Note: Continuing our year-long journey of “tough conversations,” this is the first in our three-part series on recovery ministry.
SPIRITUALITY AND RECOVERY: PATIENCE
Dr. Dale Ryan
The forms of spirituality that are likely to be most helpful to people in recovery are spiritualities that value thoroughness more than speed.
Lois was a dedicated volunteer at her church. After a series of painful alcohol-related incidents, she sat in her pastor’s office and for the first time talked about her relationship with alcohol. “It has been the love of my life,” she said. “It was not love at first sight. It took several years. But today it is my best friend. Actually, my only friend. My only reliable companion. My only comfort. But it is also destroying my life. I’ve decided to stop. Many times. But that doesn’t seem to help. I don’t know what to do.” Her pastor listened and she kept talking. “What I want more than anything else—what I pray for every day—is for God to deliver me from the alcoholism. I’m ready to be healed today. Really, I am ready. I don’t want to go to some program for the rest of my life. I want to be healed today. And I believe God can do that. But I have asked God to deliver me. Many times. And that doesn’t seem to help either. So what do I do now?”
Lois knew she had a problem, and she wanted to be done with the problem. She wanted the problem to go away. If alcoholism was the problem, she wanted alcoholism to go away. And she desperately wanted a God who was powerful enough to make that happen—quickly. God’s power, in her mind, was directly connected with God’s ability to fix things quickly, to do miracles, to fix things fast.
The sort of spiritual sensibilities found in recovery culture would not, at least at first, seem very satisfying to Lois. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states the bad news in simple terms:
“We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals—usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better. We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones.”
Alcoholics Anonymous is clear that alcoholism is a chronic illness. It does not go away. It is, at least in this respect, like diabetes. The goal is not to make it go away but to make changes in our lives which limit the damage it can do. Because the problem is a long-term problem, recovery is is a long-term commitment.
In twelve step culture there is a very strong emphasis on thoroughness rather than speed. It is comparable, at least metaphorically, to cancer surgery. If you have surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and the doctor comes to see you after the surgery, the question you will ask first is probably not going to be "how fast was the surgery?" The first question you are going to ask is "did you get it all?" Thoroughness is the criteria for success, not speed. Recovery is like that. If it takes a long time, fine. But it needs to get to the bottom of things, to the roots of things. It needs to “get it all.”
There are, of course, many spiritualities within the Christian tradition that emphasize rapid personal transformation. The important things in the spiritual life are often assumed to be things that happen not just quickly but instantaneously. In such traditions spiritual power can sometimes become connected in people’s minds with the speed at which change takes place. In extreme cases people find themselves unable to recognize the power of God at work unless things happen rapidly. As a result, in many parts of the Christian community it is common for people to be suspicious about spiritualities that emphasize that transformation takes time—sometimes a long time.
There is, however, plenty of room in the Christian tradition for long-term transformational processes. I have never heard anyone criticize “discipleship” because it lasts for a lifetime. No one asks, “Are you still working on being a disciple?” Everyone understands that discipleship, sanctification, and “becoming more like Jesus” are life-long processes. Everyone understands that such processes are about progress, not perfection. Recovery spirituality is part of the spiritual tradition that prioritizes long-term processes—just like discipleship or sanctification. Recovery is a long-term, one-day-at-a-time transformational process that can’t be hurried if you want it to be thorough.
I want to emphasize that, like most people, I am deeply grateful when the power of God is manifested in ways that don’t take a lot of time. What’s not to like about that? If God can fix something quickly, great! But recovery spirituality is optimized for healing that requires us to be patient with our impatience. Addictions are not at the surface of things. They cannot be fixed by trying harder, by thinking different thoughts, by being more sincere, more dedicated, or more committed. Healing will require a more difficult path as we daily surrender our wills and lives over to a God who can do for us those things that we can not do for ourselves.