In the last couple months, I got myself back into counselling and also joined a recovery group (before lockdown called a halt to the group meetings). Both were intended to address my struggles with depression. The recovery group is for general recovery of any kind, but it’s typically attended by those in recovery for addiction. (I joined up to assist in my depression-recovery because, TBH, I really don’t plan (or want) to completely give up any of my addictions.) The two strains of depression-recovery came together for me recently with a little mental experiment I’m trying. I call it “just ask.”
The cognitive behavioural therapy I’m working on in counselling doesn’t appeal to the “Higher Power” of the recovery group (or the God of the Bible in the one I attend as it is a Christian recovery group), but I’ve always seen the principles of CBT as helpful and effective because (I think) they are based (unintentionally perhaps) on biblical principles. Which, being in line with reality, work! Freud (happily) seems to have generally been put in moth balls and replaced by the cognitive-behavioural approach. Since the first time I learned anything about it, I associated CBT with Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers and sisters, keep your thoughts on whatever is right or deserves praise: things that are true, honorable, fair, pure, acceptable, or commendable.” CBT starts by working on one’s thinking, trying to keep it balanced. At its heart, it’s a search for truth (that’s how I see it, anyway). Very biblical!
The problem I’ve run into with the therapy is that I don’t always know what’s true and balanced. I can almost always, however, predict when a particular thought train will be unhelpful. When it will lead me away from the health that is the goal of the exercise. Still, sometimes the thought trains that seem unhelpful in the short run still need to be ridden for long-term results. Some truths need to be faced even if they’re not pleasant. (Notice that “pleasant” didn’t make the list of Philippians 4:8.)
This is where my “just ask” therapy comes in and forms the intersection between my counselling and my addiction recovery group. “Just ask” is a principle God’s been (gently) beating me over the head with for years now, so I guess it should have occurred to me sooner that I could try to utilize it with both my CBT and my addiction recovery. While I’ve admitted I don’t want to recover fully from all my addictions, I have noticed that a couple of them that seem harmless (and probably are in small doses) are getting a bit out of hand.
I decided I had to ask God every time I wanted to have a cup of tea or watch something on YouTube (my substitute for TV and Netflix and all other viewing services). Yes, that sounds a bit over-the-top, and I remember reading somewhere years ago the curious case of the lady who, before she could get dressed in the morning, had to pray over what she should wear that day. Then, which stocking, the left or the right, to put on first and how best to button her top, etc. And then the rest of her day carried on in this fashion. It sounds agonizing! Of course, I don’t plan to make myself more neurotic with my little mental experiment, so I will be on the lookout for signs that I’m heading in the same direction as this curious case. But we are talking about actual addictions here which had started to take over too much of my day. I think tea and YouTube are legitimate concerns for prayer when they begin to reach bona fide addiction-status.
When I remember to stick to it, I’ve noticed that I’m watching less YouTube and being a little more productive with my hours. Plus, I’m being a little more careful about what I’m watching and welcoming in a little less garbage into my mind. (I’ve also noticed that, suspiciously, “God” always seems to say “yes” to a cup of tea whenever I happen to feel like one.)
It may, in fact, seem like the value in the experiment is really just slowing down to do mindfully what I was accustomed to doing mindlessly. And there would likely be some value in the experiment if that’s all there was to it. However, given that I do, in fact, have some solid reasons for believing in a “Higher Power” (aka: the God of the Bible) who cares, there’s much more value in the experiment. It changes everything when I believe I’m not accountable only to myself.
That brings me to the third addiction (not such a small and harmless one this time) that I’m also trying to subject to this experiment. This is a step beyond what I’m trying with the official CBT but so far, proving to be the most valuable part of the therapy. It’s demanding and somewhat exhausting, but when I notice myself climbing aboard any particular thought train that I’ve climbed aboard many times only to arrive at a destination where I don’t want to be, I’m trying to remember to stop and ask God if I should be climbing aboard that particular thought train. Sometimes, I anticipate the answer being “yes.” Sometimes, I’ll need to think about things that aren’t pleasant and don’t appear helpful. But still need to be faced. Sometimes.
Sometimes (or most times), I anticipate the answer being “no.”
In the past, I haven’t had much success getting off my circular thought trains that (like the train in Disneyland but much less fun) run around and around and around the same old territory. There does seem to be something different in the act of asking God about them in the moment that is helping break the cyclical thinking where I wasn’t able to break it on my own. I feel like I’m seeing some progress. Finally!
2 Corinthians 10:5 talks about bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. And yes, that is as exhausting as it sounds. Who wants to think about their thinking all the time? (Eventually, I expect it to become more automatic and habitual and less exhausting.) It’s just not as exhausting as trying to bring every thought captive to the obedience of myself. The Higher Power in the picture really does make the difference.
* * *
On a different tack (but the same one, really), I have a saying I’m fond of. (I think I invented it which might explain why I’m fond of it.) I like to say that faith is knowing who is really God and who God really is. By that, I mean, the first step in faith and a relationship with God is acknowledging that I cannot be my own god. I am no longer accountable only to myself. I am not the boss of me. God is really God. The One in control. Of me. I bow to His sovereignty in my life. (This is the heart of the first commandment of the ten biggies in Exodus 20: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”) This is the only starting place for what God asks from us, the very necessary first step in being restored to a relationship with Him. Knowing who is really God. And it ain’t me!
Knowing who God really is is at the heart of the second commandment of the ten: not creating any false images of the One True God. Learning to know enough about the One True God that we get the important details right. Knowing who God really is involves acknowledging some of the basic facts the Bible reveals about Him: that He came to earth as a man to die for sin and come back to life on the third day to be seen by eyewitnesses who passed on to the rest of us the vital information about who God really is.
In these two, ginormous, little acts lies the entire message of the Bible and all God asks of us: knowing who is really God and knowing who God really is.
These are the only steps that we must take to enter into the Christian life and be put back into a right relationship with God (knowing God in a relational way–loving God, then others) that is the essence of living the Christian life. But these two steps really encompass the whole of the Christian life. The life of faith is a life spent constantly growing in the knowledge of who God really is (growing in that relational knowledge that leads us to love God that leads us to love others) and growing in turning the controls back over to Him. It’s so simple, really! But so difficult at the same time!
I got onto this thought train today (yes, one I did ask God about, and I think He said “yes”) not only because of this mental experiment in my three different areas of addiction but because it’s struck me lately how easy it is to neglect the first basic of the Christian life. As Christians, we tend to put a lot of focus on knowing who God really is but weaken the focus of knowing who is really God. But it is the daily business of the “Christian walk.”
The Bible has various ways of describing what I’m calling “knowing who is really God”: taking up one’s cross and denying Self, dying to Self, being filled with the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, walking in step with the Spirit. As far as I can tell, they all boil down to intentionally seeking God’s control over my life. While this description may make those who don’t understand it a little uncomfortable or even downright huffy, they need to understand that God is the God of freedom. Which is why He requires that we intentionally choose His control for ourselves and that this state is the only true freedom. Running one’s own life is a guaranteed recipe for the disaster and captivity to which all the millennia of recorded human history (and our own personal histories) can amply attest.
The problem for us as Christians, however, seems to me to be that we give lip-service to the truth of who is really God but so often are in the habit of doing our own thing, anyway. It’s so habitual that we’re blinded to it. Instead of keeping in step with the Spirit, or a half-step behind, letting Him lead, we always seem to be out in front. A good idea seems to us to be a God-idea. So rather than ask first, we run out ahead of Him and expect Him to catch up. We ask Him to bless a new venture rather than asking Him if we should undertake it in the first place. As I do with my tea-drinking, we assume His blessing on the things we want to do instead of first asking if we should do them.
I’ve called this principle that God’s been teaching me for years “just ask” because that’s really the only responsibility I have in His guidance (other than to follow it once I think I have it). I seldom have any sense that I’m being given a direct answer. So, as in the case of my frequent cups of tea, I often assume the answer to be “yes.” And that’s okay. After I’ve asked. Not before.
My responsibility is to ask. His is to guide. And He’s promised to fulfill His if I fulfill mine. So, having asked and waited to see if there is any sense of hearing an answer, I am free to step out in whatever direction seems best to me. The difference is, I’ve asked! I’m trusting that there is a truly Higher Power leading and directing my steps once I turn them over to Him. I can tell you from my own experience that this little act of “just asking” has made a huge difference in my life. It frees me from indecision, knowing that I’m not capable of irrevocably screwing it up once I’ve simply asked. And to tell you the truth, on every occasion where I know I did remember to “just ask,” even though the results haven’t always been pretty, I’ve never regretted those decisions. At least, I have the confidence that things went the way they were meant to, even if they weren’t the way I wanted them to.
Now, I’m trying this “just ask” principle as part of my cognitive behavioural therapy/addiction recovery journey, and I expect good things. I think I’ve started seeing them already.