The woman stood at the end of the potluck table, staring down at the casseroles. The cancer had come on so quickly; her Ed hadn’t stood a chance. He was gone.
Another woman walked up next to her, setting a dish on the overflowing table. “Aw, I’m so sorry about Ed,” she said. “But you know what the Bible says: ‘All things work together for the good of those who love Him.’ And I know you love Him!” She walked away.
The woman fought back the tears. She couldn’t see the “good” in losing Ed; did that mean she didn’t love God?
This is an example of what we call spiritual bypassing. It’s using the Bible, or prayer, or even a false positivity to avoid dealing with the difficult things others are experiencing. Of course Romans 8:28 is true; of course God causes all things to work together for our good. But by throwing out a scripture, what the second woman in our scenario did was bypass the difficult emotions of grief, covertly telling the grieving woman that God didn’t want her to grieve her loss.
I remember a lot of teaching way back (in the 90’s and beyond) about how basically emotions were “of the flesh,” and were not to be trusted. We were to “manage” our emotions, which in practice really meant pushing them down and not acknowledging them so as not to be “ruled” by them. Women especially were looked down upon for being emotional, and not rational enough. This was not healthy for me, and after a while I began to really ponder that teaching. I felt that the Holy Spirit was showing me something different. I knew that Jesus felt emotions because there are passages where He was angry, He was joyful, He wept, He was moved with compassion. In the garden of Gethsemane He was so troubled deep in his heart that He sweat drops of blood. And remember, Jesus never sinned, and did not have a fallen nature. So I realized that our emotions are part of how we were created. And while we should not just give in to them, we should let ourselves feel our emotions, and examine why we feel the way that we do.
I want to take a moment and address what I mean by “not giving in to our emotions.” If you were taught, like I was, that our emotions are “not to be trusted,” it can seem dangerous to feel. We certainly don’t want to play the “victim,” especially when we’ve been told we’re not allowed to. When we bypass our own emotions, we may think that we’ve dealt with them. But by not allowing ourselves to fully experience the feelings, we haven’t actually dealt with them; on the contrary, they’re still around, just shoved down deep inside. As with anything that gets shoved away, they’re going to pop up again. When they do, they’re going to appear in unhealthy and toxic ways, both for us and for those around us. For example, by not dealing with an emotion like sadness, we can easily slip into self-pity mode, insisting on wallowing rather than pursuing healing.
Spiritual bypassing is a dangerous practice. Only allowing certain emotions while downplaying or shaming others is basically denying our humanity. In some church cultures, joy is the only emotion allowed. This is especially apparent when someone passes away. Often people say, “He wouldn’t want us to be sad so we’re going to celebrate his life,” or something like our opening story. But really, grieving the loss of someone is an important and necessary process. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus grieved His friend, even though He knew He was about to resurrect him! Jesus could still empathize with our very human emotions, and I think He was teaching us something about how to grieve. It’s totally natural to be sad when someone dies, and sharing that time with loved ones can be a special time.
Sometimes we as Christians engage in spiritual bypassing to justify things we don’t understand. “It’s all part of God’s plan,” someone says when something terrible happens. It seems we’re uncomfortable just saying, “I don’t know why” things happen. But this paints God in a negative light, as if He is the author of all the terrible and painful things that happen in our lives. When a woman has a miscarriage, or a couple loses a child, to tell them that “God” took their baby (“He just needed another flower in His garden”) is downright abusive.
Another example of spiritual bypassing is how we respond to those who have been through traumatic or abusive situations. Telling someone who’s been abused that they just need to forgive their abuser–or even worse, “Just get over it”–is a form of gaslighting, trying to convince the victim that it is somehow their fault that these things happened to them.
Why do we do these things? Most of us were taught to have answers to the questions. That to say we don’t know why things happen means we either don’t know God, or that we somehow don’t have faith. We’ve been taught that “trusting God” and “loving others” means that we need to have just the right scripture verse or cliche answer ready, instead of just answering honestly. Why did that person die? Why did that horrible thing happen?
We do it to ourselves, too. We meditate, or pray, or quote scriptures to ourselves, because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. There’s nothing wrong with prayer or meditation or scripture, of course, and these practices can be a huge part of our healing journey. But if we’re using them to avoid feeling, to avoid the hard work of actually healing, this can be a form of using our spirituality in an unhealthy way. This can also be a way to make ourselves appear more “righteous” or more “spiritual,” as if we know how not to suffer the way others do. But this is also a way to bypass our humanity, by refusing to share it with others.
So what do we do about spiritual bypassing? First of all, we remember that we as human beings are emotional creatures. God made us that way! Stopping to recognize our emotions, whether it’s sadness or anger, joy or grief, is the first step in moving toward our humanity instead of “bypassing” it. Being proactive about getting therapy or seeking inner heart-healing goes even further toward experiencing spiritual and mental health.
Emotions can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside, like a thermometer. If we’re feeling angry, it might be that there is some unaddressed and unhealed pain inside. If we’re grieving and sad, it’s healthy and right to take time to feel those emotions. Grieving a loss means there was lots of love to begin with! If we’re feeling angry, it’s usually due to pain. The anger can tell us a lot about that pain, if we’re allowing ourselves to take time to process it. Instead of judging emotions as good or bad, look at them as indicators: What’s going on inside?
The more we grow in empathy and recognition of our own feelings, the more we will be able to empathize with others. God never asked us to fix others; He did ask us to “bear one another’s burdens” in Galatians 6:2, and says that this is “fulfilling the law of Christ.”When we no longer need to dismiss uncomfortable emotions, we can sit with others and say, “I don’t know why this happened. I don’t understand either. But I’m here.”
Life can be tough. Bad things happen to good people, and we don’t know why. Using spiritual bypassing to avoid dealing with the emotions of these things isn’t in fact spiritual; it’s dangerous and unhealthy. Leaning in and listening, on the other hand, can be the first step toward healing and wholeness. Lean in. Listen, to yourself and to others.
Author: Anna Harris