Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
If I had a nickel, as they say, for every time I’ve been told not to be so hard on myself, I would be able to invest in Manhattan real estate. If I were so inclined, that is, which I am not. I find myself almost constantly thinking about what I have done and how I can do better.
I’m always thinking about my decisions and my everyday habits from the perspective of “What do my actions and thoughts say about who I am and who I will be in ten years?” This is not a bad thing necessarily, but one can carry it too far. “Too Far” could be the title of my memoir. Maybe you aren’t as hyper-vigilant as I am, but you might be able to relate to the idea of trying to “be your best self.”
The problems that I constantly bump up against in my obsession with analyzing my every action and motivation? Exhaustion, discouragement, and limitation. So when I read step four, I experienced a combination of dread and relief. It’s a weird combo. Dread because I live in the deep dive of self-analysis and I know where it leads: guilt, shame, and frustration. Relief because moral inventories are as instinctive to me as breathing. But the a word stuck out to me that shifted my perspective.
It will come as no surprise to you that there are things we have picked up over the years that are less than beneficial for our well-being and for our relationships. For the controlling perfectionist, the words “fearless” and “moral inventory” are antithetical. How could they possibly coexist? To dive deep and honestly confront what is inside means reckoning with everything that’s in there, the admirable and the harmful. And to honestly recognize the harmful, I have to admit that maybe I’m not as capable of fixing myself as I think. And that maybe “fixing” isn’t the point.
When I do moral inventory on my own, it is with the purpose of shaming myself into better thoughts and behavior. It has less to do with my well-being than making myself more palatable for myself, others, and God. And if I can’t fix it, then I can hide it.
But what if my definition of this process is incomplete? Spoiler alert: it is.
There’s a type of prayer called a Prayer of Examen. Richard Foster explains, “Examen comes from the Latin and refers to the tongue, or weight indicator, on a balance scale, hence conveying the idea of an accurate assessment of the true situation.” The idea is to ask God to reveal moments in your day where he was present and moments where you chose either to engage with that presence or not. It’s a way of evaluating how we spend our time and energy with the desire to be more intentional, more present, and more aware. “Without apology and without defense we ask to see what is truly in us” (Foster).
The difference between this and what I am accustomed to practicing is the presence of God, who is love, who already knows what is inside of me. When we invite God into this process, we are led through our strengths and our inadequacies and our unsuitability into God’s embrace. It is not a self-serving, self-absorbed, or self-loathing process. It is a practice of continually being led to God, to grace, and to the image of God that exists in all of us. As Richard Rohr describes, “God has trapped us all inside grace and enclosed all things human in a constant need for mercy.”
This process is not always comfortable. It is even less so when we roll up our sleeves and manhandle our way into the depths of ourselves and try to arrive at grace on our own strength. I have the tendency to try to find grace and God, to wrestle and analyze and exhaust myself searching only to discover that I already had both. Even in light of God’s mercy, there is plenty inside of me that I would rather hide from myself, the people around me, and God. Psalm 139 is all about searching and knowing. Verses 1-3 state, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.”
We can dive deep and see ourselves as we truly are fearlessly in light of the grace and mercy and love that have been abundantly lavished on us before we even had a thought of trying to earn it. This should be good news, but the type A perfectionist in me is skeptical. How many times have you learned that this is simply not how the world works? How many times have you been crushed by your expectations of yourself and others and even of God? If you’re anything like me, it feels like too many to count. How could this be true when everything around and inside of me seems to be screaming the opposite?
I suppose this is why the steps are ordered the way that they are, why step one is to admit you are powerless and steps 2 and 3 have to do with surrendering to God (as we understood Him). Without these presuppositions, the dive inward for the moral inventory would inevitably lead to despair. If I continue to believe that it’s all on me, then I will be overwhelmed and paralyzed. But if I can admit my powerlessness and understand God to be kind and compassionate, then the inadequacies no longer define me. I am defined by an innate need for grace and love, and so the qualities and habits that would have finished me are just things. They are true and real, but they are not the end. They are the beginning.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
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