Dear Keith, I don’t know what the matter with me is. I have a good job and a caring family, but inside my head when I’m alone I seem to have some sort of secretive and self-defeating mental/emotional disease. I find myself drinking and eating too much, and masturbating while looking at pornography. And I’m a church-going Christian.
I can’t bring myself to go for professional help because I feel like I couldn’t deal with the shame of admitting these behaviors to another person. But I’m getting more and more isolated and frightened because I have nearly gotten caught at one or more of these habits several times recently.
I feel like I have a terminal disease that is out to kill me. I know that’s ridiculous, but it feels true. Do you have any ideas about what I’m describing?
Oh yes! Although the specific behaviors vary a lot, the disease beneath the behaviors you described so clearly is the experience of virtually all people on a serious spiritual journey. The apostle Paul describes the way it worked in his life near the end of his ministry.
“I’m full of myself…what I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for me and then do it, it becomes obvious that…I need something more! For I know the law but still can’t keep it, and the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions such as they are don’t result in action. Something has gone wrong deep within me, and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that its predictable…Parts of me rebel and just when I least expect it, they take charge.” (Romans 7:15-23)
Although there isn’t space here to describe all that happened to me before I got to the place of powerlessness you described in your question, but I finally did. I went for help to a treatment center, faced this spiritual “disease,” and although I’d been a sincere converted Christian for years, I discovered how to surrender to God the parts of my life that I was afraid to face with anyone and enter a process of spiritual transformation with a group of other people who wanted to face their conflicting inner lives and desires.
That was twenty-six years ago. All I can tell you is that one day at a time—sometimes one hour at a time, I have learned how to face the hidden inner urges and pain that is part of every spiritual life. I wrote three books about things I learned that have helped me face the powerful inner compulsions that once seemed impervious to change (The Secret Life of the Soul, A Hunger for Healing, and Compelled to Control).
But I believe the most striking thing about this spiritual disease (that Paul called sin and that others call the addiction disease) is that even though the kinds of things and solutions that can bring you all the help you need are available by admitting you need help and surrendering to God—the disease “tells you” that these things will NOT in fact help YOU.
To let you know how strong the negative message coming from this spiritual disease is, after twenty-six years in a spiritual recovery program that has changed virtually all my relationships and ways of letting God transform my life, last Saturday morning I almost did not go to the men’s group that has been most helpful to me for years in facing my problems and finding new solutions. Recently I have been dealing with pain in my neck and right shoulder that is evidently connected with a broken neck I experienced in a car wreck when I was nineteen years old. Now this pain is not even about something sinful or bad but it has been keeping me from sleeping. I was starting to isolate and believe there was no help or support I could receive from the group. (After all my issue was about physical pain that I could not get to stop, not compulsive behavior.)
But at the last minute, I went to the meeting and shared what was happening to me. As I did so, I addressed some of the young men saying, “One of the worst things about this spiritual disease we share is that it tells us that meeting together will not help us. But I want to tell you that in the next 30 days some of you will be tempted not to come share what is happening to you. But if you listen to the disease and don’t come and share, the disease is just waiting to get you to believe that only what it tells you to do (like drinking, over-eating or compulsive selfish thoughts or sexual escape) will bring you relief. And that’s the way it will finally ruin your life and kill you.” When I had shared, I sat quietly and realized that I was calm and that the pain had quieted somehow.
Christians have an especially difficult time believing that going to church can help them. And of course, if you attend a church where neither the clergy nor the congregation is dealing openly with the real areas of life that need healing, it may be very difficult to find a safe place to share. But Jesus spent a great deal of his time alleviating the pain of the people with whom he worked and taught and I believe he was telling us that surrendering our lives to the God he called Father is the beginning of a life of healing.
Dear Lord, Thank you that when we have the courage to face who we really are, you can accept us and help us to become the persons you designed us to be. Help us to find and walk with others walking with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
“How often we hide behind masks and hug delusions with compulsive passions, because we are afraid to be known, to be loved. … We cannot really respect a person unless we know him. We cannot love what we do not know.” Fr. William McNamara, The Art of Being Human
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:24-25)