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.]

non-‘religious’ spirituality

For a Christian who comes to the point of facing the reality of addiction, and thus the need for participation in an addiction programme, one of the most troubling barriers to cross is not just identifying as an ‘addict’ (“I’m not a sinner, I’m a saint!  How can I call myself an addict?”), but the inherent challenge to their Christian faith.  (“Was I really a Christian?” or “Did Christianity not work… for me?  Does it work at all!!??”)

If we lay aside for the moment the question of the veracity of Christian faith, and if we assume that there is a baby (authentic Christian faith and obedience) worth holding on to after dispensing with the dirty bathwater (distorted beliefs and lazy obedience), I think there is a theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans that is helpful for us.  Our ‘religion’ was powerless.

In Romans, Paul portrays ‘Sin’ as a power lurking throughout the created order, wreaking particular havoc on human nature.  In chapter 7 he describes this as the “Law of Sin at work within my members“.  He also describes ‘Law’ (the Jewish/Mosaic Law or ‘Torah’) as a holy, just and good thing, but which Sin co-opted in order to actually get stronger.  Law, it seems, only helps us to see and identify sin all the more clearly, and thus only strengthens our sin-consciousness.  Sin ‘abounds’ as a result.  Here we can define ‘religion’ as human attempts to fix our sin problem.  They just don’t work.  Paul goes on to describe this kind of ‘religion’ as a second kind of ‘law’: the “Law of my mind“, which delights in God’s law, but is powerless to change him.  He even says that the ‘Law’ was powerless to do what was needed.  Despite the mind being a ‘slave’ of God’s law, the result was still that he was a ‘slave’ of the law of sin in his members.  Law only heaps on shame, and fuels judgement – both of self and of others.  It simply cannot heal.  For freedom to come, a third kind of ‘law’ was needed: the “Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus“.  This ‘law’ is the only thing more powerful (“a Power greater than ourselves” step 2 says) than the deadly combination of the deceit of Sin, a body vulnerable to desire, and a righteous code fueling judgement.  Only the Spirit of Grace can restore, heal and forgive what is broken.

So, for me, we need not see any problem with the true Gospel of God’s generous Grace.  We can stand with Paul and see that ‘Christianity-as-we-distorted-it’ was powerless to heal us.  We needed the kind of ‘non-religious’ spirituality advocated by both Scripture and the 12 steps.

sin and security

Over my years in active addiction, I had ongoing doubts about my security as a believer.  Mostly, I pushed them away, ignored them, or explained them away in the name of grace.  In recovery now, I feel more security than ever, but these questions plague many believing addicts: Does my behaviour make my faith invalid or ‘dead’?  Am I trying to fool God by continuing in my behaviour?  Am I willfully sinning?

I’m not interested in solving or even entering the ‘once saved always saved’ debate here.  My goal is simply to give reflections helpful for Christians struggling with and in addiction.

There are two extremes we can go to, I think.

On one extreme, we can be overly fearful that our behaviour invalidates us from the love of God.  We really can, and should, take comfort in the fact that, whatever just holy and true anger God does have for sin, including our sins, the ‘big picture of Grace’ is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and yes addicts.  I am guided hugely here by the parable of the Prodigal Son (or the Prodigal God).  What we see is not ‘cheap grace’ where the Father winks at the sons selfish and excessive behaviour and choices.  We would rightly read in between the lines of this parable and see pain and sadness in the Father, when his son takes the money and runs to waste it.  But the point is that the Father’s love persists constantly through the whole story, waiting for the young son to return, rejoicing lavishly when he does, and also extending to the bitter older son to reconcile with his brother.  Our worst behaviour cannot extinguish the fire of God’s love.

On the other extreme, it is possible, in my understanding, to have a faith that is entirely built on a lie.  It is possible to sin, and keep on sinning, without the slightest hint of repentance and desire to change.  To sin ‘with a high hand’, in deliberate defiance of God’s incredible love.  This is dangerous, and I think it’s right to say that God will not be mocked.  God ‘gives us over’ to our course of life, for God will not force his path upon us.

The point here is not to give license to sin, but to enable struggling addicted believes to know that, so long as they at least have a hint of evidence of the conviction and grieving of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they can rightly see themselves as daughters and sons of God.  No doubt, daughters and sons who need to ‘come to their senses’ and come home, but daughters and sons, no less.

addiction and sin

Both addiction and sin are understood in vastly different ways, which can sometimes be conflicting and confusing.  Are they the same thing?  Is identifying as an ‘addict’ a dangerous or unfitting thing to do for a child of God through Christ?  Is the notion of addiction as a ‘disease’ a way of shifting blame?  How should the two terms be understood in relation to one another?

SIN

Theologians that write about sin (hamartiology) have a hard job.  Not only is it a negative topic, but there are important theological errors to avoid.  At one extreme, our human sinfulness can be portrayed as being rooted in a human nature that is purely and completely devoid of any goodness.  Human nature, so this extreme view says, is so evil, we can’t help but sin.  This has the unfortunate result of letting us off the hook for our actions, actually.  “God, the devil, the world, my parents, my genetic inheritance, etc…  They made me this way.  So that’s why I act this way…”

The other extreme is equally dis-empowering.  Human nature, deep down, is pure, good and spotless.   Our human nature is so good, all we really need to do is throw off all unnatural, ‘religious’ or external influences and just ‘be’ the naturally good wonderful people we are.  This has the unfortunate result of buffering us from the reality of our own actions.  Any ‘sins’ we commit are ultimately accidental, or can be blamed on some outside influence, such as ‘the culture’, or this or that tempting situation or person.  “After all, since I’m so good ‘deep down’, the reason for my bad behaviour must lie outside me, right?”

Only when we take a balanced biblical view that incorporates both our God-given human dignity and our God-allowed vulnerability to evil, are we truly able to recognize and realize the power we really have to choose good over evil, to choose to confess our wrongdoings and sins, to choose to do the mental and emotional work of discipleship.  We are crowned with glory and honour, says Psalm 8.  We were created ‘very good’, says Genesis 1.  But we are ‘sinful at birth’ says Psalm 51.  None of us seeks the good, and we all fall short says Romans 3.  Somewhere in the middle of these two truths is our limited, but real power to seek change and get the help we need.  To respond to God’s good and grace-filled initiative and invitation.

The origin of evil has been debated for centuries, and a nice tidy and popular answer will continue to elude us.  The best treatments seem to understand it as a necessary yet tragic reality that eventuated (note: not willed or ‘created’ alongside good in the beginning) as the Creator granted a very real and very risky freedom to the Creation.  The garden we found ourselves in was always going to have a snake in it, waiting around, lurking to tempt us.

ADDICTION

Rather than explore a clinical, or psychological definition of addiction, we are thinking about addiction in relation to the Christian doctrine of sin.

First of all, we need to say that in a very simple sense, addiction is understood by the Christian as sin that has become ingrained, obsessive, compulsive, bold, scary, and (it feels) unstoppable.  It is what happens when sin is ‘given’ a foothold in our lives, through the stubborn and foolish refusal to confess and deal with sin in our lives when it happens.

Second, we need to say that we need not be overly afraid of the notion of addiction as a ‘disease’.  Paul speaks of ‘sin’ as a powerful agent that feeds and grows and tugs at the strings of our lives, hearts and minds.  Sin ‘abounds’ and does stuff to and through us.  If we can be rightly said to be ‘afflicted’ by sin, we can just as easily confess to addiction being carried by us much like we carry a virus or disease.  It does not need to be taken to mean that “because it’s a disease it’s not my fault”.

Sin is both something that invades our life from outside us and from beyond and before us, and something that we harbour, hide, give life to, develop and feed ourselves.  At a critical point, when we’ve given enough leg-room and money and time and momentum to sin, it morphs into addiction.  And we feel the terror of hearing the door slam behind us, as we turn around and see the deadbolt being latched.  This may be the first glimpse of powerlessness for some.

IN CHRIST ‘AND’ A SINNING ADDICT?

Well… yes.  In a sense, all Christians remain vulnerable to both sin and various forms and levels of addiction.  That is the reality.  As Luther is thought to have said, “Old Adam is drowned in the waters of baptism… but he’s a mighty good swimmer!”  Yes, faith in Christ gives us security and assurance of being loved extravagantly and immensely more than we deserve.  But this security actually is what makes it possible to face reality about ourselves.  Precisely because we are safe in Christ, we can admit we are sinners and addicts.  Precisely because we are strong in Christ, we can admit we are weak in ourselves.

Paul did not say he ‘used to’ be the chief of sinners, but rather that he ‘was’.  Let’s not be too quick to rob him of his awareness of his frailty.  Luther got this as well, saying that we were ‘simil iustice et peccator’ – both justified and sinful.

SO WHAT?

What’s the point here?  As long as we con ourselves into being mere sinners ‘in theory’, or we are comfortable in our ‘positional righteousness’, we will not feel any real need to do anything but continue in our addiction and sin until Jesus comes back.  However, if this is true, that we have real power to admit we need help and that we still struggle as Christians, then a) we can face the real diagnosis about our condition, and b) we can better receive the real medicine and healing we so desperately need.

two biblical addicts

From the temptation in the garden to eat the fruit that could ‘make one wise’, and thus powerful – god-like – through to the depiction of the unholy triune temptation of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’, we see that humans have always been vulnerable to sin… and when sin becomes habitual, compulsive and obsessive, it morphs into addiction.

David sounds like he knew the experience of the ‘pit’ and ‘miry clay’ of addiction in Psalm 40.  Look especially at verse 12…

For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.

His ‘troubles’ are not merely of a large number, but they cannot be numbered… ‘more than the hairs of [his] head’…
His ‘sins’ have not just challenged him, they have ‘overtaken’ him…
They have not just impaired his vision, but blinded him…
His heart is not just troubled, but it ‘fails’…
That sounds like the experience of someone despairing in the trap of addiction.

Paul also uses language that sounds remarkably like addiction.  Listen to the conflict and torment of Romans 7, especially verses 14-15, 18-19…

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Commentators on the book of Romans have said that Paul is writing here both about his prior experience before meeting Christ, and also the experience as a believer struggling against the unholy sinful desires he still carries.  This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also have a firm and unshakable identity as a new creation in Christ, but it does mean that he has ‘not yet attained’ the perfection he is striving toward (Philippians 3)…

At least at the level of temptation and feeling, he relates to the idea of being a ‘slave to sin’.  He understands what it’s like to despise himself for doing – and keeping on doing –  the very things – evil things – he intends not to do…

So then… what is the point of noting that David and Paul sounded at times like an addict?

It certainly is not to justify any addictive behaviour.

The point is to underline the reality that sin, temptation, and yes addiction, afflicts everyone – at least at some level.  When we can recognize that such characters as King David and the Apostle Paul could relate to addiction, we are less prone to the worst kind of despair; namely the kind that flows from deep shame.

Whatever you have done… whatever you are doing… whatever you keep on doing…
You are not the only one…
You are not alone…
There was a Way out for them…
There is a Way out for you also.