As we enter into the Nativity Lenten period, we are reminded by the fast to struggle against our habitual sins and addictions. Christ is born exactly to overcome the power of sin and death in our lives. So to turn the Christmas season into a time of self-indulgence and/or over indulgence is to ignore the very purpose of the Nativity of Christ. We best prepare for the Feast of Christmas by taking time to withdraw from the consumerism of the world in order to reflect on what is essential about being human. The most significant thing about being human is our ability to love others. Lent is a time to refocus our lives on the love for God and the love for our neighbors.
In the struggle against addictions (which really is the surrendering of self will and the denial of love to some ‘power’ which then controls us), many rely on Twelve Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Part of the healing which takes place in an addict, the restoration to sanity, is dealing with our self-centered pride by surrendering our lives to God. A special prayer adapted from the Big Book:
“God, I offer myself to You – to build with me and to do with me as You will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your Power, Your Love, and Your Way of life. May I do Your will always.”
For those preparing to go to confession during the Nativity Fast, we might consider the seriousness with which 12 step programs deal with forces that work on our hearts and minds. These programs recognize the power of sin and self-will in our lives to enslave us by gaining control over our thoughts and desires. But these programs also recognize the power of denying ones’ self and obeying God to help us overcome sin and addiction. Surrendering to God and His holy will is the way for us to overcome our own sinful failures and addictions. It means surrendering to God as God is and not god as we determine god to be.
“If a person defines the Higher Power prior to surrendering his life and his will, then the Power is limited (even slightly) by his own imagination, his own thinking. The result is clearly a power much nearer the alcoholic’s ego – it is a power that can be contained within the human imagination. This is not the Higher Power outside the person. This is the higher power within the person. This difference is crucial.” (Fr. Meletios Webber, STEPS OF TRANSFORMATION: AN ORTHODOX PRIEST EXPLORES THE TWELVE STEPS, p 127).
The process of healing, of overcoming our addictions, requires great humility which translates into recognizing there is a God and ‘I’ am not God. St. Theodore of Petra describes the failure of some monks to humble themselves and who instead believed they could overcame their sin by their own great ascetical efforts alone:
“A number of men in the mountains and in the caves had not led the struggle for a Christian life according to Christ, and, for having practiced a rash form of asceticism with great zeal, were pierced through by the sword of pride. They had attributed their ascetic activities to their own strength and had forgotten that our Lord had said: ‘Without me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Because of this wasting of the flesh, or having in some way fallen under the judgment of God which surpasses understanding, they were delivered up to Satan, and because of their deranged minds they could no longer control their thoughts.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, p 54)
Pride, egotism, is a form of mental and spiritual illness! Faith comes from humbly realizing “I” am not God. St. Peter Damaskos (12th Century) writes in a similar way about how the lack of faith results from our pridefully imagining we can on our own without God’s help overcome sin in our lives.
“This is the faith with which the Lord said it is possible to move mountains (cf. Matt 21:21); upon it, according to St Paul (cf. Col 1:23), the other virtues are founded. For this reason the enemy does everything he can to disrupt our state of stillness and make us fall into temptation. And if he finds us in some way lacking in faith, wholly or partially trusting in our own strength and judgment, he takes advantage of this to overcome us and to take us captive, pitiful as we are.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28056-68)
Faith is surrendering of one’s self to God and allowing God to be Lord, rather than making ourselves God. Fr. Meletios Webber offers us an idea from scripture to help us visualize what it is to surrender to God and to trust in Him rather than to rely on our own will:
“One of the most beautiful encounters in the Gospels takes place between Jesus and Peter on the occasion when Jesus walks on the water. Peter, sitting in the boat, shouts out into the darkness: ‘”Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him’ (Matthew 14:28-31).
Peter relies on Jesus when he initially climbs out of the boat, and again when Jesus catches him at the end of the story. It is only in the middle, when he realizes what he is goind, that he relies on his own abilities, and starts to sink.
Here we see the Apostle Peter doing Step Two.”
[Step Two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”] (STEPS OF TRANSFORMATION: AN ORTHODOX PRIEST EXPLORES THE TWELVE STEPS, p 124).
Addictions whether to alcohol, drugs, pornography, food or shopping, all work in a similar fashion: they cause certain chemicals to be released in the brain that have a positive effect on our thinking, how we feel, and on our emotional life. It is why we crave the things to which we are addicted and why temptations are not repulsive to us but rather attract us and seduce us. When we become addicted to anything, we also surrender our free will to the addiction and become enslaved to its effects on our bodies. St. Paul resounds with the claim:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
The process of achieving sanity, of becoming more fully human, of being able to exercise free will over desire, is more work for some of us than others. Lent is always a time to recognize these demons of desire in our lives, and to set ourselves on a path of freedom from being enslaved to them. Confession can be part of our recovery from enslavement to our addictions. Confession is not just dealing with commandments that we break, but even more with spiritually unhealthy behaviors that harm our relationships with God, our families and with creation itself.