remember, live, hope

12-step recovery meetings often involve sharing by members about their ‘experience, strength and hope’; that is, their a) experience in addiction, b) strength in recovery, and c) hope for the future.  It naturally lends to a temporal framework of past, present, and future.  We remember the insanity of our addictive acting out, we communicate the practical things we did, which we keep on doing, to get better, and we look forward to how things can continue to get better.

I want to focus on the present dimension for this post.  For a long time, I have often been suspicious of a ‘live in the present’ type language and focus.  ‘Be here now’, or ‘just be’ were phrases and concepts that annoyed me.  I valued the tradition, history and wisdom of the past; and I had a clear focus on working, aiming and striving for the future goal.  But I was weak on the present.

I’ve come to see that, in addition to these healthy appreciations for the past and future, I need a generous awareness of the value of the present moment.  The crucial point is this:  The present moment is the only one I can truly act and live in.

I used to ache over the past, and I think I tried to change it in really unhealthy ways; like the dishonesty of extremely minimized confessions to various people, which gave me a deluded feeling of having dealt with it.  Also (and this is just crazy) I can recall many times, when I was incredibly tempted and on the verge of acting out, that I would rationalize to myself by saying “Go ahead and do it now, and you can change later.  One more time won’t matter that much.”  And that right there is a perfectly awful example of how I was emptied of my power to act in the present.  I self-sabotaged my ability for self control.

The serenity prayer can be read in this light as well.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the past and the future.
courage to live in the present moment of now.
and wisdom to know that’s all I can do.

This reminds me of Titus 2:11-14 where we can see [at least on the surface of the text, and more clearly I’m sure if I knew Greek verb tenses!] the same past, present and future framework:

11For the grace of God has appeared [past] that offers [present] salvation to all people. 12It teaches [present] us to say “No” [present] to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live [present] self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13while we wait [present] for the blessed hope—the [future] appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14who gave himself [past] for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are [present] his very own, eager to do [present] what is good.

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partnership and prayer

The Christian life, and the road of recovery, both involve a collaborative effort of partnership with God.  It’s neither aggressive nor passive, but assertive.

Prayer is an essential component of this assertive way of life.  In prayer, there is both the real dependence on the unlimited sovereign power of God, and at the same time the real commitment to our limited but real efforts in obedience.

We see this in the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer:

In the Lord’s Prayer, it is God whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom comes, who gives bread, and guides us.  But it is us who offer the hallowing, commit to doing his will, and forgiving those who trespass against us, etc.

In the Serenity Prayer, it is God who gives the Serenity, Courage and Wisdom.  But it is us who commit to accepting the unchangeable, changing the changeable, and seeking to know the difference.

sin and serenity

One way of describing sin in theological terms is to say that we sin by failing to be properly human.  This happens essentially in two ways: 1) we fail to be human when we try to fly, meaning pretend we are more than human, that we are [a] God; and 2) we fail to be human when we refuse to stand up, meaning we are less than human, that we are [mere] animals or objects.  A proper image of God, as God intended, is neither super-human nor sub-human, but simply human.  Under the Creator; over the creation.

The serenity prayer captures this beautifully.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… [because I am not God, you are!]

courage to change the things I can… [because that’s all any human needs to do!]

and wisdom to know the difference. [because this wisdom is essential for being human.]

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.

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.

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.