These two frameworks pervade all of life, and characterise the difference between addiction and recovery.
In the framework of entitlement:
- Focus on what I do not have… and assume I deserve
- Aggression (incl. passive forms) toward others
- Manipulation of others
- Envious of others’ possessions or accomplishments
- “No Fair!”
- Medication via drug of choice
In the framework of gratitude:
- Focus on what I do have… realizing I might not have them
- Taking Responsibility
- Assertiveness toward others
- Respect of others
- Celebrating others’ possessions or accomplishments
- “Thank You!”
- Contentment in all circumstances
The Christian life, and the road of recovery, both involve a collaborative effort of partnership with God. It’s neither aggressive nor passive, but assertive.
Prayer is an essential component of this assertive way of life. In prayer, there is both the real dependence on the unlimited sovereign power of God, and at the same time the real commitment to our limited but real efforts in obedience.
We see this in the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer:
In the Lord’s Prayer, it is God whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom comes, who gives bread, and guides us. But it is us who offer the hallowing, commit to doing his will, and forgiving those who trespass against us, etc.
In the Serenity Prayer, it is God who gives the Serenity, Courage and Wisdom. But it is us who commit to accepting the unchangeable, changing the changeable, and seeking to know the difference.
One way of describing sin in theological terms is to say that we sin by failing to be properly human. This happens essentially in two ways: 1) we fail to be human when we try to fly, meaning pretend we are more than human, that we are [a] God; and 2) we fail to be human when we refuse to stand up, meaning we are less than human, that we are [mere] animals or objects. A proper image of God, as God intended, is neither super-human nor sub-human, but simply human. Under the Creator; over the creation.
The serenity prayer captures this beautifully.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… [because I am not God, you are!]
courage to change the things I can… [because that’s all any human needs to do!]
and wisdom to know the difference. [because this wisdom is essential for being human.]
The founders of AA were wise in avoiding any language that would turn recovery into an exclusive theological debaters club. God is defined as “God, as we understood Him.” There are obvious positives for this move. Let’s just focus on the essential spiritual principles of recovery! What about any negatives?
People have a tendency to feed their resentment against religion (often Christianity), and reject its vision of God for their own personal, privately conceived deity. One imagines thousands and thousands of such ‘gods’ whose existence depends entirely upon the creative thinking of the addicts that conceive of them. But the language of the AA steps and the Big Book seem, actually to speak of God as a singular, universal – and yes male? – being. “God, as we understood Him.” The literature speaks of God as the “One” with all power and authority. It seems that God is being spoken of not as a privately conceived lower-case ‘g’ deity, but as the highest possible, ultimate Creator.
‘Understanding’ a God is not to stand ‘over’ it, in a position of power and dominance (not to mention resentment); fashioning for ourselves a ‘god’ we ‘understand’ to be better than the one I despise. To understand is more to stand ‘under’, in a position of humility and growth, never claiming to have God-like knowledge of God, but eating whatever crumbs we have been given. AA was wise to coach addicts to ‘be quick to see where religious people are right’ (p. 87 of Big Book).
What’s the point here? Simply this. Understanding God is about humility and openness; standing ‘under’ the One who can never be fully ‘understood’, rather than standing ‘over’ a god you create with the fashionable power of your own brain.
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.
The honesty of authentic confession is one of the most important components of quality recovery. We all know we need to – eventually – tell ourselves, another person and God the whole truth about ourselves, as step 5 states. We all know our secrets keep us sick. So how is it that confession at times can be selfish?
On the one hand, confessions are selfish when they are not fully honest. I know this first hand. I told myself that I was trying to ‘protect’ my spouse from the worst things that would ‘harm’ them; but more truthfully, I was protecting myself. Yes, the act of revealing what I’d really been up to would (finally) bring my spouse into contact with the pain from the harm I’d done over the years. But also, the act of disclosing everything, and seeing and feeling the real and painful effect it had, would bring me into contact with the reality of what I’d been doing. So by not disclosing, by not truly confessing, I was protecting myself from the healing I needed. One is reminded, of course, of James 5:16; “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
This dishonesty is one way that confession is selfish due to caring more about ourselves than others. On the other hand, our confessions can be honest but still selfish. It is possible to be honest but inconsiderate. When we reveal too much information, or reveal information in the wrong manner, or at the wrong time, it is often the result of not considering the effect the information will have on the other person. Too often, we can confess with the motivation that we just want to feel good. This is particularly the case with public confessions. These kinds of selfish confessions are not only inconsiderate of how others feel, but actually can distance us from the help we actually need. We are capable of ‘engineering’ the confessional encounter so as to maximize the sympathy and attention we get, whilst minimizing the accountability and loving challenge we really need. Our addictive desires are thus only reinforced, and rather than being closer to anyone, we feel all the more alone.
Confession is self-less when it is risky. We let go of control of the confessional situation, and we trust the other person (and the Other One watching over us!) to handle the truth. And maybe, just maybe, we learn to finally encounter that truth ourselves as well.
Of all the points at which 12-step spirituality coheres with Christian spirituality, it has to be on resentment most of all.
As I’ve had to learn painfully, I wasted so much time seeding resentment in a thousand forms. Far too much of whatever intellectual resources I have, it seems, was wasted on finding fault with just about anyone I could. To make it worse, I was committed to being ‘nice’ about the ways I would disagree with people. Not passive, not aggressive – but yes, passive aggressive. Whether traffic, theology, or kitchen maintenance, I would rarely let a point slide.
Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, understands addiction as effectively stemming from when our resentment for a person, system, institution or principle seethes and swells until we finally reject or at least escape it. If ‘it/they/them/that’ will not bow to my control, then we will simply find something/someone else that will.
Steps 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10 – along with the serenity prayer, express the reality that we can only change ourselves. We can only clean our side of the street. We can only (seek to) make right the things that we have done.
The serenity prayer in popular form is a condensed version of the following ‘long form’ of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. It expresses acceptance as clearly as I can imagine:
- God, give me grace to accept with serenity
- the things that cannot be changed,
- Courage to change the things
- which should be changed,
- and the Wisdom to distinguish
- the one from the other.
- Living one day at a time,
- Enjoying one moment at a time,
- Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
- Taking, as Jesus did,
- This sinful world as it is,
- Not as I would have it,
- Trusting that You will make all things right,
- If I surrender to Your will,
- So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
- And supremely happy with You forever in the next.