Thursday, October 22, 2020

"Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation." John Piper May Have Written His Most Important Post This Year

Note: Yes, I have not posted here in quite a while. I've been using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to connect about Christ in real time. But there are moments like these where our need as Christians is so urgent, and someone speaks a message we need to hear and reflect upon, that I am compelled to share it. I hope it serves you well.

My friends who belong to Christ, I plead with you to quietly read and ponder this. We cannot deny or evade the harsh reality that we have no fellowship with either the Republican or Democrat candidate in this election. Yet our hopes and ambitions for what politics and government can do have gripped our hearts so tightly that we have been pulled into a sea of idols and we are in desperate danger of clinging to one to keep our heads above water. John Piper has written something I have longed to read from a sound teacher of the Scriptures for a long time. This is, above all, a heart check to test whether you really and truly are devoted to Christ above all. You may still vote either way, or vote a third way. But how you let it grip your heart, and how much you cling to the outcomes of this election, have an eternal influence on your soul. Be for Christ, all the time, all the way to the end. Elections will come and go. Governments will come and go. Christ is our Rock, now and forever.

John Piper is wrestling well with this reality:
Here are four reasons I am immensely grateful to John Piper for publicly sharing his heart about this election:
  1. He makes it very clear at the beginning and further down that he isn’t insisting every Christian must reach the same conclusions he does. We need more of this: Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8 emphasize that the church cannot be healthy if we don’t love and support each other in spite of differing convictions and consciences. Christians can disagree about voting without treating each other as fools or traitors.
  2. Piper gives so much encouragement here to Christians who are agonizing over feeling trapped into voting for one of two candidates, both of whom are fraught with moral problems. It is possible to choose not to vote for either of them because your conscience won’t let you, and still be a faithful Christian and citizen. I am grateful that Piper demonstrates how a Christian may honor God by choosing not to vote for either candidate. We hear too much simplistic pressure that we must vote for a candidate “who can win” no matter what. Brothers and sisters, if you use your chance to vote as a means to honor Christ by refusing to support candidates whose actions lead to spiritual ruin, that is also a faithful work of Christian citizenship.
  3. What Piper has done here is to help us course-correct in our attitude about public sins. He is not saying President Trump’s sins are worse than those of Democrat candidates. He is saying sins on both sides are deadly and lead to cultural and spiritual death, so we should treat them all with gravity and avoid minimizing or excusing them.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that our greatest priority is how we display and honor Christ and live out the gospel. This is supremely important compared to any political goal, but we easily compromise it when we are so urgent about winning an election. Politics is a riptide that snatches people and pulls them along even when they are careful and have the best of intentions. We need teachers who will help us step outside the frenzy of elections and political causes and remind us that these things are not the greatest priorities God has given to us. It does not all depend on the outcome of this or any election. God desires us to be faithful witnesses to our neighbors far more than he desires us to accomplish anything by voting. Be wise in how you conduct yourself in front of those around you, and ask yourself what they most need to see from you. Lord, help us here.
Here are two excerpts. Please read the whole thing.
"When I consider the remote possibility that I might do any good by endorsing the devastation already evident in the two choices before me, I am loath to undermine my calling (and the church’s mission) to stand for Christ-exalting faith and hope and love.

"I will be asked to give an account of my devotion to this life-giving calling. The world will ask. And the Lord of heaven will ask. And my conscience will ask. What will I say?

"With a cheerful smile, I will explain to my unbelieving neighbor why my allegiance to Jesus set me at odds with death — death by abortion and death by arrogance. I will take him to Psalm 139 and Romans 1. And if he is willing, I will show him how abortion and arrogance can be forgiven because of Christ (Ephesians 1:7). And I will invite him to become an exile — to have a kingdom that will never be shaken, not even when America is a footnote in the archives of the new creation."

On the dilemma of character versus policies, Piper has made a point we keep overlooking:

"Where does the wickedness of defending child-killing come from? It comes from hearts of self-absorbed arrogance and boasting (James 4:1–2). It comes from hearts that are insubordinate to God. In other words, it comes from the very character that so many Christian leaders are treating as comparatively innocuous, because they think Roe and SCOTUS and Planned Parenthood are more pivotal, more decisive, battlegrounds.

"I think Roe is an evil decision. I think Planned Parenthood is a code name for baby-killing and (historically at least) ethnic cleansing. And I think it is baffling and presumptuous to assume that pro-abortion policies kill more people than a culture-saturating, pro-self pride.

"When a leader models self-absorbed, self-exalting boastfulness, he models the most deadly behavior in the world. He points his nation to destruction. Destruction of more kinds than we can imagine.

"It is naive to think that a man can be effectively pro-life and manifest consistently the character traits that lead to death — temporal and eternal."

Lord, help us listen and cling to you. Please make our hearts wholly true to you, above all and through all. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Christians, Now Is the Time to Empathize with Those Feeling Fear and Rejection

I am thankful to have this post shared on today:

This is the heaviest and most urgent thing on my heart this week. I pray all Christians would consider this. Real people - friends - feel singled out and afraid because of specific words aimed at their race, religion, gender, or group by the president-elect or by people jumping on the publicity. This is not about whether you think these thoughts are overreactions or not. We need to empathize, no matter how we voted and no matter how we personally feel about the results. Loving our neighbors as Christ loved us certainly includes having empathy for their fears.

With Christians being credited as heavily supporting president-elect Trump's rise to the presidency, many people are questioning whether these attitudes reflect our hearts too. It's up to us to show our fellow citizens how Christians care for those who are vulnerable and afraid, and to show them the Gospel doesn't have political boundaries.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Short, Glorious Life: Jamison and Kathryne Pals Went to Heaven instead of Japan

Your life may be more important than you think. I hope this will show you why, and increase your joy in what The Lord brings you to do each day. I think this is something the Pals family would have wanted. Jamison and Kathryne Pals were a young couple that attended our church. They were preparing to move to Japan as missionaries. They would bring with them their four-year-old son, two-year-old daughter, and a newborn son. Last weekend the whole family was on the road to Colorado for the final part of their training before moving overseas.  

In April, Jamison's blog Joy of Japan included a post with these words which he wrote to his wife Kathryne three years ago:
“I do not know how things will turn out for us.  As a husband I feel obligated to lead our family toward obedience—whatever the end may be.  Whether it is life or death or discomfort or disappointment, it is clear the Lord Jesus calls us not to an easy life.  However, He calls us to take up our cross just as He did to suffer and die.  Perhaps we will toil for years to raise support and never make it overseas.  Perhaps we will go and utterly fail as missionaries from all the worldly perspectives.  Perhaps we will labor for decades without any visible fruit.  Or perhaps through willing obedience many will pass from death to eternal life.” 
That road of obedience led them through Nebraska last Sunday. In the middle of the afternoon, a semi crashed into their car from behind and the impact caused a fire that took the lives of the entire Pals family.

Many people would only see this as a sad and tragic end to their dreams and hopes. Yet while the grief of family and friends is tremendous, there is also a surge of hope rising up in the midst of it. I did not get the joy of knowing the Pals personally, but I know friends who did, and I see that hope rising to the surface for them. In the stories that follow below, you can see that same hope in their parents. Part of the reason for that hope is that we firmly believe that the Pals are in the presence of God now, where there is no sorrow or regret at being welcomed home early. Christians know that the presence of God is unending joy and uninterrupted worship. Forever. That is why Paul says that to depart and be with Christ is "far better" than life on earth. (Phil. 1:23).

Another reason for that hope is that God never wastes our obedience and devotion to Him. Christianity has a history that shows extraordinary results from the humble deaths of people who loved the Lord. Sometimes death can produce a greater impact than a long life, if you leave the right things behind you. There is much that the lives of Jamison and Kathryne may yet do for the people of Japan and others who will be inspired by their story. The news of the accident as reported in the Omaha World-Herald the next day was full of details on the missionary vision for loving the people of Japan that had brought the Pals through Nebraska. Their story has been nationwide news. People magazine ran an exclusive story on its website this week that, again, displayed the heart of the Pals in bringing the Gospel to people in Japan. It also included many quotes from their parents showing their hope in the Lord even while mourning. Their blog Joy of Japan will now be read by far more people than they ever may have dreamed it would. How many of those people will learn for the first time that the 120 million Japanese people in Japan have almost no Christian witness among them? (See the Joshua Project for more.) Imagine if their story caused another 10, or 20, or even more people to dedicate their lives to the Gospel in Japan.

This has reminded me of another missionary, Amy Carmichael. Amy served in southern India from 1895 until her death in 1951. She worked to rescue young girls from sexual slavery and established a school and home to support and train rescued children, named Dohnavur Fellowship. In 1931, as she was concerned about financial support for the school, she suffered a terrible accident. She fell into a pit inside a dark house just rented for the school's purposes, breaking her leg and twisting her spine. It left her bedridden for the rest of her life. She was unable to actively serve in the ministry of the school she had worked so hard to found and support, although she continued to direct and lead it. While confined to bed, she wrote prose and poetry that ended up becoming known around the world. Through this writing, the work of her school and home for rescued children also became known across the globe, and her ministry received enough support that the Dohnavur Fellowship continues today.

Who can say how the Lord may now use the lives of Jamison and Kathryne? Amy Carmichael's personal disaster ended up making the work of sharing the Gospel in India known and funded, also drawing attention to the horror of young girls being enslaved and exploited in the temples. But she likely never imagined her work would gain such attention. She was just doing what she believed God wanted her to do. Just like Jamison and Kathryne followed the Lord in preparing to serve in Japan.

How should we feel after reading such testimonies? Usually we feel impressed, awed, and a little small in comparison. Often we feel guilty, too, as if we aren't doing enough to measure up to such devotion to God. I want to persuade you to set those thoughts of guilt aside. Instead, I think reading about the lives of the Pals and of Amy Carmichael should encourage us about our daily work and study. All they were doing was what they could, no matter how small. They had no idea where it would lead. Amy Carmichael couldn't have known that writing poems to express her feelings and faith would end up creating worldwide interest in her ministry in India and lead to generous giving and support. 

Jamison and Kathryne Pals had the same humble thoughts about what they were doing. And now, because they just kept seeking God first in how they used their time, and did not despise doing small things, holding to the hope that one day that faithfulness might produce a great result, their story is being read around the world. I hope and believe that the kind of impact they wanted to make with their lives and devotion to the Gospel will spread even farther through their unexpected deaths, showing people a faith that is worth living for and losing everything (on earth) for. If we want to honor their lives and their passion, I think we could start by seeing the ordinary things in our lives as vastly important to what God may do some day in the future. Maybe we won't see the future results ourselves, and maybe we will. But just as with the Pals and Amy Carmichael, the important thing is that other people would see, and believe.

For Supporting the Vision of Jamison and Kathryne Pals

Here is a video of the memorial service from Saturday, August 6, at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It was a remarkable service. This is one more way their story can be shared.

If you’d like to help the family with expenses, they have a GoFundMe page to raise money to bring the family’s ashes to Japan.

Jamison’s father asked that, above all, people might take some time to read the Joy of Japan blog, and learn what they were truly about.

Pastor Jason Meyer of Bethlehem wrote this about the Pals. The University of Northwestern-Saint Paul radio ministry,, shared the words of Jamison's father and friends of Jamison and Kathryne (along with the WCCO article linked within). The People story highlights the thoughts of Kathryne's parents.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Genuine Church Community vs. Atomization and Individualism in American Culture

One of the most important priorities for the church right now is recovering genuine community. The health and effectiveness of church community for doing what the church is supposed to do has been severely weakened. Here are some examples and perspectives on this I have shared in the past from Rod Dreher and Carl Trueman and from Chris Martin (discussing Pew Research results on what Christians think is essential to spiritual life). It's why Mark Dever recently wrote a book devoted to community. Two major obstacles to forming Christian community are the trends of atomization and individualism. Here's an explanation of both:

Atomization refers to the trend of people disconnecting and living apart from one another and apart from the social and community groups they once regularly attended. It is a breakdown of connections and relationships on a community level, and some have noted it is particularly strong in America. Sociologist Robert Putnam drew attention to this phenomenon in 1995 in his essay "Bowling Alone" and captured the basic image: where people once used to seek regular community and do things together in groups, many people prefer now to do everything on their own terms. Putnam also identified some of the reasons this is harming America's social fabric, weakening both the productivity of the community and the ability of people to form relationships. He concluded it resulted in less civic engagement, and also in less trust between average people. Here's a longer explanation from a recent perspective.

Individualism describes the obsession of people in our day with living out their own unique, personal journey of self-discovery. It is characterized by an idea that the self-fulfillment and development of a person's individual identity is the supreme value. As a consequence, many people resist being influenced by groups and institutions that try to form common ideas in a community because they do not want to be shaped by something outside of themselves. If they join, they do so while standing apart and avoiding any adoption of group ideals unless it aligns with their personal identity. For instance, instead of letting church shape your thinking on God, you come to church convinced of your own personal take on spirituality and you only stay if the church seems to fit with that. Where American society used to be composed of many institutions of people coming together for common goals or values, which would form a united mindset and set of ideas among those people, today people often insist on figuring out who they are by looking within and by their own experiences rather than being taught or shaped by a community. Here is a useful discussion by Tim Keller and Russell Moore for more context.

Contrast this with the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the essential Christian community in his important work Life Together:
Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. (Life Together, p. 26).
Taking Bonhoeffer's observations, Christian community is not about what kind of spirituality or identity you or I bring to the mix. It is about what Christ has done for us, and what we are because of Christ. Identity is not something personally determined and established by us as individuals; it is something that derives from and depends on the work of Christ. We could say that the more we know Christ, the more He reveals to us our true identity. But Bonhoeffer emphasized that meeting Christ in private and learning to know him by ourselves is only half of the process. He explained that community is not optional for the Christian; it is essential to the way we are formed and the way God feeds us. We need one another to speak the Word of God to each other, to hear each other's confessions and cries for prayer, to minister forgiveness to one another, and to display to each other in the flesh the love that Christ has put into our hearts through His Spirit.

Therefore knowing God requires humbling yourself to be shaped and taught by the community. You cannot come to Christian community and participate authentically while still insisting upon maintaining a personal identity not shaped or influenced by the community. One of Bonhoeffer's main points about Christian community is that it must be established by God. We do not have the option of taking or creating community on our own terms. All real Christian community is established by the Holy Spirit, not by our plans and expectations. "Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate." (Id. p. 30)

That is why Bonhoeffer states: "He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial." (Id. p. 27). We cannot make the community to fit our expectations. We must receive it. This necessarily requires humbling ourselves, because we are not in control and we must accept what God creates. I will note that this is not to be confused with simply accepting anything we are given by other men and women, for if they are also engaged in setting up their own idea of community, it may be equally detrimental. But it also means we have no excuse to just stiff-arm what we receive from others in community solely because we don't happen to like it or prefer it.

So how do we tell the difference? One of the reasons Bonhoeffer's book Life Together is so engaging and powerful is that it gives us a detailed breakdown and discussion of the aspects of community that come necessarily from our being united through Christ. These are the things natural to a genuine Christian community, the basic vital signs of the spiritual life. Bonhoeffer shows why these things are necessary to our life in Christ and how they nourish and maintain it. If the dynamics of your Christian community fulfill these purposes and serve to bring people closer to God and closer together in Christ, then they may be just what we need. That does not mean they will always be comfortable. Detecting the difference between the two - community created by God versus community dictated by other people - may take careful discernment. But either way, there is no question that the real community must be received. We cannot set the terms.

Instead, we love people the way the Scriptures teach, and we accept them for Christ's sake, and then we take the community that God develops out of that. Bonhoeffer gives us a peaceful picture of what kind of growth in grace and joy is available to us if we will humble ourselves and just receive what God is giving. Consider how liberating and relieving it is to not be ruled by a pressure to fix and tinker with the community in every place where it isn't developing according to your expectations. Simply receiving is a gracious privilege:
Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
(Life Together, p. 30)

Spiritual Coffee: Dangers of Nostalgia in Voting - New Film Finishes Chariots of Fire Story of Missionary Eric Liddell - Do Churches Help Solve Social Problems?

I took a short hiatus while I completed a series on recognizing and confronting addictions in the lives of others, but now here's a new installment of Spiritual Coffee with three things to help keep your Christian mind alert and informed. The third link in particular is a very pressing issue for the church, so I took some additional time to comment on it.

(As always, you can look over past installments under the tag Spiritual Coffee.)

Hope in the Ruins: Why Politics Can't Save Our Politics, James K. A. Smith (Comment Magazine)
Rather than dwelling on the present deterioration of ideals and unity in both political parties, take some time to focus on what we want to rebuild and how to get there. One helpful resource for figuring out what that looks like is Smith's review of Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.
"It is hard to imagine a more timely, important, and wise book than Yuval Levin's latest, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Levin, a Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founding editor of National Affairs, is one of our most astute political analysts, eschewing from-the-hip punditry for careful work that is nourished by both historical insight and social-scientific rigour. But more importantly, Levin is that rare combination of heart and mind, intellect and soul, who writes with the philosopher's commitment to big ideas but as someone who knows and loves his neighbours."
Among the important points Smith observes:

  1. Both conservatives and liberals are blocked from achieving progress by a misplaced nostalgia for "the way things were." Levin charts out why he believes people on both ideological ends are pursuing a past that cannot be recovered. Each side is trying to return to what they perceive to be their golden years, and yet this is impossible for either side to accomplish. So we get nowhere.
  2. One of the reasons this return to the past is impossible is that often the idealized time that each party wants to get back to was a short time of unsustainable success or prosperity. Many of these cherished seasons were the result of complex social and economic forces developing over decades and they often had consequences that had to be worked out over following decades.
  3. Therefore: A) they are incredibly dependent on a long sequence of many different events, more than any political party can orchestrate; and B) they were never capable of lasting anyway, even at their best, because by their nature they were temporary conditions that a society could not continue to maintain.
One example:
"For example, we longingly look back on the widespread productivity of the postwar era, yielding gainful employment that could sustain a new era of consumption and almost unparalleled prosperity. We pine for the days when a job at GM could buy a family a house in the suburbs and all of the security and stability that came with that (at least for whites, who benefited from the cartel-like cooperation between corporations and unions). "Play it again, Sam!" our politicians bellow. But when you look at the unique constellation of historical contingencies at play you realize this can't happen. The US economy soared in that era in no small part because we were one of the few developed economies whose infrastructure wasn't decimated by World War II. Once Germany and Japan rebuilt, in the 1970s, the US economy experienced the reality of competition that sent us into the malaise that Jimmy Carter named."
Most importantly, Levin's book displays careful thinking about what can be accomplished now, in our current cultural state. I highly recommend Smith's discussion of how Levin deals with the problems of atomization and individualism, and why Levin sees rebuilding neighborhood/community groups and institutions as an essential part of restoring social stability. (Here's some basic explanation of both atomization and individualism for those not familiar with how these terms are being used.)

The Story After "Chariots of Fire", Amy Qin (The New York Times)
A fascinating report on the making of a new film telling the story of how Eric Liddell, the Christian Scotsman and Olympic runner of Chariots of Fire, went on to become a missionary to China like his parents. He was captured during the occupation of China by Japan and held in a Japanese prison camp in 1945, where he died. It is especially encouraging to see this movie being made by a Hong Kong filmmaker and distributed in China.
“The Last Race” is "a Hong Kong-Chinese production that opened in more than 50 Chinese cities last Friday. (It does not yet have a North American release date.) Co-directed by the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin and the Canadian Michael Parker, it focuses on the final years of Liddell’s life, when he was held in a Japanese labor camp in the coastal province of Shandong."
"'It means a lot to me to be able to tell this story of an Olympic champion who came to China and sacrificed so much to help others,’ Mr. Shin, who is also a Christian, said in a recent interview."
Carter analyzes a recent Pew study that showed many people do not believe the church contributes to solving social problems, or that it doesn't contribute much. These numbers are much higher than eight years ago, and he also notes that they are higher even among Christians - meaning that a number of Christians do not even recognize how the church positively impacts society. This excerpt is especially important, and I posted additional comments below to emphasize why:
"There has been no sign that churches are less charitable or engaged in their communities than they were in 2008. What has changed is the attitude and expectations many Americans have about the role of churches. No matter how many “good works” churches engage in—from feeding the homeless to ministering to sex trafficking victims—it won’t be sufficient to offset our opposition to the increasing sexual permissiveness of society. Our refusal to abandon the Biblical ethic on sexuality makes us, in the eyes of many Americans, a social problem to be solved rather than a partner in solving social problems.
 "Unfortunately, when it comes to religious liberty the church has relied too heavily on society recognizing the benefits we provide. For instance, churches and other religious institutions in American [sic] are almost always exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. The justification for this policy is usually that such institutions provide vital charitable benefits to society. But what happens when this argument is no longer perceived to be true?
 "Losing popularity is no great loss. Losing tax-exempt status, however, is a considerable loss, since it poses a direct threat to the religious liberty of churches and Christian institutions. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), 'That the power to tax involves the power to destroy; that the power to destroy may defeat and render useless the power to create . . . are propositions not to be denied.' (Unfortunately, even many Christians deny this proposition and are woefully na├»ve about how taxation would affect—if not outright destroy—many charities and ministries.)"

My Take: Here's why this matters so much. The power to tax is the power to destroy because where the government can tax you, it can control what you do by heavily taxing things it doesn't like and giving deductions and exemptions for things it wants to promote. Chief Justice Marshall recognized in 1819 that it is wholly possible for government to destroy certain institutions and organizations by simply making the taxes on what they do so high that the group must fold. Taxes have always been used to promote certain behavior and discourage other behavior. We allow charitable deductions from taxed income because giving to non-profit organizations is generally good for society, so we encourage that giving by not taxing any part of their income that a person gives away to charity.

But if the government can tax the church, then the government can also choose to tax certain activities of the church more highly than others. For instance, a church that refused to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies might be taxed at a higher level on its property, whereas a church that was "open to everyone" (as the government might say) could get a much lower property tax bill. Taking advantage of the taxing power this way, the government could discourage and even strangle something that it is not allowed to directly outlaw. Even where the courts and the Constitution protect religious groups from having to perform marriage ceremonies against their beliefs, if the government can tax them then it can make living by those beliefs extremely costly.

Likewise, the government could offer tax-exempt status for contributions to churches that do the things the government wants churches to do, and refuse to provide it to churches that hold beliefs and practices that the government doesn't like. This would inevitably reduce giving to churches where contributions were not tax exempt: even people who would still give in spite of not getting a tax exemption would be stuck with the fact that they have less money to give now. Instead of giving that money away and paying no taxes on that part of their income, they would now still pay 20-30% of that amount in taxes - meaning that many would have to give less and use the rest to pay the tax. This is why tax-exempt status for churches matters so much. The government cannot punish churches by law for having beliefs different from what government desires, but it can use the taxing power very freely. Where it would be unconstitutional for the government to try to force a church to stop doing something, if churches are not tax-exempt, the government could instead tax what the church does and grind it down.

This is why we should take it seriously when the public and politicians are saying the church doesn't contribute to society or solve social problems, and try to learn how to correct those errors. But more than that, we must persuade our neighbors that freedom to live by your own beliefs is more important for all of us than any particular social cause. For over 225 years this country has lived by the conviction that the government should never have the power to force a person to change his or her beliefs or to prevent that person from living what they believe simply because others don't like it. A tragic consequence of the culture war has been the rise of an attitude that refuses to tolerate the other side's beliefs: a mindset of "us vs. them" that has left us with people thinking there's simply no room for both ways of life. A shocking number of people seem ready to throw out the ideas of freedom of belief and freedom of speech as long as they think they have the upper hand. We must unite against that.

People of all beliefs should agree that having government manipulate what we believe and practice is a much worse evil than having people refuse to agree with your lifestyle. We have to see together that any discussion by politicians and government of taking away tax-exempt status for churches is a direct assault on freedom of religion, with the clear agenda of manipulating religious beliefs and church teachings. If anyone gives the government the power to do that today, the government will have the power to use it against them tomorrow. One of the foundational promises upon which the United States was built was this: there are certain things the government would never have the power to take away from its people. We must remember how precious it is to have a government that has limits on what it can do to you. [The previous paragraphs after the block quote are my own comments. -Anthony]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Addiction: How to Help Each Other (Part III) – Getting Past Secrecy and Concealment, and Building Trust

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Galatians 6:1

I’ve taken three posts to lay out what I’ve learned about the psychology and entrapment of addiction, in the hope that this will help others understand the thinking and temptations that drive the addictions of people they love

Part I tackled what addictions looks like and how they compare to idolatry, and listed a number of reasons people get trapped in addictions and why they fear discovery and accountability.

Part II covers why addicted people lie and conceal their behavior, and the combination of pride and shame that trap people in addiction.

Part III is a blow-by-blow examination of what concealment and evasion by addicted people looks like, and how to get beyond it and walk with a person through recovery. This post is the longest because I've gone all out to give a playbook for helping a person through recovery. Not all sin is an addiction in the way I’ve described it, but there are many sins that can’t be overcome without understanding the patterns of addiction. If you are trying to help a friend break out of adultery, or alcohol or drug abuse, or pornography, or gambling, or anything else that has taken over their lives, you need to watch out for the patterns below.

Not everyone will act like this, because some people who struggle with the things above are not yet controlled by them. So I do not want to mislead anyone into thinking every single person who struggles with these vices and sins is exactly the same. Some people may not be this imprisoned yet, and you may be able to help them work through their repeated abuse of something with cooperation and honesty. But you need to be aware of these patterns of concealment, because the biggest problem in helping many addicted people is that those with severe addictions are very good at making people think they only have a small problem.

I have tried to cover the most common patterns of deception and concealment that addicts use to keep their addiction secret or to resist help and accountability, and how to counter them. This post is uncomfortable to write, because it feels very judgmental. There simply isn’t any polite way to say that your friend with an addiction is going to lie and deceive you. If you suspect a friend has an addiction, and you want to help them, you are going to have to prepare yourself for this fact.

Bracing Yourself to Confront a Friend

Addiction warps our thinking and desires because we have become completely dependent on satisfying the need for whatever we have as an addiction. It changes your personality. A very good picture is the transformation of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. In spite of the gentlest and most sincere motives and character, Frodo begins to be changed by possessing the One Ring. The Ring has such a powerful attraction for whoever holds it that it becomes the dominant thing in their minds. Frodo changes into a person who distrusts everyone around him, even his perfectly faithful friend Sam. He becomes suspicious that others are trying to take the Ring, and he reacts angrily or defensively if anyone suggests parting him from the Ring. His motives and attitude are reshaped around the single goal of protecting his possession of the Ring.

This is a glimpse under the surface of addiction. Most people you know who have an addiction will not visibly react the way Frodo did. They usually try at all costs to project an image of being in control and of being normal. But what has happened to their thinking and their personality is very much the same. An addicted person will see anyone who interferes with their addiction as someone to be manipulated. They will be increasingly willing to lie to that person, and to treat them as a person to “work around” instead of a trusted friend or spouse or family member. It is horrendously painful for a spouse or close friend to discover that the addicted person they love is sneaking around behind their back and concealing their behavior. But the addicted person learns a pattern of concealment in order to prevent anyone from hindering their ability to satisfy their need.

So as difficult as it is to examine and test the person you love to see if they are being honest, you have to take courage and do it if you suspect an addiction. They are not going to help you find out what’s going on. The only way to free them is to get past the deception so you know what’s really going on. And they really need your help. So be encouraged that what you are doing is a work of mercy, and a service of love that God encourages: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)

1. Common Concealment Patterns:

These are some examples of how people with addictions keep them hidden (which also tells you what to watch out for). In the next part I’ll describe ways to detect and overcome these things. Not every addicted person will show all these behaviors, and of course many people use some of these tactics even without an addiction. But you can expect a combination of these from a person with a serious addiction. So look for multiple examples together that form a pattern.
  • Not volunteering information on what they have been doing, and being vague if asked.
  • Only giving partial answers - for example, after being at a bar, saying: "I was just out getting something to eat."
  • Asking friends to cover for them to meet responsibilities - often without explaining why. Taking time away from work or other responsibilities and having someone else cover for them is a way to sneak in their addiction while keeping it hidden from family.
  • Not answering the phone or the door, because it might give away what they've been doing.
  • Not showing up to things they previously said they would do, and giving odd excuses afterwards.
  • Starting new patterns in how they use their time that allow them extra gaps on their own - heading to the gym every morning or taking a class in the evenings, which allows for unaccounted time away from people who might be suspicious.
  • Telling different stories to different people so that no one can see the whole picture of this person's life.
  • Compartmentalizing and friend-shopping: addicted persons will often withdraw from people who begin to show suspicions of the addiction, and seek out new friends or a closer relationship with previous acquaintances so they can start fresh with someone unaware of what's going on. This cycle may continue each time people start to guess the truth.
  • Co-opting allies: similar to friend-shopping, they may look for people to be "on their side" and manipulate the relationship so this person believes their story and will vouch for them. For instance, arranging an accountability partner who is ignorant of what's going on, and then convincing this person their accountability sessions are really solid and transparent. Then when questioned by others, they can say: "Talk to my accountability partner. He'll tell you it's going great."
  • Hiding charges and costs for the addiction by taking out cash instead of using credit cards.
  • Deleting things that would give them away: e-mails, social media accounts, files on computers, credit card statements, etc.
  • Sneaking money from work, family, or other people whose accounts they have access to in order to feed the need they can no longer afford.
  • The "small" confession: admitting to something bad, but much less than what they are hiding, and acting out an apology. They often learn that they can throw people off the scent by making them think they got to the bottom of it, and by humbly apologizing.
  • Minimizing: insisting that whatever they did was just a little bit. For instance, in my experience, almost everyone who has abused alcohol will say they only had 1 or 2. It's nearly universal. You can expect an addict to make their behavior seem as small as possible, only admitting what they think they cannot possibly evade.
  • Selective memory: in the process of self-justification, you’ll often hear things like “It was just that one time” even when it was actually three or four. Addicted people tend to “forget” or gloss over all the examples of their addiction being out of control, and try to pick just one or two to explain away. You’ll often have to remind them how many times it really happened.
  • Using emotions to deflect and evade discussion of suspicions: getting angry when questioned, or falling apart and saying "I can't take this right now!"
  • The play for sympathy: when questioned, coming up with something else really heavy or painful that is happening to them and making the conversation all about this difficult thing they're going through.
  • In general, simply controlling conversations by steering them to something away from their addictive behavior. There's always something else more important to talk about.
  • Hiding the tools of their addiction where they can access them in secret.
  • "I'm cured." - when push comes to shove, an addicted person may go through a process of agreeing they have a problem, swearing they will stop/get help, and then saying they are finished with the addiction... then resuming it in secret, while continuing to say they are staying clean.

2. Uncovering the Secrets and Creating Openness and Honesty

A. Figuring Out What's Going On

Helping an addicted person is a team effort. If you try to do the things I've described in this post by yourself, you can easily burn out. Trying to keep up regularly with someone who is not very eager to be accountable, and who needs constant accountability, is exhausting and discouraging. So get all the help you can.

You also need help because detecting and uncovering a pattern of concealment often requires comparing notes with other people in a person's life. You need to be willing to talk to others and express your concerns without allowing yourself to feel like you're betraying your friend. Be selective about who you enlist to help, but make sure you have a complete picture of your friend's life and time. You need their spouse and family to be involved if possible.

Since a person in addiction will do their best to convince you everything is fine, you have to be able to account for what's going on when you're not around. You need to be able to confront them about what they're doing so that they can't talk their way out of it. Building up all this information may feel a lot like you're being self-righteous or judging them, but keep in mind that you're not doing this because you're smarter or more righteous than them: you're doing this because they are blinded by their addiction, and you are still able to see straight. They can't do it without your help.

If you're recognizing some of the behaviors listed above in your friend, that may be enough to confront him or her and challenge them about what's going on. The difficulty is having enough evidence of a pattern of behavior that he or she can't talk their way out of it. Otherwise the conversation goes nowhere. Here are some other things to do:
  • Don't accept questionable excuses. If you think something's going on, then when your friend gives an explanation that isn't believable, call them out on it. Look them in the eye and say: "Tell me what's going on."
  • Make it clear you won't accept anything less than the full story. Keep pressing for it as long as you suspect they are holding out on you.
  • When you compare notes with others, trust them. For instance, if your friend's wife tells you he was out all night and wouldn't say where he was, then when you get to talk to him, don't accept any contradictions from him or let him dismiss what she said. Stick firmly to the facts you've been given.
  • Make it clear to the person that you care about them and you can be trusted, but that you can't be manipulated or controlled. Let them see that although you're steadfast in your support for them, you aren't going to let them talk you out of what needs to be done or let them mislead you.
  • Take control of conversations if there's an elephant in the room. Don't let your friend change the subject when there are questions in the air about what's going on in his or her life. Steer back to it and insist on talking it through all the way. The more they try to change the subject, the more reason you have to think something's being concealed.
  • Stick to your guns. Be firm in your understanding of facts and your memory of what's been happening. An addicted person will often resort to telling you that you're remembering it wrong or that you misunderstood something. Be careful you had your facts straight going in, but once you do, don't hesitate about them. Stand firm.
  • Seize moments where things are at a crisis. If you strongly suspect an addiction, then when someone has just lost a job, or had a spouse leave or kick them out, or been arrested, or otherwise accused by a friend of something, this is the time to have a straight talk with them and ask what is really behind this. When the evidence that their addiction is wrecking their life is right in front of them, they are more likely to confess it to a friend and seek sympathy.
  • Pin the addicted person down to talking about their addict behavior and the problems it has created. When they try to explain something away that is clearly wrong, press them on it and challenge them on why they aren't admitting that was a problem. This is part of getting them to admit they are addicted and need help. Admitting the symptoms of the problem is one step toward admitting there is a problem.
  • Fact-check: as much as possible, try to independently verify what they tell you. Don't take anything for granted. If they tell you a story their spouse or family would know about, check the facts with the spouse or family to see if they told you the truth. This is crucial, because if you catch your friend lying to you, that gives you something to confront them about even if you don't know for certain what is going on with their addiction. It gives you a valid reason to ask them why they're acting like this.
  • Don't be self-conscious about telling them you know something's wrong. Even if you can't prove it or spell it out, if it's clear that they've changed and things aren't right, confront them about that. Stand your ground and press them on why things have changed. You don't necessarily have to know what's going on in order to know something's wrong, and they can only make excuses for so long before they realize you aren't going to buy any of them.
  • Don't accept being avoided. If they start withdrawing from you or avoiding you when you make your suspicions clear, find ways to pursue meeting with them and talking to them. Coordinate with other friends and family if necessary.
  • Don't apologize for trusting your gut. 
  • If you become convinced that an actual intervention is necessary, where friends and family confront the person together, get advice from a counselor, doctor, pastor, or someone else trained to deal with addiction and plan it carefully.

Once you have your friend's agreement that they need accountability, it has to be a ground rule that you have total permission to ask them anything and to ask anyone else close to them about anything. You know your friend is serious about accepting help and fighting the addiction when they will agree to this. If they don't, you need to get them to that point by showing them that you can't help them if you can't be sure you know what's going on. You don't have to beat them up about their past deception (and you shouldn't), but you should focus on the fact that they have been enslaved by their addiction and the only way out is total honesty and transparency.

Regular meetings for accountability should include questions you ask the person in order to review how they're doing and find out what they're having trouble with this week. You can find many good examples on addiction support websites and counseling websites like those I've linked to. You want to cover whether they have done any of the things associated with their addiction, and also whether they have allowed themselves to be around triggers and places of temptation for their addiction. You should also go over whether they are following through with things like support group meetings and their other responsibilities, since failing to do this is a sign of backsliding in addiction. And an important final question you should both get used to is: "Have you just lied to me?" This needs to be something that can be asked and answered without defensiveness, so start using it right away and insist on an environment with no excuses or evasions.

B. Creating Openness and Trust

Ed Welch says: “If you want to help addicts, you will create a culture that delights in openness and honesty. Be someone with whom they can speak without fear of self-righteous judgment. Invite them to speak this new language of truthfulness, in which they speak honestly and aim to know the Truth—who is the antidote to all idolatry.” Welch, Two Underused Biblical Resources

A large part of the battle with an addicted person is getting them to not only admit they have an addiction, but be willing to admit it in front of you. People enslaved by addictions fear accountability because it will mean they lose control over being able to satisfy their addiction. They really don’t want to have someone looking over their shoulder, even a trusted friend who loves them and wants to help them. You have to gain their trust by helping them see how badly they need this help, and you also need to show them that they can be transparent in front of you without losing your love and respect.

Whatever else we're addicted to, just about everyone is addicted to other people's approval.
So even an addicted person who knows they have a problem and is willing to accept help is still going to be reluctant to admit all the shameful truth and guilty behavior to someone else. You really have to encourage this person that they can trust you to love them no matter what they say, and prove it by doing that even when you get shocked or disappointed. For instance, when you figure out for the fifth time that the addicted person has been lying to you and concealing more addictive behavior, you need to be able to forgive them and keep treating them with patience and love. That doesn't mean there aren't consequences; but it means that you don't start treating them less like a friend and more like a project. Addiction is so humiliating and disheartening all by itself that people trapped in it kind of expect others to give up on them. Often they have given up on themselves. To help them, you have to prove them wrong.

However, you also have to enforce boundaries and consequences. The addicted person needs accountability not only to telling you the truth, but also to staying out of addiction. An addicted person has a million different excuses for why they should give into their addiction late at night, or this weekend, or after a hard day. Accountability that helps them change is accountability to very specific boundaries. The boundaries have to keep them away from even the triggers and temptations that lead them to give in to addiction. For an alcoholic, for instance, they need to avoid all bars and places that serve alcohol, let someone go through their house to remove all alcohol, commit to a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, and change social habits that would put them around alcohol.

And remember, get help from others so that caring for this person is a team effort. Support groups are important because the people there are also struggling with addiction, and so there's no one to impress and no masks necessary to fit in. Getting your friend into a support group so that someone else is regularly providing accountability and encouragement is a high priority.

C. Make No Excuses for Them

This is a critical bottom line: never minimize the problem of addiction, even to try and cheer someone up. Your job is to encourage them, but not by making their problem seem less serious. That is a disastrous mistake that many people commonly make. When they see how depressed and discouraged the addicted person is, especially when talking about their addiction and its consequences, friends are moved to try to encourage them by softening the guilt.

This is pretty natural as a part of sympathy and mercy, and we do it with good effects in a lot of other areas of shame and guilt. Often people who are really broken over their sinful and selfish behavior tend to beat themselves up too much, once they finally get to the point of admitting how bad their actions have been. But with an addict there is a fundamental difference: the addict has been believing all along that he or she doesn’t have a problem, or at least that the problem isn’t serious, and has built up an elaborate web of self-deception. Addicts have gone to great lengths to convince themselves they can handle their addictive behavior. As you can see from many of the habits and actions I described above, virtually all addicts are trying to grasp on to anyone who will help reinforce the illusion that they are not out of control. You must never become that person.

In both previous posts, I gave examples of why addicted people are scared and reluctant to face life without being able to have their addiction to fall back on for escape or comfort. The last thing they want to have to admit and face is that they really have a problem that makes them unable to keep doing what they want to do to get relief. They don’t want to believe they have to stop. They don’t want to believe they have to give up their freedom to choose when and how they get relief. They don’t want to accept that others are right in intervening and stopping them. They don’t want to bear the shame or embarrassment of acknowledging they can't be trusted to use their own time without accountability.

So the thing you absolutely must avoid is reinforcing their desire to minimize the danger and seriousness of the addiction. The most loving thing you can do is not let them deceive themselves at all. You can usually tell a person is doing well in recovering from addiction when they don't make any excuses for their behavior anymore, and don't shrink away from admitting all the worst details. They have to learn to own it. Until they get here, every moment of minimizing or justifying is a step on the road back to addiction.

So when you encourage them, encourage them with other things they have to be thankful for, and other successes in their lives. Don't soften the seriousness of the addiction to be encouraging; focus instead on the other positives in this person's life. Above all, the most liberating and encouraging thing for a person in the shame of addiction should be the constant reminder that they have a Savior and God who accepts them completely no matter how shameful their life has become. They have total freedom to be transparent and honest before this God, because nothing they reveal will change how much He loves them. Of course, He already knows it anyway, but you help them feel the truth of that acceptance by modeling the same sort of acceptance yourself. You show them that they don't have to fear the truth about how bad things are, because they can't lose the love and support from you and from the Lord. Reassure them with the Gospel and the assurance that God's love is not based on how well you perform or how "good" you are.

One of the most successful things you can do in helping your friend is to soak up as much teaching about the Gospel as possible, and use it generously. I have also been very impressed with the insights of the counseling training program from Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana, which has done training conferences since 1985 and does regional conferences around the country. One of their priorities is to avoid teaching an addicted person to think of their identity as "being an addict." They have to admit they are an addict, but they are much more than an addict. Identity can mold behavior and expectations. So encourage your friend to see himself or herself as a child of God, redeemed, loved, and blessed with unique and important talents from God that are meant to be used in a special calling in this life. They have an addiction problem, which is serious, but their life and identity is much more than their addiction.

A Post-Script and Caution: The Danger of Thinking You're Cured

One of the significant dangers for addicts is that after staying out of trouble for some period of time, and getting things under control, they often start thinking they can relax things a little. That leads to relaxing things a lot. Most addicted people get tired of the limitations and boundaries long before they are actually recovered. I have seen too many people slip right back into their addictions because they weren't willing to keep careful boundaries anymore. So as a friend, you need to resist that mindset every time. You need to remind them why they can't stop taking this seriously. You need to talk against the voice in their head that is trying to justify their own freedom to do what they want.

Alcoholics have reported that no matter how long they have been sober, if they start taking a drink again, they swiftly drop right back to the worst level of alcohol abuse they were at before. The pattern of addiction takes over again, and you don't start back out at a low tolerance, as if the time away from your addiction has reset you to some immunity to the addiction. As an addict, you are never "cured." You are always vulnerable, and always have to be watchful. Keep your friend honest with himself or herself about this. Recovery from addiction is a permanent lifestyle, not a course of treatment.