Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad

Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad

by Elizabeth Esther


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It’s easy to get high on God in America.
But is this good religion?
In a compelling follow-up to her memoir, Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther explores how religious fervor can become religious addiction.
The evidence is everywhere. In families who inexplicably choose to harm their children in order to abide by cultic church doctrine. But in ordinary believers too who use God the same way addicts use drugs or alcohol—to numb pain, alter their mood, or simply to escape the realities of this messy, unpredictable thing called life.
If you’ve ever wondered how a religion that preaches freedom and love can produce judgmental and unkind followers; if you’ve ever felt captive to the demanding God of your own childhood; if you’ve struggled to find contentment without needing another emotional hit from a “life-changing” conference or “mountain-top” experience, then Spiritual Sobriety is for you. The author, who grew up in a hyper-controlling church cult, will help you find hope and rebirth in the ruins of disillusioned faith.
Filled with stories and warm, practical advice, Spiritual Sobriety offers a gentle path out of the desperate cycles of craving-euphoria-hangover and into a freer, clean-and-sober faith practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307731890
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 968,918
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Esther is the author of Girl at The End of the World: my escape from fundamentalism in search of faith with a future. She lives in Southern California with her husband and their five children.

Read an Excerpt


When Good Faith Goes Bad

Spiritual Sobriety Defined

For some “faithful”--and for unbelievers, too--“faith” seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps [them] from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.

--thomas merton

the first time i got high on god i was five years old.

I’d heard that accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior would make me happy and also win me a spot in heaven, where I would live forever with my family and all the other people who didn’t watch R-rated movies. So, I knelt on the floor of our rental home, bowed my head over clasped hands, and asked Jesus to come live in my heart. 

And lo, the heavens opened and amazing grace, how sweet the sound, made a wretch like me high for one whole day. All my little-girl worries and fears were whisked away as if by magic. I sang, I danced--scratch that, I couldn’t dance because dancing led straight to fornication--but still. There was singing! There was preaching! There was scrambling atop the kitchen table and leading my stuffed animals in a rousing chorus of “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”

The next day I asked Jesus into my heart again. Of course I did. Who wouldn’t want another taste of sparkling, bubbly glory? 

So, I clasped my hands the same way. I bowed my head the same way. I said the same prayer--but it didn’t work the same way. I wasn’t rocketed to the heights. There was no surge of zeal, no burst of God-infused energy. Huh, I thought. Maybe I need to pray harder.

Clasp hands. Bow head. Pray words. Really mean it.



Please hurry up, God. I need to feel the feeling. 


Okay, well, I’ll ask Jesus into my heart again tomorrow . . .

I tell this little story about myself for two reasons. In a kinda cute, five-year-old way, it reveals the promise at the heart of Christian belief--with God, a newer, better life is possible. It also reveals how beliefs and behaviors, even in such a young person, can begin to show distortions. For me, those distortions went on to do great harm. They pushed me away from healthy relationships and healthy thinking.

They pushed me away from God.

How surprising that what has the potential to make us better can become the very thing that makes us sick! How can something so good and innocent morph into unhealthy beliefs, feelings, and habits?

The Misuse of God

Growing up in a highly religious family, I discovered plenty of opportunities for indulging my God-habit: I knew my Bible so well that when I raced other kids to find obscure Scripture references, I got there first; I could proclaim a gospel message in sixty seconds or less; I wrote essays on theology to win my minister-dad’s approval; I was so “on fire for God” that I wasn’t ashamed to preach on street corners; I sang hymns with my eyes closed like a truly spiritual Christian; I said “Amen!” and took copious notes during my grandfather’s teaching; I hated my “sinful flesh” more than other people hated theirs; and I regularly surrendered all to Jesus--preferably in front of a big crowd. 

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I was creating a pattern of behavior that closely mirrored alcoholism or addiction--except I wasn’t consuming drugs to alter my moods, I was consuming God. I didn’t have access to chemical substances--we were intensely devout, conservative Christians--so I used what was available: religious beliefs. I habitually “used” God and all things church to numb pain and feel good. Even when my substance of choice stopped working, I couldn’t stop.

As with any other addiction, my overzealous religious practice came with a dark side. There was the uncomfortable, sometimes painful letdown once the spiritual high wore off, followed by the ache of withdrawal and, eventually, a renewed craving that drove me to search for my next fix.

For me, religion was all--or mostly--about how it made me feel. I wanted to feel close to God, cherished, chosen, special. Maybe you can relate. For many of us, religion also offers a sense of being in control; it becomes a way (we think) to get God to do what we want. A woman once shared with me that she deferred to God “as if my ever-more-complete submission would force God’s hand into blessing me with abundance, like financial success, a devoted partner, and cheerful, obedient children.”1 

In my opinion, this transactional use of God--I pay God with surrender, zeal, or commitment so that God will repay me with good feelings or other blessings--has more to do with idolatry than with authentic Christianity. And experts say this is a common characteristic of treating religion like a drug.

Does spiritualized trading sound familiar to you? It does to me. 

Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I’m a religious addict.

Addicted to What?

Perhaps that word addict stops you. How can someone be addicted to God? How could a passionate spirituality ever be negative or harmful? You might even be worried that I’m some kind of undercover atheist trying to pry you away from a faith and a God you hold dear.

Please hear me: I’m not to trying to argue against God. I’m not disrespecting church or any religious person or creed. Not at all. I’m speaking as a follower of Jesus who cherishes some hard-won understandings that have made a better life possible for me and countless others.

I’ll admit, when I first heard the term religious addiction, I thought it was too dramatic to describe my experience. But addiction comes down to a simple distinction: For balanced individuals, the cost of the hangovers or other negative outcomes becomes a sufficient reason to reexamine their thinking and change behavior. An addict, on the other hand, repeatedly engages in the same behavior, regardless of the negative consequences.

Christian authors have further defined religious addiction as “the state of being dependent on a spiritually mood-altering system,”2 concluding that religious addicts “might as well take a drink, swallow a pill, or inject a drug. The intent is not to worship God but to alter their perception of reality. They are religious junkies, obsessed with mood alteration and a quick fix to face life.”3

These definitions sound harsh, but stay with me, because the cost of our addiction is harsh, too. Pastor and spiritual director Kathy Escobar describes how this dependency often starts:

Many men and women have an unaddressed addiction to church services or spiritual experiences where they feel wowed. We get hooked on amazing music, powerful preaching, and the hour-long Sunday experience. We come to church seeking a spiritual high that will help us make it through the upcoming week. . . . Instead of addressing the realities of what we’re really thinking, feeling, and experiencing in the dark places of our souls, we sometimes look for a quick, temporary fix instead.4

Therapists Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton show what often happens next, describing the subtle yet devastating shifts that begin to hollow out our spiritual lives:

[The religious addict has] embraced a counterfeit religion. God is not honored, and the relationship with him is not furthered. . . . Rather than retreat to the loving arms of God, they literally bury themselves in their compulsive acts. . . . The religious addict begins a gradual transition away from God. Church attendance is no longer based on the need to know God; the addict attends church to feel significant and secure. Prayers are no longer ways of communicating with God; the addict prays to have an experience as a person of God and takes pride in being able to talk of the hours spent in prayer.5

These people might sound whacko, but truth is, the addictive impulse is a human thing. On my blog I hear from so many decent people with good hearts who, without really knowing what was happening, got twisted up in something false and spiritually bruising.

The signs that something is wrong can pop up in the smallest ways.

Views from the Pews

Meet Joyce, a former fundamentalist, who had a moment of clarity when her husband announced that, after twenty-two years of marriage, he wanted a divorce. “I was sitting on our boat, tension hanging heavily,” she wrote, “and I thought, If only I had my Bible I would be okay. I realized that sounded an awful lot like ‘If only I had a drink.’ That was when I started exploring fundamentalism as an addiction.”6 

James wrote to compare his experience as an alcoholic with his experiences with religion:

With alcohol, I felt like I had to have it. With religious practice, I felt like I ought to have it. I was addicted to the pressure to feel fulfilled (although I never was). I used music as an escape from intense religious shame and anxiety. [The religious practice] was very pagan: instead of “If you sacrifice a goat, it will rain,” we had “If you tithe, you’ll have financial success” or “If you avoid public school, your children won’t be tainted.”7

The fixation can extend even to practical matters, such as planning for retirement. Kelly grew up in a household of family members so obsessed with the end of the world that they signed up for a high-level “sponsorship” with an end-times prophecy organization rather than start a 401(k) or make other financial arrangements. “They were convinced they’d be raptured long before retirement savings would be necessary,” she explained.8 

Brenda explained to me how summers spent at a church camp created emotional confusion for her:

I went to Bible camp every summer for ten years straight. Every time I would ride the emotional high of worship and intense preaching/teaching. I thrived on the emotional connection I felt to God, but it always dissipated as soon as I got back to my regularly scheduled life. 

As an adult, I still [felt] vulnerable to emotional worship services. I’d go week after week, desperate to feel an emotional connection to God. When the preacher closed out the night by saying how amazing it had been to experience God’s presence, I’d go out to my car and sob because I didn’t feel any connection at all.9

There’s nothing quite like having our hopes for overnight transformation dashed against the rocks of reality to slap us awake from our religious stupor. When we come down from the high, we tend to wake up with a hangover of sorts: a guilty sting resulting from wasted time, wasted money, and wasted emotional energy. This letdown is an important indicator that something is wrong. If we behaved in healthier ways, we wouldn’t feel the gnawing despair of having spent ourselves on a mirage.

But we don’t have to stay stuck. With humility, an open spirit, and courage, we can escape the maze and find our way home. 

The issue is this: an obsession with spiritual beliefs, rituals, and pursuits that initially helps us but eventually removes our power to make healthy decisions and brings significant harm to us and to those close to us.

The answer: spiritual sobriety.

Spiritual sobriety asks us to examine the ways we’ve treated religion like a drug and to replace those behaviors with healthier expressions of spirituality. It’s finding a way to nurture ourselves and be of service to others--even while our questions remain unanswered.

My purpose in writing this book is to show you a path out of harmful behavior and toward a healthier spirituality that empowers you to live at peace with God and the world around you. My description of that path is learning spiritual sobriety. I define the term like this:

Spiritual sobriety is a serene, moderate way of living in which people abstain from treating God, religion, or a belief system like a drug; refrain from using religion as a punishment against others or ourselves; seek to be rigorously honest rather than unfailingly good;10 and retain the best of their spiritual devotion in positive, life-enhancing ways.

I’ve spent many hours contemplating--and seeking to live into--these words. I encourage you to do the same. Begin by reading the sentence through a few times, pausing as you go. Let its promises--stated and implied--speak to you of new possibilities. Then turn each part into a picture of your new spiritual life:

“Spiritual sobriety is my serene and moderate way of life.”

“I abstain from treating God, religion, or beliefs like a drug.”

“I refrain from using religion as punishment against anyone.”

“Instead, I seek to be rigorously honest--not unfailingly good.”

 “And I retain the best of spiritual devotion in positive, life-enhancing ways.”

I hope that in these simple, sane statements you are seeing a hopeful and healing way forward. As you’ll learn in the pages ahead, we don’t have to reject our past. We don’t have to dump God or our faith (although we might need distance for a while). We don’t have to dump family and friends (even if we do need to set boundaries). Instead, we can learn to embrace our stories and become enriched by them.

My faith survived an apocalyptic childhood cult (more on that in chapter 2 and in my first book, Girl at the End of the World). Whatever your story, I suspect your questions, hurts, or despair surrounding God, church, and religion are just as challenging and overwhelming to you as mine were to me. But no matter how sick or unsure or afraid you feel, I assure you that recovery and healing are possible.

Once I realized that I was hooked on something (or in this case, a version of something) that was hurting me and others, I was motivated to change. The first step in recovery is always facing up to the desperate nature of our reality, then reaching out for help.

1. Sandra. “Survey Questionnaire for Spiritual Sobriety.” E-mail interview by author. April 25, 2015.

2. David Johnson and Jeffrey VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1991), 190. 

3. Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2001), 30. 

4. Kathy Escobar, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart (New York: Convergent Books, 2014), 56-57. 

5. Arterburn and Felton, Toxic Faith, 98, 113.

6. “Fundamentalism as an Addiction.” E-mail interview by author. April 14, 2015.

7. “Survey Questionnaire for Spiritual Sobriety.” E-mail interview by author. April 25, 2015.

8. “Survey Questionnaire for Spiritual Sobriety.” E-mail interview by author. April 25, 2015.

9. “Survey Questionnaire for Spiritual Sobriety.” E-mail interview by author. April 25, 2015. 

10. The Augustine Fellowship, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Fellowship-Wide Services, Inc., Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (Boston: The Augustine Fellowship, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Fellowship-Wide Services, Inc., first ed., 1986), 109.


Excerpted from "Spiritual Sobriety"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Esther.
Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 When Good Faith Goes Bad: Spiritual Sobriety Defined 1

2 Twisted Belief: Reality and the Religious Addict 19

3 Rehab for Junkies: Searching for the Real God 41

4 Beautiful Humility: Developing a Sober Thought Life 65

5 Tame the Wildfire: The Discipline of Kind Speech 83

6 The Genius of Moderation: How Sobriety Keeps Us from Burnout 97

7 Unclench: Sobriety in Our Relationships 115

8 True Religion: Recovery in Our Churches 135

9 Speed Bump: Relapse 149

10 Good Enough: A Last Word 165

Acknowledgments 171

Recommended Reading and Resources 173

Reading Group Guide 177

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