Avoiding Spiritual Bypassing in Evangelism

Sandra Gilliland, LMFT, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Louisiana State University of Alexandria

One of our desires as a BCNet Evangelism Committee is to provide collegiate directors with ideas for evangelism on their campus. We have provided ideas in five categories: First Contact, Conversational Outreach, Community Integration, Gospel Proclamation, and Evangelism Strategies. We hope that the following Evangelism Strategies article will be useful to you and your students!  


A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance: Ecclesiastes 3:4 

Job’s friends get a bad rap! In reality, they did better than most. Upon learning of Job’s tragedies, they left their homes and traveled to be with him. Upon arrival they saw the deep grief Job was in and “then sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, for they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13, NIV). The mental image of these four men, sitting together in silence out of respect for the deep sorrow Job was experiencing paints a picture of joining in suffering and offering presence. It is hard to imagine the intensity of those seven days. The deep grief and outward expression of loss and pain Job would have been expressing would have been hard to bear for even the most seasoned trauma therapist. Silence is tricky and we don’t like it. How much silence is too much? Social and Cognitive Psychologists suggest it only takes 4 seconds of silence during a back-and-forth conversation for individuals in the U.S. to begin, feeling not just awkward, but anxious and rejected (Koudenburg et al. 2011). In order to avoid silence, well-meaning Christians often speak when the kindest thing they can offer is a silent presence.

The term spiritual bypassing is attributed to John Welwood who defined the term as “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” This term has since been used in many different contexts but the gist remains that often those from a spiritual background may be tempted to use their spirituality in times of crisis as a quick-fix bandaid to avoid painful emotions. When attempting to share Christ with someone who is hurting or grieving there can be a temptation to push past their pain and sorrow quickly and go straight to the good news of the gospel. Unfortunately, this message of love and hope may be misinterpreted as insensitive and tone-deaf. Some ministers are much more comfortable sharing the plan of salvation than sitting on the ground with a hurt, lonely, or angry person.

Some people avoid feelings like sorrow, rejection, anger, hurt, and/or despair because they don’t have the emotional maturity to know how to acknowledge and sit with big and uncomfortable feelings. Scazzaro lists “Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear” as one of the 10 symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality. Others have adopted a view of being pious as being nonemotional. They have bought into the notion that if I have enough faith or am emulating Christ, I will not feel anger, hurt, or fear. Thomas Merton reminds us “Christianity is not stoicism. The Cross does not sanctify us by destroying human feelings. Detachment is not insensible. Too many ascetics fail to become great saints precisely because their rules and ascetic practices have merely deadened their humanity instead of setting it free to develop richly, in all its capacities, under the influence of grace”

In his book, A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card (2005) invites the reader to worship God through lament as is illustrated in scripture. Card explains that when we are hurting, scared, and broken, we have a unique opportunity to cry out to God and express all of our pain openly. In openly expressing our pain directly to our compassionate God, we are acknowledging our faith in his unwavering presence. Card wrote, “lament is not a path to worship but the path of worship.” Sheila Walsh shares a similar observation in her book, It is ok to not be Ok, as she writes “I believe that doubts, honestly expressed and wrestled with, produce a faith that is stronger and more intimate than doubts suppressed under the veneer of faith”. The best part of allowing oneself to feel all of these big and uncomfortable feelings is that it allows us to experience our full range of emotions. When we suppress emotions we perceive as negative, we inadvertently suppress the emotions we want to feel.


  1. Expand your emotional vocabulary. Learning how to express your feelings openly with safe people can help increase your comfort in responding to the emotional expression of others. Similarly, learning to use more feeling words in daily conversations can help those around you know that you are comfortable hearing about their feelings. For example, instead of responding “I am fine” you can say “today is a good day but I am feeling a lot of pressure to get my work done by Wednesday morning.”
  2.  Don’t offer the tissue too quickly. As a therapist, having tissues on hand comes with the territory. However, the timing of offering tissue can have a major impact on the session intensity. As soon as you offer a tissue to someone crying there is a natural instinct to dry their tears and pull them together. If you are trying to give them the time and space they need to express their feelings, you don’t want to send signals that they need to stifle those feelings.
  3. Offer your presence without your advice. When someone is hurting, being present is a generous gift. In most cases, advice is rarely helpful while someone is actively experiencing big feelings they are not likely to be ready to make decisions. Allowing them the time and space to feel their feelings, whether they are rational or irrational, is the most respectful thing you can do. Once they are in a less emotive state you can determine if any advice is needed. This is true of sharing the gospel, as well! We want to share, but we want to follow the Spirit’s timing and graceful empathy. 
  4. Let Jesus be your example. While on Earth, Jesus experienced and expressed numerous emotions such as grief (Luke 19:41), joy (Luke 10:21), anger (Mark 3:5), astonishment (Mark 6:6; Luke 7:9), sorrow (Luke 7:13), and many others. Studying how Jesus expressed and responded to emotions creates a pathway for us to follow.
  5. When in doubt, go to therapy. If you find that despite a desire to sit on the ground with those who are in deep despair you just can’t tolerate the intensity of those feelings, you may benefit from going to therapy to talk about your own hurts, traumas, and losses.

This resource is available to all collegiate ministries. Please use it for your ministry but not for commercial purposes. We ask that you retain the BCNet header.

Avoiding Spiritual Bypassing in Evangelism 1


Card, M. (2005). A Sacred Sorrow. Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament.


Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2011). Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in

group conversations affect social needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 512-

515. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.12.006

Merton, T (1956). Thoughts in Solitude. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Walsh, S. (2018) It’s Ok to Not be Ok. Moving forward one day at a time. Baker Books

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