Four months ago, I concluded my verse-by-verse study of the book of Genesis. At that time, I decided I wanted to share more of my personal story and how I have found healing through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have since related a good deal about my addictions and path to recovery, as well as the principles that helped me along the way. I also shifted into my earlier format of picking a single gospel principle and studying it from every angle.
It has been a fruitful four months, and a much-needed change of perspective, but at this point I feel ready to shift back to other forms of study. To start things off, I have had ten little thoughts and mantras that occurred to me over the course of my most recent studies, and I’d like to share them with you, one each weekday for the next two weeks. After that, I would like to go back to my verse-by-verse Bible study. I will pick up where I left off, ready to begin the book of Exodus. The first of these verse-by-verse studies I expect to post on February 20th.
I’m sure that periodically I will have a spiritual experience that I feel is worth sharing here, at which point I will certainly interrupt my verse-by-verse study to relate it. In general, though, I’m excited to get back to examining the small details tucked away in the scriptures. I hope you’ll be able to find it fruitful as well!
Yesterday I discussed three different domains of truth: the truth of the physical world, the truth of society, and the truth of morality. I made my case for each being well-founded and constant, even if at times mysterious. I argued that they all originate from outside of our individual selves, yet are inseparably integrated in us as well. I also considered the strange paradox where we all believe in these realities to some degree, yet we try to violate their rules even so. Each one of us seems to believe in the truth, but also disbelieve it in part. And this uncertainty makes it very difficult, even impossible, for us to live in full harmony with these realities and achieve our greatest potential.
Having acknowledged the problem, I turn now to an important passage of scripture, some of the most quoted verses from the Bible.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. - John 1:1-3
Much has been said about the meaning of the word “Word” in this passage. It sounds a bit strange to our ears, because a “word” is a conceptual and impersonal thing, but here it is being used to describe a personified being, indeed the fundamental being. Of course, the passage isn’t just talking about a word, it is THE Word. It is the fundamental Word, the ultimate Word, the Word before all others. It is the Word that we are told made all other things, defined all other things, gave form to all other things. This Word is so fundamental and foundational that without it there was “not any thing made that was made.”
I have spent a great while talking about the systems and rules that we see in the created universe, from physics to society to morality. As I said before, these systems clearly originate from outside of us. They were present before we were, and they will exist after we are gone. These verses from John explicitly identify the Word as the author of these laws and systems of reality. And if this Word is the word that defines the laws and systems of reality, then that Word must necessarily be true. For if it were not true, then all of reality would not be true either, nor our very existence. In fact, not only must the Word be true, it must be THE Truth. The fundamental Truth, the ultimate Truth, the Truth from which all these other truths are derived.
The Word is the Truth, and the Truth is the author of all the other truths that we observe, infer, and feel. Any attempt to live outside of the created truths is therefore an attempt to live outside of the fundamental Truth, and any attempt to live outside the fundamental Truth is an attempt to live outside of created reality. To deny the Truth and live against it is to deny the entire fabric of the universe, our own selves included, and frustrate our very being. It is not that it is merely advisable to live in the Truth, it is that it is only possible to live living in the Truth. Any attempt to exist outside of the Truth is to begin to undo one’s own creation, to unravel oneself into nothingness, to vanish into outer darkness.
What a problem, then, that we violate the Truth every day!
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death - Romans 3:23, 6:23
It is a problem that we do not have the power to resolve either. As beings of the Truth, we cannot change the Truth. Nor can we change our own state back to being in harmony with the Truth after we have violated it, for the unmaking of ourselves is, in fact, instantaneous, only artificially prolonged by the grace of God.
And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time - Alma 42:4
Of course, this probationary period does us little good if left to our own devices. We, ourselves, have no way to rectify the fact that we are now fundamentally disconnected from the Truth of the universe. And this is where the rest of John 1 comes into play. For, after defining the Word’s external authorship of all the elements that make up our reality, John then proclaims:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. He was in the world, and the world was made by him. - John 1:14, 10
The creating Word came to live within its own creation! No longer just an external force, the creating Word now became an internal being as well. “It was made flesh and dwelt among us.” At one level that obviously represents the man Jesus Christ walking and teaching in Israel, but the penetration of the Word actually went much deeper. Jesus, himself, taught that he would be in us individually!
My Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. - John 14:23
And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. - Mark 14:22
I in them, and thou in me - John 17:23
The Word is made our flesh, and it dwells inside of us!
Be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts - Ephesians 3:16-17
And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. - 1 John 3:24
What does this mean? It means that the Word that made the Truth that all of our existence is predicated upon can also come into our hearts and make the same Truth in there as well.
Though we have violated the external Truth, we can be reconciled to it by having it remade internally. Thus, we cease to be damned by the uprooting of ourselves from the external reality, because we are now sustained by the same reality existing anew within us.
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life - John 4:14
To live at all we must live in the Truth. To live in the Truth, we must be reconciled from our sin. To be reconciled from our sin, we must have that fundamental Truth that lays at the foundation of all reality planted within our hearts. To have the Truth planted in our hearts, we must receive the creator of that Truth, the Word, even Jesus Christ.
Jesus does not just come to invite us to join him in outer heaven, he comes to put heaven inside of us! And I do not mean that figuratively. Though I do not begin to understand how, in some way, entirely literally, Christ comes to put the seed of all created reality within our own being. All of the cosmos is made anew within us!
1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
5 And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
6 And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
7 He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.
- Revelation 21:1-7
I began this study with a simple objective: to make the case that the only way to live was to live in truth. Right from the beginning I understood that this concept was so fundamental that it would defy definition. It is axiomatic, something that is most often just assumed to be true, unprovable by conventional methods. I tried to make my case even so, approaching the subject in all manner of different ways. It has been a fruitful, if eclectic, enterprise. Not only am I more convinced of the soundness of this principle, I better understand why it is such a difficult thing to prove objectively.
I will help illustrate this as I gave my final observations. Here is the first half of the conclusion to all that I have found.
Realms of Truth)
One of the key things I came to realize through this study was the various realms of truth that we encounter in life. I found myself debating around three separate categories of truth at different times. Each of these categories had different levels of tangibility and effect, yet I observed that each seemed to follow the same pattern. Let us consider them each, one at a time.
First, there is the physical truth. This is the truth of our perceivable, material world. Scientists have long understood that our world is composed of systems and procedures, each reliable and consistent. There are clear rules that govern physics, chemistry, and geology. These rules can be directly observed and measured; that is how we know that they exist. They are true, and they are always true. What is more, these physical truths exist separately from our individual selves. We interact with the physical world, we cause certain of its rules to play out, we harness its systems for our own benefit, but we do not define or override its rules. For all the self-will we possess, we can only employ it within the confines of its laws. The physical truths simply are what they are, and even if all of us ceased to exist and there was no one left to recognize these truths, we are certain that they would continue regardless.
Secondly, there is the truth of a society. This truth is the state that we social beings exist within. It is comprised of all our individual selves, and the relationships that exist between us. It is the sum total of all our thoughts, feelings, words and beliefs, both within ourselves and towards each other. We cannot examine this social state as directly as we can the physical world, but logically we know that it must exist and have a true definition. For we all know that we have our own, personal state of being, and so the amalgamation of all our states must be a real state as well. Our experiences also suggests that this super-state moves by certain patterns and rules. There seem to be certain laws about how individuals, relationships, and societies grow and evolve, and philosophers and psychologists have spent countless years gleaning what nuggets of truth they can from these systems. Interestingly, while these patterns must emerge from us directly, we remain individually ignorant of how we contribute to them. We are like the particles of dust that fall in the physical world, our movements seeming to be individual and arbitrary when examined up close, but when taken as a whole, we see that the mass is subject to forces that underpin the whole. Thus, as with the physical world, the truth of this realm seems to emerge from something greater than the individual. It belongs to the species as a whole, yet it is clearly enmeshed in us as well.
Finally, we have the moral truth. This truth is defined by the laws of how we should govern ourselves. It is the principles that we should hold to, the ways that we can direct our efforts and our attention to harmonize with the thing that we call “good.” This truth is the most mystifying of them all. We cannot see it or measure it. We cannot graph its movements. All of us try to obscure it with our own agendas and selfish desires. And yet, in spite of all this confusion and denial, there still remains the universal conviction that moral truth is a reality. Every civilization has always believed in some form of it. Though we cannot see it, we can feel it. Like the two other realms of truth, we sense that it originates from somewhere outside of ourselves, and we believe in it so concretely that we are sure what is right would remain right, even if there was no one left to practice it. Also, though the moral truth originates outside of ourselves, it is inseparably integrated inside of us as well. It pulls at us, we interact with it, and it even emerges from out of us.
The Need to Follow)
To some degree, we all perceive and accept each of these realms of truth. We all have a basic understanding of the laws of nature, the laws of society, and the laws of morality. We know that we should live in harmony with each of them. We know that there are certain things we just shouldn’t do, because they will cause physical pain, or social rejection, or be immoral. We know that there are other things that we should do, because they will increase our safety and be the most direct means to achieving what we desire. In the physical world, the positive benefits of conducting ourselves according to the laws of gravity can be explicitly observed. In the social world, the benefits of doing to others what we would like to have done to ourselves can be implicitly inferred. In the spiritual world, the benefits of sacrifice to our higher power are intuitively believed.
And yet, in spite of all this knowledge, and inference, and belief, we still try to violate these truths repeatedly! We risk injury just to save a few seconds of time, we try to fool others into giving us what we want, and we try to satiate our base desires when we think God isn’t looking. And even after we are hurt for our defiance of truth, we will still test its limits again and again. There is a part of us that is converted to the truth on a conceptual level, but somewhere between that part and the carrying out of our actions there is another part that is not converted, and it overrides our better senses.
We know the truth, but we are not, ourselves, entirely truthful. As mentioned above, these truths all emanate from outside of ourselves, and so they are foreign objects to us. But at the same time, they also are integrated in our individual existence, and so they are our very own selves as well. This is a strange paradox, and because of it, mankind has ever been a creature perplexed.
I have something to say about what I have learned of how this incongruity is resolved, but I’ve run out of time. I shall take it up tomorrow. See you then.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: - John 10:27
I have discussed how we need to hear God’s approval to be fulfilled in life, and that we receive His approval when we keep His commandments. For much of my life, with my addiction to lust and pornography, I was willingly violating God’s commandments of chastity, and I was certainly devoid the sense of His approval.
When I decided to make my confession and seriously begin the work of recovery, I was quickly flooded with feelings of His pleasure and approval. My heart was made sensitive to day-to-day moments that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. I saw His love and approval in a beautiful sunrise, a plan for the day that worked out, and a word of kindness from a stranger.
And this was one of the most important transformations for me: learning how to see and hear God’s approval in the day-to-day moments that I might have previously missed. Thankfully, right at the start of my recovery, God led me to people and places who would teach me to see Him more clearly.
I will spend the next posts examining three of the ways that I have learned to feel God’s pleasure in my life. Today we will take a look at the signs and wonders in the world around us.
Right at the beginning of my recovery journey, my group therapist invited me to the Warrior Heart retreat based on the writings of John Eldredge, held in the mountains of Utah. One of the things they spoke about there was the notion of looking for “love notes” from God.
This led me to make an extremely important shift in how I view things of beauty and significance in the world. I have changed from interpreting the wonders around me as random happenstance, to seeing them as the deliberate actions of a Father who is trying to say “I love you. I made this for you. I appreciate the good that you’re doing in my world.”
I remember one night, just after my family moved into a new home by a little lake, I was woken by one of my children crying. After I had comforted her and she had gone back to sleep, I stepped by a South-facing window and my vision was filled with the full moon it all its glory, with its light bursting all across the tranquil water. The thought crossed my mind that I might be the only person in the world seeing this same view at this same moment, and even I would have missed it if not for my daughter calling me out of bed in the middle of the night. I chose to interpret the moment as a gift from a loving Father, a sign of approval for how I was trying to follow Him.
Perhaps it seems vain to assume that an entire act of nature was put together just for your benefit, or that God, Himself, summoned you to be a witness to His majesty. I certainly felt skeptical about calling moments of cosmic wonder a gift from heaven to little, old me. But as I started the practice of saying “thank you,” for these events, and allowing myself to indulge in their glory as if they really were made just for me, I never felt wrong for doing it. I didn’t feel like I was taking something that didn’t belong to me, or that I was giving credit to God where it wasn’t due. I actually felt very right about it, as if I was finally giving the miracle the applause that it had always been waiting for.
If we take the deliberate intention out of these moments, then they lose so much of what makes them meaningful and beautiful. They become nothing more than random chance, systems of particles and energy devoid of any feeling, noise and fury signify nothing. To deny the possibility of God crafting a perfect moment for you is to consign yourself to a cold and heartless world, one where your delight in it is nothing more than an accidental side-effect.
It is better to assume the best in others, including in God. Assume that if something mattered to you, He did it on purpose.
When we embrace life in this manner, then that life starts to open wider. Gratitude for kindness tends to beget more kindness. Once you start taking special note of the beauty in the world and saying “thank you” for it, then you’ll start noting beauty in more and more places.
I especially started noticing the beauty in the clouds above me. I’ve always loved tall, expansive, complex cloud structures, but it wasn’t until recently I appreciated how prevalent they are in my part of the world. Our Rocky Mountains are crowned by mountains in the sky every other day it seems.
I started to feel grateful for the visual representations of mathematical patterns people have discovered, such as the Mandelbrot set and Conway’s Game of Life. I was always entertained by these, but just recently I started to say “thank you” to God for there being people that were able to find them, and for me being able to experience them. When I did, I felt a rush of overpowering love. I really think God was grateful that I was finally acknowledging the beauty He had placed around me all my life.
I’ve also started to show gratitude for when my day goes according to plan. I know all too well that the schedules of my family, work, and personal errands are not guaranteed to line up at all, but when they do I feel wonderfully fulfilled in every sector.
In short, there are countless ways to recognize God’s love and approval in my life. And I really do believe that both those qualities need to be appreciated in these moments: His love and His approval. Sometimes I have more of a sense of His love from a beautiful sunrise, and other times it’s more of a sense that He’s saying, “you’re doing a good job.” The more I try to identify these moments, the more I discover new things to be grateful for, too. The more I show gratitude, the more there is to be grateful for. Is it because I am being more blessed than I was before, or is it because I am just recognizing it better? Probably both. After all, the ability to recognize blessings, is itself a blessing.
Interestingly, I started this study by discussing how we can feel more approval coming towards us, and I’ve ended up talking about how we can show more gratitude going out to God. It turns out that the two are inseparably linked. The more we expand our capacity to recognize God’s signs of approval to us, the more we are showing gratitude for Him doing so. It is a mutually-affirming relationship, which is the best kind that there is.
In the last post I discussed an alternative to seeking validation from other people, and that was to get our validation from God instead. I pointed to the example of Jesus, who thrived on the acknowledgement and appreciation of his divine Father. I suggested that as the children of God, our hearts are wired to need His approval, just as how every child seeks the approval of their earthly parents.
Our craving for validation from other people is therefore nothing more or less than a misconstruing of our basic need for divine validation. Yes, we need validation, but no, not from our friends and coworkers. We need to develop a relationship with God in which we can feel His approval regularly.
So, then, how do we go about doing that?
Love vs Approval)
Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. 2 Timothy 2:15 (NLT)
And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; - 1 Nephi 11:22
To start off, we need to take a moment to recognize the difference between God’s love and God’s approval. It is a common thing for those who are living a life contrary to the commandments of God to point out that He still loves them, no matter what they do. And they are absolutely right. God does love all of His children, and He loves them wherever they are in life. Even in the midst of our sins, He is able to manifest His love, and no child is beyond the reach of His grace.
But that is not the same as having God’s approval. Any parent can attest that they are perfectly capable of whole-heartedly loving their child, while not condoning their behavior. So, while there is nothing that we must do to earn God’s love, as the verse from 2 Timothy suggests, there are things that we must do to earn His approval.
And gaining the approval of God is essential to realizing our full, divine potential. As Jesus Christ, himself, attested “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,” (Matthew 7:21).
In other words, the love of God is an essential component in being saved…but it isn’t the only component. There will not be any saved who did not feel the love of God, but there will be those that felt His love who are not saved. Indeed, one might say the whole point of experiencing the love of God in our lives was to inspire us to press further and seek for His approval. It is those that receive and maintain the approval of God who can be sure of their salvation.
The Key to God’s Approval)
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. - Galatians 1:10
If ye love me, keep my commandments. - John 14:15
For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; - Doctrine and Covenants 1:31
So how do we receive the approval of God? The answer is extremely straightforward. You must obey Him. One cannot approve of behavior that they do not advocate for, and God, being the source of all good, can only advocate for what which is good. God can only ever approve of those that follow the good commandments that He has given. God can love the sinner, for love does not require obedience, but God cannot approve of the sinner, for approval does require obedience.
We started this series with the question of how we could obtain the acknowledgement and approval that we crave in life. We have identified that only God can fully provide this approval, not mankind, and now we have concluded that God can only approve of those that follow His commandments. Thus, having the sense of appreciation that we desire is predicated upon our choosing to follow the commandments of God. We can try to argue our way out of this rule, but the heart will remain forever frustrated until we accept and adhere to it.
Recognizing God’s Approval)
But what if we feel that we have been following God’s commandments, yet we still do not feel His approval? What if we suspect He is already speaking His appreciation to us, but we just aren’t attuned to hearing it?
This is entirely possible. Indeed, it is almost certain that God expresses His love to us many times, every day, but that we fail to recognize most, if not all, of His messages.
So how do we pick up on these moments as they are happening? How can we start to understand God’s language better? We’ll dive into that tomorrow. I’ll see you there.
Yesterday I brought up the common sensation we all have of not being appreciated as we ought to be. I examined why others don’t validate us in the way that we wish they would, and I also pointed out that in many cases they literally can’t.
At this point one has to make their peace with a fact of life: you will never receive exactly the validation, recognition, and appreciation that you desire from other people. Some people, some of the time, might say some of the right words, but there will always be some things left unseen, unappreciated, and unsaid.
This realization brings one to a crossroad. On the one hand, you could simply accept this dissatisfaction as a necessary part of life, an unpleasant but unavoidable reality that you just have to bear and move on with. On the other hand, you could start to consider outside solutions. Maybe no other person can give you all the validation that you need, but is it possible that you’ve been looking in the wrong place for it all along?
To choose that satisfaction is impossible is the more cynical option, it is to accept life as inherently broken. Unfortunately, some might aspire to such a cynical view as a show of strength. They might say, “I don’t need anyone else’s approval to be happy.” In my experience, however, simply denying the longing inside me does nothing to make it actually go away. I might say it doesn’t bother me anymore…but really it does. And so long as it’s going to keep bothering me, I may as well see if there’s not an alternative.
And in my contemplating, I have come up with two better, more reliable sources of validation. Today we will look at the first.
One of the problems I mentioned with seeking approval and validation from others is that most of the good we do in life will be imperceptible to those around us. Another reason was that even when our good is recognized, the exact words of affirmation that we need to hear are a personal secret. Only we know exactly what qualities we feel that we most need to be appreciated for.
And so, what better person to provide the specific and targeted validation that we need than our own selves? Of all the people on Earth, only we know all the good that we have done, and only we know what qualities we exercised to do it.
I first considered giving approval and validation to myself after learning about Internal Family Systems, which suggests that your personality exists as several different entities, such as the wounded child who still hurts from a trauma in your past, and the protector who pushes others away in order to protect that child. My therapist guided me through a program in which I, as the authentic self, work with each of these different parts, unburdening them and giving them validation. After a while, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for those hurt and frustrated parts to come and find me, though, I could proactively care for them by letting my authentic self speak words of kindness and praise to them at any time that I wished.
Matters of Concern)
Even after having the idea of giving myself this self-appreciation, I still had my skepticisms about the practice. On the one hand, I suspected that I wouldn’t be satisfied. I felt that what I really wanted was validation from others, people who had said that they cared for me, but then took my contributions to the relationship for granted. How was validating myself supposed to resolve those relationship problems? My other concern was that I would give myself an over-inflated ego. I already felt like I was obsessed with the praise of others, wouldn’t patting myself on the back just extend my narcissism further?
I think that these were valid concerns to have, and I’m glad that I had them in mind from the beginning. Since I knew what dangers to watch out for, I felt I could experiment, and at the first sign of trouble I could abandon the practice altogether.
Thus I moved forward, and though I did not start this practice until recently, much to my surprise I have already seen both of these concerns be emphatically refuted. It is true that I have still felt taken for granted in some of my relationships, but now that I am receiving validation from myself, I no longer feel like I have to get the approval of others. For years these other people have been my only hope for validation, so I had a codependent relationship with them. I haven’t dared to speak my mind, for fear of losing what little I had. Now that I’ve learned that I can meet those needs without them, though, I am finally free to speak up for myself. I can tell them how I feel, and if they respond with hostility, I am perfectly content to end the unhealthy relationship.
And it has been much the same with my other concern. Being able to receive approval and validation from myself has disintegrated the need for the praise of the world. After a showing love and appreciation to myself, I really feel okay with the idea that I might never have the broader love and acclaim that I once dreamed of. As it turns out, it isn’t really fame that I wanted, it was a listening ear, even if only my own.
Recognizing and calling out the good things that I do is now one of my fundamental practices of self-care. It has taken my peace and fulfillment out of the hands of unreliable sources and brought them under my own jurisdiction.
So how exactly do I do this practice? I’m out of time for today, but I’ll spell out the simple steps I follow with tomorrow’s post. Maybe it’ll be useful for you as well.
There is also one other limitation of statistics that makes them a poor crystal ball into your personal future. This is that every statistical survey has to clearly define the criteria that it is measuring for. Success and failure are described in clear, binary terms, which often fail to perfectly capture our nuanced, complicated world.
As an example, most surveys related to addiction seem to define success as simply not having another slip or relapse. People in recovery are surveyed, they answer if they have had a relapse since starting recovery, and that becomes the statistic of recovery. And even if the survey is more in-depth, it tends to only be this narrow, easily digestible slice that gets represented in web articles and everyday conversation.
And as the data shows, it turns out that most addicts who enter recovery will slip at some point in their first year. So, in conclusion, most addicts will fail their recovery and never get better.
Recovery vs Sobriety)
Well, no. It’s not as simple as that. Anyone that has been in close proximity to an addiction recovery program will be very familiar with the statement that “relapse is part of the journey.” Which is to say, that yes, almost everyone will relapse, but no, that doesn’t mean that their recovery journey is a failure.
Recovery is a process, and in most addicts, it means following the program, failing in a moment of weakness, and then recommitting to the program. Over time, rather than all at once, the addict pries off the grip of vice until he finally he can live free of it. Then, at last, he will be sober. When we fixate our surveys on the number of addicts who remain sober in the first year, we seem to be suggesting that sobriety doesn’t come at all unless it comes in that first twelve months.
So, are there addicts who at some point or another quit and never turn back? Yes. In my experience, if addicts are sincere and committed, then many, if not all, will achieve this state. It’s just that the point in the recovery program where this freedom is won is different for every addict. Thus, defining success as who quits cold turkey as soon as they start the program is an arbitrary and unhelpful goal.
Of course, I want to be sensitive to the fact that addicts want to stop acting out immediately. Their spouses want them to stop acting out immediately. Everyone who knows what’s going on with them wants them to stop acting out immediately. So, of course, at the outset everyone is going to want the addict to be in the small percentage who really do stop acting out as soon as they start the program. The problem is that if the addict “fails” at that goal, then the discouragement might make him give up the program entirely, when he would have eventually achieved success if he had kept with it. What is it that really matters? Immediate success, or just success?
What I am hopefully making clear is the difference between sobriety and recovery. Recovery is working the program faithfully and consistently, bit-by-bit freeing the captive soul. Sobriety is the desired fruit of all that labor, which ripens sooner in some lives and later in others, but all can achieve it if they keep working at their recovery.
One Day at a Time)
It is only natural to wonder what one’s chances of obtaining sobriety are but putting too much stock in the reported statistics is not only discouraging, it is deceiving. Immediate sobriety is not the one, true metric of an addict recovering.
If one wants to know if they will be successful in recovery, they have only to ask themselves if they are going to work the program of recovery for this one day. If their answer is yes, and they actually follow through on that, then yes, they are being successful in recovery. And if they can say and do the same tomorrow, then yes, they are in recovery for that day, too.
This, of course, brings us to the famous twelve step mantra “one day at a time.” The idea is that focusing on lengths of time past one’s immediate control is a fruitless effort. Long-term sobriety is not the result of mustering up the courage to be sober for an entire decade, but by mustering up the courage for a single day, one after another. Thus, ironically, most addicts who achieve ten years of sobriety do it by not worrying about the decade. If the addict is to consider months and years and decades, he does it in retrospect, looking backward upon the mountain of sobriety that was raised, almost by accident, one grain of sand at a time.
The odds of success in your recovery are not determined by what other people did in their first year of recovery. That doesn’t matter to you in the least. All that really matters is the decisions that you make for yourself this very day. This is the only metric of success, and in that field no survey has been conducted. You are the one that will record the numbers for yourself, you are the one who will create your own, personal statistics of success, and you are the one who will define what your fate is to be. In the end, success or failure is entirely up to you.
Yesterday I discussed the use of statistics to predict how likely a person in recovery is to maintain sobriety. These sorts of statistics can be discouraging, as they often make it seem like the addict is unlikely to ever obtain lasting sobriety.
I made the case, however, that statistics have their time and place, but cannot be applied in every situation. They are useful for representing the level of uncertainty in the observer, but not for describing the actual state of the observed. Thus, a coin that is covered only exists in one state (heads or tails), but the uncertainty of the observer is divided between two (heads and tails).
Today I want to consider another fact of statistics which makes it unhelpful in determining what your personal future entails. That fact is that statistics are a tool for measuring groups, but not individuals.
The Sad Case of Sally Clark)
There is a tragic real-life example of how the misapplication of a broad statistic to a single individual is both in appropriate and dangerous. Sally Clark was an English woman who lost one son to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) in 1996, and then lost a second son as well in 1998. This was terrible enough, but then it was made worse when Clark was tried for murder. One SIDS death in the family was believable, but two?
As it turned out, there was no concrete evidence to show that Sally Clark had killed either of her two children, but the prosecution brought in Professor Sir Roy Meadow to describe the statistical probability that this mother would have lost two sons to the same rare cause.
Professor Meadow argued that the odds of such an occurrence would be 1 in 73 million, an event so improbable that it could be rejected as a virtual impossibility. Mathematically, he said, Sally Clark had to be a murderer. The jury was convinced, and Sally Clark was sentenced to life in prison.
Four years later, though, it was discovered that the lab reports on the deceased children had omitted clear evidence of the two sons’ deaths being due to natural causes. Clark’s conviction was overturned, and she was released. At this point, though, she had already slipped into a terrible depression, and died shortly thereafter of alcohol poisoning.
Professor Meadow’s application of statistics was torn apart by other mathematicians and statisticians. The numbers he arrived at were simplistic and faulty and he never considered calculating what the likelihood for a mother committing double infanticide is, about 4.5-to-9 times more unlikely than double-SIDS as it turns out! Perhaps most importantly, though, he had made the critical mistake of applying group statistics to an individual.
Consider this, if the odds of a double-SIDS family were genuinely 1 in 73 million, then that would mean for every 73 million mothers you would expect at least one to have lost two children to the phenomenon. 1 in 73 million does not mean that the event does not occur, it means that it does, and you will start seeing multiple occurrences once your population pool is large enough. 73 million is large, but it is not unfathomable for a population. It was inevitable that someone would show up with this situation at some point or another.
By Professor Meadow’s logic we could look at every mother on earth, one at a time, and for each individual conclude that it is too improbable to believe she has lost two children to SIDS. And thus, we would go through the entire population, believing none of them could have suffered that ordeal, when by Meadow’s own statistics there would have been over a hundred women who actually did.
It is the same with addiction recovery. Statistics can define the pattern for a group of addicts, as every group will inherently have a certain likelihood for certain behaviors. But when we apply those likelihoods to the individual we make the subtle, but damning mistake of saying that if something is improbable for everyone, then it is improbable for anyone.
Groups Within Groups)
Statistics can model the group, but they cannot model you. And they especially cannot model you when you consider that inside every group there are more specific subgroups, each with their own accompanying statistics.
By this I mean that most statistics on recovery cover a very broad spectrum of addicts. The odds of sobriety that they give tend to include individuals who have been working a 12-step program for twenty years, and individuals who showed up for the first time today. It includes those that have come of their own volition and those who came only because a judge ordered them to. Clearly not everyone in this broad group is as likely to remain sober as every other.
Every time you take the next step in recovery, you come into a new subgroup, which is represented by better and better odds. Maybe 1-in-10 of all addicts will stick with recovery, but just by returning for the second week you might now belong to a group with a 1-in-9.5 success rate. Do your “step 4 inventory” with another member of your program and you come into another subgroup with even higher levels of recovery. Earn your one-month chip and enter yet another higher-recovery subgroup.
Not to suggest that you are improving your own odds, only that the group statistics are converging more and more to who you actually are. Or at least they would be if the research were conducted down to such granular levels. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Start going to recovery programs for any sustained amount of time and you will quickly see that there is a clear correlation between amount of time working on recovery and length of sobriety.
You Are You)
Hearing discouraging statistics might make you feel like you don’t have a chance of recovery. But never forget that in order to even define the odds researchers must first find a number of successes. They couldn’t say 1-in-10, or 1-in-100, or 1-in-anything until they had found that 1. Never mind what the group pattern might be, the fact remains that there are people who do achieve sobriety, and whatever their methods to get there, it’s safe to assume that they weren’t putting too much stock in “what their odds” were. They got better because they got better. They weren’t 1 in a group, they were 1 in themself, and they decided for themself what that themself was going to be.
Governing your life by statistics is not only a misunderstanding of the science, but also a dangerous game of self-fulfilling prophecy, one that can ironically change the statistics on the subject. There is no statistics on you as an individual. There are statistics on the group, and they are useful for understanding the group, but the group is not you. The group can be documented, but to quote Lawrence of Arabia, for you as an individual “nothing is written.”
In addiction recovery it is natural to wonder what one’s chance of success is. If you’re like me, then shortly after you start a program, you’ll be googling something like “what percent of addicts relapse?” I’ll just tell you right now, the results are not encouraging. Depending on your personal flavor of addiction, your chance of never slipping again might be as low as the single digits. This can be a very discouraging realization, both for the addict and for any loved ones that are involved. It can be enough to make one feel that “once an addict, always an addict.”
But I am here to tell you that statistics like these are next to useless when it comes to predicting what your personal story will be. Something about them rang false to me when I first started recovery, and after walking the journey for several years, I gradually came to understand the reasons why.
Statistics of Uncertainty)
Let’s suppose I hold out a coin in front of you, heads-up, and ask you what the chances are that it is heads-up.
“Well it is heads-up,” you might say. “So 100%.”
“But there are two sides, aren’t there? So isn’t it a 50/50 chance?”
“No, I can see it. It’s 100% heads-up, and 0% tails.”
And you’d be right.
Now suppose I cover the coin with my other hand, but I do not rotate it. Still 100% heads?
“Of course,” you say, “it may be covered, but I still know what state it is in. 100% heads up.”
But now suppose I call our friend in, I show him my closed hands, and I tell him there is a coin underneath. I ask him what is the chance that it is heads.
“50%” he says, “and 50% tails.”
And he is right. But you still know it is 100% heads and you are also right.
You are both right because when we talk percentages and statistics we are not talking about the actual state of the coin, we are talking about the state of our own uncertainty. With your inside knowledge you are 100% certain of what the coin is and our friend, without that knowledge, is 50% certain. The numbers you give represent a state of your own selves and not the coin.
And what of the coin? It just is what it is. It isn’t 25% something, or 50%, or even 100%. It just is heads-up or it isn’t, and no matter of ignorant guessing is going to change what it is, even when that guessing is based on statistically sound principles. And not only is the coin what it is, it is also going to be what it is going to be. The mystery and uncertainty of what a flipping coin will land on is only a side-effect of how we view only a narrow slice of time, moving forward at a gradual rate.
The Statistics of You)
And as much as the coin just is what it is, you just are what you are, too. And as much as the coin is just going to be what it is going to be, you are just going to be what you are going to be as well. When you decide to go to recovery, you don’t split off a hundred separate universes and spin a cosmic roulette wheel, hoping it lands on one of the ten realities where you happen to stay sober. When you decide to go to recovery you just are going to see it through, or you just aren’t.
Outsiders may remain uncertain of whether you will maintain sobriety or not. They are ignorant of your inner state, so the best they can do is estimate your chances as a percentage. But you are not an ignorant outsider. You know what your state is and what it isn’t. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably already know whether you’re going to be acting out later this week or not.
The reason why the statistics didn’t feel like an appropriate fit to me when I started recovery was because I knew my own state. Outsiders didn’t know, but I did. I knew some of my group were only there because their wives made them come, but I wasn’t. I knew some were just going through the motions, but I wasn’t. I knew I was going to faithfully be at my recovery group every Tuesday night, and I knew that I was going to be doing my recovery work every other night of the week. I knew that my commitment was real, and I knew that my intentions were serious.
Now you may not be so certain of yourself over the next month and year and decade, but it is possible to be certain of the now. And unlike flipping a coin multiple times, your behavior in the future is affected your behavior in the past. What you choose today weights you more towards one side for the next day. If you are certain of sobriety today, and you follow through with that, then you will be that much more likely of sobriety tomorrow as well.
The Scope of Statistics)
Statistics have their place in the world. They help in defining the probabilities of what is unknowable, and they are useful for modelling large groups. But you are knowable, at least to yourself, and you are an individual, not a group. We’ve spoken to the first of those points today and we’ll examine the other one tomorrow.
Never forget the wonderful fact that you are a person who has free will. You get to choose. You are not a spinning roulette wheel. You are the card that draws itself, and the coin that turns itself. You get to decide your own outcome.
Thus far I have appealed to the mind and to the heart for why the addict needs to bring his secret shame to light through confession. I have shared how my own self-delusions prevented me from confessing for a time and how I was saved after I finally broke through them.
My testimony would be incomplete, however, if I did not bring up what the words of scripture have said upon the matter. It is not only good philosophy and psychology to confess, it is good religion.
And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing: - Leviticus 5:5
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy. - Proverbs 28:13
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God...we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: - Daniel 3:3-5
In Leviticus, the book of the law, the Israelites were commanded to confess. It was one of the key steps towards forgiveness, and it was meant to be understood that cleansing would not occur until this ritual had been observed. Thus, by doctrine itself we are shown that we must confess.
Then, in the book of Proverbs we are told that he who does not confess shall not prosper. The book of Proverbs is not a statue of law like Leviticus. It is a collection of wisdoms observed from Solomon’s life experience. Thus, by the words of wise counsel we are again told that we must confess.
And finally, in the book of Daniel, we see the prophet in a moment of personal spiritual practice. Daniel is not performing a formal ritual or giving an address to others, he is being compelled by his own conscience in a personal act. Something in his heart just tells him that he needs to be “confessing my sin and the sin of my people” (verse 20). Thus, by the example of righteous people we also see that we must confess.
By doctrine, by wisdom, and by example, the scriptures make clear that the sinner who wishes to be clean must make their confession.
“But,” one might say, “couldn’t this only mean confession to God? Do the scriptures really say that I have to bring imperfect human beings into the matter? I’ll just work things out with God and that should be enough.” Well, let’s see if the scriptures do have anything to say on that matter.
Confession to Others)
Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. - Matthew 3:5-6
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. - James 5:16
Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. - Acts 19:18
Here we have three verses that speak to the need for confession to others is addition to God. The passage in Matthew definitely seems to be suggesting that those who were baptized of John the Baptist were making known to him exactly what wrongs they were having washed away by his baptism. The passages in James and Acts make even more explicit the fact that the early saints were confessing “one to another,” and doing so “openly.”
In my personal experience, the need to confess to another human soul is due to our misconception that our faults make us incapable of being loved by another person. We need to break that illusion, and the only way to do so is to confess to another and see how they respond. Some of the most powerful moments of my life have been sitting in a twelve-step group where I have shared the deepest, most vulnerable parts of myself, and then had my brothers look me in the eye and say “Abe, me too. I’ve been right there myself and I want you to know that I still love you. You may still be in the ugly parts of your journey, but I absolutely respect you for taking this step in the right direction.”
Yes, these are messages that we need to hear from God directly, and at special moments He does say them directly to us. But in my experience, He usually reminds me of these messages through His living angels, the brothers and sisters all around me. When I find a safe place, among godly people, and I make my confession to them, then they are flooded with the love of God and speak to me the words that He gives them.
The Promises of Christ)
We have looked at the words and examples of prophets and apostles, both in the Old Testament and in the New. We have considered my personal experiences as well. But what of the words of Christ, himself? What promises has he made to those who come forward and make confession?
Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. - Luke 17:33
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. - Ezekiel 36:26
No doubt these verses have several applications, but one of them is most certainly to this matter of confession. I have already mentioned how the addict tries to hide his shame because he is trying to preserve his sham life. Christ assures us that the preservation of the old will ironically end in its destruction. The only way forward is to give up the old life. Once we shine a light on the secret, then the secret life dies, replaced with one of authenticity. Lose your life of fearful self-management and give birth to a new one of faithful surrender. The stony heart comes out and one of flesh takes its place.
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. - Luke 9:23
What a fitting description for the addict who overcomes his fears and rationalizations and embraces confession! To do this he must overcome his every basic nature, the pattern he has lived his whole life by, the very reasoning of his own mind. He must “deny himself,” take up the cross of the thing he dreads most, confession, and follow Jesus into that crucible.
Paul communicated this same idea to the Galatians when he wrote “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” (Galatians 2:20). Denying ourselves and taking up our cross leads to being “crucified with Christ.” Many the addict has said that he felt like making his confession would kill himself. That sounds like hyperbole until you consider it in this spiritual sense. They were actually right; it would kill them. The carnal them! But in that crucifixion, they discovered Christ living within them. Through and in and of him, they were saved.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. - Matthew 11:30
I mentioned in my last post that as terrible as the consequences of confession might seem, they end up being miraculously less than what we expect. First, because almost every addict finds that the world and nature are kinder and more forgiving than they had given them credit for. Their sins had made them cynical, and they had then projected that cynicism onto the world. And secondly, because even when a burden does come, it is tremendously alleviated by the sense of new life within.
And this is exactly what Christ promises us in this verse from Matthew. His yoke and his burden may have some weight, but they are easy and light, certainly far more so than the iron shackles we’ve been dragging around thus far!
In the end, I did not make the decision to confess because I was convinced of the promises in these scriptures. I had heard them, and at times they did stir something within me, but I was far beyond faith when I finally gave in to the truth. I did not unveil my shame because I expected salvation, I did it because I was finally willing to accept damnation.
But, as it turns out, these verses make no requirement for the disciple to have the right expectations when he makes his confession. I found out for myself that you can take this step for virtually none of the right reasons, and mercy will still swoop down and make its claim upon you. It was only in hindsight, after I had already had the reality of these promises come true in my life, that I read these verses and realized that I had engaged in a contract with God without ever realizing it. In hindsight I can testify with all my heart that these promises are true. They were true for me, right down to the smallest detail, and they will be true for you!