Definition of Successful Recovery

A look at how to define success in recovery

Before engaging on a journey, it is vital that we first determine what our destination is. Without a proper destination established, then we shall never know if our journey is progressing correctly. As such, it is vitally important that any successful recovery environment must first define what success is.

In attempting to define success, I will first establish the criteria upon which I test any given definition: spiritual then logical. Following, I address some common bad definitions of success to clarify what success is not. Finally, I will give what I believe to be a reliable definition of success in recovery.

Spiritual Foundations

All of my logic falls short of knowing enough to be self-sufficient. As such, I rely upon the outside guidance of God to secure the right ideas. For any idea to be considered good, it must first be valid in these two arenas: Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

I rely upon the Bible as an external verification of internal truth. The Bible is reliable and true above all other things. I strive to always build my ideas upon the unshakable foundation of Scripture. I have many specific morals, actions and attitudes that all are directly correlated to commands within Scripture.

I rely upon the Holy Spirit as an internal guide for external truth. I can’t emphasize how vital it is to me that I recognize God’s guidance within my life. This is a primary fixed point in my life as I rely on God’s desire and capability to teach and guide me in the good path. This confidence allows me to venture forward into unknowns, because I trust that God guides me as I go forward.

Logical Concepts

Upon spiritual foundations, I build my logical concepts. As I have witnessed minds much greater than my own express grave errors, I do not believe it is remotely possible for my logical conclusions to be perfect. As such, I present these ideas not with intent of perfection but as mostly accurate guidelines in pursuing truth and challenges to clear lies.

All logical concepts must be Stable. They must pass the test of time. As is often said in our ladies group: “We believe long-term consistent behavior, not words.” Ideas must not merely be present long term but also visibly successful when examined and challenged. Often, the most stable foundations are those that have demonstrated their quality over the course of many challenges. Stability is the principle of “Time and Truth walk hand-in-hand” and “The truth has no fear of questions.”

All logical concepts must be Moral. There are clearly wrong and clearly right behaviors. Whatever the idea I take, it cannot violate these core values, otherwise it ceases to be a stable foundation. There is no means to do the “right” thing while doing what is morally wrong. Any concept or idea that expresses a morally wrong behavior as a means or an end cannot be a good foundation.

All logical concepts must be Realistic Can the idea or concept be realistically lived? There are many idealistic concepts that deny fundamental realities. It must be attainable within the realm of the real: actions that can be clearly taken. This is not meant to be a denial of the need for faith, but rather an emphasis on the fact that the concepts I take on must have a pathway to their desired outcome. Otherwise, it is but a fanciful musing akin to the many fantastical movies in our theatres today.

Bad Definitions

Understanding these core concepts, I now venture into addressing common misconceptions or poor definitions of success in recovery environments. As with all things, there is a value to each of the ideas I am going to present, but each of these ideas, when the ultimate focus, falls short of being stable enough to be the definition of success in recovery.

Sobriety Alone

Probably the most common thought is that recovery’s ultimate goal is sobriety. I find this to be lacking in several areas.

I disagree with the concept of an isolated addiction. Whether I like it or not, my issues affect all areas of my life (see “One Bucket”). As such, the emphasis on sobriety as an end goal of successful recovery leaves in question all the underlying issues that result in my addictive behavior. A wonderful picture of this is the iceberg principle, which states that the visible part of my addiction is only a small percentage of the overall problem.

I once heard a man share that God was not needed for sobriety, otherwise these secular groups would not have long term (10 or more years) sobriety. I must say that I agree. Dependence on God is not necessary to stop my addictive behavior. However, God is the only means to lasting peace within my life. I may stop my behaviors, but without addressing the underlying issues, I become what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as a “dry drunk”. Sober, but still full of issues. Those who live in this state are a miserable lot.

Growth in General

Focusing on growth in general as success is also very common in recovery environments. Often this is phrased in one of two manners, either a “reduction of harm” or “gain of knowledge”.

My first concern with making growth the definition of success is that growth is poorly defined. More often than not, growth is defined in comparison to past behavior. But this is not a valid. The man who once murdered, but now only steals has not grown, but has reduced his rebellious behavior. What is worse is when such a man demands that I give him credit for this supposed “progress”. This reveals the heart of the matter: not growth, but justification. No one would consider a military general successful if he continuously lost battles, but by smaller margins than before. Victory is the only acceptable response when the cost of failure is so high. Those who justify otherwise are only attempting to maintain their rebellious behavior and manage the consequences. Neither the gain of knowledge, nor the reduction of harm mean anything outside of victory in the battle.

I fear my approach to this may seem hard. But I do not claim that this victory is possible in anyone’s personal ability. I am totally reliant on Jesus Christ for the change to my heart. Further, I know that He is willing and capable of changing me. By this premise, I have no excuse for my failures and am obligated to act upon the truth that is revealed to me. Since I know that in Christ I have the power to overcome all temptations, success cannot be claimed while I still engage in willful rebellion. In practice, this is simply doing the right thing, right now.

Giving Back / Teaching / Propagation

Perhaps success can be safely defined in terms of leadership: once I am capable of giving back, teaching, writing or leading, I have successfully walked my recovery journey. However, I believe it is simply untrue that those who teach, lead, share or even write have necessarily achieved anything other than knowledge. Growth in knowledge always opens the possibility to lead, but does not demonstrate true inner stability, and often times masks the need for continued personal growth.

Further, many ministries that push this are actually emphasizing a business model that focuses less on individual success and more on ministerial “success”. It is a growth program for building a ministry: if you tell two people, who tell two people, who tell two people, then the ministry will grow. This exponential growth structure pushes for leadership prematurely, resulting in many poor leaders who are not only dealing with their own issues, but are now hindering others in their lack of personal growth. All this for the sake of ministerial growth.

Success cannot be about the ministry growing in number, it must be about the individual growing. Giving back is important, but it cannot be the definition of success as it does not address the core need for submission to Christ. I can give back but lack real stability, just look at the codependent.

True Success

Only one stable criteria for successful recovery exists: submission to God seen through action over an extended period of time. For the individual, it demands action at both the private and public level, doing what is clearly right, with the right attitude, for the right goals. For the minister, it focuses all emphasis on submission in every area of the addict’s life, focusing first on the most obvious then working deeper into the heart as God reveals greater depths. For both, a safe path to success is established: do the next right thing, do it well, do it consistently and do it humbly.

I suggest this because Christ has not given me a spirit of timidity, but of power to overcome this world. As such, I do not have to go forward in fear of the addictive patterns but rather fully confident that as I submit to Him He has, He is and He will transform me, leading to victory not only in sobriety, but in the core issues that have brought such darkness over my life. All that is required is humble submission.

Because of this, sobriety is not reliant on a personality type, personal circumstances, nor recovery groups, but because I understand the power of Christ to change me, I can safely rely on the fact that regardless of my position or status, if I am faithful to follow His guidance, I will achieve success. This is very different from the view that claims only certain environments, people and/or circumstances can enable real recovery (Example: “If only there were a group like this when I was younger.”). In Christ, this simply isn’t true.

Now, many will say that the emphasis on submission to Christ is exactly what many ministries are doing, and I certainly hope they are right. But, it is not enough to say the right words, they must be accompanied by action. I encourage you to ask yourself of your ministry: Are members pushed to be leaders before they are ready? Is rebellious behavior tolerated or justified because they have “learned” or “reduced harm”? Is our only focus sobriety only or do we address other issues?

Recovery Ministry is not an easy road and should not be taken lightly. Success is only found when I give up all concepts of personal gratification for the ultimate goal of serving Christ. And in that submission, I find peace.