I’m a Christian and am also newly in a recovery program. But I’m confused about some of the terminology of the spiritual life that seems to me to be more similar to the faith I found before recovery than I had thought, but still different. My question is: In the 12-Step program I’m now in, some people talk about the process as leading toward “recovery.” But others say “This is a program of “transformation.” After almost 27 years, I feel strongly that I am being transformed into a better, more caring, less self-centered person. And I’m happy about that. But “transformation” implies that I’m being changed into a ‘different person’—whereas the word ‘recovery’ implies that I’ve lost something I once had and by working the program I will one day be able to recover it.
Since I’ve started thinking about this, I’m wondering if Christian transformation doesn’t raise the same question. Is God making me into a different person than I feel like I am now? Or does God help me to be a new and better version of the me I used to be?
I realize that this may be a dumb question. But since I can’t imagine myself being the super-pious person some Christians seem to claim they are experiencing being, I am looking for some clarification of where we are headed on either or both spiritual journeys.
Thanks for the good questions. These have been real questions for me, too. But for a long time I just parked them aside. However, after 26 years of being on a spiritual journey that in a sense combined a 12-Step program and a Christian spiritual way, I can at least tell you how these apparent differences are being resolved in my life.
My experience as a Christian and a person in a 12-Step recovery program is basically this: In both cases I needed to recover from the effects of my intense but denied self-centeredness. This putting myself in the center of my life where only God belongs is what Christianity calls Sin (with a capital ‘S’.) In other words, without my realizing it, I wanted my wife and children (and everyone I worked with) to behave the way I thought they should—although I didn’t realize the extent to which that was true.
I finally saw that my behavior and attitudes were hurting the people around me and making them angry. When I heard that if I would surrender the driver’s seat of my life to God and try to learn to live as God made me to live, I finally put myself in his hands, and I began to be able to see my sins (with a small ‘s’) that were things I did because I had put myself and my wants in the driver’s seat of my life instead of trying to find out what God would have me do.
Many years after becoming a Christian my life and relationships became very painful because of drinking alcohol to calm my fears when I tried more openly than I had before to get what I wanted. My self-centeredness tended to override my commitment to doing God’s will as I understood it. So when I went to treatment, I saw that I needed to recover from the use of alcohol. And as a Christian I realized that I needed to let God transform my whole life toward being a more unselfish and loving man.
But over the years as I did the steps and worked the program, I saw that I was being transformed—but not into a different person. No, I felt that I was, for the first time, gradually becoming the loving, honest person I had always wanted to be.
So the bottom line for me now is that both Christianity and the 12 Steps are aimed at helping me become more my authentic self. I say this because I never did feel natural trying to be some kind of pious saint or paragon of Christian virtue or a “perfect person” or “big-book thumper” who always pretends to do the Steps and the principles of the program perfectly.
And the joy for me is that God seems to be helping me to be transformed into the loving person I always wanted to be. Not perfect by any means, but becoming more natural and feeling more at home in my own skin—more the same person in all the different relationships and situations in my whole life.
And by surrendering my life to the God Jesus called Father every day, and asking him to teach me how to be the loving person he made me to be, I feel like I am “coming home” to enjoy being simply the person it feels like I was somehow designed to become—not super good, but more real somehow.
God, thank you that you evidently don’t want us to live a life in which we can’t feel comfortable, but that you’re freeing us to be what we really always wanted to be—but didn’t know how. Help me to surrender to you so you can help me become who I was meant to be all along. Amen.
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
– Romans 12:1-2, The Message
Fritz Kunkel summarized the difference of recognition of self and God as it unfolds for the individual coming to himself [or herself]. “He who really finds himself finds God… Our true self is the final goal of our religious development. At first it is “I;” then it becomes “We;” and at last it will be “He.”
– Fritz Kunkel, In Search of Maturity