To Live Freely: Part Twelve

Integrity)

There is a common saying: “do as I say, not as I do.” One typically gives it when exposed as not living what they preach. I must admit I feel a twinge of guilt every time I tell my children not to eat sweets before their dinner…but then I violate that rule myself all the time. It’s not that I don’t believe what I’m telling my kids, it’s just that I’m not as disciplined as I ought to be.

Of course, there is a great honesty in being able to admit that we aren’t living how we know we should. Being aware of this gap between our convictions and our behaviors is, in the conscientious person, the first step to closing that distance. One who is sincerely trying to rectify this inconsistency is acknowledging that they are not currently built upon the truth, but they are in the process of moving towards it.

If, on the other hand, we recognize the gap between our behavior and what is right, but we aren’t troubled enough by that difference to try and change, then we are living without integrity. We are pointing at the flaw in our foundation and saying, “I’m okay to live with that.” We are establishing for ourselves a hierarchy where the conscience is made inferior to our current level of comfort.

Which is, of course, is another character flaw. In fact, it is a more fundamental flaw than the one that we started with. As bad as any other shortcoming might be, even more damning than it is unwillingness to change. This is the one crack in our foundation that prevents all other cracks from being patched. One might notice a logical conundrum here: if one has the flaw of being unwilling to change, how can one change themself to stop being that way? Is their situation totally hopeless? Thankfully not! We have to remember that we are divine souls, not machines. Our flaws are not irreversibly programmed into us. We have the ability to choose the very things we have never been willing to choose before. Not only that, but we also have the capacity to be redeemed by divine intervention, having changes made in us by God that we did not have the power to make ourselves.

Progress, not Perfection)

Compare the mantra of “do as I say, not as I do,” to the oft-told story of Gandhi and sugar. It is said that a woman came to Gandhi, asking him to tell her son that he should cut sugar out of his diet. Gandhi agreed, but first asked the woman to leave with her son and come back a number of weeks later. The woman did so, and in the second meeting Gandhi gave the desired counsel to the son. The woman was grateful, but asked Gandhi why he couldn’t have just had the talk with her son when she came the first time. His response was that he could not tell the son to stop eating sugar, because at that time he was still eating sugar, too!

This story, whether true or not, illustrates the principle of choosing to change oneself rather than be a hypocrite. This isn’t to say that we must all be perfect before we can advocate for what is true, but at the very least it should be expected that we are actually, genuinely trying to do the things we counsel to others.

This is what we aspire to: genuine trying. As it says in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book: “No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles… We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.” Those that sincerely try to live in accordance with their conscience will all fall short, but because their intentions are sincerely aligned with the truth, they are still in harmony with it. If we try to play our notes at our sincere best, even if we occasionally get some of them wrong we are still part of the music.

To Live Freely: Part Eleven

The Fearful Secret)

Yesterday I shared the story of the rich, young ruler and Jesus. It is an example of how our Maker is able to reveal to us exactly who we really are, all of the happy truths about ourselves, and all of the difficult truths as well. I suggested that sometimes we need that outside help to know what’s really going on inside of us, because there seems to be a subconscious part inside that frustrates our efforts to figure that out. I suggested that one reason why that inner part hides the truth might be because it believes we won’t take those issues on even if we know what they are. It would rather leave us dissatisfied, but blissfully ignorant, than to have us live in full exposure to our most basic flaws.

But this isn’t the only sort of deception that happens within ourselves. When I was living my pornography addiction, I knew full well what I was doing and why it was wrong. I was not deceived about myself, but I did deceive the world. I did everything in my power to conceal this secret shame. I hated to even be around when the topic of pornography was discussed, yet I would behave as though I was fervently committed in renouncing its evil. Why did I play this charade? Why did I feel like it would absolutely kill me to say “I do this behavior that I am ashamed of?” Why am I now able to discuss it openly and not feel such a terrible terror at being exposed?

I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve settled on what I think is a key difference between where I am now and where I was then. The reason I couldn’t talk about the hard realities of my life earlier was because I hadn’t yet been forgiven.

Coming Clean)

For someone who was terrified of ever talking about my addiction, I suddenly found myself doing it a very good deal all at once. As soon as I decided to come clean to my wife I realized that I also needed to speak with an ecclesiastical leader. Once I spoke with my ecclesiastical leader he told me that I needed to meet with a recommended therapist. After the first meeting with my therapist he convinced me to enroll in an addiction recovery program and have weekly meetings with a group of other men in recovery.

Over and over and over I was relating to people all that I had been secretly doing for years. Even in these safe places I felt very distressed about this. After I made my confessions I would wake up each day in absolute shock for what I had done. I felt like I was still asleep, stuck in a bad dream, hoping that I would yet wake up and realize I hadn’t done this terrible thing!

Again, I’d like to draw your attention to the story I shared yesterday of Jesus and the rich, young ruler. After Jesus exposed the man’s love for wealth we are told that the man went away “grieving” (Mark 10:22). He was emotionally distressed to have his weakness revealed, and that was exactly how I felt. Clearly I was a long way from my situation today, where I can speak candidly about my personal demons with complete strangers online in a blog post!

When I consider what experiences helped me to shift my feelings, I have two memories come to mind. One was the moment where I was accepted back into full fellowship with my church and was able to partake of its communion. The other was during a spiritual retreat in the mountains where I felt God express His love and approval of me on an extremely fundamental level. Together those two experiences represented my transition from being condemned by my sins to being forgiven of them.

After those experiences I could speak more freely and openly about my wrongs because…well…they just didn’t matter any more. Certainly I don’t make light of them, or minimize the harm that they caused, but frankly they just aren’t my burden to carry any longer. Christ took them from me, and now they are his to deal with.

Losing the Burden)

When we feel like we would rather die than reveal our worst secrets, that is an indication that we are still unforgiven. We feel the full weight of guilt, of unworthiness, of despair. We live a lie because we know that the truth will damn us. The rich, young ruler wasn’t ready to have his flaw resolved, so he remained damned by it, unforgiven, and he left Jesus in a state of grief. I don’t believe his story had to end that way, though. When we take the step of telling the truth and admitting that it damns us, we open the door to being saved from that destruction by the Savior. Instead of being consumed, we find ourselves forgiven. The rich, young ruler could have confessed that Jesus saw him rightly, and that this flaw would damn him, and then he could have asked for to be healed, just as the blind and the lame had done. I believe that Christ would have done it, and the man would have been made free. Then he wouldn’t have to sorrow, he would be able to tell of his experience and his transformation freely and with joy.

Perpetrator and Victim: Part Six

Fallen in a Hole)

I’ve spent the last several posts talking about the situation of both perpetrators and victims of abuse. I have considered the various false narratives they start to live, lies that seem more palatable than facing their soul-wrenching reality. I have mentioned how these lies must be surrendered, though, and the harsh truths must be faced. Perpetrators must fully appreciate their wrongness and victims must fully appreciate their brokenness.

With most of our actions, if they take to places that we do not like we can reverse our steps to go back to where we were before. This is not the case with abuse, though, where our steps carry us over an edge and we fall into a hole, and no matter of walking around the bottom of that hole is going to find us a way out of it. Both for the enactor and the receiver of the abuse, they have been carried by choice or by force into a place that they cannot get themselves out of. And it is a damned place, a place that can only be described as godless. In that dark pit we will be made to understand what the very definition of hell is.

That might seem a harsh thing to say of the victim, who has not brought this travesty upon themselves, but it is the reality that they live even so. Like a dark cloud descending, their connection to God seems to be blotted out, and it is not at all unusual for those who experience this trauma to find their faith and core belief systems crushed.

Our Common Fate)

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.- Matthew 5:48

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. -John 15:11

See in the verses above what God intends for each of us. He calls us to be pure and to be joyful. But pure is the one thing that the perpetrator of abuse cannot be, and joyful is the one thing that the victim cannot be. They cannot live in the light and glory of God because they are in the hole, and neither of them has the power to get themselves back out of it.

At some point in our lives, each of us is going to receive harm from another. At some point in our lives, each of us is also going to harm another. Thus at some point all of us will be a victim and at some point all of us will be a perpetrator. That isn’t to say that we will all receive or inflict harm to the same degree, but each of us will break and be broken in some way or another.

And in that moment we will begin to understand—really understand—why it is that we all need to be saved. We will understand how helpless and hopeless we are on our own, how incapable we are of getting ourselves back up to the light.

We will find that our friends and families, no matter how hard they try, cannot piece back together our broken soul. They might alleviate some outer pains, might provide some worldly needs, but they cannot resolve the inner despair. They have no access and no power in the most secret places of our heart. Indeed, now that we find ourselves down in the pit, for the first time we will realize just how many of them are also right down there with us!

In this situation, whether as a victim or a perpetrator, the only one that can help us is a Savior. The only one that can help us is one who has never fallen into the pit, so that he may lower us a ladder, but one who has leapt into the lowest depths of the pit, so that he can mend our heart where it is. The only one that can help us is one that can take our hopeless and dark truth, swallow it within himself, and in return give us a new and bright truth.

I realize that I’ve leaned heavily into metaphor with this post, and perhaps it’s starting to sound like hyperbole. Frankly, it’s that I am struggling to find more straightforward words to communicate the ideas that I am trying to get across. My own experiences in the dark hole have literally fueled my nightmares, which perhaps lends to the language I have used. I shall finish, though, by summing up what I am trying to say just as plainly as I can.

As I mentioned before, I have been in that hole myself. It was a horrifying place. Without exaggeration, it was my greatest suffering in life, and I was totally unable to save myself from that hell. Even so, and much to my surprise, I was rescued from it by am unseen being. And I have seen this drama play out in the lives of many others, and I know that it can for you as well.

Perpetrator and Victim: Part Three

Despair of Self)

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.- Alma 36:12-13

Yesterday I spoke about perpetrators of abuse who try to avoid any questions about the state of their soul. Deep down they know that they have done wrong, but they go to incredible length to avoid giving an answer for their behavior because they know all the answers condemn them. Obviously, a person in this state is living apart from reality, and will never be able to achieve real change until they stop running from the truth.

But it is not as if these people are only living at one extreme. They only work so hard to avoid introspection because at their core they are already convinced that they are irredeemably evil. If they weren’t already convinced of that, they wouldn’t need to dodge conversations about it. Thus, they are divided against themselves, utterly loathing themselves even while maintaining that they are totally blameless.

This is an exhausting way to live, and now and again a perpetrator will give up on this divided self-perception. Typically they have first tried to give up on guilt, to say they just don’t care what they do, but the heart refuses to comply. Their conscience betrays them, and refuses to be beat into submission. So eventually they go the other way and wholeheartedly confess that they are bad and guilty.

The reason we put off this confession for as long as we can is that we instinctively know it will bring with it all manner of anguish and torment. Truly owning one’s serious mistakes can invoke the most pronounced and painful suffering we will ever know. We can become lost in a labyrinth of despair, with many paths leading to a variety of unfortunate ends, especially when we discover that not even making our confession is necessarily enough for us to stop doing evil.

Convinced of the Evil, But Continuing in It)

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.- Romans 7:15

There is a portion of addicts who discover that making confession unlocks their previously-uncontrollable behavior. Just by brining their secret shame into the light it loses its power over them. They are able to live with a freedom that they never knew before.

But this only a portion of the addicts. Many others find that making their confession does help, but the problem still isn’t entirely removed. They continue to slip, continue to do the very thing that they confess is wrong. Thus they are still divided against themselves, truthfully admitting to what is right, but deceiving themselves with their actions.

Having taken this step and still not finding relief often brings a second crushing realization. The addict realizes that he is incapable of redeeming himself. Even if he could atone for all his past wrongs, which frankly he probably can’t do, it wouldn’t matter, because he’s going to keep doing new wrong things. All along there has been a secret desire that he would be able to pull himself up by his bootstraps and come into a way of life where conviction and behavior were one and the same. But now he realizes that he is irredeemable, at least by his own power.

If the addict didn’t give up before, he certainly might now. He has realized that he is not just guilty, he is fundamentally broken. He knew that he was bad, but now he realizes that he can never be good. Trial has been held and he has been convicted and condemned. This is what it means to be damned. This is what it means to be in hell.

True, but Incomplete)

Unlike when the perpetrator was in denial of even doing wrong, this appraisal of his life is completely valid. The abuser has finally centered himself on a foundation of truth, but it has come too late.

While he has come to a truth, though, it is not the only truth. It is true that man cannot redeem himself, but it is also true that man does not only have to rely upon himself to be redeemed. There is a God, there is a Savior, and there is a redemption.

Before the perpetrator can have access to the redemptive power of Christ, though, he typically has to first reach this place of appreciating his own damnation. This low point is a necessary prerequisite before true healing can commence.

So this despair is a good place to come to, but it needs to not be the end of the journey. It must only be a checkpoint along the way. The perpetrator must pivot his self-perception twice. First to shift from self-justification to accepting the reality of his crimes, then again to shift from self-condemnation to seeing himself as a son of God. Core paradigm shifts like these do not come easily. There is a reason this is a process, not an event.

But difficult as the perpetrator’s journey is, so too is that of the victim. Tomorrow we will begin examining those that have been on the receiving end of abuse, and the various disconnects from reality that they can experience as well. I’ll see you there.