Have you ever stuffed your emotions because you thought they couldn’t be trusted?
I did, for most of my young adult life. In fact, I stuffed my emotions because I thought it was the “Christian” thing to do. I would tell myself things like:
I’m not lonely. I have Jesus.
I don’t need therapy. I pray.
What shame? My identity is in Christ.
I’m not angry. I forgive.
Somehow, I thought my relationship with Christ made me immune to normal human emotions. A part of me even looked down on emotions.
I could not have been more wrong.
I was guilty of what psychologists call “spiritual bypassing.” The term is tossed around a lot these days, and it’s important to understand it. Spiritual bypassing simply means that you use spiritual concepts, platitudes, or activities to “bypass” or avoid dealing with your true feelings, especially the hard ones like anger, grief, fear, loneliness, envy, and shame.
It doesn’t work.
And Christians are not immune to this problem.
For example, have you ever shared a hard situation with members of your church community and heard a version of the following response?
“You don’t need to feel depressed. God has given you so much.”
“Pray more – ask God to take your addiction away.”
“God forgave you, so you should forgive your abuser. Just turn the other cheek!”
“Starve your fear! It’s the enemy of your faith.”
I’m not saying these comments aren’t true on some level. In Christ, we have access to tremendous spiritual resources (Ephesians 1:19). And we do seek to be people of prayer, faithfulness, and forgiveness, no matter our circumstances.
But spiritual fruit doesn’t grow without doing the hard work of tilling the soil. And, when such Christian platitudes are slapped on top of suffering, it’s the equivalent of holding out a plastic apple to someone who is famished.
“You Shouldn’t Feel That Way”
Instead of entering into the pain of a hurting soul with compassion, humility, and the gift of our loving presence, we minimize, spiritualize, and make faulty assumptions. In effect, we’re wounding the already-wounded. We’re saying, if you were a better Christian, you wouldn’t be feeling this way.
We become the very people Jesus rebuked when He said: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4).
We tell the hurting person to be more spiritual, instead of doing the holier, more important work of entering into their pain with them. It’s the Christian version of spiritual bypassing.
Sometimes, we do this to ourselves.
Instead of seeking to understand our emotions, we ask God to “remove them” or “work a miracle in our life.” Instead of letting our pain or anger lead us to healthier boundaries with others, we bury these emotions in the name of “love” or “sacrifice.”
Or more subtly, we simply avoid time alone so that we don’t have to face these feelings at all. We use otherwise “good” activities, like Bible study, small groups, or church work to stay preoccupied and far away from what we really think and feel.
The following chart illustrates the difference between emotional health and spiritual bypassing:
Your Emotions Will Always Catch Up With You
The problem is that bypassing your emotions doesn’t work. Your emotions WILL catch up with you. In my case, unacknowledged loneliness and pain came out in an avalanche of anxiety that I couldn’t ignore. I had to face the buried feelings and learn to care for myself. For others, unacknowledged pain might come out as depression. It might lead to an affair or a violent outburst. It might even lead you to reject your faith or hurt others.
Spiritual bypassing is not what Scripture recommends. (See Job 42:7-8, Isaiah 53:4; John 11:33; Matthew 5:3-5, etc.) Jesus welcomes the beat up, downtrodden, hopeless, even doubting souls he encounters. He does not exile them. Likewise, don’t exile your own emotions. They are telling you something about yourself and your experiences.
In life and work, getting to the heart of vulnerability is holy ground. Jesus is never closer than when you get really honest with yourself about what you’re really feeling. You can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. You can’t transform what you’ve pretended doesn’t exist.
Of course you don’t want to be ruled by your emotions. There’s a healthy way of setting boundaries with emotions when you’re struggling. But, please hear me say: emotions are not the enemy. Anger. Sadness. Guilt. Fear, even Shame are CUES. They need your attention, compassion, and understanding, not nice-sounding spiritual platitudes.
The Antidote to Spiritual Bypassing
If you’re noticing an unwanted emotion, get curious about it. Instead of bypassing it, seek to understand it with God’s help. “The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper” (Proverbs 19:8).
Getting curious about your emotions starts with these 3 steps:
1.) Focus on the challenging or overwhelming emotion. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when you focus on the unwanted emotion, you differentiate (or gain distance) from it. You recognize that it is just one part of who you are.
2.) Extend compassion toward yourself as you experience this emotion. Your first response to an unwanted emotion is typically to beat yourself up or try to will it away. Neither works. Instead, practice extending compassion toward yourself for having this emotion. It’s likely there for a reason. You don’t have to let it take you over. But you also don’t have to hate yourself for feeling that way.
3.) Invite Jesus to draw near. What would it be like to ask Jesus to enter into your experience of anger, sorrow, jealousy, or unforgiveness? Instead of trying to will those feelings away, simply be with them and ask Jesus to be with you as you experience them, too. You might be surprised at what you discover.
As you engage your emotions with compassion, they’ll soften and you’ll gain clarity. Your anger, once acknowledged, might help you understand where you need to set a healthy boundary. Your sadness might help you discover a wound that needs healing. Your envy might help you identify a desire deep within you’ve been afraid to face.
God made you to have emotions. They’re an important part of who you are. Pay attention to them and tend them carefully, as you would your body or your mind. As you do, they’ll become wonderful allies on your journey toward wholeness.
[A version of this article appeared in 2019.]