Since early March I have been serving as a substance use counselor, speaking with individuals and leading recovery groups online. This is a new specialization for me, after nearly 30 years of general practice. It has me so far outside my comfort zone, personally and professionally.
I embrace the opportunity to be stretched so much and to grow in knowledge, insight, and compassion. I can’t tell you it is lots of fun, but I believe the Lord wants me here for a time.
As I’ve interacted with my clients, I’ve become acutely aware of the level of denial that has afflicted them in their addictions, and still exists in their various manifestations of resistance to treatment.
In the process, I turn the mirror on myself. I can see more clearly my own tendency to deny my own flaws, weaknesses, unhealthy habits, and disordered thought processes. We are all blind to what it is we are blind to until light breaks through to remove the veil.
Scripture comes to life on this topic in hundreds of places! I happen to be reading Jeremiah right now in my daily devotions, so I’ll focus on the insights of this strange and courageous weeping prophet.
Jeremiah spoke to Israel and Judah in the midst of their diaspora and impending destruction. Because of their relentless attraction to idolatry, especially Baal worship, God’s people faced judgment from within and from without. Their cultural bonds were crumbling, and their land would become unfruitful. They were surrounded by enemies whom the LORD would allow to overtake them.
God had warned them repeatedly with the voices of countless prophets, but the people of God were stuck in denial. The LORD asks,
“When people fall down, don’t they get up again? When they start down the wrong road and discover their mistake, don’t they turn back? Then why do these people keep going along their self-destructive path, refusing to turn back, even though I have warned them?” (Jer. 8:4-5).
Why do God’s beloved people do this, generation after generation after generation? Why do we think that the consequences of sin and rebellion will be deferred indefinitely? Is there any biblical basis to believe that we are entitled to disregard the commandments of God, grieving his heart and forsaking his ways, and never reap a bitter harvest? Do we have the right to trample on the grace and mercy of God?
This is what addiction does. It clouds judgment of reality. It numbs our sensitivity to God’s Spirit and his voice.
But don’t think that we have to be in active addiction to experience numbness toward God. We can all become sloppy and complacent and slip into denial. We need friends—and sometimes wise counselors—to tell us the truth. We need prophets like Jeremiah (and the New Testament and modern-day prophets and apostles) to remind us of who we are, and what God intends for us to become. Jeremiah cries out,
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it’” (6:16).
Having been warned and chastened, they still refused to hearken to his word and forsake their idols.
Most addicts and alcoholics know, in some hidden recess of their brains, that they are on a path of destroyed relationships, chronic illness, premature death, and complete loss of self-respect. But it might take years for them to break through their denial and see this reality.
It’s not easy to hear the truth, especially when we’re enjoying the delusion that negative consequences only come to other people. When we think we can postpone addressing our own sin addictions, because they’re not as bad as another person’s sin addictions.
Even Jeremiah, who was as surrendered to the LORD as a person can be, saw his need for correction, his need for the LORD to break through to him. He writes,
“I know, LORD, that a person’s life is not his own. No one is able to plan his own course. So correct me, LORD, but please be gentle. Do not correct me in anger, for I would die.”
I believe the Lord is gentle with us. But he won’t compromise the truth, and he doesn’t condone sin and rebellion. He wants us to be free to pursue him and his “good, perfect, and acceptable” (Rom. 12:2) purposes for us. Not in denial or under the influence of the wrong spirit, but alive to “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
I join Jeremiah in his prayer. Lord, correct me gently. I’m listening.