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Some spiritual practices are like tumbleweeds, with no roots, says Weller. Photo by Luismi Sánchez on Unsplash

Courageous Conversations to Discern Healthy and Unhealthy Expressions of Spirituality

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Courageous Conversations to Discern Healthy and Unhealthy Expressions of Spirituality

Guest Column by Susie Weller

One of the biggest challenges in developing our spirituality is deciding when it is a healthy expression of our relationship to the divine, or when it is just a new fad, or an old tradition that has lost its meaning. It is often difficult to discern a healthy spirituality from an unhealthy one.  

In Fr. Leo Booth books, “Breaking the Chains That Bind“, and “When God Becomes a Drug,” they describe the significant warning signs of people who mis-use religion or spirituality in an addictive way. Unfortunately, the line between mysticism and mental health disorders is sometimes blurry. Like alcoholism, religious abuse has progressive stages; if family and friends are aware of the warning signs of abuse, they can try to intervene before it is too late.  

I have learned these lessons the hard way. Sadly, my mother died at 49 years old as a result of fasting to death for religious reasons. She compartmentalized her life to such a degree that she could still maintain her full-time career as a community college professor, while becoming progressively sick with religious addiction. She continued to teach until the day before she died of a heart attack, which was caused by her heart muscles deteriorating from a lack of nutrition.  

I struggled to make sense of her death and the final years of her life. When I read Booth’s multiple books on this topic, I felt relieved.  His words described my experience and put my mom’s death into a larger perspective. I made peace with her death by asking: “What can I learn from this?’’  I made a commitment to learn from her good intentions, and also sad mistakes, in the name of God and religion. My goal is to explore with others how to recognize the signs of healthy, as well as unhealthy, spirituality.  

Healthy vs Unhealthy Spiritual Practices 

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus describes how to discern healthy from unhealthy plants. He said the kingdom of God was like a field that had been sowed with good seed, but an enemy had also sown weeds into the field. The servants asked if they should go out into the field to get rid of the weeds and pull them up. But Jesus tells the servants to wait and let them grow together because they might pull up the wheat by accident while they are trying to get rid of the weeds. “Let them both grow until the harvest.  At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them into bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matthew 13: 30) Sometimes a spiritual practice or a religious practice might appear to be the weed — but in reality, it is the wheat —or vice versa. However, we can recognize the “fruits” of a mature faith.

A healthy spirituality is like a well-rooted oak tree. It is grounded in the rich soil of sacred writings, traditions and values that have stood the test of time. At the same time, its branches reach out to the sky; supporting a flock of nesting birds and providing shelter for those seeking shade. Strong roots keep us centered. New branches support new growth, exploration, and respect that revelation is continually evolving.   

Unfortunately, some spiritual expressions are like tumbleweeds. They have many branches or various expressions of their spirituality, but they lack grounding. As a result, they blow with the wind whenever new fads come and go. In contrast, some religious traditions are so firmly rooted, they have the opposite problem—they’ve become like a root-bound plant. They are so heavily burdened with rigid rules, structures and cultural customs, that the life of the plant is slowly being choked to death.    

Different spiritualities are like various types of trees — unique expressions of creation, but they all draw water from the same river. Most religions have a mystical tradition that encourages us to nourish from a common source. Ecumenical dialogue is easier when participants focus on describing their experiences of how being connected to their source enriches their life. Instead of becoming distracted by debates, about dogmas, and doctrines, let’s emphasize what unites us. 

Developing our Spirituality 

Any good thing can be abused or misused. Religion or spirituality is no exception. In order to develop a healthy spirituality, we must be on our guard against abuse, especially when it is disguised by good intentions. Human history is filled with horror stories of crusades, jihads, and other misuses of religion. Karl Marx described religion as the “opiate of the people.” Unfortunately, faith can be mis-used as a weapon or as a sedative. 

Booth in his book, “When God Becomes a Drug” describes how religious addiction and abuse resemble similar patterns of alcoholism. 

To avoid the pitfalls of religious abuse or misuse, ask the following 13 questions:

  1. Is this spirituality supporting the ego’s self-indulgence? Does it solely focus on the needs of the individual and exclude the needs of others? 
  1. Is it only looking for a quick fix and instant transformation? Does it deny the need for on-going daily practices and disciplines for spiritual growth? 
  1. How does this spirituality address topics of power and control? Who makes decisions and how are they made?  Is power shared to empower others? 
  1.  Does it over-emphasize a spiritual leader, or guru, to have a dominating authority, instead of supporting one’s personal responsibility?   
  1. What happens when someone questions? Can they still be a member and disagree with a leader, or specific beliefs or practices? Or are they shamed and kicked out of the group? 
  1. Does it promote a superficial approach to a spiritual tradition by mis-using the exterior symbols and rituals, without seeking to understand the depth behind specific spiritual practices?  
  1. What are the “fruits” of practicing this spirituality? Does it help people to be more loving? Or does it keep practitioners stuck in a never-ending process of critical judgments of themselves and others? 
  1. What qualities or attitudes are most emphasized in this spirituality? Does it promote the integration of body, emotions, mind, soul, and spirit? Or is it compartmentalized into rigid categories—such as body vs. spirit? 
  1. Does this spirituality help people to live more fully and to promote service in this world? Or, is most of the emphasis on leaving this world, and enjoying the afterlife?  
  1. Who is part of this spiritual community? Who is excluded? Why? 
  1. How does this spirituality address topics such as gender or sexual orientation? Are people loved and accepted for who they are? 
  1. Does this spirituality encourage people to have an adult or mature style of faith that can encompass doubts, questions, and ambiguities? Or do does it promote a parent-child relationship that requires strict obedience and does not tolerate any type of questioning? 
  1. Does this spirituality respect personal experience and meet changing needs for growth? 

Warning Signs and Progressive Stages of Religious (Spiritual) Abuse and Addiction. (This is similar to the stages in other types of addiction)  

Beginning Stage:

  • Becomes excessively involved in religious activities to the exclusion of other daily responsibilities 
  • Uses spiritual activities to avoid dealing with personal problems 
  • Quotes compulsively from Scripture or other sacred writings 
  • Sees things only in terms of black or white, right, or wrong—with no shades of gray 
  • Forgets about other commitments or misses family gatherings to attend religious events 
  • Fears making a mistake and is afraid of a punishing God  
  • Criticizes and judges’ self, and others, very harshly when not meeting spiritual ideals 

Middle Stage:

  • Becomes obsessive about their religious activities and proselytizing others 
  • Tithes excessively or makes unwise financial contributions  
  • Refuses to think for themselves or question any teaching 
  • Believes sex is “dirty” and the body is evil 
  • Loses other interests and becomes increasingly isolated from others 
  • Fasts excessively and develops eating disorders 
  • Damages health due to spiritual practices 

 End Stage:

  • Experiences serious deterioration or loss of family and other significant relationships 
  • Makes dramatic physical, mental, and personality changes 
  • Loses job and ability to function in daily life 
  • Moves to maintain isolation 
  • Receives strange messages from God or angels that are destructive or promote violence 
  • Continues to deteriorate on all levels leading to insanity, suicide, or death 
  • Refuses guidance and mentoring from healthy sources of wisdom 

The key words that indicate a change from living a dedicated spiritual life to an addicted one are obsessive, compulsive, excessive, isolation, and deteriorationSt. Paul warns the believers at Corinth to be on their guard for false teachers because “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11: 14) Counterfeiters don’t create something that looks fake. They copy something real. As a result, we must be watchful of when good practices can slide into abuse. 

The good news is that this downward spiral of religious addiction can also be reversed. One of the dangers of an individualistic spirituality is that people do not have a community of other people to help them discern when a good spiritual practice has crossed the line to become excessive or compulsive. A first step towards recovery is reaching out for help and breaking out of isolation to seek mutual support. Booth helped to develop chapters of “Fundamentalists or Religious Abuse Anonymous that use a 12-step model to help people recover from religious abuse.  

The 12 Step Principles of Recovering from Religious (Spiritual) Abuse Are: 

  1. If I keep in a surrendered posture, God will help me through all situations. 
  1. God is love, and through God’s love I am empowered to be myself and grow. 
  1. God loves me and I am a worthy person. 
  1. God gives me power to feel whole and productive. 
  1. God’s gifts to me are manifold. 
  1. I am worthy to receive God’s gifts. 
  1. I am grateful. 
  1. I am not alone. 
  1. People may reject me, but God always loves me — just as I am. 
  1. I have a place in this world—a function to perform that is of value to others 
  1. My approval comes from God and is administered through people 
  1. God has given me a new family—a spiritual family in which I can be myself, own my feelings, make my own mistakes, be forgiven when I mess up, serve others anonymously, grow always, and give honor to God with my words and actions. 

Within a group context, participants have an opportunity to recognize how religious addiction can become a disease. They are invited to re-examine their own beliefs.  Included in this process of healing is a strong emphasis on re-appreciating their body as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” which must be respected and well cared for. Participants are asked to eat nourishing foods and to get enough sleep and rest.  They begin to develop a new circle of friends who are spiritual, but not obsessive or compulsive in how they express their spirituality. Over time, they learn how to accept all their feelings, themselves, and others in deeper ways. Instead of a destructive spirituality, participants learn to practice a healthy and transforming spirituality that strengthens them to live and love more fully. 

Cindy Wigglesworth has developed a Spiritual Intelligence Assessment to help identify the qualities of a healthy spirituality. She defines spiritual intelligence as the “ability to behave with compassion and wisdom while maintaining inner and outer peace regardless of the circumstances.” Her assessment describes 21 qualities that promote a healthy spirituality. They include becoming self-aware of what’s going on in our inner world and being able to practice self-mastery so that our walk matches our talk. In addition, she emphasizes a universal awareness that respects the interconnectedness of life and experiencing a transcendent oneness leading to compassionate and wise actions.  

The key to practicing a healthy spirituality is balancing the inward and outward journey. We deepen our individual relationship with the Divine, while also strengthening our relationships with ourselves and others. These two dimensions are like the vertical and horizontal axis of a cross, or plus sign (+). If one dimension becomes over- or-underdeveloped, it throws spirituality off balance. A healthy spirituality supports both individual and communal growth, as well as being of service in the world, and respecting our planet. 

FāVS is raising money for its Covid Religion Coverage Fund so it can continue to report on local Covid-related religion news. Your donations will help us pay our reporters.

About Susie Weller

Susie Leonard Weller holds a master's degree in pastoral ministry and works as a certified life and spiritual coach. Learn more about her at https://www.susieweller.com/index.html

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