by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
Have you seen any of those reality television shows where someone purchases an older, run-down house and “flips it”? Cable networks have a show called Property Brothers. There is usually a couple looking to purchase a new home. They have their wish list of what they would like in their new house. There are these two brothers. One is a big-time realtor and the other a builder. They show the couple a beautiful home with everything on their wish list. The house costs a small fortune and isn’t even close to being within their budget. The couple pretends they have never actually seen this program they are on and act upset that they were shown a house they cannot realistically afford. Why would these property brothers do that?
The realtor brother then show the couple an older home that is a wreck. The carpet is old and stained. The wallpaper is outdated and ugly. The place is a mess. There is mold everywhere, cracks in the foundation, rotted wood throughout the base of the house. There might even be dead mice laying around. It’s altogether ruined; destroyed; disgusting.
The builder brother pulls up the carpet and reveals the original hardwood. Wipes the hardwood with a wet rag and the finish still looks good. He shows the couple computer renderings of design ideas after walls are removed and the house is restored to its original beauty… how the house can again be what it was always meant to be.
The couple looking at the hideous-looking house struggle to believe it is possible to restore this house to its most innocent state; it’s original condition. They are persuaded to take on the challenge and they buy the house. By the end of the program, through the hard work of recovery, the house is restored into something once again beautiful and given new life.
The couple moves their family into what feels like a brand new house. The outside of the house still shows its age. But on the inside… Wow… Amazing! The house is full of life and love. The house is valued and taken care of. Only the best for this home.
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)
This chapter is quite long. But it is the story of my work counseling men who live in prison cells because of the mess they have made of their house. For many of them, their families have moved out. No one wants to live in their life with them until there is house is gutted and rebuilt and given new life; so that which was dead is alive again in the hope of being restored to its original condition… something quite beautiful.
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity. Psalm 68:6 (NKJV)
Most folks have heard or read about the ongoing conflict within each one of us that the Bible declares in the New Testament (Romans, chapter 7) is the war within; the conflict—internal disagreement—within the soul on how to secure what it believes it needs. The passage suggests that what really matters to the author is his desire to do good. He writes, “What I want to do I don’t do… what I don’t want to do, that I do.” Because of the “power at war with my mind, I inevitably do what is wrong”.
There is the tendency to give into temptation’s lure, craving instant gratification, surrendering to its seductive appeal. Well-intended desires are overcome by a writhing sense of entitlement (feeling deserving); godly values are compromised, yielding to self-indulgent behavior. Entitlement promotes rationalizations and justifications to behave poorly; behavior that is connected to adverse consequences and destructive outcomes. I want to do right, but there is another power at war with my mind and I inevitably do wrong; the opposite of right. I do bad things; the opposite of good things.
In my occupation as a counselor, my clients (treated for substance abuse and dependency) prefer to believe that they are generally good people who have made mistakes. Our treatment groups discuss some of those mistakes; and how some may be quite severe. Then, speaking for myself as someone engaged in recovery, I will tell my therapy group that I AM A BAD GUY. I tell them that if I was good, I would not need to be better. I wouldn’t need recovery.
Being that I am a bad guy, unworthy and undeserving of favor, and considering that I am guilty of crimes before God (that is, if there really is a God), I tend to fall into the trap of believing and feeling unworthy and undeserving. In times when I give into temptation and sin against God, it can be that I live as though God doesn’t exist; as if there was no law or moral standard to live under. If God is anything like Santa Claus, the only thing coming to me is a lump of coal and misfortune. You know, what goes around comes around, reap what you sow, and all that.
Working with incarcerated men, my clients often live as though society’s laws and expectations don’t matter much. For many of my clients who have committed crimes against society, the existence of God carries a higher moral standard and a brutal feeling of judgment against such moral high ground. That’s not good. They feel like they don’t stand a chance against that, so some deny that God exists. After all, the way they see it, they have been living as though he doesn’t. So, therefore, God cannot exist.
I admit to the men that identify God as relevant, that there are times when I behave and entertain thoughts as though he doesn’t exist. I admit that I am selfish and carry around a sense of entitlement that drives me to get what I feel I deserve. I admit that I am selfish enough to risk certain freedoms to chase contentment through instant gratification, even if it means justifying a wrong and making it right to satisfy a “need”; to get what I deserve.
Good Guy, Bad Guy
About that, I’ve been asked, “What is good?” and “What is bad?” One client brought up in group that when even Jesus was identified by someone as a “good” teacher (Rabbi), he responded, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Why would Jesus say that? How did Jesus define ‘good’? If Jesus, having lowered himself from divine standing, wasn’t good, was he bad?
What is the standard for good? Whatever the moral standard is for ‘good’, anything less than good is not good enough, or is in fact, ‘bad’. If ‘good’ is rated at one hundred percent and ‘evil’ is rated at zero percent, what are the scores in between? A score of 70 is less than good, as is a score of 30. The 70 would be on the positive side of the scale trending toward good, while 30 would be negative and trending toward evil. What if the same approach was applied to the standard of right and wrong? Thirty percent right might feel more wrong than seventy percent right. But anything less than one hundred percent right is, in fact, wrong… right? So is anything less than one hundred percent good, in fact, bad?
It is written in the New Testament that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Jesus declared that all who have sinned have become slaves to sin and selfishness (John 8:34). I write that for your benefit. It’s not something I share with my clients.
It is also written that we reap what we sow. There are logical consequences that follow bad (less than good) behavior. So long as we pour into the pot where evil brews, stirring it up from time to time, it follows that when evil is poured out, it doesn’t discriminate where it strikes or who gets dumped on. It finds its way through the cracks of humanity, permeating its depths, only to corrupt and contaminate it. Now that I do share with my clients. It is not something too abstract for their understanding. They may not like it; and some will contest these notions of how to define bad and good; but comprehension does not appear to be the issue. Acceptance is the issue. The healthy, while sometimes heated, debate speaks to that.
I suggest to my clients that good cannot do bad, since good and bad are opposite from each other, just as right and wrong are opposite from each other, and it is not in the nature of good (right) to do bad (wrong). That’s not to say that bad cannot identify good, and have a conscience about it. Since I was created good, having gone bad, through recovery I can be restored back into good. I tell my clients that through transformation from my “Higher Power” I can be good again, then empowered to do good. But by nature, I am bad and will do bad unless I am transformed into something new and good, empowered each day to do good; to do better.
My clients are in prison… all of them. It is a delicate thing to tell them who are labeled as bad by society that I, who leave the facility each day, have through my choices and behavior, become bad. Most of the men are wounded with lowered self-esteem and have rather fragile, almost child-like, temperament. So I navigate carefully through this matter of right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and sick, helpful and harmful.
Before my client came to prison, major dysfunction had become “normal” to him. If he knew his father, more often than not he was abused by his father in some way; perhaps severely beaten, even tortured by dad. If dad wasn’t around it was likely because he was locked up, doing time in the criminal justice system. It is normal for my client to need and carry a weapon; usually an unregistered firearm. Before prison, it was normal for my client to use drugs. It was just as normal for his mother to use illegal drugs. It was normal for his mother to be beaten by his father and then, after his father left the house for good, mom’s boyfriends beat her before she married one of them. He continued the beating after he moved in and then beat his “stepchildren” up pretty good, too (including my client)—a “normal” household. It was normal for the entire neighborhood of “normal households” to be mired in chaos and severe dysfunction.
Many of the men I am trying to help have been broken and hit rock bottom. Many others, even though they are in a drug program, still have a whole lot more digging to do before they hit some kind of bottom. Those clients are often still caught up in criminal thinking, contemplating the thrill—the “high”—of the criminal lifestyle. So while some of the men are ripe for change, there are some that are quite resistant, and therefore, reluctant to change.
While working at the prison is perhaps the most rewarding experience of my professional life, it is easily the most challenging. When I was counseling substance abusers prior to working at the prison, it had its definite challenges. There are always those that, even though their lives are captivated by loss, dysfunction, and harm, are still “in love” with their “medication” and resistant to losing that which remedies the pain of all they have lost because of alcohol and drug abuse. I used to tell those folks that if their patterns and habits do not change, they will continue to lose until they end up sick, dead, or in prison.
Then God called me to work at a prison. I find working with inmates at the prison, that talk of being bad does not resonate well with a number of the men, who have been beaten down and have taken so many hits to their self-esteem growing up. They were misunderstood, mistreated and judged long before even committing a crime. So imagine the sense of failure and guilt. The use of the word bad points back at my clients, putting the focus on them and what they have done. These men can be most vulnerable in their insecurities about how bad they are.
What do you typically think occurs when I move away the term bad, and replace it with the term harm? When I change from the concept of bad to the concept of harm, the focus turns to the ones that have been hurt by the fires set by their loved one sitting across from me in group, and it forces the guys to pay attention to those they have harmed. Their families and friends are now the focus. There is a broadened perspective and understanding of addictive and criminal behavior and how they have been burned by the fires set when engaged with the life of the client.
The work we do at the prison is substantial. Most people in prison will not remain there. They are getting out at some point. Many of the men have been humbled by their prison experience and will return to society in better shape than when they left. If you met these guys on the grounds at the jail, they would be some of the nicest guys you ever met… kind, polite, and gracious.
Others will be released from their cage and will return to their community more driven by a criminal mind than before they were locked up, except that they had time to learn from their mistakes and draw up new and improved plans to do what they know and love to do. They are vessels of damage and destruction in their communities. Many of these guys would also be some of the nicest guys you ever met… kind, polite and gracious. But when they get with “their people” you wouldn’t think they were the guys you ran into in the prison setting. As stated, these men too will be released… sooner than later.
They are those who will again return to a lifestyle that includes drugs and booze. The “street life” of dealing, hustling, and robbing people they will tell you is packed with pressure. It is a stressful life. These guys can become paralyzed by paranoia and will admit to being afraid, but more often than not are prepared to do what they must when they’re feeling desperate having been backed into the proverbial corner. “If you’re prepared to take my life then I am prepared to take yours.” It seems hopeless to them to sustain recovery and those men return to survival mode to cope with life in the streets.
Each day that I enter the prison to go to work, my objective is to reach out to both types (the hopeful and the hopeless) and offer them a genuine sense of hope and purpose. For the men fighting to survive, I seek to paint a far brighter picture than the darkness they are anticipating when he returns to “normalville”.
He gathers together the outcasts… He heals the brokenhearted
And binds up their wounds. Psalms 147:2-3 (NKJV)
A lot of the men I am referring to would tell you that they believe in God and that Jesus Christ saved them from for their sin and rose from the dead. Some turn to their “God” of Islam they insist is peaceful and loving. Many of them grew up under the teachings of good news from their moms and grandmothers. They went to church until they were seduced by the streets and were grafted into gang banging and drug dealing. Some of these church goers were not gangsters or even from the city. But they grew up in families that embraced their alcohol as a remedy. One or both parents were alcoholics and drug abusers and were role models to these guys. “Like father, like son”, drinking and driving and getting caught. Still others, never really knew their fathers, if they even met their dad. Dad is in prison. Again, like father, like son.
The substance abuse work we do at the prison puts a serious dent in what is called recidivism (returning to crime and prison). There is a meaningful drop in recidivism because of the treatment program. So we know the program works even though it so often does not feel to them (and sometimes to us) like it does.
The truth is that, while some of these men encounter God in a big way for the very first time while incarcerated, the majority of them return to God in prison.
They live in what is essentially a bathroom with another man. The inmate’s cell mate might live like a pig; poor hygiene, sloppy, few manners… you get the idea. They are told all day long every day what to do, when to do it, where to do it… once again, you get the idea. They are separated from their families and loved ones. Oh, do the guys hurt about that. They’ll get letters, phone calls and visits (most of them), but it’s not even close to the same as being there. When the man’s wife or girlfriend or his child(ren) comes to see him, it is joy and sorrow at the same time. He so looks forward to it. Then he hears his name called connected to the call, “Visit!” and the anticipation builds. He gets so excited on the walk to the visiting room.
He arrives to meet them. And they are here for him. His young daughter asks what kind of work he does there “at work.” His son asks him when he is coming home from his “business trip?” (A lot of these men do not want their young children to not have to carry the stigma and burden of their fathers being in prison and feed them a story.) His heart fills with dread as he starts watching the clock a half hour into his two hour visit. Another twenty minutes go by in what felt like a minute. There is less than a half hour left. He is increasingly sad. His heart breaks yet again. They are gone for a week, a month, several months… or maybe she (the mother of his children) grows tired of it, maybe finds someone else, and he won’t see her kids again until he is released from the custody of the state. What about is older, more grown up, children? They’ve been done with dead-beat dad for some time now. They don’t visit. They don’t write. He hopes and prays that they’ll let him come around when he gets out.
When a man’s will is broken, where else does he go?
They don’t all turn to God. Many of the guys get angrier and more depressed—in this case depression is repressed anger turned inward. The one who gets it has a spiritual connection (relationship) with his higher power. The one that doesn’t get it struggles interacting with the one who does. How can he find any kind of peace and some semblance of happiness in prison?
The one that doesn’t get it wants what the one who does get it has. When the man who gets it tells the one who doesn’t what he’s got, it can add to the man’s sorrow. That is because the one walking with some peace tells the one who doesn’t that it comes through something (someone) spiritual. The one without joy envy’s the man’s joy who has it, becomes jealous, and in turn resents the man for having any kind of peace or joy. The man without it may create problems for the man at peace to generate disturbance—opposition—against the source of such peace and joy. What he doesn’t get is that the man that does get it is free inside those prison walls and his resolve is strengthened when that freedom is challenged; even threatened.
Guilt and Shame, Scabs and Scars
Not everyone with a criminal mind is a sociopath. A sociopath is someone who acts without guilt, or briefly may feel some intense guilt but it won’t be for long and he or she is right back into deviant antisocial behavior. The man who beats his wife might become extreme with remorse, in tears begging her for forgiveness. But then, even within minutes blames her for what she did and does to provoke (deserve) the abuse. His wrath is justified to continue the behavior, representing some degree of pathology.
For those sentenced to prison, there can be a substantial degree of guilt and shame for what they have done. It isn’t something easily acknowledged or admitted. Over time, though, having been away from those he loves deeply, there is an increasing sense of responsibility for what he has taken from his family and other loved ones. As the jailed offender internalizes more and more the pain he has wrought throughout his family, as well as against the victims of his crimes, the more he experiences a deeper sense of guilt and shame.
There is a stark distinction to be drawn between guilt and shame. We tend to lose perspective about guilt. What I mean is that guilt in itself is a point of recognizing and confronting mistakes and unhealthy behavior. We are indeed responsible for our behavior. When we are guilty of making mistakes or causing harm, we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow in character and maturity.
“That is all well and good that you say God has forgiven me, and has taken me back into relationship with him, but if he really knew the awful things I have done, he would not accept me.” Have you ever felt like that? Shame is borne out of unmet and failed expectations. Whose expectations? Ultimately, it is our own unmet and failed expectations that result in our judgment against ourselves that lead to feeling shame. So many of us cannot forgive ourselves and believe that if we cannot forgive ourselves, how can God forgive us?
While guilt is an opportunity for learning and growth, shame is the distorted internalization of guilt that advances the over-personalizing of mistakes and wrong doing. What is meant by “over-personalizing” is that if we absorb the guilt into the core character of who we are until we believe we have become the thing we are guilty of—that it somehow defines us. So when guilt says, “I did something wrong,” the evil scheme of shame is to utter, “I can’t do anything right.” When guilt says, “I did a bad thing,” shame says, “I’m a bad person.” When guilt says, “I made a mistake,” shame says, “I am a mistake.” When guilt can admit wrong and say, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” shame insists, “I am unforgivable.” Our shame screams at us, “Loser!” until we believe it about ourselves.
For those who are spiritual in their recovery and consider biblical teaching as beneficial to them, there is scripture that recognizes this difference between guilt and shame.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Godly sorrow is healthy responsible conviction of sin that leads to repentance and growth. Worldly sorrow is shame stuck—trapped—in the mire of failed expectations that promotes decline, decay, and ultimately death.
A great deal of shame is felt in the open wounds of our past. We seem to make progress in putting the past behind us and then something happens or something is said that rips the wound wide open again. This occurs when the wound hasn’t healed quite yet. These are scabs that have dried up enough so that we can function in our circumstances and relationships, but as soon as the scab is met with some friction, we’re a bloody mess again. Scripture tells us that upon repentance—turning away from sin, God has removed our sin as far as the east is from the west; infinite mercy. It’s time to let go of what God has himself let go of—that being our past mistakes. In that, he has declared us innocent. That can be really hard to believe when entangled in shame.
What exactly are scars? Scars are evidence of healed wounds. You can see the mark of the wound but it no longer owns you. While scars represent memories, healed wounds are rendered powerless by the grace of God as we experience freedom in surrendered relationship with our higher power.
When memories trigger reactions that preserve and bolster pain, those wounds have not sufficiently healed. Scabs are wounds in the process of healing that may or may not be experiencing effective treatment. Then, as something creates friction, rubbing against the scab, the scab is ripped off and the the injury is again exposed, it is opened up to anything that can inflict more damage to it… throwing salt on the wound, so to speak, increasing the misery that can lead to desperate measures to remedy such pain. At this point, shame infects the wound, paralyzing growth, debilitating relationships, while promoting isolation and loneliness.
While scars carry memories of past experiences that no longer have the power and ownership that once had a paralyzing effect, scabs once ripped opened by a current experience expose the wound to prior misery that hinders progress to healing. It can feel like a setback and has been described by some as backsliding; like taking two steps forward then three steps back.
I ask my clients who have been in treatment for some time, as they process this so-called setback, if they feel as though they are better or worse off than when they began their treatment. In most every case, they indicate that they are clearly better off and further along than when they began the process. I then suggest that perhaps they have taken two, three, even four steps forward before walking into an obstacle; that perhaps they have not healed enough to take on steeper hurdles. It is then that they have fallen or broken down. It could be that they scraped their knees real bad and opened up old wounds, or even experienced fresh wounds. It could be they broke bones, metaphorically speaking, and will need time to rehabilitate and heal before continuing on the journey of recovery; that being on the mend is a part of the journey.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed. Isaiah 61:1 (NLT)
Through actively listening to my clients share their experiences, as dreadful as they may be at times, it is necessary to help them to reflect on their experiences and reframe mistakes and failed expectations. I hope to help them to answer their own questions and work through internal conflicts to resolve whatever resistance they might have to the change process; when their expectations for real recovery are clouded, internalizing guilt to the point of being defined by it. Shame can be the outcome of the internalization of relational dysfunction when assuming sole responsibility for all that has gone wrong from the beginning. You can see how folks in prison might do that.
Understanding dysfunction in life is necessary for preparing to anticipate and manage the stress inherent in the process of moving from unhealthy dysfunction into healthy functioning. What has been imbalance had become balance. Abnormal felt normal.
How do you change “normal”?
Homeostasis (from Greek: ὅμοιος homœos, “similar” and στάσις stasis, “standing still”) is the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant. It is a process that maintains the stability of the human body’s internal environment in response to changes in external conditions.
When we struggle to cope under the stress that comes with lifestyle imbalance, that imbalance is something referred to as homeostasis. Imbalance, in this sense, is what is incongruent with what has been accepted as normal. If unhealthy dysfunction is balance, then healthy function is imbalance, promoting stress. The body and the mind work so hard at trying to maintain a sense of psychological balance according to how the coping responses to stressors have been conditioned to actually remedying dysfunction and relieving discomfort.
Explaining it more thoroughly, homeostasis has to do with the conditioning of what the mind has come to accept as normal or balanced. The biochemical (neurological) reactions within the systems of the brain can be affected profoundly by what it interprets to be imbalance. If someone was raised as a child in a setting of dysfunction, even severe dysfunction, it is possible and even likely that the dysfunction is accepted as normal and in balance by the time he is an adult. It’s not necessarily driven by will and choice.
Many, if not most of my clients, will experience homeostasis upon their release from prison. They have been clean from addictive substances for years and are not any longer physiologically dependent on the substance. Yet even as the gate to exit prison rolls back and they are anticipating walking through it, the strong craving and urge to smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, or engage in illicit drug use might hit them like a slap in the face or a kick to the gut. They may experience the compulsion to use sooner than later due to the stress elicited by what the brain perceives to be an unmet “need” or expectation.
The minds of the men leaving prison to return home still remembers their former lives like it was yesterday. They remember the risk, the ritual and the routine that fueled addiction that drove criminal thinking and behavior. The neurochemical activity within the brain is powerful, and what is perceived as normal is reawakened after being asleep during years of prison. What should be a dance for the man experiencing freedom for the first time in years is in actuality a fight as he wrestles with ambivalence, waging that war between what he knows will best ensure he stays free, and the emotional seduction of the former man that wants the instant gratification experienced in the former life.
You and I battle the same thing when it comes to recovery from sin and selfishness. (I will speak for me while you consider whether this is also true of you.)
I suffer from the same reality of entitlement as the man in prison who used alcohol and drugs as a remedy; who stole from someone to attain what he coveted that didn’t belong to him; that sold drugs and stolen goods for that quick money. I may not commit crimes but that sense of entitlement accommodates a kind of “criminal mind” that will scheme and manipulate circumstances, scratch and claw, rationalizing and justifying, to get what it wants when it wants it. It is the criminal mind in hot pursuit of instant gratification when “needs” are not met in the way my entitled thinking wants them met.
The Good Book tells me that when I give myself over to my sin nature that it is no longer I doing the things I do contrary to the will of God, but it is a power in me that is at war with my mind. I have elected to call this selfish sinful thinking; the criminal mind in me warring against the moral standard of God. It is my former carnal-minded man that is at war with the man in me that is determined to doing the the work of God.
“What I trace this to is a certain selfishness on my part… I was so obsessed with me and the reasons that I might be dissatisfied that I couldn’t focus on other people… When I find myself taking the wrong step, I think a lot of the times it’s because I’m trying to protect myself instead of trying to do God’s work. I think that is my own failure.” —Barack Obama
Apostle Paul wrote that I am no longer a slave to sin, having been set free in relationship with God. So, how is it that I return to “criminal” thinking if I no longer have a “criminal” mind? Remember that word, homeostasis? Just like recovering addicts determined to stay clean struggle with being sober-minded, you and I, in relationship with God, washed clean through forgiveness of sin, continue to struggle with self-centered desire.
I believe in the word and the power of God that communicates love and sets me free, but there is something selfish in me that is very much wanting to corrupt and pervert the goodness of God living in me. My brain chemistry has been governed by the criminal mind for so long that I remain vulnerable to its seduction, like the criminal offender that has not used alcohol or drugs for years is vulnerable to the desirous craving to use alcohol and drugs and a return to criminal thinking and behavior.
I have been transformed and set up by the renewing of my mind to experience all that is holy and good about the experience of redemption into new life, yet this problem of homeostasis renders me subject to the heavy attraction to what felt normal and so right for so long. While I believe that God’s best is indeed best, I continue to experience temptation for the things that I do not want in my life of recovery.
I work with men at the prison that are genuinely surrendered to living their lives empowered by God to do his will. They move forward, progressing in their recovery… committed… determined.
There is the man who is married. He has children. Like I said, he loves his children with intense passion and enthusiasm. He may have just talked about his love for his family in group. He might even be toting around some pictures amongst his peers. Then this wise guy counselor (me) brings up the matter of resentment, which for this man, carries with it the burden of vengeance. I have clients who were set up by someone who snitched, which directly led to their incarceration, and many more that have lost family and friends to acts of violence. So the man, who has experienced the loss of a loved one to violence, feels that to make it right, he must avenge his loss. He’ll tell you that it consumes him; that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything for revenge. As a free man, he would even be willing to sell his freedom for revenge. One client suggested that even if he sees the man in church, well, “Who knows what I might do.” The challenge for him is to surrender this burden that consumes him over to the will and care of his higher power.
My Higher Power is quoted in the “literature” (the term I use in my therapy when I paraphrase Scripture passages) as saying that surrendering to the process that comes with choosing the “drug” I am attracted to, will inevitably lead to being enslaved to it. It goes on to say that there is a better way that results in being set free.
Revenge might be a man’s “drug” of choice that falls prey to homeostasis; the drug that ruins all of the gains he has made in recovery. (By the way, did you know that the word ‘recovery’ is a synonym for the word ‘salvation’?) My “drug” of choice is something else. What is your “drug” of choice? What gets you “high”? Where do you seek gratification? What might you be faced with that, when you are in its presence, tempts you to give into it, essentially prostituting yourself for it; risking all that you say you value and believe in for the “high”?
Imagine you have a million dollars. Everything you hold valuable in life collectively will cost you a million dollars. What do consider valuable? The big one for the men at the prison is, of course, freedom. How much will you spend on freedom? How much will you spend on the quality of your relationships with family… your sons… your daughters… your spouse… your parents and siblings… etc.? How much are willing to invest in the exchange of love with all that you care about? What is peace of mind worth? What would you spend on material prosperity? What’s all of your stuff worth, starting with your money? How much would you spend on ambition? What are you willing to spend on the guilt and shame you are holding onto? What about the resentment and jealousy you are hoarding; what’s it worth? How much will you invest in your anxiety, stress, worries and fears? How much is your time and energy worth? What about lust and entitlement? There’s a cost for that, right? Self-image and self-esteem costs something. What’s it worth? What is your physical and mental health worth?
What is your spiritual health worth? What is your relationship with God worth? How much are you willing to invest in an obedient, surrendered lifestyle? How much will you spend on prayer and meditation? What is God’s favor worth to you? How do you go about investing in the lives of your brothers and sisters of faith?
How much of myself am I investing into the life that I know, intellectually, truly matters? How much of myself am I investing into what feels good emotionally in my so-called “moment of need”?
I suppose that it should be said that because of the nature of good and bad, there will be things I want to invest in that are good that are opposite from the bad things I “want” to invest in. When I invest into bad, I take the shares I have invested into good and put them into the bad. Sometimes I do it without even thinking about it. My criminal mind is deceptive and involved in underground trading. I am still expecting a return on the good I have invested in, not realizing that through my deviant criminal thinking and behavior I have divested from the good and moved it into the bad. So instead of receiving dividends on the good I have invested in, the only returns from my “bad” investments are just that… bad.
Have you ever tried so hard to do the right the thing, but in the process gave into the temptation to ever so slightly compromise in your commitment to do that good right thing and then see it completely blow up in your face? When it’s happened to me, and I realized that my little shortcut failed badly, it’s been disastrous. It’s heartbreaking and sickening. There is no taking it back; can’t turn back the clock. I then ask myself, “Why (how) was that ever a good idea?” Besides the outcome being what it was, my conscience—my sincere desire to do right and good—left me heartsick. My selfish intentions betrayed me again, as it has so many times before. When will I ever learn?
When will I ever learn? Do you know what that really means for someone in recovery from sin and all its symptoms? It means… When will I simply give up and surrender?
The Gospel of Recovery
Is it possible to share from the Bible counseling these men at the prison?
It can be done under the right circumstances; and with some creativity.
Individually, so long as I do not impose my values onto my clients, I can go as deep into spiritual things as the they want to go. This can be an awesome experience, as well as a challenging one. There are guys that have been waiting—even praying—for the opportunity to talk candidly with someone who is willing to direct them spiritually (not necessarily religiously), and perhaps biblically, in their recovery.
For example, Jesus addressed the matter of slavery to sin (John 8:34). Slavery to sin is preoccupation with self and discomforting dissatisfaction. There are passages in the Bible that address the matter of something powerful going rogue in the mind, justifying wrong, and taking well-intentioned people down a troublesome road; one that engages vulnerable folks in activities that lead to problems and consequences. Romans chapters seven and eight describe that battle. Most of my clients have bibles and will ask for these passages of scripture to read for themselves. There are the words of a king, a historical icon (David in Psalm 38), who speaks of his experience with the disease that resembles withdrawal from addiction. Around verse eleven, after going on about an anguished soul, his bones aching, his heart beating out of his chest, feeling wounded and scared, David says that his own family keeps their distance, fearing his disease.
There are times, even in a secular group setting, when I may refer to stories that must be delivered deftly, so as not to offend anyone. I might present a story through allegory, changing the names and places, ambiguous of its source.
There is the story in “the literature” about when a person who is obviously very sick (was paralyzed and could not walk) is confronted someone with the ability to treat him, who asks him if he wants to be made well. I suggest to my clients that it would be like someone asking them if they want to be made to be free. Why would anyone ask that? It affords me the opportunity to challenge those who may receive their freedom for a time, but then at some point return to the thing that led them into captivity. I let them know that the same thing happened to the paralyzed man in the story. The man experienced healing and walked again. But then, he kept walking until he was right back to the place that was problematic for him in the first place. As he was on the verge of a kind of relapse, the one who treated him reached out to him again and warned him not to do it. He implored the man to turn away from the danger that could again destroy his life. Sounds like an intervention… twice.
That story in John chapter 5 is great for discussing relapse prevention and the need to be accountable to someone like a sponsor, mentor, and/or friend in recovery. There are ways to talk about David’s compulsion to manipulate circumstances to the point of murder to get what he felt he had to have (2 Samuel 2). Sounds like addiction and a need for intervention.
There are ways of articulating the story of the man who left the security of his family’s love and generosity to leave the safety and comfort of the good life at home, and go out on his own and recklessly waste away his resources until his life was in ruin. As luck would have it, around that time there was famine and economic collapse resulting in extreme poverty, making it impossible for him to make it on his own. He did get a job feeding pigs on the farm that paid next to nothing. Starving, he came to his senses, and remembered even his father’s employees were well paid and taken care of and were never left to fend for themselves for food and shelter. Hoping his father might hire him, he headed that direction. Once his father caught a glimpse of his son, he went after him with the best of everything he had and lovingly showered his son with favor and the best of all that was the life back at home. Sounds like an incredible story of addiction and redemption.
In each of these stories, restoration through honest recovery is not likely until there is that moment when the light comes on, there is a return to sensibility about loss of control, the realization of a better way leading to a better life, followed by the action of surrender to the one that can get them there.
Here is the thing about surrender. It is surrender of the will. Why surrender my will at all? What purpose does surrender serve? How does the surrender of my will settle anything? How does surrender make the most sense? What does it mean to surrender my will? How do I do that? What does that look like? Surrender my will to what? Surrender to whom?
People can recognize and understand that there is a problem due to consequences as a result of unhealthy, perhaps even destructive, behavior. They can acknowledge their need for help. Without the full weight of a sovereign higher power behind one’s recovery, however, the principle of surrender makes very little sense. Surrender is a concept certainly foreign to the criminal mind. As long as there is a sense of power and control, as remote as it may be, surrender is hardly practical. And along with even a remote sense of power and control, there is no real sense that something or someone of significance exists that is more powerful than they and their problem; surrender makes little sense.
These folks absent of belief in a higher power might suggest that believing in a spiritual higher power is really no different than staking their livelihood in the belief that Santa Claus is real and alive with the power and authority to rescue them from their mess. I heard someone once say that he would believe in Santa Claus only if he landed his sleigh on his roof. There is a New Testament passage that says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). “
Synonyms for the word evidence include: indication, mark, sign, signal, data, suggestion, proof, and confirmation.
So, even the Bible suggests that faith in a higher power is not really possible or substantial until Santa Claus lands on your roof and comes down through your chimney as proof that he is real with the kind of provision that you can experience—hear, see, touch, taste, and smell. Once you have experienced the substance and evidence of a higher power in a way that appeals to your physical, emotional, and spiritual senses, there isn’t anything anyone can say or do to deny you that experience. You will not—cannot—be talked out of it. For most of us having experienced the substance and evidence of our higher power, we’re compelled and emboldened to tell the world that “Santa Claus” has landed his sleigh on our roof, no matter how ridiculous it might sound. We will share passionately our experience with “Santa”; that he is compassionate in showing mercy in the face of our flaws and failures to do good and right. We are enthusiastic, even intense at times, declaring his goodness and generosity.
I have clients that reject the precepts of the twelve steps, and the essence within centered on surrender to a power greater than… (Fill in the blank). Coming next is the illustration that I share in my therapy (treatment) group that drives home the reality and application of the first three steps. When I speak of these steps originated by the Oxford Group for Alcoholics Anonymous, I break them down into three words (A, B, C): Admit, Believe, Commit.
Can I tell you a story?
I like to play with matches… in my house. It’s something I started doing when I was a bit younger. You might say that over time it grew on me. You know… became a part of my routine. For whatever reason to this day, I am still into it. If there was no consequence for lighting matches in my house, I would probably still indulge myself without a second thought. I get a sense of gratification from the spark that comes with rubbing the tip of the match against the flint on the box and watching it light up. Flicking and throwing matches is pleasure for me. When I am in a dark place, the glow of the flame on the match casts light into the darkness, affording me a sense of release, pleasure, and relief. You might say I have become hooked on the feeling that comes with playing with matches. Whenever I am about to run out of matches I actually feel a kind of panic, but oh the thrill that comes when I go about getting some more.
From time to time a match lands against something flammable and produces a little fire. I don’t like the fires that come with playing with matches. When the little fires get together to form bigger fires it can become a problem. There’s a lot of smoke. When that happens, I just go to another room in the house so I can forget about the room that’s on fire.
I should mention that I am a little bit concerned that playing with matches can lead to problems from time to time and I understand the need to exercise some caution and better judgment. There are times when I sense it is wrong to light matches in the house, but then I will reach down deep to find a cause for it, according to some sense of need, and justify my actions… my behavior… or whatever you want to call it.
Like I said, to manage my need to continue my routine, I have moved to another room in my house.
The room I am in now is safe. I really need to light these matches. I always have a box of matches with me. Matches are important to me. They are a necessity. I just need to be more careful. So, here I go. I am playing with my matches… lighting them… flicking them. I am starting to feel something when the match comes in contact with something and causes it to burn. The fires I am causing are getting bigger until the entire room is on fire again. This ritualistic pattern continues from room to room until I am running out of rooms in the house to light matches in. The whole house is burning. The flames are out of control. The smoke is so thick that I can’t see anything.
I am trapped in a house on fire… thick flames and smoke is all around me… everything is on fire. I admit I am powerless to the fire, but there is nowhere to go. I am on the floor breathing my last breaths as smoke and flames are overtaking me. There are those that live near my house that must see that it’s on fire.
I shout out, “Someone, help me! I am trapped in this house!” I even be crazy enough in my despair to call out to God if he is out there, “Help me! Send someone!”
Then suddenly it happens. Someone is lifting to my feet. It’s the fireman! He is equipped to not get burned. He wraps me in his coat, puts an oxygen mask over my face and says, “Let’s go… come with me!” There is no doubt in my mind that I am not better off without the fireman. I believe, or at least hope enough, that the fireman can and will rescue me if I give up and go with him. I suppose I could look back or try to hold on to some things in the house; maybe grab onto some things I can carry out with me. Then the fireman says, “Let go… it’s too heavy… and besides, it’s all on fire!” I decide that the fireman is right and I let it go and do what he says for me to do, and go where he says for me to go.
The house is my life and the fire is my addiction; my selfish sense of entitlement that leads me to believe that it is my right to play with matches if I want to. The fireman is the power greater than me, and perhaps even the fire, that saved me from my addiction. I look back at my life and it’s smoldering. It’s in ruins. From the place I am in now, having been rescued from the flames, I see that I have been burned by the fire. Burned bad… I hurt. I am in severe pain. I can barely move.
I look back at the fireman and he is different. He is dressed like a doctor. The doctor helps me to heal. I look at myself and see that I am much better. I look back at him and he is dressed like a construction worker; a builder. He is wearing a tool belt and hard hat. He also has a tool belt and hard hat for me, and says to me lovingly, “Let’s go… we have work to do.” He is committed, and he wants to know if I am committed to working on rebuilding the house that is my life. Once I surrender to the process of putting my life back together with the tools from the builder, He commits to working with me to do the work to rebuild my life until it is working better than ever.
Every day, as I surrender to my higher power in recovery, compelled by loving kindness, my Higher Power is committed to me and the work of rebuilding the house that is my life… it was a cottage; but I have seen the blue print… my life’s not a cottage according to these plans… it’s a castle!
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” Luke 4:18 (NLT)
Once I have moved into the new house that is my new life I am motivated to live in a way that is consistent with my new life. But to my surprise and disappointment, I continue to have a problem in my new house. I still want to play with matches. Sometimes I am obsessed with getting the feeling back that had me hooked. When I give in to temptation, from time to time I will set fires.
But something wonderful is different about my new life. Guess who lives with me now?
I have invited and welcomed into my house the fireman, the doctor, and the builder. He is actually one person but wears all three hats and is equipped to put out fires, treat my wounds, and restore the places in my house that get burned from time to time.
He is also a teacher helping me to learn about my character flaws and teaching me how to live. He is a trainer helping me to get in shape with a healthy diet of what I allow into my thoughts. He is an advocate when I need representation when confronted by my conscience. He is a counselor when I need someone to listen to me and affords me the wisdom to discern when I am wrong and to work out my problems. He helps me to let go of resentments that can produce really bad fires. He has shown me that it is not only about receiving grace but extending it to others in need of it. He is all that and so much more when I let go and am willing to surrender.
It’s usually said that the 3rd step is the hardest of the 12 steps. The illustration of the fireman as the rescuer from a life on fire suggests that the 3rd step is actually the easiest of the twelve steps. What is so difficult is that I don’t pay enough attention to the problems caused by and made worse by playing with matches; or worse, I see fires burning all over the house but don’t act to put them out until the fires become one massive fire raging out of control and I am powerless to do anything about it and desperately in need of help. When the help comes when I am desperate enough, surrender makes the most sense; it comes easy as if I have no other choice. It is hard, and nearly impossible, not to surrender to the will and care of the fireman. The issue is that I might not realize my need until it’s too late and I am consumed by the fire.
Surrender That Makes Sense
The thing about surrender is that it is all or nothing. You either completely give yourself up or you don’t. Once you acknowledge your crimes, and accept that you are guilty, it is time for you give up and turn yourself in; to surrender. When you surrender, you cannot spare a part of yourself; you surrender every part of you.
Since the notion of voluntary surrender is so difficult to accept and act on, there is the illustration of being trapped in a house—a life—that is on fire about to be consumed by the flames of selfish, entitled, thinking and behavior. In the case of surviving the flames of a “criminal” life, surrender is the alternative to dying. When the options are either surrender or die, surrender is most sensible. To surrender ultimately is to choose life over death.
It is the sensibility of surrender that is at the heart of what I deliver to my clients at the prison. To save their lives they must lose their lives—their former lives that wreaked havoc and proved harmful. The former life is dead anyway so why cling to it? The way the great teacher said it was to say that to save your soul, you need to lose your life; meaning your way of life. He asked (paraphrasing), “What good is it to you when it counts most, to profit from your life of chasing what you believe you deserve, if it means forfeiting the thing that matters most… the eternal destiny of your soul?”
If everything in my life that matters is on fire, consumed by flames, then the only way to escape the flames is to surrender my whole self to the will and care of the fireman. What am I going to do? Do I leave with the fireman? When I do, can I leave a part of myself in the fire? Of course not; that’s ridiculous. I either go with the fireman or I don’t.
Some fires are slower burning than others so I might deceive myself into believing that I don’t have to surrender everything all at once. So long as I believe I can control the fire, maybe I don’t have to surrender an unhealthy diet, irresponsible spending, lust and other immoral thoughts, selfish pride, selfish ambition, power, greed, jealousy, resentment, gluttony, gossip, lying (including lies of omission), taking advantage of the weak, my time and my energy… you name it.
When does the flame of an unhealthy diet become the raging fire of a heart attack? When does irresponsible spending become the raging fire of a devastating financial nightmare? When do lustful immoral thoughts lead to the raging fire of an adulterous relationship that leads to divorce and a broken home? The flame that is the logical reaction to anger, resentment, jealousy, rage, and vengeance, when fueled, grows into a merciless, ruthless, raging fire, out of control, consuming everything… everything… in its path. It is undeniable.
Since these patterns and cycles of behavior carry with them imminent outcomes, it seems that the logical, rational alternative is to do something different to reverse them. To reverse or discontinue the outcomes (consequences), the logical, rational conclusion to be drawn is to stop the pattern and break the cycle of behavior provocative to whatever inevitably comes with it.
The reality for most of us is that we tend not to change until we’re caught or until outcomes hurt enough to do something about it. Surrender is the result when in complete honesty we do the math, A + B = C. Admitting what I cannot control, plus, Believing what God can control when I let go, equals, Committing to letting go and turning it over to God who is in control.
Considering that I deliver this truth to men in a secular environment at the prison, the analogy of one’s life as a house on fire needing to be saved by the fireman, brings the message home, even for the man who struggles with faith. I suggest that these men that do not believe begin with identifying FREEDOM as the fireman appearing through the flames. I encourage them to communicate with FREEDOM to seek, grasp, and embrace what it will take to remain in right relationship with her.
What is FREEDOM? FREEDOM is not merely life outside prison walls. FREEDOM isn’t merely life unencumbered by drugs and alcohol. For the gangster, FREEDOM isn’t merely life addicted to the adrenaline rush of the streets. FREEDOM is being released from the grip of entitlement. FREEDOM is untangling the mess that is the compulsion to gratify every self-centered whim. FREEDOM is letting go of resentment that is so often the straw that stirs the drink. FREEDOM is the prison door flung open and leaving behind the past and all of its shame. FREEDOM is the gateway into peace and joy and whatever happiness is. FREEDOM is the generous exchange of mercy and love.
With that in mind, what is sobriety? They don’t call it “clean and sober” for nothing. You can be clean from your “drug” of choice. But you are not actually sober until you have experienced that sense of freedom. That sense of freedom is being able to resist your drug of choice in the midst of the desire to use. Sobriety is not necessarily the removal of desire that precedes temptation. One is sober when he or she wants to use their “drug” of choice but does not have to. Sobriety is walking away from the craving before it advances to an irresistible urge. Sobriety is an internal sense of FREEDOM. FREEDOM lives in the depths. It consists of spiritual relationship.
Who is FREEDOM?
You see, I believe from the bottom of my heart that God will respond to the men that pray to FREEDOM; that he will unveil the fullness of all that he is. I believe that God will deliver the reality of his existence through his presence in their time of need. Since my clients are in need right this moment, God is already at their door knocking and waiting for a response.
So even for those who may struggle with surrender due to a lack of faith, or even absence of belief in God, their reality is still abundantly clear, that the need is to surrender; to surrender to relationship with FREEDOM. FREEDOM is the life each and every one of these men desperately desires. It is the common ground they all walk on. Therefore, relationship with FREEDOM as the higher power to empower them into that life makes absolute sense across the board.
The message of FREEDOM is profound: it will set you free and as you experience FREEDOM, you will indeed be free. Words cannot adequately describe what FREEDOM feels like. I encourage you to surrender to whatever it takes to be and remain free. Talk to FREEDOM. Let go and let FREEDOM lift the burden from you that has held you captive. Experience all that FREEDOM wants and has for you. Allow yourself to be showered in the healing rain of FREEDOM’s favor. Soak yourself in it.