When Religion Goes Bad

Part 1

by Dale S. Ryan and Jeff

It is probably obvious to most regular readers of STEPS that religion can “go bad.” Nothing too surprising there. You don’t really have to go further than the morning newspapers these days to learn that sometimes religious conviction can become horribly twisted and abusive. Many of us are personally familiar with the misuse of religious ideas to support domestic violence, the misuse of the Bible to prop up spiritually abusive systems, the religious reinforcement of family dysfunction, and the forms of abuse made possible by the cloak of religious authority. And more than likely most of us have some sense of our own vulnerabilities to religious dysfunction. This is not just a problem that other people struggle with. Maybe we have used religious behaviors addictively. Or used the Bible against other people. Or used our spirituality to protect ourselves from the truth. There are many, many ways in which our religious instincts and behaviors can become distorted and even harmful to ourselves and others.

It is important to emphasize the obvious about this. When religion goes bad it can cause a lot of pain. People get hurt. And the wounds are not usually superficial. When religion goes bad, we often get hurt down at the core of who we are. We develop resistances to faith, immunities to spiritual things. And that can do “God damage” to our hearts that can last for years, even for generations.

In this series of columns we plan to look at a variety of ways in which the Christian faith can become dysfunctional. The Christian faith does not, of course, have a monopoly on religious dysfunction. You can find dysfunction in any religious tradition. It is our conviction that the dysfunctions we need to look at most closely and urgently are the ones that are closest to home. Because looking at religious dysfunctions that are close to home can be difficult and potentially painful, we need to remind ourselves that finding religious dysfunction in the Christian context is nothing new.

If we look at the history of the community of faith in the Bible we find example after example of times when God’s people succumbed to dysfunction. In the Old Testament most of the prophetic literature is focused on religious dysfunction. The prophets complain about the ways in which religion goes bad and how people at every level are affected. Jeremiah is a good example:

“A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.… ”
(Jeremiah 5:30–31)

“From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.”
(Jeremiah 6:13–14)

We suspect that many of you can attest to having experienced these kinds of things in churches and/or religious organizations in our day as well. There are still many leaders who “rule by their own authority,” many followers who “love it this way,” and many who do not take seriously the wounds of God’s people.

In the New Testament, Paul’s letters to the churches provide an analogous picture of communities struggling with religious dysfunction. These were often churches entangled in performance-oriented religiosity. They couldn’t seem to tolerate the grace-fullness of the gospel, so they reverted to more familiar religious traditions. For instance, the Galatians went back to trying to earn God’s favor and “get God to work” based on their religious performance. Paul wrote:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1)

And the Corinthians apparently believed that God favored them more, based on which teacher they followed:

My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’
(1 Corinthians 1:11–12)

Even before Paul, Jesus himself confronted religion gone bad. His harshest words were reserved for religious professionals who preached a graceless, performance-oriented, try-hard religion. In the book of Matthew, for example, Jesus says, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

Religious dysfunction was apparently very common throughout the entire biblical period. There is no “golden age” in the history of the Christian community, no early pristine period when everything worked just like it was supposed to. As far back as you look, you find broken people struggling to support each other in their efforts to free themselves from religious bondage. If we were really successful in “restoring” the early Christian community, we would not find an ideal, pure community where everyone liked everyone else and got along and didn’t have problems. The evidence is exactly to the contrary. If we restored our churches to the New Testament model, they would still be full of struggling people, still susceptible to all kinds of dysfunction. Naive idealism that leads to reinventing history about earlier periods of the chuch is just not helpful.

We don’t have the space to look at the history of the post–New Testament church, but what you find are long periods in which one kind of dysfunction or another seems to have become dominant. It is easy to become discouraged by the extent to which religious dysfunction has impacted the Christian community. Martin Luther’s comments on the abuses of the Eucharist in his time are a good example of this frustration:

I am attacking a difficult matter, and one perhaps impossible to abate, since it has become so firmly entrenched through century-long custom and the common consent of men that it would be necessary to abolish most of the books now in vogue, to alter almost the whole external form of the churches, and to introduce, or rather re-introduce, a totally different kind of ceremony.1

That is how it often feels when we get clear about dysfunction. It feels like there is no way to change things—like the dysfunction is everywhere, it has always been with us and everything will need to change for things to get better. Luther’s response to his own realization of the magnitude of the problem was, “But my Christ lives, and we must be careful to give more heed to the Word of God than to all the thoughts of men and of angels.” This perspective can help us as we proceed to look at dysfunctions that are very common in the Christian community today. It is depressing to see with clarity the extent of the problem. It is discouraging. And it is not easy to figure out how to fix the problem. But there is a power higher than our own. We can do what we can do and leave the heavy lifting for God.

In future issues of STEPS we will look at specific kinds of religious dysfunction. These will include religious addiction, spiritual anorexia, religious codependency and several others. It is our hope that through this series clarity will prevail where confusion has been sown, that grace will win out, that burdens will be lifted.

1 Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church

When Religion Goes Bad

Part 2
Religious Addiction

by Dale S. Ryan and Jeff VanVonderen

In the last issue of STEPS we introduced the idea that religion can “go bad.” This might not be a difficult or threatening topic for some people. If our experiences with religion have been neutral or positive, we may even find it difficult to imagine that religion can ever go bad. Many of us, however, have been exposed to environments where “religion gone bad” is not an abstract possibility but a personal and deeply painful reality. Many of us carry in our minds and our spirits the painful effects of religion that has done damage. Starting with this issue of STEPS we look at a variety of ways in which religion can become a problem in our lives—starting with religious addiction.

Addiction To understand religious addiction, it’s helpful to review a few facts about addiction in general. First of all, addictive substances alter our mood; they change how we think and feel. The precise nature of the mood alteration can vary widely. Sometimes addictive substances can alter our mood in ways we experience as pleasant or desirable—at least in the early stages of the addictive process. But they do not always make us feel better or “high.” They may, in fact, make it difficult for us to feel anything at all. We might use addictive substances so that we feel something; or we might use them so that we feel nothing at all. Second, we can become physically addicted to the substance itself; that is, our bodies can become accustomed to the presence of the substance. As a result, we may require larger and larger doses of the substance to get the same level of mood alteration. This is called tolerance. Third, if we are addicted to a substance, our bodies notice when the substance is not present. This is called withdrawal. Addictions to alcohol, heroin or barbiturates exhibit all these characteristics—mood alteration, tolerance and withdrawal. Even when a substance itself is not addictive in the same sense as alcohol, heroin or barbiturates, we can still become addicted to the mood alteration caused by use of the drug. Marijuana, for example, is not thought to be addictive in the same sense as alcohol, but the mood alteration caused by its use can be very addictive. The fact that mood alteration can itself be addictive explains why people become addicted to gambling, sex, work, exercise and many other things, even though no addictive substance is consumed. In most of these cases the body internally produces its own addictive chemicals in response to the person’s addictive behavior. Finally, it’s important to recognize that all addictions follow a cyclic process. The experience of addiction traps us in a cycle that looks something like this: 1. Preoccupation 2. Rituals/patterns of behavior 3. Using/acting out 4. Aftermath/consequences 5. Return to preoccupation

Let’s briefly look at each element of this cycle.

1. Preoccupation (mood alters up) If you’ve been working for several months without any time off and you have a vacation scheduled for next month in a beautiful setting, you may find yourself daydreaming about how it looks and what you’ll be doing when you get there. In effect, you’re borrowing pleasure from then to get you through now. This is not a bad thing. The ability to anticipate good things happening in the future is important. But suppose you are sitting in a counselor’s office baring your soul and your counselor is thinking about her or his upcoming vacation. That kind of preoccupation is getting in the way of something important. In the addictive process a proccupation with future use can do enormous damage to our relationships. Even before we actually use an addictive substance or act out in an addictive way, we can experience a mood alteration by anticipating the coming use or by grieving the absence of our drug of choice. Preoccupation about using can get in the way of important things, even before using takes place.

2. Rituals/Patterns of Behavior (mood alters up) Preoccupation leads eventually to what is often a ritualized set of pre-using or pre–acting-out behaviors. Ritualization simply means tending to do the same things in the same way. It refers to behaviors that we repeat over and over again before actually using or acting out. It can be as simple as having drinks with the same people at the same bar at the same time on the way home from work. Like preoccupation, ritualization allows the addictive process to fill more time. This is particularly true of addictions that do not involve consuming intoxicating substances. We can fill entire days, even weeks, with ritual preparations for acting out. The mood alteration that results from this ritualization can be as important to us as the acting out itself.

3. Using/Acting out (mood alters up) Eventually our pre-use rituals lead to their logical end point, and we engage in our addictive behavior. In this part of the cycle, we use our drug of choice, we have another affair, we binge on ice cream, we do whatever we do to get the mood alteration we desire. The duration of the mood alteration resulting from using or acting out may be short; it can be the briefest part of the whole cycle. But whether short or long, it leads to the same predictable conseqences.

4. Aftermath (mood alters down) Eventually we always find that using leads to acting in ways we would not have acted had we not been using. While “under the influence” we act in ways that are inconsistent with our value system. Or we hurt people we care about. And the result is some combination of guilt, shame and humiliation. This phase of the cycle, the aftermath, is a low mood state. It is a terrible, sad and lonely place to be. Unfortunately, it sets up the “need” to return to the first step in the addictive cycle and start the whole mood-altering cycle all over again. We think, Maybe the shame and fear I feel in the aftermath of using will go away if I just use again. This is usually not a conscious process. In any case, around and around we go. In this way the low mood resulting from using leads us back to the mood elevation provided by the preoccupation stage. * * * * Notice that every stage in the addictive cycle is mood altering (either up or down), even when we aren’t actually using. This is the reason that others experience no real comfort when we feel very bad about the consequences of our addiction and we promise not to use anymore. They know that our feeling bad may just be part of the mood alteration cycle. Notice also that during the pre-using and using stages of the process our mood alters up, while during the post-using part of the process our mood alters down and makes it “necessary”—even makes it a relief—to repeat the cycle.

Religious Addiction Anything that can alter our mood can become addictive. Religious behaviors can certainly alter our mood. Is that a good thing? Of course! Just like sex and food and work can alter our mood in positive ways, religious behaviors can also alter our moods in positive ways. But can religious behaviors also become a problem—become addictive? Absolutely. It may be easier to imagine what religious addiction looks like if you think about extreme examples such as religious suicide cults or religiously motivated extreme self-deprivations or self-injury. Our experience, however, suggests that religious addiction is much more common than you would conclude from looking only at the extreme cases. A wide variety of religious behaviors have the potential for mood alteration and therefore the possibility of becoming addictive. Evangelism, worship, personal spiritual disciplines, church attendance, service, and many other behaviors that are important and praiseworthy in a general sense can be subverted by the addictive process into very harmful and destructive parts of our lives. This is an important point. Just because prayer is good does not mean that addictive prayer is good. Just because worship is good does not mean that addictive worship is good. Just because evangelism is good does not mean that addictive evangelism is good. The addictive process can destroy the most precious of God’s gifts to us. Except perhaps as loose rhetoric, even getting “addicted to Jesus” is not the solution to our problems with addiction. Addiction to Jesus is just another addiction. God’s desire for us is not that we find the “right” addiction—Jesus. God’s desire is that we find a way to live without being addicted at all. Sobriety is the solution, not being in an addictive relationship to God. The addictive cycle in religious addiction follows roughly the same stages found in other addictions. The process begins with preoccupation. We alter our mood up by thinking about, focusing on, obsessing about our next religious experience, the next evangelism opportunity, the next worship service, the next retreat or whatever. This preoccupation, while it may alter our mood up may also distract us from important parts of life. In most but not all cases, religious addiction also involves a major element of ritualization. Our pre–acting-out behaviors can become elaborate in religious addiction. We may repetitively recite memorized prayers or biblical texts, we may engage in what seems to others to be very Godly or pious behaviors. Eventually our preoccupation and rituals lead to some kind of religious acting out. As we have already emphasized, the specific behaviors that are part of the acting-out stage can vary. Evangelism addicts may experience an enormous rush when approaching a stranger with a presentation of some kind, and with even more of a rush if the stranger responds positively. Worship addicts may experience profound mood alteration when the “Spirit descends.” But all addicts eventually find that their addictions lead to a stage in which their mood is altered down. In some cases, questions or doubts may trouble us or even plague us. We may become obsessed with whether or not we have done well enough. Shouldn’t we try harder and do more to stay out of trouble with God? We may leave church on Sunday to face the next week determined to live the Christian life, only to return the next week and hear once again that it wasn’t good enough. And for many, even if the reminder doesn’t come this week at church, it comes readily from the echoes in our hearts and minds of past religious training. Addictive religion never leads to soul rest. It always leads to trying, trying harder and trying our hardest. It always leaves us tired, frustrated and depressed. Just like addiction to alcohol and drugs, the acting-out mood alters up, while the entire cycle mood alters down. The following less-than-comprehensive comparison illustrates the point.


Religious Addict

Mood alters up by drinking; mood alters down by not drinking or simply by thinking about the prospect of not drinking.

Mood alters up by behaving religiously; mood alters down when they don’t or can’t (attend church, read the Bible daily, pray enough, etc.)

Chooses to be with people who have a relationship with alcohol similar to their own; relationships with others become a casualty.

Chooses to be with people who have a religious belief system similar to their own, withdrawing from friends and even family members who don’t.

Gravitates toward places that cater to, are sympathetic to, or even encourage using behavior (e.g., the local bar).

Attends church and activities with people who believe the same or attends activities that are sponsored by like-minded groups and organizations.

At its root, religious addiction begins when our faith stops being about a spiritual connection with God and becomes instead an attempt to control our lives—or to control God—by behaving in certain ways. These behaviors seem to help us to control our mood, but that sense of control is only an illusion. We find over time that we need to engage in the behaviors more and more frequently or with more and more intensity in order to achieve the same mood alteration; that is tolerance. And we experience depression, a sense of meaninglessness or grief when we are not able for whatever reason to continue the behaviors; that is withdrawal. The behaviors also interfere with our ability to maintain healthy relationships or to function in life. The result is an exhausting, graceless, performance-oriented spiritual life that knows nothing of the “rest for your soul” that Jesus described.

When Religion Goes Bad

Part 3
Religious Codependency

by Dale S. Ryan and Jeff VanVonderen

In the first installment of this series we introduced the idea that religion can "go bad." In the second installment we talked about religious addiction. In this installment we want to discuss religious codependency. To understand religious codependency it's important to first understand some of the basic dynamics of codependency in general.

Codependency The symptoms of codependency have a remarkable parallel with the symptoms of addiction, but with one important difference. Addicts' "highs" depend on access to their drug or behavior of choice. When they have it, they are high; when they don't, they are low. They can and do alter their moods simply by thinking about using the substance (or thinking about not using it), to the point where they can develop a preoccupation that is as mood-altering as using.

The codependent's "drug" of choice is the addict. This means that when the addict is doing well, trying hard, making promises and showing improvement, the codependent is high. When the addict is falling short, breaking promises, being inappropriate and relapsing into old patterns, the codependent is low. In other words, the codependent's "substance" is the addict, and the codependent can become as consumed with the actions and attitudes of the addict as the addict is with their drug of choice. And just as the addict is focused on keeping their substance in supply to ensure their ability to get high, the codependent's focus is on keeping their substance (in this case, the positive performance of the addict) in good supply to ensure their own high. What this means, however, is that all the codependent's efforts to "help" the addicted loved one are really for the purpose of elevating, or keeping elevated, their own mood.

A Codependent Heritage

Codependency at its essence is an addiction to a person or to a relationship. Actually, there doesn't have to be any substance use involved for codependency to exist. Many people are codependent long before they meet their addicted loved one. No one, of course, is born codependent. Codependency is a learned behavior. Unfortunately, many of us learned the dynamics of codependency very early in life, in families that did not know healthier ways of relating. A simple example of the way that families encourage codependency might help.

Many years ago I (Jeff) was visiting some friends for a weekend. It was breakfast time and I was having coffee in the kitchen. I noticed a sign on the refrigerator that said, "Today Mom is . . . ." Below that was the rest of the sign, which was hinged in the middle and capable of being flipped to the left or the right. When it was flipped to the left it said "sad." When it was flipped to the right it said "happy." So the sign said either "Today Mom is sad" or "Today Mom is happy."

By itself, the sign was not particularly troubling. Maybe it was a kind of in-joke in the family. The disturbing part of this experience began, however, when the three young children entered the kitchen for breakfast. The very first thing each of them did was to look at the sign to see how Mom "was" today. I contemplated what might have gone through their minds as they dressed for breakfast and headed downstairs. Were they anxious about what the sign would say? If the sign said "sad," would they try to think of things they might do or say to make Mom happy? If the sign said "happy," would they spend their energy being extra careful not to do something to make Mom sad?

This mundane example illustrates the central dynamic of codependency. In the worst-case scenario, we have a mom who is putting the responsibility for her moods onto her children. She controls the behaviors of her children with the simple flip of a sign. We have children who are learning that the way for them to be happy is to keep Mom happy. Their "job" is to control and maintain their mom's mood by acting or not acting in certain ways. Even if the worst case is not true, there are no good scenarios that result from this kind of relationship dynamic. It is the soil in which codependency grows.

Religious Codependency

There are two basic forms of religious codependency. One kind develops in relationship to a religious addict; the other kind develops in relationship to a codependent God. Both kinds of religious codependency are fairly common. Both can be devastating to a healthy spiritual life.

Relationships with religious addicts can lead to religious codependency.

Some time ago I received a letter from a woman describing a series of painful experiences of spiritual abuse in a small, independent church. She talked about leaders who bullied the members into religious activities by holding hostage their right standing with God based on those activities; about employees of the ministry who were underpaid, while leaders were making a comfortable living; about the absence of financial accountability; and about questioning of the leadership being equated with questioning God. The church leaders were misusing their authority by controlling and manipulating, instead of serving and equipping, the members of Christ's body.

At one point in the letter she posed this question: "Why do 300 people allow one man to control their each and every move, even though they, at best, question it or, at worst, know it is wrong?" What a great question! Was the answer simply that the people were unaware of the problem? The letter made it clear that many in the congregation knew that things were not right. Was the answer a lack of courage? I suppose a factor could be the fear of a strong, charismatic leader; the fear of being humiliated publicly; the fear that they might lose everything for which they had invested their souls and finances; or the fear of having a falling out with God by disagreeing with his official "representative."

But there is another possible explanation. Could it be a matter of religious codependency by the members? Is it possible that these people had been trained to believe that one of their primary "jobs" was to keep the leader happy? Could it be that the congregation had learned that their "happiness" was dependent on the happiness of their leader? Our experience over the years with many, many Christians who have found themselves in similar situations suggests that this could certainly be the case.

If you find a leader who is a religious addict--whose mood depends not only on the amount of his or her own religious activity but also on the amount of religious activity performed by the members of the congregation--then you can be sure there are some religious codependents in the neighborhood. Religious codependents may believe that their behaviors are a simple matter of devotion to God, to God's people and to the leadership that God has appointed, just as codependents to alcoholics often vigorously defend their behaviors. But the real motivations are often much more complex. If I feel good only when the leader feels good, if I feel bad only when the leader feels bad, it's probably for a reason other than being "committed and dedicated." It's probably some form of religious codependency. This is especially true if my need to please a leader leads to compromises in my own integrity, peace, rest, and "that sense of blessing I once had."

There is a curious phrase in Jeremiah 5:31: "The prophets prophesy lies,/the priests rule by their own authority,/and my people love it this way."

My people love it this way? How can that be? Well, I suppose one reason could be that some people prefer to not think, and so they are happy to have someone else do all their thinking for them. It is more likely, however, that some people in religious circles are happy only when they can be in control of spiritual things, even if their authority is a figment of their religious addiction and is not from God. And for every religiously addicted leader there is almost always a group of religiously codependent followers. There are people who are happy only when their spiritual leader is happy. This is not just dedication and commitment, no matter how vigorously the dysfunction is defended.

Relationship with a codependent God leads to religious codependency.

A second, related form of religious codependency results from serving a codependent God. Suppose for a moment that God has poor boundaries. Or that God spends his days in a frenzy, trying to get us to make the right choices. Or that God's mood is completely dependent on the choices we make: happy when we make good choices, but sad when we make bad choices. Or suppose that God is full of resentments because he is always the one who has to solve the world's problems. Or suppose that God is manipulative, trying to get things to work his way by using indirect and dishonest means. If we serve a Higher Power with any of these characteristics, we are probably in for a very troubled relationship. It is possible to serve a codependent God, but it is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

If we were raised in an environment where codependency was common, we may gravitate to a "God" of this kind. This form of religious codependency is typically learned early in life. As young children many of us were taught that God's mood was dependent on our behavior. If we did certain things, God was happy. If we did other things, God was sad. We were, apparently, powerful enough to be in charge of God's mood! Now, does it make sense for a six- or seven-year-old child to be in charge of God's mood? Clearly not. And what does it say about God? Does God have such poor boundaries that his mood will swing in response to my behavior? In spite of how little sense this makes, this distorted image of God leads many of us to tip-toe through our Christian lives, trying to do everything possible to prevent God from having a negative mood-swing. Because, after all, you know what happens if we do something that puts God in a bad mood. We are in deep trouble and are going to pay the price one way or another. We need to get up in the morning and look to see what God's little flip sign says today. Is it "Today God is happy," or "Today God is sad"? If the answer to that question determines the things we have to try harder to do, or not do, in his name today, we can be pretty sure that some element of religious codependency is involved.

Most Christians, of course, understand that their relationship with God involves dependency. We depend upon God for our needs, for our identity, for life itself. This is not a problem that needs to be solved. We are dependent on God. Unfortunately, however, many Christians have a difficult time distinguishing between a healthy dependence on God and an unhealthy dependence, or codependency. And that inability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships is the vulnerability that makes religious codependency possible.

Moving Beyond Religious Codependency

If you find yourself stuck in religious codependency, here are a few ways to move forward. First, if your higher power is a religious addict or a codependent god, fire him. These gods do not deserve your worship or service. They have become what the Bible calls idols. You don't negotiate with idols. You don't compromise or make deals. You don't hope for improvement in the future. Instead, you clean house. That's what has to happen first: house-cleaning of all idolatrous attachments. Easy to say but difficult to do. \ Second, get help. Most of us can't make the necessary changes by ourselves. Religious codependency usually has very deep roots; most of us learned it very early. That means that the changes we need to make must not be superficial changes. They require major surgery. For example, we need to develop healthy boundaries in our relationship with God. If that sounds strange, or just plain wrong, well, that's a hint of how deep the problem goes and how deep the healing needs to be. That means it's important to find a therapist, sponsor, pastor or friend who understands these issues. This also is easy to say but sometimes difficult to do.

Third, expect the healing process to take some time. It will take time to find the resources you need. It will take time to become the kind of person who is capable of being honest about these issues. It will take time to grieve over the losses, betrayals and neglect that have helped cultivate the codependency. Last, and perhaps most important, believe that recovery from religious codependency is possible. Codependency is learned behavior. That means it can be unlearned. It's not easy to unlearn it. But it is possible, because God also wants a healthy, noncompulsive relationship with us. And that is good news.