I recently went to a 12 step program as an assignment for an Addictions Counseling class that I am taking. My only exposure to 12 programs have been in television shows and movies, and most of them have been Alcoholics Anonymous. Generally speaking, when you see something medical or psychological being presented on screen, it’s probably not very accurate. It’s the reason my wife, a nurse, gets upset at any show where a doctor or nurse gets involved in any way.
“That’s not how it would happen in real life!”
Recently I have also found this to be true whenever a counselor or therapist is being portrayed. Oftentimes the client is lying down on a long leather couch with the therapist behind the client just listing and scribbling things down on a notepad. Maybe somewhere in the world that is how someone counsels still…but nowhere that I know of.
Anyway, I digress, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the 12 step meeting. Do people really all say their name and everyone repeats their name back? (Yes.) Do people say that they are an alcoholic, or a sexoholic, or a drug addict? Really? (Yes.) Surely they’ve got to have a table with stale doughnuts and coffee at the back of the room, right? (Nope.)
The group I went to was a bit unique. It was for both genders, and allowed for any addiction. Anyone who feels they have a destructive behavior in their life that they want to overcome is welcome to come. And as we started, the twelve steps were read at a pace for us to think about them in relation to our own lives. And after they had all been read, the leader said that today we’d be going back and focusing on the first step. This was fortunate, considering this was the first meeting I had ever attended.
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable
Here is a description about step one from 12step.org:
Step 1 is the first step to freedom. I admit to myself that something is seriously wrong in my life. I have created messes in my life. Perhaps my whole life is a mess, or maybe just important parts are a mess. I admit this and quit trying to play games with myself anymore. I realize that my life has become unmanageable in many ways. It is not under my control anymore. I do things that I later regret doing and tell myself that I will not do them again. But I do. I keep on doing them, in spite of my regrets, my denials, my vows, my cover-ups and my facades. The addiction has become bigger than I am. The first step is to admit the truth of where I am, that I am really powerless over this addiction and that I need help.
The key here in step one is the admission of powerlessness.
After reading step one, and a few comments from the leader, those in attendance were encouraged to share their stories. The room itself was not some cold tiled-floor room with metal folding chairs with a podium. (I assume these do exist.) The room we were in was like someone’s living room. Couches and nice chairs. Pictures and paintings framed on the wall. A fireplace. It was a warm environment.
People started sharing their stories, starting with their name and then stating their addictions. For most there was more than just one addiction. But the addictions that everyone was mentioning varied. Sex, porn, masturbation, overeating, compulsive eating, video games, and the list goes on. Some people had been working through these addictions for 50 years. But people shared their experiences, from their heart. Not in a “look where I have come from” or “look how hard I have it” way. But in a deeply sincere, honest and humble manner. As people shared my heart was heavy and sober, yet unexpectedly joyful.
This place was fascinating. People were sharing their deepest, darkest secrets and I had met them literally five minutes ago. These people were brave. These people were courageous. I was inspired by them.
Even though we were sitting around in a circle sharing our most shameful behaviors, the ickiest parts of our lives, I thought to myself, “This feels…so…HOLY. This is how the CHURCH should be.”
I think it was the honesty. The truth behind all that everyone was sharing. These people weren’t hiding behind any excuses. They were admitting they needed help and they were powerless. This sense of honesty and transparency filled the room. Isn’t that core to the understanding of what the Gospel is? We are powerless to overcoming sin on our own. We can try, but we’ll always fail. We all need to humble ourselves and admit that we need God.
The feeling of holiness in that room and my thoughts of how this felt like how the church should be stuck with me. Why doesn’t the church look like this? A number of reasons come to mind:
1. “When I go to church, I just want to escape life, relax, and be encouraged.” People deal with hard and busy days all week. Families, friends, work, bills, health, housework, etc. We’re busy and tired people. Oftentimes the last thing we want to get into at church is having to talk about such things. We want to come to church to escape the week — to just relax and be encouraged for half a second before having to go back into the stressful world.
2. “I don’t want to burden other people with my problems.” We oftentimes only see these people once a week. There’s really not time to get to the honest and hard parts of our life with these people. They’d probably be willing to help, but they’re busy too. The last thing I want to do is burden them with my troubles.
3. “If I share what life is really like, I will be seen as a bad Christian.” Church is not a place to “get real” with each other. It’s a place to be happy, smile, and act like everything is ok. We’re Christians! We’ve got to be joyful! If we admit that we are out of control or that our lives are messy then we might seem like we are not “good Christians.”
4. “If I share what life is really like, people will judge me and I could lose my position in the church.” In the same vein as above, the idea that if I tell or show people what my life is really like people will judge me, and I will lose respect and potentially even my leadership position in the church.
5. “Anytime I have tried to talk about my problems with others, no one takes the time to really see how I’m doing.” Maybe a person has tried to be a bit vulnerable about their problems, or they’ve tried to reach out, and the response they’ve gotten was more of a pat on the back and a “I’ll pray for you.” When this happens there is rarely much followup, and perhaps even an avoidance because we feel awkward about having to deal with an uncomfortable situation with someone else.
I could probably write pages and pages in response to these five thoughts that I’ve just identified. And I am sure there are dozens of more thoughts that keep us from sharing our issues with people at church. Things which keep us from being real and honest.
One of the main reasons that this bugs me so much is because if we do hear about those who are deeply struggling with an addiction or a destructive behavior in their lives, it’s almost always after those people have hit rock bottom or have been caught. When we find out that a person in the church has been addicted to gambling, or pornography, or fill in the blank, it seems that it is almost always after years and years of struggling.
We act surprised. “Wow! Who knew they had been addicted for 20 years!?” When I hear about that, I put part of the blame on the church. If we find out that someone had been struggling with addiction or a particular sin for the entire time they had been a part of our church, part of that is on us. They might have been good about hiding it. Their families might not have even really known. But that just means that we’re not asking the right questions. We’re not willing to get into the real parts of people’s lives. It’s one thing if the person straight up lies to us when we ask the hard questions, but I’m guessing most of the time those hard questions are never asked.
Also, maybe the fear of being judged is a legitimate fear. If they had come out and told people at the church that they were addicted to pornography or alcohol or video games how would the church respond? Would we instantly try to FIX the person? Would we be aghast about their sin, their addiction?
We need to be people who are not surprised by sin. We preach and talk about total depravity and how we are all sinners, and then we are shocked and surprised when someone admits they are sinning. To be Christian does not mean to always give the benefit of the doubt. People struggle with addictions, sins, and our lives are messy because of it. I think I need to be surprised when I found out someone’s life IS NOT like that rather than the other way around. We should assume that people are dealing with something hard in their life. This generates a place of mercy, grace, and empathy in our attitude towards others. I have probably mentioned it in other posts, but I am struck by the quote,
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
It helps orient my attitude toward others. Life is complicated. And we need to learn how to best help others, carry one another’s burdens, and to love well. We are too often focused on being RIGHT. I think we need to focus more on being LOVE.