Misguided Strength

A Surprising Discovery)

Early in my recovery journey I went into the mountains to attend a three-day spiritual retreat based on the writings of John Eldredge. While there, I discovered a deeper and more consistent connection with God than I had ever known before. I gained an understanding of my past and a roadmap for my future. One of my takeaways was that I needed to start writing. I came back home and started a story blog, later expanding into this spiritual blog and a novel.

My initial motivation for writing was simply to do something creative, something that I had loved in my youth but abandoned somewhere along the way. Much to my surprise, though, the act of writing also became one of my greatest tools in recovery. As I wrote consistently, I felt my desire to lust decrease to a level where I could easily turn it down. I hadn’t started writing to gain sobriety, but that was what had happened even so.

I found this a strange, if welcome, phenomenon, and I started paying close attention to my behavior and feelings. Through my self-examination I believe I found the link between my writing and sobriety. Perhaps this concept will help you on your own journey.

Energy Costs)

One thing I noticed was that my writing took real energy. Sometimes I would try writing when I was tired because I thought it would be a calm and sedentary activity, but it didn’t work. I really struggled to compose anything, and whatever I did get down was of inferior quality. I found that I did my best writing when I was still fresh and full of energy. I might not work up a sweat with my writing, but it does take real mental energy.

And this, I discovered, was the same with lust. Lust takes a story of energy, even when one is only sitting at a computer. It expends your strength and leaves you weaker than you were before. Thus, I found that my act of creativity was burning the same fuel that was used for lust. When I gave my energy to my writing, there simply wasn’t any left over for vice.

This made me consider how one of my earliest triggers for lust was being bored as a teenager. Sitting around with nothing to do had left me with pent up energy that needed some sort of outlet. At first, I had spent it in my writing, but when lust presented itself as an alternative, I moved over to that, leaving my writing behind. I was able to do one of these activities but not both, and if I didn’t want to do one then I simply needed to do the other.

The Strength of Man)

I don’t think that my situation is unique, either. As I consider men as a whole, I can’t help but notice that so many of us have problems with anger and lust, two high-energy vices. This has led me to theorize that God has given men great strength, in order that we might do a great work. But too many of us are not seeking what that great work is. We miss our calling, but we still have this great strength within us and it’s got to come out in some way.

If this is true, then one of the key things for real recovery is for a man to find what his calling is and spend his strength in it. Exactly what that calling would be is something that he must discover personally for himself. For me it was writing, but that won’t be the right calling for everyone.

One thing I am curious about is whether this phenomenon of pent up energy leading to addiction holds true for women as well. The addiction recovery groups I have been part of have been exclusively male, and obviously I am a male myself. I would defer any insights on the addiction patterns of women to someone who is more directly connected there.

But for men, at least, I think there is some real truth here. I am still evaluating this theory, and perhaps my opinions will evolve as to how energy, productivity, and addiction relate to one another, but I am at least certain that it is always good to seek one’s calling and put one’s strength into it. I am certain that doing so can only help one in their sobriety.

If you have desired sobriety for yourself, but been unable to attain it, I would recommend that you take some time to consider what calling God has for you, and how you can pour your heart and soul into fulfilling it. Join a group, work the program, and find your purpose in life. It is a wonderful way to live!

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Five

A Pattern of Power)

I have been discussing ways that we can find the willpower to fight temptation, even when our brains have been damaged by our addictions. I have covered doing all that we can to avoid even encountering our temptations, but sooner or later they will find us even so, and then we must suddenly find strength and mental reasoning that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.

This immediately suggests that we must have a strength that is beyond our own. An external strength and reasoning that will slay the dragons that we fail to overcome by ourselves.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Matthew 18:20

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me - Philippians 4:13

These verses provide us a pattern for accessing just such an outer strength, a pattern that I have found most effective. In the first verse we are promised by Christ himself that when we gather together in his name, he will dwell among us. In the second verse we are told by Paul that Christ strengthens him to be able to do all things. Thus, gathering together invites Christ’s spirit, and Christ’s spirit lifts us to be able to do what we could not do on our own. This is a pattern that I have been able to make use of in my own life and I have come to value it greatly.

Group Strength)

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that there was a special power when addicts came together as a group to lay down their burdens and encourage one another. A room full of individual failures could somehow churn out mass success. Ever since that realization, groups have sprung up all across the world and for all manner of different addiction recoveries. I, myself, regularly participate in a twelve-step group for pornography addiction, and I can attest that there really is a secret strength in numbers.

Mathematically, it doesn’t seem to make sense. As an analogy, imagine if our addiction was our debt and our resolve was our assets. Then an addict, by definition, is someone whose debt outweighs his assets, someone who is at a net negative. Now if you have ten such men, all with a net negative, and you combine them all together, what would you expect? Net negative of course! A negative plus a negative plus a negative plus a negative–and so on–can only result in a greater negative.

But, counter-intuitively, that’s just not how it works in practice. The men in my group bring all of their problems with them to the recovery group, yet somehow the group doesn’t feel weighed down by the shared burden. Instead, weight is collectively lifted up by the group and tossed aside.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the scriptures cited above are true. When we gather together to do the holy work of refining our souls, Christ is there in our midst. We come with all our collective debts, but he has a wealth of assets, enough to compensate for all our shortcomings and more.

A Phone Call Away)

And this same strength can be called upon in moments of duress as well. We addicts have learned that we can recreate the spirit of the group with a simple phone call to another brother, right when we’re being faced by our temptation.

We might feel powerless in the face of the temptation when on our own. We might feel that we are doomed to give in. But if in that moment we can work up just enough resolve to make a phone call, then as soon as we start sharing our burden with a brother, that same unseen power starts rising within, enabling us to do the very thing we couldn’t just a few moments before.

In fact, we don’t even need to have decided to overcome our temptation when we first make the call. We can simply make the call without any commitment whether we will remain sober after we hang up or not. We only need to have the strength to dial the number, and then the strength to go the rest of the way will follow. If I can’t decide to be sober on my own, I can still decide to step out and get help. And when I chose to step out and get help, then I can decide to be sober, too.

The power that comes from reaching out to a fellow addict in the moment of temptation is twofold. On the one hand, we are currently having our mental willpower, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, overrun by our powerful temptation. Our mind isn’t working how it should, but in the fellow addict that we call there is still a properly functioning mind. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t currently being overrun like ours is. Thus, they are able to bring the higher reasoning and persuasion that our own mind cannot provide. Later, when they are the one being overrun by temptation and we are back to sure footing, then we are able to provide the same benefit to them.

The second power is, of course, the light of Christ that I have already been discussing. For when a brother reaches out to me to help, I really do feel that it is more than my own mental faculty that I am able to bring to bear on the matter. I have felt an external love and wisdom flow into me, helping me to say and share the things that will speak directly to the soul of my brother. And I have felt the exact same divine presence shared with me when I have called for help, too.

Growing Ranks)

I don’t know why the power of Christ comes to us in this way, but it just does. I have tried many times to pray in isolation for his power and I have been very disappointed in the results. On the other hand, I have never gone to a recovery group meeting without feeling Christ’s power overflowing me. I have never reached out to a brother in recovery without feeling the strength to do what I couldn’t before. It seems to me that this is just how he wants it. He wants me to reach out to others, and he gave his instructions in the verse from Matthew so that I would know that I needed to do it.

At this point I’ve discussed how we can find self-control through preventative measures, and how we can access the strength of Christ and a larger group. I have also explained how exercising our willpower in daily tasks can increase our resolve over time. This brings me to the end of all the techniques that I wanted to share with you. Tomorrow, we’ll review them all together. I’ll see you there.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Three

The Difficulty of Doing)

Yesterday I shared about the studies that have been done on the minds of addicts, and how the prefrontal cortex has been shown to have diminished activity in their brains. Where in a healthy brain appetite can be ruled by reason, in the addict things go the other way round.

And this is true in so very much of the addict’s life. In fact, very few addicts have only one uncontrollable behavior. They might have their primary vice, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive eating, or gambling, but they probably have shades of several others as well. Once the prefrontal cortex is damaged by one behavior, then it is stunted in how it deals with all of the others. Maybe the addict isn’t as totally helpless in these arenas as they are in their main addiction, but things are probably getting worse on those fronts, rather than better.

This might seem a depressing fact, but actually there is a nugget of hope in it. The fact that the willpower has varying degrees of efficacy in the addict’s life means that it isn’t dead entirely. If the prefrontal cortex was totally eradicated, then all areas would be overrun by wanton excess. There wouldn’t be a difference between small temptations and large, they would all have their way entirely if the opposition was a total zero.

And this is a positive fact that every addict needs to appreciate. Yes they are damaged, yes their willpower is compromised, and yes they might be losing ground, but the war isn’t over yet. Their forces are not completely in retreat. There is still some strength left in them, and if there is some strength, then it can be exercised.

Building Strength)

If you were to have the muscles completely removed from your arm, you would never be able to use it again, no matter how hard you tried. But if your muscles were only damaged and weakened, you could regain use of them through many repetitions of weight-lifting. By flexing your muscles against increasing levels of resistance, you would gain the ability to move your arm like you could before.

And it is just the same with the prefrontal cortex. The same studies that showed that this region of the brain is stunted by addiction, also showed that it can be restored again to its usual activity. Brain scans of addicts who have walked the path of recovery reveal that a once-damaged mind does heal back to its proper and powerful state.

For this healing to occur, there are two things that must occur. The first is what I have already begun to describe: the addict must exercise his self-control to make it stronger. The second is that the source of damage must be stopped. Let’s look at these criteria one at a time.

Exercise)

As I mentioned above, some parts of our lives are still active battlegrounds. We have smaller struggles where the temptation is still mild enough that our prefrontal cortex can still grapple evenly with it. This is our gym. This is where we can start exercising our mind and regaining control.

When I first began my addiction recovery journey, the counselor overseeing my group asked each of us to make specific goals every week and then follow up on how we had done with them. He told us that we should choose goals that were well within our power to achieve, but which would stretch us a little beyond our usual day-to-day behavior. He also insisted that we needed to take these goals as sacred commitments. We had spent years teaching ourselves that we couldn’t be trusted, now it was time to convince ourselves of the opposite.

Small, daily commitments often seem inconsequential in and of themselves, but so does lifting a small dumbbell repeatedly, and yet we all know that this serves a useful purpose. No one lifts the dumbbell simply for the sake of lifting the dumbbell. They do it to increase their strength and health in all the other areas of their life. They lift the dumbbell so that they can lift what matters later on. So, too, small, daily commitments that we consistently follow through on are how we do the weight-lifting of the mind.

So, take some time to identify some simple, regular practices that are not currently doing, but that you would like to implement, and make a solemn commitment to change. It might be something as simple as making your bed in the morning. Follow through on that commitment, whatever it is, over and over, until it becomes a matter of simple habit. Then choose an additional healthy practice to adopt and start working on that, too.

Just Stop)

I do realize that obtaining sobriety so that your mind can recover so that you can overcome temptation might sound like a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can you obtain sobriety if you don’t first have the recovered mind to overcome the temptation? It seems an impossible riddle.

Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task, it’s just not immediately apparent how it can be done. Throughout the rest of this study, we will be examining the outside-the-box thinking that helps us to do just this. For now, though, let me explain the general idea of what these techniques will accomplish.

We are physically able to deny our addictions, we just are lacking in the willpower to fight against temptation. What we need to do is bypass the need for willpower altogether. If we let the battle get to the point of mental arguments, we are going to lose. Just as how our addiction is a matter of habit, we need to build new habits that circumvent the addiction. Then it doesn’t matter if our mind is compromised, because we won’t actually be putting any thought and reasoning into the matter. We want to make our sobriety become easy and automatic, based upon an already-made decision, so that we don’t have to try and remake the decision when in the face of temptation. Starting tomorrow, we will begin to explore how we accomplish this. I’ll see you then.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 2:15-17

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Why would God even put the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? Did He want them to partake of it? Was the Fall necessary so that Adam and Eve could propagate children and give rise to each of us? But would that mean God’s plan of good required an act of evil first?!

I have heard all these questions about the story of creation, and I’ve even asked a few of them myself. But they are questions that have no answer in our scriptural accounts, and thus dwelling on them can only be an agitation and distress. The fact is, we really have very little information about what happened in that Garden, and it is entirely conceivable that we are missing 99% of the bigger story. There could very well have been much more drama between God, Satan, Adam, and Eve, but we were only given a very narrow window of it. Thus anyone that tries to extrapolate all the details from these small pieces is on a vain quest.

But I don’t believe that this narrow-slice view is an accident. When it comes to stories like these, there is a great strength in brevity. It makes them more universal. By stripping away any extraneous details we are left with a message that is applicable to each of us, no matter how different we are. Like Adam, each of us recognizes that there was forbidden fruit that we were warned against, that we were told would destroy us, that we obediently avoided for a time…but which we ultimately did partake of. And when we felt something break inside of us and weren’t sure where to go from there, this story pointed the way.

Leading to Water- 1 Samuel 17:32, 38-40

And David said to Saul, Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.
And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.
And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.
And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

COMMENTARY

And David said to Saul, Let no man’s heart fail; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine
When Goliath taunted the Israelite armies there was no one in the ranks willing to face him. Israel was in need of a heroic warrior but no one was answering the call. Now once upon a time that hero might have been King Saul himself, but Saul’s great warrior days were long passed. So someone new was needed to take the mantle, and it was into this vacancy that David entered.

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head
And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; And David put them off him
And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook
Saul was grateful to receive David into this heroic role, and tried to give him his own tools of the trade. But they were ill-fitting for David and he couldn’t make do with them. Saul was dressing up David to fight the giant in close-combat. Maybe that approach would have worked for Saul, but Saul wasn’t the one going to fight the giant. David was, and David worked better at range. David defended his flocks with sling and stone, not sword and shield.
This was David’s calling now and he needed to go about it is own way, with the strengths he had developed himself, with the skills God had bestowed on him.
There is a great temptation for mentors to hover over, to micromanage, and to make sure things are done the “right way.” But so long as the protégé never finds their own “right” way, they can never realize their full potential. Sooner or later everyone else must leave the room and leave the would-be hero alone with God. That is when one really learns what they are made of.

Dealing With Failure- Mosiah 4:27, Isaiah 28:10

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:

COMMENTARY

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order
It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength
Line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little
I greatly appreciate the pragmatism in these verses. There is sincerely committing to improving ourselves one step at a time, and there is overextending ourselves with unrealistic promises.
When we start to feel the reality of God manifesting in us it is a very exciting experience, and we can easily get carried away with all the good things we intend to do. In a moment of rapture we might very well promise God everything. We will be His perfect, faithful child now, never to stray again. And in that moment we fully believe we can deliver on such a promise. To be fair, if we were to maintain that same state of rapture forever, we probably really could keep that promise, too!
But we don’t…and we don’t.
No, after each spiritual awakening there follows an awakening back to the old us. And it is that old us that needs to be changed. And that change is not accomplished by demanding perfection at once, but by line upon line. Yes, demand change of yourself, but also be practical about it!

Dealing With Failure- Personal Example #3

I am sure Satan is pleased when I do not commit to improve myself and instead accept complacency. But I also believe that he is pleased when I do make promises, but they are ones I cannot keep.

So many times I have tried to commit myself to perfection–“I will never do this thing again”–and so many times I have failed. Then I have said to myself “okay, so apparently last time wasn’t the last time…but this one has to be! So this time I’ll just have to screw up more moral resolve than before. I just have to grit my teeth and draw up more spiritual energy than last time to make this the most excellent commitment I can, one that would carry through forever!”

But then…I have slipped again. And what did I think then? Well, clearly I had to somehow find another great well of spiritual resolve within me, one even greater than the “even greater” last one…or else I obviously wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding this time either.

Over and over this pattern continued until I was all dried up. I simply could not find any more “even greater” wells of spiritual resolve. I couldn’t keep outperforming myself endlessly. So I became disheartened. I didn’t believe myself and the promises I made. It seemed that the best pledge I could come up with was meaningless, and I began to believe that I simply couldn’t improve. Other people could, but I couldn’t. I was stuck.

And I remained stuck until I realized there was a better way. God interrupted my spiral to show me there was an “even greatest” well that I could be making use of. One that wouldn’t ever fail me.

Dealing With Failure- Proverbs 3:5, 1 Corinthians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 2:5

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

COMMENTARY

Lean not unto thine own understanding
The weakness of God is stronger than men
Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God
I have previously spoken of how I have sometimes been too hard on myself when I slip, and as I’ve considered that negative self-talk I have realized that it is a misguided attempt to control my behavior through fear. I am trying to force myself to be better via the tools of shame and embarrassment.
And this is me relying on my own strength, trying to control things according to my own power. In this effort I am utilizing the same forms of coercion that mankind has relied on through all of history to get what they want. Fear and shame are techniques that we continue to fall back on even though they are hugely ineffective. They are techniques that we use as a substitute for genuine power and confidence.
But as these verses suggest, there is a better way. There is another source of strength that each of us has access to, one that is greater than any mortal strength. So now the question is, how do we stop relying on our own power to improve ourselves, and utilize God’s instead?

A Surety of Truth- Matthew 7:24-27

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

COMMENTARY

A foolish man built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it
Sooner or later, we all seem to have a moment in life where the house of cards we carefully built comes crashing down all at once. It could be because of our own folly, or because we put our trust in unworthy sources, or simply due to unforeseen storms. In any case, if we are built something unstable, then there is nothing to catch us as we fall, and so we drop until we hit rock bottom.
And often in these circumstances we don’t even think that there’s any problem until everything falls apart. So long as everything is still standing upright, we believe they always will.

Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
And the rain descended, and the floods came; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

The difference between being built upon the rock and being built upon the sand is whether we are built upon our own power, or upon that of a higher being. The simple truth is that we can do our absolute, genuine best….and that just isn’t good enough. That’s not a criticism of any person, it is a fact of being a part of the human race. The last thing we want is to be limited to our own best. Not when His best is an option instead.