Confronting the Civil War Within
by Patrick Means
In this final installment of his four-part series, Patrick Means presents the last three of the six tough steps needed to confront the dark side within.
4. Drive A Stake
Author Earnie Larson is credited with the droll maxim “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” This is nowhere more true than in confronting the restless power of our dark side. Just identifying a negative behavior pattern isn’t enough; we have to take practical steps in the real world to break our pattern. This is tricky business, for our human nature will do everything in its power to keep us from going through the pain connected with true change.
For me, with my “boom or bust” pattern of overcommitting my time and my money, followed by stress and collapse, change has involved downsizing my life and expenses to fit inside the “box” that circumscribes my physical, emotional and financial resources. Among other things, this has meant taking on fewer new projects and doing a better job of maintaining the walls around those activities that for me are energy-giving rather than energy-draining.
In addition, my wife and I have made a pact to evaluate each new opportunity facing us in light of my past pattern of overcommitting. To counter the self-deceiving nature of our disease, we ask ourselves, “Would someone looking in from the outside say that this looks like our old pattern?”
5. Don’t Go It Alone.
Recovery is not a solo activity. We must wage this war with the support and the perspective of a friend, a therapist, or, best of all, a support group. The result will be the kind of deep, nurturing fellowship that John in his first epistle says comes only from “walking in the light” with other believers. In choosing a group, avoid two extremes that can be found in the Christian community – the “moral monitors” and the “chronic caretakers.”
The Moral Monitors . Several years ago, my dark side behaviors blew apart my life and ministry. At that time, the Christian organization in which I’d been serving assigned me to an “accountability group” to monitor my recovery. These five men took on the role of my “moral monitors.” Every week, they would ask me questions about my actions, my Bible reading, my thought life over the past week, and would alternately take notes on my responses and dispense advice. There was never any honest sharing from the other men about any area in which they were struggling; it was a one-sided “reporting.” The atmosphere, instead of being encouraging, was shaming, and, as a result, my own experience of authentic recovery didn’t begin until almost a year later after I had left this first group and joined a recovery group. In this later group I found the companionship and encouragement of fellow pilgrims on the journey toward wholeness. In that atmosphere, it was no longer shaming to own my failures, and it was finally safe to be deeply honest.
At best, a group filled with moral monitors will only intimidate us into “looking good” temporarily; at worst, it will simply drive our dark side behaviors underground. True change only comes from the inside out, and not the reverse.
The Chronic Caretakers . While it’s unsafe to be honest in a group of moral monitors, there’s a sense in which it’s too safe to be honest around those we might label “chronic caretakers.” Caretakers can’t stand to see others express pain, and will immediately attempt to comfort anyone expressing pain in their presence. But this often short circuits the healing process. As Keith Miller says, “It is the pain of living that creates a hunger for healing that only God can satisfy.” Caretakers may also try to talk you out of your insights into your own dysfunctions. “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself,” they’ll say. “You’re not that bad!” In actuality, we are that bad. It’s only by owning the extent of our brokenness that we can find healing.
So the group we choose must be both safe, as well as one that allows us and encourages us to do the tough, painful work of true recovery. A good group is worth looking for. Once you’ve experienced the depth of honesty and acceptance provided by a good group, you will be spoiled forever for going back to the superficial fellowship that characterizes so many meetings in the church today.
6. Go In Grace
2 Corinthians 4:1-2 says “Therefore, since we have. . .received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame.” In other words, shame pushes us to hide our dark side, while God’s grace and mercy cause us to “not lose heart,” and to continue dragging our broken behaviors into the light over and over until we get better. Without a grace-full attitude toward ourselves as we work through our recovery we will soon lose heart and give up.
The reality is, when all the practical steps toward change that can be taken are taken, our dark side is still a fearsome, powerful force within us, and will be until the day we die. No mere self-improvement course by itself stands a chance of taming, or containing, its restless energy.
That’s why the 12 Steps encourages us to admit our “powerlessness” over our bad behaviors, and to trust God alone to “restore us to sanity.” That step of humility puts the responsibility for our recovery squarely on God and his grace. “God is opposed to the proud,” James tells us, “but gives grace to the humble.”
In the final analysis, like so much of the Christian life, recovery is a mystery. It’s the hardest work we’ll ever do, requiring depths of honesty and courage beyond anything we have previously experienced. But, ultimately, recovery is a grace-gift from a loving God in response to our complete dependence.
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