Depression, Alcoholism and Orthodoxy

15 02 2008

I’ve been sober 13 years but it took more than two years of “slips” for me to learn a painful lesson: 

We cannot think our way into right living.  We must live our way into right thinking. 

Like many newcomers to AA, I loved going to meetings and talking about my problems.  I read about the 12 steps and memorized them, but I failed to understand that the key to sobriety is to actually do the 12 steps, which of course requires taking action.  Not surprisingly, I picked up alot of white beginner chips in those first two years after slips.      

Apparently I’m one of many Orthodox inquirer or converts who is familiar with addiction and depression.  It’s a package deal.  I’ve never met a recovering alcoholic who does not also struggle with depression. Often the depression and anger gets worse after one sobers up.   

It is no coincidence that I’ve heard from so many fellow recovering 12-steppers and depressed blog friends.  From my little experience and reading, I see many parallels with Orthodox Christianity and Alcoholics Anonymous.    

Few ever maintain sobriety in AA without a good sponsor, a guide to help you take the steps and continue taking them after you get sober.  Trying to work an individual program in AA is a recipe for disaster (as I know) and I see the same kind of problem with evangelical Christianity.

Although evangelicals understand the concept of repentance, it usually comes down to private confession.  More and more I hear pastors urging their flock to seek out spiritual mentors, but my hunch is that few of us ever practice any sort of gut-level honesty with another person.  

Our guilt and shame stays in our head.  I have few other Christian men that I “get real” with.  Just about the only relief comes on Sunday morning when I’m reminded that my sins are covered by the blood of Christ.  But by Monday morning I’m on my own.  

The truth is that I need an earthly spiritual father.  I need someone to tell me things I don’t want to hear and to help me see my sin and warped motives, which I am not very good at diagnosing.  Left on my own, I usually come to the conclusion that my problems are the result of what someone has done to me.  

I need the sacrament of confession and the opportunity to give thanks in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper along with those I’m in communion with, who go forward to receive the body and blood of Christ every Sunday.    

I liken my first two years of attempted sobriety to what I’m currently experiencing in my evangelical mega-church.  It’s not like we don’t acknowledge something ain’t right.  Go into any evangelical Christian bookstore and counseling books by the prosperity preachers on TV now top the rapture books on the bestseller list.   

Christian counseling is offered in almost any decent sized church.  Last year I took a Biblical counseling introductory course at the same time my wife and I were in marriage counseling.  All the solutions to our problems are right there in the Bible we were told.  The way to deal with our problems was to write down Bible verses and keep them in our wallet or purse and read them when despair or temptation to sin cropped up.  

But what this boils down to is essentially talking, reading, and praying about my problems. It’s very similar to what I experienced when I first tried to stop drinking.  I had plenty of information and a desire to do the right thing, but I was basically self-guided and of course my prayers were all self absorbed.         

What I’m discovering is that the path has already been trod for 2000 years, and that “program” hasn’t changed.  I’ve heard that in the first decade or so of AA, the percentage of those getting sober and staying sober was very high.  Today it’s much more of a revolving door as individualism threatens to stamp out the actual taking of the 12-steps.  The phrase “Take what you want and leave the rest” would’ve been a heresy at an AA meeting in the 1940’s. 

My battle with depression and continuing sobriety is always contingent upon God’s grace and my taking action.  The evangelical “program” has given me glimpse of His grace and mercy, but I don’t have anymore room left in wallet for more Bible verses.      




10 responses

15 02 2008

Great post, JFred. “Take what you want and leave the rest.” I recently heard another version of this statement directed toward Christian devotional material: “Chew up the meat, and spit out the bone.” But what’s meat and what’s bone is left up to me to decide. With that comment, we weren’t given any directive as to what was or wasn’t worth spitting out.

When I first expressed my interest in Orthodoxy to our pastor, one of the things I said is that Evangelicalism leaves us up to our own devices. It’s a lonely road. I liked that in Orthodoxy there’s a well-worn, time-tested path. And just as much I appreciated knowing that the Orthodox path is nothing if not communal.

16 02 2008

“Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps” by Fr Meletios Weber is a pretty good comparison of Orthodoxy and the steps. When I began to learn about Orthodoxy, it sounded so much like God’s “underground wisdom” that is in the 12 steps, I knew I had to follow the path. I’m still in the learning phase of both Orthodoxy and living my way into right thinking. This post is encouraging, though. Thanks.

16 02 2008

Well said. As one who has struggled with darkness most of my life and have dealt with addicts for over 25 years in various capacities, the principles of AA are indeed intuitively “orthodox”. The principles were established long before the cultural/philosophical “ME-spiral” from the 60’s forward. Bill W would turn over in his grave if he knew people were praying to their “higher power” envisioned as a doorknob or a crystal. William Glasser (Reality Therapy) had a great take on the interminable oneupmanship of drunkalogues as “necessary” to sobriety: He said, if you want to learn to be sober, talk to sober people and do what they do. If you want to learn how to be a better drunk, talk to drunks about how drunk they got and how. Indeed “praxis makes perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect. 🙂

16 02 2008

Yes, I find it interesting how “learned” the evangelical community is (and I speak as one of them), yet we seem to lack the tools to unlock the other side of the puzzle. The knowledge part, we’ve got covered. It’s the truth in application that we can’t seem to get.

Part of the problem (my theory) is, to truly apply what we have learned and know about God means we have to give up ourselves. And I don’t mean that self-serving “all eyes on me, I’ve professed my love for Christ for 20th time at a 40,000 member convention” way of giving up ourselves. The evangelical community relies so heavily on scholarly principles that it has (over the years) fallen victim to the same competitive, self-serving nature of many competitive Universities. He who holds the knowledge holds the keys — the more seminary training, the more books you read, the more verses you memorize, the more Bible drills you win, etc. It’s hard to get “real” about confession when we can’t even get beyond ourselves.

I agree with you about confession. Our ever faltering human minds and bodies need the constant reminder that we are not God, and that we have in fact sinned against God (over and over and over…). Truth is, we are not worthy of His grace and mercy. I believe it is in the very act of confession that God’s gift of Christ becomes sweeter to our souls. Of course I say all of this out of observation. My husband and I are currently lost and unhappy in the evangelical world. We have been reading and asking questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. And my parents have recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I feel like I’m pulled between to worlds. It’s a very frustrating experience and I can identify with much you are saying.

16 02 2008

I really liked this post JFred. Glad you are sharing your thoughts with us.

16 02 2008
Perry Robinson

You’ve hit the reason why the talk of family values is fairly worthless in relation to actually living them out. Having the right idea in your head won’t give you the power to actually carry them out/ Valuing or thinking about being chaste is no great bulwark against temptation when it comes knocking.

This even pagans like Aristotle knew all too well. A value and a virtue then are two very different things.

18 02 2008
Dion Roddy

As I may have replied to some of your previous posts, the 12-steps taught me more about how to be a Christian than all the teaching I have ever received in evangelical Christianity. The concepts of guidance (sponsorship), confession and action are all aspects of ancient Christianity that is still present in Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Protestant Christianity did away with confession (all you need is Jesus), did away with a spiritual father (all you need is the Bible), and did away with action (all you need is faith). It wasn’t until I was desperately broken in addiction that I was willing to do whatever it took to be healed. That meant getting real about how I hurt myself and others with my choices and actions, speaking it into the air and into another person’s ear, finding someone who knew “the tradition” (the program), listening to what they had to say, and actually putting it into practice without my “customizations”. You know, it’s working. Paul seems to speak of the same thing:

“I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. 15 For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you, imitate me. 17 For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 NKJV

Paul is urging us to imitate him, do what he does, not so much think what he thinks. The change in thinking comes as we do different things. Fr. Brendan Pelphrey at Nacadoches Orthodox Christian Mission teaches on this subject in his latest podcast at

Of course, there is the opposite extreme where all we’re doing is action with no change in thinking. In the long run that, too, is doomed to failure. That’s just legalism (or maybe a “dry drunk”?).

All this to say that your comments resonate with me.

I went to DL yesterday and at coffee hour Father Andrew came up to me and said, “are you ready to tell me where you’re at?” I’ve talked to him about my journey before so we went into his office and basically told him that I’m ready to enter the Church. My wife does not share my enthusiasm about OC, so I told him that I’m taking it slow, hoping that she will join me in this. I’m not sure how that’s going to go, but I need to be patient. Barring any unforseen cirumstances I hope to join the Church by the end of the year. God’s will be done.

Great post!

27 02 2008

A few words about confession: I haven’t gone yet, not allowed, but I’ve been talking to my priest about it and putting into practice some of the things he’s told me in my private confession to God.

The difference between the Orthodox and the Protestants on atonement has a very counter-intuitive effect in terms of guilt and overcoming sin. You’d think that the ones who believe that Christ’s blood covers any and all sin (i.e. removes my responsibility for them in God’s court of law) would be the ones who don’t struggle with guilt. But actually what I am finding is that as I let that idea go I’m coming more to terms with God’s mercy.

Basically (and this was THE hardest hurdle for me) I had to let go of the idea that God was accepting me because Jesus made it all right for him to do so. Every day when I pray “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” I have to practice accepting the truths that 1) What I do actually affects my relationship to God and 2) God’s forgiveness comes to me because He is forgiving. Because He is Love. Because His mercy endures forever. Period. He doesn’t need an excuse.

The effect is incredible as I learn to trust God again.

Also, I’ve been told that it’s a mistake to try to understand why I commit the sins I do, to analyze my degree of culpability. I’ve been instructed that I should simply confess the sin, not judging myself, but leaving that to God. Even in confession to a priest, it’s not so much about spilling your guts as it is about acknowledging what you’ve done and hearing someone say “God forgives you.”

7 11 2011
Billy Bean

This rings basically true to me.

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