by Heather Kopp
I’ll admit, when I first got into recovery, it shocked me to see God clearly at work in the lives of people who didn’t call him by the “right” name or necessarily identify themselves as Christians. I didn’t quite approve. I guessed that in any given meeting, at least a third of the people wouldn’t dream of darkening the steps of a church.
I remember thinking, Maybe I can help some of these clearly confused people get a better, more biblical grip on God.
But ever since my relapse, I wondered how strong my grip really was—more to the point, what good it did me. After all, having darkened the steps of church for decades myself hadn’t kept me from ending up a hopeless drunk, had it?
In the days following that prayer in [my sponsor] Kate’s upstairs room, it dawned on me that I was trapped in a vise of cynicism and arrogance.
On the one hand, I was deeply disillusioned about a Christian faith that hadn’t been able to save me from alcohol. Why should I believe that the same God who almost let me drown once would rescue me now and into the future?
On the other hand, ironically, I assumed that my Christian background qualified me as a spiritual expert. If what I’d been told was true—that alcoholism is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution—I was good to go. I had God in my back pocket.
Now, my pockets seemed empty.
Something about the way I approached God wasn’t working—maybe had never worked. Which meant I had a problem. I knew now that I couldn’t hope to stay sober without fixing my relationship with God. But the God I thought I knew and understood was snot the God who could save me.
I needed to find God as I didn’t understand him, or I was doomed.
One rainy day in October, a couple weeks after my relapse, I was tempted to stay home from my usual noon meeting—the one in the room with the bullet hole in the door and the white plastic chairs. But on the off chance that someone might say something I needed to hear, I dragged myself downtown.
I was trying to practice a new willingness to learn from people I might have disregarded in the past.
People like Miguel.
I didn’t recognize him as a regular, but he would have blended into the usual crowd. He was Hispanic, midtwenties, small in stature, and handsome in a sweet way.
“My name is Miguel,” he said, “and I’m an alcoholic.”
In halting English he told everyone how grateful he was to God that he was sober and free. Before he came to these meetings, he explained, he never used to pray or go to church. “I didn’t have good ideas about God,” he said.
He went on to tell us that he worked in construction, where everyone drank and did drugs. He used to do the same, often using the on-site port-a-potty to smoke marijuana and slug hard liquor.
“But not anymore,” he said. He still spends time in the port-a-potty, but now he goes there to beg God to help him stay sober. “There’s a tiny mirror on the inside of the door of the port-a-potty,” he said. “I go and look at me in the mirror every day and I say, ‘Miguel, you no want to drink or do drugs! Think about your wife! Think about your baby!’”
Around the circle, laughter broke out at the absurd picture of Miguel scolding himself in an outhouse mirror. But Miguel wanted to press his point home. “I make you laugh, maybe,” he said, “but the port-a-potty is my sanctuary. My name is Miguel, and I am an alcoholic.”
And I had come so close to skipping this meeting.
Later, reflecting on what Miguel said, I realized it hadn’t once occurred to me to wonder exactly which God Miguel was referring to. Or if the God of his understanding matched up with mine.
It seemed wrong to ask or even care.
I began bumping into Miguels everywhere—people who had just enough awareness of God to know they were desperate for his help. And lately I couldn’t help noticing that not only did God seem to be helping these folks recover, but in many cases they spoke as if they depended on him in a more literal way than I ever had. I was tempted to conclude that they had more confidence in God’s grace and goodness than I did.
But how could that possibly be?
I could have very quickly outlined a Bible study about God’s attributes for Miguel or anyone else in those rooms, while most of them would have been clueless about the passages I cited, how to find them, and how to make the complex leaps of logic required to get their theology straight.
So why did I want what Miguel and so many others here had?
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who noticed something different about these people. Even before my relapse, [my husband] Dave had begun to join me at some of my meetings where visitors were welcome. At first, he came mainly to support me. I loved how he always introduced himself: “I’m Dave, and I’m here with Heather.” But soon he insisted that he got as much out of these meetings as anyone.
One of our favorite meetings took place on the top floor of an old Catholic hospital. If you looked past the potted plastic trees, the room offered breathtaking views of Pikes Peak. The hour-long format was simple. A visiting speaker would tell his or her story for twenty minutes and suggest a topic for discussion. Then people would share.
It sounds so simple. Boring, even. Yet, time and time again, Dave and I left that room shaking our heads in wonder. How could it be that a support group for alcoholics and addicts could feel so much like a close encounter with grace? Why did it seem like God showed up here more visibly than He did at most of the churches we had attended?
One day, in the middle of this meeting and while gazing out the window, I heard yet another recovering drunk echoing Miguel’s story almost point for point: “I was desperate, I cried out for help, and God answered me. Now I rely on Him every day to keep me sober.”
And something clicked. It was about the difference in how we had arrived at our faith.
Most of the people in this room had come to faith in the opposite way that I had. They brought nothing with them, and they knew it. Desperate, they leaned in faith on a God they didn’t understand—a God many could not even name—to keep them sober. As this God-as-they-understood-him proved faithful, they came to conclusions about who he was and why they should trust him for another day.
In stark contrast, I brought a finely tuned and biblically supported belief system about God. Sometimes I acted on those beliefs. More often than not, though, I was pretty sure that just having them—being “right” in what I believed—constituted the greater part of the spiritual life.
I had strutted into the rooms of recovery as Little Miss Christian, smug owner of the answer book. But they had walked in like cripples leaning on canes.
I looked out at the Rockies and sighed. I don’t have something to teach them. I thought to myself. They have something to teach me. Like how to lean—helplessly, foolishly, hopefully—on a God you can’t fully explain.
And how to do it, over and over, every day.
Working with Kate, I started to see how my Christian background had in many ways actually inoculated me against spiritual growth. For decades, I had heard the same truths over and over in a language that had become so familiar that everything I heard rang of something I thought I already knew.
That meant that for years, deep spiritual truths I heard in church had bounced off of me like a rubber ball off cement.
How far back had everything I knew so well in my head stopped making it to my heart? A decade of working in Christian publishing—where so much emphasis is placed on making sure every doctrinal dot is perfectly connected—probably hadn’t helped.
Regardless of when or where it started, I had mistaken a belief-based faith for an experience-based faith. I’d been on a prideful intellectual journey aimed at being right about God instead of on a desperate soul journey aimed at being real with God.
The difference can make you sick.
For too long, that third-step invitation—to turn our lives over to the care of God “as we understood him”—had struck me as vaguely suspicious. Now it hinted at a promise. What if I could find a new understanding of God, and a new way to approach him, that had little in common with the old way?
What if I could rediscover God as I didn’t understand him—and arrive somewhere closer to the truth?
For a while that fall, I wondered if recovery alone might constitute this new spiritual path. After all, Dave and I hadn’t yet been able to find a church home in the Springs. Maybe we could just quit looking altogether and get our spiritual needs met through recovery meetings.
I loved the idea of sleeping in on Sunday mornings and never having to sit through another dull sermon.
But this brilliant idea didn’t last. Deep in my heart, I knew that God wasn’t calling me away from my faith to recovery, or away from recovery to my faith. Instead, I sensed I was being invited to walk forward in the sometimes scary tension I felt between the two.
My path in recovery and my path as a Christ follower didn’t have to be in conflict. They could illumine and inform one another. Like street lamps lining both sides of the street, they could light my way back to God.
It was around this time that I began to read books about the spirituality of recovery in addition to those prescribed by my program. Now that I recognized how little I really knew, I wanted to know more. What was it about this approach and others like it that helped people find hope when so many other avenues—jail, therapy, church—had failed?
One of the first books I picked up was Seeds of Grace, written by Sister Molly Monahan, a practicing Catholic nun. Like me, after she’d gotten sober, she’d become intrigued with the spiritual aspects of recovery. Also like me, she couldn’t understand how someone like her (with extensive religious learning and training) had ended up a helpless drunk.
Something she said caught my attention. She wrote that she honestly believed she’d learned more of God and come closer to Him through recovery than she had during all her years of religious training. Yet she expressed bafflement at how and why this could be the case.
I skipped forward in the book, searching the part where she finds the answer. But the closest she came was her conclusion that “in my alcoholism I experienced myself as being utterly lost and unable to help (save) myself in a way that I never had before.”
It wasn’t the answer I thought I was looking for, but something about her observation resonated. I remembered Miguel in his port-a-potty. And I then thought back on all my years of being a Christian, including the early years after I was newly “saved.” Sure, I had always known in my head that I was a sinner saved by grace.
But utterly lost? Unable to save myself?
Like the nun, I couldn’t remember experiencing that kind of spiritual desperation until I admitted that I was a hopeless, helpless alcoholic. Only then did the truth of my absolute need for saving and my complete inability to save myself finally become real to me.
Up until that day when I fell on my knees and sobbed beside my bed, God’s grace had been a nice option, a convenient option, but not my only option. I had known about grace, talked about grace, written about grace. Grace had been part of my rallying cry when I was mentally at war with all those horrible, legalistic Christians who obviously didn’t have enough of it.
And when alcohol had taken me captive, grace had mattered to me mostly because it was a critical clause in my spiritual contract with God whereby He had to let me into heaven no matter how much I drank. I had greedily accepted the gift, only to hawk it for my drug of choice.
It was a painful epiphany with enormous implications.
Among other things, it meant that if I was ever going to experience the kind of ongoing spiritual transformation I so desperately wanted, I would have to learn the difference between ascribing to a set of Christian beliefs that had no power to change me, and clinging daily to an experience of God’s love and grace that could.
Sometimes the greatest shifts in our lives show up in the smallest ways. For me, casting all my hopes on a God I didn’t understand meant learning how to set my thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs to the side. Just consciously put them all down for a spell and approach him as a spiritual pauper.
For example, I felt God inviting me to try something new and—for me—pretty radical. Something so hard that for a long time I couldn’t manage to do it for more than five minutes a day
God was inviting me to sit in my chair every morning with a candle and be still. Just be. Just listen. Just open my heart and stop trying to control my mind. For just a few minutes every day, stop trying to think my way out of this.
I didn’t know what to expect. As my drinking had progressed, I’d mostly given up on my daily devotional reading and prayer. But now God was inviting me to get back in touch with my soul and to bring nothing with me when I came.
He was encouraging me to embrace the present moment, even if it contained emptiness. He was challenging me to believe the impossible—that I didn’t need a substance or a thought or an activity to fill the space inside.
What I needed more was the courage to sit with the emptiness.
Being still also got me in touch with my weakness. It reminded me that I need to live in an ongoing posture of utter dependence on God. And that it’s good to be pricked by pain whenever I feel the inclination toward self-reliance again.
Sitting still was teaching me that when I think I’m thirsty for a drink, what I really crave is grace, and what I need most of all in the world is God.
This is an excerpt from SOBER MERCIES: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk by Heather Kopp. Copyright © 2013 by Heather Kopp. Reprinted by permission of Jericho Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. Heather blogs about addiction, grace and recovery at HeatherKopp.com