Recovery is characterized by relapse.
I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.
Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.
What it means is that we are sunk without grace.
Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and all twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.
Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.
Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …
Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.
So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?
For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).
Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.
And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:
- The practice of it makes a habit.
- The habit of it ruins your influence.
- The persistence of it destroys trust.
And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.
So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?
If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.
Thank you once again for a wonderful, thoughtful post! As someone who is in continual recovery it serves as a great encouragement. I read not long ago a line from an Orthodox monk, who, when asked, “What do you do when you ‘fall’?” said, “We get back up.” In one of John Wesley’s sermons, he says something similar, giving a rhythm of repentance, confession, and faith. The more I study early Methodism (and vital Pietism) the more it becomes apparent that these were a part of the recovery movement before the recovery movement. Further, as one who is in recovery (and been there for a long time, now) I appreciate Christian Orthodoxy and the doctrines of the Church which say that grace is the power of God which comes from outside myself. Yes, it penetrates and transforms, but it is always of God and not myself. Bonhoeffer wrote (in Discipleship) that the call of Christ from outside myself (“follow me”) not only makes me an individual, but bids me to move outside myself. The call of Jesus frees me from the worst master: me.