Relapse, Repentance and Redemption

[ 6 ] Comments

by Paul

We tend to think of relapse in terms of addiction, specifically returning to the addiction after a period of abstinence.  Sometimes in recovery circles there may be distinction between relapse and “slipping up,” the latter being a one-time event, the former being a real return to the lack of control associated with the addition.


For loved ones of those who struggle with addictions, relapse can be terrifying.  A loved one who worries about an addict, and who feels peace during an addict’s period of sobriety, may feel all is lost when relapse rears its head.

Addicts who are on the path to recovery may feel that relapse is part of a longer term process.  That is, one does not “recover” out of the box all at once.  One may have a long period of sobriety, punctuated with slip-ups or relapses followed by a renewed effort to seek recovery.

Many veterans of AA will honestly say that there are many ways to find recovery.  The twelve steps are one way, but they are not the only way.  Some people find recovery by quitting cold turkey and never looking back.  Others use support groups like AA or the church’s ARP program.  Others get medicinal help to reduce the cravings of addiction.  And along each one of those paths to recovery, there are infinite possibilities as individuals stay in or drift out of sobriety, abstinence or recovery.

As faithful Latter-day Saints, we should get this.  We are all in a continual battle with what King Benjamin called the natural man.  We are regularly covenanting to subject ourselves to the will of our Father in Heaven.  And we are regularly failing in that effort.

We know we cannot do it alone.  We know that it is only by the grace of God we are saved, even after all we can do.  We know that even if we obey every commandment, as King Benjamin teaches us, we are still in debt to God, still beggars in His eyes, still recipients of His great plan of mercy.

As we mature in the gospel, each of us confronts certain truths about ourselves.  We are not invincible.  We are not all-knowing.  We make plenty of mistakes, sometimes repeatedly.

There is hope for us, of course, precisely because of the atonement of Jesus Christ.  It is precisely because of our weakness as humans that the Savior offered His atoning sacrifice.  Elder Packer has recently repeatedly taught (including here)that there is no sin of which we cannot repent, which the atonement will fail to cover.  That is an awesome promise.  And it gives me hope.

What is the relationship between the relapsing addict and the penitent, if inconsistent, natural man?  It is this: both are on a journey of redemption, seeking to overcome a natural weakness, a disease of the flesh, a function of our human condition.  And neither can do it alone.  Both need the blessings of the atonement.

Relapse for the addict and repeat offenses for the sinner are awful bumps along the road of recovery.  They can be devastating and demoralizing.  But they can be overcome.

In recovery circles, one talks about being in recovery one day at a time.  As faithful Latter-day Saints, we make life-long covenants, and we recommit to them each week as we take the sacrament.   In both cases, our goal is to stay on the path rather than to arrive at a specific destination.

How do we, then, deal with a repeat offender?  Either a sinner who sins again, or an addict who relapses?  Some of that depends on how we deal with those people before the relapse.

In the case of addiction and other ills, sometimes loved ones are co-dependent.  The loved one’s happiness depends on the behavior of the addict.  If the addict is active in his addiction, the co-dependent cannot find happiness.  If the addict abstains, the co-dependent finds peace.

That is not a healthy arrangement.  There are, of course, 12-step programs for families of those who struggle with addictions.  Those programs help loved ones free themselves of co-dependent behaviors.  They do not help loved ones “support” their addicts in recovery.  Instead they help the loved ones find peace regardless of the actions of their addicts.

So in some ways, whether the addict relapses or not is immaterial to the happiness of healthy loved ones.  (Of course this sounds more simplistic than it really is; I can find peace and still be sad at the relapse of a loved one.)  What it means though is that relapse does not spell ultimate doom for anyone’s recovery.  The relapsing addict can return to recovery, and the loved one can continue in recovery despite the relapse.  (Some loved ones find peace even if their addicted loved one never finds recovery.)

A loved one may need to use healthy boundaries to protect himself or herself from the consequences of the addiction, and there is nothing wrong with that.  A loved one may quickly lose trust in one who has an addiction, and that is not surprising.  But a relapse does not spell the end of recovery for either the addict or the loved one.  Just as we each recommit to honor our baptismal covenants each week, just as we each see evidence of our natural man each day in our lives, so an addict (and his or her loved one) must step on the path of recovery each day, one day at a time.

To our good fortune, the Lord designed His plan to allow for us to be who we are: dependent upon Him and His mercy for our salvation.


Photo credit:  Robert macaskill via Compfight

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

6 Responses to Relapse, Repentance and Redemption

  1. templegoer says:

    That’s very relevant to so many of us. I’ve heard it said that one is only as happy as one’s unhappiest child. I’m afraid I can only too easily identify with that. Over time though I have come to see that my grief has the potential to destroy me, and that is therefore not useful behaviour. I find it paradoxical that I am learning how to separate out from my children and dis-identify from their behaviours, I also observe that they often try to draw me back in. Thanks for clarifying the link between addictive behaviours and normal family life, I hope I’m not belittling the challenges that you face in accepting that we probably all struggle with this more or less, addiction is simply one of the more noticeably difficult of them.

  2. Paul says:

    TG quite the contrary — I think that there is plenty of co-dependent behavior in “normal” families, especially in a society in which we believe parents should be helicopters around their children, ensuring their every happiness. We don’t do much better in the church, since it is very easy, culturally, to assess our performance as parents based on our children’s success or activity. That is not what the gospel teaches us, and yet many of us learn it all the same.

  3. jendoop says:

    Thank you for a reminder of how much we all have in common with addicts, those tendencies are in all of us. No man is a stranger because we share so much in our mortality. Rising and falling, how beautiful and merciful God and Christ are.

    Since you’re talking about codependency – It is something that had unknowingly crept into my life and which I’ve been working on while reading Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. In my mind making sure everyone else was happy was my job as wife and mother, the problem is I can’t control anyone but myself so that hands my happiness over to others. Which causes huge resentment and control issues. While letting go felt heartless at first, it has opened my life to the joy and happiness that God blesses me with because of my personal choices. I can be happy even in trying times and while family members struggle. It is the peace that is beyond understanding.

    Somehow, those two concepts of making others happy and our inheritance of peace through the atonement were concepts I picked up through church culture, but they are contrary to each other. Often I wish these types of psychological concepts (codependency) were more illuminated in our gospel discussions. In example: that being a good mother doesn’t mean your joy comes from your children’s perfection. Which is crucial for mothers of addicts to understand.

  4. Paul says:

    I wonder if co-dependence is a more modern issue. Certainly the New Testament injunction to lose ourselves to find ourselves works only in emotionally healthy relationships. Evne our pioneer ancestors did not do for one another what the other could do. (Even widows had to tend to their own wagons, for instance, and keep up with the rest of the company.)

  5. jendoop says:

    I’ve wondered the same thing Paul, mostly because I wish the gospel lexicon included more about it. Which leads me to wondering why it doesn’t, which makes me think it’s a modern phenomenon. Could it be that we have more free time now?

    I think the widows taking care of their own wagons must have been necessity, because the men didn’t have the physical strength or time to do it.

    Or maybe codependency is a modern problem because we are prideful, thinking that we can fix things for others?

    I’ve also wondered about codependency in other cultures, especially those where family is paramount. Is it seen as an unhealthy in those cultures or just the norm?

  6. jendoop says:

    And since you mentioned ‘losing yourself to find yourself,’ that is one of the ideals I misinterpreted, and acted on erroneously, taking it to an extreme that was unhealthy. The resulting depression is what led me to change my behaviors. We throw that one out all the time and never talk about what it really means – there is a limit to what we can and should give.

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