by Dale Ryan
A couple of years ago I fell and broke my leg. When we got to the hospital, the doctor said, “Well, your leg is broken in three places. It’s a fairly common pattern. I’ll make some recommendations based on what has worked for other people who have had this kind of problem, and then you can decide what you want to do.” I did not need to think for very long. What was there to think about? Just fix it! If the suggestions worked for other people, that was all I needed to know. It did not occur to me to ask, “Is it biblical to put screws in your leg to hold some of the bones together?” I didn’t ask whether there was any spiritual significance to the suggested steps that the doctor listed. I just thought, Well, this seems to work for other folks, so let’s give it a try.
But what if we go to a Twelve Step program or to a counselor and we hear, “The trouble you’re having is a fairly common pattern. I’ll make some recommendations based on what has worked for other people who have had this kind of problem, and then you can decide what to do”? Well, things are a little more complicated for us. It does occur to many of us to ask, “Are these suggested steps consistent with the Bible?” This is an important question. Recovery is not like putting screws in your leg to fix a broken bone. Recovery is about spiritual change. For that reason it is perfectly legitimate for us to ask whether it is consistent with the spiritual resources we trust—and for many of us that includes the Bible.
So here’s a key question that we need to think about: Are the basic principles of recovery consistent with the principles we find in the Bible? My own conviction is that they are. It was from the Bible, for example, that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous learned the principles that became structured into the Twelve Steps. This is much too short an article to look at all the fundamental principles of recovery and the biblical foundations for each of them, but we have space to look closely at one principle as an example of the connections between the Bible and basic recovery principles. Are the connections thin? Only a verse here and there that might apply? Or is the connection a significant one?
The principle I would like to look at is captured well in the commonly heard slogan, “Let go and let God.” The principle is this: recovery is not just something that we do. Recovery is something that God does for us and in us. It is something we receive from God. We let go of our attempts to do what we cannot do by ourselves and we let God do what needs to be done. We receive the healing, growth and serenity that God longs to give us.
Unfortunately, receiving is not something that most of us are particularly good at. I’ve been watching my grandson recently. Receiving seems to come easy for him. If you give him a present in a box, it is like giving him two presents, because there’s the box, and then there’s the present in the box. You give him something and he just lights up with eagerness and enthusiasm. Somewhere between early childhood and adulthood, however, most of us lose that. We don’t receive like that anymore. That eagerness and enthusiasm are replaced by other things. If someone gives something to us, we may find ourselves thinking, Does this mean I am obligated to give them something in return? Or, Is this some kind of attempt to control my behavior? Or maybe we just respond with, “No, you shouldn’t, really. There’s somebody that needs this more than me. I should be giving you things.” By adulthood most of us have acquired many different layers of resistance to receiving.
I don’t think the Christian community as it exists today helps us very much here. I have spent most of my life in churches that emphasized that the very beginning of the Christian life is about receiving—receiving salvation—but from day two on it tends to be about giving. We get very quickly locked into a giving-priority mode. Now, there is nothing wrong with giving. It is clearly good to give. But what “Let go and let God” suggests is that there is a kind of spiritual priority to receiving. In part, this is because receiving is a necessary prerequisite to giving. You can’t give away what you haven’t received—at least not without very significant negative consequences. Let’s look at the biblical evidence for the spiritual priority of receiving.
The Bible begins with an account of Creation. What is the main point of the biblical account of Creation? It is a description of the basic structure of existence on this planet. Life on this planet works like this: God gives life, we receive life. It’s also very clear that the text means not only that God gave life and we received life, but that God continually gives life and we continually receive it. The Creator didn’t stop being the Creator after he created. God is still the Creator. God is still giving life, and we are still receiving life. None of us can guarantee the next beat of our heart. We cannot guarantee we will be alive at the end of the hour. Every beat of our hearts is a gift from the Creator God. It is a gift of love and grace to you and me. It’s very hard to stay in conscious contact with the fact of this gift as we live through a day. It is too much to pay attention to somehow, but it is the most fundamental truth that we find at the very beginning of the Bible. God is giving life to us all day long, and our task is to receive—to let go of our anxious attempts to be the author of our own lives and to let God give our life to us.
Now let’s fast-forward to Abraham. God comes out of nowhere to Abraham and says, “I’m going to give to you. I’m going to give you a land. I’m going to give you lots of children. And I’m going to give you the role of being a blessing.” Notice that God comes to Abraham and insists on being the one who gives. God says, “I’m going to give to you.” God gives. Abraham receives. It is important to remember that Abraham’s world was a very religious world. There were all kinds of religious faiths in the ancient world, but the dominant instinct of all those religious faiths was that it was our responsibility to give to God. Maybe God was hungry and our job was to give God food. Maybe God was angry and we needed to give God something so he wouldn’t be so angry. The only religious instinct available in Abraham’s world was that people were supposed to give to God. So it must have been a real shock to have God come and say just the opposite. Nothing in Abraham’s world could have prepared him to understand this God-who-gives. It was turning his world upside down. How can you serve a God-who-gives when the only God you have ever known is a God-who-needs-to-receive?
It is clear in the biblical text that Abraham doesn’t get it right away. He is a bit slow, Abraham. God says to him, “I’m going to give you land. I’m going to give you lots of kids. I’m going to make you to be a blessing.” There is stuff here for Abraham to do—the arrangement is not about Abraham being passive. God is giving Abraham land, so Abraham needs to go to the land. I probably do not need to explain what Abraham has to do to have lots of kids, but he has to be a consistent husband and father. And Abraham has to be about the business of being a blessing. God is going to give Abraham land, children and blessing, but Abraham needs to go to the land, have lots of kids, and do whatever it takes so that all his neighbors, after a period of time, will say to him: “You know, it’s a blessing to have you in the neighborhood. We’re all better off having you here.” That’s God’s plan.
Abraham has a different plan. He doesn’t understand the God-who-gives. So Abraham devises his own alternative—plan B. God’s plan A was to go to the land; Abraham’s plan B is to go to Egypt. Bad choice. God’s plan A was to have lots of kids; Abraham’s plan B is that when he gets to Egypt and Pharaoh thinks his wife is hot, Abraham says, “She’s my sister. You can have her.” God’s plan for Abraham was to be a blessing, but before long the Pharaoh is tired of his lies and throws him out. Abraham gets it all wrong. He wants to be in control, he wants to be in charge, he thinks he is smart enough, good enough, clever enough to make it all work. Like many of us, he doesn’t want to be the one to receive.
Let’s fast-forward again to a point much later. Gideon is a military commander during a time when the tribes of Israel are kind of a loose confederation. There is a military threat from the east, and Gideon put together an army of 32,000 men. For the time, this is enough for a “shock and awe” strategy. Gideon comes to God after raising this big army, and he says to God, “I think we can give you the victory.” God says, “This does not feel right to me—you giving me the victory. I want to give you the victory. If you go out with this army and win, people will say that you had the power and the state-of-the-art military hardware, and you won because you were stronger than the other guy.” God said, “I’m going to feel much more comfortable about this if you send a bunch of these people home and go out to fight this battle with less impressive military forces.” So Gideon sends half of his men home. There are two or three cycles of this as God keeps telling Gideon to send people home. Finally, Gideon comes to God and says something like, “I do not think that I can give you the victory.” And God says, “Perfect. I think we’re ready to get something done.”
The principle is clear enough. We can try to do recovery out of our own strength. We can raise up 32,000 men. We can go out to battle. But it doesn’t work very well. I don’t know how many of you have tried to stay sober by just doing sobriety instead of receiving sobriety, but it’s a hard path. I’ve known people who have been able to walk that path for some period of time, but they often just get tired and grouchy. The quality of the sobriety suffers because in order to do your own recovery, you have to work hard, and work harder, and work your hardest, and eventually you get very tired. That’s what would have been Gideon’s fate if God hadn’t come to him and said, “We’re going to have to do this from a position of weakness or I just don’t know how I can help you.”
The good news is that God can do for us what we can’t really do for ourselves. But there is some bad news. In Gideon’s story you certainly get a sense of the terror that comes with being the people whose job is to receive. Our part in God’s plan can be pretty scary. It means going out against an enemy who we know we cannot beat on our own strength. We will be afraid. We will feel vulnerable. We will ask: “How is this going to work if I can’t make it work?” “How is this going to happen if I’m not powerful enough to make it happen?” Some of the scariest work we do in the recovery process is facing our weaknesses, bringing them to God, and being shocked again and again by God’s insistence that it is precisely our weaknesses that make it possible for God to do what needs to be done.
Let’s fast-forward to Jesus, who put it very simply: “All you who labor and are burdened, I will give you rest.” “I’ll give,” he says. “You receive.” You will find rest for your soul. What is rest for the soul? If we didn’t have the word serenity, we might decide to call it soul-rest. God wants to give us that. “I’ll give you soul-rest,” Jesus says. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, it was, “Give us this day.” You, God, you be the one to give. We will be the ones to receive.
You see this emphasis repeatedly in Jesus’ teaching. Let’s look at one parable. If you take an introductory course on parables, one of the first things you’ll learn is that parables tend to have one point. They are rarely five-point sermons. With the parable of the waiting father, unfortunately, people often focus only on part of the story. They talk only about the prodigal son, who left and spent all his money on cocaine and prostitutes—that’s just my guess about how he spent his money, but it’s probably not a bad guess. But there are two sons. So, what is the one point that is the same for both sons? What do these two sons have in common? The younger son went off and spent all his money on drugs and prostitutes, and the other stayed home acquiring a bunch of resentments. In that sense they are quite different. But what do they have in common? The text is very clear about this. Both of these sons have essentially the same strategy for how they are going to be a part of the father’s family. The prodigal son—what is his strategy? In the parable we see him walking home, and he is practicing his speech. He is going to say to his father, “I will be your servant.” That’s his strategy for how to get back into the father’s family. He will be a servant. What does a servant do? A servant gives, and gives, and gives. If a servant stops giving—well, that’s a big problem. So, what happens? When the son gets home, he doesn’t get his whole speech out before the father says, “That’s not the deal. I’m the one who gives. You be the one who receives.” And the father proceeds to give. This must have been profoundly confusing to this young man, who was convinced that the only way to get back in the good graces of his father was to give.
Now, how about the older son—what was his strategy? When it becomes apparent that the older son has some resentments, his father has a conversation with him, and what does the older brother say? He says, “I have served you all this time, and now my brother gets honored. It doesn’t seem right.” So the older son has the same basic strategy as the younger son. He thinks he gets to be part of the father’s family because he is giving so much—serving so much. The father says to him, “Everything I have is yours. I am the one who gives. Your job is to be the one who receives.”
What do both sons need? They need to learn to receive from their gracious father. They need to let go of their plans for being good-enough givers to be part of the family, and they need to let their father love them. The spiritual principle is very clear: Let go and let God.
Let’s fast-forward to the early church. The Christian church doesn’t have a golden age. We don’t look back to a time when everything was just the way it was supposed to be. If you go back and read the New Testament, you’ll find very troubled, broken people trying to find some way to be faithful to Jesus. In Paul’s letters you find that one of the things that started to go wrong in the very beginning was that people really wanted the Christian life to be about being right. They wanted to make the movement be about us being the good people who give to God. Paul keeps coming back in a variety of ways, depending on the context, and saying, “That’s not the deal. Not even close. God gives. We receive. It’s about grace.” And what does grace look like? It is always a narrative about a God who gives and gives and gives, and about a people who receive and receive and receive.
Now, I know that some people will experience this emphasis on receiving as unbalanced—that giving must have its place. Let me just suggest that if you want to balance this teaching with an emphasis on giving to God, that you start by giving to God the things God has asked for. Give God your burdens. Consider Jesus’ clear teaching on this: “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11:28-30)
If your spiritual life is about you doing the heavy lifting, something has gone very wrong. Paul is equally clear about this. He saw Christians who started their spiritual journey by receiving grace from God but then got caught up in a being-good-enough, trying-hard-enough, being-dedicated-enough kind of faith, and he warned them about all such performance-based spiritualities: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)
Nothing is more debilitating to our spiritual lives than the illusion that we are in charge, that we are in control, that we are the ones who are going to make this work. We’re going to be the ones who are good enough, strong enough, wise enough, biblical enough, Christian enough, Jesus enough, to make this whole thing work. All that this kind of spirituality does for us is make us burdened and tired.
Another biblical theme that makes the same point is the theme of God feeding his people. If you are hungry, if you are thirsty, God wants to feed you. I don’t think that this comes instinctively to us. I do think the Judeo-Christian religion is unique in the history of world religions in having a God that feeds his people. Most religious instincts in the history of our species have been that we need to feed God. But think about God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. Think about God setting a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Think about the loaves and fishes. Think of the Eucharist—God feeding us with spiritual food. God loves to feed his people. God loves to give nourishment to us. Our task is to receive.
Since I started in the first chapter of Genesis, maybe I should end in the last chapter of Revelation. The book of Revelation in most English translations ends with a section that does not appear in the best early manuscripts. The original ending appears to be Revelation 22:17: “‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.’”
The best one-word description I can think of for people who are impacted by the addictive process is thirsty. We are thirsty people—people to whom God wants to give, freely, the water of life. Too good to be true? It might feel like that at times. We might resist it for this and a long list of other reasons. But God is a patient God. From the beginning of the Bible to the very end you get a clear and consistent image of God. God wants to be the One-who-gives. The invitation is still there: Come and drink.
May God grant you the courage, wisdom and strength you need to receive the free gift of the water of life.