Category Archives: Religion

Did Christians Steal December 25th from Pagan Religious Celebrations of the Winter Solstice?

One of the most popular arguments you’ll encounter if you google “Why is Christmas December 25th” is that early Christians simply co-opted the Roman pagan holidays that also lands on December 25th. This post is going to dig into this idea, weigh the evidence, and offer some potential theories to explain the coinciding dates.  

Didn’t Christianity steal the 25th/winter solstice from a handful of pagan holidays?

In fact, there are a few ancient pagan feasts that land around the 25th. Sometimes these days, like Saturnalia, are included with accusations that Christianity took pagan festival dates. The biggest problem with including something like Saturnalia is that it took place between December 17th and the 23rd. Though, at the time the first liturgical calendar was written placing Christmas on the 25th, the 23rd was the date of the winter solstice. There are theories that associate the observance of Saturnalia with the Solstice itself. Though, there is no ancient documentation that asserts this directly. Either way, I will not be digging into the event because Saturnalia ended several days before Christmas. 

What Pagan Holiday was on December 25th? 

The most substantial argument for the theory points to the co-opting of Natalis Sol Invictus specifically because of the 25th date and the “birth” aspect. Natalis Sol Invictus (birth of the invincible sun) was established as a state holiday in 274 AD honoring a pagan sun god by Emperor Aurelian.

In older scholarly works I encountered the idea that Aurelian’s mother was a priestess in the Col Invictus cult, though all of the references to this idea are immediately dismissed as likely fiction based on the utter lack of supporting evidence. 

In terms of the December 25th date, the emperor made Sol Invictus the official religion of the emperors, built a temple in his honor, and ordered 30 public games be held every year. The winter solstice was chosen for Natalis Sol Invictus based on the belief that the days got longer after the solstice because Sol Invictus began to claim victory over the darkness. I’ve read that Romans burned candles at night in an effort to aid Sol Invictus in his fight. Though, I get the sense that later scholars argue this based on the Saturnalia practice of candle lighting during their festival rather than based on early sources.

What is Sol Invictus?

Sol Invictus was a relatively new religion in Rome at the time of it’s adoption by Aurelian. It was only introduced around 25 years earlier. This is important for later discussion of the theory. Though, the religion itself originated in Syria and is one of several examples of sun god worship from the area. It is possible that the Roman version is an amalgamation of the Syrian religions.  

There is a school of thought that says that Sol Invictus and the Mithras mystery religion blended together early on. It is hard to find dates or solid sources for this assertion, as Mithraism did not produce any written works at all. Most of what we know about the religion is based on excavating temples devoted to the faith. Frankly, the lack of specifics has led to a lot of (sometimes wild) conjecture about Mithraism. I tend to look at its mention with a lot of skepticism as a result. 

But don’t Christmas and Natalis Sol Invictus land on the Winter Solstice? 

The answer isn’t as obvious as you might expect. They fall on the winter solstice on the calendar system we currently use. When Aurelian set the date for the celebration on the 25th, it was after the solstice. 

At this point it is necessary to take a moment to address the weird issue with that pops up in relation to the Julian Calendar and how its inaccuracy skews the discussion somewhat. 

The Julian Calendar, so named because it was proposed by Julius Caesar as a reform of the old Roman Calendar, took effect in 45 BC and remained the standard until it was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. The issue with the Julian Calendar is that the days are .0075 too long. This results in the calendar gaining a day every 128 years.

Today the Julian calendar is about 13 days ahead of the more commonly used Gregorian.

For our discussion the discrepancy is relevant because it resulted in the Winter Solstice changing dates on the calendar. By the time the Depositio Martirum was created to document the Christian liturgical calendar, the solstice was on the 23rd. When Natlis Sol Invictus was established as an official holiday, the solstice landed on the 24th. 

Why did Aurelian establish the holiday and make Sol Invictus the emperor’s deity?

Much of the reasoning behind Aurelian’s move was to strengthen his position as emperor and encourage unity. Aurelian’s reign took place during a chaotic time in Roman history. Quite a few scholars agree that he was attempting to unify the empire through religious revival. His efforts were aimed at breathing new life into pagan religions, which were in sorry shape among the average citizen. 

Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, describes the integration of paganism into every facet of society as well as the plethora of temples, holidays, and associated community norms. He then goes on to say “Despite these appearances the ancient faith was diseased any the bottom and at the top. The deification of emperors revealed not how much the upper classes thought of their rulers, but how little they thought of their gods. Among educated men philosophy was whittling away belief even while patronizing it.” He goes on to describe how Greek and Roman poets mocked the gods in their work and the common men simply didn’t fear the them. This doesn’t mean that the population abandoned the temples or fortune tellers. Rather, much of the ritual observances were observed primarily out of superstition. Everyone consulted the signs and made sacrifices, but there was little in the way of devotion. 

Elsewhere Durant connects the phenomena to the popularity of Judaism in the Roman world. Despite it being illegal to evangelize, the Jewish faith attracted large numbers of adherents and converts, which are typically known as “God fearers” in jewish writings and the Bible. Arguably, the same reasoning applies to Christianity which was growing rapidly despite it being illegal and actively persecuted.

By adding a new religion to the Roman Empire and filling it with enormous pomp and spectacle, Aurelian hoped to unify the nation under their pagan heritage. He was personally devoted to the Sol Invictus cult, which would explain his choice. 

Did Christians adopt the day of Sol Invictus and why?

I’m going to go ahead and say that they did not adopt the pagan holiday. My reasoning will be laid out in the rest of this post. As to why they would do it, the theory that the church coopted the pagan festival did so because of it’s popularity among pagans. The theory itself doesn’t appear until the 1800s.

Most supporters of this position support some variant of the belief that Christianity and the story of the life of Jesus adopted other religious traditions and beliefs in order to create Christianity. The underlying assumption is that the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are fictional, late creations. Full disclosure: I don’t agree with this perspective. Archeology and ancient documentary evidence stand in strong contradiction to the idea that the church was invented from whole cloth after the 2nd century. It’s a nonsense position.

Another version of the theory is that Christians simply adopted Roman Pagan days in order to make it more palatable to pagans who Constantine forced to  convert. It is also sometimes that the adoption of the holidays made it easier for pagans to convert. 

Finally, there are scholars that suggest that Christians took the dates of pagan holidays for their feast days because it made it possible for them to observe their celebrations without raising the ire of their neighbors or the government. 

Is there any evidence supporting the arguments that Christians adopted pagan days?

There are no actual documents, neither primary or secondary sources, asserting that any of the stuff preceding section took place. As best I can tell the idea that Christianity simply took on a pagan holiday began with the fact that the earliest mention of December 25th was in the codex that contained various calendars from the ancient Roman Empire. The codex, which is called the Chronograph, dates to around 354 AD and contains the Depositio Martirum. Because they have no earlier mentions of the date, the assumption is that the church started celebrating around that time. 

In terms of arguments, this one is not particularly compelling for several reasons. The first is that the Chronograph, is also the first time we find Natalis Sol Invictus documented as being observed own December 25th. This means that the same argument could be applied in the reverse with exactly the same amount of evidence to support the conclusion. 

The second reason the argument lacks strength is that it ignores the the extensive documentary evidence that the early church was very careful to avoid any associations with paganism or idolatry. Early Christians did not attend public games or any festivals.

The 1st century church struggled with whether or not believers could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, lest it be perceived as paganism. Many of the documented battles with heresies, beginning with the late 1 century on, deal with attempts to integrate the mystery religions into the church beliefs and practices.

The culture of the early church simply did not have the sort of attitude

that would allow them to change to make it easier for pagans to convert. To summarize: not only is there no evidence that they integrated paganism for popularity sake, the truth is quite the opposite. There is tons of evidence that they did not.  

Any arguments about Constantine making Christianity the official religion or altering the holidays to attract pagans are utterly lacking in any basis in reality. Constantine converted and made the church legal. He did not force the faith on empire. Further, the early church fathers did not suddenly become different people with the Edict of Milan. There is also no evidence that he tampered with the liturgical calendar. 

My thoughts on the coinciding dates:

Though this is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the matter, I will offer final points regarding the coinciding dates. I encountered some interesting arguments suggesting that it was possible that Aurelian actually adopted the December 25th date based on the growing popularity of Christianity.

The reasoning goes that Aurelian chose the date to blunt the impact of a significant Christian feast day. Durant described the decline of paganism in the ancient world as well as the growth of Judaism (which did not evangelize) and Christianity (which was illegal outright).

Christianity did not need to adopt paganism to attract followers, as it was attracting them despite everything that was done to stop it. Ancient paganism, on the other hand, was not growing. Aurelian sought to create a pagan revival to staunch the bleeding and prop up the old faiths specifically to create stability.

Further, adopting pagan practices was out of character for the early church, but it was quite common for ancient pagan religions to adopt pieces of other faiths. Though, as compelling as this argument is, it is inferred based on events rather than received from primary or secondary sources. 

Further, we know that around 325 AD the Council of Nicaea adjusted the official calendar to recognize that the winter solstice was on the 23rd, not the 25th. This suggests that the solstice was already connected to the birth of Christ, but that they followed the calendar date rather than the solstice itself. However, at the time Jesus was born (in 1 BC probably) the winter solstice would have landed on the 25th. This would explain why the two were connected. 

However, I have yet to see a good explanation as to why Sol Invictus lands on the 25th based on the winter solstice, which was a central point to the religion itself. Further, when it was declared a holiday the solstice was on the 24th, which suggests that there may have been another reason for selecting the date. 

Finally, the earliest supportable mention of a specific date regarding the conception of Jesus being on March 25th (9 months from the December 25th birth date) is found in the work of Sextus Julian Africanus from around the late 2nd or early 3rd century. This places the potential origin of a December 25th birth date around 50 years before Sol Invictus arrived in Rome. 

TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)

  • Assertions that Christians coopted December 25th because of the the Natalis Sol Invictus religious holiday are totally lacking and documentary evidence for support. There are no ancient sources that make any claim that even implies that this took place. 
  • The argument used to support the claim is based on the fact that we first see December 25th as the date for Christmas in a codex from 354 AD. Due to the preceding silence on the date, the argument is made that this is when Christians adopted December 25th and that they did so because pagans already observed the date. This is a poor piece of reasoning.
  • The further flaw with the previous point is that codex from 354 is also the first time we encounter documentary evidence placing Natalis Sol Invictus on December 25th, meaning the weak argument could be applied in reverse. 
  • There is documentary evidence supporting the idea that the church already recognized December 25th much earlier than the establishment of the holiday by Aurelian, or even the introduction of Sol Invictus to Rome. 
  • Roman Paganism was rotting from top to bottom and had been for hundreds of years. Natalis Sol Invictus was established in an effort the revitalize paganism and reunite Rome. Christianity on the other hand was a growing faith, attracting pagans to its membership despite being an illegal faith. There was no reason for Christians to take on pagan trappings to attract converts. They were doing so already.
  • All of the documentary evidence from the early church points to a steadfast resistance to any integrating of the pagan and Christian faiths. To adopt a pagan holiday was utterly out of character for the church, but for ancient pagans to integrate beliefs or practices they encountered was very much the norm. 
  • If you don’t like my points here, read the article and engage my arguments. 
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Training Hard for the Fight: A Pastor’s Guide

In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.

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Sermon Link: From Rubble to Return

This week’s sermon on Nehemiah 10, dealing with the Jewish people’s community commitment to obey and submit to God’s law after returning from exile and restoring the walls of Jerusalem. The message looks at the Hebrews’ repentance, compares it to repentance in modern believers, and talks about how God provides restoration through faith in Jesus. 

Preached by Erik Sietsema at Big Sandy Community Church of God in Montana On 8/16/15.

Click the Image To Listen to the Message


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Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training


A Patchingcracks Post

 Several friends of mine have been employed by gyms. All of them have shared similar, very funny stories about gym members who show up regularly, dressed in the finest of exercise clothes, spouting workout advice to anyone who will listen, though never seeming to manage to work out themselves. These folks maintain an expensive gym membership, show up regularly, but it makes no discernible difference in their everyday lives. The reason for this lack of impact should be obvious: even though these folks look and talk the part of the fitness fanatic, their lack of exercise yields the predictable results. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s nothing new. James acknowledges the phenomena amongst 1st century Christians when he wrote that anyone who hears the word, but doesn’t do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, but immediately forgets what he looks like. The idea is that the man hears what God expects of him and is shown his sin, but doesn’t bother to live differently as a result of the revelations. Churches are far too frequently heavily populated by folks with memberships, who wear their finest church clothes as they faithfully show up and offer spiritual advice to those around them, but never manage to grow spiritually by putting into action the teachings of Jesus. Dallas Willard attributes this phenomena to the decision amongst church leaders to teach that discipleship is an optional part of following Christ. Essentially, the modern church has chosen to teach its attenders that Jesus can be their Savior, without being their Lord. The emphasis has been that we need only believe in Jesus to be saved. This is absolutely true, but it is only part of the picture. Because if we truly believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to take punishment for our sins, then we must also recognize the rest of His teachings, including the demand that we claim Him as our Lord and take on the yoke of His teachings. These two ideas change everything, but they can be tough to understand without proper context.  

Lord: In the ancient world, if someone was your “lord” it meant that they were your master. You obeyed their will as your ultimate, totally authoritative boss. Paul is not overstating the concept in the least when he calls himself a slave to Christ. In this modern western world, this word conjures images of an abusive overseer, but this is not accurate to who Christ is. He is a loving, self-sacrificing master who lays down His life for His followers. He bids us to love Him and each other as He has loved us. Now, it’s important to recognize that loving is not synonymous with permissive. A loving parent doesn’t let their kids run wild. Rather, they discipline and teach their children, helping them to grow/mature into good people and prepare them for the rest of their life. The same is true of Christ, who leads us to become what God created us to be and prepares us to enjoy life with God. Jesus being our lord is a total life commitment, not an image or part time commitment.The Yoke of His Teachings: A yoke is a large piece of wood that lays across the neck of an ox or other beast of burden. The yoke transforms the effort of the oxen into work, by moving a plow, hauling a cart, or turning a millstone. Ancient students were said to take on the “yoke” of their teacher when they learned the teachings of their masters. Essentially, Jesus is calling us to take on His teachings, that turn our efforts into something valuable. That something valuable is our maturing into people who have hearts like Jesus’. It is also our good works that make our world look like the kingdom of heaven. Taking on Jesus’ yoke means learning/living/loving His teachings. It is a lifestyle of training for heaven. The good news is that Jesus describes His yoke as “easy” and the burden of His teachings as “light.” It doesn’t crush us, though there are those who think it ought to and try to change the teachings of Jesus into something that is unbearable. 

For everyone who chooses to call themselves a Christian and align themselves with Jesus, discipleship and growth is essential. Jesus was serious when He said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” He was also serious when He warned that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, lord” will be accepted into heaven. There are those who He will turn away saying: “I never knew you.” Discipleship is following Christ, not earning heaven. It is the call to all who identify Him as Savior.  

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5 Principles for Disciplining Children

10362863_10152240653161599_2278280600722933084_n  The day after my daughter’s second birthday, something crazy happened. My sweet little princess almost instantly transformed. She went to bed a cute ball of sugar and cuteness. She woke up the next day a tiny tyrant, complete with temper tantrums, stomping and screaming, throwing herself on the floor, and occasionally pulling handfuls of hair out. I haven’t figured out what caused the change, I’m pretty sure there was something in the cake. The terrible twos had begun and there was no going back.

I’ll admit that deep down I wonder if she will grow out of it, or if I will raise her into one of those adults who throws tantrums at the grocery store because the line is too long. This shift has prompted a number of discussions between my wife and I on the matter of proper discipline. We don’t always agree on the right way to discipline, but we agree that correction is important to raising a child who has learned how to live and act properly. Here are some of the basic concepts that come into play in our discipline strategy.

Discipline is an act of love. As tough as it seems, discipline is a loving response to incorrect behaviors. The author of Hebrews points this out.

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”   Hebrews 12:5-6

God demonstrates wise parenting by redirecting behaviors to change the direction of those he loves. Discipline turns us from decisions, behaviors, and attitudes that could potentially cause us great harm. Ignoring destructive behavior or responding in a manner that is inadequate to change the behavior may feel nicer than punishment, but it brings more pain when ingrained behaviors need to be relearned later.

IMG_2431Discipline is best when it instructs. One of the clearest memories I have of being disciplined as a child was that it was always followed by my parents sitting with me and explaining the purpose for the correction and basic instruction on how to behave.

Discipline must be proportional. There is a hard balance to manage with children and discipline. Micromanaging a child crushes them. Responding to minor infractions with huge punishments is out of proportion and will only result in either a crushed sense of independence or resentment. The real objective is a chance of direction. Paul presents this idea in the household code he included in his epistle to the Ephesians.

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Ephesians 6:4

Discipline must be timely. Discipline must be clearly associated with the behavior for it to be effective. The age of a child is important to take into account when determining timely discipline. A 3-year old doesn’t do as well associating consequences with behaviors the further apart they take place. Correcting a toddler for behaviors that took place a week ago simply won’t be effective. They don’t think that way. Teenagers, on the other hand, are a little more mentally advanced and can associate consequences with actions that are a little more removed. Another important component of timeliness is the emotional state of the child at the time of correction. It always makes me scratch my head when I watch a parent trying to reason with a child in the middle of a full tilt tantrum. Tantrums are the point where thinking isn’t going to happen. Period. Instruction at this time will not correct the behavior.

IMG_0912Consistency is key. Children are keenly aware of how you are going to respond. They know if they can get away with things because you aren’t going to respond. Further, sending mixed messages will only confuse them. There is a degree to which discipline is classical conditioning. Inconsistency will undermine the conditioning component. If you make a threat of punishment and don’t follow through, you will have more trouble in the future. If parents are openly divided on discipline issues, the child will recognize it and figure out how to work the division to their advantage. It’s necessary to figure out your approach and stick with it.

Remember that you love your kid. When your child picks the worst possible moment and way to act out, it’s hard to remember that you are responding out of a desire to correct their behavior so they will be successful adults. Kids have an innate skill for driving their parents nuts. The only reason they can do this is because they are so precious to us. When other people’s kids have tantrums, I don’t pull my hair out the same way I do with my own. It’s harder because we love them.

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Willy Wonka and Lasting Happiness

willy_wonka___gene_wilder_by_94cape69-d7b1h0cOne of my favorite books and movies of all time is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I particularly love the way that the story depicts the children who visit the chocolate factory for the tour, with four of the five children suffering from glaring personality flaws. For example, Verruca Salt is a spoiled brat who gets everything she wants, but still wants more, or Augustus Gloop, who eats ravenously and is never satisfied. Several times while I was working as a youth pastor, I showed this film to groups of kids and asked them which of the children was probably happiest. Typically, the kids would respond that the characters who got whatever they wanted were the happiest. The reasoning seems obvious: If you always get what you want, you’ll be happy. After further discussion, most students recognize that the characters who always get whatever they want aren’t truly happy. Whenever they get what they want, their bliss passes quickly and they move on to the next want. Their happiness never lasts. For example, Verruca would decide she wanted a pony or some toy. Her father would give it to her and she would respond by asking for something else. When she got what she wanted, she would again ask for something else. All happiness that is found in possessions or circumstances is temporary. It must then be followed up with some new possession or experience in order to sustain the happiness. Verruca is a bit of a caricature, but demonstrates the concept well. In addition, we see real life examples of this every Christmas, when the internet has been replete with examples of teenagers complaining to Twitter and Facebook about how terrible their parents are for giving them the wrong color of iPod or that they received gifts instead of cash. Another common example is found in folks that run up huge debts buying new cars, clothes, and toys that they will never be able to pay for. They keep doing it because they need more stuff to be ok in life, as the happiness passes from their original purchase.

It’s like a mosquito bite. You scratch the itch and it feels better momentarily, only to begin itching again. The more you scratch the itch, the worse it gets, until your skin is raw and bleeding.charlie Attempting to sustain our happiness through temporary means produces the same result in our soul. We scratch the itch over and over again, only to find that the practice changes us. It leaves us emptier than we were when we started. The reason that this pathway to happiness can never work is because it is an attempt to fill an emptiness in the soul. Philosopher Blaise Pascal describes it as a void that God had intended to  occupy. Everyone has it. The problem is that only God can properly fill it. We can mask the emptiness with possessions, experiences, or alcohol, but in the end, it always comes back. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that he had learned the secret to living in any circumstance, whether he was poor or rich, hungry or well fed. It’s worth noting that he wrote this while sitting in a maximum security prison facing the possibility and being executed for preaching about Jesus. He still was able to point to a contentment that was not based on his experience. That contentment was found in his relationship with Jesus and the hope he had for eternity with Christ. Paul relied on God for all of his needs. He recognized physical discomfort as a temporary condition that would pale in comparison to heaven. When he was hungry or in pain, he looked to God for context and relief. Ultimately, this resulted in Paul becoming the sort of person that could be content and joyful no matter what befell him. This lasting joy stands in stark contrast to the temporary satisfaction we feel when we get a new toy, eat a delicious meal, or go on a stellar vacation. Even more impressive is that this lasting joy is free and available to anyone who would simply choose to engage in relationship with Christ.

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The Fatal Component of Addiction is Denial

One of the more difficult to grasp concepts about addiction is denial. denialDenial is the component of addiction that is actually fatal. This seems counterintuitive, because addiction typically features all sorts of destructive patterns and practices that seem to the part of addiction that kills you, but the reality is that what kills the addict is the inability to recognize the severity of the situation.

Denial is a thinking mechanism that enables the addict to effectively lie to themselves. All sorts of terrible things happen to the addict, like health problems, legal consequences, relationships disintegrating, loss of employment, or financial problems. These are often directly connected to the addict’s behaviors. Even highly functional addicts experience problems, but deterioration is inevitable. Because their addiction demands more and more of their attention and energy, they are unable to invest in their social and work obligations. Regardless of how bad things get for the addict, denial prevents them from associating their difficulties with using or to recognize that they have developed a serious problem. It’s not intentional, but rather the product of their illness that keeps them focused on everything except the connection between addiction and their problems. Because of denial, the addict gets sicker and sicker without recognizing it. Eventually, it is the lack of recognition that prevents them from working to stop their addictive patterns and results in their death. Denial is fatal because it keeps the addict from seeking help. They anesthetize themselves against most of the pain of consequences by using and blame the rest on other causes.

Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.

There are other ways that denial can be broken. For example, interventions put the consequences and impact of the addict’s behavior in front of them in order to force them to face up to reality. They are told about the effects their addiction is having on their loved ones, which prevents them from avoiding the reality of the situation. Another way for breaking denial is by convincing an addict to start treatment through motivational interviewing or other therapeutic techniques, but ultimately they cannot make progress until their denial is dealt with. Facing the consequences of their actions is an important component of beginning recovery. As long as they are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, they cannot begin to wake up to the severity of the situation.
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