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.

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.

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.

selfish confessions

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.

resentment and acceptance

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.
Amen.

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.