This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Overcoming Addiction” seminar. This portion is an excerpt from “Step Four: REPENT TO GOD for how my sin replaced and misrepresented Him.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
The identity of God is a significant point of controversy in Christian recovery circles. The generic “God of your understanding” that can be a chair or a doorknob makes many Christians uncomfortable. However, this utilization of the “God of your understanding” phrase departs significantly from how Bill Wilson, founder of AA, originally used the phrase.
The original usage was meant to be an expression of humility, not universalism. Bill Wilson recognized that he, like all of us, have many misconceptions about God, and that as he pursued God these misconceptions would be progressively corrected. None of us have a completely accurate view of God when we first come to faith or begin recovery. We reach out to God as we understand him at that time. Like in any relationship, the depth and accuracy of our knowledge grows with time.
In this material, we do not believe all conceptions of deity are equal. We believe there is one true God, who stepped into time in the form of Jesus Christ, lived the life we were supposed to live, died the death our sin deserves, and is scandalously willing to offer his righteousness for our surrender. Talking to any other god is a form of talking to ourselves and has the power of talking to a doorknob or a chair.
In this section, we will look at common misconceptions about God that hinder our willingness to forsake our addiction and surrender to His care. You will find that correcting these misunderstandings is more than an intellectual exercise. Placing an increasing amount of emotional weight on these truths (trust) takes time.
Knowing God is more than knowing propositions. Having a relationship with a president is different from knowing their name, hair color, and facial features. Over time you will find that the God you talk to in prayer is more and more the one true God. That doesn’t mean you’ve been placing the wrong “mailing address” on your prayers, but that your knowledge of the person who lived at that address was skewed. God receives our prayers even when we don’t know him well.
To whom you pray is more important than what you say. Too often we are not praying to the one-true God who made us with a purpose and loves us beyond measure (Eph. 2:8-10). Too often we think our words have to convince a stingy God to be generous with us. Too often we believe that God is only paying attention to our lives when we speak up and turn his head.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God… The most (determining) fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like (p. 1).” A. W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holy
What we want to do in this section is to debunk four misconceptions about God that make repentance either seem powerless or punitive. With each we will provide counter-arguments to help you see how a right relationship with God is foundational to enjoyable sobriety. When we don’t know God accurately or rely on him fully, then other areas of life will necessarily begin to try to fill a role that is too large for them.
1. God as Unemotional
The number one reason we avoid repentance is because we think God is more concerned about what we’ve done (addictive behavior) than what we’re going through (what we’re escaping through addiction). It feels as if God is only concerned about our sin and not our suffering. Our expectation of God’s response to our repentance is Him sarcastically saying, “What did you think was going to happen?”
“The problem comes when you misinterpret that warning light to mean, ‘God is mad at me (p. 84)’… The process of being forgiven can’t end with your bad feelings. It must end with an acknowledgement of God’s holiness and love. He doesn’t treat you as your sin deserves (p. 85).” Ed Welch in Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction
But think about the way your addiction is affecting you and those you love (step two). Would God be loving if he were content for you to multiply these effects? God is concerned about your sin because it’s multiplying your suffering.
God wants to bring comfort to the parts of your history that contribute to your addiction (history components of steps two and three). But you must trust him enough to forsake your self-destruction before you can experience his comfort.
Read Hebrews 2:14-18. Notice how important Jesus’ compassion is for the gospel. God was not merely concerned to pay the full price for our sin (e.g., propitiation) so that we could get into heaven; he was also very concerned that we know he understands our struggles, so that we would want to be near him. Heaven is not meant to be an eternal all-inclusive vacation where there is so much to enjoy we never get bored. Heaven is about being with our heart’s-desire, God himself, so the gospel must contain this kind of emotional-relational concern.
Do this thought experiment. Review the history for your addiction you wrote out in steps two and three. Imagine reading this to God as a prayer for how you’re hurting. Now look up and imagine what expression is on God’s face. Is he angry or compassionate; frustrated with you or concerned for you? Now read the end of Hebrews 2 again. Does your instinctual response accurately represent God?
Realize that God doesn’t want you to know him accurately so that you can pass a theology test and pray fancy prayers. God wants you to know who he is so you will turn to him in hard times and allow him to be a refuge from Satan’s lies, a comfort in hard times, and the Savior from your sin.
2. God as Irrelevant
Okay, so God cares; what can he do? God’s not going to make the addictive cravings disappear. God’s not going to instantly change my neuro-chemistry so that my brain doesn’t feel like it needs my drug-of-choice to feel normal; that was his work anyway. So I understand that God cares, doesn’t that still leave everything up to me and my choices?
Yes and no. God won’t change you against your will. God is a gentleman and will not force himself upon you. In that sense, everything is up to you and your choices. But relationships enhance the number of choices that are available to us. In isolation, you have the choices that your strength, wisdom, or abilities provide.
When it’s just you, it’s your desire to be sober against your distorted-desire to [blank; insert dominant desire(s) from step 3]. Good intentions are simply that… good intentions; what we know we should do until what we want to do trumps wisdom. When it’s just you, it’s your word against your word. Your voice, “I’m bored… hurting… worthless,” competing with your voice, “Drinking will only make it worse.”
When God enters, “healthy” and “happy” no longer have to compete, because God’s voice can serve as the final-loving arbitrator between our fickle desires. This doesn’t mean we can’t choose what is destructive, but it does mean we have more options than we did when we were alone and that we can pursue those options in God’s strength.
Read Matthew 11:28-30. In this passage, God represents us as weary oxen carrying a load too great for us. He offers to share that yoke – the piece of wood fashioned to connect two oxen to a plow. God offers to come alongside of us to offer his strength to our toils and to guide the process. It was customary practice in biblical times to pair an inexperienced ox with an experienced one, so that the older ox could guide the younger one to plow straight. God’s relevance does not eliminate our requirement to “walk out” the change process, but God does offer needed strength and direction for the task that is too great for our strength.
3. God as Unpleasable:
“I won’t ever do it good enough for God. After all, doesn’t God require perfection? There is no way I going to be sober every day for the rest of my life. I get that God is beside me, but I know me. I’ll stray even with a yoke-thingy connecting me to God. I’m an expert at wandering.”
It may be helpful to think of repentance as a commitment rather than a promise. God makes promises. He can keep them. We make commitments. We would break promises, but can continue in one direction even after we slip. Our repentance is not a promise never to fail again, but a perpetually renewed commitment to follow after God and what he designed to be satisfying for our lives.
Realize, God is pleased with progress as much as, often more than, perfection. When God designed the Christian life he decided to transform our character over time; this is something theologians call “progressive sanctification.” This was God’s idea and not a concession he made because we couldn’t do any better. God, as the epitome of a good father, delights in the maturation of his children over time. He loves being part of the process of growth.
Read Hebrew 10:14. Contrast the verb tenses. In the ESV, it says God “has perfected” (past completed action) those who are “being sanctified” (ongoing action). This is not a contradiction, but a picture. Why is it that God is not so displeased with your failures that he would give up on you? He knows what he has already made you. Why is God still calling you to faith and obedience? This is how he brings into reality of what he has already guaranteed. As you faithfully, yet imperfectly follow, God faithfully and perfectly keeps his promise.
4. God as Unapproachable
Until you come to him, all these truths about God are merely “nice thoughts.” God must be approached or we are alone with our addiction. God is compassionate, relevant, and pleasable in Christ. This, however, does not remove your responsibility to come to him.
This is where many people pull up short. They learn many things about God. They learn how God feels about them and what he’s done to make renewed relationship possible. But they don’t come to him. For some this is failing to come to God for saving-faith (initial salvation). For others it is a failure to come to God for sustaining-faith (ongoing battle with indwelling sin). Either way, information is mistaken for relationship.
Think of a child with a favorite sports hero. The child could tell you that player’s every statistic and piece of life history. But what they have is information, not relationship. If that player was the child’s father, then they would play catch, shoot baskets, get ice cream, cry, ask questions, and just hang out. That would be relationship. Have you brought all of your life, not just your addictive struggle, to God in this way?
Read Hebrews 4:14-16. Underline the phrase “with confidence draw near” (or the equivalent phrase in your translation). Does this describe your relationship with God? God intends to be supremely approachable. If you did not have parents who were approachable in this way, it may feel very odd to have this kind of father-child relationship with God. But don’t allow that lack of familiarity to prevent you from embracing what God offers. Repentance is not punishment, it’s not God putting you in time out to think about what you did. Rather, repentance is God’s provision to allow the relationship he always intended to have with you to be restored.
Read Romans 2:4. Notice that it is the kindness of God that brings us to repentance. This is what accounts for the risk of repentance. The outcome is guaranteed; God has already promised forgiveness. We hesitate not because we doubt the offer, but because we doubt the character of the one making the offer. Before moving to the next section on the key elements of repentance, realize your ability to have this conversation will be directly proportional to how much you trust the character of the one with whom you’re having this conversation.
Reflection: How has this section challenged your view of God? How is God different than you imagined him to be?
“In the case of addiction, we see precisely the opposite relationship between shame and addictive behavior. For persons with addictions, shame is not a check on addictive behavior but rather an impetus to it. Shame and guilt are moral deficiencies that, in the addictive mind, can be redressed through addictive behavior (p. 95).” Kent Dunnington in Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice
One of the main goals for this section has been to reduce the shame often associated with addiction. We often fail to deal with the guilt of addiction through repentance because we are paralyzed by the shame of addiction. It may be beneficial to differentiate a couple of types of shame from the experiences of guilt and regret.
- Guilt is a sense of legitimate condemnation in response to personal sin. God resolves guilt through forgiveness and we access God’s remedy through repentance.
- Shame can be a sense of identity we take on as we allow our sin to define us. God resolves this type of shame by providing us with an identity greater and more lasting than our sin, and we access God’s remedy by continually embracing this new identity. Self-deprecating statements are a sign we’re living out of our old shame-based identity.
- Shame can be a sense of illegitimate condemnation in response to suffering. God resolves this type of shame with comfort and acceptance, and we access God’s remedy by entrusting God with our sorrows (Matthew 5:4) and countering the impact of suffering in our lives. Addiction is often an alternative-empty remedy for this type of shame.
- Regret is a form of grief for a reasonable good circumstance that was never realized. Addiction introduces many regret-based griefs into our lives. God promises that the life of future obedience is sweeter than past regret is bitter. We realize God’s promise is true when we grieve our regrets without allowing them to distract us from obedience.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Addiction” post which address other facets of this subject.