sin and serenity

One way of describing sin in theological terms is to say that we sin by failing to be properly human.  This happens essentially in two ways: 1) we fail to be human when we try to fly, meaning pretend we are more than human, that we are [a] God; and 2) we fail to be human when we refuse to stand up, meaning we are less than human, that we are [mere] animals or objects.  A proper image of God, as God intended, is neither super-human nor sub-human, but simply human.  Under the Creator; over the creation.

The serenity prayer captures this beautifully.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… [because I am not God, you are!]

courage to change the things I can… [because that’s all any human needs to do!]

and wisdom to know the difference. [because this wisdom is essential for being human.]

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under-standing God

The founders of AA were wise in avoiding any language that would turn recovery into an exclusive theological debaters club.  God is defined as “God, as we understood Him.”  There are obvious positives for this move.  Let’s just focus on the essential spiritual principles of recovery!  What about any negatives?

People have a tendency to feed their resentment against religion (often Christianity), and reject its vision of God for their own personal, privately conceived deity.  One imagines thousands and thousands of such ‘gods’ whose existence depends entirely upon the creative thinking of the addicts that conceive of them.  But the language of the AA steps and the Big Book seem, actually to speak of God as a singular, universal – and yes male? – being.  “God, as we understood Him.”  The literature speaks of God as the “One” with all power and authority.  It seems that God is being spoken of not as a privately conceived lower-case ‘g’ deity, but as the highest possible, ultimate Creator.

‘Understanding’ a God is not to stand ‘over’ it, in a position of power and dominance (not to mention resentment); fashioning for ourselves a ‘god’ we ‘understand’ to be better than the one I despise.  To understand is more to stand ‘under’, in a position of humility and growth, never claiming to have God-like knowledge of God, but eating whatever crumbs we have been given.  AA was wise to coach addicts to ‘be quick to see where religious people are right’ (p. 87 of Big Book).

What’s the point here?  Simply this.  Understanding God is about humility and openness; standing ‘under’ the One who can never be fully ‘understood’, rather than standing ‘over’ a god you create with the fashionable power of your own brain.

limited power

It seems that the theme of power begins very early in Scripture.  Being such an important part of addiction and recovery, it is a very useful theme to reflect on.  Let’s look at a few key moments early in Genesis.

  • Ultimate, sovereign, and creative power rests only in God, the One who “created the heavens and the earth”.  Methinks the Judeo-Christian God is qualified to be a Higher Power.
  • The repeated use of the word “let” is curious.  Why not narrate God’s creative actions with other language?  Why not say, “And God said, ‘Behold, the Light!’ and there was Light.”  I’m no Hebrew scholar, so let anyone shed any light (pun intended) on this; but suffice to say that the repetition of the root verb for ‘Let there be’ (yə·hî) and ‘and there was’ (way·hî-) seems to suggest a space in which the creation responds to the command of the Creator. In English, at least (!!!), ‘let’ is the language of permission, of allowing.  It is not to force or manipulate.  God speaks his sovereign, creative decree over the creation in its state of being formless, void, and dark state.  Then God waits.  Be it a moment or millennia, God waits.  God ‘lets’ the creation respond.  If modern cosmology and physics are correct, then God ‘lets’ the ‘singularity’ do whatever it did.
  • Humans are placed at a very specific place in creation.  They are ‘under’ the Creator, but ‘over’ creation, to tend and keep it.  They are not, and never will be, God, despite the temptation to act as they they are.  And it seems that the time, energy and imagination we waste on trying to be God keeps us from properly tending and keeping the creation.  In Serenity Prayer language, the more we try to change “the things I cannot change”, the less I am able to change “the things I can.”  We are not given ultimate Power, but the power of a local ‘ruler’ or landlord or tenant.
  • God ‘rests’ from his work on the seventh day.  Presumably, God ‘could’ have not rested, but it is in God’s nature to not always do what God can do.  Again, here we see the divine restraint that will eventually climax in the person of Jesus, who empties himself of power (see Philippians 2).
  • God brings the animals to the man “to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”  Here again, we see God’s restraint from forcing or manipulating the naming process.  We see a development of this later when Christ gives the ‘keys of the kingdom’ for binding and loosing.  Whatever sins are forgiven and retained on earth are forgiven and retained in heaven.
  • We are not told how the serpent came to be, but the mere fact of its existence suggests that evil and all of the pain, sin and suffering that goes with it, was always going to be allowed and permitted in this temporal existence.  To not allow it would be to manipulate and micromanage creation and humans.  To allow it forever would be to fail to care adequately for creation and humanity.  God has, in Christ, defeated evil already.  And this victory will be fully implemented in the Age to Come.
  • God calls to Adam and Eve, asking where they were.  Not so that he could know something he did not know, but rather so that they could ‘find themselves’.  It was one thing to do what they did (and what we do), but it is quite another to have the self-awareness to know ‘where’ you have gotten yourself to.  Step One is a kind of ‘finding yourself’ to be in a place of utter powerlessness.
  • What do we make of God restricting access to the tree of Life and the Garden?  Much could be, and has been, said, but suffice to say that we simply must see this ‘power play’ as irreducibly protective in motivation.  They are being mercifully removed from a space that would, sooner or later, tempt them again and again to try to be God.
  • God warns Cain, “…if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  This, so far as I know, is the first use of the word ‘sin’ in the Scriptures.  It fittingly sets the tone for the power and deceptiveness of sin.  The twelve steps teach that the sooner we admit defeat the sooner we can begin the long journey toward being able, under God’s good hand, to ‘rule over’ sin.

God of whose understanding?

A perennial problem Christians often have with twelve step programmes is the vagueness of the ‘God of your own understanding’.  What’s the fuss about?  Should Christians avoid 12-step groups, and form their own ‘Christian’ version of them?

I’m not going to beat around the bush here.  My view is that, as much as possible, Christians should not create their own 12-step groups, but should patiently, humbly and graciously work their programme of recovery as a Christian in existing 12-step fellowships.  Here’s why I think this way.

First, and possibly the most important reason, the Bible seems to consistently witness to the reality of God’s activity in and among people who are not the ‘chosen’ people.  Melchizedek, in the Old Testament, was the high priest of Salem, and was not blessed by Abram, but rather was the agent of blessing for Abram!  That’s not an Abraham-centered moment, and not really a Melchizedek-centered one either, but a God-centered one.  Likewise, the first sermon of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue refers to two instances of God’s action outside of God’s chosen people.  The God we know and believe in through Scripture, and not merely due to our ability to conceive great godly ideas, is the sort of God who works outside the boundaries, even the ones he allows to be definitive.

Second, we can leave ultimate judgment to God.  The stark reality is that people just plain get better and enter into a new kind of life and spirituality in 12-step programmes.  And by contrast, many people with really sound Christian theology have, like I had for years, terrible hidden behaviour and feeble self-control.  I don’t think that believing in a generalized deity is an automatic ticket to the Age to Come.  All I’m saying is that God uses 12-step programmes.  Not necessarily to bring Resurrection hope for Everlasting Life to people (though some find it as a later result), but certainly to bring a real and worthwhile level of peace, fruitfulness and health.  Theologically, this is called the ‘common grace’ of God.  And thank God for it.

Third, it is a valuable thing to be able to get to know and learn from people of differing religions.  It is a healthy thing to learn how to be with them, and relate to them, without having to pounce on every difference of belief they have.  Sure, Western Christians perhaps have erred on the side of almost never sharing their beliefs, or the content of their faith with others.  Sure, we need to be more attentive to opportunities to do just that. But using a 12-step programme as an opportunity for ad-hoc evangelism will not only be bad evangelism, but is also bad 12 step spirituality.  Far better to take the long, hard road of actually journeying with them together.

Fourth, is the phrase “as we understood God” really so bad?  After all, who has known the mind of the Lord, or been his counsellor?  Yes, we know God through Christ.  But this does not mean that we suddenly have perfect, infallible understanding of God.  Rather than see understanding of God as a binary switch that is off or on, why not see it as a dimmer switch, which burns brightly and brilliantly in the shape of Jesus Christ the Lord when fully lit?  Why not see non-Christian ‘god’ beliefs as ‘on their way’ to the truth revealed in Christ?

about this blog’s title

Grace is the language of gift.

More than just being something given freely rather than earned, gifts evoke gratitude.  The title of this site suggests that addiction itself can be seen as a kind of gift.  Can one be grateful for addiction?  Let me tell you why I am.

I am immensely grateful, not for any of the addictive behaviour, or any of the pain it caused me and others, but for the way that addiction has forced me – eventually – to come to my senses, fall to my knees, give up the con, and get real.

I now enjoy a quality of life that I had almost entirely given up on hoping for.  My relationships with my wife, our child, and with God are all on very healthy trajectories.  I can’t know what quality of life I’d have now, if I hadn’t faced the struggle, pain and consequences that I had to face because of addiction.  But I feel compelled to gratitude anyway, for the life I now have.

As Paul writes in Romans, Sin was able to ‘use’ the Law to grow even more powerful.  By contrast, Grace was able to ‘use’ Sin to abound even more powerfully.  Whatever we understand the Evil One to be, it meant for addiction to destroy me.  But the God of Grace, who obviously never ‘wants’ anyone to sin or struggle with addiction, nonetheless planned or ‘meant’ it for my good.

All is grace.