“For whatever a person succumbs to, to that he is enslaved.” – 2 Peter 2:19
Denial, because it’s so prevalent in the Bible, exudes a certain fragrance all its own every time you open the book. It’s certainly not an enticing perfume because denial is sin’s sibling and there’s nothing savory about that kinship. Nor is it a foul odor because there’s nothing that can override the sweet aura of truth that permeates God’s Word. No, the aroma denial has is neither good nor bad. Rather, it’s the neutral smell of familiarity. Familiar because we’ve all met denial up close and personal. The irony is that, while we claim an ability to keenly detect it in others, it’s often immensely difficult to recognize it in ourselves. That’s the most evil of its attributes and why it’s so important that we Christians confront it with honesty. As 2 Peter 2:20-21 says, “For if after they have escaped the filthy things of the world through the rich knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they again get entangled in them and succumb to them, their last state has become worse for them than their first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, having known it, to turn back from the holy commandment that had been delivered to them.” Those lines of scripture solidify how serious denial can be. It’s the devil’s favorite tool to use in getting believers to go back to doing the iniquitous things they did before being saved. Don’t misunderstand, Peter is not implying that a Christian can lose his salvation (the Bible makes it clear that nothing can snatch us from the hand of God) but a believer can get demoted to benchwarmer status on Team Jesus and who in their right mind wants that? Since denial is a sneaky troublemaker we must apprehend it in the act, lock it up and bring it to trial for the crime of allowing our peculiar compulsions and obsessions to thrive. In other words, we all have an addiction to sin and, in order to grow as followers of Christ, we must stop hiding it. As David Bedrick wrote, “It’s time to get over our addiction to denying the truth about addiction.”
In my last essay I pointed out that Adam and Eve were the culprits who introduced not only sin but denial into the gene pool. Soon denial spread, becoming as normal as breathing and as multi-purpose as a Swiss army knife. In the confines of Genesis alone you’ll see it rear its ugly head repeatedly in our burgeoning family tree. First there’s the original couple’s offspring, the murderous Cain, who denies involvement in Abel’s demise by feigning ignorance of his whereabouts. Blood drips from his hands as he snaps at God, “Back off! It’s not my week to baby-sit my brother!” Then there’s Noah who, after going on a wine bender and making a fool of himself, gets mad and puts a curse on his son, Ham. He obviously has an alcohol problem but he’s not upset that he got drunk; he’s irked that he got caught! Abraham employs the most accessible aspect of denial, lying for the sake of self-protection, when he tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister and it gets him tossed out of Egypt. Later his son, Isaac, tries to avoid problems with Abimelech by doing the exact same thing! Like father, like son, eh? Now, if you think the fairer sex is above such shenanigans think again. Sarah insists that her husband sleep with her maid, Hagar, in order to produce an heir. When jealously erupts Sarah denies that any of it is her fault. She shouts at Abraham, “You have brought this wrong on me!” Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, built up so much resentment in her heart against her son Esau and his spouse Judith that she put her more heavily favored son, Jacob, up to pulling the wool over her feeble husband’s eyes so he’d inherit the estate. When the gig was up she told Jacob to head for the hills and she didn’t see him again for twenty years. Nowhere does it say she was sorry for her treacherous actions. The guy Jacob ended up working for, Laban, is a textbook case of presenting oneself as an upstanding fellow while using every trick available to cheat and deceive others for one’s own gain. And, if you want to see an example of corporate denial check out what Joseph’s jealous and conniving brothers schemed and then covered up in chapter 37. Whether we like it or not, these are our ancestors and they wore denial like a favorite pair of sandals. The positive slant is that we don’t have to feel alone when we’re caught in denial. We’ve got plenty of bad company.
In the Celebrate Recovery ministry we offer people a way to find healing for their hurts, to rid themselves of their hang-ups and kill off their sinful habits by turning them over to our higher power, Jesus Christ. There’s no hocus-pocus involved, no complicated regimen to adhere to and no hidden clauses popping up down the line. A person seeking help is encouraged to follow 8 principles based on the Beatitudes and a version of the 12 steps of A.A. That’s it. And both principle one and step one make vaulting over the wall of denial the crucial first move. They ask us to admit that we’re not God, that we’re powerless to control our tendency to do the wrong thing and that our lives are unmanageable. Both are illuminated by the Apostle Paul’s revealing statement of Romans 7:18-19. “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” Paul, one of the finest Christians ever, was humbling himself by coming clean and stepping away from denial. He wasn’t hiding his sinful nature, blaming someone else or trying to minimize the consequences of his actions. He was being transparent and saying to all who would listen, “I’m a mess!” With all of his flock looking up to him as a beacon of righteousness no doubt this was a hard thing for him to admit. But admit it he did! And, in doing so, he showed us that being open and honest when it comes to the truth about ourselves is the key to spiritual growth. With the Apostle as our model, we’ll begin to look further into what our denial has done to us.
The declaration of admitting “I’m not God” trips up a lot of people right off the bat. Many react with the dour sarcasm that my third-grade grandson responds to most any accusation with. “Seriously?” They smugly muse, “Never in my life have I thought I was God. How ludicrous!” Maybe so but we do it almost daily. Allow me to explain. I used to make up my own commandments to live by and they didn’t always match up with the ten in Exodus. Don’t worship another God. (Check.) Don’t turn anything on this earth into an idol. (I’ll do my best.) Don’t take God’s name in vain. (Sometimes in traffic I can’t help myself.) Don’t pay attention to anything on Sundays except God. (But there’s a playoff game on TV!) Honor your parents. (I did what they asked. For the most part.) Don’t commit murder. (I’m in full compliance.) Don’t commit adultery. (Okay. But why put “just looking” in that category? Not fair.) Don’t steal. (Gotcha. Unless it’s little stuff that no one misses.) Don’t lie. (Depends on the situation.) Don’t covet what the Joneses have. (But they’ve got a pool!) What I’m saying is that since I wasn’t willing to obey God’s laws I just made up my own to suit my needs. (I had only two, really. “If it feels good do it” and “Don’t get in trouble.”) I, like most of us, arbitrated what was right and wrong for me to do so I was playing God. I had the attitude that in the entire far-flung universe I was the only one qualified to lay down the ground rules for living my life. When we live under our own authority we figuratively act as if we’re God and eventually we pay a steep price for our folly. C.S. Lewis insisted that we human beings must believe in an all-wise entity that exists outside of ourselves who knows more than we ever will about right and wrong or we’re doomed to learn the hard way. Christians have no excuse for not knowing who that entity is. He is our gracious, loving and merciful Father in heaven and He reigns, not us. That’s why we must admit that fact even before we confess to living in denial.
Denial does a lot of damage. It discounts what’s in our heart and tells us to ignore the Holy Spirit as it points us toward the moral high ground. Gut feelings can be true or deceptive. If we don’t express them then we don’t stand a chance of understanding them. Too often we let silent apathy seep into our personality to protect ourselves from rejection and criticism. Having said that, what we say and how we say it shouldn’t be determined solely by what we feel, but by our desire to reflect God’s love to others. Denial saps our energy. Being a Christian in denial takes a lot of work. It’s a full-time job. Fear of others discovering what we’re really like under our mask creates anxiety. That constant worry makes it impossible to enjoy what God has for us right now. We have to stop pretending that we’re somebody else and become who God had in mind when He created us. Denial also stunts our spiritual growth. If we spend all our time putting up a false front then we’re no better than the hollow Pharisees (who Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for) that talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. Christ told us in no uncertain terms to seek God above all else but when finding relief from the inevitable pain of living in a fallen world becomes our focus, at that moment we stop pursuing God. When that happens we become estranged from Him because if we cease to seek God He will cease to be found. And life without God is no life at all.
Denial isolates us from other people, as well. We don’t dare reveal our true selves to others because we’re terrified of what they’d think or say if they knew the real us. We become convinced that protecting our secrets is more important than being vulnerable. Due to being scared of the kind of agony we know relationships can bring into our lives we guard ourselves from the possibility of getting hurt by adopting a style of relating that keeps people at arm’s length. Unfortunately, the result is the eventual deterioration or loss of all our relationships. That’s why Ephesians 4:25 says, “Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor for we are members of one another.” God is telling us to stop lying, for heaven’s sake! If job one is to love each other as Jesus loves us then playing it safe cramps our reason to exist. Without the liberating power of fellowship found only in the body of Christ we’re lost. That’s another reason for CR. Larry Crabb wrote, “Beneath what our culture calls psychological disorder is a soul crying out for what only community can provide, a true community where the heart of God is, where the humble and the wise learn to shepherd those on the paths behind them, where trusting strugglers lock arms with others as they journey on together.” Worst of all, denial doesn’t make the pain go away. In fact, it makes it last longer because it promotes procrastination over doing anything about it. By keeping your sin out of the sunlight it festers and spreads until you have a host of addictions, not just one. Truth, like surgery, may hurt for a while but it cures. God promises us in Jeremiah 30:17 “Yes, I will restore you to health. I will heal your wounds. I, the Lord, affirm it!”
The confounding question is this: Why is it so difficult for us to emerge from the shadows of denial and say “I have a problem,” even when we strongly suspect we do? The “duh” answer is that we love what we’re addicted to and don’t want to give it up. Jesus addressed it head on in John 3:19-20 when He said “…people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed.” When my wife discovered my clandestine porn obsession one of the questions she asked me was why I didn’t tell her about it before. I truthfully replied that doing that would’ve been too humiliating, too risky and too revealing. That made no sense to her because we’re married and there’s no cause for hiding secrets from each other. What I left out in order to keep from hurting her more was that I had a genuine affection for my habit. In those verses Christ was talking about me because I loved the darkness and didn’t want my sin exposed to the light. Being found out by the person I cared about most was the only way I’d ever own up to my deep-seated sin of lust. At that juncture it was a no-brainer to admit that I had a problem but up to that fateful day I would’ve denied it vehemently to my dying breath. That’s how much of a stranglehold my sin had on me. As Steve Gallagher wrote, “Hiding his sin is just another way that the self-centered lifestyle of a sexual addict manifests itself. In truth, he is far more concerned about the cost he will have to pay for his transparency than the possible harm done to his loved ones.”
At CR we help folks deal with all kinds of obsessions and addictions, from substance abuse to anger issues to codependency. The list is long. All those hang-ups have one thing in common. They make us feel better for a while. Therefore the task ahead of us is clear. We have to dig down inside to find the roots that feed our habits. If we don’t figure out what’s so gratifying about indulging in sin and discover wholesome alternatives at least as enticing, we’ll never be very successful in freeing ourselves from the firm grip our vice of choice has on us. I quote Bedrick again, “Substances are not only the enemy needing to be beaten or overcome; substances are friends, allies, that people seek for reasons that need to be addressed.” Substitute “hang-ups and habits” for “substances” and you’ll get an idea of how many varieties of escape mechanisms Celebrate Recovery addresses. We understand how hard it is to take off your elaborately designed costume when everything in you sounds an alarm that screams, “Don’t do it! It’s not safe!” But that’s a terrible lie. It’s not only safe but healthy and liberating. CR puts a very high premium on confidentiality so that people who come to a meeting will know they can be who they are without fear of their particular affliction going public. And the people you’ll encounter have stood in your shoes and that’s of supreme importance. It was for me. Brennan Manning wrote, “Only someone who has been there, who has drunk the dregs of our cup of pain, who has experienced the loneliness and alienation of the human condition, dares whisper the name of the Holy to our unspeakable distress. Only that witness is credible; only that love is believable.”
We’ve established that tearing down the façade of denial is the first action to take in beating not only addiction but the born again blahs, putting us on the road to repairing our relationship with God. It’s not easy to do because it forces us to come face to face with our pride but once it’s done it’s done. You’ll wonder why it took so long to admit you were struggling with denial. But the next phase is even more challenging. Realizing that you’re powerless when it comes to your hurts, hang-ups and habits.