What is healthy faith, anyway, and who am I to judge it? As a psychologist, I can tell when people’s religious beliefs and lifestyles are enabling them to enjoy life, be enjoyable to others, and leave the world a better place each day. No matter what a person’s religious faith or denomination, most would agree this is healthy.
For defining sick and healthy religious or spiritual faith, an excellent book was written some years ago by a counselor Steve Arterburn and a pastor Jack Felton, called Toxic Faith. I really like their final chapter, "Seventeen Characteristics of Healthy Faith". Here they are:
1. Focused on God: trying to tune ourselves into harmony with God rather than getting God to meet our needs.
2. Growing: "healthy faith grows and matures over time." Every living thing grows, and faith that doesn’t evolve its beliefs and practices is practically dead.
3. Respectful: it’s good to believe and remember that all human beings are capable of inspiration and personal growth.
4. Free to Serve: believing that we don’t have to work for the welfare of others, but that we freely choose to do so, with our hearts in it.
5. Self-worthy: we see ourselves as having a high inherent value, bestowed upon us by God.
6. Vulnerable: "being real", and therefore open to feeling the very human heartaches of rejection, failure and loss.
7. Trusting: the authors urge us to trust ourselves with other people, trust ourselves with God, and trust God with ourselves.
8. Individualized: celebrating that God gave each of us unique talents and opportunities, so that we strive to be a unique expression of God’s ways.
9. Relationship Oriented: the focus is on relationships more than rules, on getting along with God and others vs. seeing oneself as an independent individual.
10. Personal: if we believe there’s a personal God seeking a personal relationship with each human being, then God’s word to each of us is personal.
11. Balanced: the authors mention balancing work, rest and play; witnessing and serving; obeying rules and being creative; avoiding the perspectives of either/or, black or white, all or nothing, and us or them.
12. Nondefensiveness: "healthy faith welcomes critical evaluation and tough questions as opportunities to learn and relate." I love that one.
13. Nonjudgmental: "stop judging others and listen to them", especially to what they need. This requires comparing ourselves with God, with what we are to become, not to other people.
14. Reality Based: healthy believers "see the problems before them, do what they can to resolve them, and trust God to do the rest."
15. Able to Embrace our Emotions: we need to feel our emotions and express them in constructive ways.
16. Able to Embrace our Humanity: we acknowledge our capacity to sin, and make mistakes. We forgive others to appreciate our own forgiveness, by God, by ourselves, and by trusted other people.
17. Loving: considering Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, I find few people who come to me with a healthy balance of those three loves. So many love themselves much better than they love God or others, love God but dislike most people, love their neighbor instead of themselves, or love their neighbors and then themselves.
If you are called to love God and others, you have to take care of the caretaker, the one who does the loving, and that’s you. In many ways, if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else can, and then you can’t take very good care of others either.
Next time I’m going to wander into the country of sacred cows. I’ll take a meddling look atunhealthy faith, and in particular, at certain toxic religious experiences, beliefs and lifestyles. You’ll likely agree with me and with Toxic Faith that these are sick, but I don’t think you’ll have much trouble coming up with lots of examples from the people you’ve known and seen, and probably even one or two within yourself!