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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Powerless or Powerful?

 Is AA off-base with step number one?

As a people, we seem to have two basic schools of thought out there as to how we should face problematic behaviors in our lives. The one school, made most famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, says that I am powerless against my addiction (step one of twelve). The other school, promoted by well-intended Christians and secular psychologists alike, says that I can do anything I set my mind to do. This approach feels quite Biblical, especially when you attach to it the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Sounds nice. Empowering even. “Me and Jesus” can take on the world!

So which is it? These two lines of reasoning can’t possibly co-exist, can they? They appear to be two radically different approaches to health from completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

Both have their merits. Consider the “powerless” mentality of AA. To admit powerlessness is to acknowledge my need for others. Knowing my own susceptibility to an ongoing struggle or addiction keeps me humble and open to a process for change. On the other hand, the “powerful” mindset seems much more positive and responsible. I am encouraged to grab life by the horns and be master of my destiny; captain of my own ship. I embrace the truth that I can become all God made me to be!

As someone who wrestled with an addiction to pornography for over 15 years, this battle between the two schools of thought makes a ton of sense to me. I have benefited from the positive merits of both schools. I have, however, also found the pain, the shadow side, of each approach when taken alone. The powerless approach can become defeating. A mantra of “I am powerless” can become the excuse to give in when the soul no longer feels like fighting. The powerful approach may feel more hopeful, but I have discovered, like so many others, that it offers a false boast. No matter how empowered I felt, I continually found my way back into the same old patterns. When this happened, I was left with no choice but to conclude I wasn’t powerful enough, and the guilt and shame game would get played all over again.

So I ask again, which is it? Like many of our problems, perhaps the issue lies not in the answer, but with the questions itself. “Which is it” implies immediately that one or the other must be true, thus making the other false. But what if this isn’t a question of either/or, but both/and? What if the key to recovery and healthy living is to embrace both simultaneously?

“Wait, wait,” you may respond, “These two ideas are fundamentally opposed to one another. How could they possibly both be true?” Let me explain from what I have seen and experienced.

The starting place of healing and recovery is always humility: I must be willing to admit I have a problem that I simply cannot solve on my own. In that sense, I am powerless. I have learned countless times that when I place myself in certain situations without safeguards or community around me, I will do what I have done a thousand times before. And then, a thousand times I tried to change without success. What choice do I have but to embrace that, in that scenario, I am powerless?

But here’s the key: in that scenario. The scenario of my powerlessness, and yours, is one of isolation, self-effort, and repeated patterns. In other words, I cannot do the same things in the same ways and expect to get different results. Someone once called this the definition of insanity. And in that sense, our struggles and addictions are absolutely a form of insanity.

What happens, though, if I change the scenario? If I recognize that isolation, self-reliance, and repeated patterns are the graveyard of my hopes, I can make a choice to change. I can move into safe places of community where my story is heard and accepted. I can learn to trust God and His plan for right living in this fallen world. I can develop new patterns of behavior that develop healthy neurological patterns in my brain. When you and I do this, we are no longer powerless. Because we recognize the scenario of our powerlessness, we can choose to walk in places that lead to lasting health. This is a position of power.

Notice, however, where the power comes from. Is the power really in me? I would say no- the power is in community, faith in God, and a renewed mind. I am powerful because I recognize where I am powerless. I believe this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said, “So now, I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9,10) Do you see that? Paul says I am weak AND I am strong- the two working together hand in hand.

So here’s my conclusion: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me because I have embraced that I am powerless. I can gladly embrace my place of powerlessness because I know that through Christ I can do all things. Do you see the interplay? Do you see how these two ideas, when put together, actually enforce the message of the other? Powerlessness without power is hopeless. Power without powerlessness is arrogant and alone.

This paradox should come as no surprise if you take a look at the God of Ages and His eternal Word. Throughout Scripture, we are told that the way to live is through dying; the way to joy is through pain; the way to contentment is through self-denial and sacrifice. So also, the way to power is through powerlessness- two seemingly contradictory ideas put into perfect harmony through the work of Christ in us.

So today, embrace that you are weak and powerless. Celebrate that you are strong and powerful. And remember that you never want one without the other.

Journey in Freedom-