God, Congregation, and Codependency: What Is the Codependency Movement

Desiring God 1992 Conference for Pastors

God, Congregation, and Codependency

In the interest of accuracy, let me make one correction on Dave’s introduction. He said, Rachel, I met when we were 12. That’s not true. We met when we were 10 years old, but we couldn’t begin dating then because she was going steady with Carl. And God gave her the wisdom to break up with Carl at age 12 and that’s when I moved in. It occurs to me that although we’re not going to do this, it might be a more profitable way to spend our time just to gather in huddles and talk and ask a thousand questions of each other because a lot of times the good questions come in casual conversation and during the question and answer time, the good questions come as well. And sometimes when the speaker speaks, I fear that I sometimes may not be speaking to the questions that are coming out of your minds and souls and ministries with passion.

A Clarification Regarding Wounds

Just during the break, I received a question that I think is an excellent one, the kind of thing that I think would energize our thoughts for a long time if we gave time to think it through in detail. A gentleman asked me, “You said last night that sin is always the core problem and therefore I presume that you would teach that repentance is always central to meaningful biblical change,” which I do. He said, “Tell me your understanding of a five-year-old girl who’s been sexually abused. Is she making sinful choices to somehow blame herself rather than her parents to provide herself with room to maneuver?” Do you hear the question? Does that make sense? My answer to that is several things, and let me just do this by way of introduction so I can get into the material that I already have planned.

By the way, folks tell me I talk too fast. If that’s a problem you’re all just listening too slow, so speed it up and we’ll have a good time. My answer in part to the question is to suggest, I wonder what would’ve happened had our Lord been sexually abused at age five? What happens when abuse is imposed on impeccability? Is there not an interaction between being sinned against and the energy of sin that leads to certain styles of relating, certain styles of coping, and would it not be true that would ever abuse our Lord — certainly he suffered major abuse later in his life and apparently he had wonderful parents who were not guilty of those kind of heinous crimes — I would suggest that there would be a different energy of soul going on within that kind of perfection than goes on within that five year old girl. Having said that, I think we must not make the assumption that the only time we see the energy of sin is in conscious willful choice.

I would not for a moment go to that five year old girl and want to expose the wickedness and sinfulness of her choosing to believe that she’s the bad one versus acknowledging her father was bad. If I were dealing with that girl, I’d want to buy her ice cream and give her a lot of hugs, appropriate wholesome hugs, and get her away from a situation where she’s being horribly abused. I’d want to provide nothing but deep affirmation and nourishment, and to let that girl know that she’s a valued member of the Lord’s family in the sense of bearing the image of God. She should be treated in a certain way. But when that girl comes to see me at age 30, at age 40, at age 50 and says, “I’ve not been able to experience any sexual arousal, I’ve been diagnosed, but my physician is having ISD, a condition that has reached the nomenclature about 10 or 15 years ago because of its frequency (it’s called inhibited sexual desire).”

Pastors, when you preach for every 100 women in your church, 35 have been abused, statistically, and of the 100 women you preach to, there’s probably 30 or 40 or maybe 50 who have no deep sexual desires and enjoyment of sex with their husbands. And when that particular person comes to you and talks about their history of sexual abuse and my suggesting, am I suggesting the first thing you do is say, “Look, the issue here is moral, not psychological. The issue is not that you’ve been injured, but rather that’s you’re sinful and you need to obey what God says in 1 Corinthians 7, ‘Regard your body as an instrument of pleasure for your husband’ and therefore choose by a conscious act of your will, independence upon the Holy Spirit to give yourself to your husband.” Is that what I’d say? No.

I’d start talking about the pain in that woman’s soul. I’d hurt with that woman over what happened to her when she was five years old. I have a few very, very close friends who have been badly abused in their backgrounds. My first sentence to them is not one of moralistic exhortation. My concern is to provide healing. My concern is to be involved deeply with them, but my concern is to recognize that central to their problem, that core to their concerns still is the interaction effect of the damage that has been inflicted upon them in which they were simply victims and the operation of the depraved energy operating within each of our souls, in every soul except for our Lord’s. It’s that operation of depraved energy, which basically says this, “I’m going to clench my fist and find a way to make life work.”

In the Line of Cain

Do you ever notice the first thing Cain did after God told him he had to wonder? Remember Genesis 4 after the judgment on Cain? First thing he did is that it says that while he and his wife had a child during the process of building their family, Cain was busy building the city. God said to Cain, “You’re going to wander.” Cain’s response was, “No way. I’m going to find a way to build a city.” And I would suggest that’s been the line of Cain ever since. I’m going to find some way to make this world home. It’s a lousy world, but I’m going to make it work somehow and if I have to make it work by numbing my soul to what I deeply long for, that’s what sexual abuse victims do all the time.

That’s what all of us do. I’m going to numb my soul to what I deeply long for. I’m not going to embrace that I’ve been built for a relationship with Christ that nothing and no one can satisfy but him. I’m going to pretend I can get by on less because in this world I can’t get the more. So I’ll adjust to this world. I’ll build my city by requiring less of my world, by numbing my soul so that my desires are less intense, and then I’m going to be satisfied with becoming a hooker or getting rich or having a wonderful husband and three nice kids and say, “That’s life.” It’s not life, it’s building your city. It’s the energy of Cain. It’s a mistake. A lot of questions are asked during breaks, but let’s leave the good questions and get back to my presentation.

A Burden for Pastors

About three years ago, the Lord burdened me for pastors. I’ve never pastored a church. I’ve been involved as an elder in several churches. I’ve done a fair amount of preaching, but I’ve never been called to serve as a pastor, I do not believe. About three years ago a man that has been the second most important man in my life, after my father, a man named Chuck Smith who taught at Grace Theological Seminary for a number of years, and then taught at John MacArthur School for several years before he died a little more than a year ago, he came to me and he said, “Larry, what do you have against pastors?” And I said, “Want to elaborate on that little bit?” And he said, “When I hear you preach and you talk about stories, you usually represent pastors in a bad light. I think you ought to go easier on them.” Well, that confrontation from Chuck, a man whose words I never can dismiss, although many times I’ve wanted to, made me evaluate a little bit, what do I have against pastors? Remember I was asked to speak at a youth pastor’s conference some years ago and I said to my wife, “What should I say to pastors?” And her first sentence, echoed my heart, she said, “Tell them how mad you’re at them.”

Why? Because we’ve had miserable experiences in our history with our children with youth pastors. We’ve had legalistic, angry youth pastors who have beaten our kids up for not being the model kids who would never miss church and carry their Bible to the lunch table in school every day. Our kids didn’t do that and they got beaten up by certain youth pastors and it made me angry. I’m not proud of my emotions, I’m telling you what they’ve been. And towards pastors, I think my feeling has been so many times, “Gentlemen, do you realize that there are things going on in the souls of people in your church that you have to deal with?” And I’ve said it angrily before.

I really do believe in the last couple years I’ve gotten over a fair amount of my anger and now I think I feel a fair amount of compassion for you guys. Because the more I get to know you, the more I’m aware a lot of your lives are a mess. The first book I wrote is called Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling. That isn’t the title I suggested to the publisher. That was back in the days. I wrote that when Tom Harris’s book came out. It was titled I’m Okay, You’re Okay. I wanted my book to be entitled, I’m a Mess, You’re a Mess. It seemed a whole lot more biblical than Harris’s humanistic stuff. But the publisher read the book and said that the title is very interesting, the book is not so let’s give it a more appropriate title and let’s call it Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling. It fits the content of the book.

Tempted to Leave

I began to wonder what it would be like to be a pastor. What are the strains and struggles that are on your soul and on your hearts? About three years ago I took a friend of mine, a young pastor, 29 year old fellow, good friend, kind of a disciple of mine in some sense I suppose, and he and I called up three or four different churches over the space of two years — churches in some cases that I knew and one or two cases I didn’t. I called up the pastor and I said, “Hi, I’m Larry Crabb. Can I come visit you for a Saturday at my expense for a Saturday morning you and your key leadership and will you give me four hours of your time to ask questions? I’m coming for my sake, not for yours. I want to understand what’s going on in your heart. I want to know what you struggle with. I want to know what you’re burdened by.” I’ve come to feel for you guys.

There was a conference called by the Navigators maybe three years ago. They invited 13 pastors from across the country almost at random — big churches, small churches, across denominations — to meet for three or four days of discussion about their lives. And what the head of that conference told me was that the 13 men that were chosen at random to come to this conference of the 13, 11 were seriously considering leaving the pastorate because of the pressures. And yet you’re asked to speak from fullness to those in your congregations.

What Overwhelms You?

Take your Bibles and turn to Colossians 1 as I introduce my thinking to you today. Colossians 1, let me read a well known verse and then read the verse that we don’t usually read after we read the well known one. I want to read Colossians 1:28–29. This is one of those verses that I find to be very disruptive. It seems to me that one of your fundamental principles of hermeneutics is to come to the Bible knowing you’re wrong and expect to be disrupted about something. And if you don’t find the Bible jarring at lots of points, then maybe we’re not reading it correctly.

As an illustration of that point, I was stunned just maybe a year and a half ago as I was reading through Ezekiel to notice that when God spoke to the Jews that had been in captivity — they had been in captivity for several years at this point — God reveals himself to his servant to make known his message to his hurting people. And what he says is, “Go talk to my rebellious people.” And my thought is, “God, you got it wrong.” I thought, “Go talk to my hurting people, not my rebellious people.” And he gave a message that was difficult for the Israelites to hear in their pain.

Then after Ezekiel heard this message and ate at the message, it says that he went to the exiles who were by the Kebar River and he was overwhelmed with what? I think a very fair question to ask as you approach the pastoral ministry is, what overwhelms you the most? And the question is this, do the needs of people overwhelm you more than anything else? If it does, you’ll be burnt out in 10 years, or probably less. Should you be overwhelmed by the needs of people? You bet. But you’ve got to be more overwhelmed by something else. We’ve got to be jarred by the Scripture until we get God’s perspective on things and the things that we’re overwhelmed by are different from what we naturally from our human perspective easily get overwhelmed by.

I was in South Africa a year and a half ago, two years ago, ministering at some churches there. Had a wonderful time. I have tremendous respect for so many of the pastors there who are struggling with incredible moral dilemmas in their culture. How do you speak in the middle of apartheid, two or three years ago before some of the changes were being made? Tough, tough questions for which I don’t have a clue. We in the American press get all sorts of perspectives and make it sound rather simple and black and white, but there it’s not quite so easy. We toured Soweto. What a horrible way to put it, touring human misery. But we were on a little tour bus with 10 Westerners, all from the point of view of the Soweto population, rich, wealthy whites. We toured Soweto and my heart was broken as I saw the way that these people lived.

I’ve seen poverty. I’ve seen it in Haiti. I’ve seen it in Trinidad. I’ve seen it in the U.S. But I saw poverty here in a way that for some reason gripped my soul. The way a number of people live in Soweto is that they have little huts made out of tin that are about five feet wide, five feet deep, five feet tall, dirt floors and four or five human beings live in that little hut. And there are 10,000 of those huts, wall to wall in Soweto with no running water. After I lecture today, I’m going back to a very comfortable hotel room. After they work in Johannesburg all day, they get a black cab and go back to Soweto and live in that dump. And my question was, “Lord, what are you doing for these people?”

More in Awe of God

I was standing at the Cape of Good Hope with Broughton Knox who is an eminent theologian from Australia. In that part of the world, he’s considered one of the finest theological minds alive today. He’s a very strong reformed theologian who taught in Sydney at Moore Theological College, was president for a number of years. He and I were standing looking over the Cape of Good Hope and I said to him, “Dr. Knox, do you ever get overwhelmed by the suffering of people?” And he said, “Oh, of course, but I’m more overwhelmed that God does anything about it.”

I remember thinking, that’s different. That was not my sentence. Because something inside of me feels that human misery obligates God that he ought to come through, and if he doesn’t, “What’s the matter with you? Prove your goodness.” Knox’s response to me as we talked about that human suffering is profound beyond understanding, and human sin is even worse. It’s the root of it all. And the fact that God in his holiness deems to come down and deal with people like me and care about my pain and want to heal me so I can have eternal bliss, that’s the amazing thing. What overwhelms you more than anything else? It’ll determine whether you burn out or not.

Remember when God wanted to get a bigoted Jew to open the door to the Gentiles, what did he do? What did he do with Peter when he wanted to get a bigoted Jew to open the door of the gospel to the Gentiles? He didn’t talk about Cornelius’s need for salvation. He rather revealed his character more fully with the sheet vision. God said, “I’m no respecter of persons. Honor my character by going to Cornelius.” The motivation for the ministry must be less the needs of people and more the kind of God we serve. Is it right to be overwhelmed by needs? Of course it is. Is it right to be overwhelmed by human need more than anything else? No, it’s very dangerous.

Laboring with All His Energy

I’m overwhelmed by this verse in Colossians:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Can I say that about my ministry? To this end, I labor “struggling.” Well, I struggle a bunch with discouragement. I struggle. I was in Nashville last week speaking to 600 people about finding God and before I got up to speak after 1:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in the front pew waiting to be introduced and some guy who was in the seminar taps me on the shoulder and says, “Can I ask you a question? It seems to me that you’re teaching contradicts this verse. What do you do with that?” He said it with that kind of a mood? And then he said, “By the way, what’s your opinion on Calvinism?” I’m thinking, “Well, what a great encouraging way to begin getting up and preaching.” I wanted to hit him. I didn’t want to preach. And I thought, “No, something’s wrong with me here.” What am I struggling with? His energy which so powerfully works in me, who when he was reviled did not revile again? To this end I labor struggling with all his energy. What’s his energy like?

Read Isaiah 42 where God talks about coming back and straightening things out and he compares his desire to come back with the experience of a woman in labor gasping and panting. I can’t relate to that too well, my wife can. I had a friend that gave birth a little while ago and she was in labor for 33 hours and she said to me the after the birth, after gasping and panting for 33 hours of wretchedly difficult labor, she said, “I laid there in that hospital bed thinking to myself, maybe it’s all a hoax. There’s no child in there. It’s somehow been inflated for some other reason and I’ll be like this till the day I die.” God takes that extreme human condition and says, “That’s what it’s like for me when I think about coming back and straightening things out.” It’s the energy of Christ. Paul says, “To this end, I labor struggling with all his energy, what so powerfully works in me.” Can I say that? Do I know anything about that?

Going Deeper

I was in Boston a year ago speaking to a large group, 6,000 people gathered at what was called the New England Evangelistic Association. From all over New England evangelicals gathered for a conference and there were about four or five speakers. I spoke on the first afternoon. It was my first experience in speaking to a huge group where they had a big screen behind me and a video camera was on me and my face was plastered huge, 100 times its normal size on this big screen. I was out there in the morning watching Steve Brown up there preaching with his big face on the screen and noticing that I hope this guy doesn’t slobber or something because this could be really embarrassing. I thought, “I’m going to be up there in a couple hours, I better make sure that everything is okay with me.”mIt occurred to me too that the only person who couldn’t see my face on screen was me. Because if I turned to look, I’d see the back of my head.

Well, I got up to speak and you’ve all been here, it’s nice to speak to a group of public speakers because you all know this experience. There was no liberty. I was tight as a drum. I had prepared and I had prayed. Have you ever noticed that you simply can’t predict that sometimes? It wasn’t because I didn’t have my devotions that morning. It wasn’t because I had watched too much TV the night before. It wasn’t because I had yelled at my wife and hadn’t straightened it out. None of that was there. But you don’t decide when you’re on. It gets decided for you sometimes, have you noticed? What’s going on?

Well, after it was over, and it wasn’t a good time, I didn’t like it at all — not many other people did either, I don’t think. A friend of mine who went through my program as an intern with me was there, a good friend of mine. He said, “Can I meet you for breakfast tomorrow morning?” And I sensed he had an agenda, so my first thought was, “No, I’m busy.” But I met him for breakfast and because I love this man, I know he loves me. And he said to me, “Larry, can I ask you a question?” After we ordered and the food came? “Sure.” He said, “Why did you get up yesterday morning or yesterday afternoon expecting nobody to like you?” What impertinence. He’s a student of mine. He’s putting all this counseling stuff on me.

Something inside of me felt so threatened and something inside of me felt so loved. I found myself deciding rightly or wrongly, I think it was wrongly, to put this guy through his paces. I said, “You want to take me on pal, you got a job and I hope you are up to it because I’m not easy to take on, but I want you to take me on.” We spent three hours that morning and he won. It was not by the brilliance of his intellect, though he’s a bright guy. He won by the persistence of his love. He said, “Larry, something’s going on in your soul. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right.”

A Soul Issue in Need of Addressing

What I want to suggest to you is this, there’s something going on in each of our souls, in our people’s lives that needs to be addressed. There’s something going on in each of our souls that needs to be addressed if in fact we’re going to learn experientially something about what Paul meant in Colossians 1:29. When I got behind that pulpit, that lectern to those 6,000 people, I don’t believe I was struggling with the energy of Christ much at all. Did God get his good out of it? Yeah, he’s gracious enough to get good out of Balaam’s donkey, I suppose he can get some good out of me. And if he waits till my motivation is pure, then he’ll have to wait a long time before he gets any stuff out of me.

Do you ever get behind a pulpit with totally pure motivation? When I first began preaching, I asked one of my favorite preachers, “How do you get behind a pulpit with pure motivation?” He said, “I never have. I have no idea.” That was very encouraging. But I would like to know a little more of what Paul meant. He knew nothing against himself. He didn’t judge himself, but he knew something about what it meant to deal with his soul before God in the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that freed him to struggle with the energy of Christ, which he was able to say without boasting, so powerfully worked in him. Well, and that’s Paul’s experience. It wasn’t my experience in Boston. What’s going on?

The last issue of “Leadership Magazine,” many of you get, is devoted to the recovery movement. The first article is called “Riding the Recovery Movement.” Richard Doebler wrote the article and interviewed me as well as some others in preparation for the article. I want to read you a little bit of it. Let me tell you why I want to read it to you and then I’ll see if this disparate beginning will come together into one coherent thought at some point. What I want to suggest is that there’s something going on inside of the souls of people today, including me in Boston, including me right now, that most of us haven’t got a clue what to do with. In most cases, church as we know, doesn’t seem to address it.

In most cases, pastors, as we experience ourselves, don’t seem to preach to. There seems to be something going on in the souls and hearts of people that doesn’t seem to be helped by the normal operations of church. Whether it’s my getting up front at Boston and expecting people to dislike me and feeling insecure and mad about that, and then going to church and getting no help with whatever it is that’s going on inside of me, but it needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t seem to be addressed by the normal operation of church as we know it. It’s that phenomenon which has made our entire culture vulnerable to the codependency movement.

The Story of a Pastor

Let me read you a little story. Pardon the length of this, but it’ll make the point. This is the article in “Leadership Magazine”:

Pastor Tim Sledge knew he was in trouble. His emotions were unraveling, even his growing church in the Houston suburbs couldn’t relieve him of the awful sensation that he was losing control. Panic gripped him. Standing in the pulpit, facing 500 people, he said, “I thought I was going to die.” It was recovery books that helped him understand the maelstrom within. He said, “I thought someone had been following me around writing part of my life story without my permission. It was a discomforting experience.” So at age 39, Sledge learned that he was still hiding the shame of having had an alcoholic father.

See, the real problem was not addressed in his understanding by his seminary training. As a matter of fact, a lot of seminary students will tell you that their spiritual life dried up during seminary. And now he’s saying there’s something going on in my life that my ministry as I’ve known it hasn’t dealt with. He recalls the night when he was 11, huddled asleep in bed with his mother and sister. He woke to the sound of his mother yelling and his drunken father urinating on the bedroom floor. But in the light of day he says, they never talked about it. Sledge discovered why his family, like other dysfunctional families, pretended everything was fine. He learned that his shame based upbringing had imprinted him with a lifelong need to be in control and avoid embarrassment. The more successful he became though, the more there was to control. So he panicked.

What confused Sledge was where his faith fit into what he was learning. He knew he’d been forgiven. And when the pastor said, “He understands you’re a sinner in need of forgiveness and Christ died on the cross,” he’d be in the audience saying, “I know all that, but it’s not relevant to the core issues in my soul right now. I’ve got something else going on apart from what I understand the gospel to be teaching. Can you help me with that pastor? No you won’t. I’ll go to my recovery group, that’s where the answer is. He knew he’d been forgiven.” He accepted Christ as savior as a child. To the best of his ability, he’d done everything his Southern Baptist heritage told him to do. Why then if he was a new creation in Christ was this happening? That’s a very important passage to exegete carefully it seems to me regarding what happens at conversion. We’ve all studied it, we’ve all thought about it, but your position on that may be a position that you need to see if it squares with what a lot of the co-dependency thinkers are teaching. Why then if he was a new creation in Christ did his past debilitate him as a successful pastor. Hadn’t he earned the right to be free from shame?

Though Tim Sledge is a pastor, he’s like many Christians populating the church today, who are discovering that their emotions are bankrupt. Somehow the traditional church hasn’t relieved all the pain. I hear in that sentence what I would want to put is a question mark. Is that the function of the traditional church? Is that what we’re about, primarily relieving pain? Are we partly about that? Of course. It’s right to relieve pain. When that becomes your central preoccupation, then you’ve missed your calling.

A Theology of Suffering

My own position, by the way, is that we need to spend more time thinking through a theology of suffering than a theology of recovery. Don Carson has a book that came out a year or two ago called How Long, Oh Lord? which I think goes a long way to at least beginning an effective theology of suffering. They say, “Somehow the traditional church hasn’t relieved all the pain. They may have been headed for heaven, but their journey was still storm-tossed.” Do you hear the implication? Nothing matters more than quieting the storm. “Come on God, say peace be still. You said it back then, you better say it now. How can I get you to do it?”

So they’ve turned to the recovery movement, AA, the 12 Steps, and other programs to help them navigate the voyage. “With God’s help,” they say, “they’re finally being honest with themselves.” Is that a good thing? Of course it is. Can it become a dangerous fetish? I think so. Is it right to be people of integrity? We as Christians, among all others, are the only ones who have the right to pretend about nothing. Should we obsess about everything? There’s a difference. They say, “They’re finally being honest with themselves, finally recovering from their unhealthy past.” Side comment: you know what strikes me as I read biographies of the great saints? A whole lot of them didn’t recover.

Have read the story of John Phillips, the popularizer of the New Testament modern translations, C.S. Lewis’s Contemporary? I read his biography a while ago. That man was depressed for most of his life. He went to a number of Christian psychiatrists and tried to get some help and he apparently died a very depressed man. As I read some transcripts of actual sessions that were conducted with that gentleman, I found myself as a psychologist criticizing the therapy, saying, “I think you should’ve gone in this direction.” You thought I was arrogant before, now you know. And my internal mood was one of saying something like this: “There has to be a way to get that guy over his depression.” But let me tell you, a lot of the great saints had some form of thorn that didn’t get relieved. It might have to do with the past.

Make it your primary objective to recover from your past and you’ll miss something of your calling. To finish the little quote here:

They insist that the deeper problems of an increasingly sick society . . .

Is that true? Look at history. We’re talking about it a whole lot more. Is there more frequency of sexual abuse and Satanic ritual abuse? Yeah, maybe. Now the most fashionable diagnosis in psychological circles is MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder), and it’s a very real thing. I’m working with one now. And 95 percent of MPDs have a history of severe sexual abuse, usually satanic ritual abuse. But society’s been sick for a long time. We have some unique problems in our current society. They continue:

But these folks insist that the deeper problems of an increasingly sick society require the extraordinary measures of recovery groups as vehicles of God’s grace.

The article begins with that.

Loveless Ministry Is No Ministry at All

Pastor, how are you going to minister to your people since they are hurting? Sam was right on this morning talking about the fact that if we don’t have compassion for people, if we’re not willing to get from behind our pulpits and talk with people about their lives and get tangled up with the complexity of their lives then we’re not fulfilling our calling. We’re not loving. It’s my position that every pastor ought to be involved with at least two people on a long term basis. Should y’all be professional counselors? No. I don’t think so. We’re all different in our calling and abilities and natural giftedness as well as spiritual giftedness I’m sure. But I would suggest that each one of us, whether for a pastor or counselor like myself, needs to get involved with somebody that he disciples. Call it discipling. Forget the word counseling if you like. To me they’re the same thing.

My model of counseling, I call a “theology of sanctification,” not a scientific model of counseling. And I think you ought to be involved with at least two people on a long-term discipleship basis. If that’s all you have time for and no more, that’s okay. You have different callings. But if you are not involved with wrestling with the reality of the way life really is, then you’re not going to be appropriately confused. And nobody learned the Scriptures until they come to the Bible confused and enraged by life. Until the questions of life drive you up the wall and you just can’t handle it anymore. Until that’s kind of a way of life, the Bible’s not going to come alive. We need to work with people about the problems and all the things that are happening in our sick society — all the stuff we hear about MPDs, sexual abuse, alcoholic upbringings and all the horrible stories.

There are some good stories like Sam’s, a good family. Some good stories like mine, a good family. Not perfect. Have my kids been raised in a dysfunctional family? Don’t ask them, ask me. I don’t know what I’d say. I don’t think so. Are we imperfect? You bet. All of us have struggles. Pastor, how are we going to lead our churches to take care of them?

Models for Tending Needs Within the Church

What I want to suggest to you is that there are four models of church life for handling people’s problems. I’m going to cover the first three very quickly and spend the rest of my time in the codependency movement. That’s the fourth model I want to talk about. There are four ways of structuring your church as I see it, and I’m not talking about ecclesiology. I’m talking about how you as the leader in your church think through the great burden you have for not only having a passion for preaching but also supplementing and extending the work of the pulpit and ministering deeply into the hearts of people through small groups, through counseling.

Should you hire a professional counselor? Should you have small groups in your church? Should you train people in a lay counseling program? There’s about 10 or 12 options on how to train people in lay counseling. That’s a big deal these days. It seems to be getting maybe a little bit less in terms of the way it’s been for a number of years and now the recovery movement is replacing what has formerly been called “lay counselor training.”

But the questions are in your minds all the time. How are you going to do this? Should you deal with the church by assuming that the normal operation of the church — good preaching, Sunday school class, good Bible studies, the sacraments, social action programs, and whatever else you’re involved with in evangelism? Is the normal life of the church sufficient for 80 or 90 percent of your people and the other 10 percent should refer to professionals? Is that your model?

The Professional Model

Well, there are four basic models of how to think about people that will lead to different structures in the church. The first I call “the professional model.” The professional model says that the Bible does not speak adequately to specialized counseling issues. I mentioned this last night briefly. And the trained psychologist, the person like me who has spent four years undergraduate in psychology, five years at one of the leading universities, and getting my PhD in clinical psychology, knows something you don’t know and I can lead a person to wholeness in a way you can’t because I’m a trained psychologist and you’re a pastor. The professional model says that there is a body of knowledge called “scientific psychology,” empirically based psychology, the theorizing of great psychologists, that I can bring to bear that you can’t and therefore when you get up against it, you better refer to me because you’re out of your depth.

I think there’s something to be said for that model. I don’t think all of us have spent all of our time studying everything. That’s right. I noticed John didn’t invite me to come here and speak on the millennial issue for pretty good reason. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. I read a book or two. I have my positions. If you want to talk me out of it, I’ll be flexible. Not too quickly, but maybe at some point. That’s not an area that I’ve given a great deal of thought to. There’s a lot of issues I haven’t given a great deal of thought to. Does that mean I’m a bad guy? No. It means I have different areas of calling perhaps. Have you given a great deal of thought to how to handle an MPD? I imagine you haven’t. I have, so therefore maybe it’s appropriate when somebody in your church gets a really bizarre kind of a problem to call me up. I think that makes sense. I think the professional model has something to say for it.

I think having local psychologists, psychiatrist, other people that you have confidence in their integrity, you believe that they operate from a Christian worldview, you believe that they’re going to do nothing that’s incompatible with your preaching on Sunday, but they have some understanding of some of how these dynamics work. I think it’s right for you at times to refer to people who have thought these things through. But don’t make the assumption when you refer to these people that the reason you must refer is because the Bible does not somehow provide a framework for thinking through those kinds of problems. I think it does.

If you buy into a professional model, then basically your church will be what we normally call a traditional church. You’ll have good bible exposition on Sunday. Your small groups in the church will primarily be Bible studies going through Galatians verse by verse, and that’s not said demeaningly, that’s a good thing to do. You’ll have prayer time for the various health needs in your church and financial needs, and you’ll have coffee time after the Bible study and prayer and those can be very profitable groups. I know a fair number of people who’ve been involved in these more personal groups who are longing to get back to Bible study groups. I count myself among them. I’ve been involved in a lot of the groups where we talk so personally sometimes I figure, “Could we forget about our problems, talk about God for a while? See what his word has to say?” Sometimes I want that more than I want anything else.

The Issue of Hermeneutics

If you’re a professional model, you’ll preach the Bible as best you understand it. You’ll have good Sunday school classes, you’ll have good outreach programs. You’ll have groups with bible studies and you’ll assume that 90% of your people don’t need anything more than what they’re getting and those few who surface with serious problems, you’ll refer. My central challenge to those who buy into what I’m calling “the professional model” is the issue of hermeneutics. Can you go to the text to find wisdom from God to deal with people’s lives at a far richer level? Can you have the courage that Sam talked about, coming out from behind the pulpit and finding out that the well-dressed people who aren’t MPD, who aren’t going crazy and getting drunk and having 20 affairs, that you get beneath their lives and their lives are a mess.

I had dinner with good friends of mine three months ago, former students. And of course the conversation, “Are you having a nice time? How are things going?” They said, “Pretty well, thanks.” Wasn’t until the last 10 minutes they told me that they hadn’t had sex in three years. That’s true of a whole lot of people in your church. When you find that out, what do you do, refer them? Well, maybe, but I would suggest that maybe hermetically, you can find in the text a way to deal with them by doing more than saying, “Well, that’s not right.” Professional model, first one said very quickly.

The Moralistic Model

The second model is the moralistic model. If you believe in the moralistic model, then you believe, as I’m defining this term, that people are essentially thinking, choosing beings and nothing more. When you look out on your people, your congregation, if you’re moralistic in orientation, then you are looking at people and saying there are no deep needs in the human soul. There are no deep, unfulfilled longings. All that’s the corruption of secular psychology. People are thinking, choosing beings who all they need is instruction and exhortation and your approach to biblical counseling will be nothing more than accountability.

I know a pastor who would I think buy into this model very, very strongly whose daughter became anorexic. The way he dealt with it was to put a scale in the living room and he required her to weigh in every day and eat until the scale got up. That’s moralism at its worst. The challenge I’d asked of the moralist is this, what’s your anthropology? Who are people? Are people essentially relational personal beings or are they merely thinking, choosing beings and only that, who need to be taught and exhorted? Is that all there is? Or are people longing for what they’ve never received?

Is your daughter bleeding because you’ve not loved her in certain ways? You need to deal with her in a very different level. If you buy into a moralistic model, then you have no place for anything that smacks of psychology. You’ll give no place to exploring a person’s life. You’ll give no place to taking an inside look, which obviously I recommend. You’ll give no place to dealing with the hurts and wounds in the soul and basically your approach to helping people will be that when you preach, you’ll teach them the word of God and hold them accountable to shape up. A fair number of churches are just like that.

Programmed Mysticism

The third model I mention very briefly is what I call “programmed mysticism,” an oxymoron perhaps. All I mean by that is, can I find some program by which I can learn to experience God as I want to experience him? Is there some way that I can bypass the hard work of looking at my life and waiting upon God? Is there not some way I can bypass the deep work of repentance and get to some structured approach where if I do X, Y, and Z, then this experiential event will take place and I’ll have a relationship with God the way that I want?

I was in a Bible study a few months ago where I was invited to speak a little bit and the leaders of the group, a husband and wife, were going to lead and worship for a period of time. She was a wonderful guitarist and had a marvelous voice, and as they began talking and leading the service initially he said something with which his wife disagreed. She made a sharp comment to him. He visibly tensed and looked at her rather angrily and they broke into worship. A lot of contrived worship is a way to avoid dealing with messes in our lives. The Psalms are full of coming to God as a mess, as we are. Programmed mysticism. If that’s your approach, then your pulpit will become largely inspirational as opposed to instructional. And your small groups will simply be an effort to experience God without looking at deeper issues of the text or deeper issues of your life.

The Recovery Model

The last movement I want to talk about is “the recovery model.” What’s your approach to helping people with their lives? Are you professional in your orientation? Go about church as normal and refer the troubled ones to an outside source? You don’t see your church as a healing community. God becomes rather mundane in that church. Are you a moralistic church where people are just thinking, choosing beings and don’t have any groups where people talk about their lives for goodness sakes? Have people simply find out where they’re wrong and choose to shape up. As one moralistic psychologist told me, “I listen in counseling until I hear a sin and then I confront it.” God becomes rather militant in that model with a very poor anthropology it seems to me.

How about the recovery movement? If you buy into the thinking behind the recovery movement, what will your church look like and how will you approach it? The parent organization of “Leadership Magazine” did a survey that is mentioned extensively in this particular article. If you don’t get this, you ought to get it. A lot of very interesting things to think through. They did a survey in which they said the following, I gave you some of this last night I think. They said that 79 percent of pastors that surveyed read at least one recovery book last year, 77 percent of the pastors they surveyed view the co-dependent movement favorably, and three out of five of the churches they surveyed have at some point in their history had a recovery-oriented group. All that’s the product of the codependency movement.

I want to suggest as I begin this discussion of the codependency movement, I’m all for small groups. My sister-in-law has been in a small group for grief. It’s been helpful in points. It’s been unhelpful in points. I think it’s going to be a great experience. I’ve been involved over the course of my last five or 10 years in some small groups that were not designed explicitly for Bible study but for talking about our lives in ways that we could get some support from each other. I believe in small groups. I believe in small recovery groups. I believe in people who are struggling with sexual abuse getting together on our campus. My associate Dan Allender has people come from all over, 10 at a time, sometimes a few more. Groups of men, groups of women. He separates the sexes. They come together for a week to recover from the effects of sexual abuse. My associate does that with my full blessing. I think it’s good stuff.

But what I want to suggest is that the group movement is, as practiced often in the evangelical church today, growing out of a way of thinking that does not have its roots in Scripture. And whenever you drag a methodology out of a system that has presuppositions that may be antagonistic to Scripture, you drag along not only the methodology, but some of the presuppositions. Give that four or five, 10 years, I think you’ll have a mess on your hands. My prediction is, give the church 10 more years of running groups according to certain codependent assumptions and you’ll see a major rise in narcissism in our society. Selfishness is a little less technical word. In some sense it’s the same thing.

Defining the Codependency Movement

What’s this thing that we’re talking about? Let me define it for you and tell you my concerns. This presentation which began an hour ago, was supposed to address what it is, now we’re to it. Melody Beattie, one of the major secular writers in the codependency movement defines codependency this way. Let me give you some technical setting definitions and tell you what I think they mean. It’s a word that we’re all familiar with and it’s hard to pin down the exact meaning sometimes. She puts it this way:

Codependency is being obsessed with controlling another’s behavior for your own sake.

Is that a common phenomena? It’s all over the place. Is it a problem? You bet. Has she put her finger on a very real thing? Yes. Sandy Wilson, a fine evangelical teacher, teaches part-time at Trinity Seminary. I was with Sandy a while ago. She defines it this way. It’s the same concept, a little different words:

Codependency is a shame-based pattern of dependency on others to provide personal safety, identity, and worth.

Anybody codependent in your relationship with your wife, with your husband? Anybody struggle as a kid with some things? I met Rachel and we were 10, like I said, and I had my problems as a kid. I used to be a bad stutterer, Dave mentioned that. A lot of shameful experiences with that. My skin wasn’t real pretty when I was a kid. I had a lot of pimples. How do you say it politely? In Philly we called them zits. Neither zits nor stuttering were in for our youth group. There was a lot of shame.

When I met Rachel, I met a woman that was really pretty, very feminine. Is she here? I don’t think she’s here. I’d say it anyway. She’s wonderful. She really is. And she began to do some things for my masculine soul that hadn’t been done before. I wonder why I married her. I stood before the preacher at age 21 and said all sorts of wonderful things, just like you, that I promised to love, honor, and cherish her and all these things until one of us dies. That’s what I said. That’s what you said. What did I mean? Oh, I think partly that, surely by the grace of God. But more naturally what I meant was this: “Listen lady, I’ve been hurting for a long time. You seem to be doing something about it. I’m going to hook up with you and give you a chance to keep on doing it.” That’s codependency.

I call it a tick-on-a-dog marriage. What’s the tick there? Any ticks go out in search of somebody to bless, or are they empty looking to sink their whatever they have into people’s flesh and suck it up? The problem with most of your marriages is the same problem as mine; we have two ticks and no dog. That’s how it usually works. It’s a shame-based pattern of dependency on others to get from others, personal safety. Don’t ever reject me. Identity? Affirm me as a valuable man. Make me feel like a good guy and a sense of worth. Give me all that woman and I’ll be faithful to you. That’s the deal. That’s not a Christian marriage. Is that a problem? Sure it is. Sandy Wilson’s put her finger on something very real.

Pat Springle is one of the leaders in the Rapha movement. Anybody here with Rapha? Is there a Rapha center up here in Minneapolis, St. Paul? I don’t know if there is or not. It’s a Christian mental health center where they go into hospitals and get a wing and make it into a Christian mental health unit. And their entire approach is based on the codependency model, beginning with Bob McGees’ book Search for Significance. It’s on your book table. It’s a worthwhile book to read. Pat Springle, who I spent lunch with a few months ago defines codependency this way: “It’s a compulsion to control and rescue others by fixing their problems.”

The Language of Codependency

Now, let me give you in simple terms what I think all that adds up to. A codependent is somebody who relates to others in a way that keeps them from rejecting you. A codependent is somebody who relates to others in a way that keeps them from rejecting you or adding to your sense of shame. I think that’s a real problem. Can y’all see it in yourselves? Don’t some of you preach codependently? “Please accept me,” the co-dependent says, “I know I’m bad.” Be very careful. That’s not a theological sentence when the co-dependent says it. He’s not saying, “I’m guilty of sin, I’m worthy of judgment.” That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying, “I know I’m bad and I’m mad at you for making me feel that way.” There’s a rage beneath the co-dependent. “Please accept me. I know I’m bad, but I’ll try to behave in a way that you’ll like so you won’t reject me anymore, please.”

There is a fellow I’m working with, after 25 years of marriage, he and his wife are about ready to split but they won’t because they have a firm commitment. They have no joy in their marriage at all. Sex life is terrible. There’s no intimacy at all. He’s been sexually abused rather badly in his background. And he’s the kind of guy that if you met him, you’d like him instantly because he’s very gracious. He’s the kind of guy that’s always up. People like that really irritate me. He used to call us regularly at 11:00 p.m. at night. When the phone rang at a particular time we knew it was him. The phone is on my wife’s side of the bed and one night the phone rang at 11:00 p.m. We knew it was him and my wife said to me, “Honey, would you get it? I don’t feel like being up right now.”

In the course of a session I had with him and his wife last week — this guy is a good friend of mine and I love this man — as I began to deal with something that was very, very difficult, I took a pause in my conversation and he told a little tiny engaging joke, in the middle of a very difficult interaction. We were talking about hard things and he said something, just two sentences or just a few words actually that was meant to be funny, meant to be engaging and internally I just, I felt furious. I turned to his wife, said, “How do you feel right now?” She said, “I’m so mad.” I said, “What about?” She said, “That’s what he always does. He’ll never deal with the way things really are. He’s got to always work to get somebody to like him.” That’s codependent stuff. Is that a problem? You bet it this.

It’s the thought, “I’ll behave in a way to get you to like me. I never want to be confronted with what’s really happening in my soul because if you saw me as I really am, you’d hate me, so I’ll give you something else. You’ll never see my true self. It’s full of shame. I’ll give you my false self, because all I can see inside of my true self is some bad self.” That’s the language codependent people use. True self, bad self, false self. They say, “Please accept me, I know I’m bad, but I’ll try to behave in a way you like so you won’t reject me anymore.” Somehow the church, as it normally operates, doesn’t seem to relate to that particular phenomena that defines many, many relational structures. So people leave the congregation and go to their codependency groups to do what?

Life in an Unjust World

The co-dependency groups honor a core assumption. Here’s the core assumption behind the co-dependency groups. The core assumption is this. So far I’ve not been critical of the movement at all because they’re putting their finger on a very real phenomena, and we as Christians must have an adequate response to the relational structure in people’s lives that reflect the demand that other people like us in certain ways. The Bible talks about being men pleasers versus God pleasers. That’s essentially the same thing. And by the way, I think it’s crucial that we address this because the most important thing in all the universe is relationships. If you believe in the Trinity, you believe that relationship is the final reality. God exists eternally as a triune being, Father, Son, and Spirit. You believe that relationships are the final reality, and you also believe, if you believe in the Trinity, that others-centered relating is the final value.

Look at how the Trinity relates to one another. The Father brings glory to the son. The Son says, “Father, I want to glorify your name. If it means my death, I gladly, willingly go.” The Spirit always points to Jesus. That’s radical, other-centered relating. They say two is company and three is a crowd, but not with a trinity. They’re getting along all right. They didn’t fight over who’s going to do what at creation. Why not? Because they’re radically other centered, unlike you and me. We’ve got to deal with the way people relate and the codependent folks are saying, “We spot a pattern in relating and we’re going to deal with it. And we think it comes out of a lot of things, and we’re going to help you understand that you’re relating in ways that are very unfulfilling, that are not bringing you anything close to what is the potential of what relationships can bring and we’re going to deal with that.” And people are running to the groups to have it dealt with. I don’t blame them. I want my relationships dealt with too.

But listen to the core assumption behind the movement. The core assumption is this: An unjust world has made me believe a lie. That’s the core assumption. An unjust world, my dysfunctional background, has made me believe a lie. What’s the lie? That I’m defective. Bradshaw calls it “toxic shame.” I quote from his book where he puts it this way. Toxic shame is defined as “I cannot meet the world as I am. Not only do I do bad things, but I am bad.” They say it’s that lie that I’ve come to believe about myself, which is at the core of all the things that I do wrong relationally. It’s a shame-based identity — “I’m bad.” What else can I conclude when I see the way mother treats me? Look at dad, he just neglected me and was drunk and he did this and he did that. The conclusion that I draw is that when I look in the mirror of my mother and my father and my dysfunctional background, I’ve been ashamed so much, neglected, abandoned, betrayed. How can I possibly come out of this thing believing I have any value at all? I have no value.

I have a shame based identity. I see myself as worthy of shame, not worthy of judgment from a holy God. But I see myself as worthy of shame, so I can’t look into your eyes. Therefore, I relate to you in a way that keeps me safe from ever having to experience more shame. I’ll be whatever you want. Have me live under the performance pressure of always being what people want all the time. And then somebody comes along and says, “Are you tired of the pressure?” And my response is, “Me?” I can’t be my true self. I can’t be authentic because my true self is a bad self. So I parade to the world, my false self that I think maybe you’ll like.

Presenting the Side We Want People to See

Two or three years ago Chuck Smith took me out for breakfast. He said, “Larry, your friends and I were talking behind your back and we decided we wanted to tell you straight up what we were saying.” When you hear that, what do you want to say? “Oh, it’s all right, back bite. The Lord will forgive you. I’m okay.” He said, “We don’t like sharing our problems with you.” Oh, it’s just my profession. No reason to threaten me at all. And he said, “The reason we don’t like sharing our problems with you is because you always come across like an expert. We never see your heart.”

How do you handle feedback? Does your mind right away go to, “You have a couple of problems yourself, pal?” Well, I had to squelch that, and they wouldn’t let me get away with it. And what we came to realize was that as a youngster, I was very grateful for my background, but I don’t have perfect parents. Nobody does. I’m 47 years old. I’ve been told directly by one of my parents “I love you” one time in my life, shortly after Bill died. I was on the phone with dad and as he said it he choked up and he couldn’t speak anymore and he said, “Well, I have to go now. Goodbye.” He couldn’t handle the intimacy. I hung up the phone and I cried like a baby for probably five minutes. That was a few months ago. I’ve never heard mother say I love you. Mother is a wonderful woman who’s not expressive.

I wonder if I’ve learned over the years that maybe for me to get along I better present something that gets what I want. And me being spontaneously warm and showing my heart, that wasn’t valued in our family. But I got good grades, and now when somebody tells me they hurt, I’ve got a good mind. I think well in certain categories. Over here, I’m an idiot. In these areas, I’m pretty good. You tell me your problem, my mind goes to work. Now what do I give you? My expertise and not my soul. Am I giving you a false self? Expertise? Because I’m afraid that there’s a bad self within me, that I’m somehow a defective being, that when I give you my love and my concern that I feel kind of clumsy about it? Yeah, some truth to that.

A Failure to Deal with Sin

So what’s the cure for me? Does repentance play any part in this? Does sin have any energy in the process I told you about? Or is the essential cure for me to realize, “No, I’m not bad.” Why would I feel a deep sense of warmth towards my wife? Do I sometimes hold it off? Why when we were in England for our sabbatical of a year and a half ago where I wrote the book Men and Women, as I was sitting in my study, working on the book in the little flat we had in Cambridge, and I was writing and writing about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, my wife was in the other room and she was reading or doing something, having her cup of tea. And I was back here thinking about my wife and it occurred to me, I just felt an overwhelming sense of warmth toward that woman I’m married to and my first thought was, “I better stay with the book.”

Now what do you do at that point? Say, “No, I’m not bad. I’ve got something to offer. I’m going to give it to her. I’m going to express who I am.” Oh, that’s not right. I had to repent. I had to repent because I was angrily saying to my world, “I’m never going to give a thing that you’re going to reject. You got that straight world? And I know you, Rachel, there may be a time because you’re not perfect, there may be a time I want to be warm and you don’t want to receive it right then, you might be in a bad mood. You’re risky, so the dickens with you.” I think there’s sin there.

I repented and I said, “Wait a minute. The commandment is to love God and love others. God filled my heart with love for that lady.” So I walked in the other room and she was sitting there reading. Her first question to me when she saw me was, “Did you want something?” I said, “No.” She said, “Oh, what are you here for?” I said, “To tell you how wonderful I think you are. I think you’re terrific. I was just thinking about you and got overwhelmed by it. I wanted to tell you.” I’ll never forget the look on her face. I said, “No, I mean it, I think you’re great. I’m just so thrilled that God gave you to me. I just love you a bunch.” And she went, “Is that all you want to tell me?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Boy, that’s nice.” She could have added, “And rare.”

Folks, the codependency movement at core doesn’t deal with sin and repentance. The codependency movement at core basically says, “There’s nothing wrong with me that affirmation won’t cure.” The evangelical version of it is this, “Yes, of course I’m a sinner.” Many evangelical, solid believers, brothers, sisters in Christ are into the codependency movement and they understand the gospel in the same sense that you and I do that we’re sinners, we deserve judgment, but Christ died for our sins. And then because we’ve been drawn to him by his grace, we’re now in the Beloved. Our sins are forgiven. Our righteousness has been imputed to us. They understand all that. Yes, I’m a sinner, I need forgiveness. But they say, “Once saved, being a new creature in Christ means that the core of me is now entirely good. But I still have a hard time believing it because of my shame-based family structure.”

The Axiom of Self-Love

By the way, the word codependency includes a lot of different streams of thought. Some of you are here running codependency groups and you’re saying, “That isn’t how I run them.” And my response is, well, praise Lord. I’m not saying everybody does it the same way, but there are certain commonalities that come out of Bradshaw-type thinking that I think are a real problem. They think the core issue in sanctification is to learn to appreciate my value in Christ. That’s the number one priority. The root of all sin is a failure to love self based on wounds from others.

I heard a professor from an evangelical seminary speaking at a co-dependency conference a year and a half ago and he mentioned the verse that is used so often that we often talk about. It was mentioned several times this morning by Sam and also by myself: “Love others as you love yourself.” And the professor said this, “All of us are pretty good at loving others. Our problem is with loving ourselves. We’ve got to learn how to love ourselves first as a condition for loving others.” Is that how you exegete the verse? That’s a very central thought.

You see, the codependent strategy in evangelical circles has three components as I see it. Number one, you need to face pain in terms of helping people. Then you need to be taken out of denial and you need to face the pain, the anger, and the hurt. You need to face the reality of your family. You need to face how things really are. You must be honest. I agree with that. Don’t become obsessive about it, but face it. By the way, we’ve gone too far with that. We’ve gone way too far with that. I think it’s time we learned to appreciate our parents for a few things now and then.

Gloria Gaither had book come out a few months ago called What My Parents Did Right. There’s a novel thought. She asked me if I would write in it. About 50 different people wrote, and I wrote a four or five page article. I was thrilled. My parents did a few things wrong. They should have told me they loved me more than they did. I got it once. I should have heard it every day of my life, or at least more than I did. There are some other things that I don’t want to tell you about they could have improved on. But I appreciate my parents. I love my parents. I’m grateful to my parents. What dad has given me more than anything else is a sense of transcendence. I remember as a kid watching him pray, a five year old kid looking up, watching Dad pray at a church service and saying to myself, “He really thinks he’s talking to somebody.” I’m eternally grateful to God for that.

Boundaries We Set

Face your pain. Yeah, I believe in that. Keep it in balance. Secondly, you need to set boundaries. That’s a big phrase in codependent circles. You need to see to it that your boundaries are set. Should we set boundaries? Absolutely. If an alcoholic husband comes at you with a knife, what do you ought to do, stay there and submit? I think you ought to submit, but how? By running away and calling the police. If an alcoholic father gets a baseball bat and begins hitting you in the head, I don’t think you ought to stay there and take it. That’s not suffering for righteousness’ sake, that’s stupid. Set some boundaries, sure. When you call your parents and they abuse you on the phone by saying, “Well, you never come home anymore. Why don’t you ever call us?” What should you do with that, set boundaries? There’s a place for setting boundaries. Absolutely. For whose sake?

The codependency movement basically says, “Protect yourself from that kind of abuse because you deserve better treatment.” My thought is no, set boundaries for the sake of the other. You’re doing your parents no favor when you simply yield to all their manipulative, guilt-inducing strategies. And there may come a time when you ought to say, “Mom, I’m not going to talk with you more about that. Here’s a topic that’s off limits from now on. You’ve been telling me now for 10 years I married the wrong man and frankly, mom, I don’t think it’s helping our marriage at all. I don’t think it’s good for you and I’m not going to let you talk like that. If you bring it up, I’m going to hang the phone up on you.” Is there a place for doing that? Sure there is. I believe there is. If you do it in love for the sake of the other person. If you do it to preserve yourself, then basically you’re saying, “I’m going to take care of myself.”

Narcissistic Self-Nourishment

And that’s the third element. Face your pain, set boundaries, and thirdly, nourish yourself. That becomes the final value. Nourish yourself. Folks, beneath that self nourishment, there’s an assumption. The assumption is God isn’t up to the job. He’s not very good. When you introduce recovery groups into your church, when you introduce groups that are intended to help people think through their life honestly, to tell their stories, to deal with their lives — and I think you should — define your theology of sanctification carefully. And teach it in a long series Sunday night to your church and train your leaders very carefully in your understanding of the theology of change.

If you don’t do that and the people read the codependency books, both Christian and non-Christian alike, what’s going to come in is a way of thinking that says, “The core problem in the human soul is toxic shame, not selfishness. And the core solution is to affirm oneself by dismissing the messages of the past and setting boundaries to keep them from recurring.” If that’s the basic structure of your group, my position is, give it a few years and you may produce an illusion of health, but you’ll be strengthening selfishness and God will become used as opposed to worshiped.

Questions and Answers

How do you describe the new person in 2 Corinthians 5:17?

I think I’d say two things about what it means to be a new creature in Christ. Number one, we are citizens of a different kingdom. The old analogy about a person from one country coming to another, becoming a citizen does not mean that they’re speaking the language of the new country terribly well. It does not mean they’re very comfortable in the new country, but they do belong to a new dominion. We now have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness, to the kingdom of light. And I believe when he’s talking about the fact that we’re a new creation in Christ, he’s talking about a shift in our citizenship.

I think it goes beyond that. I think that it goes beyond that to say that something does happen at conversion beyond simply a change from one domain of darkness to the domain of light. I believe that God does put within each person a new heart. That’s Ezekiel 36, Jeremiah 31, and the New Covenant and the new heart that he puts in is a heart which now has a capacity and a disposition that was not there before. It has a capacity in our disposition to love God and to love others, a capacity now that longs to love God, and if saving faith is present, there will be the evidence of that saving faith in some measure. How much? That’s for the people to fight about, I suppose. But there will be some evidence of saving faith because there is something new within the person.

What I would argue against is that there is some pristine purity within that has made sin a very peripheral issue, and now all that needs to be is simply the affirmation of that beauty within and a release of it. I think that’s included, but more than that, I think that sanctification includes the ongoing work of repentance because sin remains a very deep issue in my soul. I think that’s a distinction from the way I’ve heard many codependency theorists talk about it.

How far can relationships go, since we all have so many demands upon us relationally? Is it ever right for us to set boundaries?

You sound to me like I sound to myself many times, a tired man. Sometimes I get sick of relating. People drive me crazy on occasion. A while ago, we had in our home a woman whose husband left her and she was pretty much in shambles. We took her in for a while. She now works for me and she’s just a great lady whose life was a mess for a while and she came into our home just to live with us, to get away from some stress for about two or three months.

One night my wife and I went to bed and my wife literally began to scream. And I picked up that something was wrong since I’m trained for these things, and I said, “I’ve got a free hour next Tuesday at 2:00 p.m., we could talk about it then.” No, I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “I can’t give anymore. I’ve got nothing left to give with.” The next morning I asked the woman to leave. I made arrangements for her to go somewhere else. I said, “We cannot relate to you any further.” We put a sign on our door that said, “Nobody’s welcome til next Tuesday.” And for one week we wouldn’t take a phone call and we wouldn’t let anybody come to our door. People came and said, “What’s this sign mean?” And I said, “Exactly what it says, you must leave.” I think there’s a place for taking your phone off the hook. I think there’s a place for recognition that I’m a limited person.

I went to sleep last night and frankly I didn’t go to sleep for your sake. I went to sleep for my sake because I was tired. Now going to sleep I think helped me get up and have the energy to give this talk and maybe it was for your sake in that sense, but I wasn’t thinking a whole lot of you when I snuggled up with my pillow. I think there’s a real place for saying that I’m a mortal, finite man and therefore there’s a limit to what I can do. I think the real difficulty is that the codependent, to use that language system, is often one who says, “I must meet every demand placed on me,” and that’s just not true. I wonder how many people did the Lord not heal who were saying, “He left town already? But I carried my crippled kid for 10 miles to meet up with this master and now he’s gone.” And did the Lord say, “Oh, I forgot. I’m sorry. I’ll come back.”

No, a lot of folks he didn’t deal with. I think there’s a lot of folks like that, and that’s why I say you must not be primarily motivated by the needs or the demands of people. I was in a really tough place last week. I’m kind of burned out at the moment. And last week a phone call came from a good friend. I told my secretary, “No phone calls today. I have to get some work done.” And Tom called, a real good friend. And my first thought was, “Oh geez, it’s Tom.” I told my secretary, “I won’t talk to him until next week.” I don’t think that’s wrong. Is that setting boundaries? You’d bet. Do I believe in setting boundaries? Sure, because I’m mortal.