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.

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.

working

Twelve step spirituality is, as they say, a “programme of action”.  Although clear, humble thinking, and understanding awareness of emotions is important, an essential aspect of recovery is “doing the next right thing” whatever we think or feel.  Christians, especially those in the vein of Luther and his criticism of ‘works righteousness’, can struggle with this aspect of ‘working your programme’.

On the one hand, I want to affirm where this concern is coming from, and the best of this theological tradition.  If ‘working’ was all we had, then we really would be hopeless.  In the language of the twelve steps, all ‘God’ language would be screened out, and recovery would be entirely our work.  We would have to restore ourselves to sanity, hand ourselves over to our own care, bear the weight of our own inventories, identify and remove our own defects of character, be the agent and audience of our own prayer and meditations.  Recovery would be up to us entirely.  That, of course, is neither Christianity nor twelve step spirituality.  Both heartily affirm – in their own ways – that God “does for us what we were unable to do for ourselves”.  Christian faith focuses this upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, making possible a new identity and a new life.

On the other hand, I need to point out that I and other Christian addicts have struggled in the throes of addiction whilst also holding sincerely to all of this wonderful Christian theology.  The only assessment I can come to is that my theology wasn’t the problem, it was my obedience.  If a sailor does not do the absolutely necessary work of hoisting the sails of obedience, his ship will receive zero benefit and momentum from the abundant and free gusts of wind.  So it is with recovery and Christian discipleship.  The good news is that we don’t have to use oars to travel.  We get wind and direction absolutely free as a gift.  But the hard reality is that we have to hoist the sails of prayer, meditation, reading, confession/honesty, service, etc. in order to get anywhere.

Or as Augustine said it: Without God, we cannot; but without us God will not.