This post is in response to Molly Roberts’ Soul FOMO video. While she and I don’t follow the same spiritual path, I really appreciate her outlook on this part of life. Her wisdom and encouragement are always inspiring to me.
I don’t remember the last time I went to church because I wanted to. Between the stress of major depression, a succession of decidedly-unhelpful messages from the pulpit, and a busy five years of working in various churches without a break, I felt completely and utterly burned out.
Recently a couple of friends of mine mentioned that they wanted to start trying out new churches in the area, and my mind immediately balked.
“Not yet,” I thought. “Not now. Please, no more.”
Those words stopped me in my tracks. I felt sad, ashamed of myself, and a little bit guilty. I knew I had been deliberately taking a break from spiritual practice for a while now, but I didn’t realize I still felt so opposed to it.
I should be getting back into church again by now, shouldn’t I?
When I recently watched a YouTube video by one of my favorite vloggers, I got to thinking about my spiritual journey, spiritual failure, and what I’ve learned along the way. I started thinking about where I was, where I am, and where I’d like to be. I’m going to share some of those musings with you today– starting with the breakdown of a life of church, Bible study, and Christian pressure.
My Spiritual Fail
When night terrors, serious relationship problems, extreme anxiety, and severe depression all came knocking a few years ago, I responded by jumping headlong into religion. I’d attended church all my life, but I gave it 150% of my attention when things got tough. Just like everyone (and everyone’s interpretation of Bible verses) told me to do.
Like most people, I thought that if I prayed, studied, read, fellowshipped, and got blessed by the pastor enough, I would be relieved of my suffering. I fasted. I meditated for 20 minutes every morning in front of an altar in my room for two years. I went to workshops, filled journals with Bible study musings, and watched 80 hours of Beth Moore programming. I attended three to four services every single week. I asked for others to pray for me every chance I got. And I spent a large portion of every single prayer begging to be free from this pain.
When things got unimaginably worse, after years of trying my UTMOST, I finally got tired. I grew angry, and I gave up. Just like Molly expressed, when I finally did all that I could do, I felt like I had wasted all of that time on one big “major spiritual fail.” Just like Molly experienced, I “showed up to the space again and again,” with no result that I could see. There was “no one on the other end of the line.”
What do you do when it’s just not working?
Honestly, I didn’t feel much relief at all until years later when I had been through multiple medication cocktails, countless hours of therapy, and a major shift in my life trajectory. But that’s beside the point.
When I finally left my last church job, I felt a huge sense of relief. While I knew I would miss the loving community that I found at every Methodist church that I ever attended (as well as the beautiful individuals who reached out and made a connection with me), I was so ready to be free from the rest of it.
I could sleep on Sunday if I wanted to. I didn’t have to sit through a sermon that I didn’t agree with anymore. I didn’t have to hear muttered disparaging comments against Muslims, “gays,” immigrants, refugees, and other perfectly, beautifully worthy humans. I didn’t have to be involved in the absolute MESS that is church politics– or church finances. Financial commitment season was officially a thing of the past, and I didn’t have to sit through service after service feeling guilty for not giving back all of my income to the congregation.
I put all of my Bibles in the cabinet, locked away my church choir binder, and vowed to take a two-year break from everything to do with church.
Now, eight months later, I’m beating myself up for not wanting to jump right back into it again.
The Problem With Trying Too Hard
I learned a lot about myself through experiencing a major spiritual fail.
I learned that I was treating religion like a checklist, trying way too hard to force it to “work.” I treated my spiritual life like I did every other aspect of my life at that time– like a mountain climb to be conquered that I would complete in record time, or else.
I also learned that even with the best intentions and superhuman dedication, spiritual practice might not give you the results you want. This paradigm shift rattled my foundation and shook everything I thought I knew about God.
The problem with trying too hard is that these expectations are not on par with reality.
As Molly reminded me, in all honesty, the mere expectation that these activities will give me a set result is the product of a messed-up culture of spirituality.
The Spiritual Climate Of The Bible Belt
Online, in Sunday School classes, in sermons, and during prayers and concerns, we all seem to put up this front that it’s up to us to change our lives– that if we’ll only show up, God will do the rest and everything will be exactly as we want it.
We only discuss the “shiny parts” of our spiritual life– “only showing other people the really pretty successful vignettes.” Due to the “Pinterest-ification” of spirituality, we’re convinced that it’s our fault if we’re not happy. We just need to trust more, pray more, be more selfless. Then we’ll have the pretty and holy Instagram pictures that every other spiritual person has.
When you want something so badly only because other people pretend to have it, you’re guaranteed to feel abandoned and guilty when your efforts don’t result in spiritual bliss. Peace like a river gets completely marred with “obsessing over correct details and execution,” and the meaning is lost on us. We start to “feel abandoned,” and think “maybe I’m too narrow-minded to do this, to deserve this, to have this experience.”
I have friends who actively look down on loved ones for not attending church every Sunday. Those close to me still ask every few weeks whether or not I’ve “found a church home yet” in Austin. I hear about miracles, visions, stories of recovery and contentment, and all I feel inside is envy.
I feel like I don’t belong. Where was my miracle when I needed it? Everyone that I admire has had this experience. If I can just have that, then I’ll be a real spiritual person. Like Molly says, it’s completely unhealthy to think that “everything that works for everybody else should work for us” or that “if every day of your waking life is not a peak spiritual experience, you’re doing it wrong.”
We’re suffering from straight up peer pressure.
There’s an immense amount of pressure within the Christian community of the Bible belt to believe exactly what everyone else does. We jump on the “spiritual bandwagon” to “legitimize our journey to ourselves and to each other.” We’re all just painting a really beautiful facade in front of our confused and stifled souls.
How I’m Responding and Reassessing
Thank goodness for my sanity (and my spiritual life), Austin is decidedly not part of the Bible belt. You can go on a hike on Sunday mornings and meet a whole city of other people who are doing the exact same thing. Nobody’s judging you for not going to church– or for which particular church you happen to attend. Things are starting to calm down here. For that, I am immensely grateful.
Even though it’s painful and really discouraging, spiritual burnout leads you to reassess what you’re doing. It’s necessary sometimes because it leads you to recognize that maybe this path just isn’t for you right now. After years of forcing myself to do everything that everybody else said I should do, I gave up and finally started listening to what my soul knew was right.
Today, I’m still on a spiritual break. I’m not going to go “church shopping” when my friends go. I’m not going to force myself to read the entire Bible this year or to pray every day. I’m going to do what feels right, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it.
Recently, I’ve had a couple little moments of blossoming curiosity again. I went to a yoga class in a church, and for a moment, was really interested in checking out one of their services. I saw my Bible on the shelf one day and felt compelled to open it up and read for a minute or two. These moments are few and far between, but I take them as a good sign that I’m starting to relax. I’m starting to be truly free from the pressure that I felt for so long. I’m starting to do things my own way– the healthy way. And that’s all I can ask of myself.
You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin