practicing change

As addicts, part of our experience of powerlessness was our inability to change ourselves. This failure to change, I believe, resulted from looking for change in the wrong places.

One place we looked for change was in powerful experiences. We would go on retreats, make large purchases, move house (or to another country), change our relationship status, go on an exotic and spiritual expedition, bring ourselves to the point of painful and emotional tears, put ourselves through extravagant therapeutic or other sensory treatments, and on and on. But we eventually found that, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. We would eventually still take on the same addictive habitual behaviour…

Another place we sought transformation was in superstition. We would see ‘that person’ at just ‘that time’ or just ‘that place’, and felt the universe was giving us signals. We would seek to cease our addictive behaviour at particular dates, such as birthdays, new years, or such novelties as the 11th of the 11th month in 2011 (at 11:11pm, of course)! But these shallow coincidences masquerading as milestones turned out to have no power to bring any difference to our behaviour either…

Still another solution we looked for was in intellect. We would read books – even properly academic or scientific or theapeutic ones – on addiction. We would watch endless videos and documentaries online. We would usually share our vast new understandings of such things as neuroplasticity and brain chemistry with anyone who would listen. But once again, however valuable such knowledge was, and is, this information was not itself the same as formation…

Recovery, it turns out, is a programme of action. We had all kinds of bad habits. Habits of thinking, feeling and of course acting. In recovery we learn new habits that are life-giving. We practice honest and positive thinking. We practice paying attention to and sharing how we feel. We practice all kinds of good positive actions, like fellowship, confession, self-critique and service. This is why “it works if you work at it.”


recovery and the Lord’s prayer

There seems to be a great deal of harmony and interplay between the Lord’s prayer and 12-step recovery.

To state the obvious, both are spiritual in nature.  They are both concerned with a Higher (indeed, the Highest) Power, which enables and guides the journey.  The adoration which is so clear in the Lord’s prayer (e.g. “hallowed be Thy name”) is perhaps implied in the description of the power as “higher” and the notion of the “care of God”.

But this spirituality is not passive, it is active.  This Power seems to desire (or indeed require) our participation, rather than relate to us as a puppet-master.  So there are specific actions.  In recovery, we do things.  We make and share inventories, identify and surrender character defects, make amends to those we have harmed, admit when we are wrong, pray, meditate and share the message with others.  The Lord’s prayer also suggests activity:  honouring the Lord’s name, doing the Lord’s will “on earth as it is [done] in heaven”, forgiving those who trespass against us.

That work of reconciliation and forgiveness is one of the most striking parallels.  Our Step 4 inventories and our Step 9 amends making lead us to focus on our wrongs instead of the wrongs of others as we experience them.  We cannot wait for others to come to us seeking forgiveness; rather, we take the initiative in focusing on our part, and seeking reconciliation.  Likewise, the Lord’s prayer paints a picture of discipleship in which forgiving “those who trespassed against us” is the norm.

In all of this, the Lord’s prayer, like the Serenity Prayer of the recovery movement, has a two-fold nature: On the one hand, it invites us to worship-fully trust God with those things that we ought not try to control or change, such as the kingdom, power and glory.  On the other hand, it directs us to work for the change we were created to bring about, such as living lives of worship, obedience, gratitude, forgiveness, avoidance of sin and an overall surrender to the overarching sovereignty of God’s kingdom.

early, simple action

I’ve written before about how quality recovery is characterised by simple actions, and addiction is characterised by complex thinking.  In this post I want to add just one more important thing.

This simple action needs to happen as early as possible.

Before entering recovery, I can remember acting delaying any healthy ‘simple action’ too long… too often it was delayed until it was too late.  Even after joining a 12-step program, I would delay action.  Here’s an example…

In working step 3, I remember my sponsor asking me, toward the end of our monthly meet up, “So… are you ready to make that decision to turn your will and life over to God’s care?”  My brain immediately got in the way.  Complex thoughts and questions and curiosities choked out any chance of a simple, active and affirmative response.  “Well…”, I muttered out… hesitatingly, “my understanding is that this is a decision that nobody can make perfectly, so we make it as best we can and we have to keep making it as we live our lives.”

This response was too muddy, too heady, and too hesitant.  Prolonged, complex thinking.

My sponsor eventually was able to point out that the answer to these questions should always and instantly be “YES.”  At least then, we have handed our will and life over for at least a few seconds!

The point here is not do invalidate the observation which every addict learns, namely that we must learn to accept progress not perfection.  Of course, we never do anything perfectly.  But that’s kind of the point.  We don’t need a ‘perfect’ surrender.  We also don’t need a perfect explanation of why such perfection can’t be attained.  We certainly don’t need an extended, complicated treatise on the matter.

The only kind of surrender we need…
is the only kind we can give…
…an early, simple and active one.

meditation & action

Addiction is famously, and quite simply, characterised by cognitive obsession and behavioural compulsion.  We addicts are, through and through, obsessive-compulsive.  We think about, fantasize about, dream about, fear and otherwise obsess over the world, our problems, our frustrations, and how we would like to fix them.  And, sooner or later, we give way to an overwhelming urge, drive, push, or compulsion to act out, which is of course where all of our addictive obsession was pointing and heading all along.

Obsession and compulsion are the aggressive manifestations of thought and behaviour.  There are also passive extremes that we addicts can swing back and forth to and from.  We can mentally ‘check out’ and try to think about nothing.  Often this happens when we act out.  We also can physically ‘check out’ in terms of activity, where we sleep, freeze, veg, surf, or otherwise refrain from any constructive or meaningful actions.

Recovery prescribes the healthy middle-way between these addictive extremes.  Instead of mental obsession or absent-mindedness, we are told to practice meditation.  And meditation often has two phases, the mind-stilling (or apophatic) and the mind-filling (kataphatic).  We need, first, to empty our mind of the obsessions filling it.  We can do this through various contemplative techniques and practices.  Second, because to goal of meditation is not to think about nothing, but to redirect and refocus the mind, we meditate on something, or indeed on someone; and in the Christian tradition we meditate on such things as Scripture, God, Christ, Word, Spirit, etc.

Finally, instead of addictive compulsion or physical inactivity, recovery instructs us to get into action.  Recovery is not just about thinking the right things, but doing right things, and often, especially when we feel stuck, we need to “do the next right thing”.  Recovery is a “programme of action”.  I’ve heard it said that we don’t so much think our way into right acting, but we act our way into right thinking.

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.


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.