10 Signs you’re on a “spiritual” ego trip

I recently came across an interesting little article with a slightly rougher title than that of this blog post: http://highexistence.com/10-spiritual-bypassing-things-people-total-bullshit/

It seems to have been written from a sort of New Age perspective.  Much of its warnings, however, can be applied to Christians with only a little tweaking of emphasis.  The author, Nat Dollan, begins with the explanation:

No one ever told me spirituality could be a self-sabotaging ego trap. 

I spent about three years reading about spiritual teachings and incorporating them into my life before ever learning that spirituality has a dark side.

Naturally, I was taken aback. I felt kind of betrayed.

How could something that seemed so pure and good be harmful? 

The answer has to do with something that psychologists call spiritual bypassing. In the early 1980s, psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to refer to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid confronting uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.

According to integral psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters, spiritual bypassing causes us to withdraw from ourselves and others, to hide behind a kind of spiritual veil of metaphysical beliefs and practices. He says it “not only distances us from our pain and difficult personal issues, but also from our own
 authentic spirituality, stranding us in a metaphysical limbo, a zone of
 exaggerated gentleness, niceness, and superficiality.”

In short, there are a number of ways that we can appeal to “spirituality” an excuse to hide from reality.  So without further ado, here is my rewrite of his list, as applied to Christians.

#1 Participate in “spiritual” activities to make themselves feel superior to other people.

This is a universal challenge across the board.  Am I going to Bible Study because I want to look like a good Christian?  Am I raising my hands in prayer at church in order to look like I’m taking it more seriously?  Am I more interested in being seen at the prayer group than I am in actually participating?  Do I secretly keep track of attendance, and award “gold star stickers” to the ones with the highest score?

Not that we should live in constant fear of allowing our egos to lead us around – we all have moments like that.  The issue is when we actually pursue superiority, wanting to become part of “the elite.”  Jesus said that following him requires us to take up our Cross.  Jesus said that the greatest must be the most humble.  Indiana Jones’ father said “the penitent man will pass.”  All in all, we’ve got to be honest about our spiritual practices and learn to seek Christ in them, and not seek first the approval of our peers.

#2 Use “spirituality” as a justification for failing to take responsibility for their actions.

St. James wrote “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).  Sometimes people fall into a sort of fatalistic mindset and attribute everything, even their own sins, to “the will of God.”  Although we as Christians do hold a very high view of the providence of God, and his oversight over all things, people, and circumstances, the teaching of Scripture is clear that God is not the author of evil.  If you have sinned, in any way, that is your fault, not God’s.

Christians are taught to take responsibility for their actions.  When you realize your guilt, you must confess your sins (Leviticus 5:5, Psalms 32:5 and 38:18, James 5:16, 1 John 1:9).  That is true spirituality, not hiding your transgressions or shunting them off the blame on someone else, or worse, pretending they aren’t there at all!

#3 Adopt new hobbies, interests, and beliefs simply because they’re the latest “spiritual” fad.

This happens to all sorts of Christians.  When I was in seminary, I saw a lot of people check out the Anglican tradition – it was kind of a short-lived fad; the music was beautiful, the liturgy was deep, the celebration of Holy Communion filled in a gap that other churches had left sadly empty.  But after a while, whether it was certain other doctrines, or practices, many of those students moved along back to their own traditions.  In other places, I’ve seen popular books like The Shack and Jesus Calling garner a great deal of attention, and people eagerly gobble them up because they’re so popular and easy to read.  Even serious study groups can also fall victim to this faddish mentality, investing in a popular DVD teaching series with the matching guidebook for the leader and the workbook for everyone else.

This is not to say that all fads are bad.  But we must measure them wisely, by attaining  “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:13-14).  Just because a song is a hit on the Christian Pop charts, or a book is a bestseller, doesn’t mean they’re any good.  Quality and popularity must be discerned, because they aren’t always the same.

#4 Judge others for expressing anger or other strong emotions, even when it’s necessary to do so.

 

Ephesians 4:26 says “Be angry and do not sin.”  Psalms 109 and 137, among others, express very serious anger.  Our Lord himself flipped tables and referred to false teachers as “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers” from time to time.  Anger, and other strong emotions, are legitimate parts of being human, created in the image of God.  Yes, our passions and emotions are disordered and often lead us into sin.  But that does not mean we may criminalize strong emotions!

#5 Use “spirituality” as a justification for excessive drug use.

I am not aware of this being a common problem among Christians.  Yes, I know that many Christians are caught in throes of drug abuse, and that is a problem and a tragedy, but the purposeful use of drugs (or alcohol, or whatever else) to invoke a spiritual experience is more a hallmark of Pagan and Neo-Pagan spirituality than Christian, appearing only on the fringes of major world religions (as far as I know).

But there are other ways that Christians sometimes seek spiritual highs inappropriately: emotionalism.  A tradition has arisen, especially in the USA, of emphasizing the emotional response as the “truly spiritual” act of worship.  This has manifested in the practice of charismatic preaching, whipping the congregation into a frenzy of fear or excitement to evoke a response.  This has manifested in the practice of “managing” worship music to catch people up in a carefully-crafted roller coaster ride with the intent on helping them “feel the Spirit’s presence.”  Be it drugs, alcohol, or adrenaline, these are unwelcome tools in fostering Christian spirituality.

Instead, the Scriptures point us to the ministry of Word and Sacraments.  About the Bible, Jesus said “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:40-41, 47).  About the Sacraments, St. Paul said “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), and “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).  It is in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments that we find the objective bedrock of Christian spirituality, not in subjective emotional (or drug-induced) experiences.

#6 Overemphasize “positivity” in order to avoid looking at the problems in their lives and in the world.

This is a truly un-Christian intrusion into Christian spirituality.  We are sinners in need of a Savior; this is basic Christian teaching.  To ignore that reality is to pull the rug out from under all the rest of the doctrines of salvation.  If Jesus is not your Savior, he is useless to you (and ultimately, your enemy, because he knows your sins even if you do not acknowledge them).  There are many things in ourselves and in this world that can (and should) legitimately make us feel sad.  Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35) and lamented over impenitent Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37 & Luke 13:34).

Overemphasized positivity can also be a direct act of disobedience to the teaching of the Bible.  St. Peter told us “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12), and St. John took this even further: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).  Yes, there is a place for positivity as we look ahead towards eternity, but that does not mean that everything in this life will turn out hunky-dory.

#7 Repress unpleasant emotions that don’t fit their “spiritual” self-narrative.

Umm, see #4.

But seriously, besides anger and sadness, there’s also fear and confusion and depression.  Again, there are many cases in which we poorly handle our emotions and we allow ourselves to fall into sin over them.  But there is also the question of emotional disorders of a more clinical nature – chemical imbalances in the brain, psychological disturbances, post traumatic stress disorder, and so forth.  None of these emotional situations are to be repressed.  Christ came to redeem us – soul, body, mind, and heart.  Some of our brokenness will find healing in this life, and the rest will find healing in the life to come.  Whether we experience healing or not, we are called to love the Lord our God with all facets of our being, and we cannot do so if we hide from them.

#8 Feel deep aversion and self-loathing when confronted with their shadow side.

This is an interesting one.  On one hand we’re called to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).  St. Paul says of his sins, “I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  We should have a strong aversion and loathing for sin and wickedness.  On the other hand, we are also taught to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, etc.).  There is a form of self-love that we are develop, as Christians, which distinguishes between your “shadow side” (or sin nature) and your identity in Christ as a new creation.

We should not be surprised at our awful sinfulness; good Christian worship and teaching keeps us aware of this reality.  And we should be penitent and sorrowful and contrite concerning our sins.  But we don’t need to beat ourselves and put ourselves down unduly – we’re all in the same boat here, and we’ve all got the one Savior whose death on the Cross washes away the guilt of all who believe in his Name.

#9 Find themselves in bad situations due to excessive tolerance and a refusal to distinguish between people.

The Bible quote this reminds me of is when Jesus said “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  Yes, we are called to love our neighbor.  Yes, we are to be “innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19).  But we should also be wise.  Persecution and hatred against Christ and his people comes up naturally in the course of the proclamation of the Gospel, we don’t need to go out of our way to get ourselves in trouble!

Let’s look at Jesus’ famous teaching related to this in Matthew 5:38-42.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

This is a picture of innocence, but it is not necessarily a picture of foolishness.  When you are forced into a bad situation, as Jesus’ teaching above describes, then a righteous reaction should be in love and is generally non-retaliatory.  In the examples listed here, the “extra mile” (and so forth) could actually get the original offender in more trouble!  Putting ourselves in danger for the sake of being in danger is foolish; it is not a more spiritual exercise to close your eyes while driving to “show your trust in Jesus.”  (That was a Facebook meme I saw a couple years ago… it was probably a joke.  But it wasn’t funny.)

#10 Want so badly for various “spiritual” practices to be correct that they disregard science entirely.

One may be tempted to bring in the Creation-related debates here, but let’s stay on topic with “spiritual practices,” rather than biblical interpretation.

Now, as Christians, we do believe in miracles; sometimes things happen that science cannot explain.  What is egotistical and unbiblical, however, is believing in miracles-on-demand.  How often do you hear things like “Pray/do this and Go will bless you” on the internet?  Have you ever heard someone talk about how you “unlock” God’s blessings in your life?  Have you ever heard someone “declare” a healing or something else “in the name of Jesus”?  These are all examples of mere men usurping God’s unique claim to working miracles.  God alone is supernatural (literally, “above nature”); it is egotistical and sinful, besides anti-scientific, to lay claim to the working of miracles through any human means, even through “faith.”  That isn’t being spiritual, that’s playing God.

Last Word

It’s worth pointing out at the end, now, that true Christian spirituality is biblical, sensible, healthy, and balanced.  To grab a word more often used in a New Age context, Christian spirituality is holistic.  It engages the mind, the heart, the body, and the soul.  Oftentimes false spirituality can be easily identified by its playing of some parts of the human being against another: pitting the heart against the mind, emphasizing the intellect and neglecting the emotion, discounting the significance of the body and physicality in worship, or any other combination of conflict within the human person.

Pride is a pervasive sin that easily infiltrates even the holiest of endeavors.  As we grow and develop our spiritual lives, we must always be vigilant against our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  He will take any and every opportunity to sabotage a good work, and so we must always watch out for his pernicious influence.  Developing healthy and whole spiritual lives is not something that is emphasized enough in many churches today, so this is an age where we have to work extra hard to discern the useful from the useless, the good from the bad, when it comes to authentic Christian spirituality.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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One Response to 10 Signs you’re on a “spiritual” ego trip

  1. Wow! What an insightful post! I know that I’ve found myself doing each of these at one point or another and have to consistently be on the watch for the pride that so easily rises up within me. Thank you for sharing!

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