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.

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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.

entitlement and gratitude

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
  • Resentment
  • Blame
  • Anger
  • Aggression (incl. passive forms) toward others
  • Manipulation of others
  • Envious of others’ possessions or accomplishments
  • Fear
  • “No Fair!”
  • Medication via drug of choice

In the framework of gratitude:

  • Focus on what I do have… realizing I might not have them
  • Acceptance
  • Taking Responsibility
  • Understanding
  • Assertiveness toward others
  • Respect of others
  • Celebrating others’ possessions or accomplishments
  • Love
  • “Thank You!”
  • Contentment in all circumstances

partnership and prayer

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.

sin and serenity

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.]

under-standing God

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.