I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Arnold Friberg. He’s the fellow who painted all those colorful images of prophets and missionaries that the Church has used for decades to illustrate its paperback edition of the Book of Mormon.
If I had to pick one word to describe every single one of these men of God as envisioned by Friberg, it would be RIPPED! In Friberg’s version of pre-Columbian America, all prophets and missionaries were approximately 6’2″ and spent at least four hours a day pumping iron and knocking out hundreds of sit-ups. Even at age 95 or whatever, Abinadi would have placed in the top three of pretty much any bodybuilding competition out there.
As a youth, I was enthralled by Brother Friberg’s artwork. I wanted to be like those men–strong! Especially Nephi. A muscly man of God, he could experience visions and talk with angels–and he could shoot electricity from his fingers at the bad guys! I was so enamored with the fantasy contained in those images that it never even bothered me that Nephi’s biceps were bigger than his head. In other words, I dreamed of being like them and didn’t care that they were unrealistic.
Enter addiction. I’ve maintained for a long time that I had the seeds of an addictive personality probably since the age of four. I always seemed to have trouble coping with reality. Fantasy, secrecy and isolation were easier for me than the real world. One way I checked out was by reading everything I could find by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter, Warlord of Mars. When video games came out, I got lost in them. Frogger, Joust, Tapper, Karate Champ. And occasionally, when presented with the opportunity, I would binge on porn.
Over the course of decades, I perfected a dance of failure. Binge on porn; swear it off with tearful promises to God; and then pray like crazy for the strength to withstand the temptations of the evil one. Oh, and I’d read my scriptures like a mad man–and spend more time staring at the massive, strong and immoveable prophets and missionaries in those Friberg paintings. I prayed to be strong like them–never once thinking that it might not be such a good idea to aspire to be like a guy whose biceps are bigger than his head. And then, something would inevitably happen–a downward spiral and I’d find myself binging again.
Strength, strength, strength! That’s what I needed! More strength! Like Nephi! But instead of strength, I just experienced more failure. The acting out increased in frequency and became darker in nature. Addiction is progressive and degenerative. I’m living proof.
In 2010, a good friend helped me remove the goggles of denial when he told me that, based on his personal experience as an addict, I appeared to be a sex addict. He said something remarkable: “Your brain is broken and you can’t get over this on your own–so quit trying!” He told me I needed the help of other addicts in recovery and that if I’d enlist their help, I’d be able to stop and would be happier than I’d ever been in my life.
When I spoke with him that night and frequently thereafter, I thought it was so strange that he didn’t seem to be fighting. He didn’t use fighting words. He didn’t tell me I needed to fight my addiction. In fact, none of the addicts in recovery that I have since come to know and consider as friends talk much about fighting. When they do, it’s usually when they describe life prior to recovery.
Yep, the two words I probably hear the least in meetings of Sexaholics Anonymous are “fight” and “strength.” Addicts in recovery no longer fight and have all come to terms with the fact that strength is not a prerequisite for addiction recovery. In fact, it’s a liability.
Why? Well, that’s one of the great conundrums of addiction and addiction recovery. I don’t have a scientific explanation for it, but I do have personal experience to draw from. In my view, my addiction is part of me. It resides in my brain. When I work on being strong, the addiction in my brain grows strong along with everything else inside my head. When I strengthen my resolve, my addiction strengthens right along with it. To put it another way, my addiction is stronger than my resolve and it always will be. I lose. On my own, it’s a hopeless fight.
This is why addicts (yes, including Mormon addicts) can’t overcome addiction on their own. If I’m trying to do this on my own, the only thing I can think of doing is to work on getting stronger. I pray to God to make me stronger. I read my scriptures to figure out ways to be stronger. Above all, I don’t talk to anyone else–because, I think, strong people don’t need other people.
I understand now of course that I was lying to myself with that line of thinking. I really didn’t care so much about being strong as I cared about maintaining my secrecy and isolation. How can I best keep this “little problem” a secret? Why, by overcoming it with strength! If I have strength, no one else has to know.
So nearly every addict in the Mormon Church is currently praying for strength. Each desperately wants to maintain the secrecy and isolation. Can you see the problem with “prayers for strength”? “Please, God, I don’t want to be honest with my wife or my bishop or myself. I want my ‘little secret’ to stay secret. Help me keep my secret! Give me strength like Nephi or Alma or, hey, maybe even Samson, so that I can take care of this on my own.” Then Heavenly Father answers with a resounding “NO!” and we wonder why.
I firmly believe that God will not relieve a Latter-day Saint of the burden of addiction if it would allow the addict to continue to live a life of dishonesty. If I’m dishonestly praying for strength in order to perpetuate the dishonesty, my prayer is vain. You know, it’s like “tinkling brass.”
So what then is the key to recovery if it isn’t strength? It’s humility. I need to be humble enough to be honest. I need to be humble enough to ask others for help. I need to be humble enough to ask God what he wants me to do instead of telling Him what I want Him to do.
Humility means that I’m willing to put my marriage at risk to find recovery. Humility means getting honest and getting out of the way so my wife can make the decisions she now needs to make because of my behavior. Humility means accepting that I will probably lose my temple recommend and my calling and, possibly, my membership in the Church. Humility means that I will not take the sacrament on Sundays–even if every single person in the entire congregation notices and whispers about it to their neighbor. (They won’t, but I still need to be willing.)
Humility means that I will find the next meeting of Sexaholics Anonymous and go to it, and then go to many more–several each week at least. Humility means going to ninety meetings in the first ninety days of my recovery–face-to-face meetings or phone meetings–whatever it takes. If there are no local meetings, humility might require that I start a local meeting and become its first member and then seek out other sex addicts to help and to be helped by.
Humility means getting a sponsor and checking in every day. It means getting the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and reading it cover to cover, asking myself how my relationship with sexual behavior and thinking compares to the alcoholics’ relationship with drinking. Humility means getting the White Book of Sexaholics Anonymous and reading it cover to cover, learning about lust and how it permeates my life.
Humility means reading the Book of Mormon with a new eye. Instead of focusing on strength, I concentrate on what it teaches me about humility.
Humility means working through the 12 Steps with a sponsor even though it may be one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had. Talking to someone else about all my misdeeds and defects of character is a painful but necessary part of getting honest with myself and others. It requires humility.
I’m deadly serious when I say that addiction recovery doesn’t require strength. I don’t need strength; I do need humility. Almost by definition, however, addicts lack humility. It’s part of being addicted. “I just need more strength so I can beat this problem on my own!” That isn’t humility at all; it’s arrogance.
When the scriptures talk about “a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” I’m pretty sure that expression doesn’t mean “strength.” In my experience, I can’t get humility just by willing myself to be more humble. Again, that’s arrogance. Instead, I’ve learned that humility is a gift from God. I have to ask for it and meet Heavenly Father’s conditions first. Only then does it brings with it miracles. One is recovery from addiction.
Something else to think about from the Book of Mormon: You know how it talks about how blindness comes from looking beyond the mark (Jacob 4:14)? Well, the way I see it, an addict looks beyond the mark when he focuses on strength instead of humility. Looking beyond the mark causes him to become blind to the things that will help him really recover from his addiction.
God, grant me the humility to do all the things You want me to do so that I can find and stay in recovery! Whatever it takes! Whatever the consequences! God, forgive me for all those thousands of dishonest prayers for more strength.
This is why I now pray for humility instead of strength.