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.

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.

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.

about this blog’s title

Grace is the language of gift.

More than just being something given freely rather than earned, gifts evoke gratitude.  The title of this site suggests that addiction itself can be seen as a kind of gift.  Can one be grateful for addiction?  Let me tell you why I am.

I am immensely grateful, not for any of the addictive behaviour, or any of the pain it caused me and others, but for the way that addiction has forced me – eventually – to come to my senses, fall to my knees, give up the con, and get real.

I now enjoy a quality of life that I had almost entirely given up on hoping for.  My relationships with my wife, our child, and with God are all on very healthy trajectories.  I can’t know what quality of life I’d have now, if I hadn’t faced the struggle, pain and consequences that I had to face because of addiction.  But I feel compelled to gratitude anyway, for the life I now have.

As Paul writes in Romans, Sin was able to ‘use’ the Law to grow even more powerful.  By contrast, Grace was able to ‘use’ Sin to abound even more powerfully.  Whatever we understand the Evil One to be, it meant for addiction to destroy me.  But the God of Grace, who obviously never ‘wants’ anyone to sin or struggle with addiction, nonetheless planned or ‘meant’ it for my good.

All is grace.

two biblical addicts

From the temptation in the garden to eat the fruit that could ‘make one wise’, and thus powerful – god-like – through to the depiction of the unholy triune temptation of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’, we see that humans have always been vulnerable to sin… and when sin becomes habitual, compulsive and obsessive, it morphs into addiction.

David sounds like he knew the experience of the ‘pit’ and ‘miry clay’ of addiction in Psalm 40.  Look especially at verse 12…

For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.

His ‘troubles’ are not merely of a large number, but they cannot be numbered… ‘more than the hairs of [his] head’…
His ‘sins’ have not just challenged him, they have ‘overtaken’ him…
They have not just impaired his vision, but blinded him…
His heart is not just troubled, but it ‘fails’…
That sounds like the experience of someone despairing in the trap of addiction.

Paul also uses language that sounds remarkably like addiction.  Listen to the conflict and torment of Romans 7, especially verses 14-15, 18-19…

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Commentators on the book of Romans have said that Paul is writing here both about his prior experience before meeting Christ, and also the experience as a believer struggling against the unholy sinful desires he still carries.  This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also have a firm and unshakable identity as a new creation in Christ, but it does mean that he has ‘not yet attained’ the perfection he is striving toward (Philippians 3)…

At least at the level of temptation and feeling, he relates to the idea of being a ‘slave to sin’.  He understands what it’s like to despise himself for doing – and keeping on doing –  the very things – evil things – he intends not to do…

So then… what is the point of noting that David and Paul sounded at times like an addict?

It certainly is not to justify any addictive behaviour.

The point is to underline the reality that sin, temptation, and yes addiction, afflicts everyone – at least at some level.  When we can recognize that such characters as King David and the Apostle Paul could relate to addiction, we are less prone to the worst kind of despair; namely the kind that flows from deep shame.

Whatever you have done… whatever you are doing… whatever you keep on doing…
You are not the only one…
You are not alone…
There was a Way out for them…
There is a Way out for you also.