God, Congregation, and Codependency: To Whom Are We Preaching

Desiring God 1992 Conference for Pastors

God, Congregation, and Codependency

“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.” We just sang those words a few moments ago. I qualify. I feel my need of him. We’re talking about a very controversial subject. In these few days, I trust that my words will be seasoned with grace. I trust that as I say some difficult things perhaps in the course of my three lectures, that somehow the wonder of who God is will be held before us in a way that’ll make us want to bring people before him as opposed to simply finding fault with those with whom we differ.

I’m very grateful to be here for this couple days of conference. It’s a real privilege to be sharing in the Ministry of the Bethlehem Conference for pastors, partly because of the influence that John Piper’s books have had in my life. He said some kind things about me. Let me return the compliment. His books have been helpful, but the one that I think I have been most influenced by has been his little volume called The Supremacy of God in Preaching. When I first read that about a year and a half or maybe two years ago, I have since required it of all my counseling students and I have done that for a very definite reason. I would like to see a trend reversed in the entire field of what’s called Christian counseling. It seems to me that we’re right to wonder whether counseling, as we know it largely in evangelical circles today, is making as much of God as needs to be made. What does it mean to honor the supremacy of God in counseling? That’s the question I began to consider as I read John’s book on the supremacy of God in preaching.

A Personal Account

Let me tell you a little bit where I’m coming from. I don’t think you understand a preacher unless you know something about them maybe. Let me tell you about a few things the Lord’s been doing in my life as an introduction to what I want to be talking to you about these few days together. Some of you perhaps know that last March 3rd, United flight 585 from Denver to Colorado Springs never made it. It crashed. There were 25 people on board, four crew members and 21 passengers. My only brother was on that flight and all 25 died that day on March 3rd. After the death of my brother, I of course shed many, many tears and still do on occasion. But two weeks after Bill died, on March 17th, that was a Sunday, I remember telling my wife, “Honey, there are tears inside of me that I have not yet cried.” Do you know what that means? Have you ever sensed something stirring within you and you’re not sure what it is, but it feels important?

John White has a book called Changing on the Inside, not a terribly original title in my view. In that book, he talks about how repentance is sometimes a process that can be likened to an earthquake. There seems to be a collision of internal forces that begins to come about in your life and you’re not sure what’s going on. But if you pay attention to what the spirit of God might be doing in deep parts of your soul, then eventually it breaks forth in a mighty work of repentance. Well I wasn’t sure what was happening inside of me, but I knew that there were tears that had not yet been shed, but I wasn’t sure their source. I knew it was something deeper if that can be imagined than the death of my only brother. That night, March 17th, I got up, couldn’t sleep, went to my study, got my Bible, and I wasn’t sure where to turn. My first reaction I can recall as I sat there in my study with my Bible on my lap, was to feel intensely irritated with the scriptures. Have you ever been there?

The questions I was asking, I wasn’t sure if God was answering and it made me mad. I began to think and pray about that and somehow the tears began to come. The dam broke and the tears, the sobs, convulsive sobbing — perhaps unlike anything I’ve known in my 47 years — seemed to come. I can recall just about shrieking in the presence of God at about one or two in the morning and saying, “Lord, I’m aware that life is an unmanageable mess and I can’t seem to find the principles in your word to organize my life so I can get it together the way I want.” After pondering that sort of thinking for a little bit of time, the sentence came out of my mouth that I doubt if I’ll forget very soon. And the words were these: “Lord, I know you’re all that I have, but right now I don’t know you well enough for you to be all that I need. I want to know you better.”

That began last March 17th. It was a new level in my intense pursuit of what it means to know the Lord. And it also has triggered an intense preoccupation with whether our counseling understanding, whether our methodology, our theorizing, the kind of things that we’re doing in evangelical churches, really is pursuing God in an appropriate way. I’ve come to wonder if rather than pursuing God, we’re instead using him to solve our problems and making the resolution of our problems the great priority by which we judge whether God is being faithful in any given moment.

Every Bible-believing pastor wants to know that the counseling that he himself provides and the counseling activities within his church as well as the counseling resources to which he may refer people, his congregation, are all God-centered and Christ-honoring and thoroughly biblical. We all want that. Don’t y’all have a bunch of questions about that? I do.

I was in England a little while ago and a counselor there said, “You folks in the states are so far ahead of us in the field of counseling, couldn’t you import much of what you have to the UK?” And my response was, “You wouldn’t want a great deal of it.” That was not said angrily I hope, but said with a real concern what is happening in counseling circles that really reflects a thoroughly biblical approach.

To Be Thoroughly Biblical

Let me by way of introduction to the topic of co-dependency, which I’ll get to in a bit, suggest that when I use the phrase “thoroughly biblical” to describe a counseling approach, I mean several things. This is all by way of introduction, be patient as I wade through some of this material. By thoroughly biblical, I mean that counseling among other things, number one, regards personal sin as always a more serious problem than personal woundedness. That is not to deny the severity of personal wounds and the assaults on a person’s soul that come from being sinned against and abused miserably. But in every instance there’s a worse problem than whatever abuse I’ve suffered in my life.

About a year and a half ago, a lady approached me when I was doing a seminar and she said to me in the course of about an hour long chat that we had, “I have a real problem. I’m here with a friend of mine who has been my counselor for the past 10 years, and as we left your seminar, a week long seminar, to go back to our motel room, my friend said to me, ‘I don’t want you talking to me about your problems tonight. I have all that I can handle on my own for this evening. The seminar has stirred up some concerns within me and I can’t handle the burdens of your life right now, so please leave me alone tonight.”

The woman who was talking to me said, “I know I should be able to do that, but something inside of me felt terribly betrayed. Something inside of me felt like, ‘Has this woman ever cared about me? I don’t know if I can accept the fact that she’s not here for me now because I’m a badly hurting person and I need somebody to be here for me.’ Can you help me deal with the fact that I know I should accept that as a reasonable request on my friend’s part who has been such a faithful counselor and friend of me for the past literally 10 years?” In the course of conversation that she led to some degree, she told me the following two incidents. As I tell you these incidents to bring up a couple of horror stories — we all have a thousand we could share — the purpose of this is not to shock because I’m sure if you talk to people you’re pretty well past shock.

But she said this to me, “When I was a little girl from ages five to 10, my father sold me to the landlord for rent every month. And the landlord was into Satanic ritual abuse and I spent a day every month for five years of my life, ages five to 10 being sexually abused by this man.” The details of this are really too horrible to mention publicly. She said, “The worst of it all was when dad would take me to the landlord and stop in front of his house before he would invite me to get out of the car and lead me to this man, he would lift me on his lap and hold me and tell me how grateful he was for the help I was providing for the family. That was the worst part.”

Deep Wounds and Personal Sin

Is she wounded? Is she scarred? Does she have any trouble with her identity as a valued woman made in the image of God? Sure she does. She told me that when she was three years old, she was up in her bedroom before Christmas time with her two-year older brother. She was three, her brother was five and they were looking through the heating vents. There was a heating vent in the floor of her bedroom that went down. You could see through the heating vent in the ceiling of the living room through a heating duct that was no longer operational and you could see what was happening in the living room below.

She said, “It was before Christmas and my brother and I were relying on the floor looking through these two events, watching mother and dad wrap Christmas gifts in the living room below and I was having a good time seeing what I was going to be getting. Well, mother left the room and I wasn’t paying attention to mother. I was looking at the gifts and mother came upstairs and when she saw a brother and I, although brother by this time had left, mother saw me lying on the floor looking at my Christmas gifts.” What would you do if you were a mother in that situation? Wouldn’t you make it into a little fun time and say, “You can’t peek at those gifts. I’ll let you have one now, but that’s all. No more peeking.” Would you spank your child for that? I wouldn’t. The girl wasn’t being bad in some horribly morally wicked sense. There wasn’t a foolishness within her soul showing that required discipline. It seems to me it should have been handled rather differently. Maybe I’m saying something wrong.

She said, “When mother saw me looking at the Christmas gifts below, she went into a psychotic evil rage. I’m not sure how to describe it. She yanked off the heating vent and stuffed me into the heating duct below and left me there for three days.” Was she scarred? What on earth do I mean when I say that all counseling is thoroughly biblical, and regards personal sin as always a more serious problem than personal woundedness when you have wounds of that severity? What do you do, pastor, when a woman tells you that story? My next sentence to her, as she told me those stories was, “I wish your mother and father were here. I’d want to punch them.” It makes me mad. Do you get mad? But then I said something else. I said, “Tell me about your worship.” Her whole mood changed. She looked at me viciously and said, “I don’t worship. I can’t.” Why not? “The first time I ever remember praying was when I was in that heating duct for three days and I prayed God would let me die. He failed to let me die. He didn’t answer my prayers and now I have a case against him.”

What’s her deepest problem? All counseling that’s thoroughly biblical, I would suggest, regards personal sin defined very deeply. It’s an energy, a rage against God that is a far more serious problem than personal woundedness. And we must not say that in a way that makes us insensitive to the legitimate hurts of people.

Not the Means to an End

Secondly, I would suggest that thoroughly biblical counseling is counseling that recognizes that finding God to both enjoy and serve him is a very different enterprise than using God to resolve our problems and relieve our pain. And even when the higher power is identified as Christ, the mood so often still is that God is useful and therefore to be worshiped. That strikes me as a problem. I remember years ago a man came to see me. He was in my calendar but I didn’t know him. It was when I was in private practice as a clinical psychologist in South Florida. I went out to greet him, and brought him back to the office for my first counseling appointment. “How can I help you,” I said. His opening sentence was this: “I want to feel better quickly.” I said, “Let me get this straight. You want to feel better quickly. That’s what you’re asking me to help you with.” He said, “Yes.” And I said, “I recommend you get a case of your favorite alcoholic beverages, some immoral women, and go to the Bahamas for a month.”

He said to me, “Are you Christian?” I said, “Why do you ask?” He said, “Because your advice doesn’t sound terribly biblical.” I said, “The difficulty it seems to me is more with the question than with my advice. If what you’re demanding is relief from pain as a central priority and want to find some resource that on demand under your control will relieve pain, then I’m not sure if a sovereign God is your best bet.” There are pleasures in sin for a season. Biblical counseling recognizes that finding God to both enjoy and serve him is a very different enterprise than using God to resolve our problems and to relieve our pain.

Catalytic, Not Authoritative

Thirdly, counseling that’s thoroughly biblical affirms that biblical teaching provides a framework for thinking through every counseling problem and that the insights of psychology can only be catalytic to our thinking, never authoritative over our thinking. Counseling that’s thoroughly biblical affirms that biblical teaching provides a framework for thinking through every counseling problem and that the insights of psychology can never be more than catalytic for our thinking, never authoritative over our thinking. And if you buy that particular position, then you take issue with the integrationists who regard the Bible and secular psychology as equal sources of authority which you merge together to form a Christian approach to counseling.

By the way, that’s very, very standard these days. In many counseling circles, it seems the Bible, since its sense is regarded as not a counseling text and does not therefore speak in the minds of many to psychological problems, we therefore must close our Bibles and open up our secular psych textbooks and use them as authoritative, being careful never to contradict the Scriptures but not depending on the Scriptures.

My understanding of biblical counseling is to assume that God has not written an irrelevant book and that he knows me far better than I know me. I’m too stupid to ask the right questions. Therefore, when I exegete, I must come to the text asking what questions has God bothered to answer and to assume they’re the important ones, and to assume within the framework of the questions that God has bothered to answer, all the questions that life requires me to ask will be sufficiently addressed. That’s an assumption I make.

By the way, that’s a tough one to honor. That’s a really tough one to honor. Ever counsel with a sexual abuse victim? How do you find biblical direction for counseling with a sexual abuse victim? If you look in your concordance under “S” or “A,” you don’t find any material that specifically gives God’s wisdom for dealing with sexual abuse. What I’m going to be suggesting, and you’ll get a little flavor of it in the course of my three presentations, is that I believe that biblical categories have implications that cover every question a counselor needs to ask. That’s why I suggest that counseling that’s thoroughly biblical affirms that biblical teaching provides a framework for thinking through every counseling problem and insights of psychology are only catalytic, never authoritative.

An Illegitimate Sense of Wholeness

Fourth, biblical counseling, among other things, realizes that we exist for God, he does not exist for us, and that a focus on affirming our value and setting boundaries to preserve us from assaults on our value may develop an illegitimate sense of wholeness that fails to disrupt congenital self-centeredness. Did you follow that? That’s a bunch of words, isn’t it? I’ll say it again. Biblical counseling realizes that we exist for God. He does not exist for us, we exist for him. That’s the first part of my fourth point. And when you get that reversed and the focus becomes on affirming our value and setting boundaries to preserve us from assaults on our value, what may develop is an illegitimate sense of wholeness that in fact does feel good, an illegitimate sense of wholeness that is illegitimate precisely because it fails to disrupt our congenital self-centeredness.

If that woman were to tell you her story, wouldn’t you want as I want, as I think I should, to affirm that lady’s value in spite of what happened to her as a child? Wouldn’t you want to affirm her value and to say that the way your parents treated you is no accurate reflection of your value as an image bearer? You should never have been subjected to that kind of inhumane cruelty. God’s punishment always respects the dignity of the individual. Dorothy Sayer said that, “God’s greatest compliment to man is hell. If you want your own way, God will let you have it and hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever.”

There’s a dignity about it, a horror about it, but something very different than this mother did with this lady. I would like to affirm that woman’s value, but I would suggest that once you make the affirmation of value the central enterprise and your efforts to work with people that you’re in danger of promoting an illegitimate sense of wholeness where a person might learn to feel good about themselves but it may never disrupt the real problem for which the Lord had to go to the cross.

The Spirit is the Agent of God-glorifying Change

Lastly, counseling which is thoroughly biblical is counseling which assumes that God’s Spirit is the agent of all change that pleases him. Now, to put all that more briefly, everyone here I’m sure wants to know that all of our counseling that we endorse as church leaders honors the Bible as true and sufficient, honors the forgiveness and that’s available only in Christ as the basis for restore dignity, and honors the glory of God as the central value in life.

We’re living in a very interesting day. As I read the trends, it seems to me in the secular world and filtering into the Christian world, there are two major movements for the Christian pastor to be concerned with. I’m sure there are many more, but there are two that have caught my attention and the one is our topic for the conference in terms of my presentations and that’s the codependency movement. The other is the men’s movement. That’s a big deal. Is that big in your area? It includes Robert Ly’s book, Iron John and Sam Keen’s book, Fire in the Belly. That’s a very big movement now that’s getting a lot of attention and churches are beginning to ask questions about what it mean to be a man versus a woman. Some of you know Piper and Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I recommended that book highly, my endorsements on the book.

It’s an important book because it’s starting to talk to us about the fact that there really is such a thing as biblical manhood and the movement that is getting popular in secular circles is one that is infiltrating into our churches in a variety of ways in an attempt to define masculinity in my mind in some rather uncertain at best, and I think sometimes rather badly unbiblical ways. There are two movements to be concerned about among others in terms of the secular world infiltrating the Christian Church — the codependency movement, which is my topic and the manhood movement, which is a topic for another time perhaps.

The Presuppositions Beneath Ideology

Last summer I had the opportunity to go to CBA, the Christian Booksellers Association. About 11,000 people came to that. It was a five day conference in Orlando, Florida and their exhibition hall was about the size of four football fields and I wandered that. A person that likes to read has quite a time wandering through four football fields of books, but the thing that disturbed me is that I wandered through all the displays, the predominant bestsellers in almost all the publishing houses were books that had to do with self-help. They were recovery type books. They were books on overcoming addictions, books on recovering from shame and dysfunctional families, books on setting relational boundaries, on developing intimacy and learning how to change from the inside out. That was there as well. And what I want us to understand is that every counseling book has a very definite theology of sanctification behind it.

When we evaluate the codependency movement, we need to ask what are the presuppositions that are going on beneath the codependency movement that we need to identify and see whether or not they square with our understanding of the Scripture? Don’t make the mistake that I think too many people make, too many pastors make in my experience at least, to assume that somehow counseling is an enterprise that is separate from the work of the pulpit and that it really is its own specialized discipline. I was talking to a professor at a major theological seminary whose specialty was systematic theology, and I asked him a question. “Tell me your views on the counseling that’s taught at your seminary.” And he said, “I have no views. It’s not my field. I’m a theologian.” I don’t think that’s a good answer. I really, really don’t. When I went through my graduate training at University of Illinois, I was 21 when I began my graduate studies and I was a naive kid and I just assumed that becoming a psychologist was very similar to becoming a dentist.

You learn how to scientifically do certain things and because I was a Christian, I do them ethically and morally, but what I did was going to be no different than what a secular person would do. When I went through my training, I began to become aware that what my training was teaching me were things that the Bible spoke to. There’s an overlap. Every counseling model, every approach to counseling must be viewed not as a medical scientific specialty that makes us as pastors, you as pastors feel incompetent. Adam’s book I think was terribly helpful, Competent to Counsel, when he basically said, “Look, if you know the scriptures, you’ve got the basis for intervening in people’s lives adequately.” I concur with Jay. We differ in a lot of things. I concur on that. I think that’s a very important point.

We must not regard counseling as somehow separate from the enterprise of learning the Scripture. Every counseling model has an anthropology, a view of people. They call it a personality theory, but it’s anthropology. Every counseling model has a hamartiology, a view of if not sin at least what’s wrong with people. Every counseling model has a pneumatology, a view of the personal forces going on that move people in one direction or another. And every counseling model has a soteriology, how people can be rescued from their dilemma. Every counseling theory operates according to a theology of sanctification, what needs to be changed, and how it occurs.

When we evaluate the co-dependency model, we need to realize that we’re not looking at a way of thinking that is morally neutral. There are things that we have to be very, very concerned with. I’m going to be giving three talks. The rest of tonight what I want to do is to ask the question as John already introduced, what’s wrong with people today? What’s going on in the lives of people? Tomorrow, my second talk, I want to talk about the codependency movement in particular. I’ll ask, “What is the codependency movement?” and look for what answers it offers to people who are struggling with their problems. And then thirdly, in my last talk I want to be talking about what I judge to be perhaps a critique of the codependency movement, raising some concerns about it which I will be weaving throughout all of my comments, and provide some thoughts as to what might be a biblical alternative to dealing with the things that the codependency movement in fact addresses.

What’s Wrong with People Today?

What’s wrong with people today? That’s my topic for the rest of our time tonight. What’s wrong with people? It wouldn’t be hard for me to tell a bunch of stories. All of us could get up and tell stories about people that are hurting, people that I counseled with last week that are struggling, but I want to go beyond that. I want to do more than say what every thoughtful, involved pastor is aware of, that people are hurting very badly. I want to go beyond saying the obvious things that when you get into people’s lives and you hear them tell their stories, you realize that how they look on Sunday morning is not how they feel the rest of the week.

I want to go beyond the obvious and say more than the fact that when you look out in your congregation Sunday mornings and see couples sitting together, they probably just had a fight earlier that morning. It’s very possible that they haven’t had sex in four or five years. It’s very possible that the women in your church have a history of sexual abuse because about 40 percent in our culture do and a surprising number of men have a history of sexual abuse. I want to go beyond saying the obvious things that a fair percentage in your church are struggling with sexual perversions over which they have no sense of victory.

I want to go beyond saying all those kinds of obvious things and I want to talk about some trends in people’s lives that I think are undergirding a mentality involved in many people sitting in our churches today. I see three trends. I want to talk about three trends for the rest of my time. There are three trends in modern thinking that are influencing people sitting under your preaching every Sunday. There are three trends in modern thinking that are reflected in the way people are operating and are generating their own unique sets of hurts, beyond all the obvious things about dysfunctional backgrounds and sexual abuse and marital tensions and kids that are on drugs and all the rest of the things that our people are struggling with. I want to suggest that there are three ways of thinking, three trends in the way people are thinking today that you and I as Christian leaders — and you particularly as pastors — need to take into account as we preach.

I want to suggest by the way that as I talk about the needs of people as reflected in these three trends, I don’t want to suggest for a minute that you need to change your preaching to accommodate felt need, nor do I think that you need to (or that you should) continue on preaching with a happy disregard of the needs of people sitting in your audience. I talked with a pastor just a month ago. He’s a 75 year old man who pastored until he was about 45 and left the pastorate to enter the academic world because he said, “In my church people wanted to come to me when I got off behind the pulpit and talk to me about their lives and I had nothing to say. All I could give them were the tired old cliches that hadn’t worked for me. I didn’t know how to deal with my life and I felt like a phony and a hypocrite, so I quit the pulpit and went to the lectern where students didn’t expect me to know much about how to live.” That’s the way he put it.

I don’t want to suggest that we need to accommodate our preaching to felt need, but I also want to say that we need to take into account felt need and maybe one of the tasks of preaching is to seek to change the awareness of people, to move them from what they feel as need to what in fact their real needs are, and then speak to that. Now, that’s a very different approach. What are the felt needs? What are people struggling with and what are the thought patterns that are reflected in their felt needs? I want to suggest three trends, and this is by no means meant to be exhaustive. We all have our ideas from our experience. This reflects my limited sphere of experience, but I’ll tell you one thing I’m really convinced of, things are different now than they were five years ago.

Reducing Mysteries to Manageable Categories

There seems to be a movement that frankly is scaring me to death and driving me nuts. There seems to be a way of thinking, a way of approaching life that strikes me as very, very different from what I was contending with just five or maybe 10 years ago. Something is going on. I don’t know what it’s all about, but it seems to me that maybe we can describe or at least get at whatever the differences are in our people sitting in the pews by talking about three trends.

Trend number one: There must be a way to reduce the mystery of life to manageable categories. That’s the first trend. I must find some way to regard the universe as an orderly arrangement that I can understand and find steps by which I can achieve whatever I want.

I will go to my Bible if I’m a Christian and I will look for biblical principles hoping that they are going to be the means by which I can order my life and get exactly what I want. There must be a way to reduce the mystery of life to manageable categories. I want to live in such a way where I don’t have to radically depend on the goodness of God in order to make it. I want to be able to depend on some manageable approach to life that I’m guaranteed is going to result in certain things. Oswald Chambers has said, “The root of all sin is the suspicion that God is not very good.” I want to find some way to arrange my life. I want to find some way when my kids come into the world to know that if I do X, Y, and Z, that puts God in a position of being obligated so I don’t have to be afraid of what might happen when my kids are teenagers. When I’m choosing a mate, I want to find some way of being led by the Lord so that I can choose a mate and live with her or live with him in such a way that there are never going to be really significant difficulties. I must find some way to order my life.

Last Christmas, just a few months ago, I got word that a pastor whom I have a slight familiarity with, a good friend of mine knows him very well, had a 24-year-old son who committed suicide on Christmas Day. When you hear that, what does your mind do? I’ve got a son who’s 23 and another one who’s 21. The first thing my mind did was, how do I make sure it doesn’t happen to my kid? Where did the pastor blow it? Did the pastor not call his son often enough? If that’s the case, I’m going to get on the phone and call my boy right now. Did the pastor not write to his boy often enough? Did he pester his boy with too many letters? Do you think like that? Are you as weird as I am? I trust you are, I’ll feel much more comfortable. I don’t know any of you, but I feel pretty comfortable that it’s true.

I want to find some way to live my life that puts me in control. I want to find some way that I can understand Christianity so that if I do X, Y, and Z, then certain things that I desire are going to happen. Now, do you understand that when you approach life with this way of thinking, when you come into church on Sunday morning and you’re saying, “God, speak through my pastor so I can figure out how to handle my life so when I do this and this and this, that what I want is going to happen,” basically you’re putting yourself in a position where ultimately you become the judge of God? Does that make sense? Does that follow? C.S. Lewis put it well when he put it this way:

The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches the judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed; man is the judge and God is in the dock. Now, man is quite a kindly judge. If God should have a reasonable defense for being the God who permits war, poverty, and disease, man is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal, but the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is on the dock. There must be a way to reduce the mystery of life to manageable categories and your people are going to be listening to you Sunday after Sunday to see if you’re going to come up with the answers.

No Quick Fix

A man that I’m working with now sat in my office last week and told me over the Christmas season that his sexual addiction got the best of him. He and his wife (they’re in their late 40s, early 50s and their kids are all gone), this particular Christmas, when no family was with them, he spent Christmas by renting 10 pornographic videos and watching them with his wife to enhance their sex life. He called his previous therapist in the middle of all this and his therapist said, “You’re into your addiction.” His question to me was, “I want to find some way to unravel whatever is going on inside of me so I no longer have to struggle with this. Can you tell me exactly what to do?” Now he’s sitting in a church of a friend of mine who preaches biblically every Sunday. Where do you suppose he’s more expectant of getting help? Sunday morning from the pulpit or Wednesday morning in his recovery group?

Why? What’s he thinking? He’s thinking, “There’s got to be some way to figure all this out so I can understand my past in a particular way, so I can grasp how my father let me down which created a certain vulnerability inside of me. My masculinity isn’t felt very strongly. I’m afraid to approach my wife in certain ways and looking at pornography gives me an illegitimate sense of masculinity. I’ve got to find some way to organize this and have a way out of it that I can manage, and on demand, the problems will be relieved. Pastor, do you have any answers for me? All you do is tell me it’s wrong and trust in the power of the Spirit.” You have to do better than that. Got to be a way. We’re getting away from the need to trust in the character of God by finding strategies that we can control to make our lives work.

As I understand, the focus of many 12 step groups is not on the character of God but rather on manageable categories for making life work, all done with God’s help and blessing. That’s the first trend.

The Idol of Our Self-Appraisal

The second trend strikes me as interesting. It’s an interesting shift. As I wandered through the CBA last July, I noticed something that struck me as significant. There seemed to be fewer books on how to live biblically to stay out of bankruptcy, fewer books on how to live biblically to promote intimacy between you and your partner, and fewer books on how to raise your kids so they turn out right. Most of the books that I discerned — at least the trend is an obvious one I suppose — had more to do with how to get your internal self together.

The second trend is this: Since there are no guaranteed steps to making relationships work or to changing difficult circumstances into pleasant ones, the only thing left to work on over which we have significant control is how we feel about ourselves. The only thing left to work on over which we have significant control is how we feel about ourselves. Your people, if they’re reading any of the popular books coming from a lot of the Christian psychologists, are getting inundated with the notion that the number one priority is to find some way to restore a legitimate sense of self. And since there are no guaranteed steps to making relationships work or to changing difficult circumstances into pleasant ones, the only thing left to work on over which we have significant control is how we feel about ourselves.

I attended this church on Sunday morning. We worshiped here together yesterday and John preached on abortion. It was an excellent sermon and I’d say that if he weren’t here, it was good. The sentence I’ll not forget from that entire sermon wasn’t his closing prayer. I’ve not told him this. In his closing prayer after speaking on the deeds of darkness, the works of darkness — he made a clear distinction between fruits of light and the deeds of darkness — and suggesting that abortion is certainly something which God is opposed to, which is a wicked wrong. In his closing prayer, he prayed along these lines. I can’t recall the exact words, but the gist of it was this: “Lord, there are no doubt some women in this room right now who have had abortions.” What would his next sentence be?

I would think in many churches, the next sentence would be, “Lord, help them to feel accepted.” His next sentence was, “Lord, help them to feel the sting of what they have done and to be driven to the embrace of Jesus.” Now, that’s different. That reflects a higher priority than saying, “My number one priority is to restore a sense of value to my existence.” The restoration of self has become the primary value in our day.

That gentleman that took his life on Christmas day, the 24 year old young man, went to Moody Bible school and 20 of his former classmates came to the funeral and they stayed, many of them at the home or they spent an evening at the home of a good friend of mine. And my friend told me just a few days ago that when she was with these 20 young people who were there to mourn the loss of their friend in Moody Bible days, she was amazed as she listened to the conversation of these 20 young people. What you’d expect them to talk about, I presume would be, “We never thought this would happen,” or, “We knew he was depressed. We didn’t know it was that bad.” Those would be the kind of sentences that I think I’d expect from the peers of this gentleman that took his life, but that wasn’t what they said. D you know what they said? The theme of the conversation was, “At least he’s out of the mess.” One person said, “I wish I had his courage.” Aren’t those sentences? Are those young people sitting in your church Sunday morning? What are they saying?

Are they saying that life is such a chaotic mess that there’s no way to put it together? They think, “Our only hope is somehow to reclaim some sense of personal value, some sense of worth, some restoration of our dignity as people in the middle of a confusing and chaotic world. Our only hope is to somehow relieve that terrible emptiness and pointlessness and poverty of relationship that is deeply felt. That’s the only thing I can hope for and I’m going to get it and if I can’t, then I’ll check out.” Is that happening in people sitting in your churches in the morning? It’s true that all of us do live outside of the garden. CS Lewis put it well when he said, “God gives us many resting places in our journey home, but he never allows us to mistake any of those resting places for home.” We’re out of the garden.

Obsessing Over a Lost Sense of Self

In February, my wife had a lump in her breast that was diagnosed by a needle biopsy as questionable. We went to the hospital one morning to have the lump removed. The surgeon insisted she remove the lump into a more thorough biopsy. I was sitting in the waiting room as the surgeon was taking out this lump out of my wife’s breast and obviously I was praying hard, aware that it was serious.

The doctor came into the room and said in a rather clinical manner, but I didn’t care how she said it, “Everything is fine. You can take her home in half an hour. She’s okay.” She walked out. And as she said that, I can recall feeling for just a few moments, “I think I’m back in the garden. Everything’s okay.” Have you ever been there before? Kind of a situation. Some of you had the bad news. I had good news and I just was ecstatic and when I went in to get my wife, she still had the anesthesia, the local anesthesia. She was feeling no pain. She got up, she got dressed, and I was so excited because she was healthy. I said, “Honey, let’s celebrate anything you want. What do you want to do?” She took advantage of this one and she wanted to go antiquing.

Well, I was so happy I would’ve been willing to go antiquing. I said, “I’ll buy you anything you want. You want that hutch? We’ll find a way to, we’ll buy anything you want.” For a few moments I felt like I was back in the garden. Then 10 days later my brother was killed. We’re never quite back in the garden. Have you noticed? The pain of living in this fallen world is very, very real and what our culture is doing is defining the locus of that pain fundamentally in terms of a lost sense of self. We can’t figure out this mess. We can’t put the mess together out there. We can’t make our relationships work, so let’s now define the pain that we can somehow manage. Maybe we can reduce it to manageable categories. Maybe we can find some steps to recovering a legitimate sense of our identity, and let’s make that the central enterprise of life.

It assumes that particular physician and assumes that loss of identity is centrally rooted in a dysfunctional background. The reason I don’t feel good about myself, the central problem has its central cause and a background where I’ve been told things about myself that aren’t true, where maybe I’ve not been put into a heating vent for three days, but I’ve been shamed and demeaned.

That recovery of identity is learning to battle the messages from that background. And many of your people who are reading the self-help books are coming Sunday morning saying. They think, “My number one priority above everything else is to recover a sense of identity because I can’t make sense out of this world. I’ve got to at least feel good about myself and the reason I don’t feel good about myself is that I’ve been raised in a background that’s dysfunctional. What I must learn to do is battle the messages from that background. Pastor, teach me things that God is saying about me that compete with what my parents and my other background factor have said about me and teach it in a way that’s powerful enough to compete with those negative messages.” Is that what you’re giving your people Sunday morning? If you are not, then a lot of your people are going to be very dissatisfied with you. Do you accommodate that felt need or do you need to reshape what’s going on in people’s hearts and minds and then speak to that?

To Honor a Faulty Trend

When you take that position, when you honor that trend, the most important thing to do in this crazy world is to regain a sense of my own value, then the gospel becomes reduced, it seems to me, to the provision for help in that battle. The gospel becomes reduced to nothing more than an affirmation of human value and one of the sentences that I’ve heard time and time again, a sentence that has some legitimacy to it but it’s not a central sentence, is that Christ died for me and that proves my value as opposed to saying Christ died for me, and that proves his love and my sinfulness. Did he die for a non valuable person? No, I bear the image. That gives me wonderful value. I understand that. But the central thought has to do with the fact that the death of Christ is atoning for my sin as opposed to affirming my worth. It reflects God’s worth, not mine, although my worth is won in the process or reclaimed in the process.

Work on Your Feelings

Trend number two: All that you really can manage is how you feel about yourself, so work on that. That’s how a lot of folks are thinking these days. And by the way, just a little parenthesis, that’s what I see in counseling all the time. Even folks who are coming from really good Bible believing, Bible preaching churches, when they come in my office for counseling, it almost always has to do with this: “I haven’t been able to make my life work. I’m really depressed. My wife has left me. I’ve got anorexia. I feel very discouraged about a variety of things.” They are real human hurts and needs to which we have to be sensitive, needs that I struggle with. I get discouraged a lot. I struggle with things, I struggle with temptations, all of us do. I’ve got problems. You’ve got problems.

But these people are coming in, it seems to me, generally saying, “I can’t understand how to put it all together and I’m not finding it in my church, so let me see if I can find it in counseling. Will you reduce the mystery of life to manageable categories (they don’t say this) so I don’t have to get to know God well enough to trust him implicitly? I want to have a strategy that will replace trust with my effort to make it all work. I want my world to be predictable, manageable, and under my control, but I’ve kind of given up on that to some degree in terms of making my marriage work. I come to realize no matter how I behave, I can’t get my husband to stop drinking. I’ve come to realize no matter how much I interact with my kids in certain ways, I can’t get my daughter to be moral. I can’t get my kid off drugs, I can’t get this, I can’t get that. So let’s get down to the important things. In the middle of all of my failures, in the middle of my terrible background, will you help me find some way to at least restore a sense of my own value as a human being?” They seek to find a way to manage life (trend one), and all that you really can manage is how you feel about yourself, so work on that (trend two).

Energy Devoted to Finding Ourselves

The third trend is that given how badly we’ve all been hurt, no one can blame you for devoting your energy to finding yourself. Given how badly we’ve all been hurt, no one can blame you for devoting your energy to finding yourself. Wouldn’t you feel that way if you’d been locked into a heating vent for three days or sold to your landlord every month for five years? Wouldn’t internally, you say something like this? “If somebody knew what I’ve endured, if anybody really understood the pain that I feel in the core of my being, if anybody really understood how badly I feel, then they would applaud as opposed to judging me for devoting all of my resources to repairing the wound, given how severe the wound is.” Don’t we all regard pain as the great justifier of action?

If somebody right now in the middle of this lecture were to stand up and scream and run out the door, we’d all have a variety of reactions, but I presume that we’d be at least curious. And if we found out that the person had a sudden attack of the kidney stone, would anybody rebuke him for being rude to the rest of us? Well, of course not, because that kind of pain justifies efforts to relieve it. And that’s how we think morally, that if there’s a deep pain in my soul — a pain that God hasn’t protected me from — then I’m justified in doing whatever is required to see to it that that pain gets relieved.

There was a woman who approached me, oh, it’s been about two, three years ago I guess now. She told me that she was in a church on a Wednesday night at a choir practice, and she was the last person to leave the church that night in the middle of a fairly large city. And she went into the parking lot. It was dark. She was the last one, her car was in the parking lot. And a teenage boy, 16 or 17 year old boy abducted her at gunpoint when she left the building and took her away for a full 24 hours and required her to commit vile sexual acts on threat of death. She didn’t want to, but she cooperated to avoid getting shot. He had a gun to her head and she involved herself in some terrible sexual acts.

She comes to you, pastor for counseling. What are you going to do? What are you going to tell her? How do you talk about that? Well, she went to a counselor who has taken David Seaman’s work on healing of memories, much of which I think is very much to be applauded. I think it has some weaknesses and much to be applauded. But she went to a counselor who took his work and trivialized it badly and what she told me happened when she went to this counselor was that the counselor said, “I’m going to have you visualize all the things that happened to you during that 24 hours and I want you to visualize Jesus there caring.” Her response was, “That’s my problem. I believe he was there and he didn’t do anything.” You see, ever since Adam and Eve sinned, we all have inherited a legacy to wonder if God is all that good. Is he withholding?

Is God Withholding Goodness?

What should Adam have done when Eve brought him the fruit? There’s some debate on this. My understanding is that when the Scriptures say that Eve turned to Adam who was with her and gave him to eat of the fruit, that it’s very possible that Adam was there the whole time Eve was being tempted. There’s some support in the text for that particular position. A huge question to ask is, if he was there while the serpent was tempting Eve, why didn’t he talk? And men ever since shut up at all the wrong times. What’s the major complaint of women?

When Adam was given the fruit to eat, what should he have done? Well, I don’t know. But I suppose one thing he should have done at least was to honor the biblical absolute that he had received from God. The absolute from God directly communicated to him, and he should have gone to God and said something like this, “God, I’m in a pickle. My woman has just done such and such and we have a problem, but I’m going to throw myself upon your goodness and whatever you choose to do, I’m at your disposal.” Rather than that, he had a better plan. He took a bite of the fruit. We have a great struggle with believing that God is good. And as a result our basic mood is this, that my self-centered efforts to take care of my own soul are ultimately very, very justified.

And pastor, don’t you dare moralize to me, don’t reduce the Christian life to moralism. Don’t you tell me, given what I’m going through in my marriage, that I’m supposed to treat my wife in a particular way. I know Ephesians 5 is coming up in your expository series, but please take into account the fact that in my particular situation, I’m justified in some very deep ways in working to preserve my own soul, given the pain that I’ve gone through, married to that particular woman or to that particular man. I would suggest that the people we’re preaching to today in our culture are people who are thinking along these three lines. First, find a way to manage life. That’s our principal purpose. Second, if you can’t manage it very well, at least feel good about yourself. That’s our principal priority. And third, do whatever it takes to achieve relief. That’s our principal value.

As I see it in our culture, because of the movement that reflects some of that thinking and appeals to people who are vulnerable to ideas growing out of that thinking, we’re in danger of losing a biblical view of sin. And someone has said centuries ago that all heresy has its beginning in a weak and feeble view of sin. We see ourselves as more troubled than sinful. The cross becomes more affirmational than atoning. God becomes more useful than awesome, worthy to be called in for help, otherwise not terribly worthy of worship. Mercy becomes less valued than immediate blessing, and we therefore become more demanding than grateful. The danger within my heart is to become reactionary to these concerns and somehow to become terribly insensitive to the reality of human suffering, like women that have been taken off for 24 hours and forced to commit terrible acts, women that have been stuffed in heating events for three days.

How do we maintain real sensitivity to the reality of human suffering, but steer clear of efforts to help that reflect some of these trends in thinking that maybe have their problems biblically? Tomorrow morning’s presentation, I want to look at codependency’s answers to the suffering and I want to express concern with their answers, but also I hope to express sensitivity to the reality of the suffering that people are experiencing. In the last lecture, I’ll present my understanding of how we can deal with the real needs that are going on in people’s hearts.

Questions and Answers

We have a few minutes for questions and I’m happy to entertain any questions or comments that you might have for just a few minutes and John is sitting here to rescue me as soon as the questions become abusive.

Have you read Jeff VanVonderen’s book Tired of Trying to Measure Up?

Jeff is a local pastor in the Minneapolis area as I understand. We had a seminar at his church just a year or two ago. Yes, I have read the book. It’s been maybe a year and a half or two years. I’m not sure if I can give a strong critique, but I think I do understand the basic thought that he’s coming at. He’s saying that the central difficulty that he wants to address is what he and John Bradshaw before him and many others have called a “shame-based identity,” a sense of yourself as bad on the basis of how you’ve been demeaned by dysfunctional background forces. The central thought in his thinking, as I understand it — which is also in Sandy Wilson’s book Released From Shame and in Pat Springle’s book— is that we see ourselves as bad for illegitimate reasons.

It’s very important to realize that codependency theorists argue that we’re bad because we’ve not been able to perform in a way that has gotten our parents to treat us in certain ways. The fact that I see myself as bad is because I wasn’t a pretty enough girl to get dad to spend time with me. I wasn’t a good enough ball player for dad to come to my ballgames and he put me down for being a clutz and being cut from the team, and therefore, as I look in the mirror of my parents, I get these messages that I’m bad, but in fact that message is invalid and I see myself as bad only because I’ve not been able to perform in a way to get somebody to approve of me. That’s the thesis from which he operates.

I think he has a very valid point in human behavior. It’s common knowledge. Take a child who’s been sexually abused, a young girl has been sexually abused, which is easier for her to conclude? That her dad is wicked and wrong for what he’s done or that somehow she’s at fault and she’s bad and that’s why it happened? Which is more natural to conclude from sexual abuse? It’s the latter, right? Why? I mean that’s not true, is it?

She wasn’t sexually abused because she was a provocative little girl who invited her dad to molest her. She was sexually abused because her dad was wrong. He shouldn’t have done that. Whatever the reasons, dynamics and all that, her dad shouldn’t have done that and she is legitimately a victim of sexual abuse. There’s no question about that. But my question is why doesn’t she see it that way? What is ingrained in human nature that makes a little girl conclude that somehow it’s her fault?

Now, I think this is what Jeff is getting at. I think he’s making a valid point when he basically, at least I’ll put it in my language, maybe it’s not his. My language is this — and I don’t think this would be the way he put it actually — I think that little girl concludes that she’s the bad person, not merely because she’s a victim. Now she is a victim, but the reason she concludes that she’s bad is because if she can conclude that the source of her pain is something that she can go to work on, then there’s hope. If I can no longer be bad, if I can get better, if I can be more moral, and that’s the girl who as an adult becomes the most prudish girl in the world and would never wear an article of clothing that would ever show her feminine shape or be in any way seductive. She goes so far the other way to always be totally pure that she lives under the pressure of never doing anything that might be interpreted as sensual, and she’s saying, “I’ve now found a way to preserve my soul if I can just be entirely asexual.” Now, where did that come from, that attitude? I would argue that that attitude essentially comes from her commitment to find some way to make my life work. That’s the energy of depravity.

I believe that it’s depravity. It’s the energy which says I’m going to make my life work apart from God that requires her, that she’s internally required to conclude, “What is wrong here is something I can go to work on, which is me. Now, I’ll go to work on myself.” Now, I think that if that’s what’s happening, then I think that that woman needs more for her healing than affirmation. She needs more for her healing than release from demands. She needs more for her healing than the message that because of the gospel there are no demands on you and you are just fully accepted and that’s all that you need to hear. I think she needs to hear more than that. I think she needs to hear that there’s something within you that is wanting to hold this bad self-image, if you will. I don’t buy the mirror view of developing a bad self-image — that I develop an image based on the mirror that I see in a person’s reflection.

I hold the functional view of image development, which is that a bad image has a function to preserve me somehow and keep my soul alive in the middle of a painful world. If I acknowledge that it’s bad, that’s bad and the world is at fault and that there really is nobody out there that I can turn to the way I want to turn to, then I’m stuck with God and the natural soul doesn’t want to be there. So to me it’s depravity, which is interacting with victimization to lead to all of her problems and the biblical counselor must take into account both, and I don’t think that that book takes into account the side of depravity in an ongoing way. That’s my major critique of the book. What else?

For the woman who has been badly abused, who would very much like to be there for her husband sexually, but feels an internal deadness or tightness or nausea when she moves toward the sexual situation, what are the implications of what I’m saying in dealing with that particular woman?

Let me just say what I can in just a moment. Again, I trust the next couple lectures will address it a little bit more. But very briefly, what I would not want to be heard as saying, and I don’t think you’re hearing me say this, but let me just clarify. What I would not want to be heard as saying is to somehow moralize in a way which is insensitive to the fact that there are legitimate deep wounds going on in that particular woman’s soul that need to be thought through.

I think that a lot of the right wing reactionary folks in this field are coming up with very moralistic positions in saying, “The issue is forgiveness, the issue is depravity, the issue is sin. You’re accountable. First Corinthians 7 says that your body belongs to your husband and your husband’s body belongs to you. Now you can’t separate except for prayer and fasting, you got to get involved sexually, now go do it in the power of God.” I think that’s just going to introduce tremendous frustration and not be healing at all. So I would not want to be interpreted as saying that at all. On the other hand, what I am suggesting is that when you get into that woman’s soul — and I’m willing to get into her soul — my first sentence would not be, well here’s what you must do. My first sentence would be, “I’d like to take an inside look.”

I think there is a value of looking beneath the surface and looking into the core of the human soul. The word of God is a sharp two-edged sword which divides the thoughts and intents of the heart and that the purposes of a man’s heart are like deep waters. We don’t see what our real agendas are and it’s wise it seems to me and not psychological, but biblically required to take a deep look into that woman’s soul and to understand the processes happening within her and to face the pain and to have her enter the reality of how badly she’s been disappointed. I would have no struggle with doing any of that and I do all of that, but in the middle of all that, what I’d be looking to expose more than the fact that she’s wounded and needs healing, is that there is a rage and that rage is growing out of something other than her victimization. That rage needs to be thought through as to what is her attitude toward God.

I would argue that the central dynamic that each of us as pastors, counselors, friends, and disciplers need to deal with is not the dynamic of how our dysfunctional world has wounded us, but rather the dynamic of what is happening and our attitude toward God in the middle of all that. And when that gets exposed, now you’re getting into the core issues where I think issues of sin and forgiveness and repentance become apparent. And when those get dealt with, and I think there is a restoration of a sense of her own value as a woman, it does free her to be able to move toward her husband sexually and that might be a 10 month process.

What if during that time her husband isn’t receiving any sexual fulfillment?

My reason for living is not fulfillment, the fulfillment that comes in that particular way. That’s a legitimate desire, but it’s a very illegitimate demand. If my ultimate goal is to please God, am I willing to forego legitimate pleasures that I have no right to but a legitimate longing for? Am I willing to forego those things in a willingness to minister to my wife? In the very same sense that if a wife were physically harmed in some way and sex were no longer possible, what does a man do then for the rest of his life? He can’t have sex with his wife. What does he do? Well, he gives it up. That’s a hard calling and this man must give that up on behalf of his wife if that’s the right thing to do as you think things through. That might be playing into her hands in some illegitimate ways. There are all kinds of possibilities.

One of the things that concerns me in what you say is maybe an incomplete view of the fall. Do you believe that the fall damaged mankind psychologically? I’m also hearing you saying that when sin is done to you, it really doesn’t damage you that much psychologically, as if we can have empathy for the person with the kidney stone but if it is psychological we need to just trust God.

I think my biggest fear is that I’ll be heard saying that because that’s not what I want to say. I deeply believe that when that kind of abuse takes place that I’ve described (and we all have our horror stories), the impact is profound. There’s a profound impact on that little girl’s ability to trust. There’s a profound impact on her sense of whether she can be enjoyed as a woman in a legitimate sense of that term. That boy who’s been demeaned by his shaming father is going to have a real struggle with the sense of masculinity. There’s real damage to his soul, to his psychological being, whatever words you might want to use. Do I believe that those damages are very, very real? Yeah, I really, really do.

The basic point I think I’m making tonight is that while I’m willing to acknowledge that those problems are very, very deep and very, very real, I want to argue that as real as they are, there is something further that requires even more attention. If I go to a physician with a terrible migraine headache, I don’t want him to say, “Well, your migraine headache is no big problem. You got a worse one.” What I want him to say is, “Your migraine headache is killing you. I mean maybe not literally, but it’s really hurting you terribly badly. I’m concerned about the pain in your head, but I’ve also discerned a spot in your lung. And while I want to deal with that migraine.” I’ve got a much worse problem that really needs to be dealt with and that’s what I’m wanting to emphasize. I don’t want to be heard as coming up with some sort of a simplistic, “well just trust God and things will be fine.”

I think ultimately that’s true, but I think putting that into operation is no simple matter. It’s kind of what happens between getting saved and getting glorified, kind of learn what that’s all about. And that takes a fair amount of time and a fair amount of work and a fair amount of struggle and failure and problem along the way and encouragement. So I don’t want to suggest at all that there’s a weakness that the impact of the fall on my soul has not been profound. I think there has been. I could tell some personal stories about things in me that I think have been very difficult. I’ll tell you one real quick one. This is a simple one. It’s not a very horrible story.

When I was an eighth grader, I played in a Saturday morning basketball league and my father, who was a semi-pro athlete in his day, wasn’t able to come to any of my games until one Saturday when he did, and I was the tallest kid in eighth, I was my present height when I was in eighth grade and I never grew since. The ball was tipped to me. Dad was in the stands for the first time ever. The ball was tipped to me. I got the ball and I ran down the court and sunk a layup in the other team’s basket. Now what did I feel? Does the word shame fit? Sure it does.

Now that that’s a minor thing next to horrible sexual abuse sorts of things. But I recall not wanting to look at my father and to see his eyes. I didn’t want to do that. And I would argue that — not just because of that one event, but that event is a symbol — I’ve had a real struggle in taking the ball in situations where I’m not sure of myself and there’s been a lot of things that I tend to avoid doing that I really am responsible to do simply because I’m afraid I’ll take the ball and put it in the wrong basket.

So I figure out where I’m pretty good and stay there, which has narrowed my options and I’ve worked real hard on where I’m good. Everything else I let go. And I would argue that if I came to you and told you that and gave you my history, and if you said to me something like, “Well, whatever God calls you to do, just do it whether you feel shame or not,” I would say you’re a very insensitive unbiblical counselor because the effect is far more profound than my soul than that. But I would argue that if all you do is deal with the shame and make that my central problem, I think you’ve missed the point of what’s happening in my life.