Distortions and Reality
Christians strive to be good servants of God. We sometimes find ourselves in the grip, however, of tendencies to grow spiritually dull. This dullness often arises distorted ways of thinking about God, life, others and ourselves. Learn how to spot your own distortions in this presentation.
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Today we’re continuing our series on Spiritual Renewal. So far, we’ve discussed a biblical model for that of renewal – that of remembering our past history with God, our calling and our mission. We asked some questions about our earliest memories and what life was like for us as a child. Today we’re going to take a look distortions to the story that we create as a result of childhood experience – distortions that inhibit our ability to follow our calling and to stay close to God.
What is a distortion and how does it affect our calling? Well, I’m going to give you an example today. A man came to my office some years ago now. He had been a minister all his adult life. He was presently working in the private school that his church ran in the community as a teacher. His oldest son had been arrested for DUI. His second son, who was an adult, no longer attended church. His wife had become diabetic three years earlier. He was having trouble sleeping. He felt like he was a failure. His wife was complaining about his lack of help around the house. But he didn’t feel like he had the energy to do anything beyond his work responsibilities at school. Lesson plans and grading were more and more difficult for him. He used to love interacting with his students and thrived on seeing them learn, but lately, his supervisor had expressed concern about his dullness and lack of motivation with students. He would catch himself dwelling on his past mistakes, though they were really insignificant in the overall scope of his life. So I suggested that all these symptoms could lead to a diagnosis of depression. He immediately denied that he was depressed.
So we started exploring his childhood and childhood family life. His parents were devout members of the church he had attended all his life and was still attending. His father was a deacon. His mother was active in church events, too. They went to church every week. Their family often took food to families who were having tough times. He was his father’s little helper when they would go to church work parties. He was the helper in the family. That was the role he played. All his life he saw a sterling example of dedication and unfailing help to others. All his siblings still attended church. So what’s the problem? Well, I think, in his own mind, he wasn’t living up to the standards his parents set in their family. Father’s little helper wasn’t up to grade. He failed in his lifelong role. He failed to meet the expectations he’d set for himself. And what might these expectations be? Well, if we put them into words: “I will be a good father, raise good children who will be faithful to God. I will continuously serve people of my church and set a good example for them.”
Why is this a distortion? It’s good to be a helper. That’s one of the spiritual gifts that’s mentioned in scriptures. The distortion isn’t that he’s a helper. It’s that he’s a perfect helper. He always helps and his help always gets results. That’s what he has to believe. But that’s not reality. His childhood perception of his parents’ perfection is missing the reality of human life. So that would be an example of a distortion to the concept of serving.
All Christians know they need to serve. When distortions enter in, serving becomes hard. Our distortions hinder our service. That’s true at church. It’s true at work. It’s true with our mates. It’s true with our children. So, if we want to be rejuvenated by rehearsing our story rather than be depressed by it, we need to grow into an awareness of the distortions that have taken us away from our love for God. Think about this man. He was just like the Ephesian church in Revelation 2. He had stopped doing the things he did in the beginning. He’d forgotten that God loves him – that he had been forgiven of his past sins and his mistakes. God has him covered. But, in spite of the greater spiritual reality of God’s love, he feels like a failure. God had used him to do great things in the lives of many children and adults. But he had downplayed or had forgotten all of that. So he needs to go back to the beginning and reconstruct his life with God. He needs to use his adult powers to reconsider his childhood perceptions – to get in touch with reality of God in his life.
Let’s put a name on this distortion. His brand of it is perfectionism – not perfection, because he’s not perfect, but perfectionism because he believes he has to be perfect to be used by God. When we say it, we see that it’s a distortion. It’s obvious. God doesn’t use any perfect people to do His work, because there aren’t any. The only exception there is Jesus, who was God in the flesh. Perfection in any activity at any level is not a requirement to be used by God. We don’t have to perfectly know what to do. We don’t have to perfectly do anything for God. We don’t have to perfectly continue, at all times, serving God. We don’t have to get perfect results or be successful perfectly.
There’s a movie made a long time ago now. It’s called Chariots of Fire. It was about two Olympic runners – sort of comparing and contrasting them. One of them was extremely perfectionistic. When he encountered people who could run faster than he, and saw little hope of ever being as fast as they, he said, “I run to win. If I can’t win, I won’t run.” Of course, his girlfriend brought him back to reality. She said, “You should try growing up.” Our failures in service to God can help us realize we need God in everything and keep us humble, if we will see our failures for what they are and not let them be blotted out by our distortions.
Look with me at Philippians 4:12 and 13. Paul said:
Philippians 4:12-13 – I know how to be brought low and I know to abound, and in every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty, and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
But when we are perfectionistic, our failures depress us and wear us down. So, if we believe we need to be perfect in our service, get perfect results, be perfectly consistent, we need to move past that to the reality of our own weakness and the surpassing, everlasting, every steady love that God extends to all of us.
Let’s look at another common distortion. I’m going to call this one invincibility. The opposite of invincibility is vulnerability. There’s no such thing as invincibility in the human sphere. There is only the denial of vulnerability. And that is the distortion.
I’m going to use a personal example here. Most of the clinicians I know – who do what I do – tell me can see about twenty people a week. If they do more, they start having problems. They forget details. They feel overwhelmed. They feel exhausted. They withdraw from social situations. They can’t sleep. So when my practice increased to thirty people without any of those effects, I felt pretty good. But then when my practice grew to where I was seeing forty people a week, I found myself forgetting details, feeling overwhelmed, withdrawing from social situations and losing sleep. So what I learned was, that my tolerance was bit higher than most, but I was not invincible.
You know, if we have a limit – low or high – we are still not invincible. If I had continued to see forty people a week – living in the distortion of invincibility – I would have soon grown depressed, become ineffective, and I would have lost my love for my work and, maybe, even for God, because I consider my work my calling. There is only One who is invincible and He doesn’t need us to do all the work.
Look in Psalms 103:13 with me.
Psalms 103:13 – As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear Him, for He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. He only wants us to do what we can.
Where does the distortion of invincibility come from? Well, look in your childhood to find your own answer for that one. You’ll see it there, if you look for it.
The next one I want to cover is aloneness. In the early days of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth would interview mothers and infants. The mother would come into a room with her year-old infant child, where there would be some toys and a stranger sitting in a chair. She would sit down in another chair and engage the child with the stranger and the toys, and then, after a few minutes, mother would leave. And then, after only a short asbsence, she would return. The interviewers observed how the child reacted when she left and when she came back. One category of reaction that they catalogued they called avoidant. These children acted as though they didn’t notice when mother left or came back, but blood pressure was elevated, as was heart rate. They were upset, they just hid it. These children grow up believing they are on their own – that people are, generally, not to be trusted, that it doesn’t do any good to ask for things that they need, that others will only disappoint them eventually – that they are on their own. And that type of behavior correlated with mothers who didn’t meet the needs of their child. So it’s not a big secret why the child felt that way. Their early experience with their mothers distorted their view of life, others and even God.
When called to God, these kinds of people often work hard by themselves in their mission and feel it’s all on them. They feel alone. And they often want to be alone. “I work alone,” they say. It’s easy to see how people who suffer from this distortion can lose their love for God. They don’t believe He’s there when they need Him.
Look with me in Deuteronomy 31:6.
Deuteronomy 31:6 – Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them – talking about the Canaanites – for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.
Reading this scripture, we can see that the alone thing is a distortion. It’s not that God draws away from us. It’s that we draw away from Him.
To get in touch with reality, it’s helpful to examine our past to see where the distortion came from, to understand it, and then reconnect with God’s ever presence.
Another one…I’m going to call it selflessness. We read about Jesus, who died for our sins. We hear about agape – Godly love – you know, the love of God, which is perfect and seeks nothing in return. We seek to emulate God and become selfless and sacrificial servants. Christians often see service as selfless. Well, all of that is a distortion. Let’s think about it.
In sacrificing Himself for humankind, did Jesus hope to accomplish anything from it? You know, Jesus and God always have objectives and motives they’re trying to accomplish. So, when He selflessly sacrificed Himself for us, there was something in it for Him that He was trying to accomplish – but it was for Him at our expense. It was because of us – because He loved us.
So Jesus has objectives and He did gain something from sacrificing Himself for us. He saved us from our sins so that we could be His brothers and sisters forever. He took a hard step toward the creation of the God family. But that was His objective and the objective of God the Father. Do you think He felt gratification or satisfaction? Well, certainly He did. And we know there is joy in heaven because of His success.
I spend many hours a week helping people overcome their past emotional wounds. And I count that work part of my God-given mission in life. But I also make a living doing that, too. If I couldn’t make money, I couldn’t do it for long. I also derive a great deal of satisfaction from helping others. If I didn’t, I might be inclined to help as much. In order to serve, I have to take care of myself. So I found work that has satisfaction to it for me and that I can make money doing. So the income and the satisfaction are two benefits that I seek in life.
While Jesus was on the earth, we know that He ate, slept, separated Himself from others for fasting and prayer, and He took in donations. One of the disciples carried a money bag. He took care of Himself. If He didn’t do that, He might have failed in His mission. Anyone who believes they can serve long-term without self-care is living in a distorted state of mind. Even Jesus had to take care of Himself. So that kind of thinking leads to failure and it leads to losing love for God.
Notice what God tells us in James 2:8.
James 2:8 – If you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
We’re not supposed to love and care for others only. We’re supposed to love and care for others and ourselves. Being a Christian means to take care of everybody – self included.
Let’s look at another. I’m going to call this powerlessness. People who suffer from this distortion, when God sends them on a mission, say, “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not enough,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t know enough,” or “I don’t have enough.” So the source of this distortion also comes childhood. We somehow learned, while we were little, that we were powerless. And it usually goes along with depression and, sometimes, learned helplessness.
I had a woman come to my office once, who believed her happiness and well-being were controlled by others. People made her sad or angry. Her sisters jolted her out of her inheritance. Her friend hurt her by discontinuing contact. Her boyfriend depressed her because he wouldn’t call. The house worker, who came once a week to clean house, wounded her by quitting. The world was a cruel, mean, unfeeling, unfair place with no relief in sight. God had run away from her and left her isolated and at risk. She couldn’t do anything for herself, so why try?
Well, that’s a distortion. She had depressed herself and she was the only one who could cause herself to become undepressed. God wants us to realize that we are not invincible, not all-powerful – that we’re weak. And He want us, also, to realize that He can still do great things through us because of two things: one, the gift He’s given us to accomplish our mission; and two, the presence and power that comes to us from His Holy Spirit.
We all remember when Israel was pressed up against the Red Sea with the entire Egyptian army racing toward them, bent on revenge. How do you think they felt? Well, they probably felt completely helpless. And what did God say? Exodus 14:13:
Exodus 14:13 – And Moses said to the people, “Fear not. Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD which He will work for you today, for the Egyptians, who you see today, you shall never see again.”
With God, all things are possible. And without God, nothing is possible. Any other belief to the contrary is a distortion.
If we try to rehearse our life with God through these distortions, we will not be renewed. They have to go. So the removing of these distortions is actually spiritual growth. And so remembering the way God wants us to do it is to get rid of our revisionist history, clear away our childhood perceptions and wounds, so that we can see God at work in our lives from early on.
Well, that’s it for today. Check back in two weeks when we will learn more about how to remember God in our life and be spiritually restored. While you’re waiting, be sure to look for your distortions in your life that obscure your view of God.