Addicted to (Self-)Love

Life gets overwhelming sometimes.  We start feeling too much, thinking too much.  We sometimes feel like we don’t have the strength for the pain of this life.  We just want the hurting to stop, if only for a minute.  So we retreat to our old comforts, habits, self-medication in order to deal with the hurts.  We develop addictions.  And once we realize we have an addiction, we can get caught up in our struggle with it, allowing that one area to define us and our focus of growth to the exclusion of everything else.  We’re told that if we’re strong enough or believe hard enough, we can beat it.  So you do all the things you’re supposed to: worked the programs, read the Bible, pray really hard, but nothing helps.  Such that when we have setbacks, when our addictions get the better of us, we feel so totally defeated that we just want to give up on everything, including faith, because it let you down too.

It can be difficult walking through the addictions of others.  It can be difficult being the one with the addictions, not wanting to foist your issues on another in a noble attempt to spare others from the burden of being in relationship with you.  That’s part of the trickiness of addictions:  they are not simple and easily understood, but rather there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle.  And in our misunderstanding of addictions/addictive behaviors, we can inadvertently heap burning coals on the heads of those we wish to help.

Because at the core of addiction there is a nest of lies, there is often a lot of truth that has to be poured into the addict’s life.  An addict already dealing with issues of shame and feeling stuck.  They are already buried in lies to themselves much less how they have lied to others, so part of moving to a place of honesty and transparency involves overcoming the lies in their head.  “My emotions are too much for other people” or “My problems are too much for other people” or “People will just leave me if they knew the real me.”

A lot of our need for self-protection involves relational pain.  First off we have to deal with the idolatrous perspective that we’re supposed to go through things alone.  Let me break it down as simply as possible for you:  independence is bad; interdependence is good.  We weren’t meant to be alone.  If you don’t have people to share things with, to help carry some of the burdens of the hurts of this life, that pain (and the need to treat it somehow) will go somewhere.

People tend to have many fantasies built up about romance.  As if you have to be “fixed” or baggage free in order to enter into a relationship.  If that were the case, no one would ever be with anyone in any sort of relationship, from friendship on up.  We all have issues, so it’s best to be honest about them in a relationship.  No one relationship is going to be the entire support.  It’s best to have an outside support system, a network of friends, so that no one person feels the full weight of things.  But if you are truly in relationship with someone, if you’re real and can communicate, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  Sharing one another’s burdens and muddling through this life together.

In our battle with our respective “thorns in our flesh”, our focus shouldn’t be on the addiction or behavior otherwise you miss out on what you really need to overcome it.  Addiction is symptomatic of a heart issue.  As we work through issues of the heart, peeling back layer after lay, we try to discover when the behavior started, what is the motivation behind it, and what is it a comfort mechanism from.  We’re never completely free from our bodies and their biochemical attachments, but we can learn how to comfort ourselves in a good way.

The attitude of being lone wolves and independence is glorified in American culture and runs contrary to us being relational beings.  Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness.  Addictions start with our self-reliance and our obsessive cultural need/belief system that we’re to handle things on our own.  So we pull away from others when we should be finding the strength to seek out support and encouragement.  And be able to vent whatever we feel to friends who can handle it.  On the flip side, it’s incumbent on the others in our lives to not just let the addict, the person in pain, sit alone.  We’re supposed to be about comforting others.

We get so tired.  Tired of fighting, tired of struggling, tired of being.  Tired of hurting.  We want to disappear, to hide, and in the still corners of our soul we wonder can/does God still love us when we screw up?  It’s so difficult to find our own way back home when the love we’ve been taught/experienced has often been so conditional.  So while we still have questions and still experience pain, we still have to walk and feel in healthy ways.  We love ourselves and want to spare ourselves the hurt, but we have to figure out other ways to deal with the pain of this life because our self-medications wear off.  Relationships are scary, two-way, propositions.  We have to learn how to confront each other in a good way, learn how to be loving in a good way, learn how to be humble in a good way.  In the same way, we want people who will fight for us, push into our lives; people who love recklessly, fearlessly, and boldly and point us to Christ.

I’m not going to add to the pile of lies and tell you that you will beat your addiction.  You might.  You might not.  But the struggle to not be a slave to it is worthwhile in and of itself.  And it’s a battle you don’t and shouldn’t have to do alone.  And that might be the ultimate point.

Shame on Us

I have plenty of things I am ashamed of.  I have plenty of things I regret.  They just keep stacking up in my closet of remembrances.  It seems like each year that goes by, there’s something new I can add to that stack.  You’re going to have to forgive my mental noodling which I now foist upon the internet, but I’ve been struggling with the statement my pastor made that “shame has no place in the Christian walk.”  It’s so natural to think of shame as a proper response to a situation.  When our actions lead to people hurt, trusts betrayed, the acts themselves being destructive, shame seems like the appropriate, entirely proper, human response.  Yet, it’s also a counterfeit response.

Shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous.” Shame is feeling bad for who you are, and is expressed as, “I’m not what I should be… I’m bad!”  Shame is the perceived loss of place with others, a loss of being, of who we are.  Shame is the experience of being exposed and feeling somehow “ugly”, “bad”, and “deficient” what for is exposed.  Shame makes you think of yourself as uniquely damaged and so we create personas which hides our true selves.  And because we don’t share it, we think we’re the only ones

We keep how we feel about ourselves a secret.  We don’t share our deepest fears, insecurities, confusion because the world is unsafe.  We live in a fallen world full of pains and hurts.  Sometimes even your church becomes an unsafe place.  We don’t want to be seen as pathetic, weak, or vulnerable so we hide it from other people.  In not wanting to be hurt, we have no freedom to be truly ourselves.  Since the experience of shame it too toxic for us to remain in, we hide.  And all of us have favorite ways of self-protection:  performing, people pleasing, withdrawing, fighting, isolation, anger, humor, silence … whatever it takes to not be hurt.  A lot of people settle for not wanting to be known.  Our secret fear in being open with others is the reaction of “I’ve seen who you are and you are wanting”.

Sin, such as the sin of shame, is a like a disease, a communal virus we pass along to one another and leads to sudden rupture in relationships.  Even with good intentions, we love each other poorly and hurt one another, so we operate out of fear.  This sense of shame infects our spiritual lives and even how we view God.  It’s like we come to believe that we have to do something to make God love us, as if His love is conditional.  Our gospel message becomes that we don’t measure up and He had to send Christ to die for us because we’re so screwed up.  But if we behaved a certain way, He would accept us.  Or we feel like we’re not forgiven because we can’t overcome one area of struggle in our life.  We may secretly believe that God can’t accept us is we can’t overcome our addiction, as if we have to get right in order to get right with him.  We’re left feeling that while God may “love” us, He might not “like” us very much, reducing our spiritual journeys to explorations of and exercises in guilt.

Shame becomes a counterfeit to conviction of guilt.  When you instead internalize the shame, it becomes guilt.  Guilt focuses on self and never frees us.  Usually it leads to a kind of boomerang effect as we adopt a “try harder” mentality.  And it wears on us physically.  Our face and eyes turned down, slumped over under the weight of letting people down or doing something unacceptable.  And we end up wallowing in it as if the act of swimming in shame and guilt is somehow “redemptive”.

Both guilt and shame are different than Godly sorrow and repentance.  Dr. Les Parrott in his book, Love’s Unseen Enemy, compares godly sorrow and guilt.  Godly sorrow focuses on the other person while guilt focuses on the self.  Godly sorrow recognizes pain as part of the healing process while self-absorbed guilt refuses to go through the pain required to heal a relationship.  Godly sorrow looks forward to the future while guilt moans about the past.  Godly sorrow is motivated by our desire to change and grow while guilt causes us to get bogged down and robs us of the energy to move forward and change.  Godly sorrow knows a change in our life is a choice for something better while guilt forces you to make a change to earn favor again.  Godly sorrow relies on God’s mercy and thus is free while guilt relies on self.  Godly sorrow gives us a positive attitude and results in real and lasting change while guild gives us a negative attitude and can bring change but only temporarily.

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes God’s love baffles me.  As many times that we feel shame, it’s because we’ve foolishly put our trust in something we weren’t meant to.  We’ve made an idol out of a relationship, church, self-protection, addiction, ourselves, the approval of others or some other seemingly benign thing.  Our shame comes when that idol we put our trust in fails us.  So we begin by renouncing that idolatry, though that realization may not come until we have an “end of self” moment.  We put our faith where it’s supposed to be and take on our true identity.

We so often hear about God’s divine love and acceptance, how nothing can separate us from His love, but do we believe that?  Most times, we really don’t.  To think that God knows me in the deepest possible way, loves me unconditionally, celebrates who I am, and wants me to grow into who I am, that’s the kind of love we can hardly fathom.

And He identifies with our humanity.  Christ’s example on the cross left him exposed for everyone to see.  Naked for people to mock, spit upon, and pour their own self-contempt on Him.  Yet Jesus willingly embraced it and came through the other side.  His wounded place exposes shame for what it is.  Exposed, trusting and with boldness, we’re free and ready to love others in our weakness.  To live out of that reality of His example.

I’m still not sure I buy all of that, though I suspect that I should.  I’ve bought into the idea of shame for so long, it’s tough letting go and embracing a new identity.

Stuck

“I’m sick of myself and I’m sick of feeling, so there’s not really anything positive there.”

I have this friend that just can’t see himself the way that I and others in his life see him.  Believing himself to be worthless, unfit for proper relationship, and even a burden for others around him as he struggles with various issues.  Thing is, I bet I could be speaking of a lot of friends in my life.  For that matter, we all can fall into these existential traps of loss of self, purpose, and perspective.  Be it not having the strength to overcome an addiction, tired of fighting and changing the flaws we see within ourselves, or simply resigning ourselves to the lie that this is all we’ll ever be.  It’s hard to escape the shadow of this negative light we often see ourselves and much easier to believe the lies about ourselves.

We become immobilized, locked behind insecurities we have about ourselves.  Stuck.

Being stuck is a good way to not take risks, a good way to not trust God, and a good way to not live life.

Living out of fear, afraid of that chance of rejection, we default to “I’m a failure” or “I’m a screw up” and give up (or worse, live into that).  We can spiral down a slippery slope of believing that we’re just going to keep being a disappointment to believing that we’re a sort of contagious cancer that people should avoid.

The simple truth is that we want to be accepted, we want to be loved, and we want to feel as if we are needed and valued.  Somewhere along the line, we were shamed (and re-shamed) accepting lies about ourselves and choosing failure through inaction by not attempting rather than risk trying.  It’s part of our need for self-protection.  Put simply, we don’t want to hurt or feel pain, a perfectly natural and human response.  Yet sometimes in our need for self-protection, we develop thick emotional armor, walls, or find other ways to numb ourselves from the realities of life in a fallen world.

I’m reminded of a take on Matthew 7:4 (“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”).  What if the point IS to be able to remove the speck from our brother’s eye, but we can’t see it because of the huge plank in our own?  What if self-protection is one type of plank making it so that we     don’t have to feel pain of being rejected but also making it so that we don’t have to get serious about taking speck out of brother’s eye?  Our life revolves around it always being about “what’s wrong with me?” rather than extending ourselves to live for others.

We must be willing to speak truth, starting with the truth about ourselves.

“Just keep swimming.” –Dorrie (Finding Nemo)

Internal journeying is rarely easy or fun, especially if the circumstance isn’t a situation you can just “think” your way out of.  But you’re not as stuck as you think you are.  There is another way.   Moving forward is the key. Some people become stuck and need help to not suffer needlessly for the wrong reasons.  A counterfeit spirit and the Holy Spirit operate in similar ways.  The counterfeit spirit, our enemy, feeds us lies about ourselves, focuses on what’s wrong us, and heaps shame and condemnation on our heads.  We feel we must hide our dark core from everyone either from fear of being rejected or not wanting to drag anyone else down.  And we become mired in our own self-loathing.  Stuck.

The Holy Spirit wants us to dine on truth.  That we’re an image bearer of God, a beautiful creation.  Yes, we’re sinners, but there’s conviction, repentance, and redemption from that.  And freedom.  Freedom from the chains of our addictions, our self-loathing, our self-protection, our “ugliness”.  We’re loved as we are for who we are.  We need to set aside the lies we’ve come to believe about ourselves (or that have been programmed into us by others):  that we’re a villain, a cancer, toxic to those around us; that we’re unworthy of loving or being loved, that others are better off without us.

It’s a matter of getting our identity straight.  We are known by God.  We are loved by God.  Yet we don’t always believe that and don’t always see how it plays out in our lives.  When our faith can’t get traction in our lives, we become stuck.  We misplace our identity, things get shifted, then our priorities change.  We want comfort, personal happiness, and the right relationship with that special someone rather than being a living billboard for God’s glory and love.  We end up not living up to our potential like we should, thus we need to keep being reminded of our true identity:  we’re children of God, known for exactly who we are, and loved anyway!

I know my friend can’t see the blessing that he is to me and those who are privileged to encounter him.  I’m betting the same can be said for many of us.  Times that are the most difficult can be the times that are the most forming for us.  Our identity is not in our situations, but our identity is revealed by how we respond to them.  It’s difficult to keep that sense of desperation, that place of need, of only being able to clutch onto Christ as your hope.  And to be thankful that in our desperation, He is there.  Practically speaking, we must continue to ask ourselves where is our hope and what is it in? What are we being formed into?  What can we be doing better?  What relationships can we be pursuing?  Are we loving those around us to the best of our ability? Live into something positive rather than concentrating on “not doing” something negative.  We need to take stock of all the things were thankful for and carry on.  Thankfulness fans the flames of hope.

And I know it’s easier blogged than done.