Step 4: A Searching, Fearless, and Open-Minded Self-Examination

I am a grateful believer in the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, who is transforming me from sexual brokenness, alcohol and substance dependence, some severe health issues in the last few years, and, currently, from an obsession with idleness. My name is Marshall.

Have you ever heard of the 1-2-3-shuffle? This is when people who know they have hurts, habits, and hang-ups (aka addictions, unhealthy obsessions, and compulsively-bad behaviors) undertake the 12-Steps of recovery, who diligently work their way through the first 3 steps, but who then stall out at the 4th, The ‘Moral’ Inventory. They may repeat this pattern several times before the pain of staying the same is finally greater than the pain of change.

I should say, “before the fear of the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the fear of the pain of changing.” For it is fear that makes this part of the process so difficult:

  • fear of the real written-down-in-black-and-white words;
  • fear of emotionally-revisited-pain and the hard work of “going there,” to the places in our hearts and minds we’ve walled off;
  • fear of what we think we will find there.

But I tell you, it is more correct to say ‘what we might find.’ Because it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by what is revealed; by good days that had been hidden away and forgotten in the dark corners of our memories, overlooked because they were inconsistent with the negative self-image we held before beginning recovery. I can say this from personal experience ,especially of the first time I made it through the inventory. And, now, every time I do my daily review.

The Inventory is perhaps the most important – yet the most difficult – part of the early stages in a recovery journey. If not approached inclusively, with the right attitude and for the right reasons, it could easily do further harm, instead of healing.

I think this can be attributed to the wording of the step. Let’s take a look:

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
The Christ-based 12-Steps  #4

Openly examine and confess our faults to ourselves, to God, and to some one we trust.
Celebrate Recovery Principle 4

“Moral” is a word that these days has a negative aspect; it kind of defaults to the meaning that actually belongs to the word “immoral.” And the phrase “confessing our faults,” used without any other qualifier implies that failures are the only type of character trait we have – that we have only flaws to examine. But the actual definition of “moral” concerns both the right and the wrong, the good and the bad. I’ve found it helpful to think of the inventory as an “open-minded-self examination,” allowing me to “identify and confess my true faults” and “to be absolved (and self-absolved) of the guilt and shame I carry that does not belong to me. I can then focus on the healing and forgiveness of what I truly am responsible for.”

Bringing my virtues back to my attention is key to making my turn back to God; key to seeing myself as He does. Have I sinned and made mistakes? Yes, “all have sinned…” (1 John 1:8). But I am not evil through and through. I’m just “human.” There is good in me. Accepting this – by documenting its evidence – is extremely important to my transformation to a child of God.

Let’s consider the Bible verses usually matched up with The Inventory – Step 4, with the expanded meaning I include:

Matthew 5:5
Happy are the pure in heart. [Confession is psychology good for the soul and the body. “We often feel different as soon as we admit our feelings.”]

Lamentations 3:40
Let us examine [all] our ways, [all our behaviors and attitudes], and test them
[against what has recently been revealed to us as “moral”],
and let us [re]turn to the Lord. [Let us turn our flaws over to the Lord, so that we may turn from them and back to Him.]

I like Jeremiah 33:3 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to summarize the effect I found in doing the inventory with this in mind:

Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not [currently] know [or remember].

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.

Doing the inventory is basically like taking a very extensive trip down memory lane, especially of early life, because that’s where the roots of hurts, hang-ups, and habits are found. I visit every memory, good and bad. Humans remember significant events from childhood because they had a significant impact on us. The first time I went through a 12-step program was in Colorado with Final Freedom – which was specifically for men suffering from sexual-brokenness.  I specifically looked at each phase of life separately:

  • early, early years
  • elementary school years
  • adolescence/puberty
  • young adulthood
  • later years

Again, I stress the need for BALANCE! My impression of myself before beginning recovery was overwhelmingly negative. I viewed myself as almost completely sinful and unsalvageable. But, in doing my inventory, I was careful to be completely open (open-minded) to the good and the bad, and I put extra thought into being honest about my part in each incident. I literally color-coded events: red for bad, green for good, yellow for neutral. In the end, there was far more green than I expected!

Can you imagine how I felt when I realized there was more good than bad about me?! Talk about a self-attitude change! Some of my cherished memories from when I was very young include

  • sitting on the floor of my Gramma Bunny’s kitchen, drumming on those Quaker Oats cylindrical cartons
  • Nana Benny’s scrambled eggs (my other grandmother), and going to a Red Sox game with my Grampa Tom, sitting right near the field, and the team winning something like 15 – 1.

(Note that those memories are with my grandparents. I’ll come back to that in a minute.)

I want to talk further about those earliest recollections. John Eldredge in Wild at Heart writes about how boys receive “The Wound” from their fathers. I’m not knocking dads. These incidents can be very unintentional, and they can be from any person in a position of trust.

Here’s a couple more young memories:

  • my dad bought a new handle and lock for the front door. I was “helping” him install it, and played with it, putting the key in and turning it, etc. He blew up in rage at me – something about my breaking the lock
  • once, in elementary school, I stayed after – as I remember it, it wasn’t for anything bad, but my mom (my parents were both teachers in our town), exploded in anger, and I got the only pants down, bare butt whooping I recall ever having.

These are examples of a caregiver over-reacting to a child’s child-like actions. My dad was not a handyman, so much so that installing a door lock was a stressful thing. I can relate because I’m not a handyman either. (Just recently, my wife and I changed the kitchen faucet together – and she did most the physical activity. I supervised.) And my mom, who knew many of my teachers from having worked with them, was image-conscious – as if it reflected poorly on her that her kid had stayed after school.

(Note that these memories involve parents. I’ll get back to this, too, in a minute.)

To summarize, there can be times when the unintentional, unthinking re-actions of a caregiver can have a huge and lasting impact on a child. The caregiver is simply unaware that their own issues are dictating their uncontrolled responses and being transferred onto the child.

Of course, unfortunately, there are also hurts that are inflicted quite on purpose. I put sexual abuse in this category. Any kind of family generational dysfunction is similar. There are subjects that are taboo – but kids can pick up on things that are not to be spoken of, and these things beckon to them. They are intriguing mysteries just begging to be explored.  In my family – even in the extended family, we never talked about sex or alcohol. I  believe much of my struggle could have been prevented if early on these subjects were taught and discussed.

Regardless, these wounds are collected by children like stones in a back-pack – which becomes the burden they will try to bear as they grow. They will be weighed down, and naturally seek ways to cope.

I want to talk about parents and grand-parents now. I am both, with a 13-month-old grandson, Wee B – we call him that because he has the same initials as his dad. My wife Barb and I are privileged to spend most of most weekends with him. So, I’m qualified to make a comparison. Grandparents, by far, get the best part of this deal. I experience the true joy in seeing this child growing up.  He’s a happy toddler – we rarely see him fussy or screaming. Parents, on the other hand, get all the bad parts of child-rearing. They get the sickness and the tantrums. When they’re working full-time, and sometimes sleeping very little, I think it can be somewhat understandable when they over-react to the inconvenient results of a child’s actions – like the proverbial spilled glass of milk. Parents are human, too.

OK, so here we are, at a pivotal point in our development. We have begun to see that some things don’t add up. Our parents (or caregivers) – the ones from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love – have just done something that doesn’t fit the pattern. And we wonder why. No one talks about what happened. But there has to be blame, and somehow we get it into our head that it is our fault.

Let’s speculate for a minute. Let me ask you why I might not find interest in handyman projects? Maybe it’s the negative association coming from that memory with my dad. In my understanding, I had been the cause; almost as if he were justified in getting angry with me. Maybe this thought grew (along with other impactful incidents  and I stress this: it’s not just a single memory) and I got to stretching the truth about my own value. Somehow, I got to seeing myself as inherently unlovable, undeserving of love, and more likely to mess up than succeed. My self-esteem suffered. I began to punish and self-sabotage myself. I felt comfortable with friends like me, friends who were also in low places. I became comfortable there, and my fear of the unknown was fear of success – because I didn’t realize I’d ever had any successes.

Can you see the importance of an open-minded, true appraisal of my part in “The Front Door” incident?

Matchbox Twenty has a song entitled “Back To Good.” This is essentially what recovery is.

You must turn from your sins and become like little children.
Matthew 18:3

I look at my happy grandson. He’s happy and fearless. He’s learning stairs now; up and down, up and down, with one of us behind him. He’s got more energy than I do. He has this complete trust, this sense of security, this joy and eagerness for new things,and he loves back without worry, lifting his arms to us to be picked up. This is the way we were all meant to be. This is the way God made us for relationship with him. He wants to see us the way I see my grandson.

God didn’t give us a cowardly spirit but a spirit of power, love, and good judgement.
2 Timothy 1:7 GW

That good judgement is what we need to apply in doing our inventory step.

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