A Moral Inventory
I’ll be honest, things are going to get a little uncomfortable. This is the step in the recovery process where things start to get very real. It’s a good time to recall the line in the serenity prayer that says “hardship is a pathway to peace”.
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.
Doing our inventory is kind of like that part of the workout where it burns the most, which is also the part necessary for building muscle and burning fat. Or to put it another way, if you want the reward of being a great musician, you have to put in the hours learning your scales and practicing with a metronome. If you want to find healing and freedom from your issues, you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone and do some hard work. One of the promises of recovery tells us that, if we choose to embark on the adventure of self-discovery that begins with Steps 4 and continues really for the rest of the steps, we will find that freedom and healing.
- Principle 4: Openly examine and confess my faults to myself, to God, and to someone I trust.
- “Happy are the pure in heart.” (Matt 5:8)
- Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD.” (Lam 3:40)
This step is about facing all the junk that has built up over the years and has kept us from really seeing the truth about our past and present situations. The tool we use to do this is called a Moral Inventory.
Don’t let the word “moral” scare you—it just means right and wrong. In this step we create a list, or “inventory”, of all the significant events in our lives, both good and bad. We’ll look at exactly how to create this list as we work through the Celebrate Recovery acrostic for this step, which is the word M.O.R.A.L.
M is for MAKE TIME
It’s important to schedule our inventory like an important meeting, giving ourselves at least a few hours where we have nothing to do, finding a place we can get alone with God and pray. And it should be a place we can freely write and explore our thoughts where we won’t be rushed, and we won’t be distracted.
In addition to making the time to do your inventory, it’s just as important to take your time doing it. For me, as I was answering the questions (which we’ll get to below) I found I’d write down the first answer that came to mind. Then I’d think it through, keep writing about it, and other things would come up. I started connecting some dots, and some patterns began to emerge. For example, one of the things I discovered about myself was a pattern of having a hard time maintaining close relationships with people, especially family. I never recognized that until I did my inventory.
I also found entirely new things emerged as I sort of “sat in the question” for a while. When we make the time to do our inventory, we start to get to underlying issues that we that often didn’t even realize we had buried. We begin to discover these hidden resentments and hidden fears that are often at the foundation of the outward issues we’re dealing with.
It’s like in the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Princess and The Pea”. One stormy night a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in a prince’s castle. She claims to be a princess, so they decide to test her. They give her a bed of 20 mattresses for the night and underneath them the prince’s mother places a tiny pea. In the morning, the Princess says she had a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed that she is certain has bruised her. The prince , of course, is thrilled because only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a huge quantity of bedding, so the two are married.
In this analogy you and I are the princess. We’re kept awake at night and being bruised by buried resentments and fears. In fact, some of us are like a Princess that walks around cranky and impatient with people. We finally realize that our crankiness is causing problems and needs to be addressed so we go to a recovery meeting and we introduce ourselves saying, “I am a princess and I struggle with crankiness.” We’ve found our issue. Then through the first three steps of recovery we come to realize that the reason we’re so cranky is because we aren’t sleeping well. And the fourth step is where we come to realize we aren’t sleeping well because there is something buried under our mattresses, causing us pain. The process of doing our inventory is like doing the hard work of looking under all those mattresses to find those hidden things that are at the source of our discomfort and pain.
O is for OPEN
We need to prepare ourselves to be open when we’re working this step, because it only works if we’re willing to approach it with rigorous honesty. We need to open our hearts and open our minds to recognizing and acknowledging the feelings and the pain that we have been numbing, ignoring, or denying. Denial works for a little while; it protects us from our feelings and represses our pain for a minute. But it very quickly starts blocking us from finding the peace and healing and freedom we so desperately need.
It’s like the man who became convinced he was dead. His wife said, “What are you talking about, Charlie? You’re not dead.” And Charlie said, “Yes, I am.” So she tried reasoning with him. “You’re walking and talking and breathing; how can you be dead?” But Charlie continued to insist he is dead. This went on for weeks and the wife finally got worried about his mental state took him to a doctor. The doctor tried to reason with Charlie to no avail. He got an idea and pulled out a medical book and proceeded to prove to Charlie scientifically that dead men do not bleed. Charlie thought it over and finally agreed that dead men do not bleed. The doctor then took Charlie’s hand and poked the end of his finger with a needle, drawing blood. Charlie looked at his finger and said, “What do you know? Dead men do bleed!“
Charlie’s mind wasn’t open to facing the truth, so the moral of the story is: don’t be Charlie. And I should know, because I was Charlie for a long time.
I was part of a Celebrate Recovery community for 4 years as part of the worship band, sitting in meetings every week, loving the teachings, loving the testimonies, making friends, but I never once asked myself honestly if I might need to work the steps myself. Until one week the teacher was going through the steps of how you build your inventory list. The teacher was explaining that in the first column you write down all the people who have ever been objects of resentment. This was the 3rd or 4th time we’d been through the teaching on moral inventories but for some reason, that night things finally clicked. I remember my first thought was “Hmmm…there’s no one I would put on my list.” And then it dawned on me, “That can’t be right…I think I’m in denial.” Knowing my past and my family it was irrational to believe there would be no one on that list for me. So that was the start of me coming out of denial.
“If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9
That’s an amazing promise.
R is for RELY
The good news is that we don’t need to rely on our own strength and courage to get through this step. We can rely on God!
Step 4 could be summed up as the process of “coming clean”, both with ourselves and with God. For some of us, that’s a scary proposition. And that’s the reason this is the 4th step, not the first step. We need to complete Steps 1 through 3 before we’ll be ready to tackle step 4. And even then, this step takes courage and strength. But if we’ve worked through the first three steps we’ve admitted that while we’re powerless but God is not, and we’ve turned our lives over to His care. We’re ready because we know we don’t need to dig deep and find our own courage and strength. We can rely on God.
“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” — 2 Corinthians 12:9
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:3
We can take courage from those truths and move forward through this step, not necessarily in the absence of fear—we may still be afraid—but we can move forward in spite of that fear, trusting that God will provide us with the strength and the courage we don’t have on our own.
A is for ANALYZE
To do a “searching and fearless” inventory, we have to be willing to analyze our past honestly. We can’t put our faults behind us until we face them, so we need to do the hard work of identifying and analyzing our true feelings, motives, and thoughts.
“The LORD gave us mind and conscience; we cannot hide from ourselves.” -Proverbs 20:27
Our inventory is basically a written list of the events of our past, both good and bad. Seeing our past in print is pretty powerful, it brings us face-to-face with the reality of our character defects. Our inventory becomes a detailed picture of where we truly are, way down deep. And the surprising thing for me was that seeing that list felt like freedom. I thought, “Okay great, now I know what I’m dealing with.” I saw it as a finite list of issues I could work through. And I knew with God’s strength I could start working through them one day at a time, using the recovery tools I’m learning through CR.
But if we only look at all the bad things of our past, we can distort our inventory and open ourselves to unnecessary pain. Notice that Lamentations 3:40 says, “Let us examine our ways and test them.” It doesn’t say “Let us examine only the stuff we’ve done wrong”. We need to honestly focus on both the pros and the cons of our past.
Without balance in our inventory, we can get stuck in our recoveries. Or even worse, some of us can be so hard on ourselves when making this list that we end up deciding it’s just too hard and painful and stopping our journey of recovery altogether. Many people have bailed out at step 4 because they weren’t ready. We must surrender to God.
It’s also important not to begin this step without a sponsor or a strong accountability partner. They obviously can’t do the work for us—that’s our responsibility—but we need someone we trust to help keep us balanced during this step. And we need encouragement from someone who will support our progress and share our pain. So make sure partner up with someone.
So let’s get to the good stuff.
L is for LIST
There are actually a number of different ways to do a Moral Inventory. I’ll share the way I was taught in CR, and then share a quick overview of another way I’ve done it that I thought was great.
The concept of making the Moral Inventory is simple. You take a piece of paper and make 4 columns.
- The first column is the Person: Here you list the people who are (or have been) the object of your resentment, anger or fear. It could be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a co-worker, or someone in authority.
- Column 2 is the Cause: What specific action did that person take to hurt you? Did they betray you? Did they say something hurtful? Did they abandon you? Abuse you in some way? Write it down.
- Column 3 is the Effect or Damage: What effect did that action have on your life? How were you damaged? Did it cause a lack of trust? Did it cause pain?
- Column 4 is My Part: What part of the resentment are you responsible for? Did you remain in a bad relationship too long? Did you not confront that person with your true feelings?
Sometimes it’s hard to get started on that list. Like I said, this is the list I had trouble with that night my denial finally started cracking open. So here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help open our minds and our hearts and get us thinking about what we need to put on our list.
“What do I feel guilty about?” (The first thing that came to your mind is probably what you need to address first in your inventory.)
I think it’s important to make a distinction here; there is a good guilt, which we could call conviction, and a bad guilt, which we could call condemnation. Good guilt is what God uses to correct us through His Spirit when we’re wrong. This guilt arises from inside us in the form of conviction; we realize we’ve done something wrong. This shouldn’t be confused with condemnation, which arises from outside of us. Romans 8:1 tells us, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Once we have made the decision to turn our lives and wills over to Jesus and we’ve confessed our wrongs we are forgiven. Period.
Another question we could ask is “What do I resent?” Resentment results from burying our hurts. There’s a recovery saying, “What we don’t talk out creatively, we act out destructively.” Resentments that aren’t addressed can cause anger, frustration, depression, and acting out. And often the way we’re acting out seems completely unrelated to the resentment we’ve buried. Step 4 helps us connect those dots.
Another big question we might ask is, “What are my fears?” Often the issues we find ourselves dealing with have grown out of our fears. Fear can prevent us from doing the next right thing, it can dampen our ability to express ourselves honestly, and it can prevent us from taking an honest moral inventory.
“Do not be afraid or discouraged, for I, the LORD your God, am with you wherever you go.” –Joshua 1:9
Another Kind of Inventory
I mentioned another kind of moral inventory. This is one that I just did recently and found really helpful. (Note: If you’ve never done your inventory before use the one described above.)
This inventory uses a list of virtues as a guide. I found a list online and then edited and added to it to make it my own. Mine has 24 virtues covering topics from Thankfulness to Acceptance to Integrity. You work your way down the list rating yourself on a scale of 1-10 for each virtue, where 1 represents no success in that area, and 10 means you’re having habitual success.
For example, one of the virtues on the list is Rigorous Honesty, which I wrote for myself as: “My “yes” is “yes”, my 218.8 lbs. is 218.8 lbs., and the gig with only 11 people in the audience only had 11 people in the audience. I completely avoid half-truths, white lies, flattery or exaggeration. I practice rigorous honesty in my relationships with others and with myself. I do not ignore, dismiss or excuse areas where I fall short.”
So I look at that description and rate myself on how I feel I’m doing in that area, being as honest as possible. Obviously only Jesus Himself would be able to honestly claim a 10 for every virtue on the list. And that’s okay because recovery is about progress, not perfection. This list allows you to track your progress.
The other thing I like about this list is that it gives me a comprehensive list of areas I may not have thought about. I found it helpful to be reminded of the areas I don’t pay enough attention to.