John Keith Miller: Sin-Disease Ninja Assassin

Coming from a family of origin that embraced loud verbal conflict as some sort of love language, I still find myself overcome with emotion from time to time whenever a spirited conversation doesn’t go quite the way I think “it ought to.” In those moments, I occasionally make the most outrageous statements. Just a few days ago, I came out with a long-held belief that, “Christian ministry is very often the final refuge of the scoundrel.” (Honestly, there are days where I shouldn’t even be allowed to leave my house.)

While quips such as these are often an overstatement of what I really think, I actually believe that Christian ministry work can be chock-full of sincere people who nevertheless refuse to deal with layers of underlying emotional garbage that has screwed up their lives – and the lives of others – for decades, perhaps going back as far as that individual can remember. Because “I am working for the Lord” becomes the operational understanding by which a person lives, he or she can easily be self-deceived into thinking that they “have arrived,” spiritually speaking, and dismiss any negative feedback or other evidence that contradicts this understanding.

John Keith Miller

John Keith Miller might politely beg to disagree.

Born in Tulsa on April 19, 1927, “Keith” (as he was known most of his life) died from pancreatic cancer on January 22, 2012, in Austin, Texas at the age of 84. In between, he was a high-achieving professional in the oil industry, a seminary student, a successful author, a sought-after speaker, and the recipient of advanced degrees in psychology and counseling. All the while, according to Miller himself, he was living in the deepest realms of denial, “successfully” suppressing a wide range of character defects that ultimately burst forth in his early 40’s, leaving him with a divorce and a devastated career. According to the J. Keith Miller bio on ChristianBook.com, “[Keith] began questioning how somebody who lives to know and do the will of God could be so self-destructive and present such a false face to others.”

As you might surmise, reading A Hunger for Healing by Keith Miller is no light, airy walk in the park. Casting off the customary niceties of analytical distance, Miller is someone who digs deep, stripping away his own barriers of self-protection…and encouraging us to do the same. His approach is certainly not for the timid or for the person who still clings tightly to the unbiblical belief that he or she is “a pretty good person.” Miller knows better. He had outwitted himself so successfully (and for so long) that he knows all the buttons and levers with which “the sin-disease” operates. This guy doesn’t miss a trick.

One of Miller’s central conceits is that all Christians should be continuously working the 12 Steps, which most readers will automatically associate with Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery or similar programs.

But Miller doesn’t let “normal Christians” off the hook by affirming that the 12 Steps are reserved only for those with crippling addictions to alcohol, drugs, pornography or other forms of abuse. Instead, he suggests that all sin should be treated as a disease, a plague upon the human race that mars and distorts the original intent of God’s good and perfect Creation. Because we all sin, Miller argues, we are all defective in the ways and means with which we interact with the world. The person who fudges a few numbers on his tax return is just as sick with sin-disease as the guy shooting heroin. The junkie may be in greater danger of physical death, yes, but all are in danger of the spiritual collapse that comes by way of thinking that we are, after all, “not that bad.”

A Hunger for Healing

I’ve often said that addicts have a distinct advantage over those with “less visible” sins in that the consequences of the sin-disease are manifestly obvious to all…even the addict. A woman who simply cannot stop herself from sleeping with every guy she meets is far more likely to come to recognize the defects in her character long before the guy who makes himself feel better by sharing embarrassing tidbits of information about his rivals (real or perceived) at work.

Miller’s own testimony is such that he offers the world a powerful look inside the mind and soul of a self-deceived Christian. He would be the first to acknowledge that it was God’s mercy to break him of his delusions and bring him to see himself as hopelessly addicted to prestige, compulsion, works-righteousness and controlling behavior.

In the several years of my own recovery from alcohol and drugs, I was previously content to establish a track record of “sobriety” which started – and stopped – with not drinking booze and not ingesting any unprescribed medications or narcotics. In effect, I was “the now-sober guy” who continued to run around with the same emotions and character defects that took me to the bottom of a bottle in the first place. “Dry drunks” can operate efficiently for years, even decades: “What do you mean I’m screwed up? I kicked the habit 17 years ago!” Yeah…not so fast there, slick.

As you might imagine, I’ve read quite a few books on alcoholism, drug abuse and other addictions. And there are many good ones out there, some of which I personally found to be life-saving in the early years of recovery. Too often, though, the efforts we make to recover from something as obvious as addiction to substances or pornography focus almost entirely on changing the abusive behaviors, which of course is in and of itself a good thing. The problem, from what I can gather from Miller, is that we tend to stop once the outrageous behavior dissipates: “I’m sober now…all’s well that ends well.”

Miller, with his keen eye and unblinking gaze, was not content merely to control his outward behavior. Instead, he had the courage to believe that God loved and accepted him “as is,” so much so that he was willing to take a deep dive into the various dark corners of his heart that hid his inner motives. Unmasking the soul is a frightening business, but if we believe that we are loved and accepted by God, there is no corner so dark that we need fear what we might find. It’s one thing to chop down a “tree” of our own sinfulness. It’s quite another to get out the shovel and start digging up the roots. Thankfully, Miller left behind some pretty sharp shovels.

God speaks in Jeremiah 17:5-10 (ESV)

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Jesus speaks in Matthew 23:25-28

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

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