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.