experience, strength, hope

Some 12-step fellowships have (perhaps in addition to others) the following three lists: 12 Characteristics (of the addiction), 12 Steps (of recovery), and 12 Promises (of life in sobriety).  Theses lists roughly correspond to the concepts of a) experience, b) strength, and c) hope.  To my knowledge, there is no systematic, number-for-number correlation between any of these lists.  This curiosity has led me to create a generalized pair of lists which directly correlate to the 12 steps.

12 Characteristic Experiences of Addiction

  1. We were unable to see or admit how powerless we were over our addiction, or how unmanageable our lives had become.
  2. We were unable or unwilling to believe that we could be restored to sanity.
  3. We could not let go of our will and our lives.
  4. We had little or no clarity over our moral history and underlying resentments and fears.
  5. We had never been fully honest with God, ourselves or any one human being, about the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We could not face or identify or hand over our defects of character.
  7. We continually tried to fix our own shortcomings.
  8. We had mixed motivations for making apologies to various people.
  9. We blamed others, directly or indirectly, or made apologies that made us feel better at their expense.
  10. We had a pattern of not seeing when we were wrong, nor admitting it.
  11. We had poor or non-existent spiritual habits of prayer and meditation, either not asking for anything, or asking for too many or the wrong things.
  12. We were spiritually asleep, which hindered or entirely negated our ability to be of help to others.

12 Steps of Strength

  1. Admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Became willing to have God remove from us all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people, whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to deepen our conscious contact with a Power greater than ourselves, praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives.

12 Promises of Hope

  1. Our lives were powered by a partnership with a Power Greater than ourselves, enabling our lives to be healthy and ordered.
  2. Our thinking was sober and sane, thanks to that Power.
  3. Our will and lives intermingled with God’s, as we understand God.
  4. Our past is understood with clarity and compassion.
  5. We practice open and honest accountability with God, ourselves and others.
  6. We continually discover new and deeper defects of character, and deepen our willingness to have them removed.
  7. We continually partner with God to remove these shortcomings.
  8. We understand the harm we have done to others.
  9. We enjoy the freedom of having done all we could do to clear away the relational wreckage of our past.
  10. We continually deepen our habit of spotting where we are wrong and promptly admitting it.
  11. We strengthen and sharpen our practice of prayer and meditation, maintaining a simplicity of focus on God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. We continue to work recovery not only for our own recovery, but to pass it on to others.
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simple actions

In this post, I want to contrast two huge differences between the lifestyle of addiction, and that of recovery and sobriety.

Complexity v. Simplicity

First, the addictive way of being is riddled with excessive complexity.  Sometimes, this complexity has to do with how we handle our memories of our behaviour; how we talk about it, either to others or within ourselves. Whether we gently minimize, tell half-truths, or outright lies, we expend ungodly amounts of energy with complex ‘bookkeeping’.  “It was only that once, so it’s OK.”  “I only do [x] sometimes.”  or “I was feeling an unusual amount of pressure at work that day, so that explains why I did [y].”  In the light of sobriety, we are finally able to cut through these dishonest, inaccurate, self-protecting and complex ways of remembering our behaviour, and we are able to view our behaviour with (often painful!) simplicity and accuracy.  “Whatever may have been part of why I felt like doing that, I still chose to do it, and I could have chose not to.”  “This is not just an isolated occurrence, it’s part of a pattern, that I’m powerless to stop.  I need to ask for help.”

Other times, the complexity has to do with the seemingly infinite and complex variety of ‘solutions’ we tried in order to stop.  “I’ll put a picture of [loved one] in my wallet to remind me.”  “If my new sobriety date is memorable, that will keep me from acting out again.”  “If I read up on how addiction ‘works’ in terms of brain chemistry and neural activity, I’ll be able to out-smart my addiction.”  Sobriety, on the other hand, is incredibly simple.  “I just can’t go there.”  “Other people may be able to [x], but not me, and I’m ‘OK’ with that.”  “What’s the ‘next right thing’ I need to do instead of [y]?”

Thought v. Action

Secondly, addiction can be accompanied by a lot of thought, which almost never stops us (or even hinders us) from acting out.  Whether it is ‘stinking thinking’ or coldly logical observations, we can distract ourselves with an endless stream of excessive rationality (or irrationality).  “Oh my goodness, I am so crazy right now, I can feel the neural pathways buzzing with energy.”  “Whatever I end up doing, I am sure that God still loves me.”  “I really have to stop this eventually… I’m taking advantage of God’s love… this is the last time… I really mean it this time…”  However much such thinking may reflect truth (or not), we are not going to think our way to being sober.  Recovery is a ‘programme of action‘.  “Right, time to stop and pray.”  “OK, time to get up off this couch and make myself a cup of coffee.”  “I’m going to journal these thoughts and feelings so I can ‘right size’ them.”  “Time to ring somebody… anybody!”

In summary, then, in addiction we were like caged rats, flailing about trying to get somewhere on our spinning wheels.  No matter how fast the wheel spun or what our technique was, we got nowhere, and only were more exhausted from the effort.  In recovery, we stop talking about getting sober and simply do the things necessary for us to get there.

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.

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.

‘one flesh’ confession

This post is about the particular challenge that marriage has on Christians who are addicts.  I suspect the principles translate to singles, but not sure how at the moment.

My experience was that, although my addictive behaviour decreased in frequency when I joined a 12-step fellowship, it continued to progress and grow.  And, importantly, it did not stop until I confessed all to my spouse.  In reflecting on this, I have come to the following conclusions:

  • Honesty with God, self and other and interdependent.  Partial honesty with an ‘other’ will cripple and distort my honesty with God, and with myself.  This is reflected, of course, in the wording of Step 5 – “admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.”
  • If marriage is, as Scripture describes, a ‘one flesh’ union, where there are ‘no longer two, but one’, then this seems to have radical urgency for honesty and confession.  In the very act of being less than fully honest with my spouse, with whom I had become one flesh, I was also being less than fully honest with myself.

sin and security

Over my years in active addiction, I had ongoing doubts about my security as a believer.  Mostly, I pushed them away, ignored them, or explained them away in the name of grace.  In recovery now, I feel more security than ever, but these questions plague many believing addicts: Does my behaviour make my faith invalid or ‘dead’?  Am I trying to fool God by continuing in my behaviour?  Am I willfully sinning?

I’m not interested in solving or even entering the ‘once saved always saved’ debate here.  My goal is simply to give reflections helpful for Christians struggling with and in addiction.

There are two extremes we can go to, I think.

On one extreme, we can be overly fearful that our behaviour invalidates us from the love of God.  We really can, and should, take comfort in the fact that, whatever just holy and true anger God does have for sin, including our sins, the ‘big picture of Grace’ is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and yes addicts.  I am guided hugely here by the parable of the Prodigal Son (or the Prodigal God).  What we see is not ‘cheap grace’ where the Father winks at the sons selfish and excessive behaviour and choices.  We would rightly read in between the lines of this parable and see pain and sadness in the Father, when his son takes the money and runs to waste it.  But the point is that the Father’s love persists constantly through the whole story, waiting for the young son to return, rejoicing lavishly when he does, and also extending to the bitter older son to reconcile with his brother.  Our worst behaviour cannot extinguish the fire of God’s love.

On the other extreme, it is possible, in my understanding, to have a faith that is entirely built on a lie.  It is possible to sin, and keep on sinning, without the slightest hint of repentance and desire to change.  To sin ‘with a high hand’, in deliberate defiance of God’s incredible love.  This is dangerous, and I think it’s right to say that God will not be mocked.  God ‘gives us over’ to our course of life, for God will not force his path upon us.

The point here is not to give license to sin, but to enable struggling addicted believes to know that, so long as they at least have a hint of evidence of the conviction and grieving of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they can rightly see themselves as daughters and sons of God.  No doubt, daughters and sons who need to ‘come to their senses’ and come home, but daughters and sons, no less.

read this first

When it comes to addiction, it’s not a question of if you have one, but rather which ones you have, and to what extent they have taken life from you.

Addiction to some things (coffee, social media, etc.) are socially acceptable…
Addiction to others (drugs, sex, etc.)  carries a lot of shame.

This blog will be a safe place to explore how Grace frees us from the trap of addiction.
The path is not easy…
It’s certainly not comfortable…
But it is wholly free of Shame.