Most people I know have been affected by addiction in one way or another. A few are still actively drinking or using. A larger number are in recovery. Almost everybody else has a story about a struggling relative, friend, neighbor, or coworker.
The pathway to recovery, as well as the key to coping with loved ones in the grip of addiction, begins with learning one crucial lesson. We are powerless.
This is a lesson that nobody really likes learning. That’s because you can only learn about your own powerlessness by experiencing it firsthand. Nobody can do your homework for you.
Addicts learn this lesson through misery. They want to stop. They’ve lost careers, relationships, and health. Their souls are rarely at peace. And yet they are driven by a craving they can neither stem nor control.
The lesson comes by way of a broken and desperate heart for family and friends of the actively addicted. They’ve tried love and persuasion and coercion. And yet none of this has changed the loved one’s addictive behavior.
As it turns out, addiction’s foundational lesson is also a core lesson for faith. A life of faith is rooted in the acceptance of grace. And grace is a gift for the powerless. Not a reward for the spiritually muscular.
Jesus teaches this lesson in a myriad of ways. For instance, he once crossed the Sea of Galilee with his friends after a long day of teaching. As evening approached, they had scrambled into a boat and cast off. Jesus had promptly fallen asleep.
A windstorm swept across the sea. The boat started taking on water. The disciples feared that they might go under. So they woke Jesus. He promptly silenced the wind and calmed the waves. Only after the storm had passed did Jesus ask them about their faith. (Mark 4:35-41)
Jesus first let them experience powerlessness. Then he asked them to reflect on their faith. He wasn’t interested in giving them a creed or a catechism to memorize. Jesus had come to open their hearts and minds to the God who is always already present.
In the third and fourth century, the Desert Mothers and Fathers devoted themselves to learning precisely this lesson. They committed to a life of rigorous asceticism and prayer. They would spend hours in their humble cells wrestling with their own inner demons.
Contrary to what you might expect, their aim was not to conquer and eradicate their selfish or violent or lustful impulses. Instead, pushing themselves to their human limit, they would eventually fail to perfect themselves. Those unwelcome thoughts and desires would pass briefly and then inevitably return.
These desert monastics struggled to defeat their own worst angels until those angels showed themselves to be too strong for them. In their failure, they discovered for themselves their need for grace. For a love that will always embrace them in their raggedy imperfection just as they are.
By falling flat on their face they experienced being picked up and dusted off by a power greater than themselves. Learning their powerlessness taught them their need for God.
Paul once urged us “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (2 Corinthians 6:1) What I take him to mean is that God’s grace transforms us. Paradoxically, acknowledging our powerlessness makes us powerful. Only, it’s a power that the world knows too little about.
Accepting grace makes us compassionate. It moves us to embrace the raggedly imperfect people around us. Not because we can change them or improve them or get some reward. But because we now know that we are the beloved.
That darned ego (thanks, Richard Rohr) sure can get in the way of letting go. As a control freak (of myself and others), accepting grace is a full-time effort – but, it’s definitely worth the work. Thanks for your words.
Good old RR!
Thanks for these words, great post Jake. After a recent upset I eventually realised it’s possible to learn about being beloved and still not really feel that one *matters*. So when I read “they don’t really matter” within a context that applied to me, I felt cancelled. Essentially, I guess my rage was an assertion that I DO matter, but didn’t realise that at the time. Similar to the scene in ‘The Kings Speech’ where the king becomes enraged and shouts “I have a voice” and his mentor quietly says, “yes, you do” and that’s the breakthrough point for the stuttering king. Isn’t this the power of the message ‘Black Lives Matter’? It’s such an important assertion because, as Vivian shares in ‘Pretty Woman’, if people put you down enough you begin to believe it. So one way or another we do find we’re powerless – and hopefully we *also* come to understand that each and every one of us does matter, and that we are loved. And that we all need to watch out for one another, take care of each other. Thank you!
Well said, Liz. As you know, much of my ministry revolves around helping others recognize that they are the beloved and that they matter. That work is never done.
Thanks, Ms. Liz. I always appreciate and often agree with what you share here.
Thank you for saying this nanragley, such a gift. ~a virtual hand on the shoulder, encouraging me on. Much appreciated!
Dear Bishop Jake. This is a very powerful demonstration of our need to depend on God’s grace – for any capability to overcome our human weaknesses. Faith is, indeed, something we cannot produce of ourselves. The paradox for me is that when we acknowledge our powerlessness, clinging to God’s promise to be with us in all our life experiences; the temptations we have are harder to give in to. here is your (for me) defining statement about this:
“Accepting grace makes us compassionate. It moves us to embrace the raggedly imperfect people around us. Not because we can change them or improve them or get some reward. But because we now know that we are the beloved.”
Thanks, Fr. Ron! I experience that paradox as well.
Clearly from the replies, good Bishop, you have nailed it again!
Your subtitle on this one hooked me right away and cut through my “busy-ness”. It is when I have felt most powerless that I’ve had to eyes to see grace in my midst, though I didn’t realize it until you named it.
Thank you for always reaching out to those of us who struggle, and thanks for giving voice to those who can’t always find the words.