Christian therapists often hear patients lament that they are betraying God by coming to therapy. When asked why they feel this way, patients tend to give an answer such as, “If I prayed more, if I fasted more, or did more charitable work, I would get over this.” Inside that fallacy is a valid point: charitable works coupled with a vibrant prayer life does help grow a person’s spiritual and psychological life. However, we often forget that human beings are a unity: our psychology is connected to our spirituality and vice versa. If one or more aspects of our personhood are impeded, then the other aspects of our person will be debilitated. Thus, while the idea of ‘praying harder’ can be legitimate, the answer to an ailment may not be spiritual, but instead could be psychological.

Relegating everything to the spiritual world is called “spiritual bypass.” Spiritual bypass is both a philosophical and psychological disposition. On the philosophical end, spiritual bypass is the belief that all problems only have a spiritual explanation and solution, and that other explanations are invalid. Psychologically, spiritual bypass is a person’s reluctance to admit that his distress might have a psychological root and solution. Instead distress (and remedy) is attributed to the spiritual world alone. For example, if a wife comes to therapy convinced that the only explanation and solution to her marital distress is for her husband to attend church more often, then she has fallen into spiritual bypass since she is ignoring the wider issues within her marriage.

Why do we as Christians tend to over-spiritualize our problems? There are three primary reasons.

Reason 1: We Forget that Grace Builds on Nature

For I do not what I want, but I do what I hate.

Contrary to common perception among many people of faith, grace does not transform or destroy our nature. No matter how much grace we receive from God, we will always be susceptible to concupiscence. Meaning that no matter how hard we pray, God will not remove our inclination towards sin which was given to us by Adam and Eve at the Fall. This fact can be a hard pill to shallow since we all suffer from temptations which we wished would simply go away. As St. Paul wrote, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not what I want, but I do what I hate (Romans 7:15).” Paul understood that no matter how much a person tries there will always be the tug towards disorder and sin. However, classical spirituality also shows us that those who allow God’s grace to build upon nature are able to find, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).” While these individuals know that they will never cease being tempted and committing faults, they have integrated the truth that God does not expect for them to discover perfection this side of heaven. Now, while Christ does tell us to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Jn. 5:48), he is not speaking of perfection in terms of being blameless or of always being in the right. Instead, when we look at the Gospel as a whole we find that perfection has to do more with being merciful (Lk. 6:36) and engaging in a life where contemplating God is our primary goal (Mt. 19:21). Once we realize that Christ does not expect us to never fail or experience temptation, then we begin to better understand our psychological and spirituality interplay. We begin to view our broken humanity as a way to make us more empathic towards others – and ourselves – rather than as a hindrance to our salvation.

Reason 2: Confronting Psychological Problems Requires Courage

Even if the known is intolerable, we will figure out a way to make it tolerable.

For some therapists, a patient’s reluctance to confront psychological problems is a matter of resistance, which is a psychological defense known as denial, and in this case “denial in fantasy.” According to J.S. Blackman (“101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself”), denial in fantasy is when a person continues to hold a flawed belief (e.g. that there is no psychological root for his problems) so that he can avoid facing an uncomfortable reality. However, other therapists view a patient’s hesitancy to confront an uncomfortable truth more as a matter of fear rather than a denial of facts. Confronting any problem, let alone deep psychological ones, is frightening. The old adage that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” is certainly applicable. As mentioned in a previous article, we as human beings would rather know the ending of a situation than take a step into the unknown. Even if the known is intolerable, we will figure out a way to make it tolerable. This is in part why people in therapy cannot simply snap out of it. They first must have the fortitude to tackle the unknown. Therapy, thus, asks (and helps) the person to muster up fortitude, enter into the unknown, and hope that what he finds on the other side is worth the hard work which is involved in arriving at another harbor. Spiritual bypass is thus a false fortitude since the person misunderstands the interplay between God and the soul. Spiritual bypass additionally allows us to maintain our current course of hiding from the real issues, and how we expect God to solve the equation for us.

Reason 3: Addressing Psychological Problems Involves Taking Personal Responsibility

Spiritual bypass is both a misunderstanding of our human nature and a giving-in to that fallen nature.

Finally, facing up to the idea that the solution to many of our problems partly lies in our control is also part of the equation within spiritual bypass. We could debate all day as to where this reluctance to take personal responsibility originates (e.g. in our entitlement culture, or in the self-centered culture we have formed), but the truth ultimately lies in our fallen nature. In the beginning, what did Adam and Eve do in the Garden after God confronted them? Adam blamed Eve, who then blamed the serpent. No one took responsibility for their actions. Such evasion is a deep part of our fallen nature. We would rather make excuses for our faults and failings than to face them head on and to take appropriate responsibility. Many of us would also rather have someone else solve our problems if that was an option. Who honestly wants to worry about taxes, mortgage payments, or saving for our children’s college tuition? Life would be so much simpler if someone else took care of that and we could sit back and relax. Spiritual bypass utilizes this approach since the person believes that he has no power to change his situation. If he admits that he has some agency, then he would have to face the fact that he shares in the responsibility of solving (and sometimes causing) the problem. Thus spiritual bypass is both a misunderstanding of our human nature and a giving-in to that fallen nature to excuse ourselves in solving our own problems.

Spiritual Bypass Ignores the Real Issues

Spiritual bypass is a complex issue which many individuals face both in and out of therapy. It is easy for us to fall into the belief that our troubles are merely spiritual afflictions (though, fairly, some are), and that psychology has nothing to offer us. But such a view disregards the beauty and complexity of man as one of God’s creatures. While there is a clear place for prayer in one’s journey towards God, it is rare that psychological issues are solely solved via prayer. Instead, therapy which honors the person’s spiritual life along with helping them psychologically can bring about a level of flourishing not thought of by the person before entering into the therapeutic journey. It would be an error to believe that God works as a genie who grants our wishes and wants, but those who adhere to spiritual bypass believe just that about God. Instead, God functions as a loving father who, as St. Augustine once said, expects us to pray as if everything depended upon Him, but work as if everything depends upon us. He wants us to rely on Him, but also to stand on our own as mature Christian adults.