Imagine someone who so feels they have failed at life that they escape the shame of the real world by immersing themselves in a virtual one (where there is some measure of success, relational pleasure, community, and so on). Imagine how this person’s consciousness of this ongoing neglect of responsibility only compounds the shame and guilt. And then imagine the impact of using insult to try to get him to stop playing his “stupid, childish” games (not an uncommon approach). This is not helpful. This is not the gospel way of applying grace and truth through kindness (Rom. 2:4), and it ignores the need to get to know people well if you are to be helpful to them.
In my last article, I presented a paradigm for understanding fantasy-addiction: the impulse towards pleasure over displeasure is the unifying theme between addicts and non-addicts. The difference is a matter of degree. There is no temptation that is not common to man (1 Cor. 10:13).
The goal, then, in getting to know why someone is addicted to a fantasy world (such as video games) is twofold: 1. What particular pleasures they are pursuing in their books, games, movies, etc. that they do not seem to find (or find as easily) in real life? 2. What displeasures in real life are they avoiding, running from, escaping? You can learn a lot about what an addict likes about their fantasy world by finding what they dislike about the real one. In sum, you want to know what makes their virtual reality better than real reality.
This process of getting to know people well is usually a long one, regardless of whether the person’s problem is addiction, lying, anger, or whatever. And expect lots of rationalizations and other forms of self-deception (e.g., “I’m only having some fun. Everyone needs to have some fun sometimes.” “I’m not hurting anyone. The kids can take care of themselves. I can help if something crazy happens.” Etc.) Be prepared to love people for the long haul. But once you can identify what the draw is for them, you can begin to work on repentance (although it should be said that the process of identifying the specific reasons for addiction is part of repentance; it is good fruit).
Back to God
Whatever you find as you get to know the fantasy-addict in your life, remember this: whatever you are calling them out of, you are ultimately calling them back to God, not responsibility, not consequences, not “reality,” but God. God is the only valid reason to engage with the real world over against an artificial one. God is the ultimate reality and the ultimate pleasure, and he is therefore both the ground and the end goal of our engagement with the real world. Because of this, there is a sense in which the real world is always better than a fantasy world, because fantasy worlds do not include God, the living God. They might include a very accurate, compelling rendition of that God (e.g., Narnia), but a rendition is not the real thing. It is a pointer, a signpost calling you to eventually leave the fantasy world to return to the real God in the real world to live the real life He’s really calling you to live. (Of course, most fantasy worlds do not even include this much overt reference to God.) In any case, you are not only calling folks from a Godless world to God’s world, but to the God of this world.
God is the great appeal of the real world, but this isn’t to say that the real world isn’t harder, more painful, or less interesting than a fantasy world. The real world is painful. I, for one, would rather not be here. The achievements God calls me to are far more difficult than anything I’ll face in a video game – mortifying sin is much harder than defeating the hordes of Mordor. Raising an army is much easier than raising a child. And the consequences of failure are much greater. It’s risky. I can respawn in a video game by simply pressing “A” on my controller. Rebuilding a marriage I’ve let go to ruins – that’s another story. Real life is intimidating.
Although I don’t want to be here, there is a sense in which I have no choice, because God has called me here. And He, Himself, has taken on the real world as a real Man – walked in my shoes, as it were. There is both a rebuke and a comfort here. If God doesn’t exempt Himself from the hardships of reality, who am I to do so? At the same time, who could better understand my desire for a better reality than the only One who has ever experienced such a thing? He knows the desire to escape, for He has suffered and been tempted at all points as we have (yet was without sin – Heb. 2:14-18). He therefore does not stand back and coldly demand compliance, but rather bids us come, get help from Someone Who’s been there (Heb. 4:14-16). This is part of the gospel call to those who are tired of life as we know it: come to the One Who lived this life best, and He will help you live it well.
The End Goal
What’s more, He makes it worth my while. You see, not only does Christ know how undesirable this world can be, He’s in the business of redeeming this broken reality and bringing it all back to Himself. Christ who walked the narrow road for me did so for the joy set before Him – the joy of bringing His Father glory by redeeming a people for Himself and putting the world to rights. And He offers this joy to me, if I would come after Him (John 15:11; 17:13 in context). If I would lose my virtual life, take up the cross of reality – reality as God defines it – and follow Him, I will find His river of delights (Psa. 36:8-9). I will find that this “beautiful inheritance” is far more appealing, far more worthwhile than anything any alternative has to offer, so that I can say, “I have no good apart from You,” and “in Your presence is fullness of joy, and at Your right hand are pleasures forever more” (Psa. 16). Not only does Christ understand my plight, but He offers me a better option.
Joining Christ in His pursuit of this joy necessarily means I serve Him in the here-and-now, if I am to join him in His joy-to-come. I must participate in the redemption process. The promises (and warnings!) of the gospel remind me that there is good reason to adopt God’s agenda for my life over my own preferences for easy achievements and cheap relationships (or whatever keeps me locked in to my device). And it is the power of this gospel that first opens my eyes to see that someone or something other than God has taken the wheel of my heart and is driving me to neglect the things to which God has called me. It shows me that I am serving some desire for relational or competitive or other pleasure in God’s place. Or perhaps it shows me I am serving some aversion to (i.e. desire to avoid) the discomforts and hardships of everyday life rather than serving the God who calls me to everyday love of Himself and others. The gospel calls me to abandon my idolatrous escapes and to live out the new life I’ve been given in Christ by engaging with the real people in the real world who need my real-life love.
Forgiveness and Rest
Finally this gospel tells me I can be forgiven for my sinful neglect and obsession. It tells me that God will pardon the allegiance of my heart to these idols of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. And it tells me God calls me “wanted,” “beloved,” “successful-at-righteousness” – all in Christ, all because of Christ’s achievements, all because Christ brings me into a real relationship with a real God that has real consequences for life and death that are really worth acting on. The gospel presents me with the only reality worth engaging with, and it gives me the only valid strength and motivation to so engage. Ultimately, coming back to the real world is the only way to find the rest I so desire, because I am no longer the one doing the work; Christ is. It no longer depends on me; it depends on Christ. I have hope outside my own ability to achieve, to form happy relationships, to blend in with a community, and so on – my hope is Christ. This is the truly better reality, and this is what we offer those who are trying to escape it.