true independence

In step 3 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we read the following:

The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are.  Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.

Prevailing modern, consumer culture says the opposite.  Be free and unchained to do and be what you want.  At the end of that pathway, however, are the countless many who find themselves to have been tricked.  Freedom, as they had conceived it, had imprisoned them to various kinds of slavery.  Slavery of financial insecurity.  Slavery of incessant and unquenchable desire.  Slavery of a ghost-like personal identity, both seemingly untouchable, yet also fearful to attain and be trapped by it.

Recovery and Scripture yet again speak with the same tone of voice.  In Romans 6, Paul contrasts a person who is “enslaved to sin” (and thus “free from the control of righteousness”), with being a “slave of righteousness” (and thus “free from sin”).

Addiction is slavery indeed.  In recovery we learn to “slavishly” work our programmes in the strength of God, our Higher (Highest!) Power.  This is not self-help or self-righteousness or legalism.  This is freedom in Christ.  True independence of the spirit.

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an “addict” in Christ?

Identifying as an ‘addict’ can be difficult for Christians.

One of the strongest reasons for this is probably the very biblical teaching that the identity of a believer is to be “in Christ”.  This is often expressed in statements like, “If you’re a Christian in Christ, you are not a sinner, you are a saint.  You are not a slave, you are a son.”

As one who is theologically committed to those biblical teachings, there are a few perspectives that I’d like to offer as to why I have come to be completely comfortable identifying as an “addict”, whose highest and deepest identity is “in Christ”.

First, the wider example of Scripture.  The Apostle Paul is instructive for us here.  He writes that anyone in Christ is a “new creation”, and yet he also says ” Christ died for sinners, of whom I am (note: not ‘used to be’) chief.”  He claims “no condemnation” for those in Christ, but also calls himself a “wretched man” and expresses an awareness of what it’s like to have an inner turmoil trying hard (and failing!) to be holy.  There are ways that these seemingly contradictory verses are interpreted as being true at different times, namely before and after conversion (i.e. ‘sinner’ before, and ‘new creation’ after).  However, many bible doctrines tend to be gathered from a broad grouping of verses.  When we take a wider view, I think we can see the wisdom in Martin Luther’s language of “saint and sinner” (Latin: simil iustus et peccator).  Luther is also credited as saying “Old Adam is drowned in the waters of baptism, but he’s a mighty good swimmer.”  The main thing is that the ‘sinner’ identity will die, because it is fatally wounded by the victory of the Cross and Resurrection.  Meanwhile, the ‘saint’ identity is eternal, risen never to die again, just like Christ.

Second, the diversity of identities.  Identities cluster together. We’re made up of many of them.  Some of them can be trivial: like saying we ‘are’ a fan of a kind of ice cream or television show.  Some of them are vocational: we ‘are’ nurses, builders, etc.  Some of them are recreational: we ‘are’ hockey players, jockeys, etc.  The deepest ones are relational: we ‘are’ sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, etc.  The deepest of the deep, Scripture teaches, is the relational identity rooted in divine love: we ‘are’ beloved children of God in Christ.

Theologians use the phrase “now but not yet” to describe the tension between aspects of the kingdom that are already realised “now”, even as other aspects of the kingdom are not realised, and won’t be until Christ comes again.  This applies to our identities, I think.  We are saints, sons/daughters, holy, new creations, already and ‘now’.  But at the same time, we are ‘not yet’ free of sin, so we can ‘not yet’ truthfully leave behind this lesser, temporary identity of ‘sinner’.  As the ‘Jesus Prayer’ goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The most important thing is knowing that ‘now’, as well as in the future, you are loved, held, understood, and not condemned or abandoned.  I think that if we really believe the Gospel, and really trust in Grace, then God’s perfect Love can help us to cast out the fear that is involved with admitting we still are ‘sinners’ as well; at least for the meantime.

Third, the experience of recovery.  In active addiction, many of us had firm and immovable theologies of Grace, constantly reminding ourselves that we are “in Christ” and that God loves us no matter what we do.  And we could even be distracting ourselves with this great theology while we were in the very act of addictive behaviour.  There was something about ourselves we were not being honest about.  In suppressing the ‘sinner’ identity, we failed to be honest about what we were really doing.  However secure our eternal identity was (and is!) in Christ, we had very real trouble with our behaviour.  Many of us came into recovery rooms, and perhaps in a way we’ve never done before, we told the real truth about ourselves.  “We admitted we were __________…”  or, we said, “My name is _______, and I’m a[n] ___________.”   We not only announced this truth to others in the room, but also admitted it to ourselves, perhaps in a way deeper than ever before.

We feared that identifying as a ‘sinner’ would negate our ‘saint’ identity, and reinforce our acting out, and make us a ‘slave’ of that identity.  Many of found that admitting we were a ‘sinner’ and an ‘addict’ was not slavery at all, but freedom.  Paradoxically, it actually freed us to become more of a saint!  True strength was in authentic weakness after all!  And the opposite was true for many of us as well.  By not admitting the truth about ourselves, we were held captive to, our self-deception; we were enslaved by our dishonesty to ourselves, God and others.

We needed to ‘be real’ in order to ‘get real’.  This was not religion or legalism.  This was, and is, Grace that forgives… and keeps on forgiving.  This is medicine for those who actually admit they need it… and keep on needing it.  This is truth that sets free… and keeps on setting free.

12 steps & the gospel

Christians who are in or contemplating joining a 12-step programme often wrestle with the tension between the non-specific ‘god’ of the 12 steps and the One who is fully revealed in Christ as we understand through the Gospel. There are two extremes, I believe, to avoid when comparing 12-step spirituality with Christianity.

One extreme is to say that there is no difference, or that working the 12 steps is basically the same as following Jesus.  I don’t want to judge or comment on the status or quality of relationship and intimacy that non-Christian 12-steppers experience with the god of their understanding.  But the simple reality is that any other god is simply not the same as the God revealed in and through the historical person of Jesus Christ.  We may (and rightly can, in my view – see below…) identify valuable and worthwhile spiritual patterns in the experience of non-Christian 12-steppers.  But the point here is that with the Gospel, God is not ‘understood’ through experience or reason alone, but supremely through the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, being a faith that is rooted in Scripture, Christianity incorporates a breathtaking narrative and a robust set of doctrines that are not the same as those of other faiths or personal understandings, even if there may be significant overlap or common ground at various points.  All of this is to say that the Christian 12-stepper can continue to deeply value their faith as something unique, and something that we believe – hopefully with deep humility!!! – that is completely true.

And that brings us to the other extreme: to say that there is so much difference that one cannot benefit from the programme.  Here is where we Christians often need to learn deep humility – or be deeply humbled!  To put it frankly, many of our ‘gospel presentations’ don’t even begin to plumb the depths of the whole Christian faith.  They often go far beyond a simple summary of the Gospel, and err on the side of being overly simplistic and therefore a distortion of it.  I’m thinking here of presentations of the Gospel where a) God’s ultimate vision for creation centres on two predistined locations, heaven or hell, b) Christian life and discipleship is primarily if not totally focused on getting people to ‘go’ to heaven and not hell.  True, as the Apostles Creed has always said, our faith entails a final ‘judgement’ of the ‘living and the dead’.  But there are riches that this small distortion of the Gospel screens out: the joy and beauty of creation, real and painful suffering, the role of Israel, the call to live faithfully in the present, etc.  More than this, most Christians can learn a great deal from the 12 steps, in their focused programme of specific actions – actions that turn out to be deeply Christian.