The Danger of Relapse

Professor Herkless, in his Life of Francis d’Assisi, tells us how Francis was torn between the monastic life on the one hand and the domestic life on the other. He longed to be a monk and to dedicate himself to poverty and pilgrimage. And yet he loved a sweet and noble and gracious woman.

Francis wrestled with his alternatives, and at length, through an agony of tears, he chose the cloak and the cowl. But still the lovely face haunted him by cloister and by shrine. And one radiant moonlit night, when the earth was wrapped in snow, the brethren of the monastery saw him rise at dead of night. He went out into the grounds and, in the silvery moonlight, fashioned out of the snow with deft artistic fingers the images of a lovely woman and a group of fair little children.

He arranged them in a circle, and sat with them, and, giving rein to his fancy, tasted for one delicious hour the ecstasies of hearth and home, the joys of life and love. Then, solemnly rising, he kissed them all a tearful and final farewell, renounced such raptures forever, and re-entered the monastery.[1]

He had to come to terms inwardly with his outward decision to be a friar.

It reminds me of discussions I’ve had with others about the quality of our sobriety. Even though we may not be acting out our compulsion/addiction outwardly, we can still struggle with some core issues such as regret, resentment, anxiety, shame—meaning our inner life hasn’t really changed. We remain in a daily struggle with our compulsions and addictions the way St. Francis struggled with his past love.  

Outwardly, we are free, but inwardly inflamed with passion. If we continue to battle these negative thoughts, relapse is just around the corner.  We will reach for food, pornography, alcohol, or whatever to quench this inward battle.

Think of the Children of Israel being led out of slavery. It didn’t take them long to return in their minds to captivity. Scripture says, “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna’” (Numbers 11: 4-6).

When was the food in Egypt ever “at no cost” to them? Weren’t they in slavery? It cost them their freedom, that’s what it cost them to eat like that. And Moses had freed them on the outside, but inwardly they were continuing to choose slavery. Outwardly free, inwardly enslaved. Likewise, the addict is in danger of relapse. 

The Children of Israel needed to free their hearts and minds from Egypt. It’s the same with our sobriety. We must discover inner freedom to be totally free from addiction. And this doesn’t happen overnight for the addict. The process of transformation is ongoing. 

Let me ask you, “What is the quality of your sobriety? Are you filled with regret, remorse, fear, and shame? Or is God transforming those thoughts in your mind, creating serenity?” 

Paul says in Romans 12:2 that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. It has been my experience in 20-plus years of working with people that this is the key to our sobriety. Remember that it’s an ongoing process that we will be working on with God for the rest of our lives, because these thoughts and negative beliefs are deeply ingrained. But we can achieve freedom!

Inner freedom is determined by the emphasis of the motivation for change. There are two types: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

If my desire to change is due to negative consequences, then I’m only trying to avoid what I perceive as punishment. If punishment-avoidance is driving our sobriety, it won’t be able to sustain itself. We will go back to our prior behavior when the threat is over. 

But if my sobriety is driven intrinsically—by an internal desire to be with God—then I want to change, not that I must change. No longer am I focusing on the problem, but I see the solution. When God stirs up within me a vision of what I can become, then I’ll make the changes necessary to be that person. 

Like St. Francis, we must die to the vision causing our pain. This is why he built a family out of snow. He was still hanging on to that vision, and it was causing great pain. But he knew God had a calling on his life, and, to accept it, he had to die once and for all to the vision of what his life might have been like if he’d chosen that direction.

I see this with people all the time. They struggle with the direction God never intended for them, and to leave it behind, they must let go and move toward a new vision.

So, today, ask yourself, “What is the quality of my sobriety? Am I free inwardly?”

[1] F W Boreham, The Golden Milestone (London: Charles H Kelly, 1915), 57-58.

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