truth & freedom

The familiar words of Jesus promise that “the truth shall set you free.”  We addicts know a thing or two about this principle.  Having hidden the truth from others (and ourselves), we are amazed by the freedom that comes when it is finally disclosed in the right way, to the right people.

I suppose martyrs also know a thing or two about it as well.  We addicts may think that our truth-telling had a cost to it, as we risked job, marriages, friendships and the like.  But martyrs have not only risked, but suffered, the loss of their very earthly lives.

This perspective helps me stay honest with my spouse.  I really hope I do not ever have a relapse.  But I know that honesty is the only way from here out.  Marriage or no marriage, admitting the truth is the only way to live in freedom, and avoid the slavery of hiding.

resentment & repentance

As Bill Wilson writes in the AA Big Book, “resentment is the number one offender”.  When I really began to grasp how much of a hold resentment had previously had on me (and still can!), I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard about it as much in church as I had in recovery fellowships.  What do we make of this?

First, let’s remind ourselves what Resentment is.  As the saying goes, “Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.”  To hold on to a resentment, grievance, complaint, grudge or issue against another person is to hold on to a rattlesnake by the tail, as it bites you over and over again.  Why do we hold on to resentment so strongly?  We like to feel the pride of having been wronged.  You see it in between – or in! – the lines of countless narratives where person ‘A’ documents, recalls, or makes passing reference to group/workplace/church/family/person ‘B’ did something to them.  The subtext is often, ‘Poor me.  Poor innocent me, having to endure the senseless actions of ‘B’…”

Make no mistake.  The AA Big Book does not suggest that people to not wrong us.  They do!  People ignore us, pull out in front of us, shame us, exclude us, injure us, etc.  They really do.  The point is that when we hold on to resentment, we keep re-injuring ourselves.  Not only that, we miss out on (or avoid, or distract ourselves from) seeing any part we played in our misfortunes, even if they were minor compared to the others’ actions.

This brings us, second, to the negative relationship that Resentment has with Repentance.  12 Step Recovery, as the Serenity Prayer reminds us, teaches us again and again, to forget the things (most of all people!) we ‘cannot change’, and focus on the things (and the only person!) we ‘can’.  We must ‘clean our side of the street’, and stop pointing the finger at others, however wrong they are or were.  The only question that will actually change anyone, is “What did I do wrong?”  “But they were awful!  They hurt me!”  “Yes, but what could I have done differently?”

It turns out that this is a huge theme in Christian Scripture, even if the language may be different.  We could say at the ‘justice’ level of “eye for an eye”, resulting in everyone trying to make things ‘fair’ by injuring others just as they’ve been injured.  ‘Injure thy neighbour as they have injured you…’  How awful!  But Scripture takes us forward to ‘mercy’ and ‘grace’.  We ‘write off’ others wrongs, as God writes ours off.  Grace does not mean being naive or passive.  Grace does not mean that we let others keep harming us.  Grace does not mean we stay in the group, marriage, workplace, church, partnership, club, etc.  But grace means letting go of resentment.  And letting go of resentment means letting go of my sense of my ‘right’ to be angry at them.  And once I’ve let go of my anger at the other, maybe, just maybe, I can have the sanity and clarity to focus on what I can, and maybe need to, change about me.  Maybe I’ll be able to repent.

limited power

It seems that the theme of power begins very early in Scripture.  Being such an important part of addiction and recovery, it is a very useful theme to reflect on.  Let’s look at a few key moments early in Genesis.

  • Ultimate, sovereign, and creative power rests only in God, the One who “created the heavens and the earth”.  Methinks the Judeo-Christian God is qualified to be a Higher Power.
  • The repeated use of the word “let” is curious.  Why not narrate God’s creative actions with other language?  Why not say, “And God said, ‘Behold, the Light!’ and there was Light.”  I’m no Hebrew scholar, so let anyone shed any light (pun intended) on this; but suffice to say that the repetition of the root verb for ‘Let there be’ (yə·hî) and ‘and there was’ (way·hî-) seems to suggest a space in which the creation responds to the command of the Creator. In English, at least (!!!), ‘let’ is the language of permission, of allowing.  It is not to force or manipulate.  God speaks his sovereign, creative decree over the creation in its state of being formless, void, and dark state.  Then God waits.  Be it a moment or millennia, God waits.  God ‘lets’ the creation respond.  If modern cosmology and physics are correct, then God ‘lets’ the ‘singularity’ do whatever it did.
  • Humans are placed at a very specific place in creation.  They are ‘under’ the Creator, but ‘over’ creation, to tend and keep it.  They are not, and never will be, God, despite the temptation to act as they they are.  And it seems that the time, energy and imagination we waste on trying to be God keeps us from properly tending and keeping the creation.  In Serenity Prayer language, the more we try to change “the things I cannot change”, the less I am able to change “the things I can.”  We are not given ultimate Power, but the power of a local ‘ruler’ or landlord or tenant.
  • God ‘rests’ from his work on the seventh day.  Presumably, God ‘could’ have not rested, but it is in God’s nature to not always do what God can do.  Again, here we see the divine restraint that will eventually climax in the person of Jesus, who empties himself of power (see Philippians 2).
  • God brings the animals to the man “to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”  Here again, we see God’s restraint from forcing or manipulating the naming process.  We see a development of this later when Christ gives the ‘keys of the kingdom’ for binding and loosing.  Whatever sins are forgiven and retained on earth are forgiven and retained in heaven.
  • We are not told how the serpent came to be, but the mere fact of its existence suggests that evil and all of the pain, sin and suffering that goes with it, was always going to be allowed and permitted in this temporal existence.  To not allow it would be to manipulate and micromanage creation and humans.  To allow it forever would be to fail to care adequately for creation and humanity.  God has, in Christ, defeated evil already.  And this victory will be fully implemented in the Age to Come.
  • God calls to Adam and Eve, asking where they were.  Not so that he could know something he did not know, but rather so that they could ‘find themselves’.  It was one thing to do what they did (and what we do), but it is quite another to have the self-awareness to know ‘where’ you have gotten yourself to.  Step One is a kind of ‘finding yourself’ to be in a place of utter powerlessness.
  • What do we make of God restricting access to the tree of Life and the Garden?  Much could be, and has been, said, but suffice to say that we simply must see this ‘power play’ as irreducibly protective in motivation.  They are being mercifully removed from a space that would, sooner or later, tempt them again and again to try to be God.
  • God warns Cain, “…if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  This, so far as I know, is the first use of the word ‘sin’ in the Scriptures.  It fittingly sets the tone for the power and deceptiveness of sin.  The twelve steps teach that the sooner we admit defeat the sooner we can begin the long journey toward being able, under God’s good hand, to ‘rule over’ sin.

less power

Step one rings the bell of utter powerlessness over our addictive behaviour.  But the implications of this one word go much wider…

As Gerald G. May suggests in Addiction and Grace, our fundamental problem is that we try to be all-powerful (omnipotent!) rulers over ‘our’ worlds.  Some of us do this in direct and aggressive ways, such as shouting or physical manipulation.  Others do this by indirect and passive-aggressive means, such as calm argument or emotional manipulation.  Whether we are obvious about it or not, we try to exert power and control over not just our own lives (‘the things I can’ change), but also over the lives of others, or the circumstances and conditions around us (‘the things I cannot change’).  Bill Wilson, in the AA Big Book suggests the same; that we try to run the ‘whole show’.  We feel entitled to having things go a certain way, and when things don’t turn out as we think they should, we resort to whatever drug of choice we have to medicate our resentment.  Even when things do go our way, we can grow restless and irritable, feeling that we deserve even more!  So we turn to the drug even when things are going well!

It’s a deep problem, lying deep in our souls, but recovery, as enshrined in the 12 steps and the Serenity prayer, teaches us the even deeper solution.  To ‘let go, and let God’ run the universe.  Scripture is permeated with God reminding us “I am the Lord”.   In 12-step fellowships, members are left to discern their own understandings of ‘God’; however, the non-negotiable principle is that ‘God’ cannot be ‘you’!

Yes, we are powerless over addictive behaviour.  And, the solution is to grab at less power.

12 steps & the gospel

Christians who are in or contemplating joining a 12-step programme often wrestle with the tension between the non-specific ‘god’ of the 12 steps and the One who is fully revealed in Christ as we understand through the Gospel. There are two extremes, I believe, to avoid when comparing 12-step spirituality with Christianity.

One extreme is to say that there is no difference, or that working the 12 steps is basically the same as following Jesus.  I don’t want to judge or comment on the status or quality of relationship and intimacy that non-Christian 12-steppers experience with the god of their understanding.  But the simple reality is that any other god is simply not the same as the God revealed in and through the historical person of Jesus Christ.  We may (and rightly can, in my view – see below…) identify valuable and worthwhile spiritual patterns in the experience of non-Christian 12-steppers.  But the point here is that with the Gospel, God is not ‘understood’ through experience or reason alone, but supremely through the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, being a faith that is rooted in Scripture, Christianity incorporates a breathtaking narrative and a robust set of doctrines that are not the same as those of other faiths or personal understandings, even if there may be significant overlap or common ground at various points.  All of this is to say that the Christian 12-stepper can continue to deeply value their faith as something unique, and something that we believe – hopefully with deep humility!!! – that is completely true.

And that brings us to the other extreme: to say that there is so much difference that one cannot benefit from the programme.  Here is where we Christians often need to learn deep humility – or be deeply humbled!  To put it frankly, many of our ‘gospel presentations’ don’t even begin to plumb the depths of the whole Christian faith.  They often go far beyond a simple summary of the Gospel, and err on the side of being overly simplistic and therefore a distortion of it.  I’m thinking here of presentations of the Gospel where a) God’s ultimate vision for creation centres on two predistined locations, heaven or hell, b) Christian life and discipleship is primarily if not totally focused on getting people to ‘go’ to heaven and not hell.  True, as the Apostles Creed has always said, our faith entails a final ‘judgement’ of the ‘living and the dead’.  But there are riches that this small distortion of the Gospel screens out: the joy and beauty of creation, real and painful suffering, the role of Israel, the call to live faithfully in the present, etc.  More than this, most Christians can learn a great deal from the 12 steps, in their focused programme of specific actions – actions that turn out to be deeply Christian.

non-‘religious’ spirituality

For a Christian who comes to the point of facing the reality of addiction, and thus the need for participation in an addiction programme, one of the most troubling barriers to cross is not just identifying as an ‘addict’ (“I’m not a sinner, I’m a saint!  How can I call myself an addict?”), but the inherent challenge to their Christian faith.  (“Was I really a Christian?” or “Did Christianity not work… for me?  Does it work at all!!??”)

If we lay aside for the moment the question of the veracity of Christian faith, and if we assume that there is a baby (authentic Christian faith and obedience) worth holding on to after dispensing with the dirty bathwater (distorted beliefs and lazy obedience), I think there is a theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans that is helpful for us.  Our ‘religion’ was powerless.

In Romans, Paul portrays ‘Sin’ as a power lurking throughout the created order, wreaking particular havoc on human nature.  In chapter 7 he describes this as the “Law of Sin at work within my members“.  He also describes ‘Law’ (the Jewish/Mosaic Law or ‘Torah’) as a holy, just and good thing, but which Sin co-opted in order to actually get stronger.  Law, it seems, only helps us to see and identify sin all the more clearly, and thus only strengthens our sin-consciousness.  Sin ‘abounds’ as a result.  Here we can define ‘religion’ as human attempts to fix our sin problem.  They just don’t work.  Paul goes on to describe this kind of ‘religion’ as a second kind of ‘law’: the “Law of my mind“, which delights in God’s law, but is powerless to change him.  He even says that the ‘Law’ was powerless to do what was needed.  Despite the mind being a ‘slave’ of God’s law, the result was still that he was a ‘slave’ of the law of sin in his members.  Law only heaps on shame, and fuels judgement – both of self and of others.  It simply cannot heal.  For freedom to come, a third kind of ‘law’ was needed: the “Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus“.  This ‘law’ is the only thing more powerful (“a Power greater than ourselves” step 2 says) than the deadly combination of the deceit of Sin, a body vulnerable to desire, and a righteous code fueling judgement.  Only the Spirit of Grace can restore, heal and forgive what is broken.

So, for me, we need not see any problem with the true Gospel of God’s generous Grace.  We can stand with Paul and see that ‘Christianity-as-we-distorted-it’ was powerless to heal us.  We needed the kind of ‘non-religious’ spirituality advocated by both Scripture and the 12 steps.

deception and awareness

One of the most common and most tragic features of addiction is self-deception.  It is the opposite of self-awareness.

Deception

Paul writes in Romans 2 about the way the consciences of the Gentiles both “accuse” and “excuse” themselves.  This is what we all do.  Addicts, however, notoriously distort both the accusation or excusing of self.  When we accuse ourselves, we typically do so with a vengeance.  Going way beyond appropriate taking of responsibility for our actions, we heap huge doses of condemnation, hatred, insults and all kinds of negative self-talk onto ourselves.  This accusation kills self-esteem, and heaps on the shame and isolation.

Likewise, when we excuse ourselves, we typically do so to the extreme.  Circumnavigating any healthy focus on ourselves, we obsessively focus on anything but us: the conditions, that situation, what they did or said (or didn’t say or do), etc.  This excusing blocks us from seeing our part in our problems, and therefore keeps us from doing anything constructive about it.  Like a pendulum, we swing from being ‘innocent’ to being a ‘monster’; and back and forth…

Awareness

Paul’s argument in Romans begins with an extended (and deliberately exaggerated) critique of stereo-typically negative Gentile behaviour in chapter 1.  In doing so, he gets the Jewish readers on his side, pumping their fists in self-justifying, self-righteous fervour.  But then he pulls the rug out from under them as he turns the corner into chapter 2, boldly claiming that the Jew is just as bad as the Gentile.  Paul’s goal is for the Jew (and Gentile) to have self-awareness.  Nathan did a similar thing with David in 2 Samuel 12: he told him a story about a hypothetical person’s harmful behaviour, and then confronted him with the charge that he had done the same thing.  Finally, Jesus talked famously about the need to focus first on the ‘log’ in our own eye, before we worry about the ‘speck’ in anyone else’s eye.  Interestingly, and with stark imagery, he says that when we remove the ‘log’ in our own eye, we can “see clearly”, or in other words, be self-aware.

As the AA big book suggests, resentment is the “number one offender”.  We get so busy feeling burned up at all the wrong things other people do, we fail to look at ourselves and “change the things I can”, as the Serenity Prayer reminds us.  Until we surrender our pride and become willing to see our faults, defects and sins, we will not see them.  We will continue to resist the advice and feedback from others, and continue to suppress the signs that bubble to the surface of our awareness.

Lest this post be overly filled with ‘we’ statements and devoid of ‘I’ language, let me close by affirming that I can only say the above because, like so many in recovery, I’ve had to  face up to my own behaviour, and I’ve known first hand the humbling and liberating effect of working these spiritual and biblical principles.