practicing change

As addicts, part of our experience of powerlessness was our inability to change ourselves. This failure to change, I believe, resulted from looking for change in the wrong places.

One place we looked for change was in powerful experiences. We would go on retreats, make large purchases, move house (or to another country), change our relationship status, go on an exotic and spiritual expedition, bring ourselves to the point of painful and emotional tears, put ourselves through extravagant therapeutic or other sensory treatments, and on and on. But we eventually found that, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. We would eventually still take on the same addictive habitual behaviour…

Another place we sought transformation was in superstition. We would see ‘that person’ at just ‘that time’ or just ‘that place’, and felt the universe was giving us signals. We would seek to cease our addictive behaviour at particular dates, such as birthdays, new years, or such novelties as the 11th of the 11th month in 2011 (at 11:11pm, of course)! But these shallow coincidences masquerading as milestones turned out to have no power to bring any difference to our behaviour either…

Still another solution we looked for was in intellect. We would read books – even properly academic or scientific or theapeutic ones – on addiction. We would watch endless videos and documentaries online. We would usually share our vast new understandings of such things as neuroplasticity and brain chemistry with anyone who would listen. But once again, however valuable such knowledge was, and is, this information was not itself the same as formation…

Recovery, it turns out, is a programme of action. We had all kinds of bad habits. Habits of thinking, feeling and of course acting. In recovery we learn new habits that are life-giving. We practice honest and positive thinking. We practice paying attention to and sharing how we feel. We practice all kinds of good positive actions, like fellowship, confession, self-critique and service. This is why “it works if you work at it.”


on self control

In active addiction, many of us tried to control, curb or otherwise manage our behaviour. Our efforts usually were accompanied by mixed results. In this post, I simply want to reflect on the way in which self-control requires a very particular kind of strength – particularly the strength that flows from partnership with a Higher Power, which Christians call the Holy Spirit. But first, a few brief examples of ways we try to control our selves with other kinds of power.

Sometimes, we use the power of thought. Our thoughts can be about lots of things, and many times these can be good or otherwise helpful things. Christians may think deeply about how much God still loves them in spite of their mistakes, sins and defects, and yet these wonderful thoughts themselves do not stop them from engaging in the addictive behaviour. Other examples of fruitless thinking could be endless wondering about what ‘other’ thing (a person, a cultural reality, an experience, a genetic inheritance, etc.) made us the specific way that we are. These and other abstractions fail to help us precisely in the same way that wheels fail to move a car when the car is hoisted above the ground. Hoisting a car with wheels spinning, and getting our mind whirring away with elevated thoughts, can be useful of course, but unless our spinning wheels touch the ground, we simply won’t get anywhere.

Other times, we seek to be rescued by the power of experience. We want to act differently, so we seek a strong or strongly different kind of experience (whether good and healthy or otherwise) to get us there. Whether the ‘jolt’ we seek from the experience is geographically, physically, emotionally, or socially based, sooner or later (too often sooner) we find a way to act addictively even after the jolt.

Still other times, we try to manage ourselves with the power of the will. Whereas thoughts are often about ‘other’ things, and experiences come from ‘other’, from outside ourselves, to rely on the will is to rely on the self. Like good thinking and a good experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the application and engagement of our will. In fact, as we said above, we will not get anywhere without it. But as every addict knows, their experience is a depressingly progressive failure of the will, which does increasingly more and worse things; things that another part of ourselves does not want to do (see Romans 7).

Instead of pulling ourselves upward via a righteous thought, hitting the reset button with a profound experience, or charting the way forward through iron clad will-power (or won’t-power!), self control is powered by spiritual power. Recovery principles and Christian principles are agreed that spiritual power is the result of a partnership between humans and God (for example, see “Into Action” and “Working with Others” chapters in the AA Big Book; and Colossians 1:28-29). This is why Galatians 5 lists self-control as one of the fruits, not of the self, but of the Spirit. Yet at the same time, it is not called ‘spirit-control’ as though the self could merely stand by passively and be zapped with good behaviour.

Lest all this be another exercise in thinking, what does this look like ‘on the ground’ in our actual experience? Quite simply, it looks like a continual conscious decision to act in partnership with God. We tried asking, detached theological questions (“Does God love me if I keep doing this? Surely…”)… We tried pursuing psycho-therapeutic explorations (“If ‘x’ had not happened to me, would I struggle as I do now?”)… We tried seeking a transcendent experience (“Surely if I experience ‘x’ I will feel new and not feel like acting out again…”)… We tried managing ourselves through brave and naiive reliance on the will (“I swear it; I am over this; I cannot and will not do it again.”)… The spirituality of self control, however, is fundamentally and simply characterized by the pursuit of partnership with God (“What can God and I do about this, right now?).

available to life

In active addiction we are unavailable.

What this means is that, for a host of reasons, we become less and less committed – more and more unavailable – to things that give life.  We become unavailable to family, friends, partners, etc. We become unavailable to others, ourselves and God, despite how available and committed they may remain to us.

Our rapidly vanishing availability to these life-giving things is paralleled by a cancerous growth in availability to all kinds of little, lesser, life-taking things.  We make ourselves available to alcohol, work, sexual intrigue in thousands of forms, etc.  We abandon our lives for another ‘hit’.

Beneath this tragic degradation of our commitments, is a failure or refusal to allow ourselves to receive love and life.  We don’t feel ‘enough’ to deserve love, so we abandon it for a ‘hit’.  And in the context of the addiction cycle, the low that follows a ‘hit’ only makes us feel less worthy of love – less able to be committed – or available – to it.

Step 3 speaks of handing our will and our lives over to the “care of God”.  Within the “care of God”, we discover that we are ‘enough’ to deserve love.  We are made worthy of love, because God “cares” for us, even amidst all our frailties, rebellion and hard-hardheartedness.

In recovery, we learn to abandon the addictions that kill, rob and destroy.  We simply become unavailable to them.  And – rather than swap one addiction for another – we learn to pursue and accept the life and love from those people and activities which give it.

We become available to life.


Addicts all fantasize about whatever their “drug” is: alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.  This mental laziness, when allowed to persist, takes the addict closer and closer to acting upon the fantasy.  Walking past the bottle store “just to look”…  Getting in touch with someone who I always used to get high with, “just for old time’s sake”… Making a “harmless” flirtatious comment to a stranger…  And these kinds of accessory actions lead to loss of clean/sober time.  The language of the “slippery slope” is sometimes an unhelpful scare tactic, but other times it is really that dangerous.

Someone recently mentioned having a prolonged fantasy – lasting about 20 seconds before they were jolted back to full consciousness and shut it off.

How many times can you say “yes” in 20 seconds?

Not with your mouth, but in your mind?

This need for urgent self-correction is what Jesus had in mind when he links anger with murder (Matthew 5:21-22), and lust with adultery (v. 27-28).  His other words in the same context have equal relevance about urgency.  Don’t wait until after worship to “go and be reconciled”, do it now (5:23-24); “settle matters quickly with your adversary” rather than put it off and risk losing big at court (v. 25-26); and deal swiftly, decisively and painfully with whatever causes you to sin (v. 29-30).

Fantasy cannot be given an inch.

recovery and the Lord’s prayer

There seems to be a great deal of harmony and interplay between the Lord’s prayer and 12-step recovery.

To state the obvious, both are spiritual in nature.  They are both concerned with a Higher (indeed, the Highest) Power, which enables and guides the journey.  The adoration which is so clear in the Lord’s prayer (e.g. “hallowed be Thy name”) is perhaps implied in the description of the power as “higher” and the notion of the “care of God”.

But this spirituality is not passive, it is active.  This Power seems to desire (or indeed require) our participation, rather than relate to us as a puppet-master.  So there are specific actions.  In recovery, we do things.  We make and share inventories, identify and surrender character defects, make amends to those we have harmed, admit when we are wrong, pray, meditate and share the message with others.  The Lord’s prayer also suggests activity:  honouring the Lord’s name, doing the Lord’s will “on earth as it is [done] in heaven”, forgiving those who trespass against us.

That work of reconciliation and forgiveness is one of the most striking parallels.  Our Step 4 inventories and our Step 9 amends making lead us to focus on our wrongs instead of the wrongs of others as we experience them.  We cannot wait for others to come to us seeking forgiveness; rather, we take the initiative in focusing on our part, and seeking reconciliation.  Likewise, the Lord’s prayer paints a picture of discipleship in which forgiving “those who trespassed against us” is the norm.

In all of this, the Lord’s prayer, like the Serenity Prayer of the recovery movement, has a two-fold nature: On the one hand, it invites us to worship-fully trust God with those things that we ought not try to control or change, such as the kingdom, power and glory.  On the other hand, it directs us to work for the change we were created to bring about, such as living lives of worship, obedience, gratitude, forgiveness, avoidance of sin and an overall surrender to the overarching sovereignty of God’s kingdom.

humble progress

Addicts are extremists.

We think we are the greatest or the worst.  Sometimes those thoughts follow one another in rapid succession.  This tendency plays out in many areas, not least the area of growth and progress.

On the one hand, there is a tendency to have expectations that are too high, that set ourselves up to fail.  We angrily punish ourselves for falling again.  “How foolish! You should know better by now!”

On the other hand, there is a tendency to have expectations that are too low, that are a self-fulfilling prophecy of not making progress.  We have failed before we even tried.  “Why even try?  You’re just doing to screw it up again.”

The former extreme is arrogant perfectionism, and the latter is lazy self-hatred.  Humility is able to have a more realistic, and at the same time hopeful, view.  We are indeed able to make progress, even if we remain imperfect.  “I can’t heal myself instantly, but with God’s help I can make real progress.”