each has been misused and how they might be used appropriately to help us grow in our capacity to receive God’s grace.
This blog is not meant for people of one type of Christian heritage or tradition. It is not just meant for Christians, but also for non-Christian. This blog is meant to be open to everyone. I will do my best to re-frame some things to fit better within many different contexts. I hope this blog will be helpful to everyone seeking to build a healthy spiritual life. There is nothing magical about this blog or about the rebuilding process I wish to describe here. I don’t have a simple “3 steps or 4 keys or 10 habits to personal spiritual power” type of solution to offer. For those who have spent many years building a spiritual house on faulty foundations, it will take some time to rebuild, and the rebuilding process I am recommending is not an easy one. However, it is a process that is deeply rewarding, full of grace and rich with surprises.
God will work in strange and wonderful ways in us as we rebuild, sometimes offering us support where we least expect to receive it. While rebuilding can be rough going, I am convinced that God is not a dispassionate observer of this kind of building project but rather an enthusiastic, passionate and loving participant. One final point: This blog is not going to be a guide to getting our spiritual houses clean and orderly like many other messages you may have heard. “Get your house in order so that you can approach God.” It’s not about becoming holy and good enough to convince God that spending time with you would be a good idea. This blog will be about making contact with a God who is willing to address the insecurity and decay of our spiritual lives and help us build something brand new out of the ashes and ruble.
God does not wait until our spirtaul houses are clean and orderly before making available to us all the love and grace we need. The biblical text is clear about this: God comes to us as we are. And God still comes to us -while our spiritual lives are disordered and dysfunctional -to fill us with as much grace as we are capable of receiving, and to encourage the process of growing in our capacity to receive even more grace in the future. Learning to receive that love and grace in practical and tangible ways is the main part of the work of rebuilding our spiritual lives.
Today’s View of Religion
- Healthy & Abusive Spiritual Dynamics (Part 1) (spirit2recover.wordpress.com)
- Spiritual abuse: Not your typical cult (doubtfulnews.com)
- Spiritual Abuse: Jamie’s Story (spiritualsoundingboard.com)
- Victims raise profile of ‘spiritual abuse’ (religionnews.com)
- Spiritual Abuse in the Church. (myfullcup.wordpress.com)
- Start Talking….God Will Talk back!! (reflectionsofgracehome.wordpress.com)
- Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: Violences are Connected (sarahoverthemoon.com)
- Should We Repent for Allowing Ourselves to be Spiritually Abused? (spiritualsoundingboard.com)
- Church Abuse (churchabuse.wordpress.com)