On Sunday, September 21, I will celebrate my first anniversary of sobriety. I suppose some see their sobriety anniversary as a sort of birthday, an event worthy of candles, party poppers, and groovy house music (all things of which I am decidedly for). I’m choosing a different analogue, though; I’m choosing to celebrate Sunday as my own personal Easter. That being the case, this week constitutes the consummation of a personal Lent, a season of reflecting on the death of addiction and the resurrection to new life.
Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, I have not centered my reflection in the celebration of being drink-free. Instead, I’ve turned inward, beyond the obvious point of celebration. I’ve examined the condition of my inner sobriety, asking whether I’ve dealt with the things that led me to over-imbibe in the first place.
Mr. Webster defines sobriety a number of ways, including the way in which it is most colloquially understood—“not addicted to intoxicating drink.” And though that is certainly one aspect of sobriety (often the most difficult to accomplish), if we stopped there, the quality of our sobriety would be judged by our ability to modify behavior. We are more than Pavlov’s dogs, though, more than animals to be trained.
When one practices sobriety through the lens of the Gospel, one is reminded that that Jesus didn’t come to prod us toward behavior modification. He didn’t preach white-knuckle accomplishment or celebration of right behavior at the expense of the heart. In fact, the primary focus of his teaching was on the heart of the inner man. Consider his examination of adultery, how it was not centered on the act itself, but rather on the lust of the inner man. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he said. (Matthew 5)
The quality of my sobriety, then, isn’t marked by mere abstinence from a particular vice. Instead, the quality of my sobriety is only as good as the quality of my inner sobriety (i.e., am I free from the addictions of the heart, from lust, anger, or greed?). Has my inner man been transformed into something resembling the shape of an olive branch, something carried in the beak of a great dove? This is the crux of inner sobriety.
“How do you examine your inner sobriety?” you might be asking. Our processes may differ, but this week, I’m giving space to these questions:
Have I dealt with the pains that led me to over-drink?
Are there new pains that threaten to consume my heart?
Are there areas of fear, anxiety, or anger that consume my thoughts?
Do I think of death or disease more often than life and the possibility of healing?
Have I confessed my darker thoughts to my wife, therapist, or a trusted friend?
Am I walking in forgiveness with those around me?
Am I actively pursuing peace with those with whom I disagree?
Are there addictions I’m using to self-soothe, to numb the pain, anxiety, fear, or anger?
Am I honest about the state of my frailty, about how close I am to reaching for the bottle (or sex, or shopping, or religious certitude)?
It’s my strong suspicious that avoiding the work of examining my inner-sobriety creates fertile ground for relapse. And even if I could white-knuckle my way through abstaining from alcohol, I’d simply manage to transfer my addiction elsewhere—eating, drinking, Xanax, sex, consumerism, purging, feigning religious devotion, over-engaging in social media, or all of the aboev. This is the way of my wayward heart. Sound familiar?
Jesus left us with this grand promise:
“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”
This sort of world-transcending peace marks the character of inner sobriety, I think. And so today, I’m asking myself, “is that peace rooted in all areas of my life?”
Yes, I’m moving toward my own personal Easter, and this is not the Easter of externalities. It’s not about broken bottles and modified behaviors. It’s not about one-year AA chips, or rounds of applause. This is an Easter of inner rebirth. You’re invited to come along. Do you want to?
**Note: Join me in walking through the inventory of questions above. If you find yourself high-centered on one, sit with a piece of paper and write your thoughts. If you find yourself high-centered on either of the last two questions (no matter the coping mechanism), consider seeing a trusted therapist, priest, pastor. There’s no shame in coming clean.
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