Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book review
I first picked up Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero, in 2014 (!) after a mentor had recommended it to me - interestingly, I didn’t think it was very good, and I didn’t get past the first chapter. It didn’t make all that much sense to me and I probably wanted something more dense/cerebral (ie less about feelings). The book discusses things like our “true selves” and “self-care” through a Christian lens, and I didn’t really have a framework where those things were very meaningful. Like sure they mattered, but they didn’t really matter enough that I was going to spend time reading about them. My brand of Christianity was that increased “raw spiritual discipline” is what leads to spiritual maturity, and you didn’t get there from looking inward.
Scazzero talks about how this form of discipleship (“just do do do”) will look like maturity on the outside, but it often fails to touch and transform the internals of a person, how they think about themselves and how they navigate relationships, especially in conflict. In some pockets of Christian culture, we don’t really want to acknowledge feelings or give them any significant weight. We are quick to say the “heart is deceitful” and to dismiss feelings as sinful or “prideful.” Hurt by something? We attribute it to bitterness or unforgiveness, rather than pain or trauma. Faced with physical limits preventing us from doing more? It’s selfishness, “idolatry”, or poor time management. Want to do less? It’s sin or laziness and should be rectified by doing more.
I saw this in my own faith. Over time, my faith was reduced to doing spiritually explicit things. I just tried to do everything. If other things got in the way, I’d give them up. If I began work without reading my Bible first, I was marked by guilt. I believed that it was always objectively better for me to be at church - that was always better than having my own personal time with God, or giving time to my wife, or giving time to myself to do something that I enjoyed. So I spent a lot of time at church and only what was necessary on everything else. I had trouble doing things without any justifiable spiritual value (running and reading programming articles were two things I very actively questioned during that time). This had at least 2 side effects on my faith - I felt a real lack of emotions, especially joy, and I no longer saw my faith as something that was very dynamic. What I mean is that, at some point, I was mostly concerned with trying to keep up my spiritual regimen as long as I could. I no longer imagined how my faith could be demonstrated or cultivated or applied in new or compelling or creative ways, because I was just plugged into this lifelong system of things to do. Spiritual maturity felt like it could only look one way, and I had learned that way.
One of the ideas of the book is that our feelings shouldn’t get dismissed as inherently evil. We should acknowledge them because our feelings are actually what ground us in reality and are a real way that God intends to reveal Himself to us. We shouldn’t just blindly follow our feelings, but we should make the space to acknowledge them because that’s the actual indication of what’s going on inside of our hearts and minds. That’s who we are at the core, whether we like it or not. We likely discovered faith initially out of that vulnerable admission of who we are at the core, so why should we deny or dismiss or discredit that core now?
Scazzero talks about how, before Christ, we were undergoing discipleship, but it was coming from our “family of origin.” Now that we’re disciples of Christ, that doesn’t mean we instantly do things the way Christ would do them. We have the more practical task of identifying and transitioning over from what contradicts Christ’s teachings to what aligns with it. This is practical cultural things, like what we place value in (status, accomplishments, education), how we talk (sarcasm, putting others down, false humility), and how we handle conflict (avoidance or disengagement, over-spiritualizing, self-destructive tendencies). He also talks about examining our own family histories to understand why we are the way that we are and identify how something like generational sin may cascade (for example, he talks about how a series of emotionally distant dads affected him and his siblings in different ways - and how he was hindered in his ability to meaningfully move beyond that in his own marriage until understanding this).
Another big idea I took away was the term “differentiation”, which is apparently a psychology term and not something that Scazzero came up with. It’s the idea that we can have a strong sense of who we are irrespective of circumstances and other peoples’ sometimes strong expectations/feelings directed toward us. This stuck out to me because I’m really terrible at doing it. If someone has a strong opinion, I am likely to waver. I am pretty constantly assessing situations to see how I can stick out the least and that I’m not inconveniencing anyone. I am likely to change who I am or what role I play based on the people I am around. I try not to change other people individually or in a group setting, the culture. I’m a passive supporting role rather than ever the lead character. So if I’m around people who think highly of me, I can sometimes rise to the occasion, but if I feel like people expect me to fail, I may flounder.
It’s in that context of differentiation that Scazzero brings up the idea of our “true selves”. In this sense, Jesus had the highest degree of differentiation. Other people had their expectations of what kind of leader He was supposed to be and what His kingdom should look like - but Jesus already had a strong sense of who He was and what He should do, and He stuck to that.
And maybe God created me to be a specific role. But if I’m always sorta passively adapting, then it’s likely I’m not really fulfilling that role. If that, then my experience of God and my contributions to my family and the broader church community are likely suboptimal.
After all of this, Scazzero turns to more practical advice of how we actually go about spiritual formation. He brings up traditions like the “Daily Office” (that is, prayer throughout the day - originally, the monks were doing this 7 times a day - literally every 3 hours!) and silence and solitude. And then a “rule of life” that can include things like keeping the Sabbath and being in the Word, but could also be things like sharing meals with people and turning off your phone. At the least, this has helped motivate me towards reading the Bible more regularly, even if it’s in small chunks. My Bible reading went from a habit to almost nonexistent over the last several years, but I’ve been re-establishing a rhythm again over the last several weeks (to be honest, it really helps that I’m on parental leave and haven’t needed to think about work - I’m uncertain how a return to work will affect this habit).
[One thing I thought was pretty neat here is that I didn’t really realize the “rule of life” actually originated back in the Monastic movement in the 3rd-5th centuries AD - which is cool because I had actually read all about that in a different church history book called “The Story of Christianity”.
It was also interesting thinking about how Scazzero’s writings may have repopularized the rule of life in Christian consciousness today. Other books that I’ve read on the topic of a rule of life include “The Common Rule” by Justin Earley and “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer (and in fact, Scazzero quotes Dallas Willard about “hurry”, which was the inspiration for Comer’s book).]
Overall, this was an easy read (it took me a month rather than the usual ~6 months it takes me to read a single book!) and one I’ve already recommended to a friend. I imagine it feels like a Christian counseling session condensed into a book. I think for those who may be emotionally detached from their faith or who feel strangely limited or stuck in their Christian discipleship, this is a book that could be pretty helpful. Let me know if you decide to pick it up!