(The third in a three part series on resistance to recovery.)
In the first of this series of articles I emphasized that the most difficult form of resistance to recovery is our own resistance. Recovery is not easy. It is a difficult process. Telling the truth, acknowledging our need, accepting help, making amends – these are some of the difficult tasks of recovery. It is understandable that we resist such a difficult process. In addition, recovery involves change. We have spent many years practicing our dysfunctional ways of living. The path of least resistance for us is to keep doing the same old things. Change is difficult and it is understandable that we resist it. In the second in this series of articles, I emphasized that in addition to our own internal resistance to recovery, recovery also often takes place in a hostile environment. For a variety of reasons, not everyone in our lives will welcome the changes which recovery brings.
Many of us, unfortunately, have experienced some distinctively Christian forms of resistance to recovery and it is this kind of resistance which I would like begin to discuss in this article.
It is, I think, important to begin by acknowledging how painful it can be when resistance to recovery comes from sincere Christians, is expressed in theological language or comes as a pronouncement about God’s character. It is hard enough to hear “you should be better by now.” But, it is very difficult, indeed, to hear “God expects you to be better by now.” It is painful to hear “Stop being so self-focused.” But, it can be excruciatingly painful to hear “God hates it when you focus on yourself.” There are many reasons why this kind of resistance to recovery is so painful.
First, we know that our recovery is dependent on having a Higher Power that is prepared to help us do things we cannot do for ourselves. But if our Higher Power is unsympathetic, impatient, uninformed or intolerant, what hope is there? If God is angry about the changes which recovery brings, what then? If God thinks we should be better by now, what do we do? Resistance to recovery that comes wrapped in Christian language is particularly painful because we know that the stakes are very high. If God really is the kind of God implied by these forms of resistance, then we might as well give up. That’s how it feels. We might as well give up.
Specifically Christian forms of resistance to recovery are also painful because we can easily end up feeling that we must make an impossible choice. It’s either God or recovery. Make a choice. But, if we choose recovery instead of God, we know it won’t work. Recovery is about God’s work in our lives. Spirituality is not an optional part of recovery – it is at the very heart of things. But, if we choose for God and reject recovery, that doesn’t work either. The kind of God we would wind up with is not a pretty picture – we would wind up with an attachment to an idol constructed out of our experiences with mortals – a God who is not God. Impossible choices can, of course, immobilize us. I can remember times when spiritually I felt like a deer caught in someone’s headlights – I couldn’t make a move but I had to move to survive.
Because resistance to recovery that comes wrapped in Christian language can be so painful, it is important to emphasize that responding to this kind of resistance is not just an intellectual exercise. We are not dealing here just with a conflict of ideas. Don’t misunderstand me, ideas are important. But what’s going on here is also a very emotionally complicated situation.
Suppose, for example, that you were married and someone in a position of authority were to come to you and say “I know you think your spouse is supportive of what you are doing, but you are wrong. They hate what you are doing and want you to stop.” The problem would not merely be a factual dispute about what your spouse thinks. The more important issue would be about trust. You would find yourself asking: “Is my spouse on my side or not?” and “Can I trust my spouse’s statements of love and support or not?” This is the dilemma we find ourselves in with God. Is God on our side or not? God says he loves us, but can we trust what he says? The issue raised by Christian resistance to recovery is whether or not we can trust God.
At the risk of saying the obvious, trust is a major league issue for many of us in recovery. We don’t always make good choices about who to trust. We have trusted people in the past and sometimes have been hurt. And we have trusted ourselves at times when we were not trustworthy. As a result, rebuilding our capacity to trust in relationships is an important part of the recovery journey. Perhaps it will clarify the trust aspects of this issue if we look at two common kinds of resistance, not so much to the personal dynamics of recovery, but to the development of recovery ministry in the local church.
Recovery will damage our reputation
When I first helped organize a support group in a local church, I needed the approval of the governing Board of the congregation. At the critical meeting, one of the Board members asked what turned out to be the key question: “Can you tell me one more time, Pastor Dale, why it is that you want more people like that to come to our church? Won’t it effect our reputation in the community?” Many people resist the development of recovery ministries because of concerns that the presence of ‘people like that’ will adversely effect the way people in the community perceive the congregation. One person put it to me like this: “To build a healthy congregation we need to find healthy families, not sick ones.”
Now, let’s be clear about one thing: this is not, in principle at least, a difficult issue. About this, Jesus was clear. “If you are well,” he said “you have no need for a physician”. Jesus never envisioned that his followers would create a community filled with presumptively ‘well’ people who would be anxious about the inclusion of people who might spoil the community’s reputation for being ‘well’. This kind of resistance to recovery ministry would, to Jesus at least, have seemed quite bizarre. This is not graduate level Christian theology we’re talking about here – not some esoteric point of debatable interpretation. This is your basic, back-to-the-Bible, Christianity 101 kind of issue. If the question “why would we want more alcoholics to come to our church?” is a difficult question, then we need to get back to the Bible and to reconnect with Jesus. Jesus’ passion was for ‘people like that’. It was ‘people like that’ that he invited into the center of his fellowship. He knew that the future of the fellowship he established would rest on the one-day-at-a-time faithfulness of ‘people like that’.
Now, just because the theological issues are fairly clear in this case, does not mean that resistance of this kind is easy to hear. Even when we can get the theological issues clear in our heads, our guts may still be hearing something like this: “God doesn’t want you here.” That’s what I hear, at least. I hear that God is hesitant, at best, to have me in his house. So, the real question is this: Can God be trusted to want me? Do I belong? Am I wanted? That’s the stuff that gets hooked when we experience this kind of resistance to recovery ministry.
Our part, then, is to work on our ‘hooks.’ I need to take full ownership of my ‘hooks’ and my ‘triggers.’ The point is that the emotional intensity of my response to this kind of resistance has a context. This is not the first time that I have been afraid that an important and powerful person in my life is hesitant to spend time with me. This is not the first time that I have been tempted to conclude that I am not wanted.
I can, however, use the occasion created by this resistance to recovery as an opportunity to grow in my recovery. I can face again the truth about me – I am not yet secure emotionally in the reality that I am wanted by God. And I can, once again, grieve over the circumstances which led to this fear of rejection. And, I can, once again, approach God, even with all of my fears, and ask the obvious question: “Do you want me?. And I can be surprised, again, when I find that God is not like the people who are hesitant to spend time with me. On the contrary, I can find, again and again, until eventually I start to take it in, that God is delighted to pay attention to me. I can come to know a little better the God who Zephaniah said “will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing”.
Recovery is great but irrelevant
It is, thankfully, becoming less common but I still occasionally talk to a pastor or congregational leader who says something like this: “I think recovery ministry is wonderful. I’m delighted that the Christian community is beginning to work in this area. And, if we had anyone in our congregation with these kinds of problems, I’m sure we would want to have a recovery ministry.” This kind of resistance to recovery ministry is also fairly simple to understand. It’s just plain, old-fashioned denial. It’s wrapped up a bit in supportive language, but basically it’s the same thing which most people whose lives are dominated by an addictive process will say: “We don’t have a problem”. It should not be a surprising form of resistance, I suppose. Most all of us have been there. “I don’t have a problem” is familiar territory for all of us. As a result, this kind of resistance is not usually difficult to identify for what it is.
But, even though it is not particularly complicated conceptually, resistance of this kind can hook a lot of pain in us. We may be able to figure this out in our heads but sometimes our guts will hear “God would prefer for you to pretend.” In terms of it’s emotional dynamics, the real issue is: can God be trusted with the truth about me? Or: wouldn’t God be able to get more done if I would just suck it up, put on my cheerful face and start counting my blessings? That’s, at least for me, what gets triggered when I encounter this kind of resistance to recovery ministry.
The opportunity for recovery in this for me, then, is to take another look at what gets triggered by “we don’t have any problems like that.” What I ‘hear’ is this: “Good Christians – like the folks in our congregation – have managed to avoid problems like this by being good.” And I also hear: “If you had been good, you wouldn’t need help either.” Again, my job is to work on my “triggers.” I am predisposed to ‘hear’ certain things. My ‘radar’ for this kind of stuff is turned up all the way. If I accept these triggers, grieve over the losses which created them and move on, then ‘getting hooked’ can be a temporary stage in the process of my recovery. But if I pretend that the problem is entirely external to me, then I run the risk of projecting my unconscious anxiety back onto other people – run the risk, in brief, of trying to change the things over which I have no control and ignoring the things over which I do have some control.
My job is to work on my stuff. If resistance to recovery comes in Christian language but it’s just plain, old denial, I can still use the occasion to reinvest in my recovery. I need to come back to the basics. God calls me out of pretense into honesty – away from denial of need and into confession. It is truth that frees me to seek the help, healing and forgiveness I need. I think I will always probably struggle with whether or not God will accept me if I tell the truth – but I don’t have to crash and burn every time this gets hooked. I can identify what’s going on, ask the obvious question (Can God be trusted with the truth?) and one-day-at-a-time seek to grow more deeply in my capacity to trust God.
There’s a lot more that could be said about Christian resistance to recovery. I have chosen not to focus primarily on the theological issues – which are real enough – but on the emotional dynamics of responding to resistance. Recognizing how I get triggered and using resistance as an occasion to work on my own recovery is only one of the elements of dealing in a healthy way with resistance. My hopes are that this will help you to continue your recovery even when you meet with resistance. My prayer is that in the process you will be empowered to sink your roots deeply in the soil of God’s love.