This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.
As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”
Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.
You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.
Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.
In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.
But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.
I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity. For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.
My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.
My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.
Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.
I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?
Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?
Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.
Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.
Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.