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.

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.

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.