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.