The Journey of Sexual Recovery-Where Do I Start?

This is a big moment. Maybe your life has come tumbling down after your spouse discovered behavior you’ve kept secret or you just lost a job because of your search history. Maybe the consequences are only internal, but just as severe. You are in agony and are tired of the guilt, shame, and disappointment you regularly experience after vowing that you’d never go to that place again, only to find yourself right back there, alienated from yourself, those around you, and God. This is hopefully the moment where you’re ready to reach out for help because it’s become clear that you haven’t been able to stop the unwanted behavior on your own. So where do you start?

The Structure of Early Recovery

I intentionally use the word “structure” because it’s vital for starting the process of change. A key thing to understand is that your behavior has likely been conditioned and reinforced since early adolescence. You’ve trained your brain to rely on whatever form your sexual behavior has taken. For example, many people report feeling suddenly triggered and seeking out sexual behavior whenever they have time alone. What’s going on here? It’s conditioning. In early adolescence, the times you probably viewed pornography and masturbated was whenever you could get a second alone. It’s a private behavior, and one we’re often ashamed of, so it follows that we would seek it out in this context and that this connection would be stored in our brains at an unconscious level. I say all this to make it clear that you have trained your brain, and it’s going to take some intentional lifestyle changes and structures to retrain your brain. I’ll briefly go over several of these structures.

Structure Number 1- Reconnection

Over the course of your life, you’ve probably become increasingly isolated and secretive about this behavior. Even if you’ve talked with people about it, you’ve tried to keep it vague or you haven’t fully shared details about how frequently you struggle and what form your behavior takes. You’ve also probably stopped praying and spending time with God. So it’s essential that you reconnect. I encourage clients to begin praying morning and evening at the very least, even if it’s brief. It’s essential to start talking to God again, even while struggling. He wants to be invited into the struggle. It’s also vital that you start talking to other human beings about what’s going on. This happens in counseling, and hopefully also starts to happen in a support group, bible study, or intentional conversation with other friends who you invite into your life. I frequently ask people to tell me the nature of their fantasies and sexual behavior and help them search for themes. There’s a variety of reasons I do this, but the first one is to help provide freedom from shame and feeling all alone. Most clients look at me in shock and say something like, “Are you sure you want to hear this?” or “No one has ever asked me anything like that before, I don’t talk about this.” This is wisdom that AA has known about for a long time, as one of their steps involves taking a complete moral inventory and recounting details of our failings to at least one other human being. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

Structure 2- Boundaries and Consequences

This is not a popular one. As scary as it might be to start talking to God and other people about our deepest and darkest secrets, it’s even harder to get serious about the lifestyle changes required to change these patterns. Once we understand your unique triggers and the ways you’ve conditioned yourself sexually, we can start setting boundaries. So in our previous example about being alone, a client would develop a boundary and plan for how they will handle being alone. Maybe the boundary is that they don’t stay alone at work, or if they travel for work they leave their phone in the car instead of bringing it into the hotel room. Some people get rid of their smartphones entirely. You do whatever it takes to set yourself up for success, understanding that you’ve become powerless and will continue the behavior if your life structures don’t change. It’s understood that if this plan isn’t followed, a person has intentionally crossed the line, and will implement a consequence for themselves if they act out.

Let me explain the purpose of consequence because I don’t want it to be misunderstood as legalistic or an attempt to further shame you. I had a negative reaction to the concept at first, until I realized how difficult it would be to get traction in early recovery without it. This comes back to conditioning and a basic understanding of what motivates us. If a behavior is basically pleasurable and consequence free, we have no reason to stop. By giving yourself a consequence, you are intentionally shaping and motivating your behavior. Sexual behavior is WAY too rewarding and enjoyable to find the willpower to stop at first when our brains are still hijacked in early recovery. Willingness to implement a consequence shows how serious you are about changing your behavior and getting beyond nice ideas and promises to change that aren’t paired with action. Common consequences are doing a hated chore or donating money to a cause you despise. Most clients have a hard time thinking of a consequence, but don’t worry, I can help you find one!

Is That It?

The structure I’ve outlined here is only the beginning of the journey, but the journey will have a hard time getting started without it. I originally scoffed at these principles, thinking they were too simplistic. I don’t think of myself as primarily a behavioral therapist. I’m interested in getting to the deep places and really figuring things out. Talk about boundaries and structure was not appealing. I still am interested in understanding your story and your wounds, and the ways you have used sex to try and deal with the context of your life. But we can’t get to this deeper level without first addressing the fact that you are enslaved to this behavior and we need to do something drastic to get you out of it. This is where standard talk therapy misses the mark for people struggling with addictive processes, because you can have a nice conversation about the behavior and get lots of insight, but it’s hard to change without new structure and practices.

Hope is the key currency in early recovery, and having tangible behaviors and structure show us that maybe we are actually getting somewhere. There’s no reason you have to keep suffering with your unwanted sexual behavior. Stopping may be the hardest thing you ever do, but it’s very possible. Let’s talk about it soon.


Being in a Hurry Might Not Actually Work

A common question I’m asked in the first session is, “How many sessions do you think this will take?” And I get it. You want to know what you’re getting yourself into, because counseling does represent a significant investment of time, energy, and resources. The answer to that question is largely determined by your specific situation, but I did want to offer some general thoughts about the counseling process so this isn’t a total mystery.

Slower Than You Wanted

I hope I didn’t lose all of you with that heading because I know telling someone that anything is going to be slow usually means they’ve already moved on and will find someone who can do it faster. But the longer I’ve done this work, the more clear it’s become- change is generally a slow process. Why is this?

I recently moved back to Pennsylvania from Washington state and as we’ve been getting settled I’ve done some reflecting on the process. It took at least a year and a half just for us to process our life situation and to make the decision to move. Then there was the process of putting a move in motion- preparing a house to sell and then listing it, packing, closing up loose ends at work, saying goodbye. I think I went to Goodwill at least 73 times during this period. Then the actual move, which involved driving across the country (it is about a 40 hour drive), waiting for our stuff to arrive, and unpacking. All of it has felt really slow and tedious! Once I knew I was moving, I wanted to just get there, and once I was here I just wanted to get unpacked and settled. But it’s involved a lot of waiting and a lot of work and there’s been no fast forward button I could hit.

And it’s not just moving that is slow. As I’ve reflected further and talked about life with friends, it’s become clear that we’re all discovering that changing ourselves is an incredibly slow process as well! Whether it’s wanting to become more mature, get in shape, or change that aspect of our personality that always seems to get us snagged as we’re trying to navigate life and relationships, achieving this change is more of a grind than expected. Think about it- by the time you enter counseling you have probably been dealing with a set of issues for years and possibly decades and you finally reached the point that it was intolerable to you or the important people around you. These issues and aspects of ourselves are deep rooted and reinforced over time, and they will not be pulled up easily. Many of these aspects formed as a way to survive painful events and to protect us from a world that can be harsh in large and small ways every day. So, the first reason we find change to be slow is because we’re battling ourselves and our fundamental difficulty overturning our ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. What else contributes to this?

Relationships Are Slow

I’m really bumming you out with these headings, I know. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that counseling is fundamentally the formation of a specific kind of relationship, and all relationships are generally slow. It takes time to become comfortable with a person. You need time with them to see whether they are consistent and reliable. You need to see their reactions to various situations, especially with vulnerable information, to see whether they are trustworthy. You just need time to decide whether you like someone and want to be around them period! This is especially true in counseling where you are often disclosing the most personal and emotionally laden things in your life. I’m always blown away when a client says something like, “You are the only person I’ve ever talked about this with.” That is a real gift and honor when this happens, and I don’t expect to be granted that kind of access on day 1 or even day 65. It needs to be earned, and this takes time.

When they do research about what makes therapy effective, it’s not the things you would initially guess. It’s not the therapist’s ability to have all the answers or to make incredible interpretations. That doesn’t even make the list. This makes sense- if therapy was fast or similar to getting your car fixed, it would just be about the therapist diagnosing you, inputting some information, and you could leave a finished product. But humans are much more complex than this. So what are the main factors? Things like therapist care and compassion, as well as the ability to balance nurture and challenge in the context of the relationship. I’ll never forget what Irv Yalom, a renowed Psychiatrist, said about his years of psychoanalysis- he wrote that the only moment he remembered and that had an impact on him was when he shared a painful story and his therapist leaned forward with compassion. It was the only time she left her neutral stance and stopped making interpretations, and it was the only moment that mattered. Simone Weil writes,

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Life is Just Slow

Ok last heading about this, I promise. On our drive from WA to PA, we stopped in Minnesota to visit some friends who are organic farmers. As we asked questions about the farm and learned about the work, I was struck again by how much effort the whole process takes and how slow it is. The field has to be tilled and prepared, the seeds planted, and then they grow secretly and silently for months underground, before emerging and growing slowly above ground. All of this is dependent on weather and happens in season. The Bible is filled with agricultural language and metaphor about sowing and reaping, and about harvest. And it’s always understood that this is going to be a process that involves hard work, waiting, and dealing with uncertainty. It is a process that happens in season, meaning that in our own lives we will have periods of fruitfulness and periods where it seems like nothing much is happening at all. This is the nature of who we are, how relationships work, and of life itself. So why would therapy be any different? I hope this is actually encouraging for you, because it means you’re not expected to be “fixed” after a month of therapy. You can be gracious with yourself as you try to unravel how you got here and can have reasonable expectations for where you will finally arrive. Change is very possible and is deeply rewarding, but it comes in its due season, not with the click of a button. I hope to move slowly with you sometime soon. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.

An Unexpected Progression

The Bible can be confusing. I was reading in the book of Romans recently and I came across several verses that didn’t make sense to me. I’ve learned that when this happens, it’s usually a cue that these are verses I need to pay attention to and try to understand. Here’s the verse:

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4

There’s a progression being laid out here, and it sounds like it’s an important statement about the nature of how we find hope, but it didn’t make sense to me at first glance. I get the first 3 elements in the chain- suffering requires perseverance and this develops character, but how does having character lead to hope? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious.

The Connection Between Character and Hope

I started thinking of this progression that Paul writes about as a “cycle of hope” and that it is the remedy for what we understand in addiction circles as the “cycle of shame.” The shame cycle works like this:

  1. PAIN AGENT (Suffering)

  2. Beginning to fantasize or contemplate addictive or unhealthy behavior

  3. Dissociation- In the “fog” and no longer thinking clearly and rationally

  4. Ritual of seeking out the behavior

  5. Engage in the behavior

  6. Feel sense of shame or remorse

And once we hit that sense of shame, it can become a pain agent and so the cycle begins again and that sense of feeling trapped in an unwanted behavior becomes stronger and stronger. So let’s return to Romans. Paul is encouraging us to do something different when the pain agent shows up- to persevere. This is often the hardest thing to do when we’re in pain. It can feel like everything in us is crying out for an escape, and we all have many escapes in our back pocket that we have been using for years. But if we can feel something painful and just sit with it, or make a healthy choice like reaching out to someone or consciously caring for ourselves, something amazing happens- we discover that the pain does eventually pass. And if we string a series of these good decisions together we discover something else- that we are starting to form character. One of the insidious effects of addiction is that it stunts our maturity and growth and keeps us responding as we did when we first started relying on the behavior. It even changes the reward circuits in our brains! This is because instead of developing character we rely on our preferred coping skill to escape suffering. Once we commit to developing character, it becomes easier to make different decisions and we are establishing new habits and cycles. We can rewire our brains and create new pathways, but it takes time and consistency. Now instead of landing on shame at the end of all of this, we land on hope. We like who we are becoming. We don’t have to hide from those around us. There are no secrets. We’re more connected to our lives and to our relationships. We feel able to manage pain if it shows up again. Isn’t all this incredibly hopeful?

Hope Does Not Put Us to Shame

I left out vs 5 earlier because it’s the best part-

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

This is the good news, we don’t have to break the cycle of shame in our own power. We can’t actually, so that would just be setting us up for further shame and disappointment if we believed we could. And this is the hope that Christianity offers, which I don’t see how you get if you’re just relying on yourself to make a change. God’s love is poured into our hearts and we have the Holy Spirit living in us, enabling us to endure suffering in the comfort of ongoing connection to God and in the hope of knowing that we are being transformed into people of character while this is going on. Many people enter counseling feeling truly hopeless about their circumstances and the loops that they are in, and I have a lot of empathy for that. It’s a terrible feeling. But we need to know that the remedy to hopelessness is not a quick solution to our suffering or simply finding ways to make it go away. The first step is to feel the suffering, to listen to it, to make good choices within it, and to allow it to create a new character in us. God’s love is pouring into us as we do this. This is how we find hope.

Therapy is Not Advice

If you’ve read other entries on this blog you’ll notice that I frequently reflect on the process of therapy and try to describe it so you can have some idea of what to expect and how I work. Counseling is a complex process and there’s a lot of misinformation out there and I find that it works best when you and I are on the same page about what we are expecting. I want to share a quote I recently read that caused me to put the book down and audibly say, “Yes!” and then I also wrote “Yes!” in the margins of the page. The author, a psychologist named Jordan Peterson, put something to words that I have been trying to formulate and say for quite some time.

Psychotherapy is not advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems.

Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking- but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen. Sometimes if you listen to people they will even tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes they will even tell you how they plan to fix it. Sometimes that helps you fix something wrong with yourself.

Short and sweet, but it gets right to the point. I’m not interested in telling you what to do. There are many books for that and you have many people in your life, including yourself, who are already full of opinions and suggestions. What you need is to actually be listened to so that we can process and figure out who you are, what’s going on, and what you want to do. You’re simply too complex for me to listen to you for 30 minutes and somehow have the answer to a problem that took years to develop. Do you really want to be reduced and dismissed so quickly by me assuming that I’ve figured you out and know what you should do? I know this stance will make some of you uneasy.

I’m not interested in perpetuating the myth of therapist as all knowing. I’m a flawed human with my own blind spots and the limitations in knowledge that come from being a limited being. This doesn’t mean that I’m saying I offer nothing and that I’ll just be a blank slate either. The biggest knock on therapists when we’re caricatured is that the only thing we know how to do is ask, “And how did that make you feel?” The assumption in this caricature is that we ask because we don’t actually know what to do and have nothing to offer. But what if asking that question and caring about the answer is the best thing we could offer someone? I think part of the problem is that we’ve totally come to devalue listening well and have only come to value action and productivity. I’m trying to counteract that value system. I don’t think the performance based system is really helping anyone feel better or attain any measure of peace. What I frequently hear from clients is that they could have used a little more “And how did that make you feel?” from their parents and a lot less “Get your grades up” and “Why aren’t your chores done?” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” No, I don’t want to perpetuate that in counseling of all places.

I am trained to listen well. (And I care!) I will give you feedback on what I’m seeing and feeling as we talk, and I will ask you good questions. I’m very curious about what’s going on with you and I want to help figure it out. I have specific training in things like sex addiction and trauma recovery and I have tools to help you heal from these things. But none of this is advice, and none of it will be offered quickly or simply as a coping tool. And I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I ultimately defer this process to God, trusting that He is the one who can see through all the complexity and provide the necessary words to move forward, if only we could both find a way to listen to Him as we’re listening to each other. He is always speaking truth and order into the chaos.

So my invitation to therapy is a genuine conversation and encounter. Listen to you soon.

Self Knowledge

The Johari Window and Irvin Yalom

johari-window-model_jk-web_revised.gif

I've been spending time recently with the book The Gift of Therapy by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom.  Ever since I first read his work in graduate school, I have returned often to his writing to be refreshed and reminded why therapy works and is meaningful for both therapist and client.  He talks a lot about the importance of what he calls "here and now" direct feedback to clients.  This refers to the therapist letting the client know how they are experiencing them and the relationship in the context of the counseling session.  For example, if someone has difficulty opening up in their personal life, the therapist will likely feel this and encounter barriers as they ask questions and try to get the client to talk.  It's important to find the right time to notice this and bring it up in a session.  To illustrate why this is helpful, Yalom references a tool called the Johari Window which is seen a the top of this post.

When a therapist lets a client know how they are experiencing them and gives feedback, they are helping to expand box 3- blind spots.  One of the main things that creates distress for people is failure to be successful in their relationships, which is often due to patterns of relating that tend to create problems.  Whether it's dominating conversations and not listening well, or avoiding intimacy, or being critical, these patterns or styles of relating will show up in the counseling room.  It's important for clients to receive this feedback so that they can become aware of their blind spots.  I want to emphasize that this feedback isn't given from a smug place of judgment or therapist superiority, far from it!  It is given out of a desire on my part to connect in the counseling relationship and to kindly uncover blind spots.

Through deeper exploration of the past, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even dreams, we can become more aware of the unknown self from box 4.  These are the parts of ourselves that we're unaware of and have either buried or never uncovered.  Whenever a client takes a risk and voices something they have always kept secret or have felt ashamed of, they are doing good work with box 2, the hidden self.  I am always honored and touched when clients take a chance with me and let me know that what I've just heard has never been shared anywhere else.  This is a huge step and often results in greater transparency with other important people in their lives outside of therapy.

I share this with you today to highlight a theme I return to often in this blog- the importance of our relationship in the counseling process.  It is the primary change agent.  Many people come into therapy thinking the change agent is learning new information like coping skills, or gaining insight into the source of their problems.  These are certainly elements of therapy, but they are not the primary element.  What happens between you and I each week as we meet and talk is the place where self awareness grows, new and healing types of interactions take place, and change occurs.  Relationships take time to develop and so this means that therapy is a process and journey.  It is one I look forward to taking with each of you.

What Should I Expect From Therapy?

I’ve recently seen a need to help clients understand more what therapy is and how best to use it.  There’s a lot of confusion or lack of knowledge in this area.  If you’ve seen counseling portrayed on tv and in movies please throw all of that out, like many things in the media, it is rarely accurate.  My wife can tell you that I usually sigh audibly when we're watching something and a counseling scene comes on.  But I digress.  Books and books could be written on this subject but I want to start by emphasizing 3 essentials that I have found to be important for clients to understand at the outset.

Counseling is a Relationship

Many clients are confused by the nature of the therapeutic relationship.  They have questions like,  “What is appropriate for you (the counselor) to share about yourself?”  “What is appropriate for me to share about myself?”  “How should I best use the therapy hour?”  “Do I just talk about what happened over the past week or are we talking about my childhood?”  “Do you decide what I need to work on or do I set my goals?”

I’ll start by saying that each hour we meet for therapy is your time, which means you have a lot of say in how the sessions will be structured.  There is no other relationship like therapy, in which you have the space to talk about whatever you need to without having to worry about whether you are talking too much.  I am a trained, confidential listener who is here to help.  I usually start therapy as more of a “blank slate”, meaning that I spend a lot of time listening and asking questions so I can get to know you and understand you.  It can be tempting to try and impress you with immediate advice or insights, but it is more important that you feel heard and understood before anything else happens.  I have a pretty firm belief that 80% of each session should be you talking and sharing and 20% should be me giving input, briefly educating, or asking more questions.  Some people like me to stay in that mode, others want more feedback and sharing about how I am experiencing the therapeutic relationship.  The key thing here that I want to emphasize again is that this is your time and this is a relationship, so I want to encourage you to process how therapy is going with me and how you are experiencing me.  I am a calm, laid back, quiet person and I don’t tend to show a ton of emotion, which has led some clients to wonder what’s going on in my mind.  This is a fine question to ask and one I enjoy answering! 

The therapeutic relationship is confusing largely because it lacks the typical mutuality and give and take of every other intimate relationship we cultivate, and it is a professional service that has an ending in mind when goals have been met.  But it is still a relationship, and we will be talking about some very intimate things as we meet.  You will hopefully find acceptance as we talk, and the opportunity to practice new ways of thinking and relating in a safe space.  Our sessions will mean something to me, and when therapy ends I will likely feel some sadness about no longer getting to talk and will wonder from time to time how you’re getting on out there in the world.

Counseling is at Times Painful, Hard Work

I also want to emphasize that therapy is hard work and it is painful emotionally, especially at first.  Many are surprised by this and drop out prematurely.  When you come in for counseling you are opening the lid on issues you have likely been avoiding or dealing with in unhealthy ways.  Part of my job may be to challenge some of your behaviors and thoughts.  I will be asking you to look at issues and to begin processing them, and for just about everyone, this is experienced as dysregulating at first.  I liken therapy to a bell shaped curve, where the initial phase is an uphill climb, but it does eventually peak and then move downhill to more peaceful and stable feelings.  So I encourage you not to give up just because it is hard or difficult at first.  Like anything in life, well-being will not be achieved without a fight.  Technology has given us the illusion that all things are instant, but things like relationships, healing, and moving toward maturity take time to grow. 

I’ll likely give you homework periodically- maybe a chapter or book to read or a writing exercise to process some emotions or a relationship in your life we have been talking about.  With many people I apply an approach called Lifespan Integration that will involve making a timeline of your life that we will use in our sessions.  All of this will require work and a willingness to face things in your past and begin changing things in your present.  The idea that the past should remain buried is frankly, a terrible one.  The longer I’ve counseled, the more clear it has become to me that the past dictates many of our current emotional responses, and if we ignore this we aren’t going to get anywhere.  Just giving you tools for how to respond differently to your spouse, for example, without getting at the roots of why you respond in a typical way each time a conflict comes up will give you relief for maybe a couple months until the strain of trying becomes too much and the old wounds open up once more.  There is a place for education, tools, and advice, but the proper order is after the younger parts of us have been cared for and are no longer getting activated each time we are in pain.

Counseling is a Commitment

The last thing I’ll say builds on the first two points- therapy is a commitment and it is not a superficial or quick process.  No relationship in your life thrives without some sense of commitment, and no growth happens without sustained effort.  Once we enter into treatment together, we are both committing to a period of hard work, of potentially having hard conversations where we challenge each other, and to growth.  I don’t want you to become dependent on me or in therapy for any longer than you need to be- it is my job to work myself out of a job.  But I encourage people once they start therapy to view it as entering a season of life, which would be at least 3 months of sustained effort.  I hope it is clear from what has come so far that I am not comfortable with quick, pat answers or with simply developing “coping tools.”  I do this work because I care about people and love to watch deep and lasting change take place.  Understanding these 3 elements before we begin will get us moving in this direction.

Pulled Out of the Pit

"I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him." Psalm 40:1-3

The church I attend chooses a Psalm each month- we sing it weekly and reflect on it over the course of the month.  It's been a rich activity for me to sit in a passage much longer than I usually do, and I am amazed at the depth of meaning that can come from a single verse or verses.  This month it is Psalm 40, and as I was meditating on the first few verses I saw some important things that apply to the human condition, especially those seeking counseling.

What Does a Pit Look Like?

Many of us can relate to being in a slimy pit.  Every time I read this passage, I get a clear image of being trapped at the bottom of a well, sitting in sludge.  This is a helpless position.  When you are in a pit, there's nothing you can do to get out.  This is where many of us go astray- we continue to pretend we are either not in a pit or that we can thrash about enough or keep devising schemes to get out.  As long as we're doing any of this, we aren't getting out.  If you read any of my other entries, you'll see that I regularly harp on the dangers of denial and defensiveness, because I see those behaviors as incredibly damaging to a person's ability to grow and receive help.  So it is in this Psalm.  We must acknowledge we are in the pit and be willing to be lifted out.

Second, I think this language of slime and mud is important.  There's something about being in the pit that causes us to feel shamed and dirty about it- this is especially true if it relates to sexual behavior, but it also applies to depression, anxiety, or any other ongoing struggle we wish we could just shake off.  Sexual sin and abuse can cause us to feel slimed unlike anything else, even when we intellectually know that the abuse wasn't our fault or that we've been forgiven.  It leaves an emotional experience of being dirty.  We feel that we can never confess or be forgiven, and nothing can quiet the voice of self contempt that runs through our minds all day long each day.  This Psalm understands the human condition, how we all feel that we are stuck in the mud if we stop and are honest about who we are and what's happened to us.  This is what being willing to be helpless uncovers, and I understand why many don't want to look at it.

How Do We Get Out?

So what is our responsibility?  Verse 1 tells us to wait, and it also tells us to keep talking to God and crying out for help.  It's important to note here that you could be waiting a long time.  Suffering is often mysterious and goes on much longer than we would want it to, then at other times it is lifted quickly.  If you haven't acknowledged the reality of the pit, and you aren't waiting for help, you likely will be so busy devising plans and struggling that you will not be calling out to God.  You will be stuck in a fruitless loop of self defeating behavior.  Start by being honest with those close to you about where you are mentally and emotionally.  Ask for prayer and don't try to come up with immediate solutions.  This Psalm, like many others, tells us that God turns toward us when we cry out to him.  He is then the one who accomplishes the lifting out as well as supplying us with a new song to sing once we are on solid ground again.

Once you have been lifted out, it can be easy to end up back in the sludge.  In some ways that is our default mode, to climb back down into the pit and return to the old addiction, the old behavior pattern, the old negative thoughts.  We avoid this by singing a new song- this means many things, more than I can unpack here, but for starters it means to be grateful and to continue talking about and focusing on God's amazing work of bringing you out of the pit.  When you lose gratitude, you are already starting to climb into the pit and sing your old song of resentment, hopelessness, bitterness, denial, and false trust in yourself.  When you're grateful, you remain aware of the pit and your dependence on God to stay out of it.  

This is very good news, and I love how clear and practical the bible presents itself to be when we slow down and read it verse by verse to see what it is telling us!  We know that God is in the business of pulling people out of pits, because that is what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection was all about.  He descended into the pit for us so that we could have a solid rock to stand on.  This is our fundamental state when we accept Christ- He is our rock and our salvation.  It is because of this that Jesus is committed to continuing to climb down and lift us out each time we crawl back in.  

If you're in the pit right now, please keep waiting patiently, and keep crying out and acknowledging the desperateness of your condition.  Be willing to feel the pain of your situation, whether you caused it or it was done to you.  Be willing to wait longer than you would choose to if you were the one in control.  Help has come.  We've seen it on the cross and we know it will come again.  Now we are grateful whether we are in the pit or out of it.  This is the victory of the Christian life.

2 Pathways

Proverbs 4:11-12- "I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.  When you walk your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble."

Proverbs 4:19- "But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble."

Proverbs 3:23-26-"Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.  When you lie down you will not be afraid; when you lie down your sleep will be sweet.  Have  no fear of sudden disaster or the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared."

Choose Your Own Adventure

I really enjoyed reading choose your own adventure books as a kid, especially if they involved escaping from mummies, zombies, or pirates.  The goal was to keep making choices that would keep you alive.  It was a terrible feeling to turn to a page only to see that the monster caught you or you got poisoned or your parents grounded you.  A lot of bad things could happen.  The goal was to make it out alive, to take the safest path possible.  If you didn't, you could just turn back to the last page where you were safe and make a different choice.  Amazingly, in life we do often seem to get second chances, but as I see every day in my office, sometimes chances run out.  Marriages end, people lose jobs, teenagers are estranged from parents, people sink further into addiction.  

I've been chewing on the first 7 chapters of the book of Proverbs for a little while now and I'm noticing how frequently they talk about choices.  The writer often uses language about light and darkness, freedom to walk/run vs stumbling or being ensared, and a stable path vs a crumbling one that leads a person straight to death.  According to Proverbs, the stakes are high.

2 Paths

The first and perhaps most important thing to grasp is that there are actually two different paths you can travel down, with very different results.  It's hard for us to believe that our actions will have consequences.  The world spends a lot of time promoting unstable paths and promising things on it that may feel good in the short term but never deliver.  We have largely moved away from an agricultural, local economy and so it is harder for us to understand the concepts of sowing and reaping, of diligent effort leading to delayed results.  Because I spend so much time working with people on the issue of sexual addiction, I want to run this issue through that filter, but I hope you'll see that it applies to any pattern of unhealthy choices.

Sexual addiction starts with what often seem to be innocuous choices.  We're told to achieve as many sexual conquests as possible, to have fun, to be liberated.  We find that porn is an amazing escape, a place of beauty and fantasy.  Proverbs 7 paints an incredibly realistic picture of sexual temptation as offering an amazing meal, comforts like we've never known, and the promise that we will never be caught and no one will know.  The path starts out feeling like we may actually be walking on something pretty satisfying and stable.

But soon you find that your foot is ensnared.  Perhaps your spouse is hurt by your behavior and wants you to stop.  Maybe you have started to have sexual difficulties because you've programmed your brain to respond to fantasy instead of reality.  If you come from a faith background you have likely often felt guilt and distance from God as a result of these behaviors.  Whatever the reason, you realize it's time to stop.  But now you can't.  Proverbs 5:22 says, "The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sin hold them fast."  You now enter into a cycle of trying to be free but continuing to return to the old behaviors, what some writers call the noose of addiction.  As Proverbs points out, you now begin to live in fear- fear of discovery, fear of failure, fear of sudden ruin and exposure.  You look around and realize that long ago you left the stable path in the sunshine.  The picture I see is the difference between running a race during the day on a track compared to stumbling along the side of a winding, crumbling mountain pass in the middle of the night, flirting with death.

Choose the Stable Path

Proverbs starts by spending so much time contrasting these two paths and warning about the difference between the two because we have such a hard time believing on an emotional and experiential level that the second path will harm us.  Even once we've felt consequences we quickly forget.  People in the world seem to be having a great time and the wicked are prospering and advancing.  Some part of us still feels we can't live without masturbation or the high from porn.  But Proverbs again and again urges us to write wisdom on the tablets of our hearts.  This means to move it from external, intellectual knowledge written on a piece of paper, to being internalized and etched into our very being.  This is to believe on a deep level that God's ways are best and to make choices accordingly.  

I was trained by Dr. Weiss to have people write thank you and goodbye letters to their addiction at the start of treatment, and it is something I utilize with almost everybody.  This is to come to a place where you understand why you initially sought the addictive behaviors and how they helped you, but that now you have discovered they were not really your friend and have only brought destruction.  God is holding out his hands and pleading with us to take him at his word, to not have to discover everything the hard way, to find life instead of death.  Even if you have gone way further on this path than you intended, God is offering you a way out.  Won't you pray that wisdom will be written on your heart so that you can walk in light, stability, blessedness and peace?

Proverbs 4:26-27- "Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil."

Proverbs 6:23-"For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light, and correction and instruction are the way to life."