02/2/16

Groundhog Day Recovery

 © Darren Walker | Dreamstime.com

© Darren Walker | Dreamstime.com

In the movie, Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray’s character) is sitting in a bar drinking with two guys, Ralph and Gus. He had just discovered that he is reliving the same day—Groundhog Day—over and over and over again. So Phil asked them: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place? And nothing you did seemed to matter?” Ralph, who was clearly drunk said: That about sums it up for me.” This and other scenes have led me to see the movie as having several allegorical scenes to addiction and recovery.

Later, after they leave the bar with Phil driving, he asked Ralph and Gus what they would do if there was no tomorrow. Gus’s answer was: “That would mean there was no hangover. We could do whatever we want.” This led to a car chase scene that ended with the three of them surrounded by the local police. There is a great moment in the scene, where Phil drove the car onto railroad tracks directly at an oncoming train. He said: “I’m betting he’s going to swerve first.” Again, this is a scene familiar to addicts and alcoholics. Putting yourself in insane situations that end with being arrested.

The hopeless repetition of the same thing over and over is an integral part of the addictive lifestyle as well as the movie. Another scene shows where Phil is trying to convince Andi McDowell’s character, Rita, that he is caught in a repetitive time loop of Groundhog Day. He tells her personal things about herself that Phil Connors, outside of the Groundhog Day time loop, wouldn’t know. Rita wonders how he’s doing this and he tells her: “ I told you. I wake up every day right here … and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The opportunity to do whatever you want without consequences eventually turned dark for Phil. Like the addict or alcoholic, Phil misperceived what was causing his time loop and tried unsuccessfully to stop it. He said: “There is no way this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”

Phil then stole the groundhog and drove off the edge of a quarry. He took a bath with a toaster. He stepped in front of a car. He dived off of a building. At one point he said: “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung electrocuted and burned. . . . and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender… I am an immortal. . . . I killed my self so many time I don’t exist anymore.”

On one of his “dry drunk” days, he sounded like some people who have railed against the perceived hypocrisy of Twelve Steppers. As he gave the introduction to the time of the groundhog’s moment of  “prognostication,” Phil sounded off about his life in Groundhog Day:

This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to eat it. You’re hypocrites, all of you!

Eventually, Phil started to see that he was powerless to change his circumstances and tried to make the best of them, often without success. He repeatedly caught a kid that fell out of a tree, but the kid always ran away without thanking him. He fed and gave money to a homeless man. He even took him to a local hospital, but the man always died. When a nurse said that sometimes people just die, Phil responded: “Not today.” And yet the man died despite Phil’s best efforts.

He repeatedly attempted to present himself in a way that would spark a romantic interest in Rita, but always ended with her slapping him. Not only was Phil powerless to change his own circumstances, he could not change those of other people—regardless of how much he may have wanted to do so.

Yet he did save Buster, the Groundhog Day emcee, from choking. He saved a young couple from breaking off their engagement And he learned to play the piano. He saw that he could make a difference if he was alert to what happened around him and used the opportunities available to him, as he took his life “one day at a time.” Even with “Needlenose Ned” Ryerson, the insurance salesman who was the bane of his existence during Groundhog Day, Phil was eventually able make it the best day of Ned’s life.

At one point in his efforts to woo Rita, he seems to have surrendered to the fact that he was not God; that he needed to live one day at a time, even if it was within his time loop. He had done an ice sculptor of Rita’s face and she told him that it was beautiful. In response, Phil said: “Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.”  When he stopped trying to manipulate the circumstances of the time loop, Rita did notice him, returned his affection and the time loop stopped. Here I was reminded of the Third Step: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.”

Many of the things in the movie actually do exist within the festivities of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. There is a Groundhog Ball. The officials at the ceremony do wear top hats. Phil (the groundhog) supposedly speaks in “Groundhogese” to the president of the Inner Circle, who then translates whether or not he predicted six more weeks of winter. Check the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day Club website for the schedule of events. You can even watch a live webcast of the festivities if you can’t get to Punxsutawney on February 2nd. Oh, and try to see the movie, even if you’re not interested in its parallels to recovery. We all need to learn to live just one day at a time.

(A blog rerun in honor of Groundhog Day)

11/13/15

From Darkness to Light

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

Douglas Moo said Romans 1:21 was the “missing link” for Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20, where he said those who suppress the truth God reveals about himself in creation have no excuse for their actions. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, if you deny or suppress what creation reveals about God, you will never truly understand it. What’s more, your failure to understand is inexcusable because it should have been quite plain to you.

According to Robert Mounce, we can reasonably expect that knowing God should lead us to honor him as God, since He plainly gives all people the basic requirements for life, regardless of their relationship to him. Their response should be gratitude, “But people choose to ignore God and come up with their own version of reality. By rejecting the knowledge of the true God, religion is born.” Mounce’s sense of religion here  seems to be a revision of Edmund/Edward Tylor’s definition of religion as follows: “the belief in spiritual beings” other than the true God. This turning from the revealed truth of God to a personal interpretation of that revealed truth has been described as “the triumph of gods over God.”

The sense of “God as you understand him” in Twelve Step recovery strikes off in two separate directions when the truth about God in creation is encountered. One is compatible with the Romans Road, and one is not. God as you understand Him is essentially “God as I am willing to accept” or “God as I am able to comprehend” Him. This first sense can be portrayed by the word “god” within a circle representing the person’s understanding. This sense of  “god” becomes a projection or manifestation of a purely human attempt to explain reality.

small god

The alternate sense, and one that is compatible with the Romans Road, is a circle of understanding that is infinitesimally smaller than God Himself. Something that looks like what follows: the representation of our understanding as a circle barely discernable with the “O” of God.

big GodThe distinction between these two “understandings” of God is illustrated in Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Anselm said that even a fool can conceive of the idea of “god” as an absolutely perfect being; a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive. But if this idea exists in our understanding, “then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.” So if someone accepts that God is greater than our ability to imagine Him, He must exist in reality because existing in reality is greater than merely existing in the imagination. “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” Brian Davies and G. R. Evans noted in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works that Anselm believed:

God cannot be thought of simply as a concept people have. He [Anselm] thinks people who deny God’s existence can nevertheless be thought of as having some concept of God, for so he says, they have some idea of what it is whose existence they deny.

If reflecting on the meaning of the word ‘God’ shows that God necessarily exists in reality and not just in the mind as an idea of him, then someone who denies there is a God is ultimately proposing what must necessarily be false. Anselm saw his argument for the existence of God as paving the way for serious reflection on what we mean when we use the word ‘God.’ He also believed his ‘proof’ showed that God was what Christians believed God to be. But according to Romans, if this knowledge doesn’t lead the individual to honor and give thanks to God, it is not saving knowledge of God (Romans 1:16, 21).

So if this knowledge does not lead to reverence and gratitude towards God, then it “falls far short of what is necessary to establish a relationship” with God. In Romans 1:21 Paul points to what will happen with an understanding of God based solely on the knowledge of God revealed in creation—your thinking becomes futile; and your foolish heart becomes darkened. Whatever your initial capacity to reason about God may have been, whatever initial knowledge of creation you might have had, failing to acknowledge God’s hand in it means your thinking about it will ultimately be in vain; futile.

You can understand God to be greater than your ability to imagine Him, but still not have that knowledge lead you to worship Him. It requires the light of the gospel. Knowledge of God that does not lead you to honor and give thanks to Him leads to futile thinking and darkened, foolish hearts. Douglas Moo commented that at the very center of every person where the knowledge of God must be embraced is darkness. If the knowledge of God is to have any positive effects, then only the light of the gospel can penetrate that darkness.

As Paul has already said in verse 1:18 of Romans, the wrath of God is revealed against individuals who suppress the truth of what God has revealed. You need more than just an understanding of God as a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive to have a relationship with “the God of the preachers.” John Calvin said of the individuals Paul described in Romans 1:21, “They quickly choked by their own depravity the seed of right knowledge, before it grew up to ripeness.” Robert Mounce put it this way:

To turn from the light of revelation is to head into darkness. Sin inevitably results in a darkening of some aspect of human existence. In a moral universe it is impossible to turn from the truth of God and not suffer the consequences. Ignorance is the result of a choice. People who do not “know” God are those who have made that choice. Understanding God requires a moral decision, not additional information.

According to the Reformation Study Bible, God will not allow human beings to entirely suppress their sense of God. Even in a fallen world people have a conscience; they have some sense of right and wrong. “When conscience speaks in these terms it speaks with the voice of God.” And I think this is true for the Twelve Steps. By meditating on what ‘God as I understand Him’ means, perhaps someone will have a deeper appreciation of what Christians believe God to be.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “04,” the fourth one in the series. Enjoy.

09/7/15

Preventing and Stopping Cravings

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

Not all addicts and alcoholics struggle with cravings in recovery. And not all addicts and alcoholics experience them with the same intensity. But knowing how to recognize the sets ups and triggers for a craving are crucial skills for those in recovery who do experience them. Otherwise, it’s like living through a drug and alcohol-themed version of Groundhog Day.

On his blog, Terence Gorski described a three-stage model to manage cravings without them leading back to active drug or alcohol use. Two previous articles “Ready to Cope with Cravings” and “Getting Set to Cope with Cravings” reviewed the three stages of Gorski’s model to understand cravings. This final article of the three part series describes how to prevent cravings and stop them once they do occur.

Craving is not an inevitable process. They can be prevented if you follow a few simple guidelines. And they can be managed without a return to active drug use. Gorski suggested five preventive measures against craving.

  • First, develop and maintain a structured recovery program that keeps you in regular, continuous, daily contact with other recovering people.
  • Second, know what your triggers are. “Identify the things that activate the craving and learn how to cope with those triggers.”
  • Third, know and avoid your set-up behaviors; learn how to cope with them if you can’t avoid them.
  • Fourth, dismantle euphoric recall—intentionally include where the “fun” of the high will eventually lead you. Remember where it took you in the past.
  • Fifth, stop awfulizing sobriety and put an end to magical thinking.

Despite your best efforts, you may still experience cravings. Remember that they are a normal symptom experienced by most addicts in recovery.  While there are a fortunate few who have minimal or no problems with cravings in early recovery, they are the exception, not the rule. So if you have cravings, stop them from leading you back to active drug use by practicing a few simple steps.

  • First, recognize the craving. This may seem obvious, but sometimes the craving is mild and appears to be something you can “white knuckle” it through until it’s over. “Many addicts fail to identify mild craving as problematic and wait until they are full-blown, severe cravings before taking action.”
  • Second, don’t panic if you have one. Remember that cravings are normally experienced by addicts in recovery. It doesn’t mean you are doomed to resume active drug use or that you aren’t doing enough for your recovery.
  • Third, get away from where you are. A craving might be activated by an environmental trigger. You may have thought a situation wouldn’t be a trigger, only to discover once you are in it, that it triggers you. GET OUT OF THERE and go to “an environment that supports recovery.”
  • A fourth step you can take is to talk the craving cycle through with someone. “If you talk it through, you don’t have to act it out.” Honestly talking the process through from beginning to end can discharge the urge to use because you are mentally removing yourself from it. It’s like you have a video of the process that you are reviewing. You stop, rewind, fast-forward, and go frame by frame with the recording of what happened to discover the timeline and cause-and-effect chain reaction of what led to the craving.
  • Fifth, distract yourself. Divert attention from the craving by engaging in other productive, positive activities that require your full attention.
  • You could do some aerobic exercise, a sixth action step to cope with cravings. Aerobic exercise can stimulate brain chemistry that reduces cravings.
  • Seventh, you can try meditation or relaxation. Cravings are often intensified under high stress. “The more a person can relax, the mower the intensity of the craving.”
  • Eighth, you can eat a healthy meal to nourish your brain.
  • Ninth, remember they are time-limited and will eventually pass. Most cravings won’t last more than two or three hours. If you persist in the steps suggested here to the point of getting fatigued enough to fall asleep, many people wake up with the craving gone.

It is possible to understand drug craving and to learn how to manage craving without returning to use. A model that allows people to identify set-up behaviors, trigger events, and the cycle of craving itself, and intervening upon this process has proven effective in reducing relapse among addicts.

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, Terry Gorski’s blog, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. You can access additional articles stemming from Terence Gorski’s material under the Gorski link on Faith Seeking Understanding.

08/31/15

Getting Set to Cope with Cravings

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

On his blog, Terence Gorski described a three-stage model for addicts and alcoholics to manage cravings without them leading back to active drug or alcohol use. The first stage of set-up behaviors was discussed in a previous article, “Ready to Cope with Cravings.” This article will review the next two stages, trigger events (The Set Stage) and the craving cycle (The Go Stage).

The Set Stage

There are four main triggers that can activate immediate, powerful cravings during the Set stage, according to Gorski. Thinking triggers arise out of the mind-set or pattern of thought that follows the person into early recovery. Abstinence doesn’t magically make them disappear. Feeling triggers often come from sensory cues—seeing, hearing, touching tasting or smelling something that reminds the person of their drug of choice. “It also results from experiencing feelings or emotions that were normally medicated by use.” Behavioral triggers stem from behaviors and rituals that were previously associated with drug use. Situational triggers include relationships or circumstances that used to be associated with using.

There can be some overlap between set-ups and triggers. What distinguishes them in the discussion by Gorski seems to be the ability of a trigger to activate the immediate experience of a craving cycle.

Euphoric recall or fantasy that continues unchecked could become a thought or feeling trigger. Listening attentively as someone describes his or her own struggles with past addictive behavior or current struggles with set-ups or cravings can lead to a thought trigger. Seeing movies that portray drug use can initiate a strong craving. Intravenous drug users can be triggered when their blood is drawn. Alcoholics can be triggered by hearing someone snap open a soda can.

Certain situations, rituals or behaviors that become associated with using can become behavioral or situational triggers. Think here about the principles of classical Pavlovian conditioning. One person I knew couldn’t listen to a certain CD, because he has regularly listened to it when he was high. Another individual discovered that sitting and thinking in a particular chair in their home was a trigger, because that was where she had sat when she drank. Another person avoided the cleaning supply isle in supermarkets because they had used chore boy scrubbers to make their crack pipes.

The often-repeated mantra to avoid People, Places and Things associated with addiction will include all the above categories of set-ups and triggers. But the nuance of addictive experience means that not every physical, psychological or social set-up is equally dangerous to all addicts and alcoholics. Not all thinking, feeling, behavioral or situational events will immediately trigger a craving cycle with all alcoholics and addicts. Not all People, Places and Things put addicts and alcoholics equally at risk of cravings or relapse. The failure to acknowledge this will potentially awfulize recovery (one of the psychological set-ups).

Using Gorski’s stages of set-ups and triggers, I’d suggest that any person, place or thing associated with addiction should be considered to be a set-up. Careful examination, discussion and analysis of these set-ups will determine whether they have a greater or lesser potential to become a trigger and activate a craving cycle for the individual. The earlier a person is in recovery, or the more stressful or unstable the life of a person with longer-term recovery is, the more careful they should be to avoid set-ups. The more stable the person’s life and recovery is, the greater nuance they can have in their exposure to set-ups. Any set-up that carries the potential to become a trigger for the individual should be avoided. The diversity of experiences when using, even among individuals with the same drug of choice, means that not every physical, psychological or social set-up is equally dangerous to all addicts and alcoholics.

The Go Stage

The third stage of craving is the actual craving cycle. Here the obsessive thoughts to use triggers a compulsive desire to get high, with physical cravings for the drug and then actual drug seeking behavior occurs.

When an obsession becomes activated, the person experiences a loss-of-control with their thinking. “Intrusive thoughts invade their mind and they can’t turn them off.” The obsession will quickly become a compulsion. Despite knowing it would be dangerous to use drugs, in a compulsion the person has an overwhelming urge to get high. This obsession and compulsion leads to full-blown physical craving, which can be quite powerful. The person may have a rapid heart beat, shortness of breath, perspiration; even an actual sense of tasting smelling, or feeling the drug they are craving.

Attempting to manage the cycle of obsession, compulsion and craving, the person begins active drug-seeking behavior. They might return to their old hangouts; call up old drug using friends. In other words, return to people, places and things associated with addiction. This exposure to more triggers intensifies the craving cycle. Ultimately, the person becomes overwhelmed with this cycle of obsession-compulsion-craving and they return to active drug use.

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, Terry Gorski’s blog, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. This is the second of a three-part series on coping with cravings. The other two articles are “Ready to Cope with Cravings” and “Preventing and Stopping Cravings.” You can access additional articles stemming from Terence Gorski’s material under the Gorski link on Faith Seeking Understanding.

08/17/15

Ready to Cope with Cravings

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

© Boris Ryaposov | 123rf.com

Terence Gorski described a three-stage model for addicts and alcoholics to manage cravings without them leading back to active drug or alcohol use. The first stage was what he called Set-Up Behaviors—“ways of thinking, managing feelings, and behaving that increase the risk of relapse.” The second stage was Trigger Events—“events that activate the physiological brain responses associated with craving.” The third stage was the Craving Cycle—“a series of self-reinforcing thoughts and behaviors that continue to activate and intensify the craving response.” For ease of remembrance, we will refer to the first stage as “Ready,” the second stage as “Set,” and the third stage as “Go.”

Within the Ready stage, Gorski described physical, psychological and social set-ups that can lower the individual’s resistance to craving. At the Set stage, he said there were four primary kinds of triggers that could immediately activate a craving: Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviors and Situations. The Go stage, what Gorski called the Craving Cycle, was obsession, compulsion, physical craving and drug-seeking behavior.

There is often a progression from Ready, to Set, to Go—but not always. For example, euphoric recall is one of the psychological set-ups within the Ready stage, but these memories can be powerful enough to immediately activate a craving cycle (the Go stage). Here the memory is a “thought trigger” in the Set stage, one that immediately triggers a craving. Conversely, sometimes there can be set-ups—say socializing with drug-using friends—that don’t trigger thoughts, feelings, behaviors or situations that lead to a craving cycle. But such “misses” can give a person a false sense of security about future opportunities within this kind of set-up. The next time, you may not be so lucky.

The Ready Stage

Physical Set-Ups

Gorski said there are five common physical set-ups for cravings. The first is Brain Dysfunction from Drug Use. “Mind altering drugs [including alcohol] damage the brain” when they are misused or abused.  I would add that all drugs with mind-altering properties should be included here. The obvious drug classes are the benzodiazepines and opioids. However, I’d also include the antidepressants and the antipsychotics.

Current antidepressant medications typically modify levels of serotonin (or sometimes norepinephrine) in the brain. Antipsychotics generally work by blocking a dopamine receptor referred to as the D2 receptor. This receptor has been suggested in research to be related to compulsive eating and cocaine abuse. Carleton Erickson, in The Science of Addiction, indicated there were fifteen separate receptor subtypes of serotonin involved in chemical dependence, and five separate dopamine receptor subtypes. Neurontin (gabapentin) effects levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which is influenced by benzodiazepines. GABA dysregulation also plays a part in alcohol dependence. My point is not that all addicts should taper off of their psychotropic medication. But in learning to manage and cope with cravings, they should consider the potential influence of their medications.

The second physical set-up is poor diet. Simply put, “Recovering addicts are often nutritional disaster areas because they live on junk food and don’t know what a healthy meal is.” Gorski adds that many individuals have coexisting eating disorders.

A third physical set-up for cravings is the excessive use of caffeine and nicotine. Gorski noted how both caffeine and nicotine, which are low-grade stimulants, could increase the likelihood of having a craving.

The fourth physical set-up is a lack of exercise. “Regular aerobic exercise is a protective factor against craving.” It can reduce the intensity of cravings.

A fifth physical set-up is poor stress management. Stress management activities such as meditation, relaxation exercises, regular periods of rest, relaxation and sleep are all helpful ways to manage stress. When people do not manage stress appropriately in recovery, they set themselves up for cravings during the times of stress that often occur in early recovery.

Psychological Set-ups

Euphoric recall occurs when an addict “romances” past times of drug use. They remember and magnify the pleasurable experiences of past use, while blocking out the painful and unpleasant memories. Spontaneous recollection of past “fun” times is common. To avoid euphoric recall leading to a craving cycle, “play the whole tape.” Don’t stop at the fun times, intentionally add where the pain and unpleasantness of past use fits into the story.

Awfulizing abstinence is another set-up. Here the addict attends to all the negatives and perceived losses about getting sober, while blocking out thoughts of the benefits. This leads to a mistaken belief that “being sober is not nearly as good as using the drug.”

In magical thinking, the addict sees drug use as the solution to their problems. Gorski said this was a combination of euphoric recall (Remember how good using was) and “awfulizing” sobriety (how awful it is that I can’t use). I’d suggest that an individual is also in magical thinking when their using history has demonstrated a clear inability to control drug or alcohol use, but they continue to harbor thoughts that when XYZ happens, they could try social or controlled using again.

This will lead to empowering the compulsion. The person exaggerates the power of the compulsion by telling themselves there is no way they can resist the craving; they can’t stand not having the drug. I’ve seen a subtype of this psychological set-up where the person will convince themselves they wouldn’t be able to resist the compulsion to use again if “X” disaster or crisis happened to them.

Gorski sees the psychological set-ups listed above as leading to the fifth and final one of denial and evasion. Here the addict rejects or denies that their actions could be setting themselves up to have a craving. They may deny that they need the help of a recovery program or treatment. “This denial does not go away simply because they are not using the drug.” Because denial is largely an unconscious process, many addicts believe they are doing the best they can; that they are making the right decision for their life and recovery when, in fact, they aren’t.

The stress of the instability and unmanageable circumstances that often occur in early recovery could lead to this as well. Awfulizing the obligations of early recovery or their lives, such as time away from work and family for treatment or meetings, possibly changing jobs or colleges, fear of financial consequences from not working, etc., can lead to this set-up.

Social Set-Ups

Socializing with drug using friends can be a stumbling block for addicts. Trying to negotiate abstinence without losing the ability to go around certain people who they used to drink and drug with is a major problem for some people. A potential loss of the relationship seems unthinkable at the time. Even when the active user voices support of the individual’s desire to establish and maintain abstinence, the contact may not be a good idea. For one thing, knowing the person is high, or has drugs close by can be a trigger for craving.

One of the reasons that an addict, particularly in early recovery, is drawn to socialize with their using friends is the desire to be with other people who understand them—how they think and what they struggle with. This is why social isolation is so dangerous for someone in recovery. This also points to a couple of the benefits to active participation in AA or NA—these are places where the person can share their fears, doubts and struggles without fear of rejection. And they can form new friendships with people who can relate to how they think and feel.

When open and honest self-disclosure is replaced by superficial communication, the person in recovery gets into trouble. They neutralize another benefit of active participation in self-help groups—the ability to get feedback and reality checks from others who understand how they think and feel about an issue. The lack of honest, heart-felt communication with other people who understand addiction is another social set-up.

If the above lack of honest sharing with others continues, it can lead to isolation from other people in recovery. This can happen through decreased meeting attendance and/or avoiding sober social situations with other recovering addicts. Another contributing factor here is if conflict of some sort occurs and becomes a justification for why the person avoids a particular meeting, or why honest sharing of what they are struggling with is not talked about. Unresolved conflict is another social set-up.

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, Terry Gorski’s blog, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. This is the first of a three part series on coping with cravings. The other two articles are “Getting Set to Cope with Cravings” and “Preventing and Stopping Cravings.” You can access additional articles stemming from Terence Gorski’s material under the Gorski link on Faith Seeking Understanding.

08/14/15

The Imprints of His Glory

© szefei | stockfresh.com

© szefei | stockfresh.com

“I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God.” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 17th)

Before venturing onto the main highway of the Romans Road of Recovery, we should start our journey by looking at chapter one of Romans and what it says about general revelation, the certainty of God and how it can be applied to addiction. Since belief in Jesus Christ is optional for Twelve Step spirituality, there will be a divergence between the Romans Road and the path of recovery. Yet for an extended part of their journey, Christians along the Romans Road and sojourners along the path of recovery travel in the same direction. The theological explanation for how this is possible is found in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God has made it possible for all people to have some general knowledge of who He is and what He requires of us to live life—including how to live a sober life.

Romans 1:20 sets this ‘general revelation’ of God within an oxymoron: the invisible attributes of God are clearly perceived in the created order. Commenting on this verse, John Murray said: “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” No one who truly looks at the created order around them can deny the reality of God. The A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, seems to echo this thought: “He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us.” It is in this sense, and this sense only that the path of recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps and the fellowship of self-help groups exists. From a biblical perspective, it is the path to a life aligned with the general revelation of God in the created universe. It provides the way out of the active enslavement for all human beings to drugs and alcohol.

“The Way Out” was originally proposed as the title for the first edition of the Big Book. A search of the Library of Congress showed 25 previously published books titled “The Way Out,” so Alcoholics Anonymous was chosen instead.

Discovering your place in the natural order is a common theme in many non-Christian philosophies and religions. And this idea exists within the recovery literature. Bill Wilson wrote in the “We Agnostics” chapter of the Big Book: “As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe, underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction.” Within Came to Believe, a collection of the diversity of opinions on God as we understood Him, “I believe that the A.A. program is simply the will of God being put to practical, everyday use.” And from the AA Grapevine, the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, “I like to think that putting myself in harmony with what seems to be the spirit of the universe is in actuality ‘turning my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him.’”

The Introduction to the “Blue Book” of Narcotics Anonymous, a fellowship for drug addicts adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous, states that: “We believe that as a fellowship, we have been guided by a Greater Consciousness, and are grateful for the direction that has enabled us to build upon a proven program of recovery.” In dedicating their book, the writers of the Blue Book said:

God grant us knowledge that we may write according to Your Divine precepts. Instill in us a sense of Your purpose. Make us servants of Your will and grant us a bond of selflessness, that this may truly be your work, not ours–in order that no addict, anywhere need die from the horrors of addiction.

As humans we straddle the border between health and sickness, good and evil, happiness and sadness. We are always trying to gain harmony in life; to preserve beauty and to find order again after balance has been disturbed. All these beliefs have similarities to Stoic philosophy, which was popular during the time when Paul wrote the book of Romans.

Stoicism was founded in the third century BC and remained popular though 529 AD. More than just a philosophical system, it was a way of life. The theologian Paul Tillich said it was “the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” Stoic philosophers said that happiness did not come from the accrual of goods or success, but from virtue. Echoing Twelve Step recovery, they emphasized self-control as the path out of destructive emotions. This self-control was established and maintained through meditation, training, and self-vigilance.

David Davidson said that in meditation the Stoics would visualize their futures. They would imagine the worst possible outcomes as present sufferings—not as distant, unlikely events. “They sought to realize that even the worst misfortunes can be survived and are not worth fearing.” In their training they practiced various physical disciplines from sexual abstinence and vigorous exercise to the avoidance of tempting foods. Their self-vigilance meant they monitored their thoughts and emotions, “seeking to avoid lust, greed, and ambition in favor of reason.” This contemplation, discipline and vigilance have similarities to both Twelve Step recovery and Christian thought.

Stoics applied the imagery of head and body to God and the universe respectively. The universe was the body, and God’s logos or reason was the mind or head that directed it. Stoic ‘salvation’ was then to seek to align your will with the inherent Reason or Logos of the universe. A person was happy when he did not want things to be other than the way they were. He was to strive to know the system of nature and then cultivate an acceptance of it. He was to search for and discover his place within the natural order; and then consciously seek out the things in life that suited his place in that order. It was best to see this life of service as the ‘natural’ life, a life aligned with the logos of the universe.

Although a Christian prayer a written by Reinhold Neibhur, The Serenity Prayer seems to capture this Stoic alignment with logos of the universe. Not surprisingly, the Serenity Prayer holds a special place in A.A. history and Twelve Step Recovery.

The correspondence noted here between Christianity, Stocism and Twelve Step recovery is a product of the general revelation spoken of in Romans 1:20. “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” Part of that handiwork lies within the system of meditation, self-vigilance and training embodied in the Twelve Steps as a way out of the thralldom of active addiction.

For Christians, there is a biblical concern in how we understand general revelation. The theologian G. C. Berkouwer cautioned that while Romans 1 was “good material” for the confession of general revelation, we must be careful of how we apply it. The knowledge of general revelation should never be isolated from the prevailing theme of Romans 1—the wrath of God. Berkouwer said: “The history of theology parades before us numerous attempts to isolate it from the context.” Perhaps the greatest objection of some Christians with Twelve Step recovery lies at this point. If by applying the general revelation of the Twelve Steps, an individual is able to stop the unmanageability in his or her life because of drug or alcohol abuse, they may be aligned with the Logos of the universe in a broad sense, but they will not have reckoned with the wrath of God for their unmanageable, ungodly behavior. They may be sober, but they are not saved from the just spiritual consequences of their unrighteousness.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “03,” the third one. Enjoy.

08/7/15

The Romans Road of Recovery

© Guido Nardacci | 123rf.com

© Guido Nardacci | 123rf.com

The Church ceases to be a spiritual society when it is on the look-out for the development of its own organization. The rehabilitation of the human race on Jesus Christ’s plan means the realization of Jesus Christ in corporate life as well as in individual life.  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, July 12)

I made a public profession of faith in Christ about 1 1/2 years after I first began working as a drug and alcohol counselor. So my personal faith journey has essentially paralleled my experiences as an addictions therapist. In the late 1980s when I read Pass It On, the story of the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and one of its co-founders, Bill Wilson, I was struck by the description of his encounter with the “great beyond.” Bill reported that when he cried out to God in his hospital room, he became aware of a Presence, which seemed like “a veritable sea of living spirit.” He thought it must be the great reality, the God of the Preachers. He felt that God had given him a glimpse of His absolute self. He never again doubted the existence of God. He also never drank again.

At first Bill wasn’t sure what to make of his spiritual experience. He thought he might have been hallucinating. A friend, who was then sober through his own participation in a Christian fellowship movement called the Oxford Group, didn’t know what to think of Bill’s experience. After asking the advice of others, the friend brought Bill a copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. “James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him.” (Pass it On, pp. 120-125) I wondered as I read this, what would have been different if the friend had brought Bill a copy of the Bible instead. That was the beginning of my own journey along the intersecting paths of Scripture and Twelve Step spirituality.

Regularly in the Bible drunkenness is associated literally and metaphorically with the progressive unmanageability of sin and rebellion that ultimately leads to God’s judgment. Within a judgment oracle, Ezekiel (23:25) said of Judah, “you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.” Jeremiah (13:13) said that the Lord will “fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David’s throne, Òthe priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Isaiah is especially fond of these associations with drunkenness. Addressing the irresponsibility of Israel’s leaders, he said: “‘Come,’ they say, ‘let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.’” (Is 56:12) Within a judgment oracle against the earth, Isaiah (24:20) said, “The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; Òits transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.” Egypt will stagger like a drunkard in all its deeds: “And there will be nothing for Egypt that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do.” (Is 19:15).

Proverbs 23:29-35 so aptly pictures the downward spiral of sorrow, strife, and “wounds without cause” associated with drunkenness, that it sounds like one of the personal stories in the A.A. Big Book: “‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.’” And so it is true that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Pr 20:1) There is very little, if any, mention of mind-altering drugs in Scripture. But what is said of drunkenness can be readily applied to drug intoxication. It’s not wise to be led astray by drug intoxication either.

Despite the clear, obvious understanding in Scripture of the progressive unmanageability that comes from alcohol abuse, many members of the self-help groups of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) remain ignorant of the similarities Twelve Step recovery has with what the Bible says about how to live life on life’s terms. Conversely, there are some within Christian circles who almost instinctively recoil from A.A. and N.A. as “unclean” because they permit and at times advocate for their members to formulate a god of their personal understanding; even if that god is a rock, a flagpole, or the fellowship of A.A. or N.A. itself.

Prejudicial wariness on both sides keeps the recovering alcoholic or addict at arms length from the “recovering” sinner who surrenders his or her life to the care of Jesus Christ. I have spent most of my adult life counseling within the Twelve Step recovery model and worshiping within Bible-believing churches, and I have long ago seen how each can learn from the other; how each has similar wisdom to offer us on living life if we are willing to listen.

Twelve Step recovery originated with A.A. and its cofounders readily acknowledged their debt to the Bible and its ministers. In an article published in the AA Grapevine, “After Twenty Five Years,” Bill Wilson said that Sam Shoemaker (an Episcopal minister) was responsible for ten of the Twelve Steps, “the basic ideas on which our recovery program is founded.”

Speaking in 1948 on where A.A. got the ideas for the Twelve Steps, Doctor Bob Smith, the cofounder of A.A. said, “We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book.” (“Dr. Bob’s Last Major Talk,” AA Grapevine). Within that “Good Book,” there is no better exposition on living the Christian life than Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

The book of Romans was the first well-developed theology of the Christian faith and it arguably remains the single most important work of Christian theology ever written. It has had an inestimable influence on the formation of Christian theology. One of the many examples of this lies within a selection of verses from the epistle referred to as “The Romans Road,” which is used to present the way to salvation in Jesus Christ. This “road” covers our need for salvation, God’s plan for salvation, how we obtain salvation, and the results of salvation. Typically, the verses addressing each section of the Romans Road for salvation include the following.

  • Our need for salvation: Romans 3:23: (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God).
  • God’s plan for salvation: Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord).
  • How we obtain salvation: Romans 10:9, 10; (if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved).
  • The results of salvation: Romans 5:1 (Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ).

In a similar manner, we can look for how these verses and others in Romans apply to a lesser route, the path to recovery; the way out of an active addiction to drugs and alcohol. So in imitation of the Romans Road, we can search for the need for recovery, the plan for recovery, how to obtain recovery and the results of recovery.

Let me be clear from the beginning. I am not equating recovery from drug or alcohol addiction (or working the Twelve Steps) with salvation in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is striking how rich the parallels are between God’s call to the Christian life in the book of Romans and the program for recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In addition to seeing how the Romans Road of salvation corresponds to the path of recovery in Romans, we can find insight into recovery concepts such as, “surrender,” the “we” of a recovery program (fellowship), walking the talk, and keeping spirituality simple through love, service and tolerance. So we will have to “step” off that Road periodically and walk along the side trails in Romans where these aspects of Twelve Step recovery crisscross Paul’s discussion of the Christian life.

C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Great Divorce that he did not think that all those who chose wrong spiritual roads would perish. But, he added, their rescue consisted in being put back on the right road. It is my hope that it in reading this series, you will discover how to get from the path of recovery to Augustine’s City of God, since the path of recovery veers off in another direction, away from the City of God. If you already walk along the Romans Road of Christian faith, I pray that by reading what follows, when anyone on the path of recovery asks you for directions to the City of God, you will be better equipped to help them find their way. Shall we begin our stroll along the Romans Road?

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “02,” the second one. Enjoy.

 

07/31/15

A Common Spiritual Path

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

A self-identification as having no religious affiliation was the big news in a study by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. “The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007.” Those individuals who are religiously unaffiliated generally are less religiously active, but many believe in God and even pray on occasion. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, “Many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”

This spiritual, but not religious group of individuals—those indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, reported as “nothing in particular” in the survey—are the third largest “religious” group in the U.S. behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%) and Catholics (20.8%); Nothing in particulars (15.8%). So there is a large group of Americans who are not atheists or agnostics; nor are they religious. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant percentage of this group were active within 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

For a number of years I have been struck by the fact that there are both religious and nonreligious individuals who are critical of the presumed religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Nonreligious critics see it as too religious; religious ones believe it isn’t religious enough. Ironically, A.A. and other Twelve Step recovery programs modeled after it consistently claim they not religious at all.

Historical, religious influences upon A.A. are readily acknowledged by the organization, as are its nonreligious influences. Somewhere in the mix is the claim that it is a spiritual, but not religious program—a claim that is too often dismissed by its critics without an understanding of its origins and meaning. At the center of this debate are the Twelve Steps themselves, whose treatment of God is the flashpoint for both sides.

A.A. was founded in 1935, in the midst of a full social and cultural retreat away from the influence of Christian religious belief on American life. Doctrine, dogma and creeds were found to be increasingly irrelevant after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the Scopes Trial, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. The trial pitted modernists, who saw Christian religion as consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who believed that evolution was contrary to Scripture and Christian belief and therefore should not be taught in public schools.

In many ways, the issues debated in the Scopes trial now haunt the dispute over A.A. and the Twelve Steps. And it seems these concerns can be articulated within three basic questions. First, is there a place for God in the practice of addiction recovery? Second, is Twelve Step recovery consistent with the Christian religion? Third, should Christians holding to the importance of the Bible as the rule for faith and life participate in Twelve Step recovery programs?

Many individuals have answered the first question with a resounding “No!” and organized intentionally nonreligious support groups such as: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Women for Sobriety. On the other hand, many Christians believe there is a place for God in recovery. But they question if Twelve Step recovery is consistent with Scripture and feel that Christians should be cautious about participating in groups that do not explicitly affirm that Jesus is Lord. So they organized faith-based support groups that reach out to the still-suffering addict and alcoholic from a self consciously Christian perspective. Some of these include: Alcoholics for Christ, Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, Christians in Recovery, and Overcomers Outreach. Then there are the Twelve Step-based groups that answer “yes” to all three questions: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and many more.

My own answers to these three questions would be nuanced. With regards to the first question, is there a place for God in addiction recovery, I would answer with a resounding “Yes”! I’d also reject the charge that such an affirmation makes Twelve Step addiction recovery inherently religious. The supposed religiosity of the Twelve Steps rests upon the premise that any belief in a Supreme, Transcendent Being is inherently religious. A.A., which originated the Twelve Steps, held that belief in some sort of God was normal. The A.A. Big Book said: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Twelve Step recovery believes that a religion takes this fundamental belief in God and the rituals that accompany it, and then institutionalizes them. See “What Does Religious Mean?,” “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience,”  and “The God of the Preachers” for more on these distinctions.

With regard to the second question, is Christianity consistent with the Twelve Steps, I would say it is and it isn’t. There are many parallels between Christianity and Twelve Step recovery. Yet Biblical Christianity makes an explicit claim that Jesus Christ alone is the way to God: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). When Christians hold that these words are infallible, that along with all the remaining words of the Bible they are the very breath of God, then compromising them as A.A. does is considered to be a serious break with orthodox Christian belief.

Lastly, I would say that Bible believing Christians can and should participate in non-Christian Twelve Step groups. But I would add that this participation is not a substitute for their fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Christian faith matures within the context of fellowship with other Christians. Members of A.A. know this is true for alcoholics as well. Recovery matures within the context of fellowship with other recovering alcoholics. Sadly, Christian fellowship alone is often not vibrant enough for addicts and alcoholics to establish and then maintain their abstinence and sobriety. Their recovery can be strengthened within the fellowship of Twelve Step-based groups.

I plan to use the book of Romans as the anchor point for a series of articles that will illustrate how there is a common spiritual path upon which Christians and individuals can travel together—at least for part of their journeys. So there are two primary audiences to whom this series of articles is written: bible-believing Christians who find participation in Twelve Step groups helpful and even necessary for their recovery, and members of Twelve Step groups who desire to grow spiritually within the context of Christian fellowship.

I hope to demonstrate to both groups that they can do so without fear of compromising either their Christian faith or their recovery. Religious critics of A.A. can also gain an understanding of what is meant by its claim to be a spiritual, but not religious program. And perhaps soften their opposition to Christians participating in Twelve Step recovery. There is a richness and depth to the compatibility of Twelve Step recovery and Scripture that proceeds from the deep structure of Scripture.

But the concerns that will be addressed here are not just those encountered by Christians involved in self-help groups based upon the Twelve Steps. Increasingly, Western culture itself has become “spiritual, but not religious” in a way that builds upon the view of religion and spirituality found in the Twelve Steps. I think the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey illustrates this. Americans in particular have historically had diverse opinions on what it means to be “one nation under God” that fits with the idea being spiritual but not religious. Self-defined higher powers and the subjective experience of transcendence articulated in the writings of William James have become a basis for the spirituality of millions of individuals.

The same religious and theological challenges encountered as we journey along the path of recovery through the book of Romans occur repeatedly when discussing the relevance of Christianity to the lives of the millions of spiritual, not religious individuals who sit beside us on planes and in coffee shops; who live in our neighborhoods; who commute to work with us; and who even sit in the church pews beside us on Sunday.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “01,” the first one Enjoy.

04/3/15

Avoiding Temptation

© Bernd Schmidt | 123RF.com

© Bernd Schmidt | 123RF.com

“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence in the ways of Christ’s appointment, that they fall not into temptation.” (John Owen)

Owen said that he knows God is able to deliver us out of temptation (2 Peter 2:9); and that he is faithful to not let us be tempted beyond our ability, but gives us a way to escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, he was resolved to convince us that it is our great duty to be diligent so that we don’t enter into temptation. Owen emphasized here the theme verse of his work on temptation, Mathew 26:41: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Simply put according to Owen, “If we are led into temptation, evil will befall us” (Matthew 6:43).

First he looked at individuals he referred to as “ungrounded” believers. By this he meant someone—as in the Parable of the Sower—who received the word of God joyfully, but had sown it in rocky soil. Temporarily they brought forth some “good fruit,” but when temptation came, they fell away. Owen said the storm of temptation withered their profession and slew their soul. Citing Matthew 7:26, he likened these individuals to the foolish person who built his house on sand. When the storm came against it, it fell. “Entrance into temptation is, with this sort of man, an entrance into apostasy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not.” Judas was an example of such a person.

Owen then suggested that when we consider ourselves with regard to temptation, we should recognize we are weakness itself. “We have no power to withstand.” As with Peter (Mark 14:29), “Confidence of any strength in us is one great part of our weakness.” What’s worse, it is a weakness stemming from treachery in our hearts. He said not to flatter ourselves that we can withstand the temptation. There are secret lusts lurking in our hearts. Perhaps they are not stirring just now, but they are ready to rise up as soon as temptation befalls us. They will never give up until they are either killed or satisfied.

The power of temptation darkens the mind so that the individual may not be able to make a right judgment of things as he did before entering into it. It does this in various ways. First, it fixes the imagination and thoughts upon the object of temptation, so that the mind is diverted from considering the things that would relieve it. “By the craft of Satan the mind shall be so fixed to the consideration of this state and condition, with the distress of it, that he shall not be able to manage any of the reliefs suggested and tendered to him against it.”

Second, temptation blinds our mind and darkens our understanding by entangling our affections (emotions). If there is anyone who does not realize this, let them open their eyes and they will quickly learn it. Owen said show him an individual who is caught up emotionally (i.e., with love, hope, fear) with regard to a specific temptation, and he will show you where that person is darkened and blinded. Their present judgment will not be totally altered, but it will be darkened and rendered too weak “to influence the will and master the affections.” Set free by temptation, these affections will run wild.

Third, temptation will give “oil and fuel to our lusts.” It will incite, provoke and make them rage beyond measure. For a time, it will heighten it and make it wholly predominant. “It will lay the reins on the neck of a lust, and put spurs to the sides of it, that it may rush forward like a horse into the battle.” You don’t know the pride, fury or madness of a corruption until it meets with a suitable temptation.

Temptation can be either public or private. If it is public, there will be strong reasons and pretences to justify it or minimize it. Owen likened this to a person carried into exile. There they degenerate from “the manners of the people from whence they came, and fall into that of the country whereunto they are brought; as if there were something in the soil and the air that transformed them.”

If the temptation is a private one, it will unite with a lust. The temptation will intertwine with it, and they will receive mutual support from each other. “Now, by this means temptation gets so deep in the heart that no contrary reasonings can reach unto it; nothing but what can kill the lust can conquer the temptation.” Self-will may for a season work against it, “but it must come to this—its lust must die, or the soul must die.”

Regardless of where the lust is situated within the soul, the temptation will strive to conqueror the whole soul, one way or another. Suppose someone struggles with ambition. There are a variety of ways to rationalize why they should bridle their desire to cling to God. Not only will this prevent sound reasoning, which it does necessarily, but it will also try to draw the whole soul into the same frame of mind.

In brief, there is no particular temptation, but, when it is in its hour, it hath such a contribution of assistance from things good, evil, indifferent, is fed by so many considerations that seem to be most alien and foreign to it, in some cases hath such specious [attractive] pleas and pretences, that its strength will easily be acknowledged.

You should also consider the consequences of any previous temptations. Didn’t they defile your conscience, disquiet your peace, weaken your obedience and cloud the face of God? Even if you were not overcome to the point of total powerlessness over the temptation, weren’t you still foiled by it? Weren’t you greatly perplexed by it? Did you ever in your life come out of a struggle with some temptation without some loss? Would you be willingly entangled with it again? If you are free, take care. Do not enter into again, if possible, “lest a worse thing happen to thee.”

Owen then cautioned that the person who willfully or negligently enters into temptation has no reason to expect any assistance from God or any deliverance from the temptation. “The promise is made to them whom temptations do befall in their way, whether they will or not; not them that willfully fall into them,—that run out of their way to meet with them.” To enter into temptation in this way is the same as continuing in sin so that grace can thrive (Romans 6:1-2).

Once again, I found myself thinking of how what John Owen said here in Of Temptation applies to addiction and recovery. I see the echoes of powerlessness over alcohol and drugs. In fact, a nonreligious person could substitute the words “addiction” and “addictive thinking” for “temptation” and read it as a treatise on how to avoid addictive thinking and behavior. A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.

07/7/14

Never Give Up Hope

Adam’s lead was one of those powerful tales of riches-to-rags-to-riches of drinking and drug use leading to a “low bottom” and then recovery. His bottom included being homeless; losing his job; jail; the whole works. And then he got sober. He always concluded by saying: “And I know that if I ever were to pick up again, I’m never coming back.” He meant what he said. His audience believed him. And when he did pick up, he never came back.

When I was an intern at an outpatient drug and alcohol clinic, I heard the tale of Adam’s relapse. That wasn’t his real name; I don’t think I ever knew it. But Adam’s story was my first lesson in mistaken beliefs about relapse: His mistaken belief about relapse created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe to be true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.” Within it, he listed seventeen separate mistaken beliefs. Adam seems to have believed numbers 16 and 17.

Number 16: “Once you begin using it is impossible for you to interrupt your relapse before you have ‘hit bottom’ again.” Many addicts program themselves for a destructive relapse. They believe that it is better to be dead than drunk or high. This seems to be what Adam had buried in the concluding statement to his lead. Once he started, he believed there was no way he could stop. His first bottom was so low, that next was death.

It is true that once you again begin to use addictively, you can never be sure of what is going to happen. But you can have periodic moments of sanity; times where you “regain control of your thinking, your emotions, your memory and your behavior and judgment. . . . It is your responsibility to yourself and those whom you love to get help to interrupt the relapse during these moments of sanity.”

Number 17: “Successful recovery from addiction requires continuous abstinence from the time of the initial commitment to sobriety.” It is a fact that most addicts and alcoholics are not able to maintain permanent abstinence the first time they try. But this is NOT MEANT to be permission to periodically drink or use. There is a difference between a lapse—the initial return to addictive use, and a relapse—the destructive return to loss of control, addictive use.

There are two choices. The person can get help from others to return to abstinence (call your sponsor or others people in your support system; get back into treatment). Then they need to learn from the experience what went wrong; and what they need to do to stay sober in the future. Or they can convince themselves that staying sober is hopeless and continue to use destructively. “If they believe they are hopeless or that they have failed totally because they have lapsed, they will give up and not continue in their efforts to recover.” Sometimes they are lucky enough to have the right set of circumstances re-engage them in treatment or other help. Sometimes they die in their addiction like Adam.

In his blog post on Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Gorski discussed what he called the three most common mistaken beliefs about relapse: 1) that it is self-inflicted; 2) that it is an indication of treatment failure; and 3) once relapse occurs the person will never recover. These mistaken beliefs are differently worded than those in his booklet, Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, but still worth reading and thinking about in their own right.  Adam seems to have fallen prey to the third one.

There are two additional mistaken beliefs I hear a lot: First, that relapse is a part of recovery. Relapse is often a part of someone’s recovery journey, but it doesn’t have to be. Second, some people are “constitutionally incapable” of recovery. Here, Gorski said it best: “The consequence of believing you cannot get well is despair. Without hope there is no motivation to try again and you are condemned to a life of despair.” Never say never. And never give up hope.

What other mistaken beliefs about relapse or recovery have you encountered? 

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, Terry Gorski’s blog, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. This is one of a series of blog posts based upon the material available on his blog and website.