Category Archives: Christianity

Drinking From the Stream

If you have sat at AA tables with me anytime during the last thirty years, you have probably heard me use this analogy a hundred times. If so, suffer a fool to make it a hundred and one.

Before I came to faith in God, I was like a stone, hard and impenetrable. The grace of God was flowing around me everywhere, but my obdurate nature ensured that I would not drink from that stream. The fear of giving up the only security I knew, while subconscious, drove all my decision making. I was genuinely frightened by selfless people, people who had surrendered themselves to something higher. Yet that very vulnerability was also attractive and it began to slowly erode my protective shell.

As Bill W. puts it,

When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. ~ Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 53

Ultimately , in that moment of ego deflation, I called out to a God who was at once both inconceivable yet essential. And like many in that condition, I became aware of the genuine presence of God. It was an awareness not of the mind but of the heart, yet no less unshakable for it. The grace of God had penetrated that shell at last.

I lived in that reality for some time, but came to realize that faith in God alone was not sufficient. Those people whom I had seen abandoning themselves to God had something greater than I. The grace of God had filled me, but at that point I was more like a vessel than a channel. God had gotten in, but I kept Him for myself. But quietly, almost imperceptibly, the Steps of AA began to lead me toward a path of unselfishness, of giving myself without any thought of benefit in return. The phrase “you have to give it away to keep it” became less and less an aphorism and increasingly a guiding principle. Still, there was a fear that abandoning myself like that might mean the loss of something I was not willing to give up. This was where the jumping off point for me came, the actual taking of Step Seven.

The grace of God had eroded the other end of that vessel and made me into a channel of that grace, just as we learn in the Prayer of St. Francis. And here is the paradox. I was not merely a channel but a recipient in a way I had not previously anticipated. A vessel can only hold so much, but a channel can carry an inexhaustible stream. And whoever allows himself to become such a channel finds he is  filled from that unending source.

This challenge I face today is, in any normal sense, insurmountable. I am in need not merely of a measure of grace, but an overabundance of it to give me the power to live each day as it comes. I always knew on a conscious level that I was being of service to those around me. But never over the course of those thirty odd years did I imagine what treasure I was laying up for myself. The outpouring of love that I have experienced these last couple of months has overwhelmed me. And you all, in giving of yourselves as you have, are no doubt drinking of that same stream. That’s the real paradox. No matter how much you surrender, the blessings you receive in return far outweigh whatever sacrifice was required of you.

My sincere desire is to be part of that blessing. Nothing would defeat me more than if I thought this trial was for no purpose. I am convinced that the joy that I experience in this time of difficulty will, in some unseen and and unknown way, lighten the burdens and gladden that hearts of those who face their own challenges.

[The Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. – II Corinthians 12:9-10 New American Bible Revised Edition.

May the Peace of Christ dwell richly in you.

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What would Thomas say?

Today I went for an MRI at Karmanos Cancer Center and a biopsy at Harper Hospital. Up to this point, we have had nothing but morbid outcomes given to us by all the doctors we have seen. Today, however, Dr. Lin at Wayne State found the tumor to be superficial and easily resected with a reasonable hope for a cure, possibly without radiation, and a return to the status quo.

Were all these doctors (including him) wrong in their initial assessments? Were they just being conservative in their prognoses? Or did something, in fact, happen to that tumor?

Phenomena like this are not uncommon in God’s plan. He reveals Himself in degrees, and often in such a way as to make faith an essential aspect of the experience. Most everyone is familiar with the phrase “doubting Thomas,”  but few non-Christians understand the spiritual significance of the story.

Thomas was not present when the risen Lord appeared to the Apostles, and when told of it, he chose to be skeptical, not an unreasonable attitude given the incredible claim made by the others. Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was present. When the Lord invited Thomas to place his fingers in the nail holes and his hand in His side, Thomas did so and proclaimed “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus’ response is telling.

Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.

What do we make of this? Is blind faith better than faith based in observed phenomena, “signs and wonders?” I don’t think so. God honors our faith however it comes to us. But often it comes to us in the context of what we already believe. Faith in the redemptive work of Christ requires first a faith in the plan of God, a faith that is itself a grace that can only come from God. Paul spoke of this in 1 Corinthians 1:21-23

For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…

The Pharisees demanded signs from Jesus. He was proclaiming himself Messiah, either an utter blasphemy or the very fulfillment of the ultimate aspirations of the Jewish faith. He did not fit into their concept of how Messiah would appear so they sought to ensnare him by demanding something that only a true Messiah could produce. Jesus’ response was harsh and to the point:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.

Jesus would soon, in fact, show them the sign of Jonah, but even that would not satisfy them. He had been going throughout Galilee performing unmistakable miracles, and those who had eyes to see, saw them. The case can be made that, if God were to appear in His unveiled Glory, we would have no choice but to worship Him. But that was not the plan. We were given free will because only a free creature can love, and to fully reveal Himself would ironically make it impossible to love Him. So He reveals Himself to those who choose to see Him revealed in part.

What, then, is the point of all this? Simply put, what happened to me happened ambiguously, so that those with faith would see and those without faith might choose to see without compulsion. Even I won’t say that this was a verifiable miraculous healing. The evidence is imperfect, the outcome questionable. But I accept it as such by faith, as some of you might. And it may even be that this little “miracle” may make one of you less of a Thomas.

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I need some input

Normally when I post to this blog, I do so in the role of one offering ideas, explanations, insights and sometimes humor. I don’t get many comments so I don’t think of this as going the other way. But I am at a point where your responses can mean a great deal.

I am nearing the point where decisions will have to be made regarding my choice of treatment, decisions that have major consequences for how I live the rest of my life. In its simplest form, it reduces to this: do I want to take the least invasive approach which will allow me to continue living as I am now, but with the likelihood of a shorter life span, or do I want to take a course that will probably result in a cure but may deprive me of speech?

If you know me at all, and many of you certainly do, talking has always been what I do. I’m a teacher by nature and my greatest joys in life have been those few but precious times when what I say has made a difference in someone else’s life. It’s hard to imagine me still being me if I couldn’t do that. So what would be the point of living longer if that was the condition? What kind of life would it be to not be able to tell people that I love them? How could I deprive my wife of the words “I love you?”

But of course, I would have to be alive to do that. So choosing to keep my speech but possibly die sooner has a similar effect. Do I go for quality or quantity? How does that affect those who love me? Do they get a choice in this?

I have just about worn out the “?” key on my keyboard. So many questions and no real answers. I’m really grappling with a big one here. I’m going for a biopsy on Thursday that will define the parameters of this decision more clearly and, while I want to think that I will know what to do, I fear I won’t.

Prayer is central to this. I believe there is a “God way” through everything and in all honesty I’m really at peace knowing that I’ll get both the guidance and the Grace to live in a way most pleasing and useful to Him. That for me really illuminates the decision. Which choice makes me a more useful tool in His hands? I don’t believe that death is a tragedy. I do believe that a life without purpose is.

Before all else, I am a Christian. Jesus said that there is no greater love than when one lays down one’s life for a friend. But what does it mean to lay down your life? It certainly means dying in one sense. But it could also mean laying aside the life I now have for another one, one that I do not choose, but one that nonetheless fulfills my vocation. Do I lay down my life by shortening it or by sacrificing an aspect of it? Again, more questions than answers.

This has been an unusual post. I always take time to craft my work, write it, set it aside, return to it, refine it, produce the very best I can with the talent I have been given. But this has been more of a stream of thought, musing out loud and not really attending to the craft, because the craft may very well be in my willingness to expose my fear, my confusion; to be something I rarely am, unpolished.

I am not asking for answers, though I will certainly accept them. As for pity, I can produce enough of that for both of us if I give in to that impulse, so none is needed. I’m not saying that I don’t need anything. I just don’t know what I need. All I know is that whatever I need, it will come from you whom I love. I would appreciate comments just to know you have read this. Maybe you are as baffled as I am. That would be good to know. Maybe you have some insight. Also, good to know. Maybe you feel compelled to offer advice because you feel obligated. I won’t object.

I hope that this hasn’t been to much of a downer for anyone. These are the kinds of decisions each of us will likely have to make. So the real irony of all this is that you may be answering these questions as much for yourselves as for my benefit. So let’s be joyful, and let’s be grateful for the love we’ve shared.

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I thought “vain repetitions” only referred to Rosaries

Report: Average Christian Spends 37% Of Prayer Time Saying Word ‘Just’

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Should All Speak in Tongues (part 2)

Continuing my discussion from my last post (months ago).

Tongues as supernatural fluency in an unknown language.

This is not clearly evident anywhere in the the Bible, and so far as I know, no one claims it today. I don’t think it bears further discussion.

Speaking in a language not directly intelligible to men but given by the Holy Spirit.

The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” Acts 10:45-47 New American Bible (Revised Edition)

When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid [his] hands on them, the holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Acts 19:5-6

These are crucial passages for one reason: it was a direct sign from God that the Gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The sign was the reception of the Holy Spirit, the outward evidence of which was speaking in tongues. So much of Acts and of Paul’s writings deal with Jesus’ role as Redeemer of all mankind, not solely the Jewish messiah.

A great deal of importance is placed on these verses in Pentecostal churches. Being filled with the Spirit is crucial, but it is assumed that there must be some evidence of having received the Holy Spirit. So a spirit-filled believer is expected to speak in tongues. The verses don’t imply one way or the other if speaking in tongues is to become persistent evidence or only initial evidence.

The problem for me is that nothing in Scripture supports the idea that speaking in tongues is normative. Quite the opposite.

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 NIV

This is Paul’s discourse on the gifts (charisms) of the Spirit. It’s pretty evident to me that there are a variety of gifts given to a variety of believers, and that no one gift is shared by all. It’s a rhetorical way of stating the opposite. For instance, if I say “Does everyone own a Ford?” I am really saying that not everyone does. When this was written, it appears that those who spoke in tongues did so for the edification of the Church since their utterances needed to be interpreted. 1 Corinthians 14 (I will not quote it all here) makes it very clear that prophecy is more greatly valued than tongues, and they only insofar as they are interpreted. The superiority of teaching over tongues is driven home repeatedly in this chapter.

What then? Are tongues useless? Certainly not, especially if a believer feels that God has graced them with that gift. But I am convinced that they are in no way normative. This brings me to my real criticism.

Pentecostal churches generally use the term “full Gospel” or “Spirit-filled” to differentiate themselves from non-Pentecostal churches. It is a not-so-subtle way of saying that those who do not embrace speaking in tongues have less than a full Gospel. How is that possible? Consider that Jesus never once spoke on the subject. Nowhere is He described as speaking in tongues. He did not even promise the disciples that they would speak in tongues, only that the Spirit would be given to them and that they would be witnesses throughout the world. I am of the firm conviction that Pentecostalism can in fact be a roadblock to salvation for someone put off by this insistence on one and only one “proof” of being Spirit-filled. If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God made flesh, that He suffered and died to procure your salvation, and that the gifts of the Spirit are the birthright of all believers, then you are filled with his Spirit and you need not prove that to anyone.

 

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Interesting article from ChurchPOP

At times it seems as though the door between Catholicism and Evangelicalism is a revolving one. When I was an Evangelical I saw many (poorly catechized?) Catholics filling the pews.  And now, having “swum the Tiber” I see many former Evangelicals. The difference is that those headed to Rome have the advantage of the solid biblical teaching of the Evangelical church, even when the doctrines don’t line up.

So here is an interesting article that sheds some light on the phenom. Enjoy.

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Should all speak in tongues? Part 1

I spent a lot of time in my last post giving some personal background of my experiences in the Pentecostal (“Spirit-filled”, “Full-Gospel” etc.) environment. I did so because I couldn’t jump into the theology without telling you my background. There are several aspects of Pentecostal worship, but “speaking in tongues” is central. This is considered by most Pentecostal churches to be the “evidence” of the baptism in the Spirit. The big problem, however,  is that “tongues” is not one phenomenon.

“Varieties of Tongues”

Before considering the Scriptural basis for “tongues,” I want to define what I believe to be three distinct phenomena that the term might describe.

  1. The Pentecostal phenomenon described in the Book of Acts. In this case the miracle was not in the speaking but in the hearing. Peter addressed the crowd in one language (probably Aramaic) but every listener heard the “the mighty acts of God” proclaimed in his own language. One could get technical and say that this was not so much speaking in tongues as it was hearing in tongues. But so much of Pentecostal theology (if you want to call it that) is invested in this event, even to the point of taking the name, that it needs to be addressed.
  2. The supernatural ability to speak in any language, even an unknown one.
  3. Speaking in a language not directly intelligible to men but given by the Holy Spirit. It may or may not be accompanied by an interpretation in a known language.

The Pentecostal Miracle

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.” (Acts 2:5-13)

If this is what is meant by Pentecostal, then to my knowledge there are no Pentecostal churches in existence. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean that the Church has the ability to proclaim the Gospel in all languages, albeit naturally, then every Christian church is Pentecostal. Either way, whatever happened on the day of Pentecost is not happening anywhere today. As a side note, it might be said that only those hearers to whom the Holy Spirit granted the ability were able to hear the Word. Those from whom it was withheld may have been those mockers.

What does it mean?

The question they asked one another was “What does it mean?” The answer to that is found in the Old testament.

The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the Lord said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth. Genesis 11:1-9

Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel (Bruegel)

The Tower represented the hubris of man, a desire for fame and recognition, and a desire for self-protection apart from the Providence of God. A fallen man had enough power alone to do great evil. But God recognized that a united and fallen human race could not be stopped from the evil it could bring about. So how did he prevent this? By destroying the common language that enabled them to operate in concert. Language holds the key to power.

With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God could now reunify the human race by in essence undoing what had been done at Babel. Pentecost is the anti-Babel. It is the reconciliation of all mankind in the Blood of Christ, and language holds the key to the Church’s power. The Church of Jesus Christ was born on the day that God loosed our tongues. So in very literal sense, all Christians speak in tongues when in the Spirit we proclaim the power of Christ’s victory on the Cross.

I will cover the next two cases in later posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What was that??

My early religious upbringing took place in the strange overlap of Baptists and Pentecostals.

I have a very early memory of my mother being baptized at the Highland Park Baptist Church. She hadn’t been raised in a particularly religious home, but I think exposure to (or maybe the expectations of) my father’s very religious mother drove her in that direction. It’s important to note that she didn’t actually adopt the religion in which my father had been raised, but it awakened a spiritual need that she tried to satisfy in many different ways before she died.

So I was shuffled off to Redeemer Baptist Church every Sunday where we were taught how nice Jesus is. And that was the core of their Baptist mind-set: they were nice.  Salvation was a given because, after all, you were a Baptist. But that left very little else to do while we were waiting for the bus to Heaven, or “The Rapture” as they called it. So we were supposed to be nice while we were waiting. However, “nice” did not describe me very well. I found “nice” to be very “boring.”

Now, the reason my mother did not adopt the religion of my Dad’s mother was that my grandmother was Pentecostal and, yes, Pentecostals were also nice but they were also very scary! I can’t say how old I was when I got my first exposure to a “Holy Ghost” revival meeting, but it made quite an impression. The preacher would get pretty wound up and then, smack dab in the middle of making sense, he would go into some kind of convulsion and start jabbering incoherently, quite unlike anything that my young Baptist ears where accustomed to. Sometimes even people in the congregation would jump up right in the middle of the preaching and start doing the same thing. What was that? And as if that weren’t enough, then came the strangest altar call I had ever seen.

We had altar calls in the Baptist church. I was used to them. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…” Every head bowed, every eye closed. But these Pentecostal altar calls were another breed altogether. Almost everyone would queue up. They were obviously not all unsaved, so why go up? Well, I soon found out. They would go up, and the preacher would lays his hands on their head and pray then, bam!, down they would go, flat on their backs. They must have been expecting that because they had people lined up behind to catch them. This was just too strange to let it slide. It took a while, but I finally got up the courage to go up there. The preacher laid his hands on my head, gave me a little shove and… no bam! There I stood wondering what I had done wrong. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t happening to me. I guess I was too Baptist by then.

My grandmother explained it all to me: the speaking in tongues, the interpretations, being “slain in the spirit,” being healed. She had plenty of biblical warrant for it (well, most of it), but I was having less and less of it. I am relating all this from a much more mature perspective today, but at the time I was just overwhelmed by it. In time, this Pentecostal weirdness actually became a catalyst for my now-accelerating adoption of atheism. All these people believed that this was real, and it gave me the self-justification I needed to reject their entire set of beliefs.

By the time I was in my thirties, the life I had chosen to live apart from God finally collapsed under its unsustainable consequences. So one day, in a solitary act of repentance for the life I had lead, I asked for God’s forgiveness. As I prayed I suddenly sensed that someone was in the room. Not wanting to be embarrassed I turned to see who was there and, of course, there was no on to see. I had for the first time in my life known the real presence of God. It transformed me and the reality of that experience continues to shape me to this day.

But as glorious as that experience had been, it was insufficient to bring me back to the religion(s) of my youth. Instead, I began to pursue the “Mere Christianity” of C. S. Lewis because I now needed a solid understanding of what had happened to me. I read and read and read. And the more I read, the less connected to that original experience I became. In time, I came to believe that Christian faith came from being part of a body of believers. But which body? I was Protestant. That I knew. But what kind? I couldn’t imagine being a Baptist because they seemed so far removed from that ecstatic experience I craved. And I was still very leery of Pentecostals. So I wandered the endless halls of sectarian Protestantism, trying on churches the way one would try on shoes. And nothing fit.

Eventually, in time and in ways that were inescapably part of God’s plan for me, I ended up in a Pentecostal church, Zion Evangelistic Temple, mostly because a lot of the people I knew in AA were going there. Here was a place where people seemed to be having the kinds of intimate encounters with God that I was craving. I wanted what they had in that sense, but I didn’t want the way they did it. I believed in the doctrine of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Not all Protestants felt that way, but I saw no problem with it. But theological loner that I was, I wanted it on my terms and in accordance with my still-developing beliefs.

Jesus taught that “you have not because you ask not.” So I prayed for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. I figured that if God didn’t want me to have it on my terms, then nothing would happen. I was wrong, spectacularly wrong. As soon as I had said my prayer, I was engulfed in what can only be described as pure ecstatic reverie. It lasted for some time and I had to believe that this is what Jesus had talked about, the second baptism. And I asked for it the next night and…nothing. Looking back, this makes a lot of sense. You don’t get baptized in order to stay wet the rest of your life. I had asked to filled with the Holy Spirit, I was and that was that.

But as I watched people queuing up week after week to be “slain in the Spirit” I thought that perhaps that was the path to an ongoing ecstatic encounter. So up I went, the preacher laid his hands on me, gave me a little shove and…nothing. It was very disconcerting. Why did this not happen to me? Okay, maybe I should be speaking in tongues. So I asked around about how this happened and the answer was cockeyed. You just did it. God would give you you “heavenly language” when you stepped out in faith and did it. Well, I could “do it.” I had heard it enough and could make the right sounds, but that hardly seemed to be what the prophecy was referring to.

And this brings me to the whole point of the next post.

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A Resentment Averted

It’s all well and good that I share the things I have learned from my years in AA, but it is better still when I can relate the principles to things that are actually happening in my life.

Such was the case a few days ago. I was in Rochester Hills, my old AA home, sitting at a table with a few people I knew and I few I didn’t. (In Michigan, we break into separate discussion tables.) The table was small (six people) and everyone was indulging the luxury of not having to limit the length of their “share.” The person who spoke before me talked for a fairly long time and then it was my turn.

Those of you who know me well are aware that I am prone to speaking longer than I need to, or at least longer than people are willing to listen. I guess it was one of those days. I finished a sentence and before I could start the next one, the man who had just spoken said, in a loud voice, “Thanks Steve.” This is something only the table leader should say to stop someone from rambling, but he wasn’t leading and I (in my opinion) wasn’t rambling. He was wrong. I was insulted. And before the sound of his voice had echoed off the wall, I had the glowing hot seed of a grade-A resentment burning a hole in my normally serene and extremely spiritual self.

Here I am, loved by all, and in the bosom of my old company and this upstart was putting me in my place. I thought to myself, “Do you have any idea who I am? Have you never heard of Mr. A.A. and his triumphant return?” I do not say these things out loud for obvious reasons, but clearly if he knew who I WAS, he wouldn’t have done that.

So here I was, faced with some unsavory alternatives. I could take him aside, point out that he had no business doing what he did, and make sure he was just as uncomfortable as I was. But I know enough about the program to know that was a lose-lose, so I scratched that from my list of “to-dos.” I thought perhaps I should just walk away and say nothing. But I didn’t want to leave a meeting feeling that way. As I simmered, I tried to think what the best course of action should be, what the way of humility would be. In other word’s, God’s will.

Then I remembered a line in the Big Book regarding the Ninth Step:

It may be he has done us more harm than we have done him and, though we may have acquired a better attitude toward him, we are still not too keen about admitting our faults. Nevertheless, with a person we dislike, we take the bit in our teeth. It is harder to go to an enemy than to a friend, but we find it much more beneficial to us. We go to him in a helpful and forgiving spirit, confessing our former ill feeling and expressing our regret.

Step Nine is about restoring relationships, but it is also about creating healthy ones. Was he totally wrong and was I totally right? Did it matter? Even if I couldn’t find where I had been at fault, I certainly harbored ill feelings.

The table finished, we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer and I turned to him. “I guess I may have been going on too long,” I said. “Thanks for keeping me on track.” He laughed it off and the problem went away. I may have made a friend when I might very well have made an enemy.

Lest you get the idea that I’m some kind of spiritual giant, let me be quick to point out that I was a millimeter away from storming out (or worse). But the more we attempt to live a life based on humility and service to others, the more natural these things become. The next time I am faced with a similar situation, I may not act as well. (In fact, I went off on a customer a few weeks ago and am still paying for that lack of restraint.) But I will go into it with the memory that I found a way through it before and, by God’s grace, I can find a way through it again.

 

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An Abundance of Pitfalls

Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn’t strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.65

I don’t believe that God made any mistakes in creating my human nature. Bill makes it pretty clear in this passage that our desires are not our problem, but rather how we choose to satisfy them that drives our defects. Hunger is not a defect. Gluttony is, but so too is self-starvation. Sexual desire is not a defect, but harming others to satisfy it is. Our need to feel loved and accepted is good and God-given, but when we lie and manipulate others in order to feel loved we are clearly no longer in His will.

When we take inventory in the Fourth Step, we ultimately come to see that virtually all of our defects can be traced back to self-centered fear. When we discuss (actually confess) these things to another person, we have begun a process that will bring light to those dark and devious motives. But that in and of itself is not sufficient. If my problem is self-centeredness , then my focusing on my defects may not be the best means of ridding myself of them. Consider the compulsion to drink. Isn’t it true that the harder we tried to change that behavior the more uncontrollable it became? Can we assume that there is something inherently different in our other defects. Bill makes this point earlier:

Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn’t we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is a riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may be only in the mind of God. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 64

I believe the answer to the riddle lies in the Third Step and Seventh Step prayers.

God, I offer myself to Thee-to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always! – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76 – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

Note what the prayers do not say. We’re not asking God to take away our difficulties to make our lives easier. We are asking that they be removed as a demonstration to others of God’s power. We’re not asking God to remove the defects that stand in the way of our sobriety. Rather, we are asking to have them removed to make ourselves more useful. As we begin to see our recovery not as something for our benefit, but rather for the benefit of others, we lose that focus on self that was such a stumbling block to spiritual growth. In other words, our defects are removed as a consequence of selfless surrender to God’s will. It’s a flanking attack, not a head-on assault.

Yet we all continue to fall short. Does this mean we are not sincere in our desire to have God remove these things? Hardly. As they say, old habits die hard. All those things that I identified as defects were my best attempts at living. They were my coping skills. Having to give these up is frightening and and difficult. And we will often slip back into them without intending to. That’s why we continue to look at our behavior through the lens of our usefulness to others. Look at our evening examination on page 86.

When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.

We have the means to gauge our behavior. Did we do anything that impeded another person’s spiritual growth? Did we behave in such a way that someone observing us would not want what we have? Did we do anything that might have driven a wedge between God and one of His children, or did we create an atmosphere of love and acceptance that mirrors our Father’s care for us? If we continue to see recovery in this light we have a good chance of maintaining it.

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