It begins by admitting you have a smelly refrigerator.
by Patrick Means
Last summer, my wife and I returned home from a month-long trip to find a foul odor in the house. It didn’t take us long to trace the odor to the refrigerator. Inside, we discovered fuzzy gray mold covering several of the surfaces, and a vegetable crisper full of unrecognizable lumps and putrid black liquid. It took a lot of work, but we eventually got it all scrubbed down, cleaned up and aired out.
We humans have a dark side that’s every bit as malodorous as that mess in our refrigerator. Our dark side is that part of us that pulls us toward unhealthy, self-destructive behavior. Like our refrigerator, it needs to be dealt with. But if I had treated that mess the way we Christians often deal with our dark side, I probably would have approached it in one of the following ways:
1) I’d realize the stench was coming from the refrigerator, but instead of dealing directly with the source of the smell, I would repaint the outside of the refrigerator and spray heavy doses of air freshener around the house. When people would ask, “What’s that funny smell?” I would look at them with wide-eyed innocence and reply, “What smell?” and spray around a little more freshener.
2) I could hire a contractor to wall off the offensive refrigerator in its own dark little room, and hope that the smell didn’t penetrate the walls.
3) If all else failed, I could organize a community-wide campaign against smelly refrigerators. I would express moral outrage over the threat that these refrigerators pose to the public health. (This, of course, would do nothing for the smell in my kitchen, but I would at least be the last person anyone would suspect of owning a smelly refrigerator!)
Unfortunately, as I found out all too painfully in real life, repainting our exteriors and walling off our dark sides in secret little rooms only postpones the cleanup (and doesn’t fool anyone for very long anyway).
Taking the First Step
How can we deal effectively with our dark side? It begins, quite simply, by admitting that we have a smelly refrigerator.
I didn’t take that step easily, or even voluntarily. I had been in Christian ministry for twenty years and was relatively confident that a combination of spiritual zeal, personal Bible study and other self-improvement projects could take care of any impulses that might arise from my sin nature. But my denial was shattered, along with my ministry and my first marriage, when, despite all my good Christian training, I experienced significant personal failure.
On the other side of that firestorm, I found the News to be both much worse, and much better, than I had naively presumed. We Christians do possess a dark side, a propensity toward unhealth, that is stronger than even the most dedicated self-improvement programs. But there is a path toward wholeness that we can walk. It begins by humbly admitting our powerlessness to control our negative urges and behaviors and by throwing ourselves on God and his grace to deliver us. If that sounds simplistic or melodramatic, then you may have to go through what I went through to discover for yourself the Bad News and the Good News that lies on the other side. As Keith Miller says, no one ever truly gets into recovery unless he or she is about to lose something they’re not prepared to live without.
Taking this first step means discarding the obsession with reputation and embracing a less heroic, and a more authentic view of ourselves as people with both a light and a dark side.
One of the most satisfying ministries that my wife and I are involved in is giving workshops for couples. We’ve experienced both joys and struggles in our marriage, and we enjoy helping other couples honestly address their problems and work toward healing. As we were sharing about our couples workshop with a pastor recently, he said, “Don’t you have some way of describing the workshop that doesn’t talk about ‘problems’? If my people have to admit to having problems, I’m quite sure no one will come.”
In place of the biblical view that we are all fundamentally broken people, we have somehow developed a kind of sanitized, shrink-wrapped view of the Christian life that makes it shameful to have problems! It may be humbling, but it’s not a step of shame to admit that we’re broken. It means stepping into the company of believers throughout history on whom God bestowed the highest praise: the Patriarch Jacob, whose dark side showed itself in lying and deception; Moses, whose dark side erupted in uncontrolled anger and murder; and King David, whose dark side expressed itself in adultery and murder.
John, in his first epistle, puts it plainly, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”1 New Age philosophy tries to take the shame out of being broken by saying, “I’m OK; you’re OK.” By contrast, the Bible takes the shame out of being broken by saying: “I’m not OK, you’re not OK. . . and that’s OK.” It’s okay to admit that you’re afflicted with a deadly Sin-disease, and that you’re not immune just because you’ve put your faith in Christ.
Admitting that I have a dark side – that the “mess in my refrigerator” is far worse than anyone could imagine – is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It may be for you, too. But don’t let the fear of losing your reputation hold you back. Those who know you best probably already think that something smells funny.
1. I John 1:8
Patrick Means is a therapist at The Legacy Center in Seattle, WA.
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