Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ
by Peter Scazzaro
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ
Recognizing Tip-Of-The-Iceberg Spirituality
Something Is Desperately Wrong
Christian spirituality, without an integration of emotional health, can be deadly—to yourself, your relationship with God, and the people around you. I know. Having lived half my adult life this way, I have more personal illustrations than I care to recount.
The following is one I wish I could forget.
FAITH AND THE POOL
I met John and Susan while speaking at another church. They were excited and enthusiastic about visiting New Life Fellowship Church in Queens where I pastor. On a hot, humid July Sunday, they made the long, arduous drive from Connecticut, with all the predictable traffic, to sit through our three services. Between the second and third service
John pulled me aside to let me know they hoped to get some time to talk with Geri and me.
I was exhausted. But my greater concern was what their pastor, a friend of mine, would think. What would they say to him if I simply sent them home? What might they say about me?
So I lied.
“Sure, I would love to have you for a late-afternoon lunch. I’m sure Geri would too!”
Geri, in her desire to be a “good pastor’s wife,” agreed to the lunch when I called, even though she, too, would have preferred to say no. John, Susan, and I arrived home about three o’clock in the afternoon. Within a few minutes, the four of us sat down to eat.
Then John began to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk. . . . Susan said nothing.
Geri and I would occasionally glance at each other. We felt we had to give him time. But how much?
John continued to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk. . . .
I couldn’t interrupt him. He was sharing with such intensity about God, his life, his new opportunities at work. Oh God, I want to be loving and kind, but how much is enough? I wondered to myself as I pretended to listen. I was angry.Then I felt guilty about my anger. I wanted John and Susan to think of Geri and me as hospitable and gracious. Why didn’t he give his wife a chance to say something? Or us?
Finally, Susan took a bathroom break. John excused himself to make a quick phone call. Geri spoke up once we were alone.
“Pete, I can’t believe you did this!” she mumbled in an annoyed voice. “I haven’t seen you. The kids haven’t seen you.”
I put my head down and slumped my shoulders, hoping my humility before her would evoke mercy.
Susan returned from the bathroom and John continued talking. I hated sitting at that kitchen table.
“I hope I’m not talking too much,” John said unsuspectingly.
“No, of course not.” I continued to lie on our behalf. I assured him, “It’s great having you here.”
Geri was silent next to me. I did not want to look over.
After another hour, Geri blurted out during a rare pause, “I haven’t heard from Faith in a while.” Faith was our three-year-old daughter.
John continued talking as if Geri hadn’t said a word. Geri and I exchanged glances again and continued pretending to listen, occasionally stretching our necks to look outside the room.
Oh, I’m sure everything is all right, I convinced myself.
Geri, however, began to look very upset. Her face revealed tension, worry, and impatience. I could tell her mind was racing through options of where Faith might be.
The house was way too quiet.
John continued talking.
Finally, Geri excused herself with what I could tell was an annoyed tone: “I have to go and check on our daughter.”
She darted down to the basement. No Faith. The bedrooms. No Faith. The living and dining rooms. No Faith.
Frantically, she ran back into the kitchen. “Pete! Oh my God, I can’t find her. She’s not here!”
Horror gripped us both as our eyes locked for a nanosecond. We were both pondering the unthinkable: the pool!
Despite the fact that we lived in a two-family, semi-attached house with little space, we did have a small three-foot-high pool in our backyard for relief from the hot New York City summers. We ran to the backyard . . . and saw our worst fears realized.
There stood Faith in the middle of the pool with her back to us— our three-year-old daughter, naked, barely standing on tiptoes with water up to her chin, almost in her mouth.
At that moment I felt us age five years.
“Faith. Don’t move!” Geri yelled as we ran to pull her out of the pool.
Somehow Faith had let herself up and down the ladder into the water without slipping. And she had kept herself standing on her tiptoes in the pool for who knows how long!
If she had faltered, Geri and I would have been burying our daughter. Geri and I were badly shaken—for days. I shudder even today as I write these words.
The sad truth about this incident is that nothing changed inside us. That would take five more years, a lot more pain, and a few more close calls.
How could I, along with Geri, have been so negligent? I look back in embarrassment at how untruthful and immature I acted with John and Susan, with God, with myself! John wasn’t the problem; I was. Externally I had appeared kind, gracious, and patient, when inwardly I was nothing like that. I so wanted to present a polished image as a good Christian that I cut myself off from what was going on within myself. Unconsciously I had been thinking: I hope I am a good-enough Christian. Will this couple like us? Will they think we are okay? Will John give a good report of his visit to my pastor friend?
Pretending was safer than honesty and vulnerability.
The reality was that my discipleship and spirituality had not touched a number of deep internal wounds and sin patterns—especially those ugly ones that emerged behind the closed doors of our home during trials, disagreements, conflicts, and setbacks.
I was stuck at an immature level of spiritual and emotional development. And my then-present way of living the Christian life was not transforming the deep places in my life.
And because of that, Faith almost died. Something was dreadfully wrong with my spirituality—but what?
Researchers have been charting the departing dust of those known as
“church leavers”1—an increasingly large group that has been gathering
numbers in recent years. Some of these leavers are believers who no
longer attend church.These men and women made a genuine commitment
to Christ but came to realize, slowly and painfully, that the spirituality
available in church had not really delivered any deep, Christtransforming
life change—either in themselves or others.
What went wrong? They were sincere followers of Jesus Christ,
but they struggled as much as anyone else with their marriages,
divorces, friendships, parenting, singleness, sexuality, addictions, insecurities,
drive for approval, and feelings of failure and depression at
work, church, and home. They saw the same patterns of emotional
conflict inside the church as outside.What was wrong with the church?
Other church leavers include those who remained in the church
but simply became inactive. After many years of frustration and disappointment,
realizing that the black-and-white presentations of the life
of faith did not fit with their life experience, they quit—at least internally.
For the sake of their children, or perhaps for lack of an alternative,
they have remained in the church, but passively.They can’t quite
put their finger on the problem, but they know something is not right.
Something is missing. A deep unease in their soul gnaws at them, but
they don’t know what to do about it.
A third group, sadly, chose to jettison their faith completely.They
grew tired of feeling stuck and trapped in their spiritual journey. And
they grew weary of Christians around them who, regardless of their
“knowledge” of God, church involvement, and zeal, were angry, compulsive,
highly opinionated, defensive, proud, and too busy to love the
Jesus they professed. Being a Christian seemed more trouble than it
was worth. Starbucks and the New York Times were better companions
for Sunday mornings.
There was a time in my life when I wanted more than anything else
to be one of those church leavers. The agonizing pain of a major crisis
had me writhing in anger and shame—me, the guy who had tried so
hard to be a committed and loving Christian, who was so sincere about
serving God and his kingdom. How had all my best efforts landed me
in such a mess?
It wasn’t until the pain exposed how much was hiding under my
surface of being a “good Christian” that it hit me: whole layers of my
emotional life had lain buried, untouched by God’s transforming
power. I had been too busy for “morbid introspection,” too consumed
with building God’s work to spend time digging around in my subconscious.
Yet now the pain was forcing me to face how superficially Jesus
had penetrated my inner person, even though I had been a Christian for
That is when I discovered the radical truth that changed my life,my
marriage, my ministry, and eventually the church we were privileged
to serve. It was a simple truth, but somehow I’d missed it—and,
strangely, apparently so had the vast majority of the evangelical movement
I’d been part of. This simple but profound reality, I believe, has
the power to bring revolutionary change to many of those who are
ready to throw in the towel on Christian faith: emotional health and
spiritual maturity are inseparable.
GROWING UP EMOTIONALLY UNDEVELOPED
Very, very few people emerge out of their families of origin emotionally
whole or mature. In my early years of ministry, I believed the power of
Christ could break any curse, so I barely gave any thought to how the
home I’d left long ago might still be shaping me. After all, didn’t Paul
teach in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that when you become a Christian, old
things pass away and all things become new? But crisis taught me I had
to go back and understand what those old things were in order for
them to begin passing away.
My Italian-American family, like all families, was cracked and broken.
My parents were children of immigrants and sacrificed themselves
for their four children to enjoy the American dream. My dad, a baker
by trade, worked endless hours, first in a New York City Italian pastry
shop owned by my grandfather and later for a large baking distributor.
His one overriding goal was for his children to study, graduate from
college, and “make something of their lives.”
My mom struggled with clinical depression and an emotionally unavailable husband. Raised under an abusive father, she suffocated under the weight of raising her four children alone. Her married life, like her childhood, was marked by sadness and loneliness.
My siblings and I emerged out of that environment scarred. We were emotionally underdeveloped and starved for affection and attention. We each left home for college, trying unsuccessfully not to look back.
From the outside our home, like so many others, appeared okay. It seemed better, at least, than most of my friends’ situations. The house of cards, however, came tumbling down when I was sixteen. My older brother broke an invisible rule of our family by disobeying my father and quitting college. Even worse, he announced that Reverend and Mrs. Moon, founders of the Unification Church, were the true parents of humankind. For the next ten years he was declared dead and forbidden to return home. My parents were ashamed and crushed. They drew back from extended family and friends. The pressure and stress of his
dramatic leaving exposed the large craters and holes in our family functioning. We splintered further apart.
It would take us almost two decades to begin recovering.
What is perhaps most tragic is that my dad’s spirituality and loyal involvement in his church (he was the one member of our family with any spark of genuine faith) had little impact on his marriage and parenting. The way he functioned as a father, husband, and employee reflected his culture and family of origin rather than the new family of
My family is undoubtedly different from yours. But one thing I’ve learned after over twenty years of working closely with families is this: your family, like mine, is also marked by the consequences of the disobedience of our first parents as described in Genesis 3. Shame, secrets, lies, betrayals, relationship breakdowns, disappointments, and
unresolved longings for unconditional love lie beneath the veneer of even the most respectable families.
COMING TO FAITH IN CHRIST
Disillusioned and unsure of God’s existence, by the age of thirteen I had left the church, convinced it was irrelevant to “real life.” It was through a Christian concert in a small church and a Bible study on our university campus that, by God’s grace, I became a Christian. I was nineteen. The enormousness of the love of God in Christ overwhelmed
me. I immediately began a passionate quest to know this living Jesuswho had revealed himself to me.
For the next seventeen years, I plunged headfirst into my newfound evangelical/charismatic tradition, absorbing every drop of discipleship and spirituality made available. I prayed and read Scripture. I consumed Christian books. I participated in small groups and attended church regularly. I learned about spiritual disciplines. I served eagerly with my gifts. I gave money away freely. I shared my faith with anyone who would listen.
Following college graduation, I taught high school English for oneyear and then went to work for three years as a staff person with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a Christian ministry serving college students. Eventually this led me to Princeton and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries, one year in Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and the planting of a multiethnic church in Queens, New York.
For those first seventeen years as a devoted follower of Christ, however, the emotional aspects or areas of my humanity remained largely untouched. They were rarely talked about or touched on in Sunday school classes, small groups, or church settings. In fact, the phrase “emotional aspects or areas of my humanity” seemed to belong in a professional counselor’s vocabulary, not the church.
TRYING DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO DISCIPLESHIP
Just as my leadership ministry seemed to be reaching full swing, Geri, my wife, slowly began to protest that something was desperately wrong—wrong with me and wrong with the church. I knew she might be right so I kept trying to implement different discipleship emphases that, to a certain degree, helped me. My conversation with myself went something like this:
“More Bible study, Pete. That will change people. Their minds will be renewed. Changed lives will follow.”
“No. It is body life. Get everyone in deeper levels of community, in small groups. That will do it!”
“Pete, remember, deep change requires the power of the Spirit. That can only come through prayer. Spend more time in prayer yourself and schedule more prayer meetings at New Life. God doesn’t move unless we pray.”
“No, these are spiritual warfare issues. The reason people aren’t really changing is you are not confronting the demonic powers in and around them. Apply Scripture and pray in Jesus’ authority for peopleto be set free from the evil one.”
“Worship. That’s it. If people will only soak in the presence of God in worship, that will work.”
“Remember Christ’s words from Matthew 25:40.We meet Christ when we give freely to ‘the least of these brothers of mine,’ those sick, unknown, in prison. Get them involved in serving among the poor; they will change.”
“No, Pete, you need people who hear God in an exceptional way and have prophetic insight. They will finally break the unseen chains around people.”
“Enough, Pete. People don’t really understand the grace of God in the gospel. Our standing before God is based on Jesus’ record and performance, not our own. It is his righteousness, not ours! Pound it into their heads every day, as Luther said, and they’ll change!”
There is biblical truth in each of these points. I believe all of them have a place in our spiritual journey and development. You, no doubt, have experienced God and his presence through one or more of these in your walk with Christ.
The problem, however, is that inevitably you find, as I did, something is still missing. In fact, the spirituality of most current discipleship models often only adds an additional protective layer against people growing up emotionally. Because people are having real, and helpful, spiritual experiences in certain areas of their lives—such as worship, prayer, Bible studies, and fellowship—they mistakenly believe they are doing fine, even if their relational life and interior world is not in order. This apparent “progress” then provides a spiritual reason for not doing the hard work of maturing.
They are deceived.
I know. I lived that way for almost seventeen years as a Christian. Because of the spiritual growth in certain areas of my life and in those around me, I ignored the reality that signs of emotional immaturity were everywhere in and around me.
Most of us, in our more honest moments, will admit there are deep layers beneath our day-to-day awareness. As the following illustration shows, only about 10 percent of an iceberg is visible to the eye. This 10 percent represents the visible changes we make that others can see. We are nicer people, more respectful. We attend church and participate
regularly. We “clean up our lives” somewhat—from alcohol and drugs to foul language to illicit behavior and beyond. We begin to pray and share Christ with others.
But the roots of who we are continue unaffected and unmoved.
Contemporary spiritual models address some of that 90 percent below the surface. The problem is that a large portion remains untouched by Jesus Christ until there is a serious engagement with what I call “emotionally healthy spirituality.”
GETTING MY ATTENTION THROUGH PAIN
Three things finally dragged me, kicking and screaming, to open up to the notion of emotionally healthy spirituality.
First, I was not experiencing the joy or contentment Scripture promises us in Christ. I was unhappy, frustrated, overworked, and harried. God had brought me into the Christian life with the offer, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30), an invitation to a free and abundant life. But I wasn’t feeling it.
A yoke, in ancient Palestine, was made of wood, handmade to fit perfectly to the neck and shoulders of oxen and prevent chafing or cutting. In the same way, Jesus’ assurance of a “light, easy yoke” can be translated as follows: “I have crafted a life for you, a yoke for you to wear that perfectly fits who you are. It is light and easy, I promise.”
The reality, however, is that after many years as an active Christian, I felt exhausted and in need of a break. My life was lived more out of reaction to what other people did or might do or what they thought or might think about me. I knew in my head we were to live to please God. Living like that was another matter. Jesus’ yoke felt burdensome.
Second, I was angry, bitter, and depressed. For five years I had attempted to do the work of two or three people. We had two services in English in the morning and one in the afternoon in Spanish. I preached at all of them. When my associate in our afternoon Spanish congregation left the church with two hundred of the two hundred and fifty members to start his own church, I found myself hating him. I tried, without success, to forgive him.
I experienced the growing tension of a double life—preaching love and forgiveness on Sundays and cursing alone in my car on Mondays. The gap between my beliefs and my experience now revealed itself with terrifying clarity.
Third, Geri was lonely, tired of functioning as a single mom with our four daughters. She wanted more from our marriage and grew frustrated enough to finally confront me. She had finally come to a place where she would not accept my excuses, delays, or avoidant behavior. She had nothing else to lose.
Late one evening, as I was sitting on our bed reading, she entered the room and calmly informed me: “Pete, I’d be happier single than married to you. I am getting off this roller coaster. I love you but refuse to live this way anymore. I have waited. . . . I have tried talking to you. You aren’t listening. I can’t change you. That is up to you. But I am getting on with my life.”
She was resolute: “Oh, yes, by the way, the church you pastor? I quit. Your leadership isn’t worth following.”
For a brief moment, I understood why people murder those they love. She had exposed my nakedness. A part of me wanted to strangle her. Mostly I felt deeply ashamed. It was almost too much for my weak ego to bear.
Nonetheless, this was probably the most loving thing Geri has done for me in our entire marriage. While she could not articulate it yet at that point, she realized something vital: emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. It is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.
While I sincerely loved Jesus Christ and believed many truths about him, I was an emotional infant unwilling to look at my immaturity.
Geri’s leaving the church pushed me over the brink to look beneath the surface of my iceberg to depths that were, until this time, too frightening to consider. Pain has an amazing ability to open us to new truth and to get us moving. I finally acknowledged the painful truth that huge areas of my life (or iceberg, if you prefer) remained untouched by Jesus Christ. My biblical knowledge, leadership position, seminary training, experience, and skills had not changed that embarrassing reality.
I was engaged in what I now characterize as “emotionally unhealthy spirituality.” I was the senior pastor of a church, but I longed to escape and join the ranks of church leavers.
RESPECTING YOUR FULL HUMANITY
God made us as whole people, in his image (see Genesis 1:27). That image includes physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social dimensions.
Ignoring any aspect of who we are as men and women made in God’s image always results in destructive consequences—in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. If you meet someone, for example, who is mentally challenged or physically disabled, his or her lack of mental or physical development is readily apparent. An autistic child in a crowded playground standing alone for hours without interacting with other children stands out.
Emotional underdevelopment, however, is not so obvious when we first meet people. Over time, as we become involved with them, that reality becomes readily apparent.
I had ignored the “emotional component” in my seeking of God for seventeen years. The spiritual-discipleship approaches of the churches and ministries that had shaped me did not have the language, theology, or training to help me in this area. It didn’t matter how many books I read or seminars I attended in the other areas—physical, social, intellectual,
spiritual. It didn’t matter how many years passed, whether seventeen or another thirty. I would remain an emotional infant until this was exposed and transformed through Jesus Christ. The spiritual foundation upon which I had built my life (and had taught others) was cracked. There was no hiding it from those closest to me.
I had been taught that the way to approach life was through fact, faith, and feelings, in that order. As a result, anger, for example, was simply not important to my walk with God. In fact, it was dangerous and needed to be suppressed. Most people are either “stuffers” or“inflictors” of their anger. Some are both, stuffing it until they finally explode onto others. I was a classic stuffer, asking God to take away my “bad” feelings and make me like Christ.
My failure to “pay attention to God” and to what was going on inside me caused me to miss many gifts. He was lovingly coming and speaking to me, seeking to get me to change. I just wasn’t listening. I never expected God to meet me through feelings such as sadness, depression, and anger.
When I finally discovered the link between emotional and spiritual health, a Copernican revolution began for me and there was no going back. This revolutionary link transformed my personal journey with Christ, my marriage, parenting, and, ultimately, New Life Fellowship Church where I pastor.
LIVING GOD’S WAY—A BEAUTIFUL LIFE
Truly, these have been the best twelve years of my life as a human being, husband, father, follower of Jesus, and leader in his church. I learned that if we do the hard work of integrating emotional health and spirituality, we can truly experience the wonderful promises God has given us—for our lives, churches, and communities. God will make
our lives beautiful.
The apostle Paul recorded: “What happens when we live [authentically] God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard” (Galatians 5:22 MSG). Using two popular versions of the Bible, let me demonstrate how Paul described these beautiful fruits in Galatians 5:22–23:
NIV The Message
Love Affection for others
Joy Exuberance about life
Patience A willingness to stick with things
Kindness A sense of compassion in the heart
Goodness A conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people
Faithfulness Involved in loyal commitments
Gentleness Not needing to force our way in life
Self-Control Able to marshal and direct our energies wisely
God promises if you and I will do life his way (even though it feels unnatural and hard to us initially), then our lives will be beautiful.
Take a few moments to pause in your reading. Read slowly and prayerfully the previous list, letting each word soak into you. Ask yourself honestly: “To what degree are these fruits realities in my life today?” Think about yourself at home, work, school, church. Allow God to love you where you are now. Ask him to do his work in you, that you
might become the kind of person described in the previous passage.
What is so tragic is how few people who desire God, attend andserve their church faithfully, read their Bible, worship, pray, and attend Sunday school classes and small groups do in fact experience the beautiful life, these gifts from God. It goes back, I believe, to a spirituality divorced from emotional health—one that allows deep, underlying layers of our lives to remain untouched by God.
I believe, however, that the walls we hit in our journey with God are gifts from him. It is not God’s intention that we join the ranks of church leavers. He is changing and broadening our understanding of what itmeans to be a Christ follower in the twenty-first century—in ways far more radical than we ever dreamed. Like with Abraham, he is taking us on a journey with many twists and strange turns in order that deep, experiential life changes might take place in you and me through Jesus Christ.
The sad reality is that most of us will not go forward until the pain of staying where we are is unbearable.
That may be where you are today. Receive your circumstance, then, as his gift to you and open your heart as you read this book to meet him in new and fresh ways.
We can’t change—or better said, invite God to change us—when we are unaware and do not see the truth.
In the next chapter we will examine more closely the top ten symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality so we can begin to make the changes God intends.
O God, I thank you for your grace and mercy in my life. If it were not for you, I would not even be aware of you or my need for your transforming work deep beneath the surface of my life. Lord, give me the courage to be honest and to allow the Holy Spirit’s power to invade all of who I am below the surface of my iceberg so that Jesus might beformed in me. Lord, help me to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is for me personally. In Jesus’ name, amen.