Category Archives: Spirituality

Why step two is complicated for Christians in recovery

In the Twelve Step program, step two is: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

In step one, we admit that we are powerless over addictive sexual behavior and our lives have become unmanageable. We learn that we’re not evil, rotten people, but loved by God and others, in spite of our faults. We don’t have to be alone – isolated from authentic relationships – any longer. By ourselves, we are unable to overcome the power of our dependence on sexual behavior. In essence, Step one is about admitting that we need outside help.

As old-timers in 12 step programs say, step two is about learning to see addiction is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution. This point is tricky for people who have a background in Christian teaching to understand. On the one hand, it seems to be an obvious reinforcement of the essence of the message we hear Sunday after Sunday: our problems have spiritual solutions … we need to turn to God for help.

The important question here is: “who is this ‘God’ we are turning to for help, and how do we expect to receive that help?”

The genius of the 12 step movement is also the thing that causes many Christians to view it with suspicion: the vague nature of how the Steps speak about God. This makes Christians nervous, because we want to be sure that we’re focusing on the God of the Bible.

But I have come to believe that many Christian people carry around in their heads ideas about God that have been filtered and distorted by their unprocessed abuse and abandonment, and further complicated by spiritually messed-up spiritual teaching they received during their formative years. Various views about who God is and how we relate to him can sound very “biblically-correct” but contradict other clear teaching in the Bible about God, and be very damaging to our souls.

The founders and early participants of the 12 step recovery movement recognized that overcoming addiction is tied to a spiritual awakening. But they also understood that nobody comes into recovery with a blank spiritual slate.

Some people have very little spiritual interest or experience prior to recovery, and so recovery involves embracing a faith they never had.

Other people come into the program with ideas about God that are distorted and childish. For them, the “spiritual awakening of recovery” involves a shift in their understanding and experience of faith, not moving from no-faith to faith. This is usually a process, it doesn’t happen overnight.

In my life, recovery has taught me to appreciate more fully that God’s grace in its various forms comes into my life through other people (I Peter 4:10). I have come to suspect any supposed spiritual insights that don’t get validation and reinforcement from the circle of trusted friends in my life. I also have come to suspect the validity and power of spiritual movements that move people away from honest interaction with others and into isolation and subjective spiritual experiences.

I mention this because it might help you understand that “coming to believe that God can restore us to sanity” is a lot less simple and a lot more profound than it first might appear. I invite you — and encourage you — to really reflect on this step, and talk about it with other recovery friends. What keeps the people I work with from an authentic Christian experience of life with God — and from recovery — is not irreligion … it’s bad religion.

* Note: this is an excerpt from the teaching in one of the days installments of the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program. You can learn more about this program here.

What does it mean to forgive?

The purpose of forgiving is to release our own minds from the pain of held resentment. We do not forgive others because that’s what nice people do. We forgive because it sets our minds free for other things – like living happily in the present.

This is not to say that in forgiving we do not acknowledge a painful relationship or past abuse. Forgiving is not suppressing our emotions or denying unpleasant realities. We have a right and a responsibility to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. Further, forgiving doesn’t mean being close to someone we need to keep our distance from or trying to return to the past to rework it.

Forgiving simply means that we are willing to live our lives from today forward without unwittingly recreating and replaying old scrips that we hold in our unconscious. We forgive ourselves and others with deliberate understanding. It means letting go of our attempts to hurt the person who hurt us. It is our quickest road to freedom.

(Remixed from “Forgiving and Moving On,” by Tian Dayton)

Releasing stored anger as part of recovery

To live in recovery, we must be willing to take responsibility for the anger that we carry within us. We are not bad people because we feel angry. No one wants to think of themselves as an angry person, and we are no exception. But when we refuse to acknowledge the anger and resentment that we have stored within us, two things happen:

(1) we turn our back on ourselves and refuse to accept a very important part of ourselves
(2) we ask the people close to us to hold our feelings for us, to be the containers of our unconscious, or the feelings inside of ourselves that we do not wish to see.

Because we deny our anger to ourselves does not mean that it goes away. We must be willing to consider that there might be something more to it, that we may be carrying feelings of anger that we need to accept.

Dealing with the anger inside us does not mean we need to act on it, and do or say things that might hurt others. Owning it and working through it could be accomplished by taking a walk, or meditating, or journaling, to sort out what we’re feeling and why. It may also be helpful to talk through our feelings with a safe and trusted friend or counselor, rather than rushing to confront the person we’re angry at.

Are we willing to own our anger?

(This is a meditation remix … adapted from Tian Dayton’s wonderful book “Forgiving and Moving On“)

Accepting and dealing with inner emptiness

A common result of growing up with trauma and deprivation is what some therapists call an inability to “self sooth.” In healthy families parents model and teach their kids how to comfort themselves when they feel angry, stressed, or sad. When that doesn’t happen – especially when kids grow up with an over-abundance of stress and sadness – this is experienced as an inner emptiness that gives rise to unhealthy coping strategies later in life (including addictions, workaholism, and codependency).

This inner emptiness is a challenge for many people, and it doesn’t just go away when we grow in a relationship with God. The famous quote by Saint Augustine that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God” is true enough about life in general, but we’re talking about the void that is created by suffering in early life and an absence of nurture.

This inner emptiness gives rise to addiction, and creates challenges for people in recovery. Many clients report that after experiencing some time of sobriety, they will struggle with times of “restlessness,” not knowing what to do with themselves. Think of being at home on a Sunday afternoon, and nothing sounds interesting or engaging enough to do. Nothing on TV, work projects seem to require too much energy, no social engagement planned … nothing seems appealing. This is often associated with depression, but it’s something more, and can be present even when other depressive symptoms are absent. It’s an inner emptiness, or restlessness. You used to cope with this by using, or acting out. Now what?

Let me offer a “Meditation Remix” (extended quote from a meditation book with a few adaptations by me). This is from a wonderful meditation book by Tian Dayton, called Forgiving and Moving On. Pick it up if you can. Here’s a remix of her meditation on “Accepting Emptiness.”

Today I see that anxiety arises inside of me when I fear my own inner emptiness. I run from the feeling and try to find activities to keep me from it. I will try something different today. I will accept the emptiness and allow it to be there. Rather than be anxious about it, I will realize that worry will not help remove or reduce it. I will relax and let the emptiness just be there without running away from it or resisting it.

Eventually the feeling will transform into something else and I will allow that to happen. Awareness of a painful state can be all that I need to transform that state into something different. It is in my resisting feeling states that they gain a hold over me – when I allow them to be, they are allowed the room to move and change.

I would add that if the emptiness really seems overwhelming, you may want to reach out to someone else. Make a call, visit a friend … do something outside of yourself. What Dayton is talking about is learning to manage our emotions by sitting with them and allowing them to be transformed. But sometimes – especially in early recovery – we may not be ready or able to do this, and we need to get out of our isolation.

But by all means, if you feel ready to try it, follow Dayton’s advice in this meditation. Sometimes the only way out is through, and the feeling of inner emptiness may be powerfully transformed just by facing it.


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A new study suggests that loneliness could be contagious

A new study suggests that feelings of loneliness can spread through social networks like the common cold.

“People on the edge of the network spread their loneliness to others and then cut their ties,” says Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston, a coauthor of the new study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “It’s like the edge of a sweater: You start pulling at it and it unravels the network.”

Christakis and Fowler examined data from a long-term health study based in Framingham, Mass., a small town where many of the study’s participants knew each other. The Framingham study followed thousands of people over 60 years, keeping track of physical and mental heath, habits and diet.

Click here for a full article about this study on the website.

Facing our love / hate experience with God

I am increasingly convinced that spiritual inauthenticity is a major roadblock for many Christians in recovery. When we try to convince ourselves to believe something we don’t really believe, or when we struggle with thoughts and feelings about God that “we shouldn’t have,” we get stuck. There are no easy answers here, but I believe it is essential to face our questions, doubts, and jumble of feelings about God in an honest way if our recovery is going to be sustainable.

To that end, I want to share an article written by Sallie Culbreth, Founder of Committed to Freedom, an organization that helps “provide people with spiritual tools to move beyond abuse.” This article was sent in a newsletter, and I’m quoting it in its entirety, because I don’t know where I can link to. It’s worth reading.

This is an article about honesty . . . and honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with God. I’ve been on the up and down roller coaster of belief and doubt, righteousness and debauchery, faithfulness and apostasy. I know that’s disturbing to a lot of people, but God gets that completely . . . gets me completely. Gets you completely too.

Let me be the first to admit that I don’t have many answers, especially when it comes to God. Honestly, the ministry of Committed to Freedom began because of my own spiritual search for answers to questions that really have no good answers. The dilemma for anyone who has experienced trauma or suffering is to have co-existing contradictions. God is love. Suffering is real. God has the capacity to create. Trauma has the capacity to destroy. The idea of God being powerful and one who intervenes in the circumstances of our lives held up in contrast to unanswered prayer, vulnerable people being abused and exploited, or diseases that progress, ravage, and destroy. Like I said: love/hate.

Continue reading Facing our love / hate experience with God

Let go of worry

Very little of what we fear actually happens, which means that most of our fears cause us to worry unnecessarily. Doesn’t it make sense to learn how to better cope with fear?

I love the saying. “If you can’t do anything about it, why worry? And if you can do something about it, why worry?” This has helped me deal with many struggles in the past years of recovery.

So many of the things I worry about are things I can’t do anything to change anyway. So why not just let go of the worry, and deal with problems if – and only if – they come up? I think it was Mark Twain who said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

On the other hand, if there are things I can do about a given situation, nothing will help ease the anxiety I have more effectively than taking action. It’s hard to worry when you’re taking action about something. This is not to suggest that we take action for action’s sake, or that we charge forward without thinking or planning ahead. The point is, if there are steps (or courses of action) we can take to deal with a situation that is causing us worry, stop worrying and do them!

If you can’t do anything about it, why worry? And if you can do something about it, why worry?

The following strategies can help, but of course, if you fear for your safety, get help right away:

  • Accept that fear is a normal and temporary way of feeling
  • Face your fears each day without resorting to addictive behavior to numb your feelings
  • Remind yourself that worrying about things you can’t control is a waste of time
  • Hand your fears over to God
  • Use the serenity prayer to let go of stress and worry
  • Keep working the steps of recovery, especially when your motivation is low
  • Spend time in fun, sober activities to take your mind off your problems

The Spiritual Questions and Challenges of Recovery – free teleseminar July 23

We’re hosting a free teleseminar on Thursday night, July 23. This teleseminar is open to anyone who’d like to learn more about recovery from sexual struggle, either for themselves or someone they know. The theme will be: The spiritual questions and challenges of recovery.

Many people who come into recovery with a strong religious background find that their faith complicates things. The reverse is also the case: their addiction complicates their experience of faith. They struggle to figure out why the spiritual approaches they tried in the past didn’t work. I have come to believe that for some of us who come out of church backgrounds, recovery will involve unlearning as well as learning. As the saying goes in AA, “it was our own best thinking that got us into the mess that we’re in.” Let’s face it: for many Christians, struggle with addiction creates a crisis of faith as well as a crisis of life and relationships.

Some people are disappointed or even angry at God for not answering their prayers for healing from their addiction in the past. Some people struggle with heightened sense of shame around their behaviors (“Since I’m a Christian and have access to God’s power to change my life, why am I not getting this?”).  Some people deal with unspoken questions and doubts about their faith. Other people find that approaches to recovery that involve compassion for their past wounding are hard to reconcile with the stern moralistic tone of what they have been taught is “biblical” Christianity. They find it hard to balance the psychological insights they encounter in recovery with the black and white “just trust God and don’t do it” teaching that they’ve grown accustomed to from their church.

In this teleseminar, I will address these spiritual challenges, talking about my own experiences of recovery after 15 years as a pastor of two evangelical churches. I’ll address topics such as:

  • Why so many prayers for recovery go unanswered
  • How “faith” helps and hinders recovery
  • What is God’s part and what is my part in recovery
  • How to deal with it as a believer when important recovery insights come from non-believers

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this topic! Many men that I know and work with in recovery are facing profound struggles with this topic, and there are few places where we can talk honestly about them. I certainly don’t want to present myself as having “arrived” in any way, shape, or form with respect to this issue, but I do want to share what I am learning.

When will it take place?
· Date: July 23 (Thursday)
· Time: 7:00pm, central standard time

How much will it cost? free

How long will it last? 60 minutes

To register, send an email with your name, phone number, and email address to: