Making Sense of the Insanity
by Patrick Means
Another respected Christian leader has an affair (this time, radio Bible teacher David Hocking). Another spasm of shock shudders through the Christian community. Over and over, we Christians are shocked and surprised when "good" people do "bad" things.
But Scripture makes it clear that we all possess a dark side, despite our faith in Christ. That dark underbelly of our human nature is dauntingly strong and fiercely resistant to taming. "Wretched man that I am," wails the apostle Paul, "The good that I want to do, I don’t do. But I practice the very evil I don’t want to do!"1
Dealing with our dark side is nothing less than civil war, and, unfortunately, it’s a war we’ll wage until the day we die.
How can we effectively deal with our dark side? There are at least six steps. We will discuss the first three in this column and the remaining three in the next issue. All of them require a special measure of courage, but in my experience, anything less is like charging hell with a squirt gun.
1. Acknowledge the Insanity
This step is about breaking denial, about achieving a new level of honesty about ourselves. We Christians are so used to describing our lives the way we think they should be, rather than the way they truly are.
The 12 Steps says that the healing process begins by acknowledging – not just that we occasionally have a problem here or there – but that our lives have become "unmanageable," and that we need God to "restore us to sanity."
I was re-reading Keith Miller’s excellent book A Hunger for Healing recently, in preparation for leading a 12 Step group in a local church. In his chapter on Step 1 of the 12 Steps, Miller talks about the symptoms that might indicate one’s life has become "unmanageable" and "insane." After listing symptoms such as "irritation and blaming," "uncontrollable, exaggerated feelings," and "forgetting to do the things that nurture our relationships," Miller summarizes:
We’re frantic all the time. We’ve got more to do that we can handle. But we’re not really conscious of how hectic and confused our lives are; we think it’s temporary and ‘normal.’ When it becomes clear that it isn’t temporary, we become depressed about our lack of ability to ‘get straightened out. . .’ This frustration and confusion are common symptoms of powerlessness and unmanageability.
A tingle of shock ran through me as I read. I recognized all of those symptoms as being my own. He was describing my frantic, stress-filled, out-of-control life! I had brushed the symptoms aside as "temporary" or "the fault of someone else." But somehow, my own denial had cracked and I saw that I was responsible for the chaos. What had started as preparation to lead others became a humbling spiritual breakthrough for me.
2. Identify Your Pattern
One recovery veteran I know defines "insanity" as "repeating the same behavior over and over and each time expecting different results."
As I looked at the symptoms of insanity in my own life I began to see a pattern of self-defeating behavior emerge. I saw that I regularly go through a cycle of overcommitting to some gargantuan project, task or goal. I then press my wife Marsha into service to help me (because the project is too big for me to accomplish alone), and then watch both of us burn out as we collapse on the other side.
Three years ago I crammed a new marriage, a new job and building a new house into one year, followed by us both collapsing. Two years ago I volunteered (and encouraged my wife to volunteer) to plan and organize a major regional recovery conference while simultaneously upgrading and expanding this magazine, followed by us both collapsing. And this past year we made yet another major move and launched a completely new ministry! Despite the obviously dysfunctional pattern, I was blind to see it from the inside while going through it because of the power of denial.
I have always lived life in the margins. It’s a product of the "Hero" role I’ve cultivated in life – overachieving in order to garner other’s approval and praise. The energy to play out that kind of dysfunctional role comes entirely from my dark side. But my mid-life body and psyche have been telling me for some time that they can no longer tolerate the levels of abuse I periodically put them through. Nor can my wife.
It was a sobering moment when I acknowledged that the stress and insanity in my life were not the result of "special circumstances." I had brought these situations on myself, and on my family. And I had had enough of the pain and the craziness. I was finally ready to admit I was powerless, and to ask God to restore me to sanity.
Your pattern may involve obsessing on a relationship, and on the need to gain approval from an individual, only to explode in anger and resentment when you don’t get the level of approval you desired. Or your pattern may involve periodic conflicts with your mate, followed by numbing your pain with alcohol or some form of sexual addiction, which in turn is followed by overwhelming feelings of guilt and depression. Our dark sides express themselves in specific, predictable patterns. We take a major step toward freedom when we identify our patterns and "own" them.
3. Tell Someone Else
Recovery from the negative behaviors arising from our dark side requires us to drag those behaviors out into the light. That’s why James exhorts us to "Confess your sins to one another. . . so that you may be healed."3
Telling someone else in my case meant going first to Marsha. I explained the insights I had gotten, took responsibility for my pattern of brokenness, and apologized for the ways it had hurt her. As is so often the case, being honest fostered true intimacy. In a series of conversations with people who I had harmed I learned that, although it is humbling, "making amends," as the 12 Steps calls it, serves only to draw us closer together and to give us hope for the future. And in dealing with our dark sides, we need all the hope we can get.
1. Romans 7:24,19
2. Miller, J. Keith, A Hunger for Healin g (HarperSanFrancisco), pp. 16-22.
3. James 5:16
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