“But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9
If a person’s desire to change is genuine and if they’ve been conscientiously following the Celebrate Recovery guidelines, by the time they get to Principle 5 and Step 7 they’re no doubt seeing tangible results of their commitment. They know they’re not alone in their journey. They’ve met many others who know firsthand what they’re going through. The Holy Spirit is nurturing love in their heart and the Christian brothers and sisters they’ve befriended at CR meetings are supporting their efforts. They have a sponsor and accountability partners who offer encouragement and a small group where they can express their triumphs and their setbacks in full confidentiality week after week. (Woodrow Kroll was right when he said, “Victory is never won alone.”) They sense subtle changes in their demeanor and attitude. They pause before reacting indignantly to rudeness, adversity or disappointment whereas in the past they would’ve lashed out without considering the consequences. They see others in a different light, having realized that no one else’s sin is worse than their own and that we’re all in this rebellious world together. Their humbling awareness of the agonizing price Jesus Christ paid for them has made them increasingly more compassionate, sympathetic and tolerant of their neighbors’ character deficiencies. They’ve had moments, however brief, when they felt God’s reassuring presence and they have certainty His unconditional love for them is as real as sunshine. They’re fully aware they’re still a thousand miles from perfect but, compared to where they were before they stepped out of denial, they also know they aren’t who they used to be prior to turning to Christ and saying, “Help me.” They’ve learned, as Andrew Murray noted, “When we pray for the Spirit’s help we simply fall down at the Lord’s feet in our weakness. There we find the victory and power that comes from His love.” While those small but uplifting personal victories are sometimes few and far between, they serve as positive signposts indicating they’re on the right road, regardless of how narrow it looks at times. T.D. Jakes wisely preached, “You can’t have victory without conflict,” yet that truth doesn’t make each tiny triumph any less of a blessing. Perspective is essential. Frederick Faber said, “Every moment of resistance to temptation is a victory.”
However, as this chapter’s title implies, this is no time to get cocky. Principle five’s admonition to “Voluntarily submit to every change God wants to make in my life and humbly ask Him to remove my character defects” is not just a phase but a lifelong goal. Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2; “Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him… Let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.” Don’t be like a foolish boxer who, after staggering his foe with a flurry of body blows and an uppercut, looks away to wink at a girl and then finds himself face down on the canvas, blindsided by a vicious right hook. The devil may be down but he’s not out till the final bell rings. Keep your eye on the task at hand and submit your will to our Heavenly Father minute by minute, 24/7. You won’t get very far without Him. Ed Cole said, “Ability to resist temptation is directly proportionate to your submission to God.” Submission can connote defeat but it means the opposite in the Kingdom of God. It’s not so much about authority and obedience as it is about love and respect. It’s an act of worship. William Temple wrote, “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It’s the quickening of conscience by His holiness, the nourishment of the mind with His truth, the purifying of the imagination of His beauty, the opening of the heart to His love, the surrender of the will to His purpose.” Think of it this way. Your will is the only gift you can give back to the Lord. Neal Maxwell said, “The submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. The many other things we ‘give’ are actually things He’s already given us.” A common confession I hear at CR is “I handed my life over to Jesus and then, before I knew it, I snatched it back.” Rick Warren wrote, “You cannot fulfill God’s purposes for your life while focusing on your own plans.” To quote A.W. Tozer: “The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven’t yet come to the end of themselves. We’re still trying to give orders, and interfering with God’s work within us.” I like the advice of Thomas a Kempis: “Carry the cross patiently, and with perfect submission; and in the end it shall carry you.”
Sensory overload occurs if you try to simultaneously address the multitude of faults you discovered in your inventory so it’s advantageous to work on them one at a time. In recovery it’s vital you identify the sinful shortcomings that are most lethal and pay attention to those first. You’ve heard the term triage. That’s where medics in the battlefield quickly determine what wounds are life-threatening and which are secondary. Your sprained ankle can wait. The gaping hole in your gut can’t. In my case it was my prideful, bloated sense of entitlement that had me thinking the world was obligated to gratify all my desires. My self-fixation was alienating me from God, my wife, my family and my friends but I didn’t realize it until I hit rock bottom and saw I was about to lose everything that was dear to me because of it. I not only knew I had to change but that it would take a power greater than my own to make it happen. I went directly to God’s door and He didn’t turn me away. Through the CR ministry it became apparent I needed to partner with the Holy Spirit and actively participate in the renovation project. God wasn’t going to snap His fingers and miraculously turn me into Moses. I had to relinquish my ego and surrender control. Elisabeth Elliot said, “Here lies the tremendous mystery – that God should be all-powerful, yet refuse to coerce. He summons us to cooperation. We’re honored in being given the opportunity to participate in His good deeds. Remember how He asked for help in performing His miracles: Fill the water pots, stretch out your hand, distribute the loaves.” Christ doesn’t want us to stand by and merely observe, He wants us down in the trenches with Him. Watchman Nee explained it well: “The Holy Spirit moves in our spirit, producing in us a spiritual sense; afterwards we exercise our brain to study and to understand the meaning of this sense. It requires the cooperation of both spirit and mind to comprehend fully the will of God. The spirit enables our inner man to know, while the mind causes the outer man to understand.” In other words, change won’t happen without you getting your hands dirty. James 4:10 states, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” 2 Thessalonians 3:3 assures us that “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” God’s on your side in this battle so wade into the thick of it with confidence that, though it’ll be a long hard fight, victory is guaranteed. As Richard Hooker quipped, “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” The miracle will happen. Bank on it. St. Augustine said, “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I have experienced the miracle of change in my own heart.”
You may say, “I’ve tasted tidbits of victory here and there on the road to recovery. They made me want a seat at God’s banquet. How do I get there?” Well, foremost you must know there are no shortcuts to the feast. Recovery is and always will be a one-day-at-a-time endeavor. The rock band Traffic recorded a cool song called “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?” and it coincides with what Jesus said in Matthew 6:34; “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own.” The only one who knows what’s looming over the horizon is God and He’s rarely in the mood to talk about it. It’s trying but sometimes you gotta be content with taking baby steps. As I stressed in earlier chapters, cultivating patience is not only necessary in the healing process, it’s mandatory. A radical transformation is under way. To transform something means to completely alter its condition, its function, its core identity. God wants to change more than just our hang-ups and habits. He’s inspiring us to reconsider the way we think and feel about everything. If we only improve our visible, outward behavior it’s like cutting off the tops of weeds instead of digging down and removing the roots. If we don’t they’ll always regenerate. We have to join God and do some serious spiritual gardening. The great news is that you will see sprouts of progress pop up. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6; “And I am sure that God who began a good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns.” That’s an iron-clad promise pronounced in the Holy Word of God. Speaking of The Bible, if you’re not sticking your head inside that informative tome every day then you’re attempting to drive a Cadillac without any gas in the tank. If you think it’s just another book on the shelf then you probably haven’t read it yet. Its power is supernatural and crucial to the success of your recovery. As D.L. Moody preached, “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives.”
Step 7 reads: “We humbly asked God to remove all our shortcomings.” While Step 6 instructed you to get yourself ready for the changes ahead, the seventh step suggests you formally request the great I AM to kindly initiate those changes. The short but potent book of James offers those of us in recovery both stern warnings and positive encouragement. Chapter 4, verses 6 through 10 state: “…God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. So submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and weep. Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” That may seem confusing at first glance but bear in mind the context this passage was presented in. The author was addressing people (like yours truly) who’d been seeking the shallow laughter and paper-thin joy found in worldly and material things. That’s why he prefaced it in verses 4 & 5 with, “Do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy. Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, ‘The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning?’” I discussed our innate hunger/thirst for a relationship with our marvelous Creator in the last chapter and that’s the same envious yearning James refers to. Nothing on this planet will fill the void only God can fill. It’s reasonable to assume that the Lord’s uppermost desire is for us to be everything He intended us to be. That requires a change from what we’ve been. He’s eager to make that happen, all we have to do is invite Him in. How does one approach the invisible God of the universe who is spirit, light and love to request the new life, the fresh start, the clean slate? The answer is prayer. As Alistair Begg wrote, “Prayer is an acknowledgement that our need of God’s help is not partial but total.”
I openly admit that my prayer life is the weakest part of my Christianity. At the same time I concede that nothing’s more important in my recovery and my walk with God. I’ll likely spend the rest of my earthly days striving to cultivate a more intimate one-on-one communion with the Lord. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I dare say prayer isn’t a breeze for many, yet I’ll never stop trying to tear down barriers and neither should you. As Billy Sunday said, “If you’re a stranger to prayer you’re a stranger to power.” We need to get on our knees as often as possible. We should be amazed that God Almighty will give us His undivided attention at a moment’s notice. A.B. Simpson wrote, “There is no wonder more supernatural and divine in the life of a believer than the mystery and ministry of prayer… the hand of the child touching the arm of the Father and moving the wheel of the universe.” So how, exactly, are we to pray? Paul taught in Philippians 4:6-7; “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” He very subtly tells us there are three stages to approaching the Heavenly Father. The word prayer itself means worship and adoration so that’s what we’re to do initially. Leave your troubles in the hall. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Come into the presence of God and for the time being forget your problems. Don’t start with them. Just realize that you are face to face with God.” Humbly bow before His majesty. Then and only then will it be the proper time and place to present your concerns before God. That’s the petitioning part. The Bible makes it clear we have the privilege of taking our requests directly to our King’s throne. But notice Paul then adds the clincher, with thanksgiving. Remember to express your sincere appreciation for and belief in His absolute eternal goodness, love and mercy. No matter how ugly our situation, before we say “amen” we should recognize His graciousness and say, “Even though my life is in a tangle right now, I still thank you, God, for sending your Son into this fallen world to bear my sins in His own body on the cross so that I may be with you forever. I thank you for the blessing of life.”
The prayer that Paul advocates isn’t a pitiful cry in the dark nor some panicked plea for rescue but a pause to glorify and communicate with our loving, generous Heavenly Father. The apostle is instructing us to honor and praise God first, and then voice our entreaties. However, praying that way when you feel like you’re sinking in quicksand is no simple feat. If you’re like me, when you’re in distress you want to skip the formalities and cash in on what Jesus announced in John 14:13-14; “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” He did say that but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there was more to what Christ was talking about than mere wish-fulfillment. He wasn’t tossing out a blanket statement to cover all our particular preferences. That would make Him literally a celestial Genie beholden to grant us every trivial whim. Can you imagine the chaos that would result if all of us got everything we wanted? Perish the thought! If we’re truly abiding in Jesus and Him in us then our appetite for the things of this world will be non-existent so the point is moot. There’s a reverential way to pray and there’s a million selfish ways. That’s why Paul took the time to make it clear. We can also rely on the Holy Spirit to intercede when we’re tongue-tied and so distraught we can only make groaning noises. God listens even when we don’t know what to say to Him. In fact, I’m certain there’s no such thing as an inadequate prayer because the Heavenly Father is delighted when His fidgety children stop and spend even a few minutes sitting in His lap. Keep praying as sincerely as possible. God loves it when you do.