by Brian Carpenter
This article is a follow-up to my earlier article, "Our Inward Sickness." If you haven’t read that, it might help you to do so before you read this one, because I am going to build on what I said before. —Brian
Over the years I have had a number of people come for pastoral counseling concerning their relationships. Often the relationship in question is a marriage, but not always. Parent-child relationships are also sources of deep grief and pain. Very often the pain and damage in a parent-child relationship is the material cause of further pain and damage in a marriage relationship later on in life. Very often the core issue is one of relational idolatry.
As I said before, we are all born with a deep and aching need to be fully known and fully loved. We are also born sinful and thus are fundamentally unattractive in many ways. We know this about ourselves, even if we don’t admit it. Our ugliness always repels other people to some degree and at some level, and we sense it, even if they hide it well, or overlook our ugliness and treat us differently than we deserve. This sets up a real problem for us. Here’s why that’s so.
Psychologists tell us that we get our self-image or our identity based on what we think the most important person in our life thinks of us. To the degree that we perceive that the most important person in our lives accepts us and loves us, we see ourselves as basically acceptable. We are at rest in our souls. To the degree that we perceive that the most important person in our lives rejects us, we are ill at ease in our souls. We are filled with pain and anxiety. Because we are helpless to fix our ugliness and sinfulness, and because they are fundamentally unattractive, and because our human loves can be damaged or even destroyed by the ugly and unattractive things we do, we can never be fully loved and accepted by another person. Nor can we fully love and accept another. If we think we can, then we are simply dwelling in deception. We will be in for a rude and painful shock one day.
Given this fact about ourselves, we then proceed along any number of paths. We may live with a constant, low-grade anxiety and try and hide our ugliness as best as we can, desperately hoping that the people with whom we are in relationship are fooled. Usually they are not.
Or we can become angry and preemptively reject others before they have the chance to reject us. Or we can remain in a relationship, growing ever more aggressive and angry about all of the perceived rejections, holding grudges, dominating, subtly retaliating at every opportunity, until the relationship is destroyed. These people rarely come for counseling because they would have to admit that they don’t know what to do, they can’t admit any weakness at all. They are bullies who dwell in the illusion of power, even as they are enslaved by bitterness.
Most of the people who come to me for counseling simply endure the pain of rejection until every psychic nerve is raw and their lives are unendurable. Their every interaction with their Most Important Person is a plea for pity, coupled with a keenly felt resentment that they have been denied what they think they deserve. Their lives are a constant rebuke to their Most Important Person. Their every kindness to that person has a little, invisible note attached to it which says, “Okay, I’ve done this for you. Now I have merited your love. Please accept me fully and love me.” This often has the perverse effect of driving the Most Important Person further away. They believe they are dependent on another person to be whole, and that other person will not give them what they need to be whole. They believe they are victims. Thus these people’s lives are an endless cycle of weakness, impotence, paralysis, anger, and pain. Very often these people seek out and marry the aggressive, dominating, angry kind. I confess that I don’t fully understand the mechanism behind this, but it’s a very real phenomenon.
In its most extreme manifestation, these people become black holes of self-pity, and their pleas for someone, anyone, to love them and prove their love are omnidirectional and all-consuming. They will try and trap you in their orbit. Like vampires they will suck the very life out of you with their demands for pity. People flee from them as fast as they can, which only reinforces their problem. It is all but humanly impossible to help people like this, in my experience.
The path to healing is very straightforward and simple. Luther once said that your God is whatever (or whoever) is most important to you. We are in pain because we have the wrong god. We are in pain because we are idolaters. Our Most Important Person is the wrong person. We are looking to another human being to give us what another human being can never give us. That line from the movie Jerry Maguire, “You complete me.” is a load of bovine feces. No human being can complete us. We must repent of the sin of idolatry. We must look to God for what we need.
Now, it is precisely here where Reformed theology, with its Doctrine of Election, is most powerful and helpful. We do not preach a God of the tepid, generalized love of all humanity which invites all of us to respond if we feel like it, or worse yet, contemporary Evangelicalism’s version of a poor, pitiful God holding forth a plea for us to love him and respond to him, like the other reproachful, pity-demanding people in our lives.
Instead, we preach a God who has loved His elect from before the foundation of the world, and has pursued us with a relentless and costly passion. His sacrifice on our behalf is simply astonishing. And he did it while we were at enmity with him. We are odious and hateful. He fully knows us and fully loves us and fully saves us. In Christ we are completely accepted. He sheds his love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit with whom he has sealed us for the day of redemption. He offers us rivers of living water which well up within us and flow out to others. When we truly have Him, we never thirst again. He does for us what no other human being can do. He completes us.
If you are trapped in relational idolatry, it is for one of two reasons. Perhaps you are unaware of what is going on, and so you lack the necessary information. If that is the case, you have just been informed. Go. Be free. Live.
But if you have the information and you still are not free, then it is simply because you do not really believe the information is true. You do not know, at a deep level, who you are in the Beloved. When God says, “I complete you.” you say, in effect, “No, you don’t. Not really. I need somebody else. I need a husband… a wife… a mother… a father. You’re not enough, God.”
If that is the case, and you are truly converted, then you are like Bunyan’s character, Christian, when he was imprisoned in the dungeon of Doubting Castle by the giant Despair. He was truly locked in his cell, but he had the key to the door in his pocket the whole time. My advice is for you to go to your Heavenly Father and confess your sin of idolatry and unbelief to Him, and ask Him to give you a spirit of true repentance. Then say to Him what a man once said to Jesus. “I believe. Help Thou my unbelief!” He has pledged in His Word to supply all of your needs. He can be trusted to supply this one.
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whisky. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.
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