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Pulling Together In A World Tearing Apart

Ending The Denial Game

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 25, 1992

Selected highlights from this sermon

Isn’t it true that in some way, we all deny who we are? We avoid blame, pain, and shame. Over time, we become accustomed to our false reality and exhibit a hardened heart, a lack of trust, and get involved in shallow friendships.

By going through Psalm 139, Pastor Lutzer shows us the way out of the pit called denial. God can help us discover who we really are.   

Jesus, the friend of a wounded heart.

I know I’m talking to wounded people today, many are here, many who are listening by radio. Wounded people exist everywhere, and Jesus is their friend.

In his book, The People of the Lie, Scott Peck talks about the fact that there are those who are educated, college trained, who nevertheless perpetrate evil that is almost indescribable. In that book which gives the horror of the evil heart, you almost feel as if, when you read it, you are looking into the pit of hell, when in point of fact all you are doing is looking into your heart and mine, because the Bible says “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”

This morning my topic is The Denial Game. A couple of words by way of introduction. First of all, denial is common to us all. Oh, I know I’m going to be talking about dysfunctional families, and refer to them occasionally, but actually all of us live in denial. There isn’t one of us here that has not at times had a great discrepancy between who we are and who we actually perceive ourselves to be.

If I could define denial, it would simply be the inability, or more accurately, the unwillingness for any one of us to see ourselves as we are. We all love illusion. We are all basically dishonest. It’s a matter of degree.

A second observation is the greater the denial, the greater the unfinished business. Some of you live with spouses who are living in denial, and you know how difficult it is. Did you know there are some people who actually perceive themselves to be very loving, very kind, very caring, and actually they are very hateful, very angry, very insecure, very demanding? And they don’t even know it because they build walls around themselves. Rationalizations. But the greater the denial, the greater the unfinished business, and today we want to begin to take care of some unfinished business.

A third observation. When you talk about extreme kinds of denial there are at least two different groups of people. First of all, there are those who are actually the perpetrators of abuse, those who do evil. Of course, they are sometimes the victimizers, we might call them. Then there are the victims, those who receive the input, the anger, the hostility, the abuse, and they are the victims. Both groups really struggle with denial. Both groups do. In this message today I’m going to be talking about various characteristics of denial, and not often taking out enough time to distinguish between them, though I will on some occasion. 

Why is it we all live with denial? Why is it we find it so difficult, so uninviting, so threatening to really be real people? The answer is, of course, first of all, we tend to lapse into denial to avoid blame. Eighty percent of child-abusers deny it when they are confronted with it. They will not admit it. Those of you who were brought up in alcoholic homes, you know what this is all about. You know how alcoholics will blame everyone else. It’s his wife’s fault. It’s his boss’s fault. It’s the children’s fault. It’s the economy’s fault. It is everybody’s fault. But remember to the mind of the alcoholic it is impossible for him to say, “It is my fault.” Because when he says the next question is, “What are you going to do about it?” and that is one thing he will not face so he projects blame to everyone else.

Denial, the inability to see ourselves for what we are actually is a part of our experience to avoid blame, but also to avoid pain, because what that means is if I see myself for what I am, it means I’m going to have to go to people whom I have wronged and ask their forgiveness. I’m going to have to try as far as possible to make things right, and I don’t want to do that because that means I actually have to face myself. And many people spend their entire lives running from who they really are to avoid pain. 

Another reason is to avoid shame. One of the most powerful human emotions is shame because when we begin to really be honest, then we struggle with the question of whether we will still be loved. Will people love me if they know who I am? And all of us have done things that are shameful. We’ve all thought things that are shameful.

You know, when you stop to think of it, if our thoughts could be put on a screen for all to see, we would all be ashamed. Think of how we would feel if there would be other people who could actually see what we are thinking, and we know in the depths of our heart there is this shame, and so we try to hide it and we try to cover it.

Now, what I’d like to do today is to give you seven characteristics of denial, and then we’re going to find out what the answer is. How do we cope with denial within the human heart? Seven characteristics.

First of all, those of you who live in denial, you will find you had emotional numbness because all of your emotions have to be put on auto pilot. They have to be put on hold because there is no way for you to really express feelings. Feelings must be denied. That child abuser has to deny what he is doing because he cannot face what he has done to his child because again it would bring forth all that pain we have talked about today. Therefore, all emotions in a home like that have to be simply shoved under the rug.

There’s an actress whose lifestyle I don’t agree with, but she’s written some incredibly accurate things about homes that are dysfunctional. She says:

As a child I was taught to ignore my emotions. Shame was put on me whenever I expressed anger, sadness, joy, or hope. I was the cause of my father’s alcoholism and irrational anger. I grew up trying to be a good little girl so that my father wouldn’t have to drink. In such a home my feelings didn’t count. I spent my time trying to maintain some kind of order in the chaotic home.

Now get this. 

The code of silence was so strong that it never entered my mind to explain my problem to the teachers. When I left the house in the morning I could act as if I was the happiest child in the world. I was not only lying to the world but to myself. We learn to lie. We lied to daddy’s boss. We lied to our friends. Though I was taught I should never lie (Get this.) no one allowed me to tell the truth. Since I was taught that my feelings were not important, I got into a marriage that was doomed from the start. When I told my family on a Wednesday that I was pregnant I was married on Friday. Quick, quick, quick so nobody in town would know. It was the saddest day of my life. 

My father was drunk at the wedding. I felt suicidal. It was silly to be married to someone who wasn’t a drunk, who wasn’t dysfunctional. I felt as if it was so wrong, I had to create a crisis, so I had an affair. 

That is very interesting because if you come from a home like that where there is all that denial, if you get into a normal relationship, you can’t handle it. You need to create a crisis, and some of you are living with mates like that who cannot handle normalcy. There has to be a crisis. But I want you to notice what it did. You shut down your feelings.

Secondly, not only emotional numbness but superficial friendships. The reason for this is obvious because in good communication, communication within the family means I reveal to you my hopes, my fears, my dreams, my disappointments, my anger. It reveals who I am. But if all that is shut off, then of course, there’s nothing to do except to talk about very superficial matters, and you never really feel you know the person with whom you are communicating.

Third, there is lack of trust. After all, if you can’t trust people who were supposed to protect you and care for you, how then can you trust others and how can you trust God? If you are writing that down—number 3, “lack of trust”—add very quickly the inability to give and to receive love. Many people are in relationships like that. Their partner or their family tries to love them, and they rebuff every attempt to love because once again love involves feeling. Love involves communication and love involves trust, and they have built a wall around themselves, and they say in effect, “I dare you to love me, and no matter what you do I will misinterpret it as rejection.” Lack of trust.

Number four, manipulation. Why? Because you must give the illusion that things are orderly, so you begin to manipulate others. If you are an abuser, you manipulate others so they do what you want and so you will not have to look at yourself. And if you are a victim, you manipulate because you have to give the illusion the charade is being acted out in your home is real. So, you begin to use other people to accomplish the things you would like to see accomplished. And you generally use guilt to manipulate others, and you make them feel whatever is wrong is their fault, and not your own.

Number five, selective listening. Here is a child who is crying out, wanting his father to understand his pain, and trying to understand what is really going on, and the father, of course, has all the information that comes to him comes through this selective grid, and it is interpreted in such a way he cannot hear the child’s pain. He is immune to it.

In that book, The People of the Lie, Scott Peck tells a story of how a father and a mother actually gave their son a Christmas present that was the very gun, the same gun his brother had used to commit suicide. They didn’t understand why it caused their son some pain and some hurt. It’s because if you are living in denial, you do not see other people’s needs. You are only concerned about how reality is interpreted from your standpoint.

Then the last two points I have referred primarily to the victimizers, not the victims. But those who are in denial often have a very critical spirit. They are critical of others because, you see, they want to minimize their own faults, and they want to maximize the faults of others, so they continue to live within that sense of satisfaction. When they hear about ministers falling into sin, such as we’ve had in the past with some of the televangelists, these kinds of people love to hear those stories because remember it is very important they remain secure in their evil, and one way to keep security is to find others who are doing the same thing, preferably others who are even doing worse so you can justify yourself and will not have to look into the mirror to see who you really are. 

Critical spirit. Remember that story of a man who left a bar half drunk, and somebody took some strong cheese and smeared it under his nose, and as he walked out into the clear night air he said, “The whole world stinks.” In other words, “Everybody else is wrong but there’s nothing wrong with me.”

Number seven, a hardened heart. You tell a lie, and your conscience bothers you. You tell enough lies and your conscience will no longer bother you. It will be something like a siren that is tied to a dying battery, and soon your conscience will be able to lie consistently, and it will not trouble you, and then you begin to live a lie, and you become totally deceived.

This is why the Bible says in the book of Hebrews we should strengthen one another, and we should take care of one another, and encourage each other, it says, “lest we be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Why is sin so deceitful? It is deceitful because we may not even be aware of our sins. In other words, there are there who are deceived because one of the characteristics of deceit is you do not know you are being deceived.

Now I want you to think of that person who has put all these walls around him like a protective shield. His body is but the shell for a spirit of denial that inhabits him, and he will not face up to who he is, no matter what his defenses are foolproof. You can’t through. Nobody seems to be able to get through. The family can’t. The church can’t. He even thinks God can’t.

Well, enough analysis. Enough, enough, enough.

Take your Bibles now and turn to Psalm 139. And I would like to outline briefly the answer to the problem of denial. Psalm 139 where David gives a remarkable account of his relationship with God.

Step number one, notice it says in Psalm 139:1, “Oh, Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.” 

Number one, admit you have been found out. You’ve been found out. Your cover is blown. God knows. God knows everything. Do you realize you can never talk about God behind His back? Do you realize there is no way you can ever get away from the Almighty, and He has scrutinized you, and He knows every single thing you have ever thought, every lie you have ever told, all the manipulation and the deceit of your heart you have been even keeping from yourself? It’s an open book to God and He sees it there in all of its ugliness, and in all of its horror. God knows. He has searched you and knows you, and there isn’t a single thing you could tell Him about yourself He does not know, and He knows a whole lot of other things you don’t even know about. You’re thoroughly known. 

In this Psalm David says, “Oh, Lord, you have searched me completely.” He says, “You know my down-sittings and my uprisings.” He says, “You see my thoughts afar off, long before I have thought them. You already know them.” He goes on to say the number of times I sit down and stand up, the words I say are known by you. “Oh God, your knowledge of me is so infinite. It would fill many good-sized libraries if it were all written out—all about me. And here I thought I was hiding.” In fact, he says, “Not only, oh God, do you know me entirely but” he says, “you know me continually. Is there no place where I can go to get away from God? Must it always be that His sight is totally riveted upon me?” He says in verse 7, “Where can I go from thy spirit, or where can I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there, and if I make my bed in Sheol, behold thou are there.”

Oh, you say, “I want to get away from God. I’m going to travel at the speed of light.” No, don’t bother. David says, “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there will thy hand lead me, and thy right hand will uphold me.”

You say, “Oh, but I do all of my evil at night.” That’s what people do, like one man I read about. He got up in the middle of the night and did his evil. His wife didn’t even know it. He left the bedroom, left the house, committed immorality, came back. She didn’t even know about it. Look at what the text says here. Psalm 139:11, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me.’” It says in verse 12, “Even the darkness is not darkness to God, and the night is as bright as the day. The darkness and the light are the same to the Almighty.”

He sees you do it at high noon and you thought nobody was watching. God has found you out. He knows you continually. He knows you entirely. He even knows you eternally. David goes on to say, “Long before I was born God knew all about me.” He says, “When I was being fashioned in my mother’s womb, and God was putting all of the sinews and the bones together, and the Lord was embroidering me (That’s what the Hebrew text means.) in my mother’s womb,” he says, “Oh God, they’re all in your book. All of my members were written before I was formed. You knew my hands. You knew my toes. You knew my mind. You knew how I would look. All of this was already a foregone conclusion before I was born. That’s how accurate your knowledge is of me.”

What’s the answer for denial? Give up the game. You have been found out. God knows. 

Number two, you ask God to help you find yourself. Ask God to help you find yourself. Look at what David says in Psalm 139:23. He says, “Search me, oh God, and know my heart.” Why? Is that a contradiction? Verse 1: “Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.” Verse 23: “Now God, search me?” No, that’s not a contradiction. In verse 1 David is saying, “Oh God, I know that you have searched me whether I wanted you or not. You didn’t need my permission. You know all things and you have searched me, but now Lord God, will you come and show me what you see? Would you show me what you see? God, I know you know all about me, but I don’t even know all about myself. There are things about myself I would never be willing to admit, but oh God, show me who I am. Bring your flashlight and let us go through the closets of my life I have tried to keep shut, all of the things I have denied, and help me to open those closet doors one by one I might finally know who I am and see the searchlights you put upon me.”

You know one of the reasons we have problems with the doctrine of hell? It’s because we say, “How can God have good people in hell forever?” That’s because of denial we say such foolish things. Do you realize once God shows people what is really in their heart throughout all of eternity in hell they will say, “God is just. I’m getting what I deserved.” Finally, they will see reality and they’ll know how bad it actually was.

That’s why everybody in the Bible who saw God always saw their own sinfulness, whether it is Isaiah in the Old Testament whom the Lord gave a revelation to, and Isaiah, you remember said, “Oh, I am a sinful man,” and the Lord God came and touched his lips because he saw his sin and God said, “Here is cleansing.”

David said essentially the same words. Peter in the New Testament said the same words. Job, you remember, said, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear but now mine eyes see of thee, wherefore I abhor myself and I repent in dust and in ashes.” (Job 42:5-6).

Everybody who sees God sees themselves, and it’s a terrible picture. That’s why number three is, receive God’s cleansing. If you are a victimizer, I want you to know Jesus can cleanse you of great evil you will not even admit to yourself. Jesus Christ will cleanse you.

We read in the New Testament just moments ago, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And when Jesus died on the cross, He not only died for victims, but He died for victimizers. What He wants you to do is to face up to who you are so He can transform you into something you can be for His glory.

Even those of you who have lived in denial because of evil that has been perpetrated upon you, I want you to know there is a cleansing for you, too. Even though you are not guilty for what happened to you. The sense of shame and impurity, Christ can come and touch you and cleanse you.

This past week a woman told me she had been abused as a child. She said only recently now in adulthood, as she had people pray for her has she sensed the cleansing of Christ to get rid of shame that was imposed upon her that was not her fault.

A moment ago, Marie sang these words: “Jesus, the friend of the wounded heart,” I want you to know today Christ is able to cleanse you from all of the things within the human heart. Now there are those of you who have a past, and there are closets that have been opened that God has cleansed. There’s no use opening those closets again, but there are many of you who are still living with a past that throttles you and controls you.

And then finally let me say, “Just let God love you, would you?” Let God love you. You see, we are so into love that is totally dependent upon performance that we say, “Well how can God love me? If you only knew.” Well, I don’t know but I want you to know God knows, and He loves you anyway. That’s grace. That’s the matchless incredible grace of God that He loves us even though He knows us so thoroughly and so completely.

You think of an iceberg. We’re told ten percent is above the water. Ninety percent is beneath it. As the sun begins to shine on that iceberg it melts the top and then the bottom begins to come up, and eventually it gets its chance to be melted too. As we allow the sunshine of God’s love to enlighten our hearts, we will find the things of the past begin to come up. God begins to siphon them off, and to take them away, and within time there is healing and there is stability, and there is forgiveness and cleansing, and there is hope. There is hope.

One day when Jesus was on earth, He was speaking to a man who was sick, crippled, and said to him, “What is it you want me to do for you?” We look at that and say, “You know, that’s sort of foolish. I mean, isn’t it obvious the man would want to be healed?” No, no, that wasn’t a foolish question because sometimes it isn’t that obvious. Remember there are some people who would much rather live with those closets of secrecy. There are those who would draw the mantle around them and say, “Not even God is going to come into my life,” and so they keep Him at a distance because they say, “I will not let God in and search me and show me what He sees.” You see, it isn’t so obvious. 

So, I ask you today, “What is it you would want God to do for you?” Jesus is the friend of the wounded heart. David says, “Search me, oh God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

There are some of you who are listening to this message who ought to get alone with God and pour out your soul and let the tears flow, and let all the bitterness and the hurt and those closed closets swing open. Spill it all in the presence of God who knows everything, and who will enable you then to pour grace into your heart and soul.

By the way, some of you don’t know what has happened in your past. You can’t remember it all. You can also take comfort in the fact that God was there, and He knows because He knows all things.

What is it you want God to do for you? Let’s pray.

Our Father, we do confess all of us live with denial. We shrink from the spotlight of your holiness. We have a great discrepancy between what we are like and what we think we are like, because reality is painful. But Lord Jesus, we thank you, too, that you know the whole story. Therefore, Lord, since we’ve been found out we want to use this moment to open our lives to you, and to simply say, “Lord Jesus, show us what you see, and then come and cleanse us and help us to deal with reality.”
May husbands and wives do that together in your presence.

Now before I close this prayer, I want you to talk to God. What is it you need to say to Him? Whatever it is, tell Him.

Lord Jesus, we thank you that you have heard us. We thank you that you know. You know. Thank you. Amen.

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