1: A Life-Controlling Problem?
Written by David Partington and Friends
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I have a very powerful image that sometimes comes to mind. It’s one of a very grubby little boy looking up at a dazzling light. What delights me is the fact that the mucky little urchin is dressed in an oversized but gorgeous robe and, on top of his head, a royal crown which is patently too big for him.
The reason it is such a powerful image to me is that it reminds me of myself - as a dearly beloved child who, despite my sin and failure, is accepted and welcomed and deeply loved by my heavenly Father. That picture also sums up for me the hope for any Christian caught up in wrong attitudes, behaviours, sins and/or failures which threaten to break or destroy them and those around them.
It’s a conviction, not just a theory, based on what I’ve experienced and learnt over the last 35 years in my own life and in the lives of so many broken people. It’s a deep conviction reinforced time and again in seeing the joy and blessing that God has available for the most desperate of people and circumstances. Hardly a surprise because God has a special place in His heart for those in need of restoration and redemption. As Dr Derek Munday wrote, “God is totally committed to redemption and restoration. If it were possible to rank God’s attributes this would be amongst the most important for us.” (Christians in Caring Professions Newsletter, August 2002.)
Most Christians would agree with that view. Others are not so sure, whilst deep down they know it to be true; there are parts of their life which don’t match the reality of the words. They say the right things and even do the right things (most of the time), but there are also aspects of their lives which are anything but redeemed and restored.
Bernie dislikes himself for what he’s going to do before he even switches his laptop on. It isn’t just the desperate compulsion which motivates him to look at the images which he struggles with – it’s the fact that he has tried to stop so many times and failed, more times than he can remember. It’s made worse by the fact that, because he knows he’s a Christian, he really does know he doesn’t need to access porn. Yet, despite that conviction, he just cannot stop clicking the mouse which takes him into another world which negatively impinges itself on so many other parts of his life.
He hasn’t yet got to the stage of paying to go into some sites, but he’s increasingly being drawn into doing it, and that really does frighten him. He hates the way it is all impacting itself on him, the way images impose themselves on his consciousness at the wrong times, like church services. It’s also the deceit, the excuses (or deep down what he knows to be lies) he makes to be online after his wife has gone to bed. The surreptitious way he has to angle his screen at lunchtime at work so he can watch porn, and the big fear that one day someone from IT will ask to check out his hard drive.
Worst of all in one sense is that these (and many other) day to day deceptions are compounded by pretending that all is well with his Christian ‘walk.’ That behind the respectable churchgoing person he communicates so successfully, there’s the reality of the grubbiness of it all. He knows it has to stop, but he’s tried a hundred times before and failed, so how?
Julia had reached the stage where she could actually resist voluntarily vomiting for over 24 hours; a real triumph, but then she had fallen back to her normal routine. She senses that her eating disorder is increasingly consuming her every waking moment. Even her sleep pattern is becoming more and more erratic and fitful. She senses people’s questioning frowns and unease around her, although the direct comments about her weight loss stopped about 18 months ago. It’s not that close friends have stopped being concerned, but they don’t know what to say any more in the face of her adamant denials that there is a problem.
The closest she came to acknowledging to anyone that she was struggling was when the vicar asked fairly directly one day if she had a problem. Whilst her response was, yet again, abject denial, she was ashamed, and made a commitment to herself to be much more measured about her ‘dieting’ regime. Yet within a week she was back into the old routine.
How long before someone else ‘cottons on’ to her all-embracing habit? No matter how careful she is about controlling the noise of her vomiting it’s not easy to cushion in a house with so many other people. And then there’s the smell she has to keep under control. Despite attempts to hide the food wrappers etc she makes silly mistakes at home. So, the option of finding somewhere else to live is becoming more attractive by the day. Maybe doing that would be the answer to all her problems?
Al’s progression from a bottle of wine a week to a bottle of wine a day took about four years. Actually the ‘one bottle’ is, in reality, at least three very large glasses at home a day, supplemented by a stiff drink at lunchtime and another one on the way home. He’s still justifying it: ‘Just having a glass of port after the meal helps with the digestion.’ But he’s acutely aware that’s what it is - justification. One of the biggest worries for him is what to do about driving? There’s no alternative to get to work and he’s recognised the increasing evidence about still being intoxicated when driving home and even ‘the morning after.’ Another recent wakeup call was his boss raising the subject of his lack of attention to detail, especially in the afternoons.
He’s thought about giving up, or at least cutting back, so, so often. In fact he’s done it, quite a few times. The last time he stopped for two weeks, but the approach of Christmas didn’t help, especially after the church leaders meeting at the minister’s house when they had wine with the meal. His biggest shame is an ever increasing awareness that the drink is beginning to control him, but he needs the alcohol to stay relatively ‘normal’ to cope with work and home life. He’s also become aware that his wife seems almost resigned to his drinking, tired of trying to help him face the truth. So they’re slowly drifting apart. He’s also putting church things on the back burner, and finding it ever more difficult to pray, let alone read the Bible.
These three, very limited ‘snapshots’ only go some way to communicating the type of issues that too many people are struggling with. People agonising over what I describe as a life-controlling problem – a problem that impacts on more aspects of their lives than they care to admit. Problems which, increasingly, impact and even ‘control’ so many important areas of their lives. Problems which result in a scale of pain and despair that few around them fully grasp.
Maybe I recognise the issue of a life-controlling problem better than most because I had one. My problem involved an intense relationship with another woman which ‘took over’ my life. Now, thirty years later, and having worked all of that time since with people with addiction problems, I recognise that I too was driven by a compulsion, a desire which impacted not only at a dramatic level in my life but also that of my family. I also readily (albeit naively to begin with) broke the rules of the company I worked for, and was about as bad a witness to my faith as it’s possible to give. It happened after I had been a Christian about ten years and resulted in me walking away from God and my wife and family. Over a period of about five years I lived my life on my terms, relatively oblivious to the pain and despair I was causing to those I loved the most.
Three decades on it’s so good to be able to say, before we look in more depth at life-controlling problems, that I not only found real freedom from my life-controlling problem, but also that God, in His grace and mercy, used those experiences to help and touch other lives. I say this because even beginning to deal with a life-controlling problem requires a very significant degree of hope if it is to be defeated. So, let’s begin to look, in depth, at the more obvious issues behind any life-controlling problem.
The majority of Christians who would say they have a ‘problem’ would probably acknowledge that it relates in some way to a substance - alcohol or drugs, albeit prescription or ‘soft’ drugs. They found that their ‘substance’ was something they took or ‘used’ to make themselves feel good, to create a sense of ‘wellbeing’. Most of them would not be classified as addicted but will be ‘misusing’ or ‘abusing’ alcohol or something else. In other words they find themselves compelled to use drink or drugs far more often than they know to be wise, let alone healthy.
Then there are those individuals whose life-controlling problem is often less obvious. They have what could very loosely be described as behavioural or a process type of life-controlling problem. They will be desperately trying to beat problems like an eating disorder (anorexia/bulimia), gambling, compulsive shopping or a problem which is sexually related. However the greatest threat or life-controlling problem, which affects more Christians than many would like to think, is sexual sin. Please note I didn’t say sex! I said sexual sin. On the basis that God ‘invented’ sex and all the wonder and blessing that sex (on His terms) brings, we need to be very clear that it’s sexual sin which is the problem. Sexual sin happens whenever we behave sexually outside of God’s clearly defined boundaries. We see examples of it in the Bible, and today it includes compulsive masturbation, affairs, prostitution, pornography, cybersex, sexual molestation and rape.
Sexual sin is not restricted to any one culture, continent, or church, and is widely practised. To give some perspective as to its effects here’s some evidence (if you need it) from the USA:
- Rick Warren – pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life reported in 2002 that of 6000 pastors that visited his website, 30% admitted viewing pornography in the previous month.
- Dr Archibald Hart, professor of psychology at Fuller Seminary, did a confidential survey of 600 Christian men for his book The Sexual Man and found that 96% of Christian men under age 20 masturbate regularly, and 61% of all Christian married men masturbate regularly.
So there they are – life-controlling problems of varying types and, if you’re reading this, it’s probable you have one, or suspect someone that you care about has one. What is certain is that if you do have one you will know about it. Or, at the very least, you will be becoming increasingly concerned about something in your life that you know is getting out of control or is actually out of control already.
Whatever the stage you’re at, it will be something you have been agonising over for a long period of time. It’s something that you know is not good for you, and it actually demeans you and your potential. You know it’s not healthy and affects you physically as well as spiritually, emotionally, socially and mentally. You have tried to stop doing it on many occasions and maybe succeeded, at least for a time. You really do long to be rid of it but the compulsion, the lust, the desire for it draws you back so it has become an ‘inescapable’ part of living and breathing. Some people would use a word like ‘addiction’ to describe what you are into. Most people (even those who know they are addicted) will resist the notion of being controlled by a substance and/or behaviour. “An addict? Me? You’ve got to be joking.” But it’s challenging to read a quote describing addiction as “any thinking or behaviour which is habitual, repetitive and difficult or impossible to control” (Dr Gary Collins).
If you know you have a life-controlling problem then words like addiction, misuse, abuse are not vital to you at this stage. What matters is that you long to break free; and, thankfully, God wants you to break free as well. Not only that, He has the resources for you to do just this. So the question is not, “How can I break free?” but, “How can I break free on God’s terms?” The primary answer to that question is all about moving forward into what God saved you for. He wants you to know Him in a far deeper and more intimate way than ever before. He wants you to become more like Jesus. We’ll look at the why and how of doing that later, but first it’s important to look at how we got the life-controlling problem in the first place!
How it happened
Most of us who have or have had a life-controlling problem didn’t find ourselves up to our neck in it quickly. For most of us it involved really quite subtle changes over a fairly long period of time. The person with the drink problem didn’t wake up one day and decide they would drink excessively. The church leader who is involved with porn didn’t set out one morning to look at lurid sexual images. There were often changes in lifestyle, circumstances and other factors that affected what happened to them and changed the way they behaved. For me personally it began with becoming over involved with work. I had been promoted to a level I had never thought possible, and I was good at what I did. The company I worked for was going through a period of expansion under the leadership of a young dynamic team, and I got my kicks by being part of that team and turning around a failing company.
My family obviously paid the price for my energetic commitment to this new ‘cause’, and I also began to compromise spiritually. My regular ‘quiet times’ (talking with God and Bible reading) became less important. So too did church attendance, not least because my work was a seven day a week operation, and at the busiest times (weekends) a Regional Director needed to travel around his ‘patch’ to see what was going on. So, slowly but surely I began to distance myself from God, and began to meet my needs in other ways than in Him. This meant I became increasingly more open to falling into temptation, and when I did begin to spend more and more time with ‘another woman’ I made all sorts of excuses to justify what I was doing. The result was, through my own foolishness, I became insensitive to sin; and the rest, sadly, is history, and resulted in four or five years of heartbreak for my family and other people.
What about you?
Your story is different from mine and every other person’s who will read this. However, as I have spent time with people struggling with a life-controlling sin or problem, I have learnt that there are some key issues, similarities and patterns that are familiar and may help you to recognise those things from the past that need dealing with if you’re going to find the way forward to the fullness God has provided for you.
The first thing to recognise is that sin is at the heart of any life-controlling problem. The problem of sin is not directly related to the fact that certain types of behaviour are wrong. Sin is not what you do wrong, it’s looking at God and saying, “You’re not enough. This substance, this type of behaviour adds something you cannot give me at this time.” So what you did was to get deeper and deeper into the garbage pile, because you paid more attention to your physical and mental wellbeing than to your spiritual wellbeing. Like me, the result was that you began to distance yourself from the primary source of your wellbeing, God, and your bodily needs took precedence. Your bodily needs became a tyrant simply because pleasure became all consuming. You got to the stage where you could never have enough of feeding your natural life and turned your back on your spiritual walk with God.
Recognising sin for what it is, and how it takes control, are more important than most Christians realise. The greatest tool of the enemy, of Satan and demonic forces, is to minimise sin and the effects of sin in our life. Sin comes at us in various ways, through:
Until sin is recognised for what it is, we are ruled by it. Until we recognise prevailing sinful attitudes and behaviour for what they are (and deal with them), they slowly but surely take control. The person drinking alcohol loses all sense of what is enough or sufficient. The bulimic becomes enthralled in his/her behaviour. The sex addict becomes consumed by the images. The substance, the behaviour begins to dictate when and how we behave and not the other way round. It affects our rationale and subconscious thoughts and often results in negative behaviour. The results can be painful and disturbing, if not sooner, then certainly later as we slide deeper into sin:
As we slide inexorably deeper and deeper we eventually develop a set of core alternative beliefs which literally rule our lives and prevent us from enjoying the freedom that God purposed for us. Beliefs such as:-
The reality, the truth, is that we have taken back the life we surrendered to God – we are our own god again! We thought we had found freedom but we are in bondage – we are in the worst form of slavery – not the slavery imposed by others, but the slavery of our own choice.
The result is increasing damage (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually), not only to ourselves but also to those closest to us. Those looking on have hardly dared believe what they saw was happening to us. They’ve known for a long time, sometimes years, that something is wrong. Eventually they ask us directly, after agonising over their words for weeks (if not months), if there is something wrong. Rejoicing, at least initially, that we had protested strongly that there was no problem, it is not long before their doubts return, tenfold. Part of their concern comes from seeing the way in which we were treating others, that we are:
It’s not that we don’t recognise some of what is wrong, what is happening. We do, but we constantly rationalise and justify our bad behaviour and its impact on us. We make resolutions like we have never made them before, and break them just as readily. We readily lie to ourselves and those we love, initially out of a misguided attempt to stop hurting them more. Our dependence on our abiding sin becomes ever more intense, and we do things we once swore we would never do. The slide not only carries on but, to anyone on it, it gets steeper and more difficult to stop the descent into despair and self-inflicted mental or physical abuse.
If and when we really do begin to want to get off the slide, we come face to face with the discomfort of withdrawal – the physical and/or mental sensations and feelings that come when we stop our particular life-controlling habit. The withdrawal from alcohol, drugs, medication is more readily recognised, but withdrawal from other forms of life-controlling habits is also desperately uncomfortable. No one knows more about the level of discomfort from your problem than you do, but it’s often when the discomfort is at its worst that we really do finally reach for REAL answers.
I know there are REAL answers, from my own life and the lives of many hundreds and thousands of other people with life-controlling problems. However, to begin to suggest that the way out is easy would be sadly laughable. But that does not alter the TRUTH that God really does have answers for you, and He, more than anyone, wants to show you the way out.
One way to begin is to acknowledge that fact that you have a life-controlling problem. Until you do this, the problem, because it is unrecognised or unacknowledged, will continue to control you, and your slavery to it will continue. Once it is acknowledged and named for what it is, a life-controlling problem, it begins to lose some of its power.
Maybe the best way to do it is by talking honestly with God about what you know to be the truth? I don’t know any better way of doing that than in prayer, to a holy God whose justice and judgement for all we are wrongly involved in is tempered by a glorious and divine love and grace.
“Lord, I want to fully acknowledge that I really do have a problem with ………………………….. As I begin to face the consequences of being honest with you and myself, please help me to trust in your holy, divine love and purposes for my life which are available through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Amen.”
Soon after birth I began to lose weight, projectile vomiting all over the place. Medics soon came up with a diagnosis, I had been born with a defect to my oesophagus and stomach meaning I could not keep any food down. The doctors said that if I could survive until the age of 2, I could have an operation at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. This was the start of 2 years of stress for Mum and Dad and for my 2 older brothers, and 2 years of fighting for me. My Mum and Dad’s anxiety must have been immense; would I be well enough to have the operation, would the operation be a success?
Eventually the time came for me to go into hospital. The operation was at the edge of medical expertise and therefore there was a risk that it wouldn’t be successful. Many people prayed for me as I was cut open, literally half way round my body. Back in the early 1960s there was no micro surgery and the operation involved removing a rib from my tiny body. I now have a beautiful, pencil thin scar from my sternum to my back bone, and after a period of living in oxygen tents, isolation and recuperation I was sent home.
I continued to get food stuck on occasions in my oesophagus as I grew; when it happened there was panic around the home as I was slapped on the back to dislodge the offending object. I was very late reaching puberty, consequently in a family of 4 boys and as someone who was desperately shy, girls were like aliens to me and I had no meaningful friendships with the opposite sex until I went to university. My ability to communicate emotionally to the opposite sex was very poor.
At the age of 27 I married the first girl I ever went out with. I felt that it was amazing in itself that I managed to overcome my reserve to put my arm around her for the first time, to kiss her for the first time. That took courage big style!! I moved from rehabilitation work into youth work, pastoring a larger youth work, and then into church work. At the still young age of 28 I found myself leading a church on a difficult council estate; wow, what a time. It was like heaven and hell at the same time, remarkable healings and deliverance, yet surrounded by suicides and death.
Somehow I had found myself on a pedestal, a place where those around me had put me, so that in some sort of way I was someone to be emulated and revered. I guess in a way I also thought I was somebody, that I had made it in some way; and we all know what that means! The big fall was not far away. I began to find myself looking at pornography and began to ring chat lines. I became more and more isolated in my position. No one else knew about these activities; after all I was pastoring a church and church leaders don’t do that. I was also very withdrawn in terms of sharing my own `stuff`, I had had to fight for where I had reached in life and no one was going to knock me off. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that if I shared my own areas of weakness I would be judged for it.
Pornography led to other things and very soon I found myself in the red light area. I was mortified! I couldn’t keep it to myself, it was the first time I had ever done anything like this and I felt so guilty. When I got home I shared it with my wife. I can’t remember if I was asked to step down from church leadership or if I stepped down by choice; whichever, it devastated me. My dreams and aspirations had flown out of the window. I was left with a sense of loss in my life, with church leadership no longer in my life, my marriage in a state of disrepair and friendships stretched and challenged.
I took a step back from life and became a postman. One year became two, two became three and so on. After five years I got stopped by the police in the red light area. Again I felt embarrassment, my name even appeared as a footnote in the local paper, I felt my heart had been exposed and my pain was there for everyone to see. I felt like nothing had changed in my life, and in actual fact things had got worse. Despite counselling and talking through a lot of my issues there had been no change and now I had begun to frequent massage parlours.
Somehow my marriage survived, and after crying out in desperation to God and telling him all my frustrations an opportunity came to move back into rehabilitation work. By this time I had two small boys of my own and off we moved, to another town and another location. I then was offered a ‘promotion’ in another town as deputy manager of a supporting housing project for recovering addicts. Working with addicts seemed very natural to me; for some reason I had an affiliation with them. The old patterns were still there though; sometimes I would go for long periods of time without frequenting massage parlours, at other times it was rampant in my life. Deceit came so easily; how could my life look so flourishing, yet be riddled with shameful behaviour? I was good at hiding the truth, both from others and from myself.
It was then I got the chance to manage a rehabilitation project in another city. It was fantastic, everything I could want in a job. What’s more I was fairly good at it and the project grew. My `stuff` continued though, I was still frequenting the same sort of places. Fortunately I was sharing with a friend, and with a great deal of courage he decided to tell my bosses. I knew he was right to tell them; after all what would happen if one of these women came into the project? The project would be totally compromised. I was confronted with my behaviour and I stepped down immediately. That was about the only honourable thing I did throughout this process. The bottom fell out of my life; it had happened again. To say I was devastated was an understatement; how could someone be moving in such anointing yet have a massive hidden area in their life? Could I be trusted, could I even trust myself?
For the next year and a half I was in shock, I had a couple of very good jobs in the addiction field but I was still reeling from what had happened. I did the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, without really taking responsibility for my issues, and my wife and I even went for marriage counselling.People kept telling me I was a sex addict. Up to this point I thought I just had a problem, but an addict, no not me.
I sought counsel from friends, and soon after that I went into consultancy work and quickly once again opportunities were opening up for me. As I networked agencies the work just came in, culminating in my setting up a recovery project in an adjacent city. Was God really giving me another chance? I didn’t doubt my ability but I did doubt my character. I had begun to learn by now and decided honesty was the only way from the start, and I told my new employers all my struggles.
I decided I needed to act drastically. After talking through my addiction with others I decided my main addiction was to touch and the craving for comfort which resulted in sex, so I cut touch out. For six months I cut out physical contact and went through a painful emotional and physical withdrawal. My body craved touch and the pain was intense, I thought I was never going to come through it. Every morning I would wake up and the pain was still there. Eventually though the pain started to subside. Every day now I treat my issues as an addiction and battle them on a daily basis. I watch out for compulsive, obsessive behaviours taking root in my life, for I am an addict and as such am in danger of cross-addicting onto a host of different things. Where I recognise the early stages of wrong behaviour I put fresh boundaries in place, no matter how painful.
Although now divorced I feel a release; everyone who matters knows my issues and now I can continue to tackle my addiction. I feel that I am at the final stage of the grieving process as I come to terms with the dreams and aspirations that went out of the window, and with that comes the reordering of my life. As the shock of the effects of my behaviour has subsided, I can now say openly to those around me that I am a sex addict in recovery. I attend Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and it has helped me immensely to understand the process physiologically. I understand that I need to maintain a level of honesty in my life, for with hidden areas and with deceit comes an ever growing risk of returning to my addictive ways.
I now find increasing opportunities to discuss sex and love addiction in different forums. Individuals and churches seek me out, and as I am open and honest others share deep areas of shame and hurt. This addiction is truly a cunning and baffling disease, but with openness and honesty and a willingness to leave no stone unturned in the quest for recovery, there is a way through to a life beyond your wildest dreams.
© David Partington and Friends