Spiritual bypassing – what is it? When we bypass something, we go around or avoid it. Spiritual bypassing is the idea that we avoid or ignore our emotional needs by over-spiritualizing them. This article will explore what spiritual bypassing might look like in the context of Christian thought, though it can be applied to any tradition or spiritual lens. The intention is not to downplay the important role of faith or spirituality, but rather to shed light on thought processes that can be harmful to our mental health. We will explore healthy ways of understanding the intersection between mental health and spirituality.
First, an example of spiritual bypassing: Let’s say you struggle with anxiety. It’s been a chronic issue in your life and you’re having a hard time managing it. You identify as Christian and take seriously the words, “Do not be afraid,” which are repeated numerous times throughout scripture. Every time you read a verse about fear or anxiety, you decide that you’re just going to “have more faith” as an antidote to your anxiety. You don’t think it’s necessary to seek counseling or take medication because you shouldn’t need those things since God is the ultimate healer.
While faith can certainly heal and change us in many ways, it does not necessarily take away our internal struggle. It’s possible to have faith in God’s healing power AND ALSO seek out care for anxiety or other mental health issues. Our spiritual life can be a source of strength, encouragement, and transformation, but it does not make us any less human. When we forget that we are, in fact, always going to be human, we trick ourselves into believing that we do not need to care for our bodies and minds.
If you’re prone to spiritual bypassing, you may find yourself thinking things like, “Jesus is all I need” or “if only I was more enlightened, I wouldn’t struggle so much with….” It can be a very scary thing to admit that we struggle with a mental health issue that feels beyond our capacity to think, feel, or pray our way out of. We were created with needs and ways for those needs to be met. To accept that we struggle with anxiety or depression does not mean rejecting the healing power of God. Faith leaves room for our humanity. 1 Kings 19:7 is a reminder of this:
“The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
The angel took into account the humanity of the person in this story and advised him to eat! What would it look like if we cared for our mental health in connection to, and not in spite of, our spirituality? To pit our mental health and spirituality against one another is to compartmentalize ourselves as human beings. We are one being with a body, mind, and spirit and we must tend to the whole garden!
So how can we identify and avoid spiritual bypassing? Here are some questions to ask ourselves when we feel faced with the tension between spirituality and humanity:
What is my current need? (ex. relief from anxiety)
How am I trying to get this need met? (prayer, journaling, diet, etc.)
Are there certain ways of getting this need met that feel in opposition to my spiritual belief? (medication, therapy, etc.)
Is there a way to get this need met that incorporates spirituality/faith? Example: “I shouldn’t need medicine for anxiety because I have faith that God can heal me” versus “I believe, in faith, that I can be healed through the help of medicine.” Practice reframing thoughts that place spirituality in opposition to a need being met.
What messages have I received throughout my life that have fed into patterns of spiritual bypassing. Ex. Do I have to prove my faith by needing less? What did my church or family teach me about mental health and the role of faith? Do I follow through with these messages and ideas with my loved ones? For example, when my child is sick do I take them to the doctor? When my partner is struggling at work do I lend an ear and brainstorm solutions? Do I notice any discrepancies between how I care for the needs of others and how I allow my own needs to be met?
How can I continue to nurture my spiritual life while caring for my physical and emotional needs? Are there areas where I am particularly prone to spiritual bypassing? Are there passages of scripture that can help ground me in both the human and divine aspects of my faith? (Ex. reflecting on the incarnational nature of Jesus -- that God chose to come as a needy baby.)
In order to move from spiritual bypassing to spiritual integration, we must first recognize our needs. From that point, we can incorporate spirituality/faith into the process of getting those needs met. That is, we can invite God into our human experience. Talking with a spiritually-focused therapist can help you sift through and learn to honor both your mental health needs and your spiritual beliefs. If you are interested in working with a clinician who specializes in the integration of spirituality and mental health, schedule an appointment today at 267-662-1800.