SPIRITUALITY AND RECOVERY: Honesty

By Dr. Dale Ryan

Banner Recovery-Honesty

The forms of spirituality that are likely to be most helpful to people in recovery are spiritualities that help us grow in our capacity to tell the truth.

One of the most distinctive features and primary symptoms of the addictive process is denial. Addicts of all kinds and their family members often unknowingly conspire together to prevent their "secret" from becoming known. People who are addicted almost always insist that they are not addicted. According to them, if there is a problem at all, it is not owned by them but by other people who refuse to leave them alone or refuse to mind their own business. This self-deceit can be sustained in the face of a staggering amount of evidence to the contrary. Sometimes addicted people will go to extraordinary efforts to demonstrate to others that they are not addicted. Many alcoholics, for example, can stop drinking for a period of time to demonstrate that they are in control of things. But such efforts have nothing to do with being sober. An alcoholic who is not drinking is just an alcoholic who is restless, irritable, and discontent—and probably obsessively ruminating on how long this charade needs to go on before people will stop complaining about their drinking. Because of the centrality of denial and deceit in the addictive process, the spiritual practices that make honesty possible play a central role in the spirituality of recovery.

The primary spiritual practices in the Christian tradition that help us become people with a capacity for honesty are confession and testimony.

Confession is presented in the Bible as a normal, non-negotiable part of the Christian life. The dynamic is made quite explicit in James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Notice the connection between confession in community and healing. It is important to emphasize that confession is not a spiritual practice that needs to be checked off our to-do list periodically so that we can maintain our membership in God’s club. The goal is not so much "doing confession" as it is becoming the kind of people who are living a confessional lifestyle—becoming the kind of people who have whatever it takes to tell the truth, not just to God but to other people as well.

Unfortunately, the history of confessional practice in the Christian tradition can seem like a catalogue of "how confession can go wrong." It can become an obligation—rather than part of the path to a life characterized by honesty and healing. It can become so ritualized and formalized that is loses its power to support us in our effort to the tell the truth—indeed, it can become a reason why we don’t need to be honest with other people (“I’ve confessed this all to God, so no one else needs to know.”) But in spite of the long history of counterproductive and misguided efforts to become a confessional people, there is still enormous power to the spiritual practice of confession. You can see this at work in any 12-step meeting. Confession is a central part of the recovery group process.

Testimony has historically also been a spiritual practice that has helped people to sustain their capacity for telling the truth. Unfortunately, like confession, it is a spiritual practice that has not always served us well. In many parts of Christian culture the emphasis is on having a "good" testimony. And, in such traditions, everyone knows in advance what a good testimony sounds like. The narrative arc of a good testimony is a simple one: things used to be bad, I found Jesus, now everything is better. As it turns out, I have a good testimony. I can tell my story like that. All I have to do is leave out the parts that give my story substance. All I have to do to have a "good" testimony is to leave out all the complications, the nuance, all the two-steps-forward-one-step-back, all the dead-ends, all the missed opportunities . . . all the stuff that makes my story a genuinely human story. Once it has been thoroughly sanitized, my story would be presentable as a "good" testimony. But it would not be even close to half of the truth. And that is the problem. Testimony is intended to be a spiritual practice that helps us tell the truth—not a spiritual practice that helps us craft a presentation that meets some criteria.

All of us struggle to be who we are—to present ourselves to others in ways that are not deceitful. And we fail at this more than we succeed. People will ask “how are you” and we will say “fine, thank you.” We will do this even if we are far from “fine.” In this respect, addiction mirrors for all of us what it really looks like to not have safe places to be who we are. In the absence of safe communities in which to tell the truth, deceit will become the norm. And, if it goes on long enough, we will wind up believing our own deceit. Our capacity for truth-telling will become so diminished that we lose an ability to see ourselves with any clarity. The pretense will become our reality. And that is a tragedy of enormous proportions.

Because combatting deceit and denial are so central to the recovery process, you might anticipate that any spirituality that is going to be helpful to people struggling with addictions will emphasize telling the truth. Creating social environments where it is safe to tell the truth about what is going on in our lives is absolutely essential to recovery.

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