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.

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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.

AMEN!

a grace powered programme

According to Father Martin, Bill Wilson, the famed founder of twelve step recovery, reportedly summarised the twelve steps in the following six words, which divide the steps into three fundamental phases:

  1. Trust God (steps 1-3)
  2. Clean House (steps 4-11)
  3. Help Others (step 12)

It occurs to me that Grace is the God-given power that enables all three of these phases.

Grace empowers us to Trust God.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul uses the word ‘faith’ (pistis) as the word for trusting God, and notes that it is a ‘gift of God’ rather than ‘from yourselves’.  That’s what Grace does.

Grace empowers us to Clean House.
In Titus 2:11-14, Paul speaks of the multifaceted and diverse operations of Grace.  It “offers salvation to all people”, “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions [I think this includes addictions!], and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives”, and the immediately following context implies that it helps “redeem us from all wickedness” and purifies people.  All of these are about cleaning house.  That’s what Grace does.

Grace empowers us to Help Others.
In 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Paul credits his apostolic status and ministry to the Grace of God.  His ability to preach, teach and disciple is Grace-empowered.  The message of Grace is powered by Grace.  “I worked harder than them all – yet not I, but the Grace of God that was with me.”  Grace helps Paul – and us – help others.  That’s what Grace does.

an “addict” in Christ?

Identifying as an ‘addict’ can be difficult for Christians.

One of the strongest reasons for this is probably the very biblical teaching that the identity of a believer is to be “in Christ”.  This is often expressed in statements like, “If you’re a Christian in Christ, you are not a sinner, you are a saint.  You are not a slave, you are a son.”

As one who is theologically committed to those biblical teachings, there are a few perspectives that I’d like to offer as to why I have come to be completely comfortable identifying as an “addict”, whose highest and deepest identity is “in Christ”.

First, the wider example of Scripture.  The Apostle Paul is instructive for us here.  He writes that anyone in Christ is a “new creation”, and yet he also says ” Christ died for sinners, of whom I am (note: not ‘used to be’) chief.”  He claims “no condemnation” for those in Christ, but also calls himself a “wretched man” and expresses an awareness of what it’s like to have an inner turmoil trying hard (and failing!) to be holy.  There are ways that these seemingly contradictory verses are interpreted as being true at different times, namely before and after conversion (i.e. ‘sinner’ before, and ‘new creation’ after).  However, many bible doctrines tend to be gathered from a broad grouping of verses.  When we take a wider view, I think we can see the wisdom in Martin Luther’s language of “saint and sinner” (Latin: simil iustus et peccator).  Luther is also credited as saying “Old Adam is drowned in the waters of baptism, but he’s a mighty good swimmer.”  The main thing is that the ‘sinner’ identity will die, because it is fatally wounded by the victory of the Cross and Resurrection.  Meanwhile, the ‘saint’ identity is eternal, risen never to die again, just like Christ.

Second, the diversity of identities.  Identities cluster together. We’re made up of many of them.  Some of them can be trivial: like saying we ‘are’ a fan of a kind of ice cream or television show.  Some of them are vocational: we ‘are’ nurses, builders, etc.  Some of them are recreational: we ‘are’ hockey players, jockeys, etc.  The deepest ones are relational: we ‘are’ sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, etc.  The deepest of the deep, Scripture teaches, is the relational identity rooted in divine love: we ‘are’ beloved children of God in Christ.

Theologians use the phrase “now but not yet” to describe the tension between aspects of the kingdom that are already realised “now”, even as other aspects of the kingdom are not realised, and won’t be until Christ comes again.  This applies to our identities, I think.  We are saints, sons/daughters, holy, new creations, already and ‘now’.  But at the same time, we are ‘not yet’ free of sin, so we can ‘not yet’ truthfully leave behind this lesser, temporary identity of ‘sinner’.  As the ‘Jesus Prayer’ goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The most important thing is knowing that ‘now’, as well as in the future, you are loved, held, understood, and not condemned or abandoned.  I think that if we really believe the Gospel, and really trust in Grace, then God’s perfect Love can help us to cast out the fear that is involved with admitting we still are ‘sinners’ as well; at least for the meantime.

Third, the experience of recovery.  In active addiction, many of us had firm and immovable theologies of Grace, constantly reminding ourselves that we are “in Christ” and that God loves us no matter what we do.  And we could even be distracting ourselves with this great theology while we were in the very act of addictive behaviour.  There was something about ourselves we were not being honest about.  In suppressing the ‘sinner’ identity, we failed to be honest about what we were really doing.  However secure our eternal identity was (and is!) in Christ, we had very real trouble with our behaviour.  Many of us came into recovery rooms, and perhaps in a way we’ve never done before, we told the real truth about ourselves.  “We admitted we were __________…”  or, we said, “My name is _______, and I’m a[n] ___________.”   We not only announced this truth to others in the room, but also admitted it to ourselves, perhaps in a way deeper than ever before.

We feared that identifying as a ‘sinner’ would negate our ‘saint’ identity, and reinforce our acting out, and make us a ‘slave’ of that identity.  Many of found that admitting we were a ‘sinner’ and an ‘addict’ was not slavery at all, but freedom.  Paradoxically, it actually freed us to become more of a saint!  True strength was in authentic weakness after all!  And the opposite was true for many of us as well.  By not admitting the truth about ourselves, we were held captive to, our self-deception; we were enslaved by our dishonesty to ourselves, God and others.

We needed to ‘be real’ in order to ‘get real’.  This was not religion or legalism.  This was, and is, Grace that forgives… and keeps on forgiving.  This is medicine for those who actually admit they need it… and keep on needing it.  This is truth that sets free… and keeps on setting free.

simple actions

In this post, I want to contrast two huge differences between the lifestyle of addiction, and that of recovery and sobriety.

Complexity v. Simplicity

First, the addictive way of being is riddled with excessive complexity.  Sometimes, this complexity has to do with how we handle our memories of our behaviour; how we talk about it, either to others or within ourselves. Whether we gently minimize, tell half-truths, or outright lies, we expend ungodly amounts of energy with complex ‘bookkeeping’.  “It was only that once, so it’s OK.”  “I only do [x] sometimes.”  or “I was feeling an unusual amount of pressure at work that day, so that explains why I did [y].”  In the light of sobriety, we are finally able to cut through these dishonest, inaccurate, self-protecting and complex ways of remembering our behaviour, and we are able to view our behaviour with (often painful!) simplicity and accuracy.  “Whatever may have been part of why I felt like doing that, I still chose to do it, and I could have chose not to.”  “This is not just an isolated occurrence, it’s part of a pattern, that I’m powerless to stop.  I need to ask for help.”

Other times, the complexity has to do with the seemingly infinite and complex variety of ‘solutions’ we tried in order to stop.  “I’ll put a picture of [loved one] in my wallet to remind me.”  “If my new sobriety date is memorable, that will keep me from acting out again.”  “If I read up on how addiction ‘works’ in terms of brain chemistry and neural activity, I’ll be able to out-smart my addiction.”  Sobriety, on the other hand, is incredibly simple.  “I just can’t go there.”  “Other people may be able to [x], but not me, and I’m ‘OK’ with that.”  “What’s the ‘next right thing’ I need to do instead of [y]?”

Thought v. Action

Secondly, addiction can be accompanied by a lot of thought, which almost never stops us (or even hinders us) from acting out.  Whether it is ‘stinking thinking’ or coldly logical observations, we can distract ourselves with an endless stream of excessive rationality (or irrationality).  “Oh my goodness, I am so crazy right now, I can feel the neural pathways buzzing with energy.”  “Whatever I end up doing, I am sure that God still loves me.”  “I really have to stop this eventually… I’m taking advantage of God’s love… this is the last time… I really mean it this time…”  However much such thinking may reflect truth (or not), we are not going to think our way to being sober.  Recovery is a ‘programme of action‘.  “Right, time to stop and pray.”  “OK, time to get up off this couch and make myself a cup of coffee.”  “I’m going to journal these thoughts and feelings so I can ‘right size’ them.”  “Time to ring somebody… anybody!”

In summary, then, in addiction we were like caged rats, flailing about trying to get somewhere on our spinning wheels.  No matter how fast the wheel spun or what our technique was, we got nowhere, and only were more exhausted from the effort.  In recovery, we stop talking about getting sober and simply do the things necessary for us to get there.