“…In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet!
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
1 Corinthians 15.52.
Let us talk about change and the willingness to be changed, for I suspect that on this topic we Christians can learn a lesson from our friends the addicts.
Now, you have to believe that I love St Paul. I am amazed at his blinding faith, his irrepressible hope and his dogged persistence. I thrill that his constant message is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I love the Corinthians quote above about the last things—I cannot read it without hearing the powerful trumpet notes of Handel’s Messiah and the Bass booming, “at the last trumpet we shall be raised incorruptible!” I have no doubt that Paul’s theological explanations and predictions about how it will be at the Parousia are as accurate as any we will ever know; I expect he is absolutely right that when that last trumpet sounds, in the twinkling of an eye, everything will be different, including each of us.
But when it comes to the long and difficult process by which a broken and selfish man like me, a recovering addict and narcissist, tries to become a better person in this life—you know, the one before the Parousia–Paul has his limits. I mean, after all, even before his Damascus Road experience, Paul was a stringent keeper of the Jewish law and religion—no easy task, that—and a righteous man by all accounts (setting aside that embarrassing business of murdering Christians). And, unlike my conversion and that of most people I know, Paul’s conversion was total, instantaneous, complete: he was, indeed in the twinkling of an eye—or, more accurately, the blinding of an eye—changed wholly and deeply, converted to Christ and transformed forever. And he really never looked back. I mean, with the notable exception of Romans 7, I never really get the idea that Paul struggles with his own integrity. As a thoroughly converted man and an activist, he seems to have neither the need nor the time to engage in a lot of self-inquiry.
All this, shall we say, has not been my experience. Before I came into recovery, I was not an especially stringent keeper of my faith, no one called me a righteous man, and, even after turning my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood Him, I never had anything like the white light conversion experience that was visited upon St Paul. Even well into faith and recovery now, I often need to slow down and examine and re-examine myself and my motives, and I often don’t like what I find there, and it sends me back to the spiritual drawing board, so to speak.
So it is that St Paul and I are, well, different. (This, by the way, qualifies as an understatement, as will be attested to by anyone who has ever read St Paul or known me.) But it means that when it comes to the process by which I can become a better man, I cannot afford to think it will happen in the twinkling of an eye, that I have been wholly and finally converted on my road to Damascus, and that all this has been or will be done without a lifetime of effort on my part. God’s grace, I am sure, goes with me and enables me to move forward in ways that I don’t understand, but what this addict knows is that I have been given the Twelve Steps as a practical roadmap for where I am going, and that I have been given friends in recovery to talk to me about how to go there.
The Sixth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous states that: “[we] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” These, of course, are the defects of character that we previously identified through a 4th Step moral inventory and admitted to God and another person in a 5th Step disclosure. Thus is the Sixth Step referred to as the “willingness” step, and it is pivotal in recovering from a life of addiction and moving into a life of peace, joy and service.
It is an unhappy but undeniable fact that most addicts, more so than other people, struggle mightily with basic character flaws. After all, according to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, our problems with alcohol were “but a symptom.” The “cause” of this “symptom,” then, would be these deep character defects resident in the addict’s soul—the Big Four being selfishness, fear, dishonesty and resentment. So finding some way to address these moral shortcomings and some process, however slow it might be, becomes an absolute necessity in moving from a life of chaos to a life of usefulness, and thus in increasing the odds that we addicts will never return again to alcohol or our other addictions.
Now, the wisdom of the Twelve Step approach is that “willingness” is the key to this slow transition. The Big Book says that “we have emphasized willingness as being indispensable. Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted are objectionable? Can He now take them all—everyone? If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing.”
Now this last sentence, unremarkable and subtle as it seems, is as profound as anything I have ever read in any spiritual lines anywhere. True, all religions, spiritualities, and self-help philosophies teach that we can only change once we decide to do so. We must be ready, they say. This is so basic to our social culture now that it shows up in jokes. You remember how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
But what does a person do if she or he is simply not ready to change, doesn’t yet have the willingness, still holds onto old ideas or clings to areas of selfishness, fear, dishonesty or resentment? Are we then just stuck, waiting and waiting for “willingness” to appear? No, says the Sixth Step: we can ask for willingness. What a concept! When we are stubborn, stuck or sinful, we can simply ask for a change of heart, for a new attitude towards the power of the Spirit. This realization—I can get unstuck by asking for willingness—has been a transformative one for me, and it means that I never have an excuse for not moving forward spiritually. If I need to let something go—a resentment, say, against someone who wronged me unfairly—but I can’t, or won’t let go, even when I know that, as we say in the recovery rooms, “holding onto a resentment means that I keep drinking poison hoping you’ll die,” well, then, I have a choice. I can choose to stay stuck, or I can ask God for willingness to let go. I have a choice. And, by the way, if I am not even ready to ask for willingness, well, then, I can ask for the willingness to ask for willingness. In other words, I can go as far back in the spiritual malaise as I need to in order to get to the source of the unwillingness. “God help me become willing to become willing to ask for willingness,” is a prayer that is not uncommon in my strange and muddled spiritual mind.
Now, there is one last note on this business of change and willingness. A friend in the program reminded me about it yesterday. When we become willing, it is as much a willingness to be changed as a willingness to change. The difference may seem slight, but for people in recovery, who often have compulsions to try to control people, places and things, this, too, is a kind of letting go. I have to let go of all forms of spiritual control, including control over whether I am changed. For ultimately I have no final control over which of my character defects, if any, will be changed and which not, over which flaws must necessarily be removed if I am to be of service to others and which must remain in me to keep me ever dependent upon God’s grace.
And here, to come full circle, I finally find St Paul again, waiting for me in Romans 7. In a rare moment of personal introspection (vss 14-23), he has been exploring the disparity between what he wants to do and what he actually does—lines that read like an addict trying to understand why he cannot stop abusing himself—and Paul then famously comes to this beautiful moment of clarity and cry for help: “Oh, wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? Thanks be to God, it has been done in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 7.24-25).
As I said, I love St Paul.