Is your Faith Toxic or Healthy?




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.
  1. 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.
  1. Respectful: it’s good to believe and remember that all human beings are capable of inspiration and personal growth.
  1. 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.
  1. Self-worthy: we see ourselves as having a high inherent value, bestowed upon us by God.
  1. Vulnerable: “being real”, and therefore open to feeling the very human heartaches of rejection, failure and loss.
  1. Trusting: the authors urge us to trust ourselves with other people, trust ourselves with God, and trust God with ourselves.
  1. 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.
  1. Relationship Oriented: the focus is on relationships more than rules, on getting along with God and others vs. seeing oneself as an independent individual.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Nondefensiveness: “healthy faith welcomes critical evaluation and tough questions as opportunities to learn and relate.” I love that one.
  1. 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.
  1. Reality Based: healthy believers “see the problems before them, do what they can to resolve them, and trust God to do the rest.”
  1. 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.

  1. 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 at unhealthy 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!




Your “faith” is your own spiritual or religious beliefs, and the lifestyle that grows out of those beliefs. This column is written so that readers can examine their own religious beliefs and practices to see where their faith might be creating problems in their own or others’ lives.

Toxic Beliefs

My previous column on healthy faith gave the thoughts of Steve Arterburn and Jack Felton in their book Toxic Faith, and I’ll do the same again today. Toxic faith will cause ongoing problems for ourselves and others. I have reworded a few of Arterburn and Felton’s toxic beliefs, left some out, and added the last three from my own experience. Beware if you believe the following:

Conditional Love: God’s love and favor depend on our behavior.

Instant Peace: when tragedy strikes, real believers feel nothing but peace.

Guaranteed Healing: if our faith is real, God will always heal whoever we pray for.

Blameless Ministers: all ordained ministers can and should be trusted.

Monetary Rewards: material prosperity is given to those with true faith.

Investment Tithing: the more money we give to God, the more money God gives to us.

Salvation by Works: we can work our way into Heaven.

Spiteful God: life’s problems are God’s punishments for our sins.

Slavery of the Faithful: we must not stop meeting others’ needs.

Irrational Surrender: I must always submit to authority.

Religious Inequality: God uses only spiritual giants.

Passivity: true faith waits for God to help with problems, and does nothing until then.

Biblical Exclusivity: the Bible is the only source for truth.

Heavenly Matchmaking: God will find a mate perfect for me.

Naïve optimism: everything that happens to us is good.

Bullet-proof Faith: our beliefs will protect us from problems and pain.

Impersonal God: God is too big to care about us.

Divinely Ordained Happiness: more than anything else, God wants us to be happy.

Attaining Perfection: we can become God.

Privileged Class: God wants his followers to dominate, exploit, or pretty much ignore nonbelievers.

Political Favoritism: God favors one political nation or party above all others.

Naïve New Age: we should ignore sin and evil like God does, because they aren’t real.


Toxic Lifestyles

Enough about beliefs—how about the way you live?   Arterburn and Felton list some religiously inspired lifestyles they find unhealthy. Again, this is my doctored list:

  1. Hyperactivity: excessive and rigid obedience driven by guilt and fear of punishment and hell.
  2. Giving to Get: working religious principles to manipulate God and others, through tactical good deeds, such as coming to church just because it’s good for business or good for the kids.
  3. Self-obsession: being so preoccupied with their own needs, hurts, thoughts and feelings that God and others are neglected.
  4. Extreme Intolerance: lacking respect for varying opinions, beliefs and lifestyles, leading them to judge, straighten out and control others through tactics like gossip and being preachy.
  5. High on God: seeking to find, maintain, or get back to a spiritual high, thus being lazy, and so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.
  6. Penny Pinching: using the church for both saving old stuff and minimizing personal and church expenses.

In closing I remind you that this column is written to help you find the toxic aspects of your own spiritual beliefs and lifestyle. If you believe or practice any of the things above, you need to talk with your pastor about it. If your pastor doesn’t see a problem with it, you need to find yourself another church.

And finally, as you have read this, if you have been finding yourself using these lists to judge only other people instead of yourself, your faith is developing one of the most toxic traits of all—the inability to smell your own spiritual stink.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], 502 633 2860.


Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt