purple fireworks effect


My church is considering launching a Celebrate Recovery ministry. For the next three months, I and others are walking them through a “Journey of Discovery.” In that time we are trying to give our members as much information as possible about this world-wide movement of God.

In my experience (recovering alcoholic with 3 1/2 years sobriety using AA and other 12-Step recovery programs), the journey of recovering from an addiction–any addiction–is parallel to the journey toward spiritual transformation.

As my friend, Mac Owen, says, “What the recovery community calls ‘addiction,’ the Christian community calls SIN. What the recovery community calls ‘recovery,’ the Church-Going people call ‘sanctification’ (being progressively transformed into the image of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.)”

Here are my thoughts on the Journey of Spiritual (Trans) Formation.

What is this Journey About?


Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32).

          Freedom from what?

  • Freedom from the hurts that may have plagued you all your life.
  • Freedom from the hang-ups (distorted thinking, false beliefs about yourself, your world, your God) that have urged you, like every human being, into periods of self-doubt, self-accusation, self-hatred, and other spiritual maladies.
  • Freedom from the habits (patterns of behavior flowing out of your false beliefs) that may have rendered your life less than desirable at times.

          Freedom to do what?

Freedom to move into a life saturated in God’s peace. Freedom to sluff off the guilt, shame, the sense of worthlessness, purposelessness, and meaninglessness that the enemy heaps upon all of us. Ultimately, freedom to live into the person God has already made you in Christ.

Understanding How the Process of Spiritual Transformation Functions

          Forgiveness of Sin v. Healing from Sin’s Destructive Power

Human sin is no longer an issue with God; He has removed it from His creation completely, in Christ, by Christ, and through Christ.

God removes human sin from an individual the minute that person develops faith in Christ, repents, confesses Jesus as Lord, and is immersed into Him. This is a promise made by our God who cannot lie. This divine ability is founded upon what Christ did on our behalf; it is an accomplishment that has already occurred. Done, completed, “It is finished,” cried Jesus from the cross.

However, the consequences of sin remain, in us and in the world God created. We must deal with those consequences on God’s terms.

For example, one’s sense of worthlessness will not simply disappear upon coming up out of the baptistry. It will not go away because one ignores it or gets so busy with life that the issue is neglected and/or unaddressed. It remains within us until we bring it out into the light and deal with it—on God’s terms.

Nor can we overcome a deeply ingrained sense of worthlessness by overachievement. We do not “make up” for our spiritual lack. Only God can restore what has been stolen from us. (And He waits in joyful anticipation to do so; His only obstacle is our unwillingness to reveal our hurts and admit our need to one another – see further discussion below).

Our performance does NOT determine who we are before God. My bad behavior does not make me any less a child of God; my good behavior does not make me any more a child of God. I am a child of God because my Father has made me His child.

Now, the question I must ask myself every day is, “Do I want to be what God designed me to be or do I want to continue to live out of what my sin has done to me?” Said another way, do I want to live into my status as an image-bearing child of God or do I want to continue to live out my hurts, hang-ups, and habits?

Either way I go to heaven when I die. Again, God has removed sin from the human condition. Nothing I do, good or bad, reverses what God has accomplished in Christ.

So why would I voluntarily submit to the painful process of spiritual transformation if it is not required to get into heaven? The question seems to be a universal human question – see the Rich Young Ruler story. The question also divulges our spiritual immaturity.

  • In our fallen state, we do NOT want God for God’s sake.
  • We want God for the goodies He delivers (similar to the reason children love Santa Claus).
  • A sorry state of affairs indeed, given that obtaining God, becoming like God, participating in God’s very nature, is much more blessed than receiving His goodies!

If I choose the easy route, skip all that transformation mumbo jumbo, show up on schedule, check my attendance, and get on with life as usual, I still must face the hard questions of my decision:

  • How much harm will I cause to myself and others on my journey? (In my case, I have caused plenty).
  • How much happiness will I miss along the way?
  • And, as C.S. Lewis argues in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce, how will I enjoy God in His heaven if I have not learned to enjoy His Presence in the here and now?

The choice(s) is/are mine to make.

Where Does Healing Begin?

All 12-Step Recovery Programs with which I am familiar are spiritual in nature. They may not name Jesus Christ as the center of their spirituality, but I assure you they are spiritual at their core. Why? Because humans are spiritual creatures and 99.99% of our inability to be “happy” is caused by spiritual maladjustments.

On this issue, I highly recommend Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, (San Francisco, California: Franciscan Media, 2011).

Therefore, healing begins with us addressing our spiritual nature. We can heal our spirits, improve our spiritual lives/selves, shake off spiritual maladies in the same way we submit to principles that change our physical existence. But it takes discipline and it takes a change in the choices we make.

Any “recovery” program worth its salt will tell you: recovery must involve a spiritual program of action. A submission to spiritual disciplines (exercises). Both components must be present.

  1. If you want a spiritual result to occur in your life;
  2. You must gather the discipline, make the decision, and take the action that is required to bring about that spiritual result.

Meaning: if you want to see changes in your spiritual life, you must make choices that lead you into spiritual actions proven to bring about the spiritual changes you seek.

To paraphrase Dallas Willard,[1] we must go to the place in which God makes spiritual changes in His creatures. And we go to that place, not in our bodies, but in our inner beings, our “true selves,” in our spirit through the disciplined and consistent commitment to a regimen of the time-tested spiritual disciplines (exercises).

It is similar to the way change takes place on the physical side of our existence:

  • If you want to lose weight, the choice is yours. Eat fewer calories that you burn each day for a month, and you will lose weight.
  • Want more stamina in your cardiovascular system? Do the exercises that build such stamina.
  • Tighter abs? Smaller glutes? Any other change in your physical existence? You know how to achieve what you want.
  • The question is, “Do you have the discipline it takes to submit to the process of achieving it?”

In our spiritual transformation, the process begins with our admission of need (Step One in the 12-Step Program of AA, Celebrate Recovery, and most other 12-Step Programs; a living into the first beatitude: blessed are the poor in spirit).

In class, we have been emphasizing this starting point. Why? Because, in my experience, unless one submits to this Step One truth entirely, the remaining steps mean nothing and produce little lasting change. Relapse is inevitable.

We are masters of denial. Eddie talked about this in his sermon Sunday.

We can come up with 1,000 reasons why we do not need to get too fanatical about this transformation thing, all the while agreeing that “we are sinners.” But what does it matter? We are going to heaven when we die, right? What’s the point in submitting to God’s chisel of transformation now? It simply hurts too much.

But, if we move past the “I am content with God’s goodies” and begin to see the beauty of living into the Life of God here and now, then our journey must begin with this confession:

I am powerless to undo what sin has done to me.

Furthermore, all my attempts to undo sin’s damage have only made matters worse. The harder I struggle in my own power, the more unmanageable my life becomes. The more I try to hide it, the more disabled I become. (“We are only as sick as our secrets.”)

In our spiritual transformation, the Second Step is Getting Help (a living into the second beatitude: blessed are those who mourn. Our sinful nature urges us toward self-sufficiency, self-righteousness. Admitting that we are ruined spiritually, that our world is ruined spiritually, and that everyone around us shares in this human condition can make one very sad. Knowing what we and our world could be and simultaneously knowing what we really are and what our world really is can be overwhelmingly depressing).

I pray that your life, as mine, has revealed this eternal truth to you: once a human being participates in sin, he or she becomes a slave to sin. (John 8:34). Furthermore, sinful human efforts to hide sin, burying it within, covering it with outward achievement, and overcoming it by adapting to its distortions only make matters worse. These behaviors create a “false self.” Engaged in long enough, these behaviors can turn into deep-seated character defects.

This chosen course will eventually render our lives unmanageable. We cannot live like that forever; the pain, anxiety, stress, guilt, shame, frustration, depression of that existence will eventually destroy us (perhaps through the booze, drugs, nicotine, caffeine, food, gambling, carousing, video games, overwork, avoidance, thrill-seeking, pornography, etc. with which we medicate ourselves from the pain caused by such coping behavior).

Worse, eventually God will “give us over” to such behavior (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). When that happens, a world comes into view that is very ugly, very dangerous, and very depressing to spiritually minded souls. (But one we can read about on the front page of most newspapers).

The only hope we have is to ask for help. And the only place real help exists is in Jesus Christ and His Body, the church. Here is what we acknowledge when we take this second step:

  1. God exists. He is real.
  2. We matter to God. He cares about us and our helpless, painful spiritual condition.
  3. He has the power to restore us so that we can live a life, right here and right now, that conforms to His design for us; a life that participates here and now in the very life and nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).
  4. But (and this is a HUGE but) – the life that results from my submission to God may not look like the life I have in mind for myself (may have to sell a few things; may have to work less, or even change professions; will definitely have to scrap the porn collection; the booze will have to go and so will the ….)
  5. And, (another HUGE but) – I will NEVER achieve my life in God by myself. God’s healing ONLY occurs within the community of God’s people, the church.

In our spiritual transformation, the Third Step is Making a Commitment to Submit to God’s Plan for My Spiritual Transformation – on His Terms. (A living into the third beatitude: blessed are the meek. Truth be known, we do have the power and ability to cope with life in this fallen environment. Some of us actually adapt so well that we achieve some level of “success.” At least our world tells us we have arrived. But (and this is a HUGE but) are we really “happy?” Blessed? Can we honestly say that we have arrived at that place in which we have no further desires for more? Are our souls at rest in God? True happiness only comes to those who set aside their “power” to cope with this fallen world and embrace God’s power to transform them into what He designed them to be).

Often, we resist submitting to God’s plan. But God, in His mercy, will not allow us to avoid Him forever. He is relentless in His pursuit of us (I am on page 52 of John Baker’s book).

What appears to us as a crisis may just be God’s way of getting us to wake up to our true spiritual condition.

Sometimes God sends good people into our lives who have the guts to confront us. In our wounded defensiveness, we can reject these messengers from God. We can even consider them enemies, lash out at them, and sever all ties to them, all the while pointing defensively to our accomplishments, abilities, and good deeds—our “successful lives.”

But, if you are like me and are having experiences like mine, God never gives up on us. He will continue to send people into my life until I get His message. At least, that has been my experience. I hope it is yours as well (for your sake – and for your family’s sake).

God is not above using catastrophes to get our attention. Physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, relational – it does not matter to our Creator. Because He loves us, He is going to do what it takes to get our attention.

The paradoxical beauty of such crises, confrontations, and catastrophes entering our lives is that they may get us to finally “let go and let God.” (I am now at pages 83-109 of John Baker’s book).

Concluding Remarks

The beauty and power of Celebrate Recovery is this: when God has a person in that place, he or she may look like a total mess. And, he/she probably is – for now.

But, God’s people, trained in the principles and program of Celebrate Recovery, armed with the gospel of peace, and on the road to recovery themselves, can reach out, soften the crash, pick the brother up, and walk alongside these broken image-bearers as God restores them to a full recovery as His cherished child.

We can personally witness God’s miracle of redemption; we can actually participate with God in His great work upon the earth. That, in my opinion, is better than merely showing up, taking attendance, tolerating others, and waiting to go to heaven someday.

Do we really want to “become more attractive to broken, hurting, sinful people” within our community? If our answer is “yes,” then I think we are on the right course to learn how to do just that.

But this journey must begin in our hearts and souls. We cannot lead anyone where we ourselves have not already been. Or, at least, we cannot accompany anyone to a place to which we ourselves are not willing to go.

Be at peace.

[1] Dallas Willard’s books are not “easy reads.” As John Ortberg describes Willard’s writing, it is “dense.” But well worth the effort. For purposes of our current study, I recommend Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ and The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives.