How Shadow Work is Different from Sin Hunting


For as long as I have been out of Reformed Theology and in therapy, I’ve had a visceral reaction to anything that smells like “sin is the root issue.”

There was the time I was frustrated by a relationship and the therapist told me to consider how I might be contributing to the dynamic. I grimaced.

Another time I identified a behavior I wanted to stop, and a therapist said, “first we have to figure out how this was serving you.” I scowled.

And finally, I encountered some persistent reactions and big emotions, and a therapist suggested they might belong to my shadow self. I folded my arms.

All of this fairly basic psychology language sounded, to my hyper-vigilant ears, like the summons to go on a sin hunt, and I did not want to go. My resistance to sin hunting was keeping me from moving forward in therapy. Therapy that carried no moral judgment whatsoever, to be clear. But then I participated in a kambo ceremony (look it up) and in the physical and emotional purging, I was thrust into shadow work. It was time.

Or rather, it is time. I’m beginning what will be a lifelong journey of accepting and integrating my shadow self, and it’s shed a lot of light on sin hunting and my relationship to it.

What is Sin Hunting and Why Did You Do It?

Sin hunting is the search for the root sin or corruption that is leading to whatever is bothering you. Or whatever is making you bothersome to those around you. Or whatever is just bothering the person in authority. We sit down, usually in a pastoral or “let’s go to lunch” situation, and see if we can’t figure out what morally askew desire, what selfish impulse, what rebellious will, or what failure of perfect obedience is causing you to feel discontent, frustrated, anxious, or hurt.

You’re not anxious, you see. You’re “not trusting God.”

You’re not hurt. Certainly not by those in authority. No, more likely you’re selfish desires and vanity are just not getting the gratification they want, and so you’re miserable.

Institutions train people to counsel like this. Or they just let pastors counsel people despite the fact that they really aren’t trained for it. Most of the time you either end up feeling the like the fox being chased by a hound who is determined to convince you of your sin. Or you feel like someone is digging around in your soul until they find something they can call a sin. Quarry or quarry. Both definitions work.

I underwent this kind of sin-hunting counsel and leadership for 28 years, because for 28 years I believed that there was nothing wrong with the world except the evil in individual hearts, and that if I was feeling anything negative, it had to be because of the evil in my own heart. That’s the only explanation I’d ever been given. If someone else had sinned against me, then I might be upset, but my moral virtue would bob me to the surface like a life jacket. The only reason I’d stay under was if my sin was weighing me down.

Speaking of being under water, that’s what a sin hunt feels like. When I was a kid I would play with my cousins in the pool. They were all bigger, and mostly boys. They loved to hold me under the water while I struggled. It was less fun for them if I went limp, and didn’t struggle. They’d dunk me, I’d ragdoll, they’d let me go. And that’s eventually how I learned to sin hunt. The more I struggled for dignity or the right to name my own feelings and beliefs, the more the authority or confronter would hold me under. As a child, a teen, and an employee of the church, I was not in the position to walk away or win the wrestling match, so I learned to ragdoll. To as quickly and bluntly as possible get to the sin I should be repenting of. I’d even try to beat them to it, which is how I developed the compulsive confession behavior that continues to perplexed my co-workers and bosses outside the church.

Look, I’m not saying sin doesn’t exist. It does, but I think it’s a lot more symptom than problem. That’s all I’m going to say about that right now. I get into it in my next book. You should buy it.

What Were Your Therapists Talking About When You Were Triggered by the Spectre of Sin Hunting?

Glad you asked.

When asking me how I contributed to a bad relationship dynamic, my therapist was not asking me to go on a sin hunt. She was not asking me to consider how the person’s toxic behavior was my fault, or how I was merely perceiving the behavior as toxic because of something sinful in me. Instead, she was asking how I had, perhaps, accepted the role of trash bin, and stayed in relationships where people just dumped their emotional trash and then went on their way.

Which is funny, because what she was really asking was this: how has your view that you deserve misery led you to stay in miserable situation?

Which is funnier still, because the reason I think I deserve misery comes from three decades of sin hunting. That therapist was inviting me to exercise agency, but agency and sin were synonymous in my past life. Taking responsibility didn’t mean making decisions in your own best interest. It meant taking blame, and acknowledging that you don’t deserve to act in your own best interest.

Now that I can take responsibility without automatic punishment, I can draw boundaries. I can consider how I’m allowing a bad dynamic to continue, and I have the authority to change it.

Figuring out how my troubling behaviors have “served me” is not an invitation to look at how my selfish heart is benefitting, or how my pride and arrogance are being stroked by some antisocial habit. When we consider how things like overthinking, over analyzing, rushing to fix things that are not broken, hyper-vigilance, defensiveness, and coldness are “serving me” most often what we mean is protecting. The things that exhaust me, drive wedges into my relationships, and suck the joy out of life are not predominantly behaviors born of my moral insufficiency. They are ways I developed to protect myself.

Which is funny, because the primary thing I needed to protect myself from? Sin hunters.

Which is funnier still, because considering how those behaviors have served me allows me to get to the real root of the problem. It’s not sin. It’s pain. Now that I can name my pain, I can heal.

Sin hunting wasn’t enabling me to grow. It was preventing me.

Which Brings Me to Shadow Work

Shadow work is about getting to know, understand, and accept the parts of yourself you’ve pushed into your unconscious. Most likely you deemed those attributes unacceptable. Or there were behaviors you had to avoid, to you rejected the desires that fed them. That sort of thing.

Shadow work is dangerously close to sin hunting. Except that instead of mortification and further exile, the goal of shadow work is acceptance and integration.

Because in the process of becoming whole, we see that there are no bad parts of us. There are wounds, but they need healing, not shaming or “discipline.” There are maladaptations, but they can be reoriented. There are harmful behaviors, but we can speak to the burdens and wounds that drive them. There is sin, but it’s about our functional theology of scarcity, not our failure to be as good as God.

Shadow work is uncomfortable, and I kept hearing people talk about it like “oh boy, brace yourself.” Being in the throws of it, I’ve been laughing a bit, because while yes, it is uncomfortable, it is nothing like the pain of being quarry in a sin hunt. Or being quarried in a sin hunt. The biggest difference is the amount of agency I have in shadow work. The joyful pursuit of wholeness, feeling brave when I face my shadow, and tender when I feel her wounds, and merciful when I see how tired she is…those are my decisions to make as the Self, whose connection to God enables her to decide when to push, when to hold, when to honor. There is no one here to hold my head under water. I dive and I come up of my own free will, and that alone is healing.