“Are they ashamed because they have done such shameful things? No, they are not at all ashamed. They do not even know how to blush!” – Jeremiah 6:15
I can’t think of a passage in the Bible that better illuminates the widespread malady known as denial. What God was saying about His chosen people thousands of years ago still applies to mankind today. I see what folks post on Facebook or the vile videos they put on Youtube or the way celebrities act in public and I get the feeling that they’re so far into denial they don’t even know to be embarrassed by their behavior. A lack of common sense decency is a byproduct of denial. Leaders in the Celebrate Recovery ministry like myself often wonder why the room isn’t filled to the rafters for every weekly meeting but one translation of Jeremiah 6:14 offers an answer, ”You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there!” Too many wounded human beings in this world don’t consider sin a big deal, classifying it as inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. Denial is the blind spot in our spiritual vision and that handicap is surprisingly rampant among those who call themselves Christians. As long as things are going relatively well they sweep their buried hurts, iniquitous hang-ups and despicable habits under the rug and carry on as if those things don’t matter to God, whom they profess to worship and obey. They can’t see that their deep-seated resentments, their sexual lusts, their coveting, their shopping addiction, their overeating or their delight in spreading gossip (whatever their particular character defect may be) is keeping them from a closer walk with the Lord. They don’t realize that they’re missing out on the life-fulfilling joy of knowing Christ better because something sinful has come between them and their Savior’s marvelous light. If they’re aware of it at all they’ve convinced themselves that it’s not important enough to mess with. And, in their opinion, anyone who dares to even hint that they have “a problem” is just being a self-righteous hypocrite who should keep their nose out of other people’s business.
When Jesus opened his Sermon on the Mount with “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” it wasn’t by accident that he delivered that message first. He was saying, in essence, that those who know they possess a defect in their psychological makeup they can’t get rid of on their own, one that depresses them because they know their indulgence in it repeatedly disappoints their Father in heaven who loves them, are, by acknowledging it, on the road to defeating it. The “kingdom of heaven” where perfection will one day be attained is theirs for the taking. If you aren’t among the “poor in spirit” then you’re probably living in denial and that statement by the Master doesn’t make any sense to you at all. Denial has been defined as “a false system of beliefs not based on reality” (sounds suspiciously like insanity to me) and “a self-protecting behavior that keeps us from honestly facing the truth.” Denial can seem like such a handy, useful tool because it keeps our delicately structured life from being disrupted. Denial maintains the status quo and, since most of us don’t like change, that’s reason enough to let it do its thing without interference. The functioning alcoholic or prescription drug taker doesn’t see his habit as debilitating at all. He likes the way drinking or popping pills makes him feel and says “Come on, what’s so bad about feeling good, anyway?” The woman who emits a hateful, antagonistic demeanor at work or at home rationalizes that it’s no sin because it’s what enables her to be a successful office manager or a mom who efficiently rules the roost and, as long as she goes to church once a month, she’s smugly satisfied that she’s tight with Jesus. At the same time she can’t figure out why she doesn’t have any close friends. I could go on and on but you get the gist. Denial is as real as raindrops in April and just as prevalent.
You need only to read three chapters into Genesis before you’ll encounter denial so it’s been around as long as apples. In short order you get temptation, sin and then the “Big D.” The serpent asks Adam and Eve (yes, Adam was standing right there with his wife) “So what’s the taboo about that tree in the middle of the orchard?” Adam shrugs so Eve responds with “God said we can’t eat its fruit or we’ll die.” The snake cocks his head to one side, giving the impression that he’s confused so she adds a lie to the ban, “He said we can’t even touch it!” So the serpent says “Who does He think He is? God said you’ll die? What does that mean, anyway? Look, I know how He operates. He’s just trying to scare you two. He knows if you eat from that tree you’ll become enlightened and He’ll no longer be the boss ‘cause you’ll be as smart as He is. Why, if I could reach up that high I’d eat an apple a day.” Eve looks over at Adam and asks “What do you think?” To which he replies “Whatever.” So they hike to the tree hand in hand. Eve grabs an apple and chomps into it. She nods in approval and hands it to Adam who also takes a bite. In the meantime the snake splits. His dirty work is done. Within a minute Adam and Eve notice that not only is the serpent missing but so is their innocence. Aware for the first time that their torsos have different equipment they snatch some fig leaves to cover up with while they ponder their next move. All of a sudden they hear God coming. They decide it’d be wise to hide. God calls out to Adam, “Where y’at, man?” Adam, crouching behind a big oak, rolls his eyes and thinks “Gee whiz. It’s impossible to play hide and seek with Him.” So he steps into the open and says to God, “I heard you coming and realized was in my birthday suit so I hid while I tried to get this leaf to stay on. What do you think of the fit?” God frowns and asks, “Who told you about nakedness? Oh, good grief! Did y’all eat from the one cotton-pickin’ tree I specifically said to steer clear of? I can’t leave you alone for a second!”
Adam then throws Eve under the bus but not before he blames God. He stammers, “The woman you put here with me is responsible. She gave me the apple and said it tasted great. I’ve been framed!” God says nothing. Adam adds “Anyway, I’m only wearing one of these stupid fig leaves. Eve’s got three!” Eve steps out and glares at Adam. God sees her and says “What in blazes have you done?” She gulps and says, “It was that darn snake. He bamboozled me into doing it. How was I to know he was up to no good?” Neither of them wanted to hold themselves accountable for their disobedience and we’ve all been wearing fig leaves ever since. Some readers may think I’m making fun of one of the most dramatic stories ever told but humor can provide us with a safe way to think about dangerous subjects. And I can’t think of anything more spiritually corrosive and treacherous than the denial gene that snuck into our DNA that afternoon in Eden. On that fateful day denial became the trusty sidekick to sin and they still travel everywhere together. Men and women often act like their sin is something they can make up for later, thereby putting off having to confront, confess and repent of it. As someone said, “delay is the deadliest form of denial.” God could’ve given up on us in the Garden but He didn’t. Because He is merciful He made a way for us to be cleansed of our sin nature and our harmful shortcomings and that way leads to the foot of the cross. Alistair Begg wrote, “Man has not changed. He is lost, guilty and unable to rectify his circumstances. God has not changed. He takes the initiative in seeking to save the lost. The gospel has not changed. It provides the only cure in Jesus who died in the sinner’s place.”
So what is denial? To those definitions mentioned earlier I’ll add “declaring something true ain’t.” Roger S. Gil called it “a psychological defense mechanism that helps a person avoid a potentially distressing truth” and Arthur Lynch put a thought-provoking spin on it by saying “the only atheism is the denial of truth.” I find it interesting that all of these descriptions involve truth. It brings to mind the infamous question Pilate put to our Lord, “What is truth?” Funny thing is, Jesus had already told him. “For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Therefore the best definition of denial (for both Christians and non-believers) is “the deliberate tuning out of and disregard for Christ’s teachings.” Many people prefer to stay bound up in the ropes of ignorance. Jesus said “know the truth and the truth will set you free” and few statements regarding freedom have ever been as crystal clear. Since denial is a refusal to accept a truth or a set of truths about ourselves there can be no disorder as devastating and destructive to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Like a particularly ruthless and aggressive cancer it must be dealt with ahead of any other affliction. Larry Crabb wrote, “Some urges within me are good. They should be identified, nourished and released. Some are bad. They should be identified, starved, then killed. But bad urges are tricky. They can look so good.” And therein lies the conundrum. We don’t care to think there’s anything wrong even when it’s glaringly obvious to family members and close friends. And any attempt on their part of to inform us causes us to discount their view as an over-dramatization of something they’ve conjured up straight out of their imagination. I’m reminded of the scene in “Young Frankenstein” where Frederick first meets his servant Igor. He notices Igor’s disfigurement and says, “You know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help with that hump,” to which Igor replies, “What hump?” It’s hilarious because it’s so very true of so many of us and ironic because it’s so maddeningly common.
A quote by Carl Alasko is appropriate. He wrote, “How can human beings gifted with the ability to analyze complex information ignore facts directly in front of their eyes and then refuse to see it even when ignoring the information might prove to be disastrous?” It’s the opposite of the Emperor and his new clothes in that some people are walking around with so many layers of protective clothing on that we can’t see them at all. Yet they think they’re ready for a dip in the pool! Tragically it usually takes some kind of serious threat to their mortal equilibrium or a catastrophic event that pulls the rug out from under their feet to blow the fog of denial out of their vision. I cite Alasko again. “There’s an immutable fact about denial: it does not work – long term. Reality always wins.” To prove I know firsthand of what I speak I’ll use myself as an example of a man who lived in denial most of his life. After puberty settled in I became obsessed with hiding my fascination with pornography. Like many teenage boys I’d stash my clandestine copies of Playboy and Penthouse where mom couldn’t find them and deem myself cleverer than she. The problem was that while most other men stopped playing that childish game I never did. When the internet came into existence I thought modern technology ensured that my secret world would be impenetrable. Then one day I came home and my wife had a look on her face as if she’d been stabbed in the back. My addiction, preserved on the hard drive, had been exposed. My fig leaf had been torn off and I was naked. My filthy heart was laid open and it reeked. My selfish habit that I’d always rationalized “wasn’t hurting anyone” had obliterated my wife’s trust in me. In that moment I hit rock bottom hard and my denial couldn’t soften the blow. I was forced to face my addiction and I could either erect another wall and walk away or I could finally do something about it. I found Celebrate Recovery and I never left.
Many years later I’m a leader in our local CR ministry and I see time after time men and women coming in the door of the church on Monday nights having witnessed the shattering of their shield of denial into a million pieces (as mine did) or because someone who loves them talked them into giving our Christ-based program a try. I wish I could say that our success rate is phenomenal but it’s not. We’re fortunate if one out of ten sticks with it long enough to let God do His miraculous work and turn their life around. Why so few? Because it requires total surrender to God. I had no options. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, “When you got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.” I committed. I went all in. There’s no other way because denial is a strong, wily and very determined demon who’ll whittle away at your will until he’s convinced you that you’re “just fine” and don’t need anybody’s help, including God’s. I know. 15 minutes into my first CR meeting I started looking around to see how I could slink away without anybody noticing. My shame was suffocating me but the folks there looked too normal to understand my affliction. Then the leader said something that made me stay put. He said, “When I came here I thought that if anyone knew the real me they wouldn’t be able to get far away fast enough. But I was wrong. They accepted me just the way I was, warts and all.” That was my defining moment. I’d made light of the church for years, thinking it was a bastion of intolerant snobs and full of self-righteous, judgmental types who’d look down their noses at me if I darkened their sanctuary door. But the truth is the community of Christians I turned to for help were the last people on earth who’d condemn me for staining their carpet with the muck I’d been tromping around in for most of my life. They were just like me. They’d been wearing fig leaves, too.
I was raised in church but when I turned 18 I abandoned it and didn’t look back. In 2009 I was introduced to whom Philip Yancey refers to as “The Jesus I Never Knew.” I was in dire need of forgiveness but, as Lewis Smedes wrote, “Guilt was not my problem. What I felt most was a glob of unworthiness. What I needed more than pardon was a sense that God accepted me, owned me, had me, affirmed me, and would never let go even if He was not too much impressed with what He had on His hands.” That’s the God I’ve come to know, along with His gracious Son who has the power to heal a rotting heart. He’s my loving Father who didn’t care where this disgusting prodigal had been, only that I had come home. Your spiritual depression may be a form of denial that’s built a barrier not only between you and your Creator but your loved ones and your ability to know joy and peace in this life. Kirk Shelton said we all need Celebrate Recovery and I’ve come to believe he’s right about that. As the Lennon/McCartney song goes, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” That’s denial in a nutshell. Take off your mask and together we’ll look into how we can unbolt our denial, drag it out into the light and watch it wither and die like a vampire exposed to dawn’s early light.