by Dale Wolery
It was the day following surgery to remove a constriction of my spinal cord, which impeded my ability to walk. Cautiously, I was roused and coaxed into a standing position. Despite fatigue from the surgery and the effects of pain medication, my feet gingerly found the hospital floor and started to function. They were doing some kind of cross between a slipper shuffle and actual walking. But it was enough to generate a cheer from my family and medical personnel. And I started to comprehend a hopeful reality: Mobility had been restored. Wow! I can walk! was the enthusiastic thought bouncing around in my brain. My gratitude to God was inexpressibly intense. Recovery had begun.
When our Father gives us these victorious moments in physical, emotional or spiritual recovery, most of us experience a deep sense of wonder and awe. The spiritual component of events like this is unmistakable. The invisible, immortal God of the universe has entered our frail lives in a profound way. Our finite lives are touched by the Infinite. We are genuinely humbled by God’s grace, and we want to stay in this state of euphoric humility forever. But of course, it doesn’t last.
Our recovery journeys may well include moments of such euphoric wonder, but they are as likely to include seasons of loneliness, longings, relapse and sadness. Instead of experiencing the euphoria of spiritual connection, we may experience intense feelings of abandonment. Sometimes our souls scream for the Father’s interaction and we experience nothing. We want to feel God’s love just like we did “back then,” and instead it seems that God has forsaken us. This maddening reality–and many similar realities–can confuse us as we seek to recover and to find a growing relationship with our Higher Power.
My journey toward a meaningful relationship with God as I recover from the addictive process has been confusing. It feels daunting to me to even talk about spirituality and recovery. As a minister I have sought to speak with clarity and authority about what it means to know God. But this has complicated matters even more. The truths that the Bible apparently teaches and that I have spoken have not always been true for me, and I do not want to infect this article with that kind of hypocrisy. The principles I now share with you are a work in progress–not a tidy, abstract theological package of facts.
First, God is not in denial. I am the one in denial. Facing the truth about myself, about my behavior, about my soul and about my recovery is not easy. I never consciously decided that the best way to survive and to cope with my problems was to hide them from myself, from others and from God. But like Adam in the garden, hiding has often been the norm for me. It is shameful and painful for me to face my failures. I have therefore attempted to hide my failings from God, from my friends, from my wife, from those to whom I minister and from myself.
During most reflective moments in my Christian experience I have been able to point to areas in my life where I have previously deceived myself. As a result, I type these words knowing that in all likelihood I am still deceiving myself. God, however, is not deceived. God knows all of me. I am only gradually getting to know my reality, whereas God already knows it all. Knowing that self-deception is a part of the journey, and being open to learning what God knows about me, are essential. Part of healthy spirituality is the gradual process of learning the things God already knows about me.
Second, I cannot control God. I have never been in any close relationship that I didn’t want to control, and this fear-motivated desire to control has an impact on my relationship with God. My prayers have often been attempts to manipulate God. Yes, these futile endeavors to control were usually unconscious and unintentional, but “forcing” God to do my bidding was at the bottom of far too many of my personal prayer requests. My attempt to control God finds its way into my behavior as well. I have fooled myself into thinking that if I maintain sobriety, do certain activities and avoid other activities for long enough, surely God will be obligated to perform for me in the way I desire. Surrendering my illusion of control over God might sound simple, because it means giving up something I didn’t have. But this surrender is essential to my relationship with God.
Third, God is not impressed–nor is my spirituality or recovery enhanced–by what I think I know about God. Reciting creeds, hammering out distinctive doctrinal statements, and developing a seamless, logically consistent theology do not advance our connection with the Father. I have used these kinds of theological gymnastics to impress other people with my spirituality and have deceived myself in the process. How my soul visualizes, experiences and feels God is certainly as important as how much I can bend my brain to understand biblical truths about God. Right now it is enough for me to experience two simple realities in my relationship with God: God loves me and God is trustworthy. Though these realities are sometimes fleeting, I know that I do want to experience more of God on my spiritual journey. And God is evidently not as anxious about this as I am.
Christians like me get confused when the euphoric, victorious ecstasy is not the norm in our spiritual journeys. These wonderful experiences should be enjoyed for what they are. But it would be easy to get hooked on the feel-good of spiritual experiences, wouldn’t it? Far more important to our spirituality is to focus on the long process of moving out of denial, surrendering our illusions of control and experiencing the embrace of a loving and trustworthy Father.
May any confusion on your journey be replaced with the hope of God’s trustworthy love.
Dale Wolery is the executive director of the Clergy Recovery Network