Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

A great help to the struggling believer. Like me.

I believe in God and in His love for all of us but I have struggled with ideas involving negative religion in the distant — and recent — past. If you can relate to the struggle, Elizabeth’s Esther’s book is for you.

I interviewed Elizabeth Esther several months ago about Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad, her excellent,  brave and highly-recommended account of her own struggles with impact of fear-based dogma. The book is a self-help follow-up to her previous, well-received memoir Girl at the End of the World). With apologies for the delay, here are some highlights from what she said to me.

On the definition of  “Spiritual Sobriety?”

ELIZABETH ESTHER: For me it’s restraining from extremism…I was raised in a very strict (cultish) religious context and a lot of my first book (Girl at the End of the World) was spent talking about the ways religious addiction hurt me. The second book, Spiritual Sobriety, is about me taking ownership of the fact that I wasn’t just hurt by religious addicts but I also become a religious addict myself.  So, spiritual sobriety for me means practicing my faith in life-affirming and moderate ways and without beating myself up or beating up other people.

For me also, it extends into non-religious behaviors like compulsive eating, like my internet addiction, stuff like that. So, it kind of encompasses the whole of my lived experience.

On the value of embracing the concept of misericordia:

EE: I came across the term misericordia (Latin for “mercy”) when I started exploring Catholicism. I was very drawn to this idea that Catholics have a different view of God’s mercy and forgiveness. There’s no limit to it. God’s love is unconditional and His mercy is without limit. I had never really come to understand a god who was full of merciful love and kindness. It seemed so foreign to me. Could that really be real? But I began to crave it because my concept of God wasn’t working for me and it wasn’t relieving me from my addictive behavior. Something had to change. For me what needed to change was my understanding of God.

I had left the cult when I was 25 but then leaving the cult wasn’t enough — because the cult was still inside of me. So, I had to do a sort of second leaving and that meant I had to sort of journey toward a different kind of faith and understanding of faith and understanding of God. That required me being honest about my mental illness and depression — being honest about that. Trying to pretend it wasn’t there anymore was a kind of vulnerability. I needed the mercy of God — that despite this imperfection, this naturally occurring thing that was happening to my brain, I wasn’t a bad person. It had nothing to do with me being a sinner or having done something wrong and God punishing me. Rather, it became an opportunity for God to demonstrate His unconditional love.

On letting go of religious baggage:

EE: It takes quite a bit of courage, I’ve found. I found a lot of freedom actually in the traditional 12 steps. The way that they write about God is “God as we understand God.” For me, that was the open door that gave me permission to seek a new understanding of God. This really scares a lot of Christians, I think…They think that what I’m saying is reject Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. That’s not at all what I’m saying. If Jesus Christ as your lord and savior is what brings us to faith then that’s absolutely what we need. I do believe in Jesus. He is my lord and savior but it’s also not exclusively Jesus, if that makes sense. So much of my understanding was very focused on Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. To be honest, a lot of what needed to be healed in my relationship with God was my relationship with God as father.

On Christ reaching and loving everyone, regardless of religion:

EE: God is so much bigger than I thought God was. He is big enough to find us wherever we are which I think is what you’re saying.

One of my closest friends is Jewish. She is just so much more loving and honest than a lot of Christians. She’s very straightforward, candid and honest.

Expounding on her statement in Spiritual Sobriety declaring that “Our failure is not stronger than God’s hold on us” — suggesting that God forgives all sins.

EE: Yes. I agree so much. I think I also say in that same passage that “God’s love for us is our pre-existing condition.”

Expounding on her statement in Spiritual Sobriety declaring that “We are not inherently evil. We are inherently loved.”

EE: Yeah! I think that is what God in his mercy showed me. I would have despaired had I not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. So much of my Christian faith before I became spiritually sober was driven by fear and (the idea) that I was never going to see anything in this life that was good. It was always “the afterlife.” I was always living through the afterlife. You know, eternity. It was never this life and this body and this world. It all passes away. But what God showed me is that he created us to love this life, to love the gifts he’s given us, to sow love to others, to take care of this world. The Kingdom of God is here, now! It’s not some future, distant place that we’re waiting for. When I can live like that, it just removes the fear because all of a sudden I realize that God isn’t out to get me. I’m not just trying to hang on until I die. I want to live with God. There’s a beautiful day in this present moment. God’s love reaches me here, right now.

On exchanging striving to be good for striving to be honest.

EE: Growing up, I think it’s something that many Christians suffer with — which is trying to be a” good girl,” just trying to be a “good Christian,” just trying to be not “sinning” and making mistakes. Even the way Christians talk can be so disingenuous They think if they can be good they can sometimes compromise their ability to be honest. I have found that God doesn’t want my good performance., my good behavior if that means that I’m compromising my ability to say “This is really hard” or “I don’t understand.”

I find a lot of solace in the psalms because the psalms are filled with so many emotions — of doubt, fear and anguish, anger and hatred but also an understanding that God is there in all of it. So, for me, a lot of freedom came when I stopped centering my life on trying to be good every day and started being honest. That came through a community. I don’t think it’s something we can do on our own. We need a safe place where people accept us warts and all — who hold our confidences privately and would never betray us. Then it’s safe for us to share those deepest, scariest thoughts that we think make us bad people but really don’t. In their affirmation, I began to experience God’s affirmation. I began to realize that honesty was the gateway to true goodness. It actually worked the other way around. Instead of trying to be good, if I actually worked at just being honest than the goodness naturally follows…

…This idea of being honest instead of unfailingly good is something that I found in the 12 Step readings. I think it’s there in the citations. I developed that idea because it was so instrumental to my freedom.

On being non-dogmatic Catholic.

EE: That’s such a good question and it’s a really important one because I use the term “dogmatic” sort of interchangeably with “fundamentalist.” I think you can find fundamentalists everywhere. You can find them in the religious context and you can find them in Little League baseball…or politics. There are just as may fundamentalist atheists that I’ve come across as there are fundamentalist religious people. To me, fundamentalism and dogmatism is a posture. It’s a way of behaving and it’s a way of processing whatever it is that you believe.

Although I’m Catholic, and that is where I have found my home and have found God, I will never process it in a fundamentalist or dogmatic way because I believe that that goes against who God is…

I believe that God loves everyone. The way that we treat people says so much more about the God that we love. As we cut them out and shun them and treat them with shame and hangups then that reflects on what kind of god we serve. Janet Flynn, the author, said that “We become like the god that we adore.” So, if our god is dogmatic…

However, I want to put a little disclaimer in there which is that I need those people in my life. I wouldn’t cut fundamentalists out of Catholicism because I think that God’s vision is to use fundamentalists too. (Most people are just trying to do their best.)…I know from seeing some of my family members, they find a lot of safety and comfort in being very dogmatic…I think when I talk about a cult, it’s not based on belief so much as on practices and behaviors. You can hold something very rigidly but you don’t have to treat people that way. I think that’s what really counts. I think God looks at how we actually behave and how we act rather than how closely we adhere to certain beliefs.

On the importance of not beating yourself up for relapsing and falling off the Religious Sobriety wagon:

EE: That’s why I put it at the end. I want people to understand that relapse is part of the journey. As long as I’m a human being that’s always going to be a possibility that that will happen.

I’d do the same things with myself. I sit there and talk to him and he’d go “Yeah but why?! Why did this happen? What led up to it? How can I avoid it in the future?” Sometimes reflection on it is helpful but other times it becomes obsessive…You really may never know why (you relapsed). It might just be that you’re an addict and that’s what you do when you get stressed out…The key to disrupting the addictive cycle is that is only fed by obsession and shaming yourself is to do something nice for yourself and take care of yourself…I’ve learned to treat myself like I would my own child who was hurting. What would I do to that child? I would feed that child. I would hold her on my lap. I would talk to her. I would see to her other needs that are being unmet. My goal is to reparent myself. And to realize that I have to avoid some things. I used to blog quite frequently but blogging for me became in some ways a trigger into addictive behavior. It became better for my health to have one-to-one conversations with other people…The blogging chain would lead me into patterns I couldn’t get out of.

On the importance of being gentle with yourself following an emotional relapse:

EE: Be gentle with yourself because it’s okay. You didn’t know that (whatever your trigger was) would trigger the pattern. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. What you struggle with and hearing you talk about it is very healing for me to hear because I know I’m not alone. I have similar struggles.

On the importance of sharing but sharing carefully — and not doing so on the internet.

What you struggle with and hearing you talk about it is very healing for me to hear because I know I’m not alone. I have similar strugglesYou can share it with people who are safe. There are people who earn the right to hear those stories. I would say I earned the right to hear your story because of my book but I learned the hard way that I can’t publish it on my blog because that would backfire.

On exercising caution when it come to religion and the internet:

EE: You’re looking for something to heal you but you just make things worse. I get it. I think it’s so important for people who struggle with addictive behaviors or obsessive behaviors to have people within our lives with whom we can share. I find that only by sharing with someone can I find relief. I never find it online. I never find it at the bottom of a bag of cookies. I never find i.t

On the danger of listening to people who tell you to seek answers in the Bible when you’re in a biblically-unsober frame of mind: 

EE: It’s like telling an alcoholic to go to a bar…It is about turning it over to God…(In an unsober frame frame of mind) I”ll go like I’m gonna find the answer. I’ll sift through my Bible and  find the verse that speaks directly to me on February 1st 2o15 or something...It’s a danger…The Bible was never meant to be read (that way).

I wrote about this a little bit in my first book. I needed God to treat me like I couldn’t read — like I was illiterate — because I’d be reading my Bible and reading my Bible and having panic attacks. I had this thought that before the 1600’s it wasn’t common for people to read at all. So, was God unable to reach them?

The bottom line:

EE: God loves you and God is always there.

Final comment: Amen.

John W. Kennedy is a writer/development consultant specializing in teleplays, screenplays and novelizations. He can be reached at

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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