My Sobriety and My Sin

“… 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

MH

** 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.

What are the 7 Deadly Sins and Why Should we care?

I am no saint.  Most days I find my struggles are so profane and well, human. I don’t want to yell when I am angry at my child.  I don’t want to start smoking again even when provoked by life.  I don’t want spend frivolously, and compulsively, on books or clothes.  I want to be more generous. To be less envious of the success of others.  To respond in love and hopefulness rather than “expect” someone to live up to the low opinion I have of them.  I’m just being honest here.  Life is a struggle!

My children asked the other day if “to lie” was a sin.  “What about to murder?” they asked.  What are the seven deadly sins, they wanted to know?

The only thing that I could remember in the moment was Sloth, probably because I struggle with laziness and lack of motivation at-home.   I struggle to do things that don’t interest me much, like laundry and other forms of housework; to train the dog even though it would make our lives so much better; to be consistent with my kids — book reading before computer, keep your room picked up, clean up after yourself!  I find it easier to just do it myself, than hassle with teaching the kids.

But somehow I could work in the garden all day long, in the burning sunshine, because it doesn’t feel like work.  I could pull a thousand weeds.  Or draw with my kids. 

I might write all day because it feels so wonderful to place one word in front of the other, in a way that I choose.  But sweep, mop, pick up and put away?  I’m loathe to do those things.

I could not remember what the Seven were, so I looked it up.

The Catholic church believes the Seven Sins are:

  1. Pride (or Vanity) is an excessive belief in our own abilities that gets in the way of our ability to recognize and experience the grace of God. Humility is seeing ourselves as we really are and not comparing ourselves to others.
  2. Envy is the desire for someone’s status, abilities, or life situation.  Generosity is letting others get the credit or praise. It is giving without having expectations of the other person. It is love which actively seeks the good of others for their sake. Envy resents the good others receive or even might receive. Envy is almost indistinguishable from pride at times.
  3. Gluttony is consumption of more than what you need, of anything really.
  4. Lust is a craving for the pleasures of the body above knowing and craving God.
  5. Anger (or Wrath) is the person who spurns love and opts instead for fury.   Its opposite, Kindness, is tender, patient and compassionate.
  6. Greed (Avarice or Covetousness) is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual.
  7. Sloth is avoiding physical or spiritual work.

Of course there is no “list” of seven in the Bible, though each of these are there in one form or another  If we truly understood how these qualities make us who we are, perhaps we would understand ourselves better and more importantly our effect on others.

I know this. Sin in our lives deadens our spiritual senses and we become slower to respond to God.  And then eventually we drift into complacency, apathy and even disbelief.

And the sad thing is that I am guilty.  Guilty of this and more.  Aren’t we all?

The good news is that the Grace of God offers me hope that not in my strength but with the power of the Holy Spirit I can forgive myself and I am forgiven.

Do you have Soul Wounds?

Five wounds of Christ
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr

It is a beautiful thought, my children, that we have a sacrament that heals the wounds of our souls! – Saint John Vianney

Do you  have soul wounds?

For me this depends on day-to-day realities.  It is a discipline (see Nouwen on discipline below) not to allow things like bitterness, anger, envy, or conceit to enter in, quickly overtaking what I know to be true and beautiful.  A harsh rude word is spoken or written.  I resent another’s success. Or my day-to-day life practices add up to selfish spending  or no time for others, which bring an inability to be generous with either.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Choices, choices, choices.  Choices discipline us and bring order in and of themselves.  Knowing Christ also did that for me.  Knowing that I am the one he loved enough to die for —  that his body was broken, the nails cut into his hands and feet as he slowly strangled, gasping for air.  All that was for me.  For you.

And more than the human part of that death — which was physically painful and devastating — he cried out to God, his father, to rescue him from my sin!

And then, all the petty and selfish choices I make day-to-day feel even more petty, selfish, and sickening.

But wait.  The pure beauty of the sacrament is the washing away.

The cleansing of our heart, soul and mind that had been corrupted by the entangling of day-to-day.

Henri Nouwen said this:

“When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human became united. This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite. In and through Jesus all creation has become like a splendid veil, through which the face of God is revealed to us. This is called the sacramental quality of the created order. All that is is sacred because all that is speaks of God’s redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.”

If truly understood, this is a profound, life changing truth. If you are feeling wounded. If you inflicted those bloody wounds on your own soul, remember.  He took on flesh pain and soul pain for you.  He took on our sin and we are now joined to him.

And now our lives point others to the immortal, through the confession of our sin and the washing away. Through the cleansing Jesus offers.

Tell him where your soul is wounded.  Let him take it from you today.

Amen.

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Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.


Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.
These reflections are taken from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey.