by Dale Ryan
It was a couple of hopeless drunks in Akron, Ohio—not a couple of respectable theologians at a seminary—whom God chose to jump-start the modern recovery movement. I think that was a pretty good decision on God’s part. If our problems were just bad theology, then maybe a couple of theologians would have been a better choice. But the problem, for most of us, is not just “in our heads.” It is not just our convictions that are bent. In the Twelve Step tradition this emphasis is particularly clear. The Twelve Steps are not the Twelve Ideas or the Twelve Concepts. They are twelve suggested things to do. If we merely affirm as true all of the ideas found in the Twelve Steps, we are probably no closer to sobriety. Getting things right in our heads—from the neck up—is not what makes recovery possible. In A.A. you sometimes hear a slogan which captures this emphasis: “You can’t think yourself into right living, you have to live yourself into right thinking.”
While this emphasis on behavioral change is important, the goal of recovery is not just to change our behaviors. The goal of alcoholics in recovery, for example, is more than just to stop drinking. For example, although both may have changed their behaviors with respect to drinking alcohol, there is a huge difference between a sober alcoholic and a dry drunk. A dry drunk is someone who is addicted to alcohol but who has stopped drinking. If alcohol were the problem, then the dry drunk has solved the problem. But, of course, alcohol is not the problem—not even for an alcoholic. The things that need to be changed are much deeper and more complex than merely bringing drinking to an end. Abstaining from drinking may have little effect on the insanity, the defects of character and the shortcomings that need attention. A sober alcoholic, in contrast, is someone who is addicted to alcohol but who is experiencing all kinds of changes—emotional, spiritual and relational—in addition to behavioral changes. The behavioral changes are important. But they need a context and the support of many other kinds of change for it to be meaningful. It is in the midst of the struggle to make all these difficult changes that theology can become a critical factor. Many of the changes necessary for stable recovery require us to replace our old “stinking thinking” with more grace-full and biblical truths.
Perhaps the easiest way emphasize how important theology can become is to look at some examples of how theology can be part of the problem during the recovery process. Theology can get in the way of our recovery by supporting our denial, by increasing our resistance to change, and by reinforcing our shame. For example, people who think that miraculous, instantaneous healings are the only sure sign of God’s presence and favor will find the long, slow recovery journey to be hopeless and probably impossible unless they develop a different understanding of the way God works in the world. Codependents who believe that JOY comes from putting Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last will need to confront the theological convictions that underlie this little slogan, or it will be a continual hindrance to their progress in recovery. Perfectionists who believe they should “be perfect as God is perfect” will similarly need to do their theological homework on that or it will be very difficult for them to receive the grace that God longs to give them.
The recovery journey is a complex one for all of us. It is a journey that involves multiple changes. Some of these changes will probably require us to rethink our theological convictions. It has been my experience that there is no way to fully anticipate all the theological issues that will be part of the struggle for Christians in recovery. There are, however, a number of issues that seem to come up over and over again. Before looking at some of these common themes, however, I need to say something about the difference between formal or creedal theology and, for lack of a better word, what I’ll call experiential theology.
Theory and Practice
It is important to understand that there is a difference between our formal theology and the theology we live with in ordinary life. You can see this quite easily in how we feel about God. Our formal theology may contain affirmations such as “God is love” or “God is patient (or long-suffering).” We may believe these things to be true. If we had to take a quiz about God’s character, we would have the right answers. Is God a loving God? Yes. That’s our formal theology. Is formal theology important? Yes. But it’s not all there is. We all know how easy it is to believe that God is love but to have no practical access to this love in our daily lives. It is as if God is, for us at least, only theoretically a loving God. Our fears about God may crowd out or compete with our formal beliefs about God. It may seem that God loves everybody in general but not me in particular.
The kind of theology that is most important in recovery is basic where-the-rubber-meets-the-road theology. Abstract, speculative or formal theology may have its place, but it provides little traction for people struggling with the most difficult of life’s problems. We need to focus on the God we actually live with every day—the God we wake up to in the morning, the God who shapes how we think and feel about ourselves. That God can be very different from the God of our formal theology. The God of our formal theology may be a loving God, but the God of our experiential theology may be abusive, temperamental, codependent, unreliable, passive or distant. Even though we believe that God is love, we may act as if God is constantly—and critically—watching our every step, ready to punish us or shame us immediately if we make the smallest mistake. Even though we believe that “love keeps no record of wrongs,” we may serve a God who seems to spend his days keeping a list of of our mistakes, impure thoughts and unkind deeds. Even though we may believe that God is patient, we may feel that God has abandoned us because we continue to struggle with the same old problems.
It’s not that our formal theology is unimportant. But most Christians in recovery find that formal theology is either too advanced or too theoretical to help us do what needs to be done. Most of us find that we need to focus on the most practical and the most basic of things. In Twelve Step recovery, for example, we begin with things like “there is a God and it is not me.” If you look in most theological textbooks, you will find that this is apparently just too basic a conviction to receive much attention. But it is not too basic for people in recovery. It may be a no-brainer theoretically. But it is not an easy lesson to learn in real life. Sometimes it takes us many years—and sometimes a relapse or two—to really get this basic truth. The bottom line is this: While our formal theology may be important, it shouldn’t surprise us if during the recovery process we find ourselves asking different questions or asking the same questions in very different ways. In all probability we will find ourselves struggling to get back to basics, back to the fundamentals. It is no accident that the recovery process is sometimes called a spiritual kindergarten. Even if we have a graduate school–level formal theology, we may need to spend time in kindergarten focusing on the most basic and practical of truths if our experiential theology has been distorted by shame, abuse, addiction or trauma.
So what kind of theological emphases are most helpful for people in recovery? A long list is possible, but I only have room to talk about three: grace, process and self-worth. The first and perhaps the most obvious emphasis is that people in recovery need a huge dose of grace-focused theology.
Performance and Grace
All the roles available to children in dysfunctional families are performance-based roles. Those of us raised in this kind of environment learned very early in life that our acceptance (and sometimes our survival) was based on our ability to perform. The mascot performs to help defuse tension in the family. The hero performs so that the family can be proud of someone. The lost child performs a vanishing act so as not to contribute to the chaos. The codependent’s frantic and desperate performance is an attempt to bring order and control to the chaos. And so on. As a result we naturally and instinctively gravitate toward theology that has an emphasis on performance. It matches our inner experience. We may, for example, find ourselves in churches where grace is talked about a lot but where it seems like everything is somehow about getting it right, doing the right thing, having (performing) a good testimony, looking good, being obedient. There may be a lot said about grace in our doctrinal statements, but the day-to-day of being a Christian somehow always seems to be exhausting. Our relationship with God gradually turns into a demanding performance of doing the right things, feeling the right things and getting it right. Part of the recovery process for Christians will involve confronting this instinctive orientation toward performance-based theology.
Remember all the narratives that talk about a quiz at the gates of heaven? “A pastor and a rabbi and a priest arrive at the gates of heaven, and St. Peter asks them . . . .” We all have probably heard jokes based on this premise. And we have also probably heard many sermons that use this quiz as a metaphor. I remember an evangelistic training program in which I participated many years ago that encouraged us to ask people, “When you get to the gates of heaven and they ask why you should be let in, what will you say?” There was, as you may have guessed, only one right answer. If you performed well on the quiz, you got to go in. If not, you didn’t. As with any performance-oriented spirituality, this kind of understanding about our relationship with God can lead to anxiety and fear. Will I perform well on the quiz? Will I get it right? What if I only score 85 percent on the quiz?
Now, just to emphasize the obvious, I am not arguing that it would be better to have the wrong answers. That’s not my point. But I have come to believe that if you find yourself at what you think are the gates of heaven and they pass out a quiz, the best thing you could do is to run away as quickly as you can. You have gone to the wrong place. Heaven is not reserved for people who have all the right answers to all the right questions. Remember Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees? They were the people in his world with all the right answers to all the right questions. Jesus didn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of spirituality. If they have a quiz, run away. Try someplace else. You will know you are approaching the real gates of heaven when—long before you arrive—you notice that there is someone in the distance running toward you. As that person approaches, you can see that it is your Heavenly Father. He has no quiz in his hands. He runs to you. He throws his arms around you. There is no need for you to perform in any way; no speech is necessary. You are loved. You are cherished. You are home at last. That’s how we will know we have arrived at the gates of heaven.
It will take far more than better theology for us to become the kind of people who can really take in this kind of grace. But everything we do in recovery helps us become people with a greater capacity to experience God’s grace and love. Each little bit of healing helps us say no to the old patterns of performance-based acceptance and yes to the unbelievable riches of God’s grace.
Grace is, of course, not a minor theological theme. It is not a footnote in the biblical text. It is arguably the theme of the Bible. In spite of this it has never been an easy emphasis to maintain. Shame-based and performance-based theology never seem that far away, and they creep back in sometimes in disguise. Why, having revolted once against the gods of shame, do we find ourselves still susceptible to shame theology? It is a painful thing to recognize, but we seem to resist grace, and in many ways we seem to prefer shame. Shame may be awful stuff, but it is the stuff we know. It is what we are accustomed to. I am fond of a story that Dale Wolery tells about a woman who came to him several years ago after a morning worship service to explain she had decided that she needed to find a different church. At this time Dale had been in recovery for several years, and his preaching had become decidedly more grace-full and less shaming. Dale was interested to know why a more grace-full message was seemingly less useful to this woman, so he thanked her for letting him know about her decision and asked if she would like to tell him something about her reasons. She said. “I used to come to church and I would leave feeling really bad about myself. I was reminded of my sin and how unhappy God was with me. And that really helped me. It motivated me to be good through the coming week. But I am not feeling that bad when you preach now, and it just seems like I need to go somewhere that will remind me of how bad I am.” This woman had been going to church for years to get enough shame to help her “keep the lid on” things through the week. She went to church because the church was her preferred source of shame. When the shame stopped, she had to go someplace else.
How did it happen that people go to church to get shame rather than grace? I don’t know the whole answer to that question, but I do know that now is the time to put grace back into the center of things. Not just because that’s what people in recovery need, but because that’s the Good News. Without it the church might as well shut down completely.
Part of the theological work of recovery is the struggle not to allow ourselves to be “burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The slavery of shame is the root of performance-based spirituality, and it is a soul killer. Recovery is the struggle to let grace be at the heart of everything in our lives. May God grant us the grace we need today to let go of the heavy burdens of performance-based spirituality and to receive the grace, the serenity and rest that God longs to give us.
Quick Fix or Transformational Process
A second theological emphasis that is critically important for people in recovery is an emphasis on process. Recovery takes time. We do not, of course, want things to take time. We prefer fast. I remember early in my own journey making it very clear to God that I didn’t care how painful it would be as long as it would be fast. Get it over with. That’s what I wanted more than anything. I know I am not alone in this. The modern world runs on speed. If you are not going fast, something is wrong. That’s just how the world works now. This need for speed can have a profound effect on how we think about our faith and about our relationship with God.
Consider the following question: “Are you still struggling with that?” Most of us have heard this at one time or another. Often it is from a well-intentioned soul who is genuinely concerned about us. But whatever that person’s intentions might be, it can easily communicate the theological conviction that fast is good but slow is a sign of failure—or, worse, moral evil. It’s like saying, “If you really trusted God, you would be better by now.” How did “fast” get so connected with godliness and “slow” so connected with failure?
I think it is helpful to remember that an emphasis on speed in theology is not really new. The mainstream of Christian theological reflection throughout American history has always been decisionist in its orientation. That’s the belief that the most important aspect of our relationship with God is the human capacity to make decisions—to choose. Inviting people to come forward in a revival setting is a classic example of how the church has created an opportunity for people to choose. The single most significant feature of a decision is that it can be made in an instant. Your problem can be solved “right now.” For some people, “fast” is how God works at the beginning of the Christian life; salvation is instantaneous. For other people, everything about the Christian life is understood to happen quickly. A number of years ago I interviewed a professor at one of the most respected seminaries in America who insisted that he had never met a person whose problems couldn’t be solved in five hours—including addictions, mental illness, and many other things. If it took longer? Well, then (here comes the blame stuff) there must be something wrong with the person’s faith, they must not really want to be healed, maybe they aren’t really a Christian. And there’s the rub. An emphasis on speed in spirituality often leads to judgmentalism and even condemnation when change takes time.
Is an emphasis on instantaneous change bad theology? It’s not that an emphasis on quick in spiritual matters is good or bad. My point is that it can be unhelpful theology—particularly for people in recovery. What is it about people in recovery that is most broken? It is our capacity to choose. Every addict I have ever known has chosen not to be an addict. Usually many times. Always unsuccessfully. Choosing is the thing that is the most broken in us. The same is true for survivors of abuse. Does deciding to be free of the fear and the shame that come from abuse work very well? Does deciding to leave it at the foot of the cross solve the problem? Not for most of us. No matter how sincerely we choose to be fine, we find that more is needed to make change possible. If choosing is going to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it will have to be part of some larger process, some context that supports and empowers our decisions, a context that extends over a period of time. The Twelve Steps is a perfect example of this kind of supportive and empowering process that can make choosing a meaningful experience. There is a place in the Twelve Steps for deciding: “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” But this is not an isolated choice. It is part of a process—a process that helps us to become the kind of people whose choices are meaningful and empowered.
There is another danger in decision-focused theology. I have met a number of people who have made a decision not to drink and were instantaneously delivered from a craving for alcohol after many years of addictive drinking. In some of these cases I have no doubt that the instantaneous deliverance from craving was a genuine healing from God. I have yet, however, to meet a single person whose family has been instantaneously delivered from the negative effects of those years of drinking. Nor have I ever met a single person who, in addition to the instantaneous deliverance from craving, has also been instantaneously delivered from the stinking thinking, the defects of character and the shortcomings that have become so much a part of their daily life. And, truthfully, many (not all!) of the people I have met who claim to have been instantaneously delivered from addiction have seemed to me to have merely switched the focus of their addictive process. All of us know how easily this can happen. If alcohol is the problem, I can get rid of the problem by replacing it with drugs. If drugs become the problem I can replace them with sex. If sex becomes the problem I can get into addictive eating. There are lots of choices. And choosing to switch addictions can happen very quickly. But switching addictions is not the same thing as recovery. It’s just a different mask covering the same problem.
Again, it’s not that decisionist-oriented theology is bad theology. Deciding for Christ is a good thing. It’s just that people who are struggling to recover from addiction, abuse or trauma will not find it particularly helpful if our solution to their problem is to just decide. For those in a Twelve Step program it sounds just like another “One Step” program, and we know it won’t work. People in recovery need to be reminded that things that take a long time can also be good. Fast is not the only value. Moses spent forty years taking care of sheep. Forty years. Is that a sign of failure? Jesus’ public ministry didn’t start until he was over thirty years old. The Apostle Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” that apparently continued to be a problem for his entire life. Are any of these things a sign of a lack of faith? No. It took as long as it took.
One of the most useful analogies I can think of is that of surgery for cancer. After surgery to remove a cancerous tumor you don’t ask the doctor, “How long did it take?” You ask, “Did you get it all?” It is thoroughness, not speed, that is the measure of success. A viable faith for people in recovery will almost always involve growing in our appreciation for the patience of God, the long-suffering of God, the thoroughness of God. God does not need it to be quick. If it takes two years, that’s okay. If it takes forty years? Well, God will be faithful. God will hang in there with us for as long as it takes. I have never heard anyone complaining that “discipleship” lasts for a lifetime. Or that “sanctification” never stops. These are words for describing a new kind of life, not just a decision. Most Christians understand that some things—like discipleship and sanctification— take a lifetime. Recovery is a word in the same category. It’s about a life-long journey. A journey worthy of a lifetime’s attention. May God grant us today the grace to be patient and persistent, no matter how long it takes.
The Self: Worthless or Precious?
A third common theological issue that is part of the struggle for Christians in recovery is how we ought to think and feel about ourselves. This is not an easy one. Not for addicts. Not for survivors of abuse. Not for any of us. Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves can get twisted. What tends to come naturally and instinctively to us are extremes. Either we are completely worthless, or we are grandiose and narcissistic. Both extremes are born in shame. Sometimes we try to cover up this shame with grandiosity and narcissism. Sometimes we give up in despair, seeing ourselves as worthless. The root of the problem is the persistent sense that we are not good enough, not important enough, not valuable enough, just not enough—no matter what we do—which results in distortions in how we think and feel about ourselves.
Of course, there are many in the Christian community who sincerely believe it is a good thing to feel bad about yourself. There are even those who believe that the worse you feel about yourself, the more likely God will respond positively to your request for mercy. Sometimes called “worm theology” (from the hymn that includes the line “for such a worm as I”), it is not difficult to find this kind of theology in the Christian community. Sometimes Christians struggling with addiction, abuse or trauma find themselves gravitating to communities rooted in worm theology because it matches their interior sense of being defective. It may seem like a very familiar message—like what we have been hearing all of our lives. Why not add the voice of God to our inner chorus of voices that say, “You are a bad boy,” “You can’t do anything right!” or “If only you had tried harder . . .”?
But is the God of the Bible really like that? Is that what the Bible teaches? Are we really so damaged or disgusting that we are worthless? Is that really part of the Good News? No. It is not even remotely close to being good news. Let’s look at an extreme example of how that kind of theology would explain the Good News: “God is perfectly holy. As a result God cannot tolerate evil in his presence. We are evil. So there is no way that we can survive in the presence of God. God can’t even look at us or we would die. What we need is someone to stand between us and God. And that’s what Jesus does. When God looks in our direction, God does not see us, God sees Jesus.”
Now, this is a fairly common way that the core of the Christian message has been explained. Probably all of us have heard sermons based on this basic scheme. And there may be some strengths to this way of explaining things. It has been around for a long time. It is a way of talking about the Christian message that was developed when the dominant culture was feudal in character. God was presented as being like a regional feudal lord who viewed peasants and slaves as mere property but who might show mercy to disobedient slaves out of respect for his local official who “stood between” him and the disobedient. It is probably very clear to most readers of STEPS that this way of talking about the Christian message has some major weaknesses.
If we felt invisible in our family of origin, it will not sound like good news that God’s family has the same dysfunction. And who is this God who can’t stand to look at us? Who is this God who can’t tolerate being in our presence? Is that the God revealed in Jesus? If this is the only way of understanding the Christian message you have heard, I encourage you to meditate on stories that Jesus told such as the Parable of the Waiting Father. The Father is daily scanning the horizon for the first signs of the return of his beloved child. When he first sees his child, he runs. Long before his child has a chance to make his speech about his worthlessness, the Father is running. The look on his face? Disgust? Avoidance? Absolutely not. It is pure joy. There is a gleam in God’s eye. God’s face becomes radiant with joy when he sees us. There is no need for us to be invisible. Invisibility is the bad news. It is the problem that God has solved. God sees us! That is the good news.
Does God avoid us because we are sinners? If you have any doubt, any hesitation, about the answer to this question, I urge you to go back to the Bible. Did God avoid us? Is it not just the opposite? Did not God come to us? When God saw our pain, our brokenness, our defects of character, our insanity, what did God do? God came. Here. To be with us. To save us. To make a new kind of life possible for us. God’s holiness is not the fragile kind that would be tainted by contact with broken, bent, damaged people. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not hide himself from our hopeless situation. God saw. God came—not to punish, not to nag, not to shame. Thank God that we were not worthless “worms” to God! We were, and are, precious, valuable. Wanted, a source of delight to God. That’s just basic Bible. It may take a long time for this truth to sink in, but it’s not really fancy theology. It’s Christianity 101.
A full discussion of the complexity of this issue is way beyond what is possible in an article. Don Smith’s article elsewhere in this issue of STEPS adds some very helpful perspectives on this subject, so I’ll limit myself here to a brief comment about the historical context for “worm” theology. Theology in America has deep roots in Puritanism. For the Puritans the “self” was hopelessly and thoroughly bad. As Richard Baxter, a well-known Puritan preacher, put it, “The very names of Self and Own should sound in the watchful Christian’s ear as very terrible, wakening words, that are next to the names of sin and Satan.” Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? The self is almost demonic. To be fair to the Puritans, however, it is important to remember that although the self was thought to be of no value, the soul was understood to be of infinite value. It may seem odd at the beginning of the twenty-first century to think of ourselves in this way, but the influence of this split between self and soul is still very present in the way many Christians talk about this issue today. One of the things that seems to have happened over time is that the Puritan understanding of the person as a self has persisted in many parts of the Christian community, but the Puritan understanding of the person as a soul has vanished almost without a trace. What remains is only the bad self with little to balance it, with little to remind us of our preciousness to God.
The bottom line is not really that complex. We have learned very broken ways to think and feel about ourselves. In recovery we struggle not to just think better about ourselves, but to do an honest self-assessment. Honesty is the key here. In the Twelve Step tradition, part of this self-assessment involves doing a “fearless moral inventory.” The content of our inventory can be a pretty discouraging and disturbing list. But the process of doing our inventory is to be characterized by fearlessness. What does “fearless” mean? Certainly it means that we will be courageous while working on our inventory. But more specifically it means that we will seek to be so secure in God’s love for us that no matter what we find in our inventory, we will know that we are still loved, still valuable, still of infinite importance to our Higher Power. It is only love that can sustain us when we experience the fear that comes from shame, from rejection, from resentments and from guilt. We seek to do a fearless inventory because we want God to so fill us with love that little room remains for fear. May God grant you the grace this day to think and feel about yourself in ways that are consistent with how your loving and grace-full Father thinks and feels about you.
United in Grace
Recovery ministries have developed and flourished in a wide variety of theological contexts. Churches from every conceivable theological tradition have developed recovery ministries. So it is very risky to imply that there exists any uniformity of theological perspective among Christians in recovery. We do not have a shared recovery theology. What we do share, however, is the practical experience of the grace of God in helping us to recover from the most difficult of life’s struggles. And that’s a lot to have in common.
Dale Ryan is the CEO of Christian Recovery International and Associate Professor of Recovery Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary.