I started smoking when I was about 15 or so. I don't really remember why... I didn't really care if other people thought I was cool, but I guess I thought I was pretty cool.
By the time I was 16, most of my friends smoked, too. We would disappear to our cars during lunch breaks at school to light up and crank the music. After school, we'd cruise for hours, driving in circles and listening to pirated CDs, talking about boys and smoking cigarettes. The "good kids" would sneer at us and talk about us after we passed by. We told each other it wasn't like we ever wanted anything to do with them anyway. They were "too good" for us. We were much more interested in the twenty-something crowd who would buy us cigarettes and other things.
Along a main highway between my town and a nearby town, there's an anti-smoking billboard posted next to the road. I don't remember the exact wording of the "quit smoking" message, but I remember that every time we came up on that billboard, my friend Juli would say, "Time to light up!" And we would all light a cigarette as we drove by the "quit smoking" sign.
Juvenile? Sure. Hardheaded rebellion? Bingo!
When I was 27, toward the end of my first year of sobriety, I quit smoking. Having smoked for more than a decade by then, I'd tried quitting cigarettes dozens of times before. But that time, after learning to work the steps of a spiritual program of addiction recovery, with prayer and conviction, I finally had the tools to quit and stay quit.
For me, it was more than just changing a few behaviors. By then, I'd seen God in a way that made me long for the purity I'd disdained as a youth. I wanted to be washed clean and made new. I was finally ready to be "that good."
I was so tired of my stupid decisions and self-destructive habits. Cigarettes were the least of my problems, after the life I'd lived, but I wanted to be free from all of it—substance free and dependence free, physically and emotionally. I wanted God to remove my shortcomings and restore me to an innocence I had never truly known or appreciated. After years of looking down on the "good" people, thinking them pathetic and boring, now I wanted to be free from sin, with the full assurance of faith.
I expect to celebrate six years sober next month. It's been a strange, ongoing, out-of-body experience for me at times, this new life of sobriety and seeking after God's will. I quit using substances, and I no longer wish to be around alcohol or drugs. I stopped smoking, and I don't want to be in places where I have to breathe other people's cigarette smoke. I started covering my body parts, and now I notice how many women don't. I'm still working on cleaning up my language, and profanity sounds really childish and unnecessary to me now. I've seen God's ideal for marriage—I've learned commitment and encouragement and respect aren't just fairytales—and now my heart breaks for the relational tragedy I see in the world all around me almost every day.
It puts me in a weird spot: leaning into the goodness and purity I want for myself and my family, feeling driven to share these gifts and blessings with others who haven't glimpsed them yet, and remembering my rebellion and hypocrisy all in the same breath.
The crowd can still get a little rough sometimes. On that evening, over the course of dinner, the joking at the table around us became a bit loud and a bit crass. One thing led to another. Someone said something that struck me as particularly off-putting—something about eating off of each other, if I remember correctly.
By this point, I was running out of polite smiles. I looked at my husband and said, sort of jokingly but not really, "That sounds unsanitary."
Across the table from me was the gentleman who'd been such a vital element of my growth and my seeking after God earlier in my faith. That gentleman overheard my comment, and he fixed me with a harsh eye.
"I remember what you were like when you got here," he informed me, "and you were a lot more fun back then."
I just looked at him for a moment. My heart broke a little. I was at rock bottom when I met these folks back in late 2010. I was at my utter moral and spiritual low. I wasn't always a suicidal, homeless bartender who cussed like a sailor and thought exposed cleavage was my noblest virtue. Long ago and far away, almost too far gone to remember, I'd started out as a little girl no one in my life that day has ever met—a little girl so self-conscious about being "good," she would apologize out loud to Jesus when she thought of something naughty.
My life flashed before my eyes. I saw how far I'd fallen, and I saw how far I'd come since then. For a long time, I'd believed that little girl was dead. By God's grace, I'd only recently begun to believe she could breathe again. By the time of that sad, hurtful conversation a couple of years ago, I'd tapped back into some values and begun living with some integrity. I was not so naive as to believe I could ever fully recapture my childhood innocence, but I was beginning to brave the vulnerability of childlike faith.
Now all of a sudden, like a slap in the face, the lowest point of my life was being held up as a baseline for my behavior—by a gentleman who speaks regularly about the power of God's grace to change lives. For a moment, in the short silence that fell between us following that cheap shot, our hypocrisy collided across the table.
Thankfully, my husband and the gentleman's wife were the only ones paying attention to this little exchange. So, blinking back the sting, I quietly asked, "But we're the ones who believe in new life, right?"
He glared at me for a moment. Then he shifted gears. He went on to describe the story line of some movie I'd never heard of. I don't remember the title he shared with me, but the basic premise was about a reformed prostitute who became "too good" for the other prostitutes. The comparison was certainly not lost on me. I saw his point, but he'd completely missed mine.
The gentleman's wife, sensing my wounding, jumped in at the end to soften the blow.
"It's like when you quit smoking, and then you start complaining about the other smokers," she explained. "We all know complaining about smokers doesn't get anybody to quit."
Point taken. But what about holding people captive to sins the Lord has forgiven?
It can be tricky to separate personal convictions from interpersonal expectations. It can be challenging to remember that what is sin for me may not be sin for you.
Within my first year of sobriety, I'd encountered principles of spiritual accountability in the practice of Step Ten, which urges us to continue taking "personal inventory" on a daily basis. Through this practice, we review our day, looking for the positives and the negatives. We see where we've followed God's leading, and we see where we've fallen short. Where we've been wrong, we resolve to make amends in the day to come. Where we've been right, we thank God for His work in our lives.
In addition to the day-end review, through the disciplines of Step Ten, we also benefit enormously from what is called the “spot check inventory.” This means, essentially, that throughout the day, in the midst of any irritation or disturbance, we pause, on the spot. We take stock of our attitudes and actions in the moment. We develop a real-time awareness of our shortcomings, paying special attention to times when we’re overly sensitive or over-reactionary. As we learn to observe and adjust for what's going on inside us during those moments, we make room for prayerful response and conscious choice. It doesn't mean we always make the best choices in the heat of the moment. But we begin to see clearly the actions that can be taken to right the kinds of situations we've only avoided or worsened before.
A few years after my first round through the Twelve Steps, after stumbling my way into membership in a Wesleyan church and then stumbling right on into ministry education within said denomination, my soul sang to discover John Wesley's spiritual accountability questions. Originally developed for use in Wesley's weekly small group meetings during the early Methodist movement of the 18th century, these questions leave little room for excuse-making. They still hit me just as hard every time I read through them again:
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
- Can I be trusted?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward, or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
- Do I grumble or complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
Usually, I don't even make it past the first question before I'm squirming in my seat. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? It's the "unconsciously" part that brings me back to God every time, heart in hands, asking Him to show me where I can't see.
I think back to the "good kids" in my class, the ones who sneered at my friends and I and talked about us loudly behind our backs. I wonder if they were at all, even remotely, conscious that their disdain and commentary only added fuel to the fire of self-destruction. I wonder how many of my attitudes and actions today are just pouring gas on the flames around me—igniting little personal hells that I might not even see because they don't have anything to do with me.
It's not even consciously about winning souls most of the time. I just want to step away from the cigarette smoke without shunning the cigarette smokers.
I gotta tell ya, there are days when I feel like I must be so bad at this. But it's not about beating ourselves up over our imperfections. Nobody else is all that "good" at life, either. It's just about asking the Lord's leading to see ever more areas where we can follow.
Lord, how do we love well in these moments? How do we invite each other into Your goodness without pushing anyone further away? How do we help people see past us to see what You can mean to their lives instead? How can we live differently without responding disdainfully? Lord, help us to share Your ways in a way that welcomes rather than condemns. Hold us close in the full assurance of faith, knowing we cannot control what other people make of us, but that You work all things for the good of those who love You. I pray Your clarity for these moments, to act quickly on Your promptings. Help us to be what we really are, in You. Let Your Spirit speak through us to pour out the kind of love that changes lives. I know I pray these things only by Your grace, Jesus. I thank You and praise You for Your mercies. Amen.
Next >>> Why Relationships Fail: Love is an Action, Not a Feeling (Part One)