Spiritual Sobriety by Elizabeth Esther

Spiritual Sobriety by Elizabeth EstherSpiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad by Elizabeth Esther
Published by Convergent Books on April 19, 2016
Pages: 192
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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It’s easy to get high on God in America.But is this good religion?  In a compelling follow-up to her memoir, Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther explores how religious fervor can become religious addiction.   The evidence is everywhere. In families who inexplicably choose to harm their children in order to abide by cultic church doctrine. But in ordinary believers too who use God the same way addicts use drugs or alcohol—to numb pain, alter their mood, or simply to escape the realities of this messy, unpredictable thing called life.   If you’ve ever wondered how a religion that preaches freedom and love can produce judgmental and unkind followers; if you’ve ever felt captive to the demanding God of your own childhood; if you’ve struggled to find contentment without needing another emotional hit from a “life-changing” conference or “mountain-top” experience, then Spiritual Sobriety is for you. The author, who grew up in a hyper-controlling church cult, will help you find hope and rebirth in the ruins of disillusioned faith.   Filled with stories and warm, practical advice, Spiritual Sobriety offers a gentle path out of the desperate cycles of craving-euphoria-hangover and into a freer, clean-and-sober faith practice.

In Spiritual Sobriety, Elizabeth Esther speaks specifically to her fellow religious addicts (RA’s), but anyone who has been part of a damaging/abusive church can pull wisdom from her book. The symptoms of religious addiction are laid out clearly, and readers can see that it seeps into unexpected places—this is not a problem exclusive to fundamentalism. Esther speaks of how easy it is to unknowingly get “twisted up in something false and spiritually bruising,” even if you aren’t an RA. She outlines patterns of addictive behavior within a religious context, especially red flags such as emotional manipulation and a “transactional use of God.”

The weakest part of the book, for me, was its conclusion. Within the last chapter, there are little moments—like asking God for “the power to do a load of laundry”—that feel disconnected from her overall message. Maybe I felt this disconnect because I was bringing my own religious hangups differences to the book, though…

Regardless, the author thoroughly and thoughtfully covers some really important topics:

  • The stigma of mental health issues, especially within the faith community.
  • Realizing that clinical depression isn’t cured by prayer or pulling yourself out of it.
  • Taking time off from God if needed, then relearning how to pray, including useful examples to ease back into it (simple and earnest, simple and earnest).
  • The unhealthy focus on being “born again” and having a dramatic conversion story, how this can haunt those who were raised in the church. This is an often overlooked problem for a large number of Christians, and I was glad to see her address it.
  • “Experience seeking” when it comes to faith.

Part memoir, part workbook, part devotional, sometimes Spiritual Sobriety felt a little too much like a self-help book for my liking. There was a lot of standard fare self-care suggestions—slow down, simplify, say no, set up healthy boundaries. So the content wasn’t quite what I expected. But, the advice makes sense, and it’s useful whether you’re an RA or just someone who has been hurt by an unhealthy church environment.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“These days we don’t need pillories or whipping posts. Social media is the only arena we need for public humiliation. . . All you have to do is express an unpopular opinion. Or just be your true, open, vulnerable self.”

“Other people don’t get to tell us our reality; we can learn to trust what we feel and think – and even how we act.”

“When we model self-trusting behavior, we give others permission to trust themselves, too. Empowerment is contagious.”

  • This book really looks interesting, and I think can see where the author is coming from and what she is trying to convey. I can see this book being a topic of a lot of discussion.

  • Amanda

    This sounds fascinating!