feed the right dog

You’ve heard the wise old adage…

Living life, and the struggle between doing good things and doing bad things is like having two dogs that fight one another.  And how we get the good behaviour dog to win is to feed that one and starve the other.

It’s a very practical and useful image.  Now, let me share how such a good thing can be distorted so as to make it worthless…

An addict can take the best things and distort them.  I, for one, had an unexamined, unchecked belief that I could “feed the right dog” at the last minute.  I could obsess, fantasize, take steps toward doing ‘x’, and then at the last minute, I would suddenly and heroically reverse all of that momentum and “feed the right dog”.  Such a herculean effort would make a great story to tell to the next person we ‘confessed’ to.

In active addiction, we are always prone to minimising things that are actually bigger (e.g. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve only done it ___ times this week…”) or maximising things that are actually smaller (e.g. “I am the biggest [insert extremely positive – or negative – label here”) ever…  people [love/adore or hate/despise] me…”  The above example is a case of falsely maximising  the power and self-control that we have, pretending that we can stop ourselves ‘just before’ doing it again.  “Lord, lead me right up to the point of almost sinning, and then get me out at the last minute and give me a great story to tell of how you rescued me.”   Such is the stinking thinking we can be guilty of…

The wise story about the two dogs is not about last minute choices to feed one dog instead of the other.  It is, instead, about an ongoing process of feeding.  Taking on a new set of habits that are all oriented away from addiction and toward recovery.  We pray, go to meetings, read Scripture and literature, make phone calls, do step work, do service, and much more.  The on-going work of recovery is how we “feed the right dog”.


early, simple action

I’ve written before about how quality recovery is characterised by simple actions, and addiction is characterised by complex thinking.  In this post I want to add just one more important thing.

This simple action needs to happen as early as possible.

Before entering recovery, I can remember acting delaying any healthy ‘simple action’ too long… too often it was delayed until it was too late.  Even after joining a 12-step program, I would delay action.  Here’s an example…

In working step 3, I remember my sponsor asking me, toward the end of our monthly meet up, “So… are you ready to make that decision to turn your will and life over to God’s care?”  My brain immediately got in the way.  Complex thoughts and questions and curiosities choked out any chance of a simple, active and affirmative response.  “Well…”, I muttered out… hesitatingly, “my understanding is that this is a decision that nobody can make perfectly, so we make it as best we can and we have to keep making it as we live our lives.”

This response was too muddy, too heady, and too hesitant.  Prolonged, complex thinking.

My sponsor eventually was able to point out that the answer to these questions should always and instantly be “YES.”  At least then, we have handed our will and life over for at least a few seconds!

The point here is not do invalidate the observation which every addict learns, namely that we must learn to accept progress not perfection.  Of course, we never do anything perfectly.  But that’s kind of the point.  We don’t need a ‘perfect’ surrender.  We also don’t need a perfect explanation of why such perfection can’t be attained.  We certainly don’t need an extended, complicated treatise on the matter.

The only kind of surrender we need…
is the only kind we can give…
…an early, simple and active one.

experience, strength, hope

Some 12-step fellowships have (perhaps in addition to others) the following three lists: 12 Characteristics (of the addiction), 12 Steps (of recovery), and 12 Promises (of life in sobriety).  Theses lists roughly correspond to the concepts of a) experience, b) strength, and c) hope.  To my knowledge, there is no systematic, number-for-number correlation between any of these lists.  This curiosity has led me to create a generalized pair of lists which directly correlate to the 12 steps.

12 Characteristic Experiences of Addiction

  1. We were unable to see or admit how powerless we were over our addiction, or how unmanageable our lives had become.
  2. We were unable or unwilling to believe that we could be restored to sanity.
  3. We could not let go of our will and our lives.
  4. We had little or no clarity over our moral history and underlying resentments and fears.
  5. We had never been fully honest with God, ourselves or any one human being, about the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We could not face or identify or hand over our defects of character.
  7. We continually tried to fix our own shortcomings.
  8. We had mixed motivations for making apologies to various people.
  9. We blamed others, directly or indirectly, or made apologies that made us feel better at their expense.
  10. We had a pattern of not seeing when we were wrong, nor admitting it.
  11. We had poor or non-existent spiritual habits of prayer and meditation, either not asking for anything, or asking for too many or the wrong things.
  12. We were spiritually asleep, which hindered or entirely negated our ability to be of help to others.

12 Steps of Strength

  1. Admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Became willing to have God remove from us all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people, whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to deepen our conscious contact with a Power greater than ourselves, praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives.

12 Promises of Hope

  1. Our lives were powered by a partnership with a Power Greater than ourselves, enabling our lives to be healthy and ordered.
  2. Our thinking was sober and sane, thanks to that Power.
  3. Our will and lives intermingled with God’s, as we understand God.
  4. Our past is understood with clarity and compassion.
  5. We practice open and honest accountability with God, ourselves and others.
  6. We continually discover new and deeper defects of character, and deepen our willingness to have them removed.
  7. We continually partner with God to remove these shortcomings.
  8. We understand the harm we have done to others.
  9. We enjoy the freedom of having done all we could do to clear away the relational wreckage of our past.
  10. We continually deepen our habit of spotting where we are wrong and promptly admitting it.
  11. We strengthen and sharpen our practice of prayer and meditation, maintaining a simplicity of focus on God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. We continue to work recovery not only for our own recovery, but to pass it on to others.

a better question

The story of the good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler’s question, “Who is my neighbour?”  But crucially, Jesus changes the question from that of being “who is my neighbour?” to “which one was a neighbour to the man”?  One question is about justifying who you do and don’t have to love, and the other is about recognizing the activity of loving like a good neighbour.

In addiction, we often can tempt ourselves with the question, “how much will one more time really matter?”  It’s like the serpent saying, “Did God really say that?”

Recovery, powered by Grace, teaches us to live soberly.  Using the same style of wisdom that Jesus uses with the rich young ruler, we change the question around.  We don’t ask “will this action change much?”, but we ask “how will I act, swiftly, simply and surely, to change this situation, right now!”   One question assumes the addiction to be in charge, and the other puts us back in the seat of self-control.

remember, live, hope

12-step recovery meetings often involve sharing by members about their ‘experience, strength and hope’; that is, their a) experience in addiction, b) strength in recovery, and c) hope for the future.  It naturally lends to a temporal framework of past, present, and future.  We remember the insanity of our addictive acting out, we communicate the practical things we did, which we keep on doing, to get better, and we look forward to how things can continue to get better.

I want to focus on the present dimension for this post.  For a long time, I have often been suspicious of a ‘live in the present’ type language and focus.  ‘Be here now’, or ‘just be’ were phrases and concepts that annoyed me.  I valued the tradition, history and wisdom of the past; and I had a clear focus on working, aiming and striving for the future goal.  But I was weak on the present.

I’ve come to see that, in addition to these healthy appreciations for the past and future, I need a generous awareness of the value of the present moment.  The crucial point is this:  The present moment is the only one I can truly act and live in.

I used to ache over the past, and I think I tried to change it in really unhealthy ways; like the dishonesty of extremely minimized confessions to various people, which gave me a deluded feeling of having dealt with it.  Also (and this is just crazy) I can recall many times, when I was incredibly tempted and on the verge of acting out, that I would rationalize to myself by saying “Go ahead and do it now, and you can change later.  One more time won’t matter that much.”  And that right there is a perfectly awful example of how I was emptied of my power to act in the present.  I self-sabotaged my ability for self control.

The serenity prayer can be read in this light as well.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the past and the future.
courage to live in the present moment of now.
and wisdom to know that’s all I can do.

This reminds me of Titus 2:11-14 where we can see [at least on the surface of the text, and more clearly I’m sure if I knew Greek verb tenses!] the same past, present and future framework:

11For the grace of God has appeared [past] that offers [present] salvation to all people. 12It teaches [present] us to say “No” [present] to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live [present] self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13while we wait [present] for the blessed hope—the [future] appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14who gave himself [past] for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are [present] his very own, eager to do [present] what is good.

meditation & action

Addiction is famously, and quite simply, characterised by cognitive obsession and behavioural compulsion.  We addicts are, through and through, obsessive-compulsive.  We think about, fantasize about, dream about, fear and otherwise obsess over the world, our problems, our frustrations, and how we would like to fix them.  And, sooner or later, we give way to an overwhelming urge, drive, push, or compulsion to act out, which is of course where all of our addictive obsession was pointing and heading all along.

Obsession and compulsion are the aggressive manifestations of thought and behaviour.  There are also passive extremes that we addicts can swing back and forth to and from.  We can mentally ‘check out’ and try to think about nothing.  Often this happens when we act out.  We also can physically ‘check out’ in terms of activity, where we sleep, freeze, veg, surf, or otherwise refrain from any constructive or meaningful actions.

Recovery prescribes the healthy middle-way between these addictive extremes.  Instead of mental obsession or absent-mindedness, we are told to practice meditation.  And meditation often has two phases, the mind-stilling (or apophatic) and the mind-filling (kataphatic).  We need, first, to empty our mind of the obsessions filling it.  We can do this through various contemplative techniques and practices.  Second, because to goal of meditation is not to think about nothing, but to redirect and refocus the mind, we meditate on something, or indeed on someone; and in the Christian tradition we meditate on such things as Scripture, God, Christ, Word, Spirit, etc.

Finally, instead of addictive compulsion or physical inactivity, recovery instructs us to get into action.  Recovery is not just about thinking the right things, but doing right things, and often, especially when we feel stuck, we need to “do the next right thing”.  Recovery is a “programme of action”.  I’ve heard it said that we don’t so much think our way into right acting, but we act our way into right thinking.

a step 4 prayer

One of the joys of recovery is working with sponsees.  Here’s a prayer that I offered for a sponsee who is a fellow follower of Christ, struggling with the grace of addiction:


Father Son and Spirit,

Thank you for redemption in Christ,

and thank you for your promise to sanctify and purify us.

Thank you for the unique way that you use the twelve step groups as a means to this end for so many people.

I thank you for, and pray for [name].

I thank you for his many many many gifts, talents, abilities and likeable character traits.

I pray that as a result of working steps 4 and 5, that he will be able to, with you at his side, not only be able to see more clearly the harm he has participated in that has affected others, but also the many many ways in which he has participated in your blessing towards and for others. Give him, in between the moments of painful admissions, times of deep assurance and appreciation and gratitude for the many times he has been deserving of a “well done, good and faithful servant”.

And Lord, as he embarks on a rigorous and thorough and ‘searching’ account of harm done to others, and discovers and rediscovers resentments, fears, anger, pain and a host of challenges and ‘character defects’ along the way, I want to pray that your perfect Love would cast out all fear in his search, so that it would truly be ‘fearless’. Thank you for the many times in Scripture that you tell us to “fear not.” I pray that for [name].

I pray that his account would be an outworking, with your Spirit’s help, of “confessing our faults to one another” with a view to being healed of them, and of “confessing our sins” and finding You to be faithful and just in forgiving us.

I also pray that [name] would be conscious of the armour of God as he does battle with his past.

May the belt of truth, empowered by the Spirit, lead him into all truth about his past, and the personal qualities beneath the behaviour. May the breastplate of righteousness keep him secure in who he is in Christ, as he both trusts in his firm standing with You, and works practically with you to maintain and strengthen both his sobriety and his recovery. May the gospel of Peace fit his feet with the readiness to make progress in his step work, with a wider view to bring blessing, healing, shalom, wholeness and salvation to his family, friends and anyone you lead him to. May you use the work he does here in his future work with others, Lord. When the evil one fires fiery arrows at him, no doubt using some of the memories he explores, give [name] the strength to ‘change what he can’, and hold up the shield of faith and completely disregard and extinguish those accusations, not trying to ‘change’ what he cannot – the past. May the helmet of salvation keep his mind focused on you, who is both the Judge and Defender in the courtroom of your healing Justice. May truth set him free, Lord! May the sword of the Spirit search and cut and pierce where it needs to, down to soul and spirit, as he goes deep beyond the behaviour (without skipping over it too quickly) and seeks out the insecurities, arrogances, and more that lie beneath. May he find, in the ample and sufficient resources of your Word, the gems of truth that give him language to confess what he finds, and to grasp on to the forgiveness that is his in You.