Part of life is doing stuff we don’t want to do: clean your room, eat your broccoli, buy groceries, get the TPS report in on time. I have a feeling that this is not what Paul was talking about when he said “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What he was talking about was something our 12-step friends know very well, the habits that cut into our lives and rob us of our joy. Or as that tune by Dash Berlin put it “I have a habit I can’t break so it does all the breaking.”
The habit itself isn’t evil, it’s the reality that the habit cannot be told when to stop, that it can’t be bent from its intention. So we find ourselves dragged away like a toddler behind a Great Dane. That sense of being carried along against our will is the point behind what sounds like Paul’s serious case of logic chopping. Hidden behind what sounds like mindless repetition however, he’s trying to make clear the sense of helplessness we feel when we go down the road to do something that would, in saner moments, cause us to ask “what are you doing!”
Our 12-step friends get this in a way the rest of us may not really notice. Their habit (whatever it is: food, needing to be needed, alcohol, drugs, or many other things) picks them up and carries them along down paths that hurt themselves and others. At some point they will say (at least once) something that sounds a lot like “who will save me from this body of death?” The habit feels unbreakable and because we cannot break it, it breaks us. That’s the percieved reality and it is sadly something many of us experience at one time or another.
The habit eats our time and undercuts our work for the future. It saps our strength and diverts our mind from hope. In this reality, we truly can feel bound up in a body bound for death. How then are we to escape this? Do we use sheer determination (called “white-knuckling” among our friends)? Sometimes that works, particularly if the habit is new or shallowly rooted but when it doesn’t (as often happens) we can fall even deeper into despair.
When we get to a point where we realize that we cannot “by our own reason, power, or strength” come to sanity, we make our first step (of the 12-Step program). The first step is to accept that our white knuckles and foolproof plans to Be a Better Person are not going to work. It requires us to deal with the reality that our own strength is not enough (because we are fighting against something within ourselves and thus equally matched with our opponent).
Like Paul, we cry out “who will save me from this body of death,” this moribund body which cannot defeat its enemy? We accept that our power is not enough and reach out to another power, a Higher Power (Step 2). In the church we understand this Higher Power to be God present in us through baptism into Jesus. We understand that the One into whose care we give our life actually cares for us and seeks our good. Trusting then in the power of a loving God, we entrust our life into the care of that God (Step 3) and begin the work of building life anew.
Because the 12 step programs are non-sectarian, they cast the Higher Power as whatever you look to that is your power. Their defenition sounds a good bit like Luther’s explanation of what a God actually is “that to which we look for all good in life and from whom we expect help in time of trouble.”
In spite of the way we teach a loving God to our children, the notion that God actually loves and cares is not something with which we are very familiar. This reality makes doing the third step, trusting the care of our life into the hands of God, so very hard. We understand intellectually that God loves and cares, we believe generally this caring, loving God is actually perfectly loving and trustworthy, but in our guts, in the part of us that churns and fears? No such luck. So who will save us from this body of death?
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, the perfectly loving, perfectly real God we do not always trust, the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ will save us. Even when we don’t trust fully, even when we are not perfectly loving ourselves, at all these times and in all these places, God will still love us into life.
This then is the power in the 12 Steps, the power that Paul touched and trusted with his life. The Higher Power of God is doing the work of restoring us to sanity. We co-operate, we even syn (together) ergon (work) i.e. synergize with the work of God in our life, but it is God at work to bring life out of death who is doing the work. It is God who cherishes our doubt and our faith, who takes all we give and turns it into beauty.
As Paul said it “Thanks be to God.”