Christian Living Book Review

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

by Peter Scazzero
Reviewed date: 2023 Aug 7
240 pages
It's Impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature
Updated Edition
cover art

Peter Scazzero's book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is a psychology book, not a book on theology or doctrine. There is biblical content in the book, but it exists largely to demonstrate that these psychology concepts are compatible with Christianity. I mention this because most of the critical reviews I've found misunderstand the book completely and are approaching it as a work of theology; or they understand it but reject modern psychology out of hand.

There are eight chapters in this Updated Edition (the first edition had ten chapters.) I haven't read the first edition so my comments only apply to this updated edition.

In brief: Scazzero talks about:

  • Symptoms of emotional immaturity

Then he talks about same ways we can become more emotionally mature:

  • Dealing with the past
  • Handling grief and loss
  • Handling conflict

Finally, he talks about some Christian spiritual practices to incorporate into your life.

  • Christian practices: Daily Office, Sabbath, and the Rule of Life

That's it. The Christian spiritual practices he presents don't seem well connected to the psychological concept of emotional maturity. They are fine practices, to be sure, but he hasn't drawn the connection between them and emotional maturity.

Overall: there are some good ideas and good thoughts in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. However: they are packaged with sketchy scholarship; questionable Scripture use; disparaging, unfair, and overbroad criticisms of the American church; and some just plain wrong teaching. This is not a dangerous book—to the contrary, it will probably be very helpful to some people—but I hesitate to recommend it. Surely there is something better out there.

Chapter 1: The Problem of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality
Something is Desperately Wrong
Scazzero starts out by describing his life as an emotionally immature, insecure man who felt compelled to say yes and agree to any demand asked of him as a pastor. It is not a pretty picture. Scazzero was immature, had never thought about much less confronted the patterns of his family of origin; he'd never examined his own feelings or unconscious thought patterns. He lived his life reacting, but never examining the feelings and motivations that drove his actions. Much of his life was driven by the need to keep up the image of a good pastor, but this image came at the expense of his family life and his own well-being.

Next, Scazzero explains how he came to understand the “link between emotional maturity and spiritual maturity.” (p21) By remaining emotionally immature, he stunted his spiritual growth and he damaged himself and those closest to him.

Aside: emotional immaturity affects all people, not just Christians or religious folks. Scazzero identified the patterns of immature behavior in his own life, but he hasn't connected it to anything uniquely Christian. He's about to attempt to do so, though.

Scazzero lists ten signs of emotionally unhealthy spirituality. He doesn't say this (perhaps because he doesn't believe it?) but emotionally unhealthy spirituality isn't distinct or separate from just being emotionally unhealthy. This is merely the way that emotional stuntedness manifests itself in the life of a committed Christian.

Here is the list. The list items are from Scazzero, and the short descriptions are my summarizations.

  1. Using God to run from God - e.g., using theology as a cudgel or a shield to avoid the harder work of loving people and helping them
  2. Ignoring anger, sadness, and fear - e.g., refusing to acknowledge negative emotions because to do so would be akin to a lack of faith
  3. Dying to the wrong things - e.g., giving up the good things that make us happy
  4. Denying the impact of the past on the present - e.g., refusing to see how our experiences shape us, insisting that because we are new creations in Christ that our past or our family of origin is meaningless
  5. Dividing life into "secular" and "sacred" components - e.g., getting that spiritual high at church or in Bible study, but it never translates into our day-to-day lives
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God - a need to always be serving, never enjoying God. Measuring spiritual growth by how much we do for the Kingdom of God.
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict - refusing to address and resolve conflict out of fear that even acknowledging conflict is a sign of spiritual weakness or failure.
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure - e.g., keeping up appearances is more important than actually dealing with problems
  9. Living without limits - e.g., lacking the ability to say no to others.
  10. Judging other people's spiritual journey - thinking that our way of following Christ is the only way, or the best way, and not respecting that God may have called different people to different ways of living out the Christian life.

Rant: on page 29 Scazzero lists complaints about how Christians don't act any better than unbelievers, and he quotes that old canard that Christians divorce at the same rate as nonbelievers. It’s not true! It was never true, and I am angry that this lie has been used to beat up and denigrate Christians for over twenty years. The statistic came from a biased and flawed Barna survey and has been used repeatedly by those with an agenda to knock down and discourage Christians. The truth is that when two committed Christians (measured by regular church attendance, since we can't peer into the hearts and determine who is a genuine Christian) get married, they are far less likely to divorce than non-Christians.

The fact that Scazzero repeats this false statistic makes me question this whole book. He clearly hasn't done the bare minimum of research or he would know this popular divorce statistic is untrue. What else hasn't he researched properly?

Aside: I wonder whether emotional immaturity is really prevalent among Christians? Scazzero implies that it is. I haven’t seen or experienced that. This may be a book that is useful to some, but this isn't a uniquely or even particularly Christian phenomenon. To the contrary, there is a lot in Christian culture that encourages honesty, openness, and gives space (in men’s groups and women’s groups and small groups) to be vulnerable and explore one’s emotions. I’ve never encountered a situation where this was looked down on, and I can recall instances in Christian small group settings where healthy dialog was made possible that could not have happened outside the church. The church fosters healthy emotional growth.

Chapter 2: Know Yourself That You May Know God
Becoming Your Authentic Self
Chapter two begins with another story (pages 40-43) of Scazzero acting like an emotionally immature child whose hangups from his childhood and his need to maintain an image in front of his church members (most of whom would never notice or care) cause unnecessary friction in his marriage and family life. (His wife wanted to take the kids and spend a few weeks with her mother who lives near the coast. Scazzero, a grown adult human man with a career, a wife, and four kids, couldn't handle the idea of her being away from home without him.)

I guess I'm supposed to draw a lesson from the example, but he is so over-the-top that I just can’t see this being a problem most people in the church face. I’ve rarely (maybe never?) met anyone this insecure. On the other hand, not everyone advertises his emotional insecurity, so maybe I have met people like Peter Scazzero. In any case, not everyone has to be as far-gone as Scazzero was to benefit from some emotional coaching, and perhaps Scazzero has some useful things to say on the subject.

The chapter is about recognizing and understanding your own feelings. Scazzero introduces the idea that God created us with emotions and expects us to feel them—that he even speaks to us through them. Scazzero quotes a number of Bible verses that speak positively about a range of emotions; it's not just the positive emotions that are important and God-given, but the full range. He identifies eight categories of emotions (taken from Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence, and says it's OK and expected to feel them all. The eight categories are:

  • anger
  • sadness
  • fear
  • enjoyment
  • love
  • surprise
  • disgust
  • shame

Aside: I still think the church does a pretty good job of allowing Christians to experience the full range of emotions. I remember twenty years ago a whole Sunday school curriculum on the Psalms, where the imprecatory Psalms were taught. It's OK to feel in church, it's even encouraged and taught. Maybe Scazzero's church experience was different. Anyway, back to the text.

It is important, Scazzero says, to feel our emotions and understand what they are telling us.

God speaks to us through a knot in the stomach, muscle tension, trembling and shaking, the release of adrenaline into our bloodstream, headaches, and a suddenly elevated heart rate. God may be screaming at us through our physical body while we look for (and prefer) a more "spiritual" signal. The reality is that often our bodies know our feelings before our minds.

Aside: Scazzero doesn't mention this, at least not that I recall, but the reason we may prefer a "spiritual" signal over the messages from our physical body could be that many of us still believe (at least partly) in a form of spirit/matter dualism. We believe the spirit is good and the body is bad, the spirit is true and the body is false, the spirit is of God and the body is of this fallen world. Actually, Adam and Eve were created in the Garden of Eden with a body and a spirit. The body is part of who we are designed to be. We live in a fallen world, yes, and sin has touched us. But the body is not any more fallen than our spirit is. We should listen to both.

We need to feel our emotions, interrogate them, understand them. Because, ultimately, our actions follow from our emotions. If we don't understand them, we live life in a constant state of reacting but never understanding ourselves. That's a miserable way to live, for us and for those around us.

Complaint: this chapter should be broken into two chapters. The first half of the chapter is about how emotions are good things, created by God, that God expects us to feel them, he speaks to us through them, and it's important to acknowledge and understand our feelings. That's a complete idea right there. The second part of the chapter is about living authentically instead of living a life that is a facade put on for others. That's a separate idea, and it needs to be a separate chapter. Putting them together in a single chapter makes it confusing.

So I will correct Scazzero's mistake and add another chapter division right here.

Chapter 2 (again)
In the second part of chapter two Scazzero talks about how to live authentically, not putting on a facade for others. First he talks about ways we are tempted to live falsely:

  • Temptation One: I Am What I Do (Performance)
  • Temptation Two: I Am What I Have (Possessions)
  • Temptation Three: I Am What Others Think (Popularity)

On pages 59 and 60 Scazzero has a little scale that helps you identify whether you're an "undifferentiated" person living life as a performance for others, or whether you are a more "self-differentiated" person who lives a more authentic life. This is…fine. I'm not sure that the person who scores low on this scale would necessarily recognize that fact himself, though. This may be something that requires a trained counselor to help him realize.

OK, so if someone wants to get to the pot of gold and find this "self-differentiated" authentic life, how does one get there? Scazzero spends the rest of the chapter talked about four ways to grow in authenticity.

  1. Pay attention to your interior in silence and solitude - remove the distractions of constant activity. Be silent and alone. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise.
  2. Find trusted companions - You need community, other people to point out things about yourself that you don't notice about yourself.
  3. Move out of your comfort zone - To go from an emotionally immature life to an emotionally healthy life will require change, and change is rarely comfortable. Do the hard work to get to a better place.
  4. Pray for courage - It will be hard, there will be pushback and consequences, and you'll need the "Holy Spirit's power to continue."

Thoughts: Scazzero's advice seems solid. It is also pretty basic. Then again, a lot of those emotional maturity stuff isn't complicated—it's just hard.

Chapter 3: Going Back in Order to Go Forward
Breaking the Power of the Past
In chapter three Scazzero introduces the idea that family patterns can repeat themselves. That is, we are prone to falling into the same problematic patterns of behavior that our parents and grandparents played out. He illustrates this with examples from people he has counseled, and in biblical examples. E.g., Abraham favored Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac favored Esau over Jacob, Jacob favored Joseph (and later Benjamin) over his brothers. Each of these caused major ruptures in the family, but the same favoritism played out in each generation. Whatever the particular problems in your family of origin, these problems are impressed upon you during your formative years, and are likely to play out in your own life—unless you recognize them and change them.

Scazzero points out that when a person becomes a Christian, he is a new creature in Christ, but this does not mean he is not still affected by his past and his family of origin. To uncover and understand some of these patterns (many of which we may be unconscious of) Scazzero introduces the idea of a genogram: a method of drawing a family tree that visualizes not just the interpersonal relationships, but also information about nature and health of those various relationships.

Finally, Scazzero mentions something called the Beaver Model, which is a description of five different types of families, on a scale from "severely disturbed" to "optimal." This is…fine, I guess. The main difference seems to be the way the family handles disagreement and conflict, which is related to the idea of emotional health but I'm not convinced it's precisely the same thing.

So how does one fix a family that is less than optimal? Scazzero gives us the biblical example of Joseph. He 1) "Had a Profound Sense of the Bigness of God", 2) "Honestly Admitted the Sadness and Losses of His Family," 3) "Rewrote His Life Script According to Scriptures," and 4) "Partnered With God to Be a Blessing." I'm not sure that's helpful. I guess the main takeaway here is that Joseph didn't pretend everything was fine, he was willing to confront the problem, and he was willing to trust God through it all. I wish Scazzero would have spent more time on how Joseph tested his brothers before reconciling with them, but he doesn't go there.

Thoughts: This seemed a weak chapter. The biblical examples were a stretch and just didn't do it for me. In the Joseph example Scazzero skipped the biggest, most consequential part of the reconciliation story: the part where Joseph secretly tested his brothers and they demonstrated their changed hearts. To skip that is problematic. Nevertheless, the concept of examining one's own family of origin and one's extended family is a good one. Just leave it at that. Not everything needs to be justified directly from a Bible story.

Chapter 4: Journey Through the Wall
Letting Go of Power and Control
Scazzero talks about the stages of Christian spiritual growth, as well as the concept of hitting Walls that stop our growth. The stages are adapted from the work of Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in their book The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, and are:

  • Stage 1: Life-Changing Awareness of God
  • Stage 2: Discipleship (learning)
  • Stage 3: The Active Life (serving)
  • Stage 4: Journey Inward
  • Stage 5: Journey Outward (from my inner life)
  • Stage 6: Transformed Into Love

The stages are cyclical, so we progress from Stage 6 back to Stage 1, and repeat the cycle. Eventually something interrupts our growth, and Scazzero calls this a Wall. The Wall typically takes the form of a crisis: "divorce, a job loss, the death of a close friend or family member," or other events of similar magnitude. Some people deal with the Wall, confront it, and move through it. Others stagnate and refuse to recognize or acknowledge the problem. Scazzero identifies that one marker of unhealthy emotional spirituality which gets stuck at a Wall is the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and express the following feelings:

  • I am bewildered
  • I don't know what God is doing right now
  • I am hurt
  • I am angry
  • Yes, this is a mystery
  • I am very sad right now
  • Oh God, why have you forsaken me?

The emotionally healthy person will admit those things, and be able to process them and move forward. The emotionally unhealthy person will refuse to admit that anything is wrong, will hold on to platitudes like "in all things God works for good" but not take time to grieve, cry, and feel hurt.

Then Scazzero talks about something he calls the dark night of the soul, which he gets from the work of St. John of the Cross. This dark night of the soul is a requirement for progressing beyond a beginner stage of spirituality. It is a period of time where God removes from us the blessings he's previously given, where our prayer seems worthless, our worship dry, our Bible study fruitless. This dark night of the soul can last months or years. It's a testing of some kind, and when we emerge from it our faith is deeper, our relationship and knowledge of God is more complete, and we can live on a whole new level of spirituality.

Aside: To which I say: what sort of nonsense is this? Nobody can become more than a beginner Christian without going through a full-on "dark night of the soul?" Come on. I don't believe that, and there's no biblical evidence for that. This is Scazzero (and possibly St. John of the Cross, although I haven't read his work so I won't level any accusations at him) making things up. He's just making things up.

A person who makes it through their Wall (aka their dark night of the soul) will have the following spiritual benefits:

  1. A greater level of brokenness - less judgemental and more humble
  2. A greater appreciation for Holy Unknowing (Mystery)
  3. A deeper ability to wait for God
  4. A greater detachment - more focus on eternity, "free from the dominating power of things"

Thoughts: I am deeply disappointed in this chapter. I understand that going through trials can strengthen our faith, but this idea that we must absolutely go through a dark night of the soul or remain baby Christians forever is not true. I don't even see how it connects with the main point of this book, which is emotionally healthy spirituality. Is Scazzero trying to tell us we can only get emotionally and spiritually healthy if we've undergone a months- or years-long trial sent by God to deepen our faith? If so, then why does he bother writing this book? If not, why is he introducing the concept of a dark night of the soul? This is baffling. And it's untrue.

Chapter 5: Enlarge Your Soul Through Grief and Loss
Surrendering to Your Limits
Using Job as a biblical example, Scazzero talks about the need to properly grieve over losses in our life. Every culture has different modes of expressing grief, but it's important to express it. Scazzero warns against the temptation to use addiction to numb the pain and avoid fully grieving. He mentions other ways that we block out the pain of loss and suffering: denial, minimizing, blaming others, blaming ourselves, rationalizing, intellectualizing, distracting, and becoming hostile. But these are blocks to spiritual and emotional growth, because they prevent us from confronting the loss and grieving fully.

Scazzero goes back to Job to show a healthy way through grief. We must:

  1. Pay Attention - that is, pay attention to our grief and sadness. Work it out before God. Express the anger, and sadness, the grief, and confusion. If we don't, the feelings will still be there, and they will "leak out" of us in destructive ways.
  2. Wait in the Confusing In-Between - Don't be satisfied with false explanations like those offered by Job's three friends. Be patient, and wait for God to work, even when it seems there is no answer. Don't demand answers when there are none.
  3. Embrace the Gift of Limits - Do less. Understand our limitations, and recognize that we are not the center of the universe. The world will get along without us while we step back and take the time to grieve.
  4. Climb the Ladder of Humility - this is based on the work of St. Benedict, who developed a twelve-point ladder. Scazzero adapts this into an eight-step ladder:
    • Step 1: Fear of God and Mindfulness of Him
    • Step 2: Doing God's Will (Not Our Own or Other People's)
    • Step 3: Willing to Subject Ourselves to the Direction of Others
    • Step 4: Patient to Accept the Difficulties of Others
    • Step 5: Radical Honesty to Others About Our Weaknesses/Faults
    • Step 6: Deeply Aware of Being "Chief of All Sinnes"
    • Step 7: Purposeful to Speak Less (And With More Restraint)
    • Step 8: Transformed Into the Love of God

Scazzero seems to have forgotten about Job now, because he doesn't tie the gift of limits or the ladder of humility in with anything Job did…except that suddenly, Scazzero brings Job back and says that everything is demonstrated in the example of Job, and that God's restoration of Job is the new birth and blessings we can expect (in God's time, naturally, not ours) when we've made it through the sufferings and loss.

Response: Job is a great biblical example to turn to when studying grief. I'm concerned, though, that Scazzero has lost the plot. He wants to use Job as a support example for his model of the stage of grief, but Job doesn't fit Scazzero's model. That's why Scazzero drops any mention of Job for quite a while. But to then come back and claim that the story of Job illustrates every step of his model is dishonest. It's not that I dislike Scazzero's model--to the contrary, it seems a reasonable one. Scazzero is just not using the Bible with care. He's using it as a prop to justify what he's already determined to teach. I want to reach out and tell Scazzero that it's OK to just teach something that is true and useful, and not pretend it's in the Bible. God has given us wisdom and understanding, and not everything has to be hung on the bones of a Bible story.

Chapter 6: Discover the Rhythms of the Daily Office and Sabbath
Stopping to Breathe the Air of Eternity
Scazzero introduces the practices of the Daily Office and the Sabbath. They are "ropes that lead us back to God in the blizzards of life." Rather than adding another chore or item to our to-do list—which is often what more Bible study, or another prayer group, or a small group, or therapy, or whatever—these time-worn and tested Christian practices can help us slow down, calm down, and remain grounded in God.

The Daily Office is a ritual wherein we spend regular periods of each day in prayer and meditation. Rather than one quiet time of study and reflection, there are seven: Vigil, Lauds, Prime, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The idea is that repetition and regularity help us maintain an awareness of God's presence throughout the day. Now, Scazzero says we should not get too hung up on the legalism of making sure we hit all seven every day. And they don't have to be long. They can be anywhere from two to twenty minutes. The important thing is that each Daily Office should have these elements:

  • Stopping - We should be unhurried.
  • Centering - "Be still, and know that I am God."
  • Silence - shut off the outward and inner voices.
  • Scripture

Most importantly, Scazzero says that we should find what works for us. Each of us is unique, and what may work for one individual may not work for another. But find a rhythm that works, and do it with regularity.

Next, Sabbath. Regular periods of rest are important. Scazzero has four principles for a biblical Sabbath too:

  • Stop
  • Rest
  • Delight
  • Contemplate

In addition to weekly sabbath rests, Scazzero suggests yearly sabbath vacations, and for those in ministry, a longer sabbath from ministry is appropriate every six to seven years.

Thoughts: I have few complaints about this chapter. I like the idea of the Daily Office, although I've not truly attempted it yet. Weekly sabbaths is something I've kinda-sorta tried, but still am still working on. I don't know that Scazzero tied this into the concept of emotional maturity very well; he didn't connect the dots as clearly as he could have. But I like that this chapter has practical advice taken from historic Christian teaching and practice.

Chapter 7: Grow Into an Emotionally Mature Adult
Learning New Skills to Love Well
It's curious that the title of this chapter is Grow Into an Emotionally Mature Adult, because isn't that what the whole book is purportedly about?

Scazzero lists some characteristics that typify emotional infants, emotional children, emotional adolescents, and emotional adults. In brief: emotional infants are motivated by instant gratification and need others to look after them. Emotional children are OK when they get what they want but are unable to handle disappointment, conflict, and stress. Emotional adolescents keep score, are critical of others, and blame others for their problems. Emotional adults can handle conflict without taking it personally, can advocate for their needs without being combative, and can assess and make allowances for others needs and abilities.

So, how does a person become an emotional adult? Scazzero is glad you asked because he has the answer. It requires a Copernican revolution in the way we view other people. We need to move out of a narcissistic worldview. Instead of viewing other people as revolving around us (the main character), we learn to view them as fully distinct human beings who are just as much the main character as we are. (The "main character" language is mine, not Scazzero's, but I trust it communicates what he's saying.)

Scazzero puts it another way: instead of interacting with people in an I-It relationship (where we treat people as objects or tools, a means to an end), we need to see them, see their humanity, and interact with them in I-Thou relationships.

We also must handle conflict well. Resist the temptation to achieve a false peace by ignoring conflict. Ignoring conflict is not true peacemaking. That just pushes the conflict beneath the surface and leads to resentment, anger, and causes bigger problems later. Instead, bring the conflict out into the open and resolve it. Scazzero spends the rest of the chapter explaining some ground rules on how to maturely handle conflict and disagreement.

  1. Speak and listen well. When you speak, talk about your own feelings and your own desires, not assumptions you have about the other person's feelings, desires, or motives. Speak clearly, in short sentences, and make sure that the other person understands you. When you are listening, don't interrupt; allow the other person to communicate his complete thoughts. When he's done, ensure you understand what he's said by repeating his words back to him, or summarizing them. The goal here is that each person gets to calmly express himself or herself, and each person understands what the other has said.
  2. Bill of Rights (respect each other's rights). For example, everybody has the right to space and privacy; to their own preferences, likes, and dislikes; to disagree with others; to be heard; to be taken seriously; to be given the benefit of the doubt; to be told the truth; to be consulted; to be imperfect and make mistakes; to be respected; and to be treated courteously and honorably.
  3. Stop mind reading. Don't make assumptions about others, particularly their motives. Ask them (respectfully, not accusingly.)
  4. Clarify expectations. A major source of conflict is unconscious, unrealistic, unspoken, or un-agreed-upon expectations. So be conscious of them, make sure they're realistic, speak them, and come to an agreement on them. Talk to people, discuss.
  5. Allergies and triggers. Recognize that due to our past experiences, we all have particular situations and events that will trigger strong emotional feelings. Recognize these, and verbalize them. Once we know what these are, we can react in more appropriate ways.

Thoughts: A solid chapter. Scazzero gives specific advice for how to embrace and resolve conflict. Possibly there is more to being an emotionally mature adult than just conflict management and resolution, but it's a big one and it's probably the one to start with.

Chapter 8: Go the Next Step to Develop a "Rule of Life"
Loving Christ Above All Else
To grow spiritually, we should develop and live according to a Rule of Life. This is not a Rule in the sense of a law or command to follow, but in the sense of a ruler or guide. Scazzero gives the analogy of a trellis that guides a plant's growth. A fully-developed Rule of Life will guide our spiritual growth.

The Rule of Life can (and should) be customized for each individual. Tweak it as necessary. Scazzero gives an example (page 194) that we can use as a starting point to develop our own Rule.

Thoughts: This chapter seems…unconnected with the rest of the book. I'm also not clear on whether we should be developing and using this Rule of Life immediately, or only after we've made progress and become emotionally healthy. Presumably we can start doing it immediately. But if so, why wait until this final, very brief chapter to mention it? This just doesn't seem to jibe with the rest of what Scazzero is trying to convey. I will just pretend the book ended with chapter 7.

Archive | Search