From time to time I am faced with the reality that there are some folks out there who apparently do not believe that people can change, or that those who try to change—whether addicts in recovery, criminals who have paid their debts to society, or “notorious sinners” (in the language of the early Church)—should be given second chances. And while, thank God, there are so many people who are quick to forgive past wrongs and to give second and even third chances, yet the hard reality is that there are those who, for whatever reason, simply seem not to be able to let go of the past. Moreover, these are the ones who, when guys like me make a mistake of any kind these days, are quick to point to that as “proof that people like you never change.”
Recently I heard from a young man I sponsor that he had been hit with an angry comment—from a friend of his ex-spouse—that “men like you never change.” Ouch. This is not unlike an unfriendly remark made to me some time ago from someone who knows a piece of my story from my life in addiction and said to me, “alcohol is just a truth serum, and so it shows what a person is really like on the inside.” Ouch.
All of this reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. As we learn in that parable of Jesus, when a person—addict or sinner—repents of his sinful and selfish ways and comes home to a loving Father, not everyone is excited about the return. Remember in that story, amidst the grand celebration of the Prodigal’s homecoming, the faithful older brother stood off in the distance, resentful at the obvious injustice of a party for his wayward sibling in the face of his own steady service to the family.
Now, while such attitudes and remarks can be quite shaming and frustrating for those of us trying to change and live into a life of love and service today, yet it is also an opportunity for growth for us. And there are several lessons that we can take from it, whether we are people in recovery from addiction, or Christians growing in gradual sanctification towards Christ-likeness.
First, we must remember that in many cases, we have earned the enmity and anger of those who would condemn us. We surely hurt many people while we were active addicts or devil-may-care sinners, and so these people may have just cause reason to be hurt or angry with us. We who would seek second chances must own our pasts completely and unconditionally, no matter how ugly. Addiction—alcoholism, drug abuse, sex, gambling, or other kinds of addiction—is not an excuse for our past mistakes. We claim our mistakes as our own, which the Twelve Step programs suggest that we do through the mechanism of a Fourth Step inventory and a Ninth Step amends. To understand our past behavior through the lens of addiction is not to excuse it, and in fact any attempt to do so is cheap and contrary to the recovery programs. Likewise, Christians do not get to excuse old behavior on the grounds that “well, I guess I am just a sinner, so what do you expect?” The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this attitude “cheap grace.” No, any program of authentic spiritual growth requires that we fully embrace our pasts, and plainly both the Twelve Steps and Christianity require it.
Second, however, and paradoxically, both the Twelve Steps and Christianity teach that, if we are genuinely remorseful and repentant about our mistakes, a loving and gracious God stands with open arms to welcome us to a new life. Provided we have done all in our power to right our past wrongs and to set out in a new direction, we are called to leave the past behind. “We will no longer regret the past or wish to shut the door on it,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had a sponsor once who said that “I have completely and totally given up any hope of having a better past.” Similarly, the New Testament teaches us that, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1.9. So we are not only allowed to be free from our past, we are commanded to accept such freedom in the gratitude and joy of the saved and released.
Third—and another paradox—this freedom and forgiveness is not given simply for our benefit, great though that is. It is given freely so that we might better be of service to our fellows, for no one burdened by shame and baggage of an ugly past can be very useful to others. And so we must never forget that one of the reasons for the grace given freely to us is so that we can then turn around and be vessels of that grace to others. There is a saying in the Twelve Step programs, “what you don’t give away, you cannot keep.” This is one of those inside-out spiritual truths that is counter-intuitive to us. We must take what we have been given and pay it forward, or we will stagnate and become again self-absorbed and useless in our primary task, which is to be of service. Again, a quote from the Big Book is helpful: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
Fourth, we must realize that, often and perhaps even usually, a person who directs such a harsh comment towards us is in some kind of pain. Now, as I said above, often we were the cause of such pain, but even if not, a moment’s reflection reveals that there must be some kind of deep hurt driving such bitterness. In my life I have known very few people who seemed simply unable or unwilling ever to let go of a past wrong—but I have known a few. And almost always, if I can get free of the shaming impact of having my past thrown back in my face, I can see that he or she is in pain. “Hurt people hurt people,” we say, and these kinds of exchanges are a good example of that truth. And both the Scriptures and the Twelve Step programs tell us that our response to such a person must be to find compassion in our hearts, to offer kindness only and no retort, and to pray for him or her. “Love your enemies and do good to them that hate you,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and as far as I can tell, that applies regardless of the reason that such people consider themselves our “enemies.”
Fifth, and a final paradox, while we surely are to have compassion and pray for such a person, the wisdom of the Twelve Step way teaches us that, when confronted with someone who seems unable or unwilling to let go the past and accept our amends, but who instead repeatedly shames and belittles us, we can detach and walk away. We are not called to stay in deeply toxic and shaming relationships, to remain in situations that are harmful to us and our spiritual growth and freedom. To do so, again, would reduce our ability to be useful to others in service.
I hurt a lot of people in my years of addiction. Sometimes I still do. I am a man of deeply flawed character, and even with God’s grace and my best efforts, change comes slowly for me, and for many others I know—but it does come. And when confronted with an angry or hurting person who cannot let go the past, I must realize that I am powerless over him or her. My sponsor says, “what other people think of me is none of my business.” For those of us—like me—who too much want people to like us, this level of detachment is hard to internalize. But it is a gift of the life of the Spirit, and like all other spiritual gifts, we must claim it, practice it and give it away, lest we lose it.