by Dale and Juanita Ryan
A few days after Steve first attended a support group for adult children of alcoholics, a powerful image came into his mind. “I saw myself in a large crowd of people. God was holding my hand. But suddenly, God’s hand pulled away and I was lost in the crowd. I was separated from God, abandoned, completely alone.”
When Steve attempted to honestly face the needs in his life he experienced deep spiritual distress. Even though Steve’s formal theology was entirely orthodox, in his heart of hearts he believed in a god who abandons people when they need him the most.
Steve tried to relieve his spiritual distress by praying more and reading his Bible more. He hoped that these efforts would somehow soothe his spiritual anxiety. He found, however, that this did not work in the way he had hoped. It seemed impossible to pray. He could not concentrate on the Bible. As a result, Steve’s spiritual distress grew.
Steve’s experience is, unfortunately, a very common one. Most people recognize that recovery is a spiritual journey. But few of us are adequately prepared for the spiritual distress that can be a part of the recovery process. We don’t know what to do when our frantic efforts are not able to relieve our spiritual anxiety. And our distress may increase when we realize that we know very little about how to build a healthy spiritual life.
Spiritual struggles in recovery can be complex and confusing. We do not pretend to have simple solutions for these struggles. We would, however, like to suggest two perspectives that we have found helpful in our own recovery. First, we have found it helpful to realize that times of spiritual distress are a common experience in the recovery process and that these times can prepare us for spiritual healing and growth. And, secondly, we have found it helpful to commit ourselves to building healthier spiritual lives by replacing practices based in pretense and shame with spiritual disciplines based in honesty and grace.
LIVING WITH SPIRITUAL DISTRESS
The process of recovery strips away the false so that what is real can be given life. Our false spirituality is exposed and discarded to make room for genuine relationships with God and others. This stripping away of our false spirituality may be a painful process but it can lead ultimately to new life and joy.
Asking Urgent Questions
One of the ways we have experienced spiritual distress during recovery is in urgent questions we find ourselves asking about God and about our faith. We may ask: “God, who are you?” “Do you care?” “Why don’t you help?”
It has been helpful to us to realize that the Bible gives voice to these same questions. “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habbakuk 1:13) “Why have you rejected us forever, O God?” (Psalm 74:1).
It is important to remind ourselves that questions like these are not a sign of disbelief or faithlessness. They represent, rather, faith that is alive and struggling. Our experience has been that although honest struggle with difficult questions may not always lead to intellectually satisfying ‘answers’, it can build in us a capacity for awe and an appreciation for mystery. As a result we may find our hearts opening to a deeper encounter with God.
Feeling Separated from God
We have also experienced spiritual distress when, like Steve, we have felt separated from God. The experience of feeling separated from God can be compared to the experience of a small child who is separated from its parents. A separated child experiences anxiety, anger and a deep longing for the return of its parents. It is painful for a child to be separated from a parent. And it is painful for us to feel separated from God.
Again, the Bible gives voice to this kind of distress. The psalmist cried out, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).
When we protest God’s absence we are expressing our anger and anxiety. But we are also expressing our deep longing for closeness with God. This is not a sign of spiritual failure. When God seems silent, we learn again how much we need to hear his voice. When God seems distant we realize afresh our deep desire to experience his presence. As a result, our hearts may become better prepared to hear and receive from God. Our protest against God’s absence can prepare us to discover in new ways that God abides with us.
Facing Distorted Images of God
A third kind of spiritual distress we have experienced in recovery comes as we face and gradually abandon our distorted images of God. As a result of experiences of abuse or neglect many of us have developed images of God as one who abuses or neglects. Steve believed in a god who would abandon him in his time of need. Others of us believe in a god-of-impossible-expectations, a god-who-is-eager-to-punish, or a god-who-keeps-his-distance. Unfortunately we can become very attached to our distorted images of God. It can be distressing to let go of them. But letting go of these distortions can open the way for us to see and worship the God revealed in the Bible. Letting go of our abusive or neglectful gods can allow us to receive God’s grace and kindness in new ways.
We have found it helpful in our times of spiritual distress to remember that the process of recovery is like cleaning out a closet. The mess gets much worse before it gets better. We often feel worse before we feel better. But feeling worse spiritually does not mean that we are getting worse. Our times of spiritual distress are often times of preparation for deep spiritual healing.
BUILDING A HEALTHY SPIRITUAL LIFE
One of the things which helped to turn Steve’s spiritual distress into a time of spiritual healing was his commitment to develop a healthier spiritual life. Like most of us, Steve needed to go through the difficult process of examining his spiritual life, building on the best of his spiritual heritage and discarding the perspectives and practices that had become ‘weights’ in his life (Hebrews 12:1).
Spirituality and Honesty
One of the most difficult things for Steve, and for ourselves as well, has been finding the courage to honestly face our spiritual distress. We do not think of doubt or fear or any of the other emotions which are part of the recovery process as acceptable emotions for ‘good’ Christians. ‘Good’ Christians are expected to know all the ‘right’ answers. ‘Every day with Jesus’ is suppose to be ‘sweeter than the day before’. So, facing the truth about our distress comes only after a difficult struggle with denial.
The Bible is quite clear, however, about honesty: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.” (Ephesians 4:25) In spite of the importance which the Bible places on honesty, quick-fix approaches to spirituality are very common in the Christian community. These versions of Christian spirituality typically suggest that ‘if only’ we would do some simple thing (e.g. trust God, or pray) then our problems would be solved. Since our problems should be easy to fix, we should not be afraid, depressed or angry. We should, rather, be peaceful and joyful. Unfortunately, because we are so susceptible to self-deceit, this kind of spirituality leads only to more denial and pretense rather than to spiritual maturity.
It is important for us to remember that the Bible does not teach that faith in Christ will make our problems disappear. The Bible tells stories about real people who struggle in life and who sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. The Bible speaks about the life of faith as a lifetime adventure and as a process of transformation. Jesus was distressed by religious teachers who pretended to no longer struggle with needs or failings. He honored the honesty of prostitutes and other ‘sinners’ who did not pretend. Honesty, although painful and risky, makes it possible for us to experience genuine relationships with God and with others. Honesty makes love and healing and growth possible.
Spirituality and Grace
Another difficulty we face as we examine our spiritual lives is that many of us don’t seem to be able to think about God and feel good about ourselves at the same time. Our faith seems to lead to shame. “I always thought that the prodigal son got it right”, Steve said one day, “He kept saying ‘I am not worthy’, and I thought that was how I should feel about myself if I wanted God to accept me”.
The story of the waiting father (Luke 15:17-24) does in fact present a dramatic contrast between shame-based and grace-based spirituality. In this story, we see that the son practices a speech in which he shames himself. Like many of us, he not only developed a pattern of saying “I am not worthy”, but he also no doubt genuinely believed that this self-contempt would be consistent with his father’s thoughts. As Jesus tells the story, however, the father is full of compassion and joy and runs to meet the son when he is still at a distance. When the son does finally speak, the father senses the son’s self-loathing and moves to counteract it by demonstrating his love for his son.
Many of us have learned that the worse we feel about ourselves, the closer we are to seeing ourselves as God sees us. As a result both our images of ourselves and our images of God become distorted. We seem worthless, damaged, irreparable. And God seems abusive, abandoning and shaming.
In order to move away from shame and towards grace in our spiritual life, we need to pay attention to this story that Jesus told. Jesus taught that if we are to see ourselves as God sees us, we will understand that we are loved. God’s love and attentiveness are not things we might finally earn in life if we work hard enough, but free gifts from the fullness of God’s heart. We are valued. We are loved. God is not abusive, abandoning or shaming. God is moved with compassion for us, he greets us with joy.
Part of our recovery involves giving up our shame-based identities and our self-condemnation. We can stop trying to prove ourselves to God. We can begin to allow ourselves to receive God’s love.
Spiritual Disciplines That Encourage Honesty and Grace
One of the things we have learned from our spiritual distress is that developing a spiritual life rooted in honesty and grace doesn’t just happen by chance. The heart of recovery for us has been learning to practice the disciplines of the Christian life in grace-full and life-giving ways rather than just as things-I-have-to-do-to-make-God-happy.
We have found, for example, that the discipline of confession is particularly helpful in recovery. Confession can, of course, become a ritualized, compulsive act. It is, however, a practice that 12-step fellowships use with powerful effect. Confession involves an honest, public expression of who I am. When I say “My name is ____, and I’m a____”, I am practicing the Christian discipline of confession. One of the powerful elements of therapy or participating in a support group is the fact that simply showing up is a confession of our need. Confession helps us to practice honesty in the presence of people who will not add to our shame.
Testimony is another discipline which many of us have found to be helpful. Many of us have learned how to give a ‘good testimony’. A ‘good testimony’ is one that sounds like ‘I used to be a bad person, then I got saved, and now everything is fine’. But a ‘good testimony’ is not always quite the same thing as an honest testimony. Testimony is the honest telling of part of my life’s story in a way that acknowledges God’s ongoing work in my life and my continuing struggle to heal and change. Listening to other people talk about their spiritual journey in recovery can give us the courage to begin telling the truth about ourselves.
The spiritual disciplines which most of us have been taught from childhood we have learned to practice primarily as private activities. During recovery many of us find that these disciplines are more helpful if we practice them in community as well as in private. In community we learn to pray less compulsively and with more honesty. And in community we learn a new appreciation for the Bible. Because we are so adept at finding bad news in the Good News, we find it helpful to study the Bible in a group setting where the experience of others could help us perceive God’s love more clearly.
There are of course, many Christian disciplines in addition to confession, testimony, reading the Bible and prayer that can be helpful in building a healthy spiritual life. Over time we are learning to practice both solitude and fellowship, singing praises and silence, fasting and celebration. In the process we have found some familiar disciplines taking on new meaning. We have found communion, for example, to be enormously helpful in recovery. We have discovered that in communion God offers a memory that can be more powerful than any of our other memories. The discipline of remembering God’s sacrificial love has became a source of new hope and healing for us.
When we are experiencing times of deep spiritual distress, we need to encourage each other not to give up. This too is part of our healing. And when we are confused because some of our religious practices are not helpful, we need to encourage each other to begin to move away from shame and pretending and to adopt instead a spiritual life based in honesty and grace. May God grant you the courage to continue. And may your roots sink deeply in the soil of his love.
Dale Ryan is the Executive Director of Christian Recovery International. Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice. The Ryans are the authors of the Life Recovery Guides published by InterVarsity Press.