Today we’re going to tackle Principle 7, which says:
Principle 7: Reserve a daily time with God for self-examination, Bible reading, and prayer in order to know God and His will for my life and to gain the power to follow His will.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us, and power to carry that out.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” —Colossians 3:16
A series of articles on recovery. I’m on a team of leaders who do the teaching at the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Church of the City. I’ve edited some of my teachings into blog articles in the hope that it might help someone else as much as it’s helped me to study for and write these lessons.
This has been a really challenging lesson for me. As I was working through it, this idea kept coming back to me about how my ability to resist temptation is so directly tied to my confidence in God. And I think in a sense that’s true for all of us. Deep down we wonder. Is God really enough? Can I really trust Him to show up and help me?
And that reminded me of the story of the man who was walking along a steep cliff when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he managed to grab a little tree that was growing out the side of the cliff. As he was hanging there from the tree he started yelling for help, but no one came. He started thinking this might be the end, so he decided to cry out to God.
He shouted, “God if you’re real please save me!” but he heard nothing. So he shouted again. “God! I promise if you get me down from here I’ll follow You for the rest of my life.”
Suddenly there was a booming voice from heaven, “Its me, God.”
The man was overjoyed. “You heard me! Thank You! Please save me!”
So God asked him, “Do you believe I can save you?”
“Yes!” the man replied.
“Do you really believe?” God asked again.
“Yes I do, God! I believe you can save me!” The man was getting desperate now.
“Okay, then here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”
“I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”
So God told him, “Let go of the branch.”
The man looked down. A bead of sweat dropped from his brow and he watched it plummet 1000 feet below to the canyon floor. He asked God, “Are you sure this is the only way?”
God answered him, “Let go of the branch. Trust Me.”
There was a long silence, then the man asked, “Is there anyone else up there that can help me?”
Funny, right?! Tonight we’re going to look specifically at how to maintain the momentum of our recovery and how to avoid relapse. And, yes, it does involve trusting God!
I’ve broken this lesson into two parts. First we’ll look at the spiritual side of temptation and the path that leads us to relapse. And then I’ll offer 5 specific things we can do to help us avoid relapse.
The Nature of Temptation
It seems like it’s been a tough past few months for relapse. I know of at least two friends from this CR group who have relapsed, and one of them is in sitting in jail right now. And I have another friend who has struggled with crack and alcohol for 25 years and is losing that battle. He just got served with divorce papers a couple weeks ago. He’s a lovable guy with a big heart, beautiful wife, three awesome kids. Why can’t he stay sober?
Why do we hear about people who have had years of sobriety and throw it all away? It shows you the insidiousness of our disease. And if we’re honest, it makes us a little concerned for our own recovery. Check out this verse we often read:
“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” —1 Corinthians 10:12
God says we should be a little concerned for our own recovery. But there is also some really good news for us in this verse about avoiding relapse. I’ll come back to that in a minute. First let’s take a look at where temptation comes from.
Have you ever wondered about that voice inside your head, the one that tempts you? It says things like, “Just one more time won’t kill you.” Or, “You can pick it up again tomorrow.” Or, “You’re far enough along in your recovery, you can handle it.”
Here’s my question about that voice: Who is that speaking? And who are they speaking to? Are we crazy schizophrenics arguing with ourselves?
There’s a pretty incredible passage in the book of Romans that speaks to this exact issue. This is what I love about the Christian faith; it speaks so directly and accurately to the human condition. This was written 2000 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday by someone in recovery:
“For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. And if I do what I do NOT want to do, I agree with the law that it is good.” —Romans 7:15-16
The author, Paul, is recognizing that there is a higher law of goodness, a standard of behavior that he wants to live up to, but he can’t. He keeps falling short. (Been there, done that!)
“So now I am no longer the one doing it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it.” —Romans 7:17-18
I’m sure I’m not the only guy on the planet who been in that place where you know the right thing to do, and you even want to do it, but for some reason you keep not doing it.
“For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me.” —Romans 7:19-20
The Bible says the reason we keep falling short of the standard is because there is something in us—something other than our own will—that is interfering. Something that tempts us and pulls us to do the wrong thing. Paul calls this thing “sin”, and we see it manifest in our lives in many ways; addiction, obsession, compulsion.
“So I discover this principle: When I want to do what is good, evil is with me. For in my inner self, I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?” —Romans 7:21-23
You can feel the emotion in Paul’s words as he describes this idea that there is something inside of us, a force that is fighting against us. The Bible calls this force our enemy, or the tempter, or the devil. And this is the warning we’re given about this enemy:
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” —1 Peter 5:8
God’s word tells us to keep our eyes open, face reality, take this threat seriously.
I experienced this prowling enemy myself recently. Two weeks ago my wife & I took our girls down to Florida for a vacation. Not long after we arrived, as I was sitting by the ocean, I began hearing that little voice telling me, “Hey, relax, you’re on vacation. If there was ever a time to eat a little too much and drink a little too much, it’s here at the beach, right?”
What’s funny about the enemy is that he also tried to whisper those same temptations to me when I got home from vacation! “Hey now that you’re back in the land of being a grown up with responsibilities, you might as well enjoy yourself, right? No need to be Mr. Perfect.”
No matter which way we go, our enemy finds a way to spin it. Makes you wonder if the Devil was the first politician ever!
I bring up all this stuff about the enemy because it’s important we understand what we’re dealing with when it comes to temptation. I know it can cause us to think of our addiction, or our compulsion, or our temptation – as this powerful, evil force, a demonic spirit from a horror movie. But I want to suggest to you a slightly different perspective on what this enemy is really like. Check out this video:
That’s right, I’m suggesting our enemy is a man behind a curtain telling us lies. And when we learn to recognize the voice of the enemy, it’s like peeking behind that curtain.
Avoiding relapse is not so much about will power as it is about awareness. It’s not about white-knuckling it through the temptation, it’s about opening our eyes and recognizing what’s behind the temptation. Once we’ve become aware of the temptation, it means we’ve recognized the man behind the curtain, and we can take steps to avoid a relapse.
Don’t be mistaken! Temptation is very real, it can be very difficult, and it will never go away. The tempter will always be behind that curtain trying to get us to fear him, trying to draw us away from the light and the truth. That’s just part of life. But the point is that once we start to recognize reality and accept it for what it is, we will find that God, in His grace, is always 100% faithful in giving us the ability to remain abstinent.
Five Tools for Avoiding Relapse
So let’s get practical. When we’re in that moment, feeling tempted, what do we do? Here are 5 specific tools we can use to avoid relapse.
#1 – Submit Yourself to God
“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” —James 4:7-8a
The first thing you can do to avoid a relapse is submit yourself to God, which simply means praying and acknowledging that He is God and we aren’t. There is no mystical, magical ceremony that we need to perform. Just talk to Him like you would talk to a friend. If I wanted to talk with my friend Tom, for example, I wouldn’t go to a special building and light a bunch of candles, and then repeat his name over and over like a mantra: “Tom! I call out to you Tom! You are my friend, Tom!” No! I would just pick up the phone and call him. The same is true with God. Sometimes it’s as simple as just saying “God be with me.”
So the very second you recognize that you’re feeling tempted, stop and ask God for the will to remain abstinent for today. Or just for the next hour, or just for the next minute. Whatever it takes. He WILL give you what you need.
#2 – Reach Out!
The second thing we can do is reach out for help. Don’t try to fight the temptation alone. Instead go directly to your support network because relapse happens in isolation. Reach out to a sponsor, accountability partner or even a friend and just start talking about what you’re feeling.
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you’re fighting with temptation and you’re all alone, you’re probably white-knuckling it. The tempter is a prowling lion that tries to lure us away from the safety of our pack. That’s why it’s so important that we go to recovery meetings regularly, even when we don’t want to. Staying plugged into that community helps us avoid isolation, and gives us lots of people we can reach out to when temptation comes.
#3 – Help Someone Else
Helping someone else will take your focus off of the giant wizard bellowing smoke and fire in front of you. We don’t need to stand there in a staring contest with temptation! Each one of us has the freedom to choose to walk away. So go help someone—at your church, in your neighborhood, at your job, volunteer at a homeless shelter. You’ll be amazed at the instant change in perspective you’ll experience when you get your eyes off your own temptation and troubles and instead focus on helping other people in need.
#4 – Ask: “Then What?”
A pastor friend once shared with me this idea of thinking through the sin. We’re enticed by the idea of giving in to it, but what if, before we actually did it, we took a second to think about how we’ll feel when it’s done? Yes I can give into this temptation….but then what?
We know the high won’t last, those moments of pleasure and indulgence, won’t last. Real life will come rushing back in…and then what? Will you feel shame? Will you have let someone down?
You can also use this question to think through doing the right thing. If I choose not to give in to this temptation just for the next 10 minutes…then what? Then I keep my sobriety, I keep my self-respect, I can look my friends (or my spouse) in the eye without shame.
#5 – Do the Next Right Thing
Lastly is this incredibly simple and incredible powerful principle of doing the next right thing. Relapse doesn’t just happen instantly. It comes at the end of a series of small thoughts and small decisions.
“When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” —James 1:13-15
Notice the sequence of events. It’s our own desire that drags us into temptation. We begin thinking about filling a legitimate need in an illegitimate way. And as we sit and fixate on that desire, the Bible says it “conceives”, something begins growing inside that desire. And if we let it grow, our desire will eventually give birth to sin; to using, to acting out. And let’s be honest, acting out is just what we want, isn’t it? Its the itch we convince ourselves needs scratching. But notice the sequence doesn’t stop there. That sin—that decision to use, or act out—now begins to grow.
So what starts out as a harmless, fuzzy little puppy dog of temptation, one day becomes a 200-pound, mean, blood thirsty, Rottweiler of addiction. The Bible says that, when its full grown, sin leads to death. And that doesn’t necessarily mean physical death. It’s usually worse than that.
For those of us in recovery, when our sin becomes full-grown we can suffer the death of our marriages or our careers. Like my friend I was telling you about. We can suffer the death of our freedom, or our sanity, or our health. Many of us suffer the death of our happiness and peace.
So when we find ourselves wrestling with that question: Should I? Shouldn’t I? We can break the sequence of events that leads from temptation to death, by just doing the Next. Right. Thing. Don’t worry about tomorrow, or even later today. Ask yourself: What’s the next right thing to do, right now? Do that.
So those are 5 tools we can use to help us avoid relapse. And, actually, I’ve got a 6th tool I want to share with you, as a special bonus. Here’s a prayer that, if you’re like me, might help to recite daily…
“Dear God, so far today, I’ve done well. I’ve not lost my temper or given into temptation. I haven’t been mean or selfish, and I’m really grateful for that. But in a few minutes I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m going to need a lot of help. Amen”
So let me wrap up this lesson by going back to that first verse we looked at. It says:
“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall”. —1 Corinthians 12
The good news is that the passage doesn’t end with that warning. The very next verse says:
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.” —1 Corinthians 13a
God is telling us that we are not alone in our struggle! Which for me is a big relief to know. But it gets even better than that…
“And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” —1 Corinthians 13b
There is our hope! It means if we believe in God, and consciously choose to commit all our life and will to His care and control (which, by the way, is Steps 1 through 3 of our 12 steps) there is no such thing as an “irresistible” temptation! Don’t get me wrong, we all face some very difficult temptations in life! Jesus Himself told us:
“My peace I leave with you. In this world you will have trials and tribulations. But be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” —John 16:33
Yes, temptation can be difficult, and it will always be with us. But the amazing news is that there is NO temptation that can come our way that we cannot resist, as long as we’re leaning on God and not on our own power. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.