Abusive religion cannot produce healthy spirituality. Where Paul used the term “sound doctrine” or “sound words or teachings,” the word “sound” meant “healthy” and Paul was talking about healthy teachings that build healthy spirituality. (See Bible references below.) Extremism, fanaticism, prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy and a lot of other unclean spirits produce decay, sickness and death in one’s spiritual life.
Leprosy in the time of Jesus was a term for a great variety of diseases that caused blemishes and disfigurement. Hypocrisy and abusive religion also cause spiritual blemishes and disfigurement. Jesus healed both leprosy and hypocrisy. Jesus gave the gift of health and wholeness by liberating people from abusive sick religion. We are called to do the same today.
Sick religion is like many other forms of human sickness in that the sufferers of sick religion often do not recognize or admit that they are sick. They see nothing wrong with the abusive destructive religion that infects their lives at every level. After all, God is the source of religion, and how could that be bad? Sick religion teaches people to deny and to justify the judgmental attitudes and destructive legalistic religious beliefs and behaviors that afflict most sufferers of sick religion.
One definition of “health” is “the absence of sickness.” Yet many forms of sick thinking and behavior go under the name of religion. Loss of emotional control, especially anger, is often denied and masked by being projected onto other people. When we are sad, we can say, “I am sad.” When we are happy, we can say, “I am happy.” But when we are angry, we say, “You are stupid!”
Dr. Wayne E. Oates in “When Religion Gets Sick” said, “When I use the word sick, I am referring to a specific functional breakdown. When religion is sick, it massively hinders the basic functions of life. Malfunction, then, is the criterion of sickness.” He added, “In other words, the word sick, is not used in some global vague, or moralistic sense here. It refers to specific situations in which particular people suffer major failures of functioning in the conduct of their lives because of religious preoccupations and stumbling blocks.”
Health and Wholeness
When Jesus asked the man at the pool if he wanted to get well (John 5:6), the literal meaning of the Greek is: “Do you wish to be made whole?” Frequently the healings by Jesus are said to make people “whole.” Health and wholeness go together in the teachings and ministry of Jesus. Jesus ministered to and healed the whole person in all dimensions of life: the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, and relational. Healthy spirituality brings all of life into harmony and wholeness. As Colossians 1:17 said, “In Jesus Christ all things hold together.”
When the human mind or body is at war within, unhealthy living emerges and dominates the life of the individual. Internal conflict can be the attack of cancerous cells against the healthy cells or can be the schizophrenic attacks of the mind against itself. James 1:8: “A doubled minded person is unstable in all her/his ways.” Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire devotional book based on this verse: “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” Kierkegaard saw the solution to double mindedness to be found in willing only the will of God. He concluded that the only way one can will one thing is to will the will of God, for if you will anything else besides the will of God, you are willing many things, not one.
The Healing Spirit of Jesus
The Spirit of Jesus heals and makes us whole. Sick abusive religion is the opposite of the Spirit of Jesus. Love is the most powerful healing force in the world. Love heals and nourishes and never gives up. Love can even heal abusive sick religion. The love of Jesus did exactly that during his earthly ministry.
Religion is probably never sicker than when it is based on prejudice and misinformation and is used by people with low self-esteem to demean and belittle others in order to make themselves feel superior and more powerful. The use of religion to put people down and to judge and condemn those who are already beaten down and rejected by society is the greatest crime of present day religion in America.
Healthy spirituality based on love and self-acceptance is contagious; just as sick spirituality based on fear and self-hate is contagious. Whatever you have is contagious!
Spiritual healing takes place within individuals one at the time. Spiritual health and healing are not a mass movement with great crowds and entertaining television performances. Jesus healed people one by one. Each individual was important to Jesus and each person was heard and treated in whatever way best fit him or her. Jesus, methods of healing varied from person to person. There was no special formula that fits all!
Read the stories in the Gospel according to John in chapters 3 and 4 about Nicodemus the Pharisee who came to Jesus in the middle of the night for fear that someone might see him and the “Woman at the Well” who met Jesus alone at the well in the middle of the day, when nobody else would be there. Notice how some of the most familiar teachings of Jesus, like John 3:16-17 and John 4:24 are given in the context of one-on-one conversation with no audience present.
The conversations of Jesus with Nicodemus and with the Woman at the Well dealt with replacing unhealthy religion with healthy spirituality. Both Nicodemus and the woman were afflicted with negative spiritual attitudes and misinformation. Spiritual healing is delayed and often killed by the negative spirits of legalism, prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, and anger.
Negative People in Your Life
One of the basic steps to recovery from abusive religion is Step 5: “Avoid Negative People and Churches.” Negative attitudes in religion and in your personality can bring you down and can take everybody you know on a negative downer just by your gloomy presence, your judgmental “preaching” and your legalistic attitude.
I know what I am talking about, because for many years I was a “preacher” and I frequently fall into the abysmal habit of preaching to somebody I know very well and love very much only to find that I am vigorously pushing that person away and don’t even realize how “preachy” I have become!
I often suggest that you should get negative people out of your life. They will bring you down and dampen your enthusiasm for everything that really matters to you. Have you ever thought that you might be the negative person that somebody needs to get out of his/her life? It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it!
Techniques of Spiritual Health
PRAY. There is no substitute for prayer. A friend in Mexico wrote me recently to tell me how turning again to prayer had radically changed his whole life for good. Try prayer: you’ll like it! Jesus prayed and taught his followers to pray. Prayer includes listening. Look at Philippians 4:6-7 again and take it seriously.
THINK. Use the marvelous brain that God gave you. Think objectively and logically about your situation and what your options are. Paul gives a list of very positive things to think about in Philippians 4:8. “You better think, think, think about the consequences of your actions!” as the great Aretha Franklin sang in “The Blues Brothers.” Think for yourself, because if you let others do your thinking for you, you aren’t really thinking for yourself, are you? How much of your thinking is logical, objective, realistic, and practical?
LOVE. I am constantly learning over and over what love really means and what loves means for me and for my most intimate relationships and friendships. One characteristic of real love that I have to relearn over and over is that love “throws a cloak of silence over what is displeasing in another person.” (1 Cor. 13:7). Effective, satisfying love is a gift from God. We still work hard to manufacture our own brand of manipulative, controlling, possessive love and then wonder why it doesn’t work at all! Love is generous. Try “giving yourself away” and see what happens.
BELIEVE. Who do you really trust: God, yourself, special friends, and perhaps “experts” in everything from science to religion and beyond? A lot of us have gone through phases in our lives when we trusted nobody, not even ourselves. What have you believed and trusted that most has disappointed you? Why did you continue to trust the same doubtful things over and over again? None of us knows all of the sources of our unhealthy spirituality or the roots of our positive and negative impulses. If our spirituality is unhealthy, most of us don’t have a clue of why.
TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT YOURSELF. Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The unexamined faith is not only not worth having, it is also can be abusive, dangerous and destructive. Every individual has a spiritual dimension to life. Spirituality can be negative or positive, healthy or unhealthy, filled with prejudice and anger or filled with love and compassion.
Why is it so hard for us to take a good, honest objective look at our own spirituality? Whatever the reason for your neglect of your own spiritual health, you can take the positive step of getting on with your life and taking the further positive step of getting negative people out of your life. Take a good long look at the life and work of Jesus as the Spirit of Jesus guides your mind and your heart into healthy positive self-esteem and spiritual wholeness.
I pray that your spiritual life will be a great asset in your healthy self-acceptance and sense of worth and value to yourself, to others and to God. My purpose continues to be to help all of us to feel good about who we are and to quit hurting each other and ourselves.
The author of Invitation To Freedom and Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse, Rev. Rembert S. Truluck served in Metropolitan Community Churches in Atlanta, San Francisco and Nashville from 1988 to 1996. He earned a doctorate in sacred theology from Furman University, serving from 1953 to 1973 as a Southern Baptist preacher. He resigned as a professor at Baptist College at Charleston (now Charleston Southern University) and became an MCC pastor after being outed to the college’s board of trustees.