our codependent relationship with God

Since I entered into recovery a big chunk of years ago, I came face to face with the realities of my co-dependency. As an adult child of an alcoholic, a 2 on the Enneagram, a pastor, and dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser, I pretty much hit codependency on all cylinders! The truth is most of us are codependent in some way, and it’s not just if we’re in relationship with addicts. All our control and addiction issues have their roots in codependency; it’s part of the human condition.

Melody Beattie, the queen of healing from Codependency and author of Codependent No More (which I need to re-read every year) defines codependency this way: A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.

My simple definition of codependency is “An insecurity where we are unhealthily hooked into other people in a way that makes us do and say things that aren’t good for us or them.”

Some of the primary characteristics of codependency include caretaking, controlling, low self-worth, repression and denial of feelings, anxiety and obsession with getting things right, poor communication, anger, lack of trust of others, and bad boundaries.

Sound familiar to any of you, too?

For the past few months I have had the privilege of facilitating a Faith Shift group in Denver with some women I am connected to through a few different circles, walking through the book a chapter at a time, and it has been so good for me to talk through it live (I’m planning on running an online group in January, finally!). In one of our conversations I said something that I had never said before; it just came out of my mouth. I said, “Part of our trouble is a lot of us have a codependent relationship with God.”

A codependent relationship with God.

It’s important to say that I don’t think this has anything to do with God and God’s character. It has to do with what we’ve often been taught about God that has set some of us up to enter into a not-good-for-us-and-not-what-God-ever-intended cycle. 

I also know everyone reading might not be able to relate. A lot of this depends on what kind of system we first Fused in and where and how we learned the rules, the doctrine, the “this is how we do relationship with God” stuff.

Many of us have been taught things like this:

  • If we do (or don’t do) _________, then God will be mad, disappointed, sad, waiting-for-us-to-come-back-to-God-properly.
  • When I’m angry or frustrated or sad, I better sort it out before I come to God with it because God wants a clean heart.
  • God is pleased with me when I do X, Y, or Z or believe A, B, or C.
  • God loves me extra if I help people, put others’ needs above my own, and on the whole don’t complain.
  • Self-centeredness is a sin; don’t worry about yourself, worry about others! That’s what God wants for us.
  • Grace is all well and good but we should know better as Christians and God will hold us accountable for our actions.
  • If I just _______, God will __________.
  • God always wants our Yes.

Yikes, as I started to write these, they came flowing out far too easily! (Oh, I would love to hear what you might add).

Here’s the bottom line: Codependent relationships are unhealthy!

They’re not good for our souls. They are insecure. They aren’t full of freedom and peace and courage and confidence. And most of all, they aren’t really loving.

I honestly think that a reason many of us experience a Faith Shift free-fall is we start to recognize our codependent relationship with God doesn’t work anymore. It’s not right. It’s not healthy. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Our messed up theology along with a lot of bad practices that were taught to us in the many of our systems and church experiences and leaders did not lead us to life.

In fact, they lead us to a never-ending cycle of never being able to quite “get it right” when it came to God.

That’s exactly what codependents always feel.

Also, most codependents end up eventually feeling tired, used, abused, neglected, abandoned, and usually always not good enough, not faithful enough, not ______ enough.

I am almost 100% sure that is not how God wants us to feel in relationship with us.

Goodness gracious, that could never have been the idea! In fact, Jesus embodied breaking that for good. Yet, like human beings do, we picked up the if-then, law-based ways Jesus spoke against almost the minute he was gone.

So how do codependents change up unhealthy relationships?

We start establishing better boundaries.

We learn to live with disapproval.

We let go instead of gripping so tightly.

We begin to get more secure in who we are as human beings made in the image of God.

We start being more honest and expressing our feelings.

We begin to recognize our worth.

We unhook from the madness.

Honestly, I think God smiles when we begin to break this crazy codependent cycle in our faith!

However, when we break free of our codependent relationship with God and all the messed up theology that’s tangled up with it, people around us often think we’re being selfish, rebellious, heretical, and disrespectful.

I personally believe God might be secretly cheering, saying “Yes, finally. It’s about freaking time!” (I love putting words in God’s mouth :))

Yeah, I think a big part of cultivating a healthier, freer faith is breaking our codependent relationship with God.

What do you think? What’s your experience been?

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

10 Comments

  • Beattie’s definition of codependent sounds amazingly similar to most churches (and their pastors) that we’ve ever attended. I’ve always thought of it in terms of people who can’t control their own lives and families, so they try to control the lives of other people using religion and the Bible as their sticks. It can make for a career for some, and for the lucky few a rather well-paid profession. I need to place an Amazon order soon, so I must order Beattie’s book.

    Like you, we befriend those whose lives are for the most part out of control. We try to show the love of Jesus to those folks without allowing those relationships to veer into codependency. We have no desire to control their lives, and no delusions of being able to fix them and their problems. Nevertheless their needs are endless, sometimes making it difficult to know where to draw the boundaries in terms of how much of ourselves, our resources and our time we should give to them. Then we take note of most of the Christians we know who either pretend these folks don’t exist, or throw them the yearly metaphorical “bone” to assuage their hunger and need. Daily we ask ourselves, “where is the ‘sweet spot’, the place of balance between the extremes?”

    The preceding paragraph on the surface sounds like a comment on codependency with people, but in my mind can devolve into a codependent relationship with God if, as you say, we care for others because “God is pleased with me when I do X, Y, or Z”, and “God loves me extra if I help people, put others’ needs above my own, and on the whole don’t complain.”

    Reply
    • thanks, sam. that is such a good distinction because that’s how we know freedom has come. when we care and love because of a deep stirring in our heart, not because God loves us more or less if we do or don’t 🙂

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  • Kathy,

    Love this post. It really resonated with me on so many levels… control, control, control is exhausting and not how God wants us to live. Thank you sister!

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  • Great article! Having grown up in the church, I was taught all my life that to be acceptable – in any way valid – I had to perform according to the expectations of others. I spent decades trying to please others, including God, thinking that was the way to prove that I was a ‘good’ christian. After a lot of work, following abuse and rejection in the church, I have finally come to a place where I am at peace with who I am and confident that I am loved by God exactly as I am.

    It was only after I started “being selfish, rebellious, heretical, and disrespectful” that I was able to embrace the fact that I am loved by God – no strings at all attached! The freedom and joy has been remarkable, and I’m inclined to think this was what Jesus was on about all the time! The sad thing is that until I knew that I was completely acceptable to God, and unconditionally loved by him, I couldn’t truly love others that way. So getting healthy ourselves is the best thing we can do for others, too 🙂

    PS I could tick off all the items on your list of toxic teaching, and I’d add this one: No matter how badly or unjustly you’ve been treated, you *must* give a “righteous response”. Sounds ok on paper, until you realise it’s actually code for “put on your ‘happy face’ and shut up about it”.

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  • Thank you for the much needed reminder! I also re-read your blog entries, Beattie’s book and “Love is a choice” to refresh need for self care. Growing up in a dysfunctional family with one parent always at work, and another who is fully embraced in Pentecostal/Evangelical Christianity a few years after I started going to church, I had a faith shift because everything seem so conflicting.

    I switched out of Evangelical Church because it was so codependency – there is either right/wrong and we should be plugged into everything. It took a panic attack when I got fired because of schedules to see how I need breaks, and a Muslim fiance who gave me the space to explore and so much conversation of religions to see how it can be toxic! Then I see how God loves an encourages so much with self-care and not plugging in with his unconditional love 🙂

    Reply
    • thanks so much for sharing, celine! sorry for my late response on this as i was out of town. i love to hear about healing in this area. beautiful!

      Reply

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