When I have moved in religious circles in the UK — whether it involves Christian churches or the New Age scenarios in which I was involved in the past — I have observed a phenomenon which is quite striking in its frequency. I am referring to what I call “psychological bypassing”. This is the use of certain religious mechanisms as a defence against having to deal with one’s deep-seated psychological issues.
For example, in the New Age scene, one finds many who say they do not want any negativity in their lives and that only positive thinking should prevail. This is like a form of self-hypnosis by which one convinces oneself that “on every day and in every way, things are getting better and better”. The use of various techniques involving sound, meditation, sensory experience, massage, etc., to get “blissed out” has a very similar masking effect. I have found that these are ways of either not wanting to face up to the reality of living in an evil world or avoiding having to face up to, and thereby resolve, the traumas from early life which have crippled so many minds. In fact, after spending many years in or on the periphery of the New Age scene, I would say that it is almost entirely geared-up to mask psychological issues rather than deal with them. This is psychological bypassing.
Over in the churches similar issues prevail, though obviously not using the same mechanisms. In many churches, that process of getting “blissed-out” is achieved through the use of music, extended singing, manipulated “worship”, closing of eyes and arm-waving, and a kind of mysticism masquerading as “speaking in tongues” (which has nothing to do with spiritual gifts unless it is an actual language rather than gobbledygook) or a contrived and false “baptism with the spirit”. The “happy-clappy” experience is the drug of choice in these circles, leading to superficiality and a phony sense of bonhomie and ‘hopium’. The so-called “Toronto Blessing” which overtook the world in the 1990s and other similar phenomena — involving people falling down in churches in hysterical laughter and bogus “manifestations of the spirit” — are classic examples of psychological bypassing, where the discerning circuits of the mind are switched off so as to engage in a communal manufactured experience of quasi-ecstasy.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are churches which rigidly revel in “doctrine” and narrowminded conformity to an unwarranted reach of church authority. During my time in churches — both as a pastor and as a congregant — it always perplexed me that the most manipulative, screwed-up, even evil people I have met have been in churches. Why in heaven’s name should this be? After all, these are people who claim to be “a new creation” and “a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit”. I venture to suggest that it is because they have latched on to religion as a way of psychologically bypassing major underlying issues to which they too frightened to face up.
Sometimes, there are just plain nasty people who find an ideal cover for their psychopathic or narcissistic behaviour in the Christian scene. But mostly they are screwed-up folks who are using the name of Christ as a cloak for their unresolved psychological issues and thereby causing major pastoral problems in churches. In all my years as a pastor and counsellor, I can honestly say that the biggest issue of all that I have dealt with in those who have come to me for counsel is being abused by people calling themselves Christians. I am speaking about psychological abuse on a huge scale here. This is especially the case in independent evangelical churches and, more specifically, the so-called “Reformed” churches. At first, I was puzzled by this, until I realised that if one’s journey is about doctrinal conformity rather than discipleship to Christ, then one will inevitably develop mannerisms and actions which will negatively impact others. Frankly, much of this behaviour is remarkably similar to that which prevails in cults and weird sects.
First, there is always an overriding judgementalism. I do not mean judging. We have to make judgements as part of the gift of discernment. I am referring to an obsessive mentality of finger-pointing, always looking for the “errors” in others — either in their demeanour, their manner of dress, or their thinking. Error-spotting in such circles becomes almost fanatical. Hey, try turning up to one of their churches in jeans, sandals, a kaftan and a sharks tooth necklace while sporting long hair (male). I often wonder what these folks would do if the real Jesus turned up in their church. You know, a dark-skinned stocky little guy in a short tunic with a penchant for hanging out with “sinners and tax-collectors”, who calls a spade ‘a spade’, who has no time for hypocrisy, who prefers spiritual ‘fruits’ to theological savvy, who has no problem with overturning the tables of those who make money out of spiritual institutions (or even taking a whip to them), who makes apostles out of ordinary, uneducated little men rather than smartasses or bigwigs, who insults and ridicules established religious leaders, and the list could go on!
Second, there is always the need to control. They love controlling others. This is why they always find their way into leadership positions in churches — either as elders, pastors or as part of that small group of folks which one finds in every church which secretly controls everything. They love to control others. If anyone steps out of line, they will use a sledgehammer to crush him or her. This also involves manipulation. Once they’ve got it in for you, you are doomed! They will do everything to ruin your reputation. They especially love going behind your back to your friends, colleagues, or anyone with whom you may come in contact, just to try and turn them against you if they suspect that you might not be as tight on some theological nicety as you should be. They specialize in scapegoating and think nothing of gossiping and even telling lies in order to get what they want. Huge outbursts of anger are common with them, especially when rumbled. I have witnessed all this personally. As one who takes a great interest in psychological issues, I find it fascinating from a case-study point of view. But as a human being and disciple of Christ I find it all very disturbing.
In the church circles to which I am referring, there is very often a rigidity accompanied by a miserable demeanour. The “Long-Face Brigade”, I call them. There is not a trace of genuine joy or a love of mystery among them. But they are very hot on what they call “sound doctrine”. To hang out with many people who call themselves “Christians” today, one would think that it is an adherence to so-called “sound doctrine” which will guarantee one’s place in the new heaven and new earth — as if faithfulness to a confession or catechism will somehow clinch the deal. Firstly, the Greek words which have in times past been translated as “sound doctrine” should really be translated as “healthy teaching”, which implies education which has an effect on one’s whole life — on the whole realm of one’s spiritual health, which includes one’s psychological state, rather than some doctrinal checklist that must be ticked off in all respects. Healthy teaching is not so much about getting things right as about improving one’s sight (spiritually understood). “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. To get bogged-down in the pedantic minutiae of some manmade theological requirements is a path which Satan himself could have constructed. For, in the end, it is not what a person believes which guarantees their salvation but how what they believe has made them behave. Think about that carefully. This is the plain teaching in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25. This is why we are judged “according to our works” rather than our theological prowess.
One will not be judged on mental ideation or intellectual ability but one will be judged according to one’s acts, insofar as they reflect our heartfelt thoughts and inner transformation. What is the point of becoming a ‘doctrinal whizz-kid’ if one is hard-of-heart, unyieldingly unpleasant, and is easily triggered by those by whom one feels threatened? Teaching and education are important; but discipleship to Christ means nothing whatsoever if it does not lead to a complete transformation of one’s inner being and a resultant sea-change in the way one relates to this world-system and those who inhabit the world. Discipleship to Christ — if one does not resist its inevitable surges of Spirit — will powerfully change a person at a very deep level, not only providing spiritual epiphanies but also undoing the psychological patterns which make them behave in neurotic or psychologically abusive ways. Really, being a disciple of Christ should make you more beautiful. Has it done so with you?
Unfortunately, many of those in the Christian scene, despite their claim to be “a new creation”, doggedly cling onto psychological patterns of old, disguising them with pious platitudes, worn-out clichés and notions of ‘doctrinal purity’. This is also why there is so much abuse in church circles — the result of a refusal to be inwardly changed at a spiritual and psychological level. I have even had pastors telling me that to talk like this is satanic psychobabble and “completely unnecessary for the believer”, because they now have the Holy Spirit and have no need of anything psychological. Until they understand that the spiritual encompasses the psychological, they will remain in their fragmented world of mental disturbance in which they will be far less than they should be and cause immense pastoral disturbance wherever they go. Discipleship to Christ, if it is pursued seriously, will enable you to become who you are really supposed to be — the real you in the fullness of soul that you are meant to be — rather than a clone to manufactured belief-systems and artificial cultish behaviour patterns determined by men with ongoing psychological blockages (which is what many churches fall into).
Why should all this corruption happen in the lives of so many professing Christians? I suggest that it is because their journey is not one of individual discipleship but of collectivist doctrinal conformity, or conformity to a confession, catechism or church beliefs. Becoming a disciple of Christ is not some one-time experience but a long arc of tribulation and growth. It is most apposite in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that at one stage, Christian comes to “a delicate plain called Ease” but it was narrow and he was “quickly got over it”. There is far more tribulation than ease. Our comfort comes from knowing that Christ has overcome the satanic world-system. The reason for the tribulation is that we have to grow, and growth comes through tribulation. Discipleship is not easy. It is challenging and — if we let it — it will overturn our defensive shields and disguises to make us soft and strong rather than rigid and weak. Hiding behind clichés and doctrinal beliefs in a mindset of rigidity is a form of psychological bypassing, giving the illusion of comfort. It gives a false sense of security and inevitably turns into an inquisition, which is about as far removed from what the ekklesia should be about as it could be. Unfortunately, as in the secular world, a great many of those who become leaders in churches are not really fit to be so. Until one has undone one’s own psychological disturbance, one will inevitably be a disturbance in the church.
My purpose in writing this little piece is to challenge the status quo in so many churches. To this end, and as a closing gesture, I ask these questions: “Are we being changed psychologically as part of our spiritual transformation? Are we becoming more beautiful and are we profoundly attractive to those who are seeking truth? Do we feel threatened by anyone who may be different to us in way of life, manner of dress or relaxed attitude? Are we imprisoned in a straitjacket of rigidity, doctrinal nitpicking and error-spotting (always of others and never of ourselves!)? Are we submerged in a sea of religious clichés, stock phrases and patterns of churchy conditioning? Do we have the balance right between mind and spirit (for Satan exploits such imbalances either to make us rigid rationalists or take us away with the fairies)? In our attempt to bypass psychologically, do we give too much influence to one or the other, so that we either become obsessive doctrinal intellectuals or rabidly indulgent mystics? Finally, are we like the Scribes, Pharisees, and Essenes, or are we more like Christ?
© 2021, Alan Morrison / The Diakrisis Project. All Rights Reserved. [The copyright on my works is merely to protect them from any wanton plagiarism which could result in undesirable changes (as has actually happened!). Readers are free to reproduce my work, so long as it is in the same format and with the exact same content and its origin is acknowledged]