Several years ago, I adopted a plant-based lifestyle. Both my father and grandfather had heart disease and open-heart bypass surgery. I adopted a healthier lifestyle mainly to avoid this type of outcome in my life. Every year approximately 500,000 people in the United States have open heart surgery, but it should be noted that bypass surgery doesn’t really solve the problem in the heart (it only bypasses it).
It is quite common in the American religious experience to use spiritual bypassing to avoid doing the hard work of addressing spiritual trauma. We might compare spiritual bypassing to doing things that make us feel good instead of the slightly more uncomfortable practices of taking care of ourselves physically.
In my opinion, spiritual trauma is much more common that we might think. Most religions begin their theology with the fear of something—fear of the devil, hell or just not measuring up or making it to heaven. Additionally, religion often shames us in hopes of modifying our behavior which only deepens the trauma. Bypassing the trauma can cause us to traumatize each other. It becomes normalized and we hope for a miraculous solution instead of doing the necessary work of healing.
We can’t keep bypassing our spiritual trauma with phrases like “God is in control,” “There must be a purpose,” or “You’ll be okay.” We can’t just keep denying our trauma and further shaming ourselves. In my opinion, spiritual trauma is an epidemic in the American church and will only get better when we take it seriously and stop looking for magic answers. It’s going to take some dedicated work and a fair amount of time.
Maybe the initial step to addressing trauma is to sit with it. Instead of denying that trauma exists, maybe we could do the uncomfortable work of being with it. Sometimes, we have to face the darkness and shadow. The trauma is part of us, and we can’t just exorcise it. We have to be with it, understand it and have compassion for that part of us. Some of us have discovered focusing as a way to compassionately address the stuck places instead of avoiding them and using spiritual rituals to bypass them.
The reason we have an epidemic of spiritual trauma is because we have a systemic problem of avoidance through spiritual bypassing and other practices. Then, hurt people also hurt other people. The reason Americans have half a million open-heart surgeries a year is because we have a systemic problem of the standard American diet and our stationary lifestyles. Genetics and tradition play a role is these issues but loading the gun doesn’t make it fire.
I am committed to my plant-based lifestyle. It has changed my trajectory and given me the courage to continue. I am also determined to avoid bypassing and deal more directly with the trauma I acquired along the journey of life. The first step was like the first time I walked or jogged after being inactive for a while. It was hard, but I made progress and I got better.
I also believe that religious organizations can get better; but they will not get there by making excuses like “every church has problems” or “we’re not as bad as that other place.” It’s another form of bypassing. It is avoiding the hard work of healing the trauma. They have to admit and identify the trauma and work compassionately to address it.
By the way, I do believe in the miraculous. But most often things change when we do the work.
Be where you are, Be who you are, Be at peace,
Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart and The Tea Shop. He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary and Too Many Podcasters podcasts. He is married to his wife Laura of 32 years and has one dog named Winston. His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply!