Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. – Matthew 5:3
“The next Great Awakening in this country will be brought about through Recovery movements.”
In 2001, I was attending a winter seminar given by Dr. George Hunter, an author, preacher, and teacher from Asbury Theological Seminary, when I heard this phrase spoken. I had been in on many discussions about revival, the next move of God, the next Great Awakening; indeed, I had worked and prayed for spiritual revival in my church, country, and world, but never had I heard such a bold and distinctive statement concerning the vehicle for this great move of God. I made note of it, highlighted it on the page, and even committed it to memory for future reference.
But I had no idea what it meant.
Recovery, to me, was all about those poor souls trapped in a vicious cycle of alcohol and drugs, powerless over the disease that gripped them tightly. The statistics, even then, were startling: one-fourth of the U.S. adult population struggled with alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines, or some other substance. Add in other substances like food or adrenaline, and that estimate begins to look very conservative.
But I had no idea how addicts got that way.
Perhaps it was their choice, or their upbringing, or their genetics, or their companions, or a latent mental illness. In my mind, the solution, then, was to find ways not to do those things: overcome their upbringing, conquer the drive of the genetic code, change companions, or get treated for the mental issue.
But I had no idea how to do it.
All of these excuses in ignorance were, as it turns out, a means of protecting myself from acknowledging the addiction that I was actively practicing, and had at that point hidden (mostly) successfully for 16 years. An addiction that, if uncovered, would decimate if not destroy my family and my career. An addiction that I finally had to face 6 years later when my wife said, “Get help, or get out.” I was a pastor, teacher, husband, father, son, brother, uncle.
But I had no idea I was an addict.
I wasn’t abusing drugs or alcohol. Sure, I would have a beer now and then, usually with my dad; a good bonding experience. But heck, I could buy a six-pack (at the package store in the next county; I didn’t dare risk any of my parishioners seeing me at the (gasp!) liquor store) and have it last a couple of months. I took prescriptions only the way the doctor prescribed them. I never smoked. And I would never dream of trying any illegal substance.
But I had no idea that my life was out of control, and that I was powerless to change on my own.
My obsessive behaviors, born of anxiety and a traumatic event in my childhood, were causing major harm in my relationship with my wife. And she had had enough. The carefully-constructed façade I had built to conceal the harm I was doing to myself and to others was starting to peel away. I felt like the man in the Wizard of Oz screaming, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” but that didn’t stop the movement of the curtain.
I visited my first recovery meeting still trying to maintain the façade. I constructed the story that I was there on a fact-finding mission in order to start a recovery ministry at my church. What I did not admit to others, and barely admitted to myself, was that I was in the fight of my life to keep my family and my career intact. Even so, I did laps in the parking lot, almost getting to the front door twice before retreating back to my car. Finally, on the third try, I went through those doors. I did not know what to expect, but when I arrived I was met with a smile and a name tag, and an invitation to grab a plate of food. Little did I know that I had taken the first step in my own Great Awakening.
I made it through the large group meeting ok, though I have no idea what the speaker shared. I then went into a small group for men that shared similar issues to mine. I honestly thought it would be me and 2 or 3 other guys in there, because I was convinced that NO ONE could be like me; NO ONE could relate to my struggles; that I was all alone in my compulsions. When I opened that door, I found 63 other men in that room, including a couple of pastors I knew! And as they began to share, I realized that my story closely matched many of their stories.
I was not alone.
I remembered hearing the first words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor.” I had read the words many times, but only then did I begin to gain insight into what it means to be spiritually poor. I began to realize Jesus really means we must first come completely bankrupt; hands empty. If we think we are holding any righteousness on our own, we cannot receive the two-hands-full of grace that only He can give. I had been counting on my own effort, my own righteousness, to live my life and fuel my ministry. I had been giving my broken and tattered self to my wife, my children, and my church. I had been concealing the guilt and shame of my past behind a mask of perfection and performance. And it worked. For a while. Until it didn’t. I had been rejecting grace so that I could hold onto filthy rags.
Since that night, I have come to believe the words of the first step: “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.” I still don’t struggle with alcohol or drugs. I am (gratefully) still a pastor, teacher, husband, father, son, brother, uncle. But I admit now I am an addict. I can’t control myself or my environment. After almost nine years in recovery, I am just beginning to awaken how wide, and long, and high, and deep is God’s love in Christ. And I get the chance to meet many others who are willing to be honest with God and themselves and admit that they are spiritually poor as well – those who struggle with codependency, spending, gambling, divorce, grief, self-harm, relationship addiction, pornography, anger, depression, anxiety, being the adult children of addicts, food issues, control issues; recovery from physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse; and yes, drugs and alcohol.
We all have something from which to recover. We all struggle in shame and guilt from something, trying to hide behind a mask. And we all reach a point when the mask no longer works. When you are willing to admit that your way doesn’t work anymore, or someone loves you enough to tell you your mask isn’t working any more, congratulations! You are on the verge of a Great Awakening.
-Rev. Carl Palmer
This is part one of a series.
Carl Palmer is a grateful believer in Christ, pastor, teacher, husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and the Northwest Arkansas state representative for Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12 step program. He wants you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.