The Big Danger Christian Sex Addicts in Recovery Need to Watch Out For
Let me tell you a story about a man named Joe.
(Joe isn’t a real person. I made him up so I could tell you this entirely fictional story about him. But in a way, Joe is real enough, as you’ll see in a moment.)
Joe seems like a normal guy. He’s well-liked by his coworkers. He loves his wife and children. He hosts backyard barbecues in the summer on weekends for friends and family. His faith is important to him and he’s a respected leader in his church.
By all appearances, he’s an outstanding guy.
But Joe has a secret.
He privately struggles with sex addiction.
He leads a double life. He visits strip clubs and prostitutes and watches pornography at work. He’s deathly afraid of his wife finding out and is careful to hide his behavior from everyone.
His shame about his sex addiction is unbearable. Over time, he acts out all the more, making his addiction worse.
One day, his wife finds a text from a prostitute, and Joe’s world comes crashing down. He tells her “everything,” save for a handful of details that he’s too ashamed to tell her. If he did, he’s sure she would leave him.
Wracked with shame, his wife sends him to a therapist. With his therapist’s support, he starts going to 12-step meetings. He begins attending his therapist’s sex addiction group for men with similar struggles. Joe starts to get help.
But then something happens.
Joe seemingly has a spiritual transformation overnight.
He shares with everyone within earshot about God’s grace. He shares encouraging Bible verses to other members of his men’s group, advising them on their recovery.
He becomes even more involved at church and starts to listen to podcasts of charismatic preachers he’s heard about in Bible studies. He devours books by his favorite Christian authors.
Meanwhile, over the course of a month or two, he cancels a few sessions with his therapist and skips more than a few 12-step meetings.
He explains to his wife that he’s had work conflicts, but the real reason is that he feels he’s made so much progress in such little time that he minimizes the value of therapy and 12-step meetings. “God’s the only one that can change me, right? I don’t need therapy” he reasons.
It’s not long before Joe relapses with a prostitute.
Spiritual Bypassing: Anything to Keep the Pain Away
Joe made the mistake of making his recovery a purely a spiritual journey. Like so many addicts early in recovery, the thought of facing the emotional pain that fueled his addiction is terrifying.
Without even realizing it, he used his spirituality to “bypass” the emotional pain he was desperate to keep avoiding.
Once again, on the outside, Joe seemed do be doing well. He’d become even more active in the church and was praying a lot more. In reality, he was “white-knuckling” his sobriety, hanging on for dear life, going to church more often and eating up Christian books and podcasts just to avoid acting out.
In a way, Joe had shifted from his sex addiction to another “addiction.” He was the AA equivalent of a “dry drunk.” Sure, he was sober, but he had not begun his healing and recovery. His spiritual transformation was never real.
When sex addicts overspiritualize their recovery and ignore the psychological work that recovery must include, spiritual bypassing is at work.
Spiritual Bypassing and Sex Addiction Recovery
Unlike Joe’s ostensible spiritual transformation, “[t]rue spirituality is not a high, not a rush, not an altered state,” as Robert Augustus Masters, Jr. states in his book Spiritual Bypassing.
“Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being acknowledged as such,” he writes. Spiritual bypassing can be present in many ways, as Masters, Jr. explains (p. 2):
- Rigid spiritual belief systems
- Fear of anger
- Using spiritual practices to avoid feelings
- Weak or porous boundaries for the sake of being pious
- Devaluing oneself in deference to the spiritual
- Overemphasis on outward appearances and righteous actions
- Discounting emotional development
Understandably, Joe was unconsciously desperate to keep his overwhelming shame and emotional pain at bay; when he sought help for his sex addiction and got sober, he began to feel painful feelings that were too much for him to bear alone.
So, he gave his pain entirely to God under the guise of spiritual surrender as a way to make himself feel better.
Spiritual bypassing is real danger to those in recovery, especially addicts whose faith is important to them. To be an addict is to have distorted thinking (e.g., rationalizing acting out, justifying a behavior when a part of the addict knows better, minimizing the harm of a behavior to others and the addict). It ensures that the sex addict will continue to act out. With spiritual bypassing, one system of distorted thinking replaces another, and the addiction survives, waiting in the wings and gaining strength until an opportune time. The result can be relapse, as it was with Joe.
What then should the Christian or person of faith in recovery do?
3 Ways to “Bypass” Spiritual Bypassing
If your faith is important to you and you’re in recovery, first of all, don’t be hard on yourself. Spiritual bypassing is something that almost all religious people do. It’s completely understandable that you might be using your spirituality to avoid your painful, overwhelming feelings.
Often, we do so without even knowing it, even as we find other ways of disconnecting from our pain, like working too much, being on our phones all the time. But what can you do about it?
1. Consider your spiritual life and practices. What’s the fruit of your spirituality? If you’re really honest, does your spirituality bring your closer to God, to others, and yourself, or do you feel as though you can’t be “real” with others? As though you’re not doing enough or not good enough for God? Spiritual bypass can be hard to spot, but one of the telltale signs of it is how we feel about ourselves and with others. Is there a subtle guilt or shame that you feel? Do you feel more or less disconnected from yourself and others because of your faith?
2. Find a qualified therapist that’s a good fit for you and commit to going weekly. Seeking out the support of a therapist often brings up feelings of anxiety and fear, especially since sex addicts experience a lot of shame and are afraid of telling anyone about their secret behaviors. But finding a therapist that knows about sex and pornography addiction is key; with the right help, you can find stop your problematic behaviors, roll up your sleeves, and do the hard work of getting to know the pain that’s fueled your addiction. Doing this will ensure that your recovery is on the right track and “sticks” for the long term.
3. Surrender, but do your part too. Steps One, Two, and Three of the Twelve Steps ask the addict to admit that he’s powerless over his addiction and to surrender his addiction to a Higher Power. Sometimes Christian addicts surrender, almost expecting a miracle, and think their work is over, but they forget that there are nine more steps to go. They “surrender” but don’t allow God into their lives to transform them. The steps, and recovery, ask us to do the hard work of facing our emotional pain and getting intimately acquainted with it. When that happens, as Step Twelve promises, we’re truly working out our faith (Phil 2:12-13).