“… And lately I wonder if Christians aren’t the most miserable of addicts–and if the fact of our faith itself isn’t part of the reason. After all, aren’t we supposed to be new creations in Christ, freed from the power of sin? Because we tend to think of addiction this way—strictly as a moral failing—we try to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps. We pray harder, repent more fervently, and fight temptation until we’re blue in the face.” – Sober Boots, a blog by Heather Kopp
After reading Heather’s thoughts last night I read several of the comments from those who had extremely judgmental view of a person’s addiction recovery.
I was left with a hollow feeling inside. I found myself saying that addiction is not a sin. But then, thinking long and hard about it this morning, I realized that although I have never dealt with it there was an element of sin involved in my alcoholism.
I am always helped by talking to my husband Tom. I sought his comfort in the question, “It wasn’t sin, right, that I became an alcoholic? It wasn’t sin, was it? Is it?” He’s one of the least judgmental people I know, so when Tom said “Yes, it is in part it was sin, you had a choice . You cannot discount free will.” I had to listen.
(And then we launched into a wonderful conversation about James 3, our hierarchies of sin and the power of our tongue. “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers these things ought not to be so.” James 3, ESV)
How is it that I fell into addiction?
How is it that I am sober today? My sobriety has taken inner strength of will and conviction. Was it God that has given me the strength to remain sober for three and a half years?
How much of my sobriety was tangled up in my conversion path, my faith walk, the gentle work of the Holy Spirit?
In some ways living free of addiction is a form of conversion, as Alyce M. McKenzie says, a turnaround from bondage to a self-destructive behavior to freedom that comes when we commit ourselves to the power of God.
But honestly I don’t recall some grand transaction, or moment, whereby I asked God to help me become sober and whamo I was healed. No, it was much, much slower. It was through the conviction of the Holy Spirit and a final ultimatum-of-sorts made by my husband converging within twenty-four hours, that I made a choice to finally quit.
But the conviction had been building for some time – though choosing sobriety took years.
I was pretty sure I was addicted to alcohol when my sisters and I attended the family program at Hazeldon at the request of my mom. It was there that I learned for the first time about the illness of addiction, more importantly about the brain pathways of an addict, about codependency, about the hell we create for others by our words and sarcasm, about the strength sometimes to be found in Al Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous. (**I say more about AA below) After meeting with a doctor there, acknowledging my depression and how much and how often I was drinking, she said they could justifiably commit me to the residential program. But I couldn’t do it — couldn’t accept the need to quit totally. Didn’t believe it was that bad. I went home and spent the next five years or so on a slow decline. Not every day at that point. Not drinking to black out, yet. Not even really in that bad of shape, but an alcoholic for sure.
How many nights over the next few years did I go to sleep almost blacked out drunk. Only just able to stumble to bed – falling into the protective down covers, pounding head on the soft accepting pillows, heart aching with the pain of it all. Thinking – praying – crying out to God.
Making promises. Promising that tomorrow would be different. Promising myself that tomorrow I would not buy any wine. Tomorrow I would not drink myself to a disoriented, forgotten, insensible place. Hopeful that tomorrow would be different, only to fall into the same habit, experiencing the same amnesia as I was purchasing more alcohol.
The psychologist and spiritual counselor Gerald May in his book called Addiction and Grace defines addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.”
I found myself, day after day, month after month, year after year, for more than five years being fairly certain that I was an addict and yet choosing the same path. I thought I could be a social drinker. I didn’t want to stop, not really, for a long time. Wine and other alcohol was like a lover. I look back now knowing it clearly, seeing it objectively that it was an idol, yes, more important than anything else. Alcohol was my reason for living. I gave it the space and place in my life much more important than my health, or the welfare of my family, or my commitment to God. So, yes, there is an element of choice. And in that free choice it was a sin.
But sadly as Christians we have a hierarchy of sin – infidelity and addiction being at the top. Why? I suppose it doesn’t even matter ultimately. They were my choices, though compelled by the illness in my brain and the broken state of my heart. I made them. I chose.
And where was God? Well, I stopped seeking him. I closed off from him the part of me that was an addict. I cannot fully describe how I lived with myself spiritually in those years except to say that I was numb even while being wracked with guilt. I was self-medicating. I was depressed. I felt hopeless. I turned away from God. This is a poem I wrote at one point in my recovery, titled Days Without God.
she walked away from hope,
traveled the road of unkept promises.
and god was far away.
days without number
she ran down that road,
of fleeting pleasures
and god turned away
unable to see
unable to be with her.
though she can never deny going,
after a time, she turned
and walked back.
she was broken and bleeding.
the moment she turned back
she felt the presence
and then, god forgave.
For these choices I had to ask my husband’s forgiveness. Someday I will do the same with my children when they are old enough to understand. From the friends who lived beside me and saw the destruction of alcohol in my life, I covet their forgiveness. Family members who saw and lived and wondered and were wounded by me, they too I need forgiveness and grace.
I live with the knowledge of my walking away from God. I live with the knowledge that I did that every day, I chose it. I cling to God now. I relish his forgiveness and I acknowledge my sin. His grace is enough.
To those accusers, the ones that throw out the accusation of “sin!” like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, I say this. No matter who we are or what we have done, in Christ we are given a new life of repentance and dignity where there is no place for legalism and guilt. This is a life of grace. Only God knows our hearts. He is there with us, if we cry out to him. But recovery, that is a long difficult walk and by no means something that just happens by surrendering to God. I know this.
But I also know that He walks it with us if we ask him. Look at John 8, Jesus asking where are your accusers? “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Do I know how that transaction works, ultimately? Not really, but it is for me now found in the daily choice to be sober. Did Jesus think she’d be free of sin them then on? Nope, not likely and there was parts of her life she had to choose to walk away from. Alcoholics must do this in order to recover.
I cannot cast stones at others, no matter their “sin.” Grace and peace is found in the knowledge that I am not judged either.
“… and I’m still learning how to hack and slash through this beautiful jungle of grace.” Stephen
** I do not work my sobriety with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). I don’t personally find AA all that helpful, though for a time I was greatly encouraged by attending a weekly meeting with women. I walked into that room and experienced like I never have in my life a level of understanding, empathy and acceptance. No condemnation. We were all alcoholics and other forms of addicts. No pointing of fingers. In a way that the Church doesn’t seem to be able to live out — the idea that we’re all sinners together in this mess of a world. All sinners. All saints. All walking the path together. Why is it that (some) Christians are the most judgmental of all?
I longed for (and still sometimes do) church to be a safe place for me to go and find help with my recovery, but my church at least doesn’t offer anything for addicts. Not sure why when they have divorce-care, and grief-care, and cancer-care among many other kids of “care.” It does feel like they are strangely silent on this. I was helped by an addiction specific counselor, fortunate enough to have it covered by insurance, and spent more than six months in weekly therapy working through many aspects of my addiction as well as learning about the disease’s power.