on self control

In active addiction, many of us tried to control, curb or otherwise manage our behaviour. Our efforts usually were accompanied by mixed results. In this post, I simply want to reflect on the way in which self-control requires a very particular kind of strength – particularly the strength that flows from partnership with a Higher Power, which Christians call the Holy Spirit. But first, a few brief examples of ways we try to control our selves with other kinds of power.

Sometimes, we use the power of thought. Our thoughts can be about lots of things, and many times these can be good or otherwise helpful things. Christians may think deeply about how much God still loves them in spite of their mistakes, sins and defects, and yet these wonderful thoughts themselves do not stop them from engaging in the addictive behaviour. Other examples of fruitless thinking could be endless wondering about what ‘other’ thing (a person, a cultural reality, an experience, a genetic inheritance, etc.) made us the specific way that we are. These and other abstractions fail to help us precisely in the same way that wheels fail to move a car when the car is hoisted above the ground. Hoisting a car with wheels spinning, and getting our mind whirring away with elevated thoughts, can be useful of course, but unless our spinning wheels touch the ground, we simply won’t get anywhere.

Other times, we seek to be rescued by the power of experience. We want to act differently, so we seek a strong or strongly different kind of experience (whether good and healthy or otherwise) to get us there. Whether the ‘jolt’ we seek from the experience is geographically, physically, emotionally, or socially based, sooner or later (too often sooner) we find a way to act addictively even after the jolt.

Still other times, we try to manage ourselves with the power of the will. Whereas thoughts are often about ‘other’ things, and experiences come from ‘other’, from outside ourselves, to rely on the will is to rely on the self. Like good thinking and a good experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the application and engagement of our will. In fact, as we said above, we will not get anywhere without it. But as every addict knows, their experience is a depressingly progressive failure of the will, which does increasingly more and worse things; things that another part of ourselves does not want to do (see Romans 7).

Instead of pulling ourselves upward via a righteous thought, hitting the reset button with a profound experience, or charting the way forward through iron clad will-power (or won’t-power!), self control is powered by spiritual power. Recovery principles and Christian principles are agreed that spiritual power is the result of a partnership between humans and God (for example, see “Into Action” and “Working with Others” chapters in the AA Big Book; and Colossians 1:28-29). This is why Galatians 5 lists self-control as one of the fruits, not of the self, but of the Spirit. Yet at the same time, it is not called ‘spirit-control’ as though the self could merely stand by passively and be zapped with good behaviour.

Lest all this be another exercise in thinking, what does this look like ‘on the ground’ in our actual experience? Quite simply, it looks like a continual conscious decision to act in partnership with God. We tried asking, detached theological questions (“Does God love me if I keep doing this? Surely…”)… We tried pursuing psycho-therapeutic explorations (“If ‘x’ had not happened to me, would I struggle as I do now?”)… We tried seeking a transcendent experience (“Surely if I experience ‘x’ I will feel new and not feel like acting out again…”)… We tried managing ourselves through brave and naiive reliance on the will (“I swear it; I am over this; I cannot and will not do it again.”)… The spirituality of self control, however, is fundamentally and simply characterized by the pursuit of partnership with God (“What can God and I do about this, right now?).

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