CW: This week’s episode includes talk of spiritual abuse. If you are a survivor of spiritual abuse, please proceed with caution.
Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 31 titled, “Less Harming, More Helping” So this week, I am tackling a topic I discuss frequently in interviews and that is the fact that the church is not showing up the way it should in the middle of grief events. I know I just put a “should” all over the church but here’s the thing: I was raised in Lutheran churches, visited a few Catholic churches, and joined evangelical Christianity as a college student. After graduation, I found the narrative of mysticism and curiosity to be the firm foundation of my faith. It embraces the mystery and unknowable nature of God, even as we learn about our faith practices. But even as I have grown in my understanding of faithfulness, I have experienced ongoing grief throughout my entire life and the church hasn’t done much to help me. In fact, the majority of the sermons about grief give us a phenomenal opportunity to play Grief Bingo in the service. Whether it’s spiritual bypassing, platitudes, spiritual abuse, or flat out condemnation, the global church struggles to create safe spaces for grievers. And when I say safe, I mean physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological safety. It’s time to try something new. What once looked effective is now being revealed as harmful, so hopefully this week, we can gain a bit of insight into what we often see around grief in churches that is harmful, and find a way to equip both ourselves and the local and global church to become the place of restoration and connection Jesus promised it would be.
We’re going to start by defining spiritual bypassing, platitudes, and spiritual abuse in the context of grief. This is going to be a very brief overview so we can be on the same page when I talk about how the church needs to shift in regards to grief. Spiritual bypassing is the practice of dismissing one’s experiences or pain with scriptural references. We practice it on our own behalf and often, attempt to convince others that it is the spiritually mature approach to do so. Spiritual bypassing is a safe way to hide behind our faith and avoid the painful truth of our reality. Spiritual bypassing assigns judgment to our emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It can dismiss our anger by labeling anger as bad, and teach us to internalize shame as a reminder that anger is bad.
Platitudes work in tandem with spiritual bypassing, often being the very words used to minimize the impact of our pain in our lives. We’re all familiar with the vaguely religious references used on sympathy cards: “God needed an angel; They are in a better place; They’re no longer in pain, so rejoice!” There are many, many platitudes already coming to mind for you right now, too. Probably the ones that have caused you the most confusion. Platitudes make us wonder, “If the pain is so easy for everyone else to dismiss, then what is wrong with me and my faith? Why do I experience such turmoil and everyone else seems to have moved on?”
Both of these behaviors are prevalent in the global church, and lead us down the path of spiritual abuse. In the context of grief, spiritual abuse occurs when those in leadership use spiritual bypassing and platitudes as a method of manipulating the grievers into service, behavior modification, or to strengthen their dependence on the church or its mission. Grievers are skilled at wearing a mask and bypassing their pain for those they’re not willing to share with, but in the context of their faith practice, they also have to protect themselves lest their role in the community is compromised. If we appear emotionally unstable, our faith will be challenged. The phrase, “Oh ye, of little faith,” makes me cringe. Who are we to measure the faith of another human?
Once the mask is securely in place, whether by choice or necessity to avoid further losses, the platitudes become internalized. We encounter others in church who assume we’re “doing just fine” since we’re attending and serving regularly. But that still doesn’t mean anyone knows what to say, and too often this allows us to offer platitudes. When we see someone in pain, or assume another is trying to heal, we want to help – and yet we lack the knowledge or skills to do so. Instead, we recognize that we are uncomfortable with their loss. This isn’t usually a conscious act, but regardless, our brains starts spewing everything we believe can alleviate the discomfort we feel. Where we think we are helping another feel better, we are actually helping ourselves. We just don’t see it since grievers don’t typically push back. They nod, smile, and keep their mask tightly in place.
At this point, spiritual abuse is inevitable. In the context of grief, spiritual abuse often looks like manipulating the griever into breaking communicated boundaries, insinuating that you are unfaithful, incapable, or bringing grief into your own life through sin behaviors or attitudes. Spiritual abuse around grief can make you feel responsible for your own pain, loss, and suffering. Grievers internalize the narratives that they are insecure and lacking faith, and therefore rely upon the leaders for healing guidance.
Beyond the obvious, the problem is positioning the church, our faith, and our service in community as the only solution for grief. How can we heal if we rely upon a shifting storyline denying any secondary losses, emotional upheaval, or need for support outside of praying more?
First, I believe the global church needs to start asking questions about grief from grief professionals. We in the church are so used to going first to our religious texts that we fail to remember (or maybe even believe) that wisdom exists outside of the four walls. Gaining insight about the shifting nature of grief might just bring the church some humility around always having a prescription, too. In grief work, we know there is literally no assignment or methodology that will work for more than a single person. Pieces of each will help, but we’re all different. Our losses cannot be compared – not even for a moment. The more we learn about grief, the more we realize we move through it by knowing ourselves – not by condemning our hearts for feeling, our thoughts for allowing disruption, our bodies from carrying our wounds, or our spirits from growing numb. By growing in wisdom, the church can learn to invite others into those same four walls that carry a different knowledge than those in leadership. Pastors aren’t trained mental health professionals, although there are exceptions. And frankly, there a lot of pastors out there picking up the bible and preaching on very few qualifications to do so, let alone to guide someone through grief.
Second, we have to allow our relationship to our beliefs to change. The beliefs we carry shape our faith. If our faith seems to be faltering in the face of loss, we can choose to become curious about what beliefs we are holding that undermine the truth of our lived experience. This can be another source of grief, and it’s time for the church to embrace the unknowing. As I mentioned, the problem with having an answer for every question is that no one has an answer for every question. But if we feel obligated to give an answer, we miss out on the chance to learn something new. Pride is destructive. It prevents us from living with open hands, holding lightly to all things with the trust in ourselves and others that we will be okay. We lose our humility when we expect our faith or our masks to contain all that we need. And we lead lives with a shallow faith that cannot be challenged and deepened. I found myself very willing to risk it all in the face of grief. I didn’t want to hold fragile beliefs I could justify. I wanted foundational truths I couldn’t fully explain yet experienced in every part of my being – mind, heart, body, and soul. This is the practice of faith that invites healing, no matter what you believe about theism. A faith that admits the whole self is worth compassion changes the way we practice our faith out loud.
And third, I believe it is time for the church is time to become the safe haven it has always claimed to be. This is about more than #ChurchToo. This is about the global church causing as much harm as it claims to heal, all in the name of meeting a mission. But somewhere along the way, the mission was corrupted. Power, influence, control – there is a long list of things we see the church laying as foundational that dismisses the simplicity of faith. Whether or not we understand grief, we are a people commissioned to love others as we love ourselves. That’s impossible to do in a helpful, kind way if we do not love ourselves well. And going back to the beginning, when we have internalized a narrative that we are faithless, sinful, broken, and incapable of finding healing, we are going to approach service in our community in the same way. Everyone we look at will seem a little uncouth, lacking something we’ve accepted as necessary for a “good” faith.
This is the opposite of safe. To be witnessed and judged? How can anyone move toward wholeness and depth in that environment, let alone grievers looking for a safe place to fall apart?
Do you remember when the church was told to look after the widows and orphans? It’s not only because they have needs to meet. It’s because they’re grievers; and that will never change. Grief stays with us for a lifetime. The active work of grieving can be seasonal, but unless the church is willing to unlearn it’s previous way of serving grievers, it cannot expect to be a refuge or a resource in those active seasons. It can only expect to be pushed aside in pursuit of something meaningful. Grievers aren’t looking only for what feels good again – they’re looking for what makes them feel whole again.
Thank you for listening to episode 31 of Restorative Grief. My work as a grief educator is quite involved with the church, both as a faith practitioner in my own life, but also as a staunch believer that we can and must do better. It would be easy to listen to my words here and assume I’ve experienced great trauma in my faith story, but that’s not true. There have been difficult and traumatic times, but I still have great confidence that the church as an entity can shift toward justice and compassion on behalf of the widows, orphans, and the rest of us. Our loss need not be so obvious as losing a spouse, parent, or limb. Our losses are measured by what mattered to us – even if it’s not so clear to anyone else. And so as we wrap this episode, I want you to take a moment and consider what you would influence in your own faith community if you could bring a little more attention to the lack of grief literacy. My job is to bring that literacy to the people so we can all live in a world where our wholeness manifests in truth, and in spirit. We are whole beings, created intentionally, with no bad parts. The sooner we can learn what that means, the sooner we can be of service to someone else who needs to learn it for themselves.
If this is your first time listening to the podcast, thank you for being here. Please take a moment to subscribe and leave a review wherever you are listening. You can find more of my grief work on Twitter and Instagram at @MandyCapehart, or you can look at the show notes for links to join The Restorative Grief Project.
And one last thing – please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from this episode: