“Repentance…demands a radical turning away from what was and a trusting in the unknown journey of faith. It means acknowledging one’s implication in the sin of the world and a beginning to live as if God were real. Repentance means giving up control and learning to trust God enough to feel certain that whatever God decides will be just and fair.”
– John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, p. 141
I received two significant emails recently. Both were from men who had reached “The Wall” stage in their own personal recovery from pornography use. “The Wall” is at the second or third month of sobriety. It sounds ominous. I don’t know if it should or not, but it does. Essentially, “The Wall” is the point where the recovering person starts to face him or herself. And then there’s some physiological issues thrown in there. Joy…
The first email I received had to do with “The Wall” but it was in regard to a post I had written entitled Fear. In that post I had explained how facing our fears holds the key to our sobriety because it is precisely our substance abuse that aids us in avoiding our fears. Go sober and you face your fears; face your fears and you are sober. They are one and the same.
Because of the very nature of the relationship between sobriety and fear there is a spiritual dynamic to all of this. If by definition there is nothing we can take into our fears, that means that when we face our fears we meet God since God, as a non-object, is all that remains. Go sober, face your fears, meet God. Easy enough, right? Not exactly, and that’s why it’s called “The Wall.”
The man who had sent me an email regarding my discussion of fear could sense that this wasn’t easy as well and so he inquired, “How do I push into fear and the unknown? What does that look like?” Since I knew this man and he knew me he offered his own answer, “I know you’re going to say I have to find out and it’s different for everyone.” He was right, but more on that in a moment.
The second email I received was in regard to something I had written in the post Stages of Recovery (Change) in which the concept of “The Wall” was first introduced. In that post I wrote,
I often think, in regard to the men and women who come to addiction support groups in church settings, what it would be like for them if they were in rehab, if they couldn’t run when things got too painful, if they couldn’t rely on 21st century distractions when they had to sit with themselves, if they were required to look at their suffering when it was laid bare.
Well, I know what would happen. Their defense mechanisms, including addictions, would die the death they deserve to die and they would need to rely on a loving and gracious God, and a community that mirrors this love and grace, to make sense out of their life experience.
The email response I received in regard to this passage read, in part, “What does ‘relying on a loving and gracious God and a community that mirrors this love and grace’ look like lived out more specifically as it pertains to scaling this WALL of 2-3 month sobriety?” (It wasn’t lost on me that this man had typed “wall” in all caps.)
The questions these two men had posed were both related. The first question had to do with the spiritual nature of facing fears – what will I find as I push into fear and the unknown? The other had to do with how our spiritual life, that is God and community, is a resource to us as we embark on this journey.
As I noted, the man who wrote the first email was right, what each individual will find on the other side of his or her fear is different for everyone. It’s different because we are all individuals on our own unique journeys. If we knew what we would find on the other side of our fear it wouldn’t be fear at all; that’s the essence of it.
It is difficult for many of us, including myself, to realize how many of our human problems have answers. If we need to find the perfect date, we have eHarmony. If we totaled the car, we have Progressive Insurance. If we have a massive infection, we have Z-Paks. The goal of Western society is to eliminate risk by providing answers. To this we have become accustomed.
On a certain level I understand what this man was experiencing when he wrote, “How do I push into fear and the unknown? What does that look like?” He had been sober from pornography for two to three months. He was proud of his efforts. He felt like this time around he was going to stop his shameful behavior. But now the old desires flared up. He knew about “The Wall” and he wanted to get passed it. He wanted the answer that would catapult him into freedom.
But the truth of the matter is, for addictive behavior there is no eHarmony, Progressive Insurance, or Z-Paks. This is not a malady produced by limited social networking, a high deductible, or a lack of white blood cells. It is not a malady that just requires that we know more about sociology, actuary tables, or biology. Addictive behavior is a malady produced by our assumption that there are easy answers to the challenges of being human. Truth be told, there are not.
What I do know, both from experience and from seeing other people go through these sorts of transformations, is that the person this man currently is is not the same person who can go with him to the other side of “The Wall.” And that’s the point. The person that this man is is still bound up by expectations – expectations of what life is supposed to look like, expectations of what he is supposed to be.
To make it to the other side of “The Wall” requires that one drop these expectations. Expectations, whether our own or imposed on us by others, deny the inherent journey on which we are traveling. Whether we like it or not, we do not have much control over the course of our lives. We didn’t create the starting point and we cannot stop the end point. Taken to extremes, our planet, as astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book Pale Blue Dot, is on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Whether we like it or not, the earth – and that means us – is an unimaginably small player within a vast universe.
Expectations deny the wonder of our lives. Hope, on the other hand, opens us up to infinite possibilities. We face our fears and the unknown not in the expectation that we will get preconceived rewards. We face our fears and the unknown in the hope that in letting go of our expectations God can do what we can’t do for ourselves, God can work in our circumstances to utilize what we were born to do and be. But this is only possible if we are brave enough and willing enough to let go of what we think we are supposed to be in order to open ourselves up to who we are.
That is how you make it to the other side of “The Wall.” But this kind of spirituality is a challenging road because it requires that we live more with questions than we do with answers. And it also requires a community of believers that is willing to live more with questions than with answers. This kind of community is not always easy to find.
While I couldn’t offer any answers to that man who wanted to know what was on the other side of his fear and the unknown, what I could offer was me. In the vastness of existence, in the midst of the horror that fear can often be, I could and did offer myself. Not myself with preconceived answers, not myself with prepackaged responses, but myself with a body, a pulse, and a soul, someone to say, “I hear your pain and I can listen to your struggle because I’ve been there too.”
For someone who is working on pulling him or herself from compulsive or addictive behavior, or even from simply relying on someone or something as a means to stabilize, this may not be very comforting. We want stability. We want control. But that is exactly what the illusion of our compulsive behavior has provided for us, the illusion that a certain website can make us feel like there is always something to which we can return when we feel lost; the illusion that a random hook-up with a woman or man will make us feel connected when we feel lonely; the illusion that an escort is waiting for us when we feel as if we don’t have a home to which to return.
My hope for the many groups I lead as a faith-based leader and therapist is that they can be safe havens where difficult questions can be asked, oftentimes without answers, a safe-haven where a group of fellow-travelers can gather together to say, “I don’t have an answer to what life is asking of you, but I’m here for you as you remain open to what that is, even if that means I have to let you go.”
The truth of the matter is, we can just as easily find stability in a committed group of question-askers as we can find stability within a committed group of answer-givers. The difference being that when we explore the wrong pathway (and we will!), the question-askers will be more likely to embrace you back into the fold than the answer-givers will. Trust me, I’ve been there!
God is about wonder, not answers. And fear and the unknown can be about wonder as well; it’s just a matter of switching our perspectives. In this way, maybe fear is God, we just haven’t been enlightened enough to see God in it. But it’s difficult to make this mental switch if there is supposed to be an answer to everything. It’s difficult to make this switch if there is some mold into which we’re all supposed to fit. Such a mold doesn’t eliminate fear; it just pushes it inside where it rips our souls to pieces.
So my answer to the man who asked me how one can rely on God and a community that reflects God’s love in order to scale “The Wall” is to find a community where we cannot know all of the answers, where we are all fellow travelers asking questions, where we can allow God to transform our lives instead of other people or our substances of abuse including sex, alcohol, and drugs.
As human beings walking this earth, we don’t know the absolute truth, only God does. It is not our job to know God’s entire plan; it is our job to open ourselves up to it. From this perspective, faith isn’t about who can do the right things the best; it’s about humility before the unknown. This doesn’t make us much money or build our resumes or put us in right standing with people but it may give us something much more valuable: our sobriety, and that ever-illusive thing called peace.
“As far as inner transformation is concerned, there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot transform yourself, and you certainly cannot transform your partner or anybody else. All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter”
– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, p. 131
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
– Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12