A Review of
Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad
Paperback: Convergent Books, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Kristin Williams
I didn’t want to be moved by Elizabeth Esther’s new book, Spiritual Sobriety. I started reading it with a little notebook beside me, thinking I could keep track of all the ways I disagreed with what Esther was saying. I don’t have a story of what Esther calls “good religion gone bad” and I didn’t even think I believed a person could be addicted to religion. It sounded a little hokey to me so I was prepared to find a lot to dismiss and nothing I could relate to in this new book.
Then I read the first chapter and kept seeing myself. Elizabeth Esther spends the first chapter defining spiritual sobriety and, in large part, the definition revolves around what it is not. She describes her first religious high, the first time she asked Jesus to live in her heart and how she wanted to keep experiencing that high and so she asked Him into her heart again the next day. She kept seeking that high in many of the same ways I looked for spiritual highs: knowing all the answers, winning “sword drills” in youth group and surging forward at the decision time of conferences and concerts. She, and I, used God for how He made us feel and also, perhaps, for the blessings we were sure He would pour out on us because of the displays of devotion that we offered God.
Religious addiction, then, is a counterfeit god that “spring[s] from our human need for connection, comfort, meaning, transcendence.” Instead of a real relationship with a loving God, the religious addict relies on quick fixes. The religious addict needs the emotional release of a well-timed worship song crescendo. The religious addict reads the Bible or prays, not to enjoy connection to God, but to feel better about himself. Spiritual sobriety, according the Elizabeth Esther, is “a serene, moderate way of living in which people refrain from treating God, religion, or a belief system like a drug.”
Here’s where I start having some questions. I can see how at times people, myself included, use or have used religious experiences in an addictive way. I can see how dependence on the “mountaintop” feelings experienced at a religious retreat or conference my not be representative of a healthy relationship with God. What I don’t see is how a person could be too dependent on God. This is a concept that the book discusses but never with any depth. I am afraid that sometimes the author conflates the trappings of religion with God. But overall the message of the book it is possible to have a healthy and authentic relationship with God, it just may take some effort to change our thoughts and behaviors.
This is where the book really shines. Elizabeth Esther takes the reader through chapters on how to cultivate a sober thought life, exercise kind speech, avoid burnout, and repair relationships. At the end of each chapter is a helpful section on how to “practice your spiritual sobriety” which includes a prayer, a promise, and several questions for journaling or group discussion. This isn’t just a book to be read, it is meant to be worked through and, in my opinion, might be worked out best with a small group of committed, like-minded friends.
Spiritual Sobriety was born out of Elizabeth Esther’s own experiences and supplemented by careful research into religious addiction and spiritual abuse (you can read more about her childhood in an abusive fundamentalist cult in her excellent first book, Girl at the End of the World). The book is very clear that “full recovery meant confronting my root issue: my unhealthy view of God.” Even those of us who don’t come from a background of spiritual abuse can benefit from occasionally stopping to take stock of what we believe about God and, maybe more importantly, if we are acting out what we say we believe.
Spiritually sober people are “humble, moderate, gentle, and disciplined”. Many have faced religious addiction and learned that “filling the emptiness with anything other than God’s love leads only to suffering.” The good news is that, if we let it, God’s love “can fill up the soul’s immensity from top to bottom.” God empowers us to live spiritually sober lives. We just have to allow God to do so.
Matthew 11:28-30 [MSG] says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Maybe this sums up the purpose of Spiritual Sobriety better than anything I could write. Tired, worn out, burned, religious addict or not, our sister Elizabeth Esther aims to help us learn the unforced rhythms of grace and live freely and lightly. This is a message we all need.