Let us carefully examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40
While the third step and principle encourage us to start our engines and begin to put some miles between us and our hurts, hang-ups and habits (specifically by allowing God to take the wheel), the next stage of the recovery process is where a lot of folks freak out, slam on the brakes and abandon the vehicle on the shoulder. They were cruising along just fine until they found out they have to make what step 4 calls “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” For some that’s a mile marker they adamantly refuse to go beyond. In a slight alteration of the title of a #1 song from ‘93 they’re saying, “I’ll do anything to be healed but I won’t do that.” I used to manage retail outlets. Regularly scheduled inventories, while bothersome, were essential to gauging the store’s status. The focus wasn’t on what was in stock as much as what was missing. That, in a way, correlates to those people who’ve gotten this far in their recovery but then come to a screeching halt. They’re not frightened by what they can see all too well in the forefront of their memory banks, rather they’re scared to death of what they’ll find when they start pulling out junk they’d hidden away (mostly from themselves) and exposing all of it to the light of day. Our subconscious mind is incredibly adept at taking bad things that were done to us and dubious things we did to others, rolling them up in brown wrapping paper and sticking them into far corners of our mental attics where they won’t get noticed. The problem is that, even though they’re out of sight, they affect us in immeasurable ways and greatly contribute to destructive behaviors that throw monkey wrenches into our lives. One way some choose to deal with this step is to merely rearrange the items upstairs rather than to yank them out and examine them. But by doing that they never fully evolve into the new creation that God intends them to be. Because there’s no shortcut to recovery they miss out on gaining total freedom from their self-centered lifestyle. They cope rather than change and that results in the root system that feeds their sin nature remaining only partially uncovered. Larry Crabb wrote, “Christ wants us to face reality as it is, including all the fears, hurts, resentments and self-protective motives we work hard to keep out of sight, and to emerge as changed people. Not pretenders. Not perfect. But more able to deeply love because we’re more aware of His love.”
Simply put, taking an honest look inside our attic is, for many, the hardest part of recovery because it requires accountability for every traumatic event that’s occurred in our existence and played a role in making us the neurotic messes we’re so sick of being. It can be as scary as entering a subterranean cave with nothing but a penlight. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and Steve Maraboli quipped, “The right thing to do and the hard thing to do are usually the same.” Owning up to the stuff we did is one thing, holding ourselves accountable for how we reacted to what others did to us is quite another. It’s a tough job but, now that you’re a believer, you won’t have to go it alone. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:5; “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you…” We all found out at some point that we’d been lying to ourselves about a lot more than we dared admit. I quote Julian Barnes: “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we’ve told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.” We strive mightily to justify why we act the way we do. To support our excuses for not forgiving someone. To present reasons for holding onto a heart-devouring grudge. At the same time we tend to downplay the horrible things we did to others by making statements like “that’s ancient history” or “he/she has probably moved on by now.” That cavalier attitude won’t do. Gandhi said, “It’s wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” If you haven’t made amends for sins you committed in the past that’s another hurdle you’ll encounter farther up the highway. But not just yet.
At this juncture you’ve got enough on your hands in opening up that big can of squirmy critters in your head. God’s not impressed by what’s on the outside. He’s much more concerned with what’s tucked away in the musty recesses of our attics. If we want to live as Christ has instructed us to we must be willing to get dirty crawling back into the small spaces, taking an active, courageous part in the cleaning process. We’re the ones who let the upper loft get so cluttered in the first place. No one else lives there. In other words, when we hold ourselves accountable it means we assume a certain amount of personal responsibility for what we turned into. Winston Churchill wrote, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” There’s no statute of limitations on owning up to our faults, either. John Maxwell said, “The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.” If we continue to play the blame game we’re no better than a pouting child who refuses to get up off the floor. Claiming that you were an innocent bystander is, more often than not, a cop out. Moliere wrote, “It’s not only what we do, but also what we do not do for which we are accountable.” Adam tried the “don’t look at me, man” ploy with God in explaining the infamous tree of knowledge debacle and it only made him look stupider. We can all visualize situations in our past when our self-serving reluctance to get involved allowed something sinful to expand unabated so we can’t leave those mistakes out just because we deem them misdemeanors. I suggest you look at writing your moral inventory as a chance to air your pent up anxieties. Release your unexpressed guilt, your resentments, your fears, your flimsy alibis, your self-pity and, yes, even your disappointment with God. Be like Job who, out of pure angst, exclaimed, “Therefore, I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul!” Don’t hold anything back. Let it all out. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a spiritual catharsis. And God can take it.
If you think you’re too fragile to undergo such a thorough introspection then I urge you to increase your reliance on the one who’ll give you the strength. Jesus Christ. He won’t let you be crushed under the weight of your past. He’ll bear the tonnage. The same grace that granted you forgiveness for all your sins will also give you the energy needed to clean out your attic. It’s no different from when you gave up trying to be God and surrendered your life to the Lord. That wasn’t easy, either, because it’s our nature to try our darnedest to get things done without any assistance. R.C. Sproul wrote, “Perhaps the most difficult task for us to perform is to rely on God’s grace and God’s grace alone for our salvation. It’s difficult for our pride to rest on grace. Grace is for other people – for beggars. We don’t want to live by a heavenly welfare system. We want to earn our own way and atone for our own sins. We like to think we’ll go to heaven because we deserve to be there.” Too many opine that holding fast to faith is another way of saying you’re a weakling. That’s the devil talking trash. Faith is everything. I quote Antony Farindon: “Talk what we will of faith, if we do not trust and rely on Him, we do not believe in Him.” Our stubborn thanks-but-I’ll-do-it-myself mindset spills over into our aversion to letting other Christians like the volunteers at Celebrate Recovery meetings help us climb out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. Wayne Mack said, “The plain, unvarnished truth is that every one of us needs the accountability that comes from formal, regular, intimate relationships with other godly people.” Everyone needs a safe house and that’s how you should view churches that sponsor CR groups. The people there are real. Brennan Manning said, “There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.” That’s a spot on description of the folks at CR. It’s there you can take off the mask that keeps love from getting in and performing its miraculous healing. Jefferson Bethke wrote, “We don’t have to hide the fact that we are messy because God doesn’t hide the fact that that’s exactly the type of people he came to save.” Rely on Jesus. Psalm 31:23-24 reads; “Love the Lord, all of you who are his people; for the Lord protects those who are loyal to him… So cheer up! Take courage if you are depending on the Lord.”
Once you’ve dragged all those dust-covered boxes out where you can see them clearly it’s up to you to analyze their contents honestly. To be moral means to be honest with yourself and with others. It’s vital that we see things as they are, not as we’ve pretended them to be. As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Proverbs 20:27 states, “The Lord gave us mind and conscience; we cannot hide from ourselves.” To become a more dedicated, healthier follower of Christ we must nurture our integrity. Spencer Johnson said, “Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” We should be happy to tell those around us we’ve been changed top to bottom by the transforming power of God. When we’re born again as new creations we no longer have to be ashamed of who we used to be. You can assure them that you’ll no longer be involved in covert activities. Ann Aguirre quipped, “Once exposed, a secret loses all its power.” That’s not to say that you’re immune from committing errors or suffering an occasional relapse. William Faulkner wrote, “Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest.” You’re far from perfect but you’re free to be you. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” There will be many among your friends and family that won’t appreciate your honesty in the least. They might recommend you “keep it to yourself.” They may not understand that it’s part of your recovery. But your allegiance is to Jesus Christ, not to what others think of you. Kelli Wilson said, “Our biggest fear is not in expressing the truth but that we’ll be attacked or belittled because of our truth.” The Bible tells us repeatedly not to be afraid. Things aren’t always as they appear to be. Weakness is relative. Paul claimed in 2 Corinthians 12:10; “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Criss Jami wrote, “To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” Honesty isn’t always welcomed by others and therefore it becomes a rarer trait every day. Mark Twain called honesty “the best of all the lost arts.” Yet we must be careful about when and where we choose to express truth. A quiet transparency is usually the most effective approach. Hosea Ballou said, “Honest and courageous people have very little to say about either their courage or their honesty.” Some of our most revered heroes were like that. To cite Shakespeare, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
One thing to keep while cleaning out your stuffy attic is perspective. At this point in your recovery you might find yourself overwhelmed by the “dark side” of your personality and be tempted to quit. Albert Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Don’t neglect to take into account the positive things you’ve accomplished in your life, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Carlos Castaneda wrote, “The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.” What I’m saying is that you must continue to self-evaluate while taking great care to not become hopelessly entangled in the web of morbid introspection. If understanding yourself better is the only goal of your completing a moral inventory that’s where you’ll probably end up. Developing psychological theories and conjectures about why we feel a certain way or why we do this, that or the other is not all that beneficial to your recovery. Dr. Crabb says, “The sole value of an inside look is measured by its helpfulness in moving us toward greater love, both for God and for others.” Once again, we must face the fact that our failure to love the way Jesus loves is our fundamental shortcoming. Watchman Nee wrote, “Love alone makes heavy burdens light and bears in equal balance things pleasing and displeasing. Love bears a heavy burden and does not feel it, and love makes bitter things tasteful and sweet.” I don’t mean to oversimplify the struggles and complications that have sprouted out of your character defects and addictions but The Beatles were right when they sang, “All You Need is Love.” Of course the kind of love I refer to is God’s unfathomable love for all of us. A love that Manning said “cannot be tamed, boxed, captivated, housebroken or templebroken. It is simply and startlingly Jesus, the effulgence of the Father’s love.”
You may ask, “Where do I go to find out more about this love?” There’s only one place. God’s Holy Word. The Bible isn’t just another book on the shelf. It’s relational, personal and it allows us to transcend earthbound sources of knowledge. It tells the story of people trying their best to live godly lives while sharing their God-ordained experiences and God-inspired wisdom with people like us so we may gain a firmer hold on the truth. It’s our owner’s manual and we should consult it every day. John Broger said, “As you obey God’s Word and rely on His strengthening power, you can count on biblical change to occur in every area of your life.” The reason is that you’ll have God Almighty, the supreme creator of the universe, residing in and guiding you. The Heavenly Father announces in Joshua 1:9; “I repeat, be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic, for I, the Lord your God, am with you in all you do.” And, in Isaiah 41:10 He says, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you! Don’t be frightened, for I am your God! I strengthen you – yes, I help you – yes, I uphold you with my saving right hand!” Does that sound like an apathetic, unconcerned and coldly distant God to you? No way. So when you start going through those mold-peppered cardboard boxes full of memories and faded snapshots from your old life and looking at them with your new, born again eyes remember that you’re doing it so you can identify patterns of behavior that caused you become a slave to your sinful nature. By being more aware of them you can stop them before they wreak havoc. The good news is once you’ve done an inventory you don’t have to go back again. Instead of being a useless museum of personal tragedies, horrible missteps and wasted opportunities you can make your attic a warm, serene sanctuary where you can go to freely commune and converse with your Savior, Jesus Christ. That’s not just some fantasy; it can be a reality right here, right now. As the Lord said to His disciples in John 10:10, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” Don’t quit now. The best is yet to come.