The Hide & Seek of Coping Mechanisms

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A Note from the Editors: Pastor Scott Sauls has said the following: “Studies indicate that when we suffer mental illness alone, the results can be tragic, even horrific. When we suffer inside a support system, however – when we bring our pain and sorry and stress into the light in the context of redemptive community – the chances of coping well become exponentially higher.” Far too often in recent months, Americans have experienced the tragic and horrific results of untreated mental illness even as we struggle with mental health challenges in our own hearts and homes. Mental illness isolates the sufferer and destroys community at every level, from friendship to family to church to city. Teenagers are at the forefront of this epidemic. At Rooted, we seek to be a small part of your support system, just as you seek to support and encourage the students in your care. This week, we will share articles that examine different facets of mental health, remembering that no matter the challenges we face, we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.

 

Recently, I had the honor of teaching on self-injury in teens at a church that is taking wonderful steps to equip their parents and small group leaders. On Wednesday nights for four weeks, they gathered for dinner and then invited various Christian counselors to come share with them on topics such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and other issues they see their teens wrestling with.

As I sat down for the first time to prepare for my talk, it occurred to me how very tempting it is to start with the “why” of self-injury.

I’d read several books and numerous research studies. I’d considered my clinical experience. And I’d actually asked a couple of friends and students what they’d want to communicate to a group of parents about their relationship with self-injury. I was equipped with piles of information and a deep hope to convey a clear understanding of it.

And then, I realized I was doing exactly what I hoped not to do (yes, Romans 7 is a favorite chapter of mine). I was reducing self-injury into a logic-problem to be solved, which by proxy often reduces those who struggle with self-injury to objects to be fixed.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat across from someone in the clinic who says, “If I could just figure out why I…” Why I keep lying to those I love. Why I keep stealing things. Why I have so much anxiety. Why I keep going to pornography. Why I keep purging. Why I can’t commit.

And how often have I, myself, thought this?

But the reality is, this question deceives us into starting at the wrong place. And inherently, it reduces the complexity of human beings and indicates that the power for healing and change lies within our own logic. This question leads us to myopically focus on understanding the coping mechanisms themselves (the lying, the stealing, etc.), instead of more beneficially considering the larger story at work.

Don’t misunderstand me: I do not want to communicate that there is anything wrong with desiring to understand. We are image bearers who are made for order and for integrity, for wholeness and for deep knowing.

However, we are also image bearers whose first attempt to deal with our sin was to hide, to manage, and to control. Those fig leaves weren’t just for show!

I want to suggest that Genesis offers us a reframe of the conversation about our coping mechanisms, beyond the why. A coping mechanism is a way we deal with something we cannot tolerate, or need support in. It might sound surprising, but self-injury is a coping mechanism that serves a purpose just like those fig leaves served a purpose. So, let’s begin by considering the question God asks Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 3:9.

At this point in Genesis, we find that Adam and Eve have decided to do their own thing, to disobey God and take what they wanted in their own time, in their own way. And this rebellion has ushered sin and death into the world, and into the human race. They are no longer naked and unashamed, nor free from self-consciousness and fear.

The first thing they do is hide.

And true to His character, the first thing God does is seek.

Now, we need to consider Who is doing this seeking. This is Yahweh, the all-knowing, all-powerful God who has no need Himself to ask any questions. He knows exactly where His creations are, and He knows what has happened. So, what do we make of this question, “Where are you?”

Let’s first imagine how He could have responded – how we so often respond to ourselves when we find ourselves doing that thing we don’t want to do, or how we sometimes respond to our students when they struggle in the same way yet again.

Yahweh doesn’t ask them: Why are you hiding? And He doesn’t shame them: What is wrong with you? You’re so ridiculous! And He doesn’t lecture them: Didn’t I tell you not to eat of the tree? And He doesn’t yank their fig leaves away: Stop that hiding!

Instead, He invites connection and engagement. He invites conversation.

Where are you?

What an incredible invitation to relationship, a glorious reflection of His relational, Trinitarian nature. He invites His creatures to be seen and known. He invites them to be found.

It can be so tempting to come at a negative or maladaptive coping mechanism like self-injury with the pruning shears of our minds. Ready to cut out the “bad” in our own time and in our own way, we wield whatever we can to try to control the problem. We employ logic, alternative behaviors, rationalizing, spiritualizing, and even Scripture in an attempt to eradicate the problem. (And again, please do not hear me saying that there isn’t a place for some of these things, but we often look to them primarily as our source of change.)

But what if we began, instead, asking the question, “Where are you?” to one another, and to ourselves? For this is certainly the question we are asked by Yahweh, also.

Shame cycles spin us further and further into a bind, tempting us to try to gain control any way we can. Once the “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop this? I am so worthless” thought pattern begins, it is very difficult to escape. And we find ourselves in need of the rescue only Jesus can provide, just as Paul does at the end of Romans 7.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-25)”

We are invited back, time and again, to be fully seen and known, to be face to face with God through Christ. We have been pursued in the most extreme way through Jesus, and the Who of God is our truest hope for healing, change, and wholeness.

Destructive ways of relating to ourselves and others can become a sort of fig-leaf identity where we hide. We can actually begin believing that our identity is in these things, or in our inability to conquer these things. Internally, we might hear “I’m just a bulimic.” “I’m a cutter.” Or “I’m just a worthless dude with no self-control.”

But it is essential to recognize that those fig leaves (those coping mechanisms) serve a purpose for us. They are effective even if they are harmful. But they are not the end of the story.

As I will elaborate on tomorrow in a companion article to this one (Understanding Self-Injury), we must be curious about the purpose our coping mechanisms are serving as we attempt to eradicate them from existence with our behavior changes, our logic, or our spiritualizing; otherwise, we are merely replacing them with different fig leaves, different versions of control and hiding. And we must surround ourselves with the body of Christ and with the truth of His word that always, always invites us back to Jesus, the One who graciously asks, “Where are you?”

He comes not with shaming remarks, not with angry fig-leaf-tearing actions, nor with the demand that we explain to Him “why”; He comes with a cross. He comes with the grace that pursues us to the ends of the earth and beyond, and that renames us, “Beloved.” He comes with the power that tells death it will never have the final say. He comes with hope. Through Him, we know that our fig leaves are not the end of our story, but face-to-face knowing and peace are the end of our story. Through Him, coping mechanisms become places we are seen, met, loved, forgiven, and invited to new life time and again. In Him, we are found, and we can finally rest.

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