Religion can do a lot of damage.
Of course, it can do a lot of good as well. As a pastor, I don’t get up and go to work every day hoping that I’ll destroy somebody’s self-esteem or that I’ll cause someone to feel worse about the current situation in life. I got into this line of work to help people, and I spend most of my time hoping that I’m doing that.
But that doesn’t change the fact that religion—or more specifically, religious people—can be pretty destructive, mostly without even knowing that they (we?) are doing it.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been more than a little bit obsessed with how something as beautiful as faith can turn against us and chip away at our souls, doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. I think my obsession comes from a fear of harming people. I am a pastor, after all.
I have worked in church jobs for my entire adult life, and even a little bit before that, as a youth ministry intern before I even graduated from high school. I’ve never done anything longer than I’ve worked in churches. I’ve been drawing a paycheck as a church employee for 16 years (with a couple of very short breaks in between gigs, of course). During that time, I know I have made mistakes. I gave people bad advice; I was impatient toward people who needed more grace than I was willing to offer; I avoided conflict and ultimately made things worse instead of better. Trust me: You can make a lot of mistakes in 16 years, no matter how cautious you are. It’s not a church thing; it’s a human thing.
I have also neglected my personal well-being and failed to establish healthy boundaries when I should have, leading to my own wounds and scars. Pastors get hurt by churches, too, you know.
All of this is why I have been so thankful for the work of author Elizabeth Esther. If you’re not familiar with her, Elizabeth was raised in a Christian cult that was led by her grandfather (which she wrote about in her first book Girl at the End of the World, which is amazing). Elizabeth’s work serves a necessary function in the current conversation about faith and humanity because she speaks from a place of real experience—she knows the pain that comes from unhealthy religious environments.
Her new book—Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad—is a perfect follow-up to Girl at the End of the World. It is an exploration of how we develop unhealthy attachments to the constructs of religion—the vocabulary, the way religious people view so-called outsiders, the anxiety over not doing everything right, etc.—and how we can move toward a healthier way of engaging God and reality.
I’m tempted to go through the whole book and tell you about every word that I highlighted and every beautiful thought that sprung from the pages as I read, but we don’t have that kind of time.
(Also, I don’t want to give you a reason to not buy the book, which you absolutely should do. Right now, if you can. Go ahead. Click this link and buy the book. This blog post will be here when you get back.)
In the first chapter, Elizabeth articulates—from her own experience—how we develop unhealthy attachments to our toxic religious ideas. She writes-
For me, religion was all—or mostly—about how it made me feel. I wanted to feel close to God, cherished, chosen, special. Maybe you can relate. For many of us, religion also offers a sense of being in control; it becomes a way (we think) to get God to do what we want” (3).
I once heard about a preacher who told a roomful of women who had suffered from miscarriages and infertility that, if they had enough faith and would pray every day, then God would give them a biological child within the next year. That was basically like planting a time bomb in each of those women’s souls, set to go off exactly one year from today. What will those desperate, heartbroken women feel when they are still without a child next year? Will they be angry because God failed, or will they feel guilty because they lacked the requisite amount of faith?
When Elizabeth writes about how we become addicted to our ideas about God because we are seeking some kind of control, this is what she’s talking about. The statements about having enough faith and doing what God wants you to do in order to persuade God to return the favor—it creates all kinds of pain that ends up being directed not toward a pastor who said something thoughtless, but toward the God who let us down.
In Spiritual Sobriety, Elizabeth uses the language of the recovery movement to explain how our faith can stop being a healthy part of our lives and can become an instrument of fear and control, both internally and externally. That’s what the title of the book is about: How can we recover from our own wounds and preconceived ideas about how faith works and instead discover something beautiful, sacred, and closer to the God who loves us?
Toward the end of the book, Elizabeth offers a challenge that rings in my head every time I go to work. She writes- “If you want to know whether a church is healthy, look at how it treats people who have little or nothing to offer” (141). As a pastor, I need to be constantly aware of this challenge. Are we capable of loving people when they are at their lowest points? Are we capable of pouring ourselves out for those who have never dropped a single cent into the offering box, and couldn’t even if they wanted to? Do we make room for those who have been pushed out of other churches and bullied by Christians who have only ever seen them as ‘other’?
This book gave me a lot to think about, and it gave me new language for some of the things I have personally wrestled with over the past few years. Pastors need to be aware of this stuff, and so does everyone who participates in any community of faith.
If you are part of any church environment—if you are a follower of Jesus and participate in a community of faith—you will probably make some mistakes, and those mistakes may wound someone else. People can do terrible things when they think they are serving the Divine, and we are all capable of this kind of action.
But you are also capable of healing and goodness. You are capable of patience and grace and of pouring yourself out for the benefit of someone else. This is the way of Jesus, and it’s the path we’re invited to travel.
As we seek to recover from our own wounds—and the way we have wounded others—may we be aware of the power we possess, and may we choose a path of healing and redemption.
Grace and peace.