In active addiction, our loss of control becomes apparent to us sooner or later. One helpful image is that of balancing a golf ball on top of a basketball. Keep it on top and all is well. Correct it immediately and with appropriate counter action, and a fall is avoided. But once it gets a certain distance from the top, the action required to stop it from falling off is effectively superhuman. This is precisely how addiction is experienced. We are perfect storms of Obsession and Compulsion. The thought of ‘doing it again’ takes root and grows (with our continued permission, it must be said) and fantasy gives way to subconscious ‘planning’ to do it, which eventually leads to ‘close calls’ or more often just going ahead with it. And irony of ironies, having ‘done it again’, we look back in disbelief, wondering how it happened… It’s as though our free will is eroded or better yet imprisoned or shackled, and to our shame, we have to admit that we have hidden the key from ourselves…. Self control is practically non-existent, and we have to admit complete and total powerlessness (step 1) to stop the behaviour…
As we grow in recovery, we gradually regain the self-control we lost. Or better yet, we gain a new kind of self control. Before we had attempted a kind of self control which was weakened by qualities such as entitlement, anger, blame and basically a thousand forms of fear. Now, in recovery, the programme teaches us to stay away from the behaviour, and the “stinking thinking” that gets us doing it. It’s not as though we get ‘cured’ and no longer want to do it, but rather the sobriety that comes with recovery gives us new eyes to see through the shoddy thinking and selfish justifications that accompanied our one-way trips to addictive behaviour. We get street wise. We safeguard ourselves. To add an awkward addition to the ball metaphor above, it’s like we don’t even try to balance the golf ball on the basketball, but we grow wise enough to use a doughnut to keep the ball securely on top. Without needing to do a ‘geographical’ to another job, marriage, town or country, we learn to ‘stay away’ from those places, venues, people or fantasies that we have continually allowed ourselves to be tripped up by. In a Christian key, this sounds like Paul saying that when he is weak he is very strong. This is self-control not from the flesh, but as a fruit of the Spirit who leads us into the wisdom we need to keep ourselves safe.
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.