By Bo Sanchez
It’s that time of the year when we usually reflect on our faith – how well or how toxic it is. Yes, there is such a thing as toxic faith. Instead of healing, it kills. Instead of blessing, it harms. Instead of giving, it robs.
No, I’m not talking about your Brand of Religion. You could be Catholic, Born-Again, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. It doesn’t matter. In each of these, you could have Toxic Faith. It’s not the Brand of Religion, but the poisonous way you carry out your religion. It poisons you and it poisons others around you.
One of the clear signs that it’s Toxic Faith is that it fuels our hidden addictions.
I know of a significant number of religious persons who are addicted to sex, alcohol, food, anger, materialism, and obviously, to religion itself. But what is Toxic Faith? How do you know if you have Toxic Faith? Let me describe five symptoms of Toxic Faith:
Symptom #1: You Have a Distorted Image of God – He’s Judgmental
One day, a man came up to me and said, “Bo, I’ve been feeling guilty. I feel God is angry at me today…”
“Angry at you? Why?” I asked. “Because I missed my prayer time today. I’m
afraid that He’ll punish me and cause bad things to happen today.”
Friends, I know that feeling very well. Because for years — no, decades — I used to feel this way. I used to pray daily because of fear. Do you know how absurd that is? Imagine a father calling up his son by phone and growling, “Ingrate! How dare you forget me? You don’t visit me anymore. I’m warning you. I’m going to put a curse on you if you don’t visit me right this minute…”
We call those fathers abusive monsters. And yet I imagined God to be like that.
Today, I still pray daily, but I do so because I love to pray. God blesses me, nourishes me, and fills my heart with love. If I do miss my prayers, He doesn’t throw lightning bolts on me. When my image of God changed, my whole world changed as well.
Do You Worship a Judgmental, Wrathful, Vindictive, and Vengeful God?
If a person has a distorted image of God, your subconscious beliefs are as follows –
- “God will love me only if I behave.”
- “God hates sinners and is angry with me.”
- “He wants to punish me. He’s written down all my sins.”
- “God is never satisfied with me.”
- “If I sin, God will throw me to Hell forever.”
- “I’m now sick with cancer. God is punishing me for not being good enough.”
- “Our business flopped. God must be punishing me for forgetting Him.”
- “We just met a car accident. You know why? We failed to pray…”
When you have Toxic Faith, it seems as though God is preoccupied with your sins. All He does the whole day is waiting for you to make a mistake. Your entire relationship is based on shame. He has ever-increasing demanding standards, like a target that keeps on moving, and they can never quite satisfy Him.
Symptom #2: You Have a Distorted Faithfulness – You’re Legalistic
My friend Melanie ( not her real name) believes that God wants her to pray at the exact time every day — 5:00AM She’d feel very guilty if, because she woke up late or had to do something else, she was forced to pray at 5:30AM To Melanie, that wasn’t honoring God.
Toxic Faith produces very faithful people, but its expression of faithfulness is distorted: It’s legalistic and painfully scrupulous. Legalism in itself is an addiction.
When Melanie was able to keep her 5:00AM prayer each day, she felt good about herself. She felt God accepted her and liked her — so she liked herself too. But she looked down on others who didn’t pray, who prayed late, or who prayed shorter than her. But when she was late with her 5:00AM appointment with God, she was filled with shame. She felt God frowned on her. She felt bad about herself. She was an ungrateful, undisciplined, insect before God.
She is the modern-day Pharisee that needs to hear again Jesus’ words: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law — justice, mercy, and faith.”
Are You a Religious Addict?
Legalism can be an addiction. Rigidity can be an addiction. Religiosity can be an addiction. You can be addicted to anything as long as it can give you an escape from your inner pain. And religion is the easiest thing to be addicted to because it’s something acceptable and highly admired. How do you know if you’re a religious addict? If instead of facing your past wounds or resolving personal issues head on, you ESCAPE from your inner pain by drowning yourself in religious activities — prayer, Bible reading, doctrinal studies, ministry meetings — then most likely you’re a religious addict.
Symptom #3: You Have a Distorted Image of Self – You Feel Condemned
A person with low self-worth will be damaged by Toxic Faith.
I have talked to many whose language expresses a very negative picture of themselves. They say something like this, “I’m bad. My body is bad. I’m ashamed of myself. God wants me to disregard my feelings (because it’s of the flesh) and give up my valid and legitimate needs (because that’s selfishness).”
Toxic Faith will never allow us to love ourselves. Instead, it will urge us to call ourselves a wretch and a worm — and urge us to treat ourselves that way.
Some people actually pray in this way: “Lord, I’m a worm, a despicable, ugly, sinful worm. I don’t deserve your love. I’m so repulsive in your sight. I’m a beast, an infestation, a virus, a wretch like no other…”
Toxic Faith will distort how you look at yourself. It will also distort the very beliefs you believe in…
Symptom #4: You Have a Distorted Faith – You Practice Hyper-Faith
I’m a preacher that gives hope to people. It’s my mission. Every Sunday, I preach to a people that are tired and burdened from the daily grind of life. In our dark world, we need hope badly. So I tell people to dream big dreams and pray for them every day. I tell people that they’re surrounded by God’s abundance — and at anytime, they can tap into that overflowing resource for all that they need. But there’s a thin line that I dare not cross: The realm of Hyper Faith.
Hyper Faith is a common ingredient of Toxic Faith. Hyper Faith preaches, “If you only have faith, all your problems will be solved. If you just believe and pray, God will fix everything magically.”
That’s not true. I tell people that while they’re breathing, problems are a part of life. They don’t disappear just because we’re close to God. But in every problem, God will accompany us.
Real Faith heals, but Toxic Faith kills. How? Let me give you a few examples…
When you don’t get healed, is there something wrong with you?
My friend Ren (not her real name) has cancer. For some time, she’s been praying for healing. One day, she was prayed over by a Pastor of the Hyper-Faith variety. After praying over her, this Pastor declared to her with the authority of an Old Testament prophet, “The only reason why you’re still sick is because you lack faith.”
Ren was devastated. She felt guilty. Sad. Confused. And angry. She felt guilty that she had little faith. She was sad that she couldn’t make it grow after all these years. She was confused because she didn’t know what to do. And she was angry at God that He was giving her healing but placed it beyond the reach of her small faith. But the truth was knew Ren. My friend has great faith. She trusted in God even in the midst of her sickness. But Hyper-Faith will not allow that.
If you want to be wealthy, just tithe?
This is their belief: If you’re close to God, you’ll be healthy and wealthy. You’ll never get sick and you should never be poor.
But here’s the big question: Why is it that there are people who tithe and remain poor? Lack of faith again?
Here’s why: Because tithing is only one of the keys to prosperity. There are other practical keys that one has to do to become prosperous. Like what? Like living simply; and saving regularly; and learning how to invest and knowing where to invest.
Here are three other insane beliefs of Toxic Faith I have no time to explain:
- A strong faith will protect me from problems and pain.
- I should accept everything that happens to me as God’s will.
- If it’s not in the Bible, it not true or relevant.
There are others, but let me now go to the fifth symptom…
Symptom #5: You’ll Have a Distorted Faith System – You’re Spiritually Abused
Toxic Faith is usually supported by a Toxic Faith System, which is spiritually abusive.To find out if your group, family, community, ministry, organization, or church has a Toxic Faith System, look for these 7 Elements:
1. The Leader claims special access to God and maintains control and authoritarian rule
2. The Leader is punitive, judgmental, and castigating
3. The Leader isn’t accountable to anyone
4. No real Communication between Leaders and Members
5. Members feel it’s their group “Against the World”
6. Members are suffering
7. The priorities taught to members are as follows:
- Submit to the Leader at all times.
- Don’t ask, don’t doubt, don’t think.
- Never express feelings except positive ones.
- Don’t trust outsiders. (Just listen to our teachings.)
- Don’t do anything outside your role.
- You need to give money or else.
- Protect the image of the organization at all costs.
Jesus said, Beware of the false prophets, who come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. False prophets don’t have to be cultist leaders or strange guys who call themselves Messiah. When a Leader creates his own exacting standards and tells people that unless they follow them, they’ll not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he is shutting Heaven’s gates to them. When any leader robs people of their ability to think, controls them by his use of guilt and fear, manipulating them to strengthen his power or to enrich himself, he is a false prophet.
Do You Know the Difference Between Toxic Faith and Real Faith?
God comes to us with a lot of gentleness and a bowl of food – the food of His love, the food of His grace.
He will not force us to eat His food. He will not impose His power, His rule, His authority over us. Instead, He will wait, patiently and gently, for us to learn to trust Him – day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. When we are ready, He will feed us. When we are ready, He will wrap His arms around us.
That’s the difference between Toxic Faith and Real Faith.
Toxic Faith imagines God as a Judge that condemns and forces us to follow Him, using threats and intimidation. Toxic Faith requires that His followers do the same — impose, judge, label, pull rank, and intimidate.
Real Faith is very different. It imagines God as a someone patiently waiting for a tiger to leave his cave, so He could feed him and caress him. Real Faith requires that His followers do the same — love, forgive, share, care, bless, and serve.
I choose Real Faith. Real Faith heals my addictions. Toxic Faith worsens them. Choose Real Faith.