Samuel James

When the Therapeutic Replaces Sin

This book makes a monumental decision: a decision to put the Bible’s moral language to the side, to call a disorder what the Bible calls sin, to call self-actualization what the Bible calls repentance. This book’s aversion to biblical categories does not empower readers to confront spiritually abusive systems. It instead makes those systems harder to disrupt.

Imagine the following scenario.
You are approached by two people in your church, both people that you know, love, and trust with equal measure. Person A needs to tell you something about Person B. Person B, according to Person A, has been spiritually abusing them. Person B has been using their leadership and influence to convince other people that Person A’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. Moreover, according to A, Person B has persisted in a pattern of manipulation toward A: saying things to belittle, minimize, or ignore A. Person A feels incredibly victimized by Person B, and does not know how they can persevere at this church while Person B remains.
Person B, meanwhile, believes that Person A is being disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Person B tells you that Person A has been going around different groups and individuals in the church, spreading false information about Person B because the two simply don’t agree or get along. Person A, according to Person B, is angry that they’re not more influential in the church, and they blame Person B for that. Person B says that Person A wants to steamroll over several policies and even people in the church in order to get their way, but has thus far been prevented. This is why, according to Person B, Person A has now accused Person B of being a spiritual abuser, and B feels very strongly that A needs to be sharply rebuked for dishonest and misleading behavior.
I would imagine that if you’re reading this and have any pastoral DNA in you, you’re sweating a bit. This is exactly the kind of scenario that church leaders dread with all their heart. And why is that? It’s not just because nobody likes being in the middle of two accusatory opponents. It’s also not just that this situation represents a significant use of your relational bandwidth. Part of the reason this scenario is so daunting is that you have to decide not only whom you believe, but what to even call this. Is this an issue of spiritual abuse? Is this an issue of colliding personalities? Is it sin? Is it rivalry? Is it schoolyard name calling? So much of how you proceed from this point on depends on what kind of situation you think you are dealing with.
When it comes to the topic of spiritual abuse in the church, conversations and debates so often get stonewalled because people decide that someone is “just trying to protect” a certain class. Conservative-leaning evangelicals are wary of victim advocates because they perceive a looseness with truth telling in the name of satisfying demands. Left-leaning evangelicals often express frustration with those who instinctively defend pastors or ask for evidence, intuiting that these deflections come from a desire to prop up the successful system at all costs, even the cost of trauma to real people.
My concern with Chuck DeGroat’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse is not that I think he takes the “wrong side.” In fact, I think he does a pretty good job for the most part of avoiding tropes and caricatures in either direction. My concern with the book is that I think it fails significantly on the question raised above. DeGroat’s book is good at tracing out a recognizable portrait of spiritual abuse and waving red flags at leaders and systems who may be trampling over people. But it is much less good at calling those things what they are. DeGroat seems to go out of his way to avoid calling spiritual abuse sin. He abandons the language of sin, repentance, and discipline in favor of therapeutic language like narcissism, vulnerability, and gaslighting. The problem is not that those words are fake or unreal. The problem is those words aren’t enough. They leave spiritual abuse in the realm of the psychological, not the moral.
Defining Spiritual Abuse Down

This is the first of several indications throughout the book that the primary mechanism for identifying narcissism is how people feel toward those who may be narcissistic. I know it may sound very pedantic or even callous to call out this opening illustration from DeGroat’s youth. I don’t doubt that he really did feel slighted and that this was tremendously disappointing. But the fact that a book with “emotional and spiritual abuse” in its subtitle begins with this kind of story is potentially telling. It raises the question of whether the discussion of spiritual abuse that follows will be tethered to realities above the psychological, or not. In fact, the book struggles to do this.
In chapter two, “Understanding Narcissism,” DeGroat defines narcissism by reproducing the diagnostic criteria from DSM-V. This is slightly overwhelming and takes up a page and a half. What’s more, the DSM’s language is clinical and describes behavior typical of narcissistic people; it does not define narcissism ethically or theologically. DeGroat comments on the DSM’s criteria, which clarifies how he will understand narcissism throughout the book. “Grandiosity and attention seeking” are there, which makes sense. The narcissistic person develops a “false self” and tends to use people and relationships to feed this identity. So far, so good. But importantly, DeGroat does not connect narcissism to the biblical problem of inflated self-regard. In fact, he explicitly rejects this. In one particular case study, DeGroat determines that “Gary” suffers from a lack of self-love. His “entitlement, his lack of empathy, his pattern of grandiosity” flow from shame and trauma from his own childhood.
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The Power of ‘Intellectual Technologies’

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is a brilliant, often uncomfortable portrayal of a future world where sophisticated technology has unlocked the ability for people to escape reality. Through a fictional “dream-sharing” device, the characters in Inception can create, manipulate, and even invade people’s dreams. At one point in the movie, the heroes visit a scientist with the skill to make a sedative that allows for even more powerful and vivid dream-sharing. Upon seeing dozens of people in the scientist’s basement sleeping on beds, connected to the dream-sharing devices, one character asks, “These people come here to fall asleep?” The scientist answers, “They come here to wake up. The dream has become their reality.”

The writers of Inception used a science-fiction context to make a profound observation about human nature. If we can, we humans will tend to use our technology to put the world God has given us at a distance, and flee into an alternative reality that suits us. Although dream-sharing is the stuff of fantasy, there are indeed sophisticated technologies that bestow a godlike ability to create and inhabit our own universe. In fact, one of these technologies is probably in your hands or your pocket right now.

The Web, the smartphone, and social media together make up nothing less than a cultural revolution. For hundreds of millions of people, they represent the primary point of interaction with the world. We now work, learn, listen, debate, recreate, and even worship through the Internet. Given the radical novelty and enormous imprint of this technology on nearly every facet of our lives, shouldn’t we regularly be asking questions like, What kind of medium is this? Is there something here that may be influencing me at a near-undetectable level?

In fact, the answers to these questions may distress us.

Our Digital Dreamworld

The same year that Christopher Nolan fictionalized a world of escape into dreams, cultural critic Nicholas Carr published his manifesto The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr’s thesis is simply articulated but breathtaking in its implications: the Internet is an intellectual technology that is radically altering how we think, read, and communicate. Carr suggests that, whereas much technology (such as the plow or microscope) “extends our physical strength” into the outside world, intellectual technology — such as a clock, a map, or the Internet — directly reshapes how we think. Because of this, intellectual technologies make deeper and more permanent changes in what we believe and value. Carr writes,

Every intellectual technology . . . embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. . . . The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users. (The Shallows, 45–46)

As Carr goes on to show, the Web expresses its intellectual ethic in definite ways. Reading a physical book trains the human brain in the skills of quiet and focus, but the Web’s use of hypertext and distraction trains us in the behaviors of skimming, superficial comprehension, and flimsy, impressionistic interpretation. Online, it is very difficult to follow one train of thought deeply or be present for one particular experience or moment, because the Web’s structure emphasizes relentless novelty and diverse input (creating what Carr refers to as “the juggler’s brain”).

Carr’s analysis makes sense of a problem that many of us have. We feel that our phones, our apps, and our browsing are somehow hijacking our ability to read a book for more than few minutes at a time. We sense a diminished capacity to lose ourselves even in moments of true joy. We can detect an angrier, more defensive edge to many conversations even within the church, as people increasingly seem to talk past one another and retreat into competing enclaves that reinforce their opinions. Yet we are often unable to name this problem, and as a result, we’re too frequently left in a muddle of guilt and frustration.

Unfortunately, Christian approaches to this dilemma often settle for generalities. Like the teenage couple that just wants to know how far is too far, believers immersed in the world of the Internet often just want the bare minimum that can appear to “balance” screen time with private devotions or the weekly Sunday service. But this isn’t enough. The challenge before us isn’t to figure out how to inject a little bit of Jesus into our digital dreamworlds. It’s to wake up.

Wisdom’s Wake-Up Call

The book of Proverbs offers an especially compelling wake-up call:

Does not wisdom call?         Does not understanding raise her voice?On the heights beside the way,         at the crossroads she takes her stand;beside the gates in front of the town,         at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:“To you, O men, I call,         and my cry is to the children of man.O simple ones, learn prudence;         O fools, learn sense.” (Proverbs 8:1–5)

“Every wise word or action has one thing in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.”

While it may be tempting to think that the intellectual ethic of the Internet is so far removed from the experience of the biblical authors that they offer nothing to guide us, this would be a profound mistake. Lady Wisdom calls out to digital sleepers, inviting them to feast at her house. This is an invitation we need, because it’s precisely wisdom that our screen-addled age lacks. Wisdom, after all, is nothing less than the habit of living in accordance with what’s real. The God who really exists and the world he really made require us, as some theologians have put it, to “live with the grain of reality” rather than against it. While living wisely has many different facets, every wise word or action has this in common: a deep resonance with God-centered reality.

The connection between wisdom and the real physical world is clear in Proverbs 3:19–20:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;         by understanding he established the heavens;by his knowledge the deeps broke open,         and the clouds drop down the dew. (Proverbs 3:19–20)

And in Proverbs 8:27–31, Lady Wisdom beautifully sings of how her handiwork is permanently engraved on the creation:

When he established the heavens, I was there;         when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,when he made firm the skies above,         when he established the fountains of the deep,when he assigned to the sea its limit,         so that the waters might not transgress his command,when he marked out the foundations of the earth,         then I was beside him, like a master workman,and I was daily his delight,         rejoicing before him always,rejoicing in his inhabited world         and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:27–31)

Wisdom is no mere grab bag of helpful quotes or memorable witticisms. Wisdom is the “master workman” through whom the whole (real!) universe was brought forth. Wisdom finds delight in the Creator’s inhabited word and in the humans who reflect the Creator’s glory throughout the cosmos. Wisdom, in other words, is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.

“Wisdom is deeply awake to the sheer wonder of the world and the people God has made.”

In applying Carr’s insights about “the intellectual ethic” of the Internet to the biblical teaching of wisdom, I’ve come to refer to the disembodied character of the Web as a set of “digital liturgies.” Like a church service, the Web is a spiritual habitat that works on our minds and hearts to incline us to think, feel, and believe in certain ways. Why is it so hard to think well? Because the digital liturgies of distraction and novelty are crippling our capacity to grasp big, non-Instagrammable truth. Why is it so easy to feel more unified with online personalities than with the people in our actual home or church? Because the digital liturgies of custom-made identities and curated timelines tell us we should be able to be only what we choose to be. Immersed in these technological narratives, our default is to make the dream our reality.

Paths of Resistance

How can we, through wisdom, resist this?

First, we can structure our lives deliberately to give weight to the people, experiences, and things that are physically real. The habit of morning devotions may seem quaint, but it’s a habit passed down by saints who have experienced its power. In a world of unending ephemera, God has given us permanent words to anchor, convict, and comfort us.

We can also deliberately break our relationships out of the digital prison. A phone call or lunch date connects us to each other much more than a direct message or a “Like.” A good book or hands-on hobby will refresh us after a day in front of a screen much more than hours of streaming or scrolling. Getting outside, with no intention of leveraging the experience for social media applause later, puts us in the path of wisdom by reminding us that God’s world is much bigger than our heads.

Second, we can actively cultivate the habits of deep thinking and winsome speech that the Web erodes. Before the latest news headline or theological controversy drives you to Google, looking for quick reads you can use to jump in the fray, consider taking a few weeks to work through a book or meaty essay that will genuinely enlighten you. Resist the temptation to seek admiration by being the fastest, smartest, or most sarcastic online critic, and redirect that effort toward the kind of comprehension that John’s high Christology or Paul’s precise theology demands.

Finally, we can consider practical measures that keep the world of the Internet playing second fiddle in the daily rhythms of our lives. In his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch commends regular tech-free stretches: one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per month of deliberate withdrawal from the most immersive and addictive online activities. Cal Newport outlines a more rigorous “digital detox” in his book Digital Minimalism that can help us rediscover which technologies actually serve our values, and which ones simply keep us hooked. Find an approach that works in your and your family’s season of life and that will help to incline you toward God’s wisdom rather than the un-reality of the Web.

Jesus Versus the Trade-In Society: Finding Happiness in an Upgrade Age

It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all, it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses. We live in a trade-in society.

Sometimes you come across an idea that you know instantly is going to be revolutionary in your life. A few years ago, an essay by Alan Jacobs gave me just that.

“We live in a trade-in society.” That sentence, perhaps more than anything else I’ve read outside of Scripture, summarizes beautifully and powerfully the core characteristic of modern American culture. Whether we shop for phones, gyms, or even relationships, ours is an age that treasures the words “no commitment necessary” and “cancel anytime.” We are a trade-in society, where the promise of being able to eventually replace anything, or anyone, lies underneath all of our experiences, even our spiritual lives.

Trade-In Society

The values of the trade-in society are all around us. Abortion — the choice to kill an unborn baby and prevent inconvenience or expense — is perhaps the ultimate Western symbol of it. What can epitomize the spirit of “everything is replaceable” better than a legal practice of eliminating human beings, the divine image-bearers that are eminently not replaceable?

But there are many other manifestations of the trade-in society. Families disintegrate under the trade-in society through no-fault divorce laws and “realize your best self” mantras that thrust aside children and covenant. Employers who abuse and manipulate their workers because they know where to find someone else to cheaply fill the role are administering the trade-in society.

And of course, millions of us go into church with expectations and demands tailored by the trade-in society. We’ll hang around for the music and preaching that “speaks to us,” but membership is time-consuming and serving is too inconvenient. Not to mention that should the leadership of the church ask too many questions or press too far into our lives, we know where the closest exit is and where the nearest next church might be found.

Empty Wells

When it comes to the origins of the trade-in society, we could mention many factors. We could talk about the industrial revolution and the godlike sense of self-determination that our tools bestow on us. We could talk about the rise and triumph of the modern self and expressive individualism. These threads reveal truth (and more threads could be listed), but at its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.

To see this, we might listen to John Piper, in a 2009 sermon, describe how Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1–26) reveals the surrender of our thirty souls to the empty promises of the trade-in society.

One of the evidences of not drinking deeply from Jesus is the instability of constantly moving from one thing to the next, seeking to fill the void. You may be going through sexual partners. You may be going through friends. You may be going through jobs. You may be going through churches, just one after another. You may be going through hobbies. . . . You may be going through hairstyles, or wardrobes, or cars. You may be going through locations of where you live. Because there is no deeply contented identity in Christ. . . .

Jesus says, “Come to me, and you’ll find stability of contented identity.” Then you don’t move around so much, jumping here, jumping there. Crave, crave, crave, but nothing’s working.

“At its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.”

We create the trade-in society through our spiritual thirst. Like the woman at the well, we rifle through life, looking for the next thing that will finally close the gaping cavern in our hearts. We see everything and everyone around us as replaceable because we are desperate to find that one thing that will never disappoint us, and despite all that we’ve been taught by marketing departments, we know deep down that whatever new thing, or place, or even person in our lives will not do for us what we desperately want it to.

Deepest Thirst Satisfied

So, what does the opposite of the trade-in society look like? It looks like people whose deepest spiritual thirst has been satisfied by Christ. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). The insatiable need for novelty and replacement withers if our hearts are tethered to the person whom moths and rust cannot touch and neither thieves nor death can take away.

We don’t need to fear commitment or its consequences when we know that whatever difficulties or suffering lie ahead, all things are working together for our good (Romans 8:28). Just imagine how this might transform every area of life and culture. The unexpected pregnancy goes from crushing and optional to something that’s difficult but glorious. Marriages that feel hopeless and life-draining become places of deep sacrifice for the sake of a preserved covenant.

These feel like familiar examples, but the trade-in society needs transformation in places of our lives we don’t think about as often. If always chasing the next career opportunity means perpetual rootlessness and a revolving door of friends and churches, might the sustaining provision of Jesus point us to lay economic ambition at the feet of greater goods?

Or consider the contemporary temptation of “doomscrolling”: mindlessly consuming information at a pace that overwhelms capacities for thoughtfulness, often merely for the sake of being “in the know.” Restless transition from one thing to the next does not have to look dramatic to signal a weary, thirsty heart.

Looking to Final Triumph

The trade-in society seduces our consciences through fear. But as the apostle John reminds us, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) — and the same love that casts out fear of final punishment can defeat the fear of the trade-in society. Such love grounds us, makes us grateful for the people and places that God has put around us, and draws us out of ourselves so that we can sacrifice for each other.

“It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.”

The love that God pours into our hearts through the gospel is not only a backward-looking love but a forward-looking one. To use the opening example in Jacobs’s essay, a professional sports team is almost always willing to fire a coach or cut a player if they’re convinced doing so will help them win. Imagine, though, that a team found out before the start of the season that they were guaranteed to win the championship with the exact roster and coaching staff they had now. If they really believed this prediction, no amount of difficulties could make them send anyone away. It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.

Christians have guaranteed, absolute, cannot-fail assurance of final triumph in Jesus. That’s why we can be a people who resist the trade-in society, and in so doing, bear witness to a better society, one in which every tear is wiped away and every secret desire fulfilled by the One who will never leave.

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