Progress, Not Perfection: Sanctification for the Rest of Us

“No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles; we are not saints. The point is we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”  AA Big Book (4th Ed), p 60.

Twelve Step Recovery emphasizes two concepts, seemingly paradoxical. First we are taught that we only live one day at a time, that only by staying present in the moment, and the day, can we remain happy and joyous and free from those inner demons that would devour us. “One day at a time” is an almost impossible concept for most alcoholics and addicts to comprehend—we tend to live in the past or in the distant future– and yet, “one day at a time” is the gateway to our new life in sobriety.  At the same time, we learn, we must take a long view of our recovery, we must have patience, for deep serenity and emotional freedom takes time.  To put a point on it, the old timers say that “time takes time.”  We did not become slaves of addiction, selfishness and dishonesty overnight, and we will not be released overnight.  Time takes time.  This broad theme of patience and tolerance for our mistakes– yet while ever moving forward into a place of spiritual love and service—permeates the entire approach of recovery.

So we must stay in the present, in the moment, in the day—and yet, we must also be keepers of time.  I say that I have been sober for over nineteen years; what is actually more true is that I have been sober 24 hours at a time for over nineteen years. The difference may sound like semantics to someone never ensnared by addiction, but I assure you this is not semantics. It is an entirely new way of understanding my life.

I look back and see how slow have been the changes, how long it took me even to begin to become rigorously honest with myself and with others, how long it took for my brain and my body to stop craving alcohol and the adrenaline of addictions, how much time it took to get some time in sobriety.  And the biggest change of all is how long it has taken for me to begin to think more about others than I do about myself.  Just now—nearly twenty years into this thing—can I honestly say that I spend even a fraction of the time and energy on the needs and happiness of others as I do on my own.  As someone who has long been a Christian—and so should have been practicing this ethic, simply because of who is my Lord—I shudder to admit it. But it is true. I am not naturally a selfless person; I am a naturally selfish person. And it has taken a long, long, time, one day at a time, for this even to begin to change.

But to my surprise, the Gospel of Bill—the wisdom of the 12 Steps applied to the Christian life—says, “that’s just fine…take as much time as you need. Live life one day at a time and, eventually, you will look back at the miracle of transformation. But meanwhile remember, time takes time.”

Contrast this with too many churches, which seem to teach, or at least imply, that goodness and sanctification come nearly automatically or simultaneously with conversion, or baptism, or church attendance. In the liturgical denominational churches—mainline or Roman Catholic—there is an unspoken assumption that those who are in the aisles are good Christians, or at least nice people. And by being in church, we are to understand, we are much nicer people. In the bible churches with our friends the evangelicals, the assumption is that, by coming to Jesus at conversion, I am somehow instantly and even miraculously healed, not only of the pain and guilt of my past sins, but of my current brokenness and degradation as well.

But either approach— the idea that being in church in and of itself somehow makes us better people, or that at conversion I am instantly and completely cleansed– can be very discouraging. For most of us experience, and most of us know, that whatever our status as Christians, we are still broken, we still are not free.  And yet, in this society of instant gratification, where patient discipline is the exception rather than the rule, a Christian can feel that he is particularly dense, slow, sinful.  This of course breeds discouragement and defeat.  So instead of artificial expectations springing from personal ego, or impatience, or bad theology, or the needs of the church leadership to claim success, the Christian needs to be reminded that time takes time, that saints are not made quickly, and that, one day at a time by God’s indwelling transformation and the believer’s conscious effort to be faithful, she will make progress and she will, in God’s good time, become sanctified.

The best spiritual teachers have always taught this need for the long view. Jesus tells us about the mustard seed—the smallest of seeds that grows to the largest of trees. And we realize, when we think about it, that it takes a long time for a seed to become a tree.  Likewise, St Paul or St Augustine reflecting back on their own lives and progress as followers of Christ, St Clement and Athanasius teaching us about the long process of sanctification that they called deification, St Benedict and the whole monastic tradition of spiritual growth– all are reminding us that time takes time.  CS Lewis, to fast-forward to a more contemporary writer,  uses the wonderful analogy of a long road home: sometimes, as the road winds this way and that, we are actually farther away—as the crow flies—from home, and yet, following the road we must follow, we come closer step by step to that day when we are home. But our job is not to be constantly measuring how far we have come, or how far we must yet go; our job is simply to keep walking.

So the Gospel of Bill would teach Christians the miracle of a paradox—a two-headed truth.  First, we are to live one day at a time. We are to show up with attention and consciousness, focus on this day and see what we can bring to it in love and service and joy and gratitude.  But, second, we can take great comfort in knowing that these days pile up, that they matter, and that, through the very great grace we have been freely given,  we are slowly and methodically being transformed into the image of Christ.  This, as I like to say, is sanctification for the rest of us.



About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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2 Responses to Progress, Not Perfection: Sanctification for the Rest of Us

  1. Tom Coxe says:

    Kelly, I really like this and with your permission, I’ll use it in my AA meeting.

  2. Anne B. says:

    Kelly, this is not only beautifully (and clearly) written, and theologically sound, but it is so desperately needed by the average church-goer, whether in an AA program or not. I’m reading a book by a UCC minister, Craig Rennebohm, whose ministry is with the homeless mentally ill in Seattle, and finding the contents to be as poignant and powerful as its title: Souls in the Hand of Tender God. Whether mentally ill or just plain addicted, we are all cradled in the hand of God, whether we know it or not. Thanks, Kelly, for doing this important work.

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