Addiction as an Ally: Part Two

Goodbye Forever?)

Yesterday I discussed how our addict self is trying to do something useful: help us through our great sorrows in life, but it does it in an unhealthy way. This means we should unequivocally reject its suggestions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fact that it was trying to solve a real problem.

And for as much as we might like to say goodbye to the addict-self forever, it isn’t going to just pack up and leave. Even when we are solid in our sobriety, the addiction will still be there, putting thoughts and ideas in our heads that we don’t want. We may be able to maintain some boundaries with it, but we won’t be able to block it out entirely.

At some point or another we’re going to have to figure out what our long-term relationship with our addiction is going to be. How are we going to deal with its continual calls for our attention? Is it really healthiest to pretend that a real and constant part of ourselves just doesn’t exist for the rest of our lives?

The Inner Roles)

The therapist over my addiction recovery group taught us about Internal Family Systems, which is a process where we identify the different parts that live inside of us. There is the part that is a wounded child, the part that is the protector, the part that wants to make sure you’re having a good time, and even a part that tries to manage and regulate all the others! Also, there is the addict self, the part that tries to cope with stress in the easiest, most readily available way.

In our group work, we would try to identify and distinguish these different parts and see how they each tended to get out of bounds. The manager was being a cruel taskmaster, or the protector was being abrasive to everyone nearby, or the wounded child was establishing unhealthy relationships with others in a needy search for love. And, of course, the addict was trying to get the body to do things that the other parts found deeply offensive.

Having recognized how these parts were over-stepping their bounds, it was now our job to have a little chat with them, to hear their concerns and guide them back to their proper function. And we were to do this with all of the parts, yes, even including the addict.

Listening to the addict helped me to better understand his plight. So much of his misbehavior was motivated by pure fear. He was terrified of us being abandoned and alone, he felt like it would kill us if we stayed in the lonely and depressed places that we so often found ourselves in. He saw how our negative feelings caused real pain, and he really wanted those to be taken care of. Understanding that, I realized that my addict-self still has a role to play in my well-being. To be clear, I don’t mean that acting out on my addict’s impulses has a role to play in my well-being but responding to his concerns does.

So, I gave my addict-self a new job. I told him that I was going to take the reins from now on, but I needed him to let me know when things in life were getting out of hand. He was to be the lifeguard, watching for danger in the water. When he saw a danger, he was to raise the alarm. He might have ideas about how to deal with the problem, but he doesn’t get to carry those plans out anymore. He just lets me know about the problem, and I make an intentional and healthy action to address it. As I consistently and quickly respond to the issues, he starts to learn that he can trust me in the driver’s seat.

In Practical Life)

I’ve been using a lot of metaphor, but what do I actually mean in practical life? What I mean is that some days I suddenly notice a sharp increase in the number and intensity of lustful temptations that I face. Things were pretty calm beforehand, with me only needing to check the occasional stray thought or gaze, but suddenly it seems that my triggers have been turned into overdrive!

And as I have observed myself, these sudden spikes in temptation are typically not random. They tend to occur when I am feeling rejected, or lonely, or scared, or any other powerfully negative emotion. They come when I feel like the world is starting to slip out of control, like things might take a turn that I don’t want, that I may end up in places that I don’t want to be.

These spikes in temptation might occur when the bank account is too low and I worry whether we can make ends meet. They might happen when my wife and I have a fight and I think we won’t be able to patch things together this time. They show up when I get passed up for promotion and work and believe that my efforts will never be appreciated.

This sudden increase of temptation is my addict-self sounding the alarm. Him suddenly trying to look for an escape tells me that the pressure is getting too high inside. I need to address the situation or I will drown in anxiety.

I just don’t deal with it by acting out anymore. I deal with it by poring over the financial data and coming up with a budget I can believe in, and by having the hard conversations with my wife, and by deciding whether I need to find a new job where my skills are appreciated. I don’t let the issue remain hanging over me, because my addict-self has warned me that it is too much.

And then, when I take the decisive action, the temptations fade away. Yes, the addict-self wanted to deal with the stress in a particular way, but he will quiet down as long as it was taken care of in some way.

Apply to Self)

If you’ve gained some sobriety in life and have decent stability, but you keep being aggravated by random spikes of temptation, maybe it’s worth considering whether this same pattern exists in you as well. Maybe your addict-self is trying to tell you that something in life is off, that a basic need of yours isn’t being met, that you’re pushing yourself too hard. And if so, you only ignore him at your own peril.

Certainly, I would never say that you should give in to your addiction, but there is a wisdom in becoming curious about what is behind the things the addiction is saying. I’ve developed a sort of annoyed-but-attentive relationship to my own addict-self. It’s complicated, but honestly, I think I’ve found a way that he and I can work together for my better future. Hopefully you can with yours as well.

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 Four

Impossible, but Temporarily So)

During the past few days, I have discussed the addict who has fallen to his temptations time and time again, yet still thinks that next time he’ll somehow pull through. I made the case that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that all of our desire and willpower combined are not enough to prevent us from doing the things we despair of. When we act out our addiction, our base and thoughtless impulses are bringing the whole self along for the ride, even if some of those parts are kicking and screaming against it!

I have also shared how this is in large part due to the stunted prefrontal cortex that develops in the mind of the addict. One who has given in to a harmful habit for an extended period of time literally has less mental willpower than one who has not. To adapt to this fact, we must consider techniques that will help us avoid our temptations, rather than trying to fight them head-on. But before I get into that, I do want to offer one word of encouragement in regard to facing temptation and overcoming it.

I have made the case that the addict has some situations where he will give into temptation, even if he doesn’t want to. We don’t like that fact, but it is a fact, nonetheless. I want to reiterate a fact that I shared just yesterday, though, which is that it doesn’t have to always be that way. Absolutely we can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, build up moral fortitude, break habits, and get to the point where the same temptations that would have overwhelmed us can now be rejected entirely. Many former addicts have healed their minds and their souls in just this way, and we can, too, but in order to survive long enough to do so, we will need to employ these more preventative tactics that I am about to discuss.

If and Then)

Let us suppose that at last we are able to admit that we are not in such control of ourselves as we would like to think. Let us suppose that we have accepted that given certain situations we will give in to temptation. This does not have to be a statement of hopelessness. It can instead be the first part of an if-then rule that preserves our safety.

If I cannot browse the internet late at night by myself without viewing pornography, then I will not browse the internet late at night by myself. If I cannot walk by the pub without going in for a drink, then I will not walk by the pub. If I cannot go to that restaurant without ordering the chocolate cake, then I won’t go to that restaurant anymore.

If I’m serious about my recovery, then I’m not going to put myself into the same position of failure that I have succumbed to time and time again. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll just defeat temptation in battle, I’m going to secure victory by preventing the battle from ever occurring.

By understanding the parameters and preconditions of our acting out, we can stop worrying about how we will face temptation and instead focus our efforts further upstream. If you’ve let it get to the point that you’re alone in your office with your hands hovering over the keyboard, or sitting on the stool talking to the barkeep, or roving your eyes over the menu, you’ve probably already lost. The time to fight was when you first started going to the place of temptation. You may currently lack the resolve to resist the tantalizing ad on your computer, the smell of the beer, the atmosphere of the restaurant, but you probably did have the resolve thirty minutes earlier to say, “I’m going to bring my laptop out into the family room where everyone can see me,” or “I’m going to see if my friends want to play golf instead,” or “I’m going to try that other restaurant today.”

This is true, because even though the prefrontal cortex of the addict brain has been diminished, it has not died completely. The addict still is capable of higher reasoning, just not when they are not in the face of great temptation. By exercising their reason at a time when the distasteful appetite is sleeping, they can avoid waking the beast entirely.

The Lever)

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

One of the most basic components of engineering is the lever. It is a simple machine whereby a relatively small force in one place can be magnified into a multiplied force somewhere else. One may not have enough strength to move a heavy rock directly, but through the magnification of a lever, their strength can end up indirectly moving the rock even so.

Does it matter if you don’t have the willpower to turn down temptation if you do have the willpower to avoid the temptation in the first place? In either case, haven’t you effectively overcome your addiction in that moment? A choice, only made indirectly made through another choice, is still your choice.

It takes some time an observation, but if you examine your life and your addiction behaviors, you will notice that there are certain situations and events that tend to be precursors to those actions. With a little thoughtful effort, you can circumvent those situations and events, and will already make great progress towards sobriety.

But of course, even this is not a complete solution. If we circumvent every opening for the addiction, soon we will experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Cravings will arise, even without our usual triggers to set them off. Sooner or later, we’ve got to deal with that matter of resolve in the face of temptation. And I’ll tell you right now, there will never be an easy win here. It is always going to be a difficult, uphill battle. But at least we’ve cornered the enemy to this one place. So next we will examine how we rely on a willpower other than our own in such moments. We’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.

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.

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

A Sudden Thoughtlessness

Yesterday I described the experience of an addict desperately wanting to stop his addiction yet finding himself diving headlong into it even so. The addict knows perfectly well that he has the physical capability to put away the needle, close the laptop, skip the dessert line, or walk past the pub, and he knows he has all the reasons in the world to do exactly that…but he just doesn’t. In the moments of anticipation, the addict remains convinced that things will be different this time. In the moment of action, though, he is proved wrong again.

How could this happen?

Most addicts throw their hands up in exasperation. They have absolutely no clue! They would love to know the answer to that question themselves! It makes just as little sense to them as it does to everyone else. In fact, it makes even less sense, because they know better than anyone that their resolve was real and true just an hour ago! They, more than anyone, know just how far they fell and how quickly.

How could you choose to do this?

The addict insists that they didn’t. But then they admit that obviously they did. Again, it makes no sense to them. They thought they had already made their choice: they would never do this thing again. But then the choice was undone, and seemingly without their permission. But how can they say it wasn’t by their permission? Whose else would it have been?

What were you thinking?

Here the addict might blink their eyes blankly. Honestly, now that they think about it, they really weren’t thinking about anything at all. At the moment they didn’t consider why they were giving in to the temptation or if they should do so…they just went ahead without any reasoning or thought process at all. Or in some cases, it might have briefly occurred to them that they had all manner of reasons not to give in, but all those thoughts felt dull and meaningless and were quickly ushered offstage.

And this is the experience that seems most puzzling, because beforehand the addict had created an airtight argument against the addiction, a series of facts and principles meant to convince himself to stay away from his vice forever. But that depth of logic and reason had abandoned him when it came to make his case. In the moment of decision, it had felt like his rational, reasonable self was addressing a brain-dead jury. Where did the addict’s mind go at the time when it mattered most?

This question might seem an aggravation to the addict, but it is actually a wonderful thing to settle upon, for this is the key to understanding the true nature of his addiction. This phenomenon is so consistent in the addict, and so prevalent across all addicts, that there really must be a reason behind it.

Playing Without a Full Deck)

Thankfully, researchers picked up on this pattern and they dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of it. Through a series of studies, they found the answer. What they uncovered was that our addictions do not only cause emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves, but they also have a clear and measurable effect upon our very brains. The brain of the addict has been shown to have drastically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, as if it had been severely injured.

If you’ve never heard of this fact before, feel free to do a quick web search for “addiction and the prefrontal cortex.” You will find all manner of scientific papers on the subject, such as this one.

The idea that the brain of the addict would be different from that of a sober person might be quite alarming. Most addicts don’t feel like their minds are working differently, but the science is clear. The brain scan of a sober person is completely different from that of the addict.

And to be clear, this phenomenon of different mental activity is not limited to addicts who have been using brain-altering drugs. The research has found that even when the compulsive behavior introduces no foreign chemicals whatsoever, such as the habitual viewing of pornography, there is still a decisive erosion of the prefrontal cortex. The implication seems to be that it is the act of living our addiction itself that causes the damage to this part of the brain.

And just what is the prefrontal cortex used for? Well, it is the region of the brain from which comes all of our higher reasoning. It is what provides our rational, calculated thinking, so we don’t just operate from pure instinct and reflex. It is what allows us to set goals and sharpen our focus.

To have a damaged prefrontal cortex means to lose one’s ability to apply reasoning over appetite. It means to give up deliberate decision-making and revert instead to habitual instinct. It means to be highly susceptible to suggestion. It means to have very little mental strength in the face of great desire.

Sound familiar?

The addict is caught in a vicious cycle. Back in his past, probably long before he felt that his behavior was a real problem, he engaged in practices that eroded the part of his brain necessary for higher reasoning. By the time he became aware that he had a problem, his ability to turn down the temptation had already been severely stripped down, leading him to act out again, which only eroded his higher reasoning still further. He is caught in a downward spiral of having less and less control over his choices.

The addict is playing a game of poker, but with only half the cards he is supposed to, and in every round the addiction will call his bluff.

Is There Any Hope?)

This may sound like a terminal diagnosis. How can one exercise “mind over matter” when the physical matter of the mind has been damaged? Does this mean that the addict is doomed to a life of acting out?

Well, no. Happily, the research has also shown that the damage to the prefrontal cortex is not total, meaning it has not progressed in the addict to the point that he literally cannot make his own choices at all. Also, the research has shown that the damage is not permanent, meaning that once the addict’s brain has been stunted it does not necessarily have to remain so.

But how can the addict strengthen and repair his mind? We’ll dive into those questions tomorrow, detailing exactly what the addict needs to do to get the desired healing. I’ll see you next time as we explore these subjects.

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

An Unfixable Flaw)

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19

The universal paradox that every addict faces is the notion that they must stop acting out, but they can’t. They have tried to stop so many times before only to repeatedly let themselves down. They are overcome with a terrible sense of powerlessness, a belief that they are forever destined to do the very things that they cannot accept.

And what makes this situation even more frustrating is that part of them still insists that they really could stop. Certainly they possess the physical capability to not do the troubling behavior. None of us are physically required to do any of the things that we wish we didn’t do. It’s just that we can’t work up the self-will to control ourselves.

Except for when we do. I was once speaking to a man who received a powerful insight from his therapist. The addict had been bemoaning that he kept returning to pornography because he had no power to resist. The therapist then asked him what would happen if he was viewing pornography in his room and heard the footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Well, in that case, all of a sudden, this “powerless” man would suddenly find untold reserves of willpower as he frantically ALT-TABBED away from the offensive window! Thus, it was clear that the man could exercise the willpower to turn from his addiction, at least when sufficiently motivated by the fear of being found out!

Can’t vs Won’t)

So, what is it? We seem to be going back-and-forth as to whether the addict can suddenly stop his problematic behavior or not. After some time, I have concluded that the seeming paradox goes away just as soon as we change one, little word. Instead of saying that the addict “can’t” stop their behavior, it is far more truthful to say that they “won’t.”

Now I don’t mean “won’t” in the sense that the addict will defiantly refuse, only that the addict has presented copious amounts of evidence that when subjected to certain situations and triggers they will act out and they will not stop themself, even though they otherwise possess the desire and physical capability to reject the behavior. This is an observable, consistent pattern which we all need to come to terms with sooner or later.

The first truth that every addict must accept is that “if I am alone, by myself, under these particular circumstances…I am going to act out.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to resist, or that you won’t try to resist, or that you’re faking your efforts to be sober. Indeed, the defining trait of the addict is that he really, truly, sincerely does want to stop himself…but he just won’t.

The only logical conclusion is that part of the addict is holding the rest of himself as a slave. There is the part that would live soberly, but there is the other part that won’t let him.

Surrender)

This is a simple concept, but it is extremely difficult to accept. We are loathe to admit that we are not as in control of our own selves as we pretend. We say that we aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, that we are our own master, that all it takes for us to do something is to choose to do it.

But that is demonstrably false. That we are the masters of our own fate is a motivating and happy thought, but it is a complete lie. And living a lie is to remain living a pattern of life that simply cannot work. So long as you insist on this mentality of being your own master you’re going to keep living as a slave to your lusts, insisting through it all that you’re a free man.

I would like to tell you that waving the white flag and admitting that you are a slave to your appetites isn’t necessary. I have tried to find my way around this surrender myself. I have tried to deny my fundamental powerlessness. I have tried to find the external evils that forced me to do wrong against my self will.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if I live the same patterns of life that I have lived before, I will give in to my temptations again and again. Not because anyone or anything external forced me, not because I wanted to, but because I am enslaved to a tyrant of my own making. And I have to accept that fact, and then accept it again and again, anytime my ego starts to think that I can fully trust myself in the driver’s seat, only to be proven wrong yet again.

Now I do have more to say on the matter, including more hopeful messages for the addict, but first and foremost we have to come to accept this sense of powerlessness. This is the first step of any twelve-step program, to finally accept that we will not do what we wish we would do under every circumstance. Let’s let this notion settle in for today, and then move on to next things tomorrow. I’ll see you then.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 39:9-10, 12

9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?

10 And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.

12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.

Before moving on, I wanted to review the three techniques I found in the past couple days for how Joseph maintained his purity in the face of temptation.

  1. Joseph’s desire to be pure was based in his relationship with God. He had evidently made a solemn determination to live according to God’s commandments. There are many of us who “say” that we have given our lives to God, but it is another thing to actually live as such. Joseph really meant it. He loved his God, and he would not betray Him.
  2. Joseph took the steps necessary to keep himself away from temptation. He had his personal resolve, but he wasn’t going to put himself unnecessarily in the firing line. He kept his distance from Potiphar’s wife, and when she did speak to him, he did not linger on her words.
  3. When all else failed, he ran from evil. He did not debate with it, or reason with it. Argument and reason are not enough to keep a man or woman pure; they have to develop the habit of impulsively and immediately following their conscience, abandoning any situation that is trying to compromise it.

By these three methods Joseph prevailed. He is about to be slandered by Potiphar’s wife and punished for it, but make no mistake about it, Joseph won. No matter where he was cast away to, Joseph would go there with his conscience preserved.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 39:11-12

11 And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within.

12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.

Yesterday I mentioned that Joseph sought to remove himself from temptation by avoiding proximity to Potiphar’s wife. I also pointed out that every addict knows that the best way to maintain sobriety is in just this same way, to simply remove oneself from the path of temptation as Joseph did.

But at the same time, as every addict knows, now and again trouble will find you, even when you’re not looking for it. Without realizing it, Joseph had stepped into a trap, and temptation literally grabbed him by the girdle, pulling him towards sin.

And so, like Joseph, our defense must be two-pronged. Stay away from evil whenever possible, but also be ready to emphatically turn it down when it shows up anyway. Joseph showed great wisdom by not trying to reason or argue with Potiphar’s wife anymore. He didn’t even try to fight her off of him. To dabble around temptation is only to let its hooks sink in deeper. Instead he wriggled out of his clothes and ran! Potiphar’s wife might have architected this situation to try and remove all of Joseph’s options, but he would always retain the ability to choose.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 39:7-10

7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.

8 But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;

9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?

10 And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.

Things had been going well for Joseph in Potiphar’s household, but now trouble began brewing for him once again. In the previous verses we have learned how he gained power and prestige, and also how he was “goodly” and “well favoured.” It is not too shocking, then, that Potiphar’s adulterous wife would single him out for her lust. The phrase that she “cast her eyes upon Joseph” is something that anyone who has been subjected to sexual objectification by another will immediately understand the meaning of. And Potiphar’s wife is the worst sort of predator, not being deterred even when Joseph explicitly tells her that “no,” he doesn’t want anything to do with this.

I find very interesting Joseph’s argument against Potiphar’s wife. At the beginning he mentions the trust that Potiphar has put in him, but at the end it is God’s trust that he invokes as the reason for turning Potiphar’s wife down. Lying with Potiphar’s wife would be a betrayal of Potiphar, would be a betrayal to the teachings of Joseph’s father, would be a betrayal to Joseph’s future wife, yet none of these are the trespass that are greatest in Joseph’s mind. What he asks is “how then can I sin against God?” Clearly Joseph loves his Lord, and he does not want to hurt Him by such an act.

I find very interesting Joseph’s argument against Potiphar’s wife. At the beginning he mentions the trust that Potiphar has put in him, but at the end it is God’s trust that he invokes instead. Yes, lying with Potiphar’s wife would be a betrayal of Potiphar, would be a betrayal to the teachings of Joseph’s father, would be a betrayal to Joseph’s future wife, yet none of these are the trespass that is greatest in Joseph’s mind. What he asks is “how then can I…sin against God?” Clearly Joseph loves God, and does not want to hurt Him by such an act.

Also notice in verse ten that it says Joseph not only rebuked her temptations but went to lengths not “be with her.” This use of “with” is from the Hebrew word עִם, which is used as an adverb or preposition, and means to be physically next to, or to be equal with. Thus, Joseph was avoiding being in the same space as her, or to have a relationship of equal confidence. He knew that she represented trouble for him, and he did all that he could to physically keep that temptation at bay.

Which, as anyone who regularly struggles with temptation knows, is imperative if one is to remain pure. Truly an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Making the effort to not be tempted in the first place is the best way to ensure you will never fail.

Scriptural Analysis- Genesis 3:22-24

22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Verse 22 suggests that if Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of life at this point they would have become immortal, which would mean living forever in their fallen state. It was therefore a great act of mercy that God drove them from that temptation and placed a guard over it.

This notion of living forever has obsessed man ever since. For millennia we have told of the Fountain of Youth, of the Nectar of the Gods, and more recently of medications and de-aging practices that stretch this short life out longer and longer. We may have all manner of pain in this life, but the notion of losing it still terrifies us, and we would give anything to escape that end.

Of course God promises us that death is only a portal to something better. He assures that a short walk into the dark gives way to a bright light at the other end. But it takes great faith to trust in that, and all of us have days where we would trade God’s promise of heaven for Eden’s tree of life. We would limit ourselves to eternity in the fallen world if given the chance. And this is perhaps the ultimate struggle we face. Learning to stop clutching to our world of pain, letting go of control, and just trusting that we will be caught in unseen glories.