In reading the various ways in which the alcoholics described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous attempted to moderate their drinking, and in looking back over my own flimsy efforts to moderate, control or reform my addictive behaviors during my drinking years and since then, I am often reminded that, in the life of the Christian faith, just as plainly as in the life of recovery from addiction, there is no “easier, softer way” than the one we have been given. We might often wish there were; we might even fool ourselves from time to time into thinking that there is. But when we get honest, when we get still, when we finally arrive at that deepest place in our soul, we know, we understand, we accept, that “half-measures” avail us nothing. We must go in a completely different direction and let go absolutely if we want to know the joys of life as God intended them for us.
In this post, I will explore the profound truth that, for recovering addicts and for Christians, we must be all in when it comes to the life in the Spirit, that there are no “half measures” and then I will touch upon the grace that is given us along the way.
The quoted phrases above come from Chapter 5 in Alcoholics Anonymous, just before the authors set out the twelve steps they undertook to recover from alcoholism:
“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps. At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not….Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely….Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery….” AA Big Book, pp 58-59.
To the alcoholic new to recovery these words can be terrifying, suggesting as they do that only those who are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve sobriety are likely to be successful in recovering from this deadly disease. In fact, old-timers in the recovery programs often comment to one another in relation to a newcomer, not unkindly, that he or she seems “not yet ready.” This is not a criticism or a moral judgment; it is more of a description, an observation, much the same as a wise farmer might comment about his crop. It is just not ready for the harvest. No one likes to learn that his entire way of life, his basic manner of thinking, his whole emotional outlook, must be radically changed if he is to be saved, and many of us had to be completely beaten down by the life of addiction before we are ready to “go to any lengths” to find relief.
Once again, the Gospel of Bill—what Christians can learn from the Twelve Step programs—has a powerful message for followers of Jesus. For we, too, often want to find an easier, softer, way. We try half-measures. We hold onto our old ideas. But as long as we do, for our spiritual lives the result will be nil. We must let go absolutely and fall into the safe arms of Christ.
As I consider the parallels between the complete abandon with which an addict must surrender his life and the call upon Christians to give our lives wholly to Christ, I am reminded of some of the words of the Old Masters of our faith—of the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler and to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount, of St Paul explaining that he has been crucified with Christ, of St Augustine observing that our hearts are restless until they utterly rest in God, of St Francis praying that God would make him an instrument of God’s peace.
In that light, I recently read these words from the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart:
“There are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”
Commenting upon this passage, the wise Quaker teacher Thomas Kelly, in his Testament to Devotion (pps 27-29), says this:
“It is just this astonishing life which is willing to follow Him the other half, sincerely to disown itself, this life which intends complete obedience, without any reservations, that I would propose to you in all humility, in all boldness, in all seriousness. I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean it for you and for me—commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him…[W]hen such a commitment comes in a human life, God breaks through, miracles are wrought, world-renewing divine forces are released, history changes….This is something wholly different from mild, conventional religion which, with respectable skirts held back by dainty fingers, anxiously tries to fish the world out of the mudhole of its own selfishness….”
He might have well have said, in this last sentence, “this is something completely different from half measures….”
Another modern disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was hanged for his resistance to Hitler, wrote from prison his famous Cost of Discipleship, including these words about “cheap grace and costly grace”:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has. It is pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to sin, it is the call of Jesus at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Cost of Discipleship at 47.
As with the pages of the AA Big Book for the alcoholic newcomer, this message of uncompromising discipleship can be overwhelming to try to grasp. I remember like it was yesterday the first time I read Bonhoeffer, now over thirty years ago. I was on a ferry boat on an island-hopping trip between Puget Sound and Victoria, Canada. After reading the first passages of the Cost of Discipleship, I stared outside the window at the fog and the mist. I could barely manage to keep holding the book. I wanted to let it fall from my hands, and so also to let fall from my mind the radical nature of Christian discipleship. I dropped my gaze, hopeless, and slowly shook my head from side to side, realizing I would never be able to do this. Just then, seemingly from nowhere, someone touched my shoulder. I turned to see an elderly man staring down at me, a smile on his face and kindness in his eyes. “You must always remember,” he said, “you will be given the grace you need for discipleship, and remember also that the rewards are pure joy.” That’s exactly what he said. He smiled again and went on his way quietly, those his only words to me. I think I never recovered enough even to thank him. To this day, I wonder if he was an angel or a man.
As with this kind old soul who appeared out of nowhere to comfort me, likewise the wisdom of the Twelve Step tradition also reminds us that there is grace along this hard way. After listing the sometimes hard steps of recovery, the Big Book observes that,
“Many of us exclaimed, ‘what an order! I cannot go through with that.’ Do not be discouraged. 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.”
So as we consider the total commitment demanded of us as Christians, let us learn from our friends in recovery that half measures avail us nothing, that we must let go with complete abandon; let us with Eckhardt and Bonhoeffer remember that we answer a costly calling. But then also, let us learn from the kind old gentlemen on the ferry and the comforting words of the Big Book, that we are about progress, not perfection, and that as we walk down the sometimes hard road of faith, we will be given grace for the journey and indescribable joy along the way.
Speaking of this joy, I conclude by offering what Thomas Kelly (at 28-29) says in describing the life of unreserved commitment to Christ:
“The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness. Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child. It is the life and power of Jesus of Nazareth, who knew that ‘when thine eye is single thy whole body is full of light’ (Luke 11.34).”
May our journeys be filled is filled with grace, joy and light.