“When I first got sober, the last thing on my mind was my relationship with God. I had to take care of me first. But almost immediately, I was told to admit I was powerless and to surrender my life to God –or, my ‘higher power’ – or else I was doomed to relapse. (At least, that’s what it felt like I was being told.) I couldn’t remember the last time I spoke to God, and I wasn’t about to jump back into that dialogue without at least brushing myself off and getting a little clean time under my belt. And even if I got to the point to where I was comfortable talking to God again, I’ve always struggled with turning my life over to him so how was I supposed to do this now?” –Me
It turns out, surprise-surprise, I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Just about everybody I have met in recovery has grappled with this issue for some period of time. Some of them, like me, are too ashamed at first to turn back to God. A lot of people are either atheist or agnostic, or have never had a clear definition of who or what their higher power is. How are you supposed to surrender to a higher power if you don’t have or believe in one? And if you do, what does it really mean to surrender?
I am intentionally staying away from the religious aspect of this, just so we are clear. It is not my place to define anyone else’s higher power or to use this blog to evangelize my own personal beliefs. I will say, however, that “higher power” does not necessarily have to be synonymous with “God.” To those who struggle with the idea of a higher power, Blake Elliott puts it like this:
“Go to the ocean. Stand in the water right where the waves crash and break. Can you stop that wave from crashing on you? No. Of course you cant. Because that is a power of nature which is far bigger than yourself and cannot be controlled by you. And even if you will it to stop it’ll continue to takes its own course, in its own measures, on its own time, however it chooses. THAT is a power greater than you. THAT is a higher power.”
Am I telling you to surrender to a wave? In a way, yes I am. Think about it. As Blake said, you can’t stop the wave. It will flow right past you, or break right on top of you, no matter how hard you try to stop it. Have you ever tried to swim against a wave, in the opposite direction? It is a lot of work, and you will probably get smashed into the sandy ocean floor a few times before you make it past the break. You’ll get salt-water up your nose, in your eyes and through your sinuses. It’s like nature’s Neti-Pot. And once you’re past the break, you’re in deeper water and you’re ultimately going to have to make a choice. Drown, or tiredly swim back to shore. But, if you accept the wave, and swim with it, what happens? It’s called body surfing. You paddle in the right direction, and a little effort on your own behalf, coupled with a little effort from this great force guides you to shore easily and quickly. It’s an exceedingly convivial experience, one which many have called spiritual, enlightening, even life-changing.
I personally have struggled with the idea of surrendering my life to God. I didn’t like the idea that God has a plan for me. It seemed to interfere with the concept of free will, and if God’s will was going to unfold anyway, I should just be able to park it on the couch and watch it happen. My own mentor, Luke Chittick, explained it to me like this:
“At first I was a little confused and slightly anxious about the thought of turning my will over to god. What does that even mean? Well I first was able to see that my own will got me to a back alley Tijuana bathroom unable to walk. I was willing to accept that maybe, just maybe… someone else’s “will” could get me to a better place. I decided to give up my way and do “god’s” way. I’m not going to argue whether it was the right way of doing things or the wrong way of doing things. I can only say that I’m a lot happier and my life is much more manageable. I also have not been back to Tijuana.
A little story that always helps me explain, and understand, is the story of the newly sober alcoholic on a rowboat.
‘A man in early recovery is sitting on a rowboat. With his back to the bow he begins to row. God starts to steer. The man and the boat start going places. The man is rowing and rowing while god is steering and the man loves all the new places he goes to. After some time the man shouts to god, ‘hey god! This is great! I’m going to try steering!’ God shouts back, ‘Go for it. I don’t row.’
I always am striving to do the next right thing; be accountable; and make sure my words match my actions. That’s the way I was taught to “row”. As long as I do that I end up in great places! No need for me to steer!”
Like Blake’s wave analogy, Luke was telling me that there are two pieces at work. You have to work with God. Surrendering isn’t turning your life over, giving up control. It is accepting help, and trusting that a power greater than yourself will guide you in the right direction. Trust that God will steer you to a better life. Trust that the wave will guide you to shore. Do good deeds. Serve others. Abstain from using. Do the right thing. “Practice these principals in all of your affairs.” Row the boat. Swim with the wave. If you look at it this way, surrendering to a higher power doesn’t really feel so intimidating; it feels empowering.
Marcus Abernathy is a recovering drug addict pursuing a Master’s in Clinical Psychology, specializing in Addictive Behaviors.