Fasting From Church

by Christine Sine
512px-Looking_out_from_Redeemer_Church,_JerusalemBy DiggerDina (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Looking out from Redeemer Church, Jerusalem By DiggerDina

By Stefan Schmidt

Two springs ago, I fasted from church, for lent. I suppose this raises a lot of questions including, “what do you mean?”

I mean, I stopped going to buildings on Sundays during the one-hour block which is broken into thirds, of music, expository teaching and community announcements. What I do not mean is that I decreased the importance of my relationship with God or people.

You see, I had developed an allergy. Most of us have at least one. I do not mean we get the sniffles when pollen shows up or our throat itches when we have shellfish. I mean, there are things in our lives that we just cannot be around without reacting to with a strong fight or flight response. We react in a way, over and above what seems reasonable, against the stimulus. For some, it is looking at snakes. For others, it is taking a test. For others, it might be the mere suggestion of asking someone out. For people with PTSD it is more serious and reminders of a season of trauma can put them right back in the middle of it.

One trigger, for me, is a specific phrase. When I am in a church building, and someone says “the Word of the Lord”, after reading from the bible, my anxiety goes through the roof and I have trouble making small talk after the service.

In “church” settings, I had been told that there are some people going to hell and some heaven, that there are clear requirements for this life if only you will take the bible seriously, read it and find them. Having doubt or anxiety was evidence that you may be on the “hell track”. Lack of confidence was evidence of uncertain security in death.

In light of this worldview, on one occasion, as an adult, I read the entire bible in a week and a half trying desperately to find the requirements for heaven’s access. I lost sleep and developed an acute anxiety response. When someone says “The Word of the Lord” I wonder again, “Have I missed the detail that gets me in?” “Am I likely going to hell since I already feel scared of death and doubt my security?” “Which instruction about being right with God is the important one that gets me safety?” This is not a phrase that comforts me. It feels like a threat.

There are other triggers besides this one, for me. Certain music, certain verses, a pastor’s tone of voice and even the expectation to bow one’s head.

When I have little defense against these fears and since selective numbing is rarely successful, I numb completely and none of the potential joy of a church service permeates my defense. Depressed and internally shut off from feelings, I want to stand and shout “Don’t say that!” but fear the rejection of having a dissenting view. Burdened with conflict, little healing or joy comes through during time in church. Church often feels lonely.

Like allergies to proteins, there are various strategies to deal with allergies to social stimulus. For pollens, Benadryl limits allergic reactions. For anxiety, there are medications too. However, depending on the reaction severity you may need to avoid the stimulus entirely. Think of this like anaphylaxis. If you are shutting down emotionally due to your anxiety response in a situation, it may be that you would benefit from just not being around that stimulus. Give your emotional immune system a rest.

This may be disruptive to the idea that conventional faith expression is always helpful. Sometimes people, like me, have become allergic to an aspect of a faith culture. In those cases, a fast might be helpful. It does not need to be permanent. You might consider it a “cleanse” to give your body and mind a rest. Reduce the reaction intensity and perhaps try returning with small doses of the given stimulus. That is, if you want to return.

I have gone to church a handful of times since that spring: usually to see a friend or participate in a small group discussion. I do not react like I used to and my defenses are slowly relaxing.

Does your emotional immune system need a rest? Is there a thing that triggers your anxiety so much that you shut down? Is there anything you can set aside to allow healing to take place? What would that look like?

Thoughts and feedback are welcome.

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Katie Seaward March 1, 2016 - 8:06 am

I love this. I’ve had a season of having to fast from church for different reasons, usually relating to being distracted by church ‘community’ and not able to absorb what I’m really there for, leaving feeling distracted, discouraged, out of sorts, generally the opposite reason we usually go to church. I’ve felt guilt for taking time off, because the church culture emphasizes not taking yourself out of community….which I understand, because community can force you to look at yourself, confront your faults, take them to God, etc., not leaving you room to run away…I think those are all very good things. But I think it can also be a little harmful at times. When you get a group of imperfect individuals together all working through their own junk, I think there are times when we need to subtract ourselves from the situation until it doesn’t trigger us, like you have written about.

So…kind of a bunny trail, but I loved this post, and loved that it acknowledges that yes, we can still love Jesus and the church, but choose to separate ourselves from it for a reason and for a time.

Stefan Schmidt March 1, 2016 - 4:57 pm

Thanks for sharing Katie! I resonate with your feelings of guilt for taking time off. If someone asks “so, where do you go to church?”… I often have a surge of defensiveness and have to take a moment to allow it to pass. I like to remind myself that Jesus had a funny habit of leaving crowds to be alone.

Tracy B . Dickerson March 1, 2016 - 9:07 am

Poignant and timely. Thank you so very very much.

Stefan Schmidt March 1, 2016 - 4:40 pm

You are very welcome and thank you for the kind words. They are encouraging. 🙂

Mary Harwell Sayler March 2, 2016 - 1:19 pm

After scriptures are read in our church, the reader says, “The Word of God for the people of God,” because these writings have been inspired by God, and we respond by saying, “Thanks be to God,” because we’re so glad God has spoken to us through the Bible. If we’re to be the Body of Christ at work in the world today, we must come together as Jesus asked us to do. Is it easy? No! Have I changed churches when the people in one group didn’t worship in a way that meant something to me. Yes. Do all churches have the same preferences for worship? No. Does the Lord want us to seek and we shall find one that feels like home? Yes! May each of you find your place in the Body of Christ.

Stefan Schmidt March 2, 2016 - 1:57 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mary! I love your thought “may each of you find your place…”. Indeed, everyone deserves a “home” for their faith journey.

A question I would welcome your thoughts on… Jesus is described as the “word made flesh” in John 1:14 and Paul claims not to be writing God’s commandments (1 Cor 7:12, 1 Cor 7:25, for example). To me, it has recently seemed less accurate to describe the bible as God’s “Word” and use that for Jesus, instead. At least, that seems like the perspective of some biblical authors. Your thoughts?

Mary Harwell Sayler March 2, 2016 - 2:27 pm

Stefan, my understanding is that Jesus embodies The Word – like the Bible come to life. So The Word and/ or Word of God can refer to Him or to scriptures with no conflict as One reflects The Other.

Lisa de Jong March 3, 2016 - 7:53 pm

It comes back to the question ‘what is church?’. Its certainly not a building. Church to me more than anything is my girls group every fortnight, where we pray, and care and laugh, and worship and eat dessert together. My regular church I can take or leave. Stefan, thanks for being so honest in this article. Having had post traumatic stress myself I can understand the triggers that can put you in a bad place. It feels at the time disproportionate to what is happening but I once read there is no past, present or future in our subconscious. A trigger can bring up an event that happened 10 years ago as if it was only yesterday. Go easy on yourself and leave the healing to Jesus. His perfect work in us can be slow but its gentle, and thorough and often not completed this side of heaven.

Stefan Schmidt March 3, 2016 - 10:08 pm

Thanks Lisa. I especially appreciate the encouragement around the slow, gentle, thorough, timeline of healing.

Lisa de Jong March 3, 2016 - 10:28 pm

Hi Stefan. Click on my name ‘Lisa’ above and read the poem ‘Self Compassion’ on my website which is the interestingly the latest post:) Blessings

Andrew Allen March 4, 2016 - 11:37 pm

It seems that a deeper understanding of God (that he is both holy and for you) and of what happens in church (renewal in Gods promises and covenant … Being called, cleansed, spoken to, fed, and sent out with a blessing & and our thankful responses in worship) might be a more permanent way to clear up those allergies?! A church that actively teaches and does those things … now that’s good medicine


Stefan Schmidt March 6, 2016 - 1:34 pm

Thanks for sharing, Andrew!

Long term development, of health towards church, will probably be a process for me. Probably, like most things, a life long one.

I am not sure we attend church for the same reasons but it sounds like you have found ones that meet your needs/desires. I find a lot of what I attended Sunday service for in other places these days. My “church” is found throughout my week with friends, family, clubs, classes and community. Life still, and perhaps more-so, includes many of the aspects of church though not on sunday (music, dance, biblical study, worldview development, prayer, mentorship, etc)… that being said, lately, i have missed the weekly rhythm of a Sunday gathering.

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