Avoiding the Spiritual Bypass

Avoiding the Spiritual Bypass

Recently I was privileged to be part of a conference in which I spoke on the topic of “Avoiding the Spiritual Bypass: Why Solving Sexual Problems is more than a Spiritual Issue.” Here’s a summary of my presentation.

We began with the question of why change is so difficult. Most of us want quick solutions to our problems. The reality is that most problems, particularly complex problems, demand more thoughtful responses. American culture in general, and people of faith in particular, also believe that a quick sudden change is a sign of strength or an indicator of strong faith. However, even Biblical examples of change appear to often be slow and methodical when examined closely. Consider Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. Many people look to this as a sudden change. What is ignored however is the fact that following this encounter, Paul as he is now called, went to Galatia for a period of somewhere between two and three years. Many look at this as a time when he solidified drastic changes within his life.

People have been writing about both rapid and slow change for quite some time. William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) referred to rapid change as “religious conversions.” He noted that these changes were often preceded by despair and suggested that some people are predisposed to this type of experience. James also noted that for many people these changes seemed sweeping, touching many aspects of life while for others the change touched only a particular area of life.

The field of psychology has been somewhat slow in picking up the theme of research regarding change, and this has been complicated by the fact that for many years researchers in psychology avoided anything to do with religion. James Loder wrote The Transforming Moment in 1981. Maslow wrote of what he called mystical or “peak” experiences. An interesting component of Maslow’s writing was the question of why so many of these peak experiences failed to result in lasting change.

More recently, William Miller, an addictions researcher, has written about what he called “quantum change.” Such change, according to Miller, had several of the same characteristics that William James, James Loder, and Abraham Maslow wrote about. Change was often distinctive, came as a surprise, was accompanied by a great sense of benevolence, and tended to have a sense of permanence.

When considering change other recent approaches are worthy of discussion. The work of Prochaska, Norcross, DiClemente, on the stages of change is important. According to the authors, change occurs through predictable stages. Precontemplation is the equivalent of denial. Contemplation acknowledges a problem exists. Preparation is a stage in which the individual makes a decision and begins to prepare for change. Action is implementing the change. And maintenance is how the change is maintained over time.

Lambert and Bergin (1994) and Duncan, Miller, Wampold, and Hubble (2010) have all noted that there are several common factors working together to facilitate change. The greatest single factor is the support system of the individual seeking change. The old adage is you don’t give an alcoholic a job in a bar. The same is true for any addictive person. If they return to a family or work environment where those around them are not supportive of change the likelihood of them maintaining change is lessened. This accounts for 40% of change that occurs within an individual in therapy according to the researchers. The next factor for how we account for change within therapy is in the therapeutic relationship. This looks at questions of how the individual relates to the therapist. Does the patient trust the therapist? Does the patient feel heard? Do they work together collaboratively to find a solution to the problem? This therapeutic relationship accounts for 30% of change according to the researchers. Two other ways to conceptualize how change occurs in therapy are the therapeutic techniques utilized (15%) and a sense of expectancy, or the placebo effect, on the part of the patient (15%).

Looking at Christian literature Cloud and Townsend noted that groups are essential for change (2001). Tripp and Lane, in How People Change, suggested that community grounded in a proper understanding of God is essential to change.

To summarize the research then suggests that rapid change is at times possible and can be lasting. However, this change is rare and most change tends to be relationally based and is supported over an extended period of time. Lasting change tends to impact the person at several levels and is more sweeping than just changing a few behaviors.

When it comes to change with regard to sexual issues the issue is particularly complex. Sex is a natural drive. It is not the purpose nor intention of sexual addiction therapists to eliminate the sex drive. The challenge is to eliminate compulsive and destructive behaviors while enjoying a satisfying and enriching sex life with one’s partner.

To address such issues it is necessary to provide a holistic approach. For quick summary of the holistic approach I would point you to a previous post, Is Sexual Addiction Real? in this blog. In that post I wrote about sexual addiction as: a brain disease, an intimacy disorder, a problem of attention, a maladaptive response to stress, and a family disease. Any holistic approach to change must address each of these areas.

But what about the spiritual side and what is this thing called a spiritual bypass? Cashwell, Bently, and Yarborough, (2007) wrote, “Spiritual bypass occurs when a person attempts to heal psychological wounds at the spiritual level only and avoids the important (albeit often difficult and painful) work at the other levels, including the cognitive, physical, emotional, and interpersonal.” They further suggest that the spiritual bypass is dangerous because it renders the process of spiritual development incomplete. This means that it does not allow for the deep work of change in the person’s life. (The many different areas discussed in the previous paragraph.)

I’m reminded of the model developed by Dallas Willard in his book, Renovation of the Heart. Willard presented a model of concentric circles. Beginning at the center is the Spirit which he defined as comprising the heart and the will of a person. The next circle is the Mind which is the seat of thoughts and emotions. The next circle is the Body and this is followed by the Social dimension of life. The outer circle is the Soul which comprises the whole of the person: spirit, mind, body, and social. Willard has an arrow intruding from the outside through the various concentric circles to the very heart and spirit of a person. This arrow is illustrative of how the Word and the Spirit of Christ enters into a person. From that center another arrow follows wherein faith in Christ, which has reestablished communion with God, leads a person into a healthy appropriate relationship with the world. As such then the person truly can love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength and the neighbor as one’s self. In this way all the various components of the individual are brought under the authority of God, reshaped/healed and the person is living life in a whole and consistent manner.

What I like about Dallas Willard’s model is the relational aspect. From this perspective genuine healing occurs in every dimension of life. The person is able to engage in authentic, genuinely appropriate intimate attachments with God, with other people, with himself or herself, and with the world. Only when healing reaches every aspect of life at its deepest level can we truly say that a person is healed. Obviously this raises questions about the depth at which a person is able to achieve healing. I would be quick to say that I am not talking about perfection, but rather a state of continual submission to the vision of whom we are called to be, bringing every arena of life under the authority of that vision. As powerful, and as necessary, as crisis experiences may be spiritually, they are simply insufficient to facilitate this level of change. This change must be lived out on a daily basis.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC

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