By Hatty Calbus
Reverend Go is a dynamic churchman with what he describes as “Kingdom-sized plans” for All Saints, the nation and the world. He likes making things happen and his favourite word is “vision.” His ambition is fixed on society’s ills with a view to claiming all for the Lord and he employs his considerable organisational skills to this effect.
He sits on and chairs the committees of a host of charities, doing lots of pushing things through. He believes a business model guarantees optimal Christianity and sees himself as a Church CEO. God is key, of course, and any church does well to make prayer its primary growth-engine. This is how All Saints is blessed with such awesome financial resources, managed by the Accounts Pastor.
He is aware of pastoral care as a concept, but judges it best left to others while he concentrates on big Kingdom projects.
Despite such successful initiatives as Faith and Football, women are still, as in other churches, the larger part of his congregation, and are usually the ones with problems they want to discuss. Although he is always on the way somewhere else, they do sometimes manage to stop him to canvass his opinion on some awkward emotional difficulty, such as their bad marriage or eating disorder or even – God forbid – childhood abuse. If they become tearful, as often seems to happen, he backs away and quickly hands them over to his Pastoral Assistant, who, as a woman herself, knows what to do with that sort of thing.
Mrs Grip loves being Reverend Go’s right-hand woman and loves how much help she can give to their parishioners. In fact they find themselves helped by Mrs Grip whether they like it or not as she does what she can to be a model of Christian service. Sometimes she sighs about all she gives to people who don’t always show the gratitude they ought.
And knowing what every situation needs to improve, it can be wearing. Moments of weakness are rare, though, and she quickly covers them with her tinkling laugh. Mostly she is able to smile kindly as she patrols, efficient and well-dressed, patiently explaining to people, a guiding hand on their arm, the course of action they need to pursue.
Her particular gift, she knows, is care of the distressed, as Reverend Go has recognised. Usually they see the wisdom of her counsel. Occasionally, however, there is one who ungraciously refuses to follow her agenda for them. When this happens Mrs Grip speaks firmly and, recognising the Evil One at work, prays with them against the rebellious spirit they have allowed to take hold.
She has also had to deal with parishioners who make complaints. Such attitudes to divine authority make her very grave indeed: they must repent. Usually they bow to the necessity of obeying the Bible for their walk with God, but she has encountered rebelliousness even here. Then, stressing she is doing this because she cares, she reminds them that if they are prepared to disobey God himself she has no alternative but to recommend to Reverend Go that they leave All Saints.
The word ‘addiction’ brings to mind alcohol and drugs, perhaps Internet pornography. Overwork and success can also be addictions but look better. Addiction to Christian service looks better again. Reverend Go and Mrs Grip are not honest about their motivation. He is driven to achieve – in a very worldly way. Her helping is parasitic: the person she is really helping is herself.
Both of them are using God as a cover for compulsiveness. Churches are full of people whose spirituality has a large compulsive element. Other common styles of religious addiction, varying according to personality and denomination, are:
* Law-keepers. They worship authority and rules rather than God and are full of irritated disapproval. They include bibliolaters.
*Neck-ups. This takes in quite a few theologians, religious journalists and contemplatives. They live in their heads, disconnected from themselves and other people.
*The relentlessly happy. Life is only ever amazing! Everything is kept superficial and any problem can be zapped with a quick prayer.
Obviously, it isn’t that working for God, helping people, loving the Bible, loving God’s laws, meditation on God and joy in God are wrong, it’s that they can become skewed. This happens because a spiritual bypass numbs difficult feelings; but if we avoid our wounds, our reality, the deeper parts of ourselves, our relationship with God will not be real and our growth will be blocked. A spirituality whose main motor is a compulsion to avoid vulnerable feelings like fear and inadequacy means a distorted relationship with God.
Real spirituality is all of you with God. In Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction, Matthew, Sheila Fabricant and Dennis Linn say the good things of God are misused when they are substituted for a real self, but “The more we authentically process life and the more the truth of ourselves unfolds, the more we reveal God who dwells in the core of our being.”
Addictions give an illusion of control. Control means not feeling powerless. This really gets dangerous in leaders. Clergyman Alistair Ross writes in Evangelicals in Exile: ”We have the knowledge, we are preachers of God’s authoritative Word. This is a tremendously powerful and potentially abusive position to be in.” The combination of God manipulated to fit denied personal motives, and spiritual power is deadly.
Perhaps the reason for the connection between addictive spirituality and addiction to spiritual power is that if you are using God, becoming a leader is like going from cocaine to crack.
Bafflingly, the Holy Spirit lets himself be mixed in with our unhealthiness and sinfulness. His presence can divert attention from things that are very wrong. What is believed to come from God can be highly contaminated with ego, but because God is in there, a religious-power addiction can be mistaken for saintliness. What’s seen is the God-part – the works, the preaching, the fervour. But Jesus says, All you did was use me to make yourselves important (The Message, Matthew, 7).
Church power is a most seductive addiction with no expense, no unpleasant physical effects and no stigma. Addicts hang onto it like an alcoholic to a drink. It invariably gives rise to spiritual abuse – shepherding, which comprises indifference and punishment. If the authority is questioned, the challenger gets scapegoated with a misappropriation of God and Scripture.
Ross quotes Frank Lake in Clinical Theology explaining true leadership: “The pastor is compelled to tap the deepest roots of his own experience.” If someone is refusing to do this, keeping pain in their depths blocked off, they will not want anyone reminding them of the vulnerability they are avoiding.
An addictive spirituality means no empathy. Perhaps the reason the Church has been so appalling with abuse, both in perpetrating it and ignoring it – is that victims remind the powerful of their own denied vulnerabilities.
We all need healing, so there will always be unhealthy elements in our way of relating to, or rather not relating to, God. For that relationship to be as close as possible to how he wants it, emotional honesty is crucial.
Also necessary is a rounded spirituality. In his important book, Streams of Living Water, Richard J Foster explores six necessary spiritual dimensions: Evangelical, Charismatic, Holiness, Social Justice, Incarnational and Contemplative.
The Pharisees, like the Israelites criticised by the prophets, thought they were good. Jesus most censured people who harmed children, and religious leaders – because they can destroy relationships with God. Any Reverend Go or Mrs Grip persisting in grandiose blindness needs to remember Ezekiel: I am going to call the shepherds to account (34, 10).