Is the cry of our hearts “Lord, get us out of here,” or “Lord, lead us into becoming your hands and feet in this world?”
I am worried that, for many people, their faith or spirituality is a distraction from life rather than a full-fledged engagement with it. I often see faith and spirituality used in such a way as to divert from true healing, justice, personal responsibility, and positive action in the world, rather than guiding Christians to become the hands and feet of God amid their circumstances. In other words, faith has become a way to cope with the world instead of a way to engage the world for change.
John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypassing, which is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”1 While this concept is certainly valuable, I believe motivations for spiritual bypassing should extend beyond just the emotions and psyche of the individual to include the physical world and its communities. We often use our theology, our interpretations of Scripture, and our spirituality to avoid the emotional, psychological, physical, relational, and systemic issues we encounter in the world.
Faith has become a way to cope with the world instead of a way to engage the world for change.
Take, for example, those who experience prolonged suffering or grieving and spiritually bypass by employing toxic positivism. It’s not hard to imagine various justifications for neglecting the real issues of life: “God will heal the wounds,” “I have learned to be content in all things,” “Jesus is enough,” “I just have to follow Jesus,” “All things will come together for the good,” and so on. One can also imagine a person who constantly prays for situations to change in their own or others’ lives, yet takes no initiative to actually take action — whether the prayer be directed toward the hungry, sex trafficking, or relational conflict. This way of spiritual bypassing is not problematic because the justifications are untrue or because prayer is bad, but because in these cases it prevents or distracts us from personal responsibility and positive action.
Another issue comes from “over-spiritualizing,” which usually stems from a faulty theological anthropology where humans are seen as primarily souls or spirits, rather than fully-embodied, social creatures living here in this world. (This is clearly evident in how most people view or speak about the afterlife as a realm of souls and spirits rather than of bodies; yet even Jesus returned as an embodied and social person.2) In this overly-spiritual view, it becomes easy to narrate societal issues as irrelevant or merely as personal “heart issues.” Instead of becoming actively engaged in fixing societal and systemic issues — whether poverty, racism, or other large societal issues — we may avoid these by calling them heart issues, praying, and leaving them up to God.
Likewise, we may view the physical world in general as a temporary (and perhaps evil) place until we ascend to the truly spiritual and heavenly realm; but the picture painted in Revelation is not one of us ascending to heaven, but of heaven descending to us.3 Our present world matters little in the first view. It’s simply about soul-saving, which tends to neglect environmental and physical issues.
We may view the physical world in general as a temporary (and perhaps evil) place until we ascend to the truly spiritual and heavenly realm; but the picture painted in Revelation is not one of us ascending to heaven, but of heaven descending to us.
Spiritual bypass leads to passivity; it is a way to pretend that we transcend our own humanity. Not only are we above the “bad things” and “bad people” of the world, but we have become like the divine in overcoming our human condition. However, this faulty image shatters immediately when we realize that if we were truly like the divine, it would lead us back into engaging the world, our own (and society’s) real issues, and to live incarnationally like Jesus! We know exactly what divinity looks like through Jesus’ humanity, and it leads not to passivity but to engagement of the world, to be present among each other and reflective of ourselves.
I believe spiritual bypass stems from at least three causes: (1) an inability (or unwillingness) to engage negative emotions or circumstances,4 (2) anxiety about one’s current life or world, and (3) faulty theology and/or affections. For example, it’s often those who are anxious about a situation who utilize the idea of “waiting on God.” Whether it’s about employment or finding a spouse, when people feel powerless, lost, and overwhelmed it seems easier to cope by appealing to spiritual beliefs or practices — especially when past pain or failure is involved.
I know people who went their whole lives waiting for a spouse who never came, yet they themselves never took action toward being with someone (usually out of fear). We often expect that God will reach down his hand and skillfully change circumstances and place people where he likes them — and if not then it’s not His will — all to bring about his perfect personal plan for our lives, despite others’ freewill and choices. All the action depends on God; we must simply wait. But this view of God (and our) action is egregious.5 God does not work like a cosmic vending machine; such an understanding of divine action is unbecoming of the loving God we see in Jesus. Despite this, we all are often guilty of forgetting our responsibility in this world.
So, what is the solution?
I think the solution lies in the culmination of right belief, right affections, and right action. We must believe that God desires our cooperation. We are his hands and feet here on Earth. God doesn’t want our faith to distract us from true healing and justice, but rather to cause it — to “be” God throughout the Earth. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ.
We must believe that God desires our cooperation. We are his hands and feet here on Earth.
We especially need the courage to constantly analyze ourselves and whether or not our hearts are truly reflecting God. This may require a sobering re-evaluation and openness to how we view ourselves and many of society’s issues. Do we feel as Jesus did about social, physical, societal, and spiritual issues that still exist in our world today? We might say yes at first, but a thorough examination of our hearts and of Scripture should lead to challenging revelations.
Lastly, it’s not enough to feel or know, we must act. Not in ways that distract or take us away from the world or the parts of ourselves we are uncomfortable with, as we are much inclined to do. Instead we are to listen, to learn, to discuss, to protest, to serve, to analyze, to reflect, to protect, to be present with, to go to therapy, to visit, to accept, to feed… to love. Every action has the potential to either bring us through whatever daunts us or to bypass it; we can grow in the struggle or stagnate in our avoidance. Will we be the people Scripture calls us to be?
Feel free to pray the following with me:
Lord, I am your hands and feet in this world.
Attune my heart toward true healing, justice, and action.
Lead me to active, reflective, and loving engagement with myself and the world.
 Phillip B. Clark, “The Straight Path to Healing: Using Motivational Interviewing to Address Spiritual Bypass”, Journal of Counseling and Development 91(1), 91.
 Lk. 21; Ac. 2:25-31, 10:40–42.
 Rev. 21-22.
 A further discussion of this point can be found by Chloe Johnson’s “Why We Shouldn’t Erase Negative Emotions” (https://everydaytheology.online/2020/09/09/imago-dei-embracing-the-negative-in-the-pursuit-of-joy/).
 For some more explanation on divine action and sovereignty, I recommend listening to Chris Green’s discussions on the Everyday Theology podcast (https://open.spotify.com/episode/1gIOQbkntba2XrIpZ2txhe).