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?).

Advertisements

fantasy

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.

humility

Step 7 is a step where (as with the other steps) action is taken, but the emphasis is on how the action is taken.  We don’t roll up our sleeves and begin ridding ourselves of our defects of character.  We don’t make a demanding request of God to take them away.  We humbly ask.

Humility is often thought of in simple distinction from arrogance.  This binary distinction would imply that arrogant people think very highly of themselves and humble people think very lowly of themselves.

A synthesis of passages from Scripture (rather than only single passages treated as knock-down proof-texts!) would seem to suggest that a Christian understanding of humility is to think of one’s self wisely.  Neither too highly or too lowly.

In my own experience, and the experience I hear from others, thinking too highly of ourselves is very common, and possibly why it seems to get the most corrective in Scripture.  But I suspect that very often, if not almost always, the act of thinking highly of ourselves, or making ourselves out to be something great, is an act of compensation.  It is to counter beliefs or feelings that we are worth nothing or very little.  We feel low, so we perform, exaggerate, brag or draw attention to ourselves to compensate.

If this is true, then at least some of the time, the answer to narcissism is proper self-confidence.

self control

In active addiction, our loss of control becomes apparent to us sooner or later.  One helpful image is that of balancing a golf ball on top of a basketball.  Keep it on top and all is well.  Correct it immediately and with appropriate counter action, and a fall is avoided.  But once it gets a certain distance from the top, the action required to stop it from falling off is effectively superhuman.  This is precisely how addiction is experienced.  We are perfect storms of Obsession and Compulsion.  The thought of ‘doing it again’ takes root and grows (with our continued permission, it must be said) and fantasy gives way to subconscious ‘planning’ to do it, which eventually leads to ‘close calls’ or more often just going ahead with it.  And irony of ironies, having ‘done it again’, we look back in disbelief, wondering how it happened…  It’s as though our free will is eroded or better yet imprisoned or shackled, and to our shame, we have to admit that we have hidden the key from ourselves….  Self control is practically non-existent, and we have to admit complete and total powerlessness (step 1) to stop the behaviour…

As we grow in recovery, we gradually regain the self-control we lost.  Or better yet, we gain a new kind of self control.  Before we had attempted a kind of self control which was weakened by qualities such as entitlement, anger, blame and basically a thousand forms of fear.  Now, in recovery, the programme teaches us to stay away from the behaviour, and the “stinking thinking” that gets us doing it.  It’s not as though we get ‘cured’ and no longer want to do it, but rather the sobriety that comes with recovery gives us new eyes to see through the shoddy thinking and selfish justifications that accompanied our one-way trips to addictive behaviour.  We get street wise.  We safeguard ourselves.  To add an awkward addition to the ball metaphor above, it’s like we don’t even try to balance the golf ball on the basketball, but we grow wise enough to use a doughnut to keep the ball securely on top.  Without needing to do a ‘geographical’ to another job, marriage, town or country, we learn to ‘stay away’ from those places, venues, people or fantasies that we have continually allowed ourselves to be tripped up by.  In a Christian key, this sounds like Paul saying that when he is weak he is very strong.  This is self-control not from the flesh, but as a fruit of the Spirit who leads us into the wisdom we need to keep ourselves safe.

true independence

In step 3 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we read the following:

The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are.  Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.

Prevailing modern, consumer culture says the opposite.  Be free and unchained to do and be what you want.  At the end of that pathway, however, are the countless many who find themselves to have been tricked.  Freedom, as they had conceived it, had imprisoned them to various kinds of slavery.  Slavery of financial insecurity.  Slavery of incessant and unquenchable desire.  Slavery of a ghost-like personal identity, both seemingly untouchable, yet also fearful to attain and be trapped by it.

Recovery and Scripture yet again speak with the same tone of voice.  In Romans 6, Paul contrasts a person who is “enslaved to sin” (and thus “free from the control of righteousness”), with being a “slave of righteousness” (and thus “free from sin”).

Addiction is slavery indeed.  In recovery we learn to “slavishly” work our programmes in the strength of God, our Higher (Highest!) Power.  This is not self-help or self-righteousness or legalism.  This is freedom in Christ.  True independence of the spirit.

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.