Monday, May 21, 2012

Denial and Delusion


21 Surely you heard of him (Jesus) and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

—The words of the Apostle Paul from Ephesians 4:21-25


Every family has problems. When you face problems in your family, how do you deal with them? Sometimes husbands or wives think, If we just had the money the Kennedys do, or the Gates, or the Buffets, life would be so much easier. But what happens with such a fortune is that you just inherit a new set of headaches. Wealthy families aren’t any more problem-free than poor families.

What’s important for families is how they deal with their particular problems. According to Dolores Curran, author of the best-selling book Traits of a Healthy Family, a healthy family expects problems and considers them to be a normal part of life. In contrast, dysfunctional families are often marked by denial and delusion. They find their problems too painful to deal with, so they just say, “There’s really no problem here!” And they sweep things under the rug.

Problems are not the “problem.” That sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s true. Problems are not the “problem.” The “problem” is how we deal with problems. In many ways, how a family deals with problems helps define whether that family is functional or dysfunctional. And people from dysfunctional families bring their dysfunction into the church. So, how a church family deals with problems helps define whether the church family, the family of God, is functional or dysfunctional.

The road to creating a functional church family begins by defining those behaviors that lead to a well-balanced, fully functional, completely effective family. Since the church family is the best family of all, we all need to do our part to “grow up into Christ.” At least that’s what the Apostle Paul urges in Ephesians 4:15:

15 ... speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

But what about this dysfunctional family trait of denial and delusion? Maybe the husband and father is an alcoholic, but that’s too embarrassing for anyone to admit. The reality is just too hard to come to grips with. So the family pretends the problem doesn’t exist. They live in a certain delusion, explaining away the obvious.

Or, perhaps the wife and mother is a workaholic. She’s unable to be nurturing because she doesn’t have any time for it. Her children have learned to go elsewhere when they need someone to talk to. That’s because Mom always says something like, “Can’t you see I’m busy at the moment, dear?” The project she’s working on always takes priority. This mother’s work is more important to her than her family’s needs.

“That’s just not true!” says Dad in her defense. “Your mom’s a good person. You know that, don’t you? Someday maybe she won’t be under so much pressure from her work.” In reality, that’s wishful thinking. It’s a denial of the truth.

In healthy families, problems like these are confronted. Styles differ as to how they go about it. Some families visit a counselor. Others call a family conference where everyone has a say before a course of action is decided.

Before moving on too quickly, let me just point out that within dysfunctional families—that is, on the inside of those families—this pattern of denial and delusion isn’t as easy to recognize as one might think. An outside observer wonders how anyone could miss what’s happening. But, over time, the family members have learned to look right past the obvious. They’ve gradually accepted the questionable behavior as normal ... and excusable ... and defensible.

Even when a professional counselor points out the problem, it may take the family a while to agree that, “Yes, Mom does have a work compulsion.” Or, “Dad needs to get help; his drinking isn’t under control. Just because he still has his job doesn’t prove anything.” Patterns of denial are deeply rooted, and families’ defense systems can become incredibly creative at maintaining the status quo.

There’s a great deal of pain involved with denial. Sometimes it’s felt immediately. For example, when Mom snaps, “I don’t have time to talk right now; can’t you see I’m under a great deal of pressure!”, those words could actually bring tears to a child’s eyes because of a strong sense of rejection.

Or, the pain of denial might become internalized, only to rise to the surface years later at unexpected times through intense anger or cursing or throwing tantrums. Why? Because a boss or friend or spouse or fellow church member does something that reminds the adult child of what happened when he or she was young. And the person’s not going to let that happen anymore.

Denial of problems in families doesn’t make the pain go away. And the aftereffects can go on for decades.

In contrast, healthy families work toward the ideal of honesty in all their relationships. They don’t want lies to occupy the very center of their living. They declare, “If we have a problem, let’s recognize it and work on it. If we need help, let’s get it.”

Often dysfunctional church families display the same symptoms as dysfunctional individual families. That’s because people carry the dysfunctional traits from their own families into the family of God, the church.

For example, sometimes church people don’t understand that problems and conflicts occur as a very natural and normal part of congregational life. That’s right! Problems and conflicts are a normal part of church life. Because Jesus dwells in the hearts and minds of believers, they assume that sanctification—the process of becoming holy—overtakes a believer in an instant. They say, “If we’re all converted, why can’t we get along? We ought to just love each other. After all, one would think that the best family in the world should be problem-free!”

Sounds good, but it’s just not true. In the church, we know we’re all sinners. The only problem is, nobody admits what his or her particular sin happens to be.

In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a person will say, “Hello, I’m William. I’m an alcoholic.” That’s the reality factor. But in church we don’t greet each other by saying,

“Hi, I’m Edgar. I’m an addict. My problem is that I have an inordinate need for affirmation.”

Or, “I’m Beatrice. I tend to be a crybaby.”

Or, “I’m Ted. I have a problem with lust and that lust is fed by the way the women in the church sometimes dress.”

Or, “I’m Isabel. My tongue can get out of control if I’m not careful.”

One of the problems with the contemporary church is that it’s structured in such a way that opportunities for true openness and honesty are difficult to come by. When is it appropriate to say what you’re struggling with? Do you do that during the worship hour? Hardly! Do you write out your confession to be included in the Sunday bulletin? Of course not! Do you pick up an appropriate nametag in the church lobby that identifies your sin of greed, lying, gossip or laziness and slap it on your dress or lapel? No! That’s just silly!

What about confessing your sins during a Sunday School class? Do you blurt out,

“This last week I cheated on a test”?

Or, “I was severely tempted to be dishonest at work.”?

Or, “I’m a married woman, yet I flirted with the handsome new guy in the produce department at the grocery store.”?

No! No! And, no! None of those places affords an appropriate place for true openness and honesty.

My personal feeling is that the best forum for that kind of admission is a well-established prayer partnership. In that setting, and over time, people have built a context for support and accountability and confidentiality. In a well-established prayer partnership, Christians can feel comfortable sharing in all honesty. I admit the contemporary church simply doesn’t put enough emphasis on prayer partnerships, but that could change.

The next-best solution would be for small groups to take on the responsibility for encouraging openness. Contemporary churches are often lacking in the area of small groups, as well. But that also can change.

You see, when the church provides no forum to work through problems, sooner or later we have no choice but to get used to pretending we’re OK. When trouble comes, everyone just acts shocked and says, “Oh! Such things should never be! What a pity! What are we going to do?”

But again, denial doesn’t eliminate the pain. The hurt remains. Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of wounded people in our churches?

In Ephesians 4:25, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus:

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”

So here’s a biblical emphasis on honesty. That’s because—“Healthy church families set aside denial and delusion and work toward the ideal of honesty in all their relationships.” That’s true of healthy individual families, as well. They might not do it in the same way, but they figure out how to be open and honest with one another, because that’s important.

How do we, in a healthy church family, begin to go about “setting aside denial and delusion and, instead, work toward the ideal of honesty in all our relationships?” First of all, keep in mind that neither dysfunctional family traits nor dysfunctional church family traits are changed overnight. They have been years—often generations—in the making. You don’t just say a prayer and, “poof,” they vanish. We have to think of long-range results, of restructuring, of becoming more “New Testament-like.” But we can do it.

Secondly, remember that for people to come to grips with denial they must take great risks. It’s terrifying to think that your carefully-built defenses might be dismantled; to realize that your rationale for the way you act is flawed. It’s humiliating to acknowledge that the other person wasn’t to blame in a given instance, that you were the one who behaved like a jerk. To face such a realization can prove devastating.

The term denial is the professional counselors’ way of referring to people’s refusal to admit certain shortcomings or sins. Everyone else may recognize the lies, but not those in denial. They are insistent that their weaknesses don’t exist.

“I’m not impulsive in the way I act.”

“My drinking is under control.”

“Who’s lazy?”

“I don’t hold grudges.”

“I don’t know why you bring up procrastination, since that’s not a serious problem for me.”

“Just because you say I’m a ‘people-pleaser’ doesn’t mean it’s so.”

I’ve come to believe that until a Christian opens himself or herself to the voice of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t matter who says what; he or she won’t be able to hear it. The denial factor is just too great.

Part of an ongoing healing process for the dysfunctional church involves learning about dysfunctional families and how negative patterns are passed on from one generation to the next. Each new level of understanding brings one closer to Christ’s truth, and this will begin to make you free. But the journey is certainly not without pain and risk. Healing often involves a time of hurting, whether because of a surgeon’s knife or the pruning shears of the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in John 15. One must learn how strong denial is, and how difficult it is to overcome.

Obviously, no family is perfect. But a healthy family at least works toward the ideal of openness and honesty in all its relationships. When an individual or a family is coming to grips with denial, it’s extremely important to do so in a safe environment.

Just because Christ is present in His family, the church, doesn’t mean we can expect people to be open about painful areas of their lives unless they’re in settings that have been established as “safety zones.” However, “safety zones” can exist in congregations where the believers have set up prayer partnerships—times set aside where people can get together in groups of two or three or even more, and pray together every week for several months. After becoming comfortable, over time, with the established level of confidentiality, it’s not unrealistic for someone to be able to say something like,

“You know, I’ve been having a real struggle with my tongue. When I get angry I use crude words, and sometimes when I’m under pressure I even take the Lord’s name in vain. I really wish you’d pray for me.”

Or, “I have a problem with another person. I’ve actually come to hate him, to hope he gets hurt, to wish him dead. I know this isn’t right. Would you pray with me?”

Prayer partnerships are the right place for such honest requests. Maybe you’re thinking, I wish our church would set up prayer partnerships, but it hasn’t. The truth is, you can also do this on your own. You don’t have to wait for the church to organize prayer partnerships.

Let me prayerfully suggest that you think about who might be open to praying with you, someone you could trust. Approach that individual and decide what day and time you could get together. Start making a list of things you might pray about—family, church, work, personal needs, friends who don’t yet know Christ—and then try praying together a couple of times.

Don’t start the first time together by dumping an emotional load on the other person. Allow the relationship to build, and then, over time, new levels of honesty will develop. You see, we need to work at creating that safe environment.

These prayer partnerships are not designed to be therapy sessions. Don’t try to play the role of counselor when your friend shares a prayer request. You don’t want him or her to do that for you either.

First, listen. Maybe ask a question or two. Then intercede on his or her behalf. In other words, talk to the Lord about the concerns of your friend. He or she does the same on your behalf. If there’s a “counselor” present, it’s the best one of all, the Holy Spirit.

But when you pray, believe that God listens. And often He answers our prayers in marvelous and wonderfully creative ways. He makes us aware of His promise that where two or three gather in His name, the Lord Jesus is there as well. And eventually, He’s the One who leads us into all truth. When Jesus does this, how truly wonderful that is.

“Healthy church families set aside denial and delusion and work toward the ideal of honesty in all their relationships.”

Will you pray with me?

Thank You, God, for loving us. Thank You for sending Jesus to be our Savior. Thank You for sending us Your Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

Father, I praise You for Your truthfulness in dealing with people. You don’t sweep problems under the rug, but You’re always up-front and honest with us. You call us to be open with You, as well, because You’re intimately acquainted with all our thoughts, feelings, and concerns.

Here in the quietness of this moment where we’ve come apart from the hustle and bustle of the world, we invite Your Holy Spirit to speak to us right now, as we wait before You.

Thank You, Father, for the promise of Your Presence to lead and guide us through the week ahead. And, thank You for hearing our prayer in and through the precious Name of Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


Author’s Note: I am indebted to my spiritual mentor, Rev. Dr. David R. Mains, who many years ago preached a series of messages on his radio broadcast, The Chapel of the Air, entitled “The Dysfunctional Church Family.” One of those messages formed the basic foundation for this blog post.

Copyright © 2012 by Dean K. Wilson. All Rights Reserved.


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