04/11/17

Love Your Enemies

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Some people mistakenly think that the proverbial saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is some where in the Bible. Well it’s not. Actually, it came from one of Aesop’s fables, Hercules and the Waggoneer. A waggoneer driving a heavily loaded wagon became stuck in a muddy road. The more the horses pulled, the deeper the wheels sank in the mud. So he prayed to Hercules for help, who then replied that the wagoneer should get up off his knees and put his shoulder to the wheel. The moral of the fable was: “The gods help them that help themselves.”

In a similar way, Jesus corrected in Matthew 5:43-48 what had become a misapplication of the commandment to love your neighbor in Leviticus 19:18. In preceding passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced teachings from Scripture with the phrase that begins 5:43: “You have heard it said” (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38). But here “what was said” was not from Scripture. Instead of the command to Love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems that what was being taught was “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say, “Hate your enemy.”

There were passages that called for the destruction of Israel’s enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) or counseled to keep your distance from non-Israelites (Exodus 34:12). Yet you were to feed your enemy (Proverbs 25:21-22) and help them when they were in need (Exodus 23:4-5). The Old Testament teaching on how you were to treat your enemies was complex, according to Leon Morris. In his commentary on Matthew, he said:

All this means that those who summed up Old Testament teaching as calling for love for neighbors and hatred for enemies were oversimplifying. The call for hatred is certainly the kind of addition to the command that many have put into practice.

Again, instead of lowering the bar to the common social standard he quoted in 5:43, Jesus said his followers were to love their enemies and pray for them!

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus named two groups who were widely seen as enemies by the ordinary Jew—tax collectors and Gentiles (non-Jews). Don’t they take care of their own; don’t they love one another? So if you love only those who love you; if you only greet others like you (your brothers), how are you different from the tax collectors and the Gentiles?

While tax collectors are never popular in any culture (think of the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S.), in first-century Palestine they were particularly unpopular. Not only would they collect taxes for the Romans, they would also be sure to get some extra for themselves. Leon Morris commented, “In the eyes of Jesus’ audience there were no more wicked people than tax collectors as a class.” That’s the point of the encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).  They were the last ones you would expect to show love to others. The implied question is shouldn’t your love for others be greater?

The verse about greeting your brother is deeper in meaning than most people realize. When first-century Jews greeted one another, they would say “Peace,” which was in fact like saying a prayer; something like this: “May the peace of the Lord be upon you.” In our culture we say “good-bye” without remembering we are actually saying a shortened form of: “God by with you.” So making a sincere greeting meant you expressed goodwill and welcome to your brother. Shouldn’t your wishes and greetings to others be more sincere than the Gentiles?

The final command in verse 48, “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” seems to set an unreachable standard—be as perfect as God the Father.  But that’s not what it means. The sense of the Greek word for “perfect” here pertains to you being fully developed in a moral sense. Look, your Father in heaven lets the sun rise and the rain fall upon both the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. Shouldn’t you do the same? The command to love your neighbor as yourself includes loving your enemies.  Isn’t that the same message as in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

There is an interesting grammatical structure in verse 5:45b called a chiasm, named after the Greek letter chi, which looks like an “X.” The verse reads: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The crossing/chiasm is between the “evil” and “unjust” as well as the “good” and the “just.” The crossing pattern is accomplished by taking the first pair of contrasting words, evil and good, and then reversing the position in the second pair of contrasting words: just and unjust. So the chiasm looks like this:

The chiastic structure helps to reinforce the point of the passage. It gives a visual warning to the followers of Jesus: they are not to follow the contrasting advice of loving their neighbor and hating their enemy. Rather, just as their heavenly Father sends sun upon the evil and the good, and rain upon both the just and the unjust, they are to love and not hate their enemies. This action of God’s is known as the principle of common grace, where the good things of the world like sun and rain fall equally upon the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. God does not withhold the gifts of rain and sunshine from people who are evil or unjust. So followers of Christ should withhold love from their enemies.

In an active addiction, addicts and alcoholics make a lot of enemies. The hostility in these relationships can be either a one-way or a two-way street. You resent one another in mutual hostility. But you resent what someone did—or they resent what you did—in one-way hostility. The remedy for this in recovery is stated in Matthew 5:44: love and pray for your enemies. In order to do so, you have to let go of your resentment.

When discussing the Fourth Step in the “How It Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. said: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” It leads to various forms of spiritual disease—“a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.” If the alcoholic is to live, they have to be free of anger. Realize that the people who wronged you were perhaps spiritually sick as well. “We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

03/10/17

Let Your Yes Be Yes

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While some oath-breaking leads to serious consequences, oaths just don’t seem to have the same significance in the modern person’s life as they did in biblical times. Most people know oaths occur in legal proceedings, where witnesses swear to tell the truth before giving testimony. Willfully give false testimony in this context is considered to be the crime of perjury. But outside of this sphere, taking an oath in modern times is largely reserved for times of ritual or ceremony.

In American culture, we see a newly appointed or elected government official swear an oath before taking office. Immigrants take an oath of citizenship when they become naturalized citizens of a country. When reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance, citizens pledge or swear loyalty to their country. Doctors and medical personnel take the Hippocratic oath, swearing to practice medicine honestly. So how are we to apply what Jesus says about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount?

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

In his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, Leon Morris noted this passage was peculiar to Matthew, who returned to the theme when He confronted the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22. “Clearly he [Jesus] was interested in the fact that people seemed very ready to swear oaths.” Oaths played a significant role in the life and culture of the Jews. The Mishnah, the first written record of the oral law, contains a complete treatise on oaths. In biblical and ancient times, oaths bound the person to his or her word.

According to the Lexham Bible Dictionary, oaths imposed a great sense of obligation on the individual; and breaking an oath was unthinkable. They were used to confirm the truthfulness of a person’s word, bind individuals in a contract, or confirm God’s intent to act according to His word. “Even rash oaths were binding and required confession of sin and sacrificial compensation if broken” (Leviticus 5:4-6). Yahweh served as the guarantor of a person’s oath, and here it had its greatest power. Breaking an oath was tantamount to breaking faith with Yahweh. Doing so took His name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12).

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing how a series of quotations from Scripture should be understood. In Matthew 5:33, the Old Testament command to not break an oath (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2, etc) was paraphrased by Jesus. Then He said his followers should not swear an oath at all! However, sometimes it was necessary—Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (Matthew 26:63-64). So Jesus is not forbidding Christians from taking an oath, as some individuals apply the restriction today.

Rather, he is saying in the strongest terms possible that his followers must speak the truth. They should never adopt the sense that only when an oath is sworn do they need to be truthful.

The Jews held that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned the oath was not binding; there were lengthy discussions about when an oath is or is not binding, and people would sometimes swear by heaven or earth or a similar oath and later claim that they were not bound by that oath because God was not mentioned. Jesus rejects such casuistry.

This was why Jesus mentioned the forms of oaths used to sidestep telling the truth in Matthew 5:33-37. Remember the Mishnah had an entire treatise on oaths. Heaven, earth, Jerusalem, your head, were all somehow linked to God. You cannot escape the requirement to tell the truth by using these hair-splitting differences.  Keep your pledges without insisting that a certain form of words was necessary to make it binding.  Essentially Jesus is saying: “No oath is necessary for a truthful person.”

The conclusion of the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth. Their word should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them. God is in all of life, and every statement is made before him.

The importance of honesty in 12 Step Recovery is well known. Self-honesty begins with recognizing whether or not you are an alcoholic. In chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism,” it says A.A. doesn’t like to pronounce anyone as alcoholic. The suggestion is to try some controlled drinking—more than once. “It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it.”

The manner of life demanded of the person who admits being an alcoholic is even qualified further as rigorous honesty.  In discussing what to do after making a personal inventory (the Fourth Step) in chapter 6, “Into Action,” of the Big Book it says: “We must be entirely honest with somebody if we expect to live long and happily in this world.”

As Bill Sees It, a collection of thoughts by Bill W. on the A.A. way of life, cites a 1966 letter he wrote. Bill said that only God can fully know what absolute honesty is. The best we can do is to strive for a better quality of honesty. Sometimes we have to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.’ In the name of ‘perfect honesty’ we can cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others. “Always one must ask, ‘What is the best and most loving thing I can do?’”

In an August 1961 article for the AA Grapevine,  “This Matter of Honesty,” Bill W. observed how the problem of honesty touched nearly every aspect of our lives. While his intended audience was other A.A. members, I think what he said applies to everyone. After commenting on the extremes of self-deception and reckless truth-telling, he noted there were countless situations in life where nothing less than utter honest will do, “no matter how sorely we may be tempted by the fear and pride that would reduce us to half-truths or inexcusable denials.” He concluded the article with:

How truth makes us free is something that we AAs can well understand. It cut the shackles that once bound us to alcohol. It continues to release us from conflicts and miseries beyond reckoning; it banishes fear and isolation. The unity of our Fellowship, the love we cherish for each other, the esteem in which the world holds us–all of these are products of such integrity, as under God, we have been privileged to achieve. May we therefore quicken our search for still more genuine honor, and deepen its practice in all our affairs.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

02/17/17

The Adultery of Addiction

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In 1948, at the First International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob gave his last major talk.  He related for those in attendance his recollections of the beginnings of A.A. He recalled that in the early days they were groping in the dark. The Steps and the Traditions didn’t exist; the A.A. Big Book hadn’t been written yet. But they were convinced the answer to their problems was in the Good Book. And one of the absolutely essential parts of the Bible for them, according to Dr. Bob, was the Sermon on the Mount. But there are two verses in there whose application to 12 Step recovery may seem to be a bit strained.

Matthew 5:31-32, which expresses Jesus’ thoughts on divorce, follows right after he addressed how his followers should understand and apply biblical teaching on adultery and lust. As is typical of his teachings in other areas of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the Jews understanding of what the Law said about divorce upside down. The passage says:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus began by referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 from the Law of Moses, where if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he was required to give her a formal certificate declaring he was divorcing her. At that time, a man was permitted to divorce his wife, but a wife was not allowed to divorce her husband. She could petition the court, and if her plea was accepted, the court would direct the husband to divorce her. Culturally, to moderns this appears to be an unfair, patriarchal practice. But there was a loose interpretation of that section of the Mosaic Law that made it even more one-sided.

Deuteronomy 24:1 said a man could write his wife a certificate of divorce if she fell out of favor in his eyes “because he found some indecency in her.” The word for “indecency” in Hebrew can have a sexual connotation, but here it referred vaguely to some failing or sin. By the time period in which Jesus lived, the grounds for divorce could be a failing as trivial as a wife burning the food she cooked for her husband. We could almost say this was an ancient sense of a husband-centered “no fault divorce.” This was the interpretation of the followers of Hillel, a rabbi and teacher during the time of Herod the Great. The school of Shammai, a conservative Pharisee from around the same time period, limited the sense of the Hebrew word for “indecency” to its sexual sense and only permitted divorce for adultery.

Regardless of how an individual understood divorce, it was an accepted practice in Judaism for a man to divorce his wife. However, her husband could not put her outside of his home on a whim; he had to formally release her from her marriage vows. The certificate of divorce was a protection for the woman, indicating she could legally marry someone else. Remarriage for a widowed or divorced woman provided security in the culture of her time. Leon Morris observed: “In first-century Jewish society how else could she live?”

But, Jesus said divorce should not be granted at the whim of the husband; it’s not simply the right or privilege of a man to dispose of his wife whenever he tires of her. Such capriciousness was sin. Jesus said not only does this kind of husband force his wife to commit adultery by her remarriage, but also the man she marries. In God’s eyes the indecency to justify a divorce had to be serious to break the covenant bond of marriage. Apathy towards the wife of your youth or the desire for a younger, prettier “trophy wife” were not acceptable reasons for divorce.

Clearly Jesus saw marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Addiction can destroy that bond as effectively as adultery. In fact to a spouse, drug and alcohol addiction often feels like the addict or alcoholic is in an adulterous relationship—even when there isn’t another human being involved. There are frequent promises to their partner they are finished with alcohol … cocaine … heroin. Then the partner discovers those were promises without teeth. The addict didn’t follow through with a permanent breakup with their drug/lover.

Farther on in the Sermon on the Mount, in the midst of discussing treasures on earth or in heaven, Jesus tells his audience that whatever they treasure has their heart. Since no one can serve two masters (or lovers), they will be devoted to one or the other, but not both (Matthew 6:19-24). Being with an addict can feel like that. Your partner is in a relationship with something else; and you can’t compete.

In the A.A. Big Book, chapter 8 is “To Wives.” Counter-intuitively, that chapter was written by Bill W.; not his wife, Lois. In Pass It On, Lois said she was hurt Bill insisted on writing it himself. His given reason, so that it would be in the same style as the rest of the book, seems a bit weak. There was, in fact, a section included in the A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, that was written by another hand. “The Doctor’s Opinion” was written by Dr. Silkworth, the doctor who treated Bill at the end of his drinking. I think it is fair to say Bill W. had a strain of chauvinism in him and it showed up here.

Another way to apply Matthew 5:31-32 to recovery is to reflect on how adultery and divorce were frequently used as metaphors to describe idolatry or unfaithfulness to God in the Old Testament prophetic literature. Here, the adultery would be spiritual adultery; a violation of the individual’s relationship with God.

Ezekiel 16:15-35 frames the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem to God as adultery. Jeremiah 3:1-10 similarly describes how Israel polluted the land with her lovers. Israel and Jerusalem are the unfaithful wives. In Malachi, the priests are described as being faithless to the wife of their youth. Adultery, whether it was literal or a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness, violated the individual’s covenant before God.

The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:14-16)

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/16/16

Gaining in Humility

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© unkreatives | stockfresh.com

Matthew 5:38-40 in the Sermon on the Mount addresses the very human impulse to get even when someone does harm to you. Jesus succinctly says here, “Don’t do it!” The initial phrase, “an eye for an eye”, has become a justification in our time for getting even with the person who has done something against us. There is an Old Testament principle of reciprocity behind the phrase. When judging injury done to another, if there is harm, pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand (Exodus 21:23-25). There is a similar call in Leviticus 24:20 when someone injures their neighbor: whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

Sometimes called the “law of retribution” or lex talionis, this was a legal principle stating that punishment for wrongdoing should not exceed the crime. What’s more, as Exodus 21:22 indicated, judges and not the aggrieved person decided how to apply the principle in any specific case. Jesus clearly says: “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). It seems the message here is: “Don’t take the law into your own hands!”

In his commentary on Matthew, Leon Morris readily acknowledged how easily a desire for revenge rises up within us. “We have a natural tendency to retaliate when anyone harms us (or even when the harm is in our imagination!).” But Jesus challenges us to not seek to settle scores; to not hit back when someone hits us. This is again the message in 5:39: “To be the victim of some form of evil does not give us the right to hit back.” Even if someone were to legally deprive you of your tunic, don’t resist. Rather, give him your cloak as well.

Again there is an allusion to an Old Testament regulation in Exodus 22: 26-27 and Deuteronomy 24:12-13. If a neighbor’s cloak was taken in pledge for a loan, you should return it to him before evening, so he has something to sleep in. “A person had an inalienable right to his cloak; it could not be taken away from him permanently. Its voluntary surrender is thus significant.” Craig Blomberg said that in modern context, “coat” and “shirt” are parallels to “cloak” and “tunic” respectively. So the message is to go further than just giving up the shirt off your back.

As if this wasn’t enough, Jesus then said if you were forced to go one mile, go two. Here the reference is to the practice of “impressment,” which allowed a Roman soldier to conscript someone to carry his equipment or some other burden for one Roman mile. This was a legal and customary practice dating back to the time of the Persian government postal service. Both people and animals could be called upon without notice for temporary service. Again there is an echo of a modern saying, that of going the second or extra mile.

John Nolland noted in his commentary on Matthew how this practice could easily be abused by the Romans and resented by the Jews. “Hostility to Roman rule would make such impressment yet more distasteful.” Jesus said the proper response is generous and ungrudging compliance. It seems Jesus intensifies his point by giving a series of admonitions that could be rendered today as: Don’t take the law into your own hands! Don’t just give up the shirt off your back; give up your coat as well. Go beyond what is required of you; go that second mile.

One of the early daily meditation books used in Alcoholics Anonymous was the classic Christian devotional by Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for Your Highest. On July 14th, Chambers reflected on this passage, saying the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not to do your duty. Rather it is do what is not your duty. Don’t insist on your rights. Be humble. “Never look for right in the other man, but never cease to be right yourself. We are always looking for justice; the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is—Never look for justice, but never cease to give it.”

Here we touch on what Bill W. said was the number one offender, destroying more alcoholics than anything else—resentment. In each and every situation Jesus gave in Matthew 5:38-41, resentment for the injury, insult and injustice that occurred would be expected. Jesus is saying, “Don’t go there.” Oswald Chambers says: Don’t look for justice, but never stop giving it to others. In his essay on Step Four, Bill W. said we need to learn that something has to be done about our vengeful resentments, self-pity, and unwarranted pride.

We had to see that when we harbored grudges and planned revenge for such defeats, we were really beating ourselves with the club of anger we had intended to use on others. We learned that if we were seriously disturbed, our FIRST need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it. . . . Where other people were concerned, we had to drop the word “blame” from our speech and thought.

After the first two or three attempts, the way ahead begins to look easier. “For we had started to get perspective on ourselves, which is another way of saying that we were gaining in humility.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

11/20/15

Powerless Over Lust

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© flairmicro | 123rf.com

Francis Hartigan, a biographer of Bill W., described him as seemingly being unable to control himself sexually. Despite knowing how his philandering was a potential threat to A.A., Bill couldn’t/wouldn’t stop. At times his despair and self loathing over this issue left him feeling unworthy to lead A.A. There was a “Founder’s Watch” committee of friends who would keep track of Bill during the socializing that took place at A.A. functions. When they saw “a certain gleam in his eye,” they would steer Bill off in one direction and the young woman he had been talking to in the other. “Sexual fidelity does not seem to be something Bill was capable of.”

Matthew 5:27-32 in the Sermon on the Mount addresses the issue of adultery. The passage begins rather clearly: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus begins with a repetition of the Seventh Commandment’s restriction against adultery to his largely Jewish audience. The understanding to his audience and to other men in the ancient world was that the commandment forbade having sexual intercourse with a married woman. Leon Morris’s comment on this matter was that: “A married man could have sexual adventures as long as they did not involve a married woman.”

But as was typical of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he challenges the restricted interpretations of Old Testament commandments given to God’s people. “But I say to you,” even looking lustfully at a woman means you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. Even the great rabbis stopped short of making such an important declaration about the importance of fidelity in marriage. In effect, Jesus was doing away with the old “double standard.” Men and women were equally required to be faithful in their marriages.

Note that Jesus includes matters of the heart—the thoughts, emotions and desires—as equal to overtly sinful behavior. Craig Blomberg said: “Christians must recognize those thoughts and actions which, long before any overt sexual sin, make the possibility of giving in to temptation more likely, and they must take dramatic action to avoid them.” Elaborating on this point, Jesus pointed to two of the primary bodily offenders in sexual sin outside of adultery—eyes and hands. With figurative and hyperbolic language, he said it was better to lose an eye or a hand, “one of your members,” than to end up in hell as a consequence of your sin. The message is to do whatever it takes “to control natural passions that tend to flare out of control.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, the A.A. Big Book, spent a good bit of time talking about sex. Given that Bill wrote the “How It Works” where that the section on sex appears, we may get some insight into his views on his problems with sexual fidelity and why he struggled with depression and self-loathing over his inability to control this compulsion.

Bill began by saying: “Now about sex. Many of us needed an overhauling there.” He then noted the extremes of human opinion between a view of sex being “a lust of our lower nature” and the voices who cry for sex and more sex; those who “bewail the institution of marriage.” And those who see most of human troubles traceable to sexual causes. He said A.A. didn’t want to be the arbiter of anyone’s sexual conduct. “We all have sex problems.” It’s part of being human. But what can we do about it?

The answer begins with an inventory of your sexual conduct. Where were you selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate? Who have you hurt? Where did you unjustifiably arouse jealousy, suspicion or bitterness? Where were you at fault and what should you have done differently? “We got this all down on paper and looked at it.” The test of each relationship was whether or not it was selfish. “We asked God to mold our ideals and help us live up to them. We remembered always that our sex powers were God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly not to be despised and loathed.”

Whatever your ideal was, you should be willing to grow toward it. Be willing to make amends, provided that doesn’t bring about more harm than good. God alone can judge your sexual situation. Counsel with others, but avoid hysterical thinking or advice. Suppose you fall short of the chosen ideal and “stumble.” Does that mean you are going to get drunk? Some people say that will happen, but it is only a half-truth. It depends on our motives.

If we are sorry for what we have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, we believe we will be forgiven and have learned our lesson. If we are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, we are quite sure to drink. We are not theorizing. These are facts out of our experiences.

To sum up about sex: We earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing. If sex is very troublesome, we throw ourselves the harder into helping others. We think of their needs and work for them. This takes us out of ourselves. It quiets the imperious urge, when to yield would mean heartache.

Hartigan said a close friend and confidant of Bill’s thought that his guilt over his infidelities was a large part of his struggle with depression. Bill would always agree with the friend that he needed to stop. But just when the friend thought they were getting somewhere, Bill would say he can’t give it up and start rationalizing. “Bill’s behavior caused some of his most ardent admirers to break with him.”

Bill seems to have kept himself on the razor’s edge of not drinking over his sexual conduct. He didn’t drink, but he suffered from depression for a number of years. He also didn’t seem to have true sorrow or repentance for his actions and an honest desire to let God take him to better things sexually. Returning to the Matthew passage, I wonder if Bill never really accepted that he needed to stop lusting after women in his heart (Matthew 5:28). While he practiced and wrote about doing whatever it took to not drink, he failed to apply that principle to his sex life. We could even say, perhaps, he never truly applied the First Step to his sexual conduct.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

10/23/15

Fatal Consequences with Anger

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© Twang | stockfresh.com

Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus encourages his audience to strive to obey the spirit of a commandment and not just a strict literal interpretation of it. That is the significance of the repeated formula here, “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” Here Jesus unpacks the deeper implications of one of the ten commandments, you shall not murder. The same should be understood with the remaining commandments or sayings in Matthew 5:21-48. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew said:

Jesus is protesting against a strictly literal interpretation of the commands, an interpretation that indicates an apparent willingness to obey what God has said, but which imposes a strict limit on obedience and leaves scope for a good deal of ungodly behavior. He is laying down authoritatively how these commands of God should be understood.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22).

The sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 simply said: “You shall not murder.” But here there is the addition of: “and whoever murders will be liable to judgment,” which spells out the consequence to someone who committed murder. His audience would be thinking, “Well, of course there should be judgment against a murderer!” Then Jesus extends the agreement that there should be judgment against a murderer to apply to lesser forms of hostile behavior towards others. He says anyone who is angry with another person, who insults someone—who even calls them a fool—will be liable to “hell-fire and damnation.”

The valley of Hinnom, was a ravine just south of Jerusalem, had been the place where worshipers would burn their children as a sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). In Jeremiah, there was a prophecy of judgment against this place (Jeremiah 7:31-32); and it came to be linked with the final place of torment. Leon Morris commented that in Jewish tradition, it was believed the Last Judgment would take place in the valley of Hinnom. The implication for us in Matthew is that anger and insults toward another will be judged alongside murder at the Last Judgment.

It would be wrong to say the passage equates anger and insults with murder. Rather, Jesus teaches here that these behaviors are also sinful and deserving of judgment. Just as murder self-evidently warrants judgment against the murderer, don’t minimize or rationalize your angry and insulting behavior. To illustrate his point, Jesus then gave two examples where unresolved anger or resentment has consequences.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26)

In effect Jesus is saying, get your priorities straight! “The act of sacrifice is not as important as the spirit in which it is done.” Unresolved resentment nullifies any religious sacrifice you bring to God. Just as it is wise to settle a dispute out of court and not risk the possibility of a judgment against you, the time to reconcile with someone you have wronged is before the dispute escalates to the point of formal judgment. Anger, insults and resentments are just as deserving of judgment before God as murder. The standard is to be willing to “live peaceably with all,” if it is within your power to do so (Romans 12:18).

Self-control and resolution of anger and resentment in recovery is a fundamental necessity. In the chapter “How It Works” in the A.A. Big Book, Bill W. wrote: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. . . . If we want to live, we have to be free of anger.” Bill wrote that resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else. “From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” One of the ways of addressing anger and resentment is to list them in completing the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of a Fourth Step. “We asked ourselves why we were angry.”

It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.

In the “Step Ten” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill wrote: “It is a spiritual axiom, that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” His audience was other members of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the truth of what he said applies to all people. In counseling, I regularly show others how in anger or resentment, we literally or metaphorically point an accusing finger at another person. So do that right—point your finger at someone or something; then look at your hand. While there is one finger pointing out, there are three pointing back at you. Ask yourself why you are angry.

Few people have been more victimized by resentments than have we alcoholics. It mattered little whether our resentments were justified or not. A burst of temper could spoil a day, and a well-nursed grudge could make us miserably ineffective. Nor were we ever skillful in separating justified from unjustified anger. As we saw it, our wrath was always justified. Anger, that occasional luxury of more balanced people, could keep us on an emotional jag indefinitely. These emotional “dry benders” often led straight to the bottle. Other kinds of disturbances—jealousy, envy, self-pity, or hurt pride—did the same thing.

Murder, anger and resentment exist on a continuum of behaviors worthy of judgment before God. The commandment to not murder includes a warning to not hold on to anger or resentment. Twelve Step recovery sees anger and resentment as a form of spiritual disease that cuts off the individual from the sunlight of the Spirit. Unresolved, this spiritual disease leads to drinking and death.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

09/11/15

Practice What You Preach

© vepar5 | 123rf.com

© vepar5 | 123rf.com

One of the first things to know about Matthew 5:17-20 is that it is essentially unique to the gospel of Matthew. It seems to be an introduction to the topics Jesus addresses in verses 5:21 through 5:48. He reminds his audience in each of the following passages of what they have been previously taught as he introduces each issue: “You have heard it said.” But then he shows them the true spiritual depth of these commands: “But I say to you.”

But first, beginning in 5:17, Jesus used four full verses to be sure his audience clearly understood that what he was about to teach them was not abolishing or nullifying the Law and the Prophets. This was a typical way to refer the entire Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament for Christians). The Law referred to the Torah; or Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible. Jesus did not intend to bring about an extreme makeover or a demolition of the teachings of the Old Testament. Rather, he wanted to fulfill them.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17)

Leon Morris pointed out in his commentary on Matthew that by using the Greek word for fulfillment, Jesus was speaking of more than obedience to regulations here. There is a sense of continued obedience; or of completing; or bringing about its full meaning. Perhaps something from all three was within his use of the Greek word here. Morris also observed there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones. Using hyperbole, Jesus said that not even the smallest letter or even a part of a letter from any word in the Law would pass away before the entire creation (heaven and earth).

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18)

Therefore, anyone who relaxed or nullified one of the least of the commandments in the Scriptures and taught others to do the same would not be recognized for their efforts in heaven. But whoever did them and taught others to keep the commandments would be recognized in heaven for their efforts. Misunderstanding what Jesus was saying here would provide fertile ground for legalism to flourish. Legalists keep the letter of a commandment while nullifying its spirit.  To “fulfill” is not the same as to “keep.” And Jesus now was about to catch two of the most religious groups of his time off guard.

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

The two religious groups widely recognized for their knowledge of the Law and their zeal for keeping the commandments of the Law at the time were the scribes and the Pharisees respectively. So up until verse 5:20, any scribe or Pharisee hearing what Jesus said would have been nodding his head in agreement. They knew and kept the commandments—and were proud of it.  They taught others what should be done to enter into heaven. Surely they were the ones who would be called “great” in the kingdom of heaven. But no—Jesus said to his audience, your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees!

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

If you weren’t MORE righteous than the two highest status religious groups of that time, you couldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven. The message was that getting to heaven was more than knowing and keeping the commandments. The legalism and religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees won’t cut it. Your righteousness has to be better than theirs. Now Jesus had a captive audience. What could he possibly be about to say that would fulfill the Law and the Prophets? How would he apply the Law and the Prophets so differently from what the scribes and the Pharisees taught?

Broadly speaking, scribes were individuals who could read and write—talents that were not common to most individuals back then. These talents meant they would serve as secretaries or clerks—a higher status and function than we would think of today. Scribes in Jewish times were seen as men of wisdom, who studied the Law. They were teachers and legal experts with religious authority. The Dictionary of New Testament Background said Jewish scribes applied the general instructions of the Torah to daily living. They even extended the law to theoretical situations “To build a safety net against inadvertent breaches.”

The Pharisees seem to have been drawn more from the laity and not from the priestly or aristocratic classes. They too were experts and strict interpreters of the Mosaic Law. They developed a comprehensive set of oral extensions of the Law, which were to maintain their religious identity and purity. There are even some references to the scribes of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16 and Acts 23:9), possibly suggesting that scribes were a subgroup of Pharisees. Alternatively, the sect of Pharisees could have had individuals who could read and write and thus acted as scribes within the sect.

Nevertheless, it seems that both groups were singled out as religious leaders who didn’t practice what they preached. In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus said: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3). So here in chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus is saying that you have to walk your talk—you have to practice what you preach—to get to heaven. Again, Leon Morris summarized the intent succinctly:

Jesus’ understanding of keeping the law meant a great deal more than making sure that the letter of the law was not infringed. For him it was important that the deeper implications of what God had commanded be understood and put into practice.

The application here for recovery is in the call to “walk your talk.” Just as Jesus said that those who both taught and did the commandments would be great in the kingdom of heaven, those who practice what they preach in recovery will stay sober and help others to stay sober at the same time. True spirituality in Christianity and in recovery is when someone lives out what they tell others. They don’t just know the Bible or the Big Book—they strive to live it.

There are parallels to “scribes” and “Pharisees” in 12 Step Recovery as well. When you see someone affirming the truth of a Step or a saying, but not truly living out the spirit of it’s meaning, then you are keeping rather than fulfilling it. Here is an example: individuals who only count abstinent time with their drug of choice. Someone could be in Alcoholics Anonymous and rationalize they aren’t drinking alcohol anymore, but they smoke marijuana. A heroin addict might say they never had a problem with alcohol, so its okay if they drink, as long as they don’t use heroin. I also don’t think that having a doctor diagnose you with an anxiety disorder means you can take benzodiazepines. Taking a mind-altering and mood changing substance to not use another mind-altering or mood changing substance is not walking your talk.

Recovery is not just knowing and “keeping” the Steps, but fulfilling them in your life—and then passing how to do that on to others.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

05/8/15

The Deep Desire of True Ambition

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

Recently I watched the 1947 movie, Gentleman’s Agreement for the first time. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, it told the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in post World War II America. In a climatic scene, Phil’s fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), realizes it’s not enough to privately abhor prejudice; you have to do something about it. In the context of Matthew 5:13-16, you have to be salt and light.

Further developing what he’d been teaching his disciples, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.”  In verses 5:3-10, he described the blessings available to those who were his disciples. He warned them in 5:11-12 of the persecution they would face simply because they wanted to live righteous lives on his account. Here he said you can’t fly under the radar and avoid persecution. Theirs was not to be a life of quietism and retreat from the world. Rather, as Craig Blomberg said, they “must permeate society as agents of redemption.”

The first metaphor was a statement of fact—you are salt of the earth. In our time we think of salt as something that adds flavor—as a supplement—to what we eat. But up until the invention of refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative. That is the meaning of the salt metaphor here. Jesus is saying his disciples are to be a preserving influence on earth. According to Sinclair Ferguson in The Sermon on the Mount, “Christians whose lives exhibit the qualities of the ‘blessed’ will have a preserving impact” upon society.

Salt losing its taste is another saying that makes no sense to moderns, who get pure granulated salt from a Morton’s salt container at the grocery. But the salt used in first-century Palestine was most likely taken from the Dead Sea, where it would have been mixed with other minerals. If the sodium chloride somehow dissolved out of the mixture, it would leave “salt” that had lost its “saltiness” (sodium chloride).  Good for nothing, it was tossed into the street, which was the garbage can of ancient cities.

Once again in Matthew 5:14 Jesus directly addresses the disciples, now saying they are (factually) the light of the world. It’s the same message as in the previous verse, but with a different image. In each case the target is broadly described—the earth and the world. It’s like saying, if you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll tell you again another way: “you are the light of the world.” You can’t hide; and you shouldn’t hide.

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

We lose some of the power of the metaphor today as we live with electricity in huge cities, where darkness is typically an annoyance or inconvenience, not something that stops human work and activity until the sun comes up the next day. Rural living or wilderness vacations get moderns closer to an understanding of the image. Until the widespread use of electricity, nightfall was DARK. A city on a hill, with its cooking fires and torches would have been an incredible contrast to the surrounding darkness. You could not hide it.

Conversely, it makes no sense to light an oil lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it on a lamp stand where it can illuminate the entire room. Now the light from an oil lamp doesn’t compete well with that from even a forty-watt light bulb. But recall how grateful you were to get that one candle lit when your electricity went out and the batteries in your flashlight were dead.

Notice also the contrast between the light of a city on a hill that can’t be hidden and that of an oil lamp that could be hidden. The disparity of the two images suggests that, whether your “light” is big or small, you shouldn’t try to hide it. It makes no sense and ultimately can’t be done. Rather, let it shine so others can see it.

The “light” is the light of righteousness in verse 5:10 that is ultimately from Jesus Christ. He is the great light who has dawned upon those dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16). He is the light of the world (John 8:12). His disciples, those who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13), are to now live as children of the light (Ephesians 5:8). Again turning to Sinclair Ferguson:

Jesus is underlining the challenge, which is stated so clearly in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20): the whole world is to be our sphere of influence. To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not a Christianized “jihad,” calling for forced conversion or subjection. The light of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is seen in his disciples as they are poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in their daily lives with other “earth” people living in this world. “In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:16).

Parallel to the followers of Jesus living out the beatitudes as they are salt and light to the world, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) put their program into action as well. Bill W. said repeatedly that “A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a Society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth will die.” You can find this statement in The Language of the Heart (p. 160), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 139), and the pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service.

In A.A. Comes of Age, Bill added that action was the magic word. “Action to carry A.A.’s message is therefore the heart of our Third Legacy of Service.” He defined A.A.  service as “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee. . . .  The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.” The Twelfth Step reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” The linked pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service, goes on to tell some of the early history of A.A. More detail of that history, focusing on the Three Legacies, can be found in The Language of the Heart and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

The life of service and recovery within A.A. is not identical to that described by Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. But I suspect they would all agree with this statement from Bill W.’s “Step Twelve” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “True ambition in not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

04/17/15

The Blessing of Persecution

© Kiya | 123RF.com

© Kiya | 123RF.com

It seems Jesus thought what he said in the eighth beatitude, namely that his disciples will be persecuted, needed to be driven home and required some unpacking.  Leon Morris noted where Matthew used the verb “persecute” in three consecutive verses (5:10-12), underlining the importance of the concept. In Matthew 5:11 and 12, Jesus then switched from the third person to the second person, now speaking directly to his audience. You are blessed when others revile (mock) you and persecute you (harass you for what you believe) falsely on his account. You are to rejoice and be glad if it happens, because you must be doing something right.

What they are doing right is living out the righteousness he just described in verses 5:3 through 5:10. There is also a warning in what Jesus said. If you attempt to live righteously in this world for me (on my account), then you will be persecuted. When we try to live as Jesus would live, we should expect the same persecution he received. As he said elsewhere, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

The hatred, persecution or abuse can be both verbal (mocking, demeaning, reviling) and physical. Pointing to the persecution of the prophets, then telling his disciples to rejoice when they are persecuted as the prophets were persecuted, clearly indicates this. Jeremiah’s life and ministry is a good example. He was mocked for his prophetic declaration of God’s judgment against Judah (Jer. 18:18). The religious leaders and false prophets also tried to have him executed for treason when he was imprisoned in a cistern (Jer. 38:1-6).

When I look at the character traits listed in the beatitudes, there doesn’t seem to be anything that should target the disciples of Jesus for persecution. Striving to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart or a peacemaker seem to be good things. Individuals who grieve or mourn their own sinful actions aren’t readily seen as people who need or should be mocked and reviled. In a similar way, I don’t get the mocking and ridicule I’ve seen heaped upon Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step recovery. Here are a couple of examples.

The first is the “Cougarblogger.” Here is a sampling of some of her articles: “12 Things the Cult of Religion of the 12 Steps Does NOT Want You to Know;” “Rules for Sex Offenders—Attendance in 12 Step Cult Meetings;” “Dangerous Criminal in You Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting;” Fake ASAM ‘Doctors’ Push AA Cult for Profit;”  “Never Call Yourself an “Alcoholic” or “Addict.” Here is a quote from the last listed article:

“Why do you hate 12 step programs so much?”  When I get asked this question, in my head I think, “Why don’t you?!?!”  Then I realize they are either ignorant, have a relative/friend in the cult, (who gives all credit for their very lives to the cult), or are a stepper (or ex-stepper), themselves.  What is most astounding is when ex-steppers defend the cult, but then I quickly realize the power of the brainwashing.  Even those who have left (gotten free really), feel the need to defend the cult.

There is no way to have a conversation with someone like that. Her mind is made up. To use a 12 Step recovery saying, it’s either her way or the highway.

The charge of A.A. being a religious cult has been around for awhile. I think the classic argument for this position is Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? by Charles Bufe. Even Bufe, who assessed A.A. according to a description of what a cult was that he himself developed, acknowledged that it is difficult to answer if A.A. is a cult. Unequivocally, he thought A.A. was religious (the first of his 23 criteria). He distinguished between institutional and communal A.A and thought that institutionally, A.A. was a cult; but communally, it wasn’t, “though it comes close, and does have many dangerous, cult-like tendencies.”

Another blogger, julietroxspin, is a self-described activist for secular treatment options for alcohol and drug abuse treatment. She also blogs on The Fix (as Juliet Abram). A sampling of her articles on A.A.R.M.E.D. with Facts, are: “There are No Rules Only Suggestions;” “I’m Deathly Allergic to AA;” “AA Needs to Give a Damn About It’s Bad Reputation.” A sampling of her articles for The Fix are: “Normies React to the 12 Steps;” “Can an AA Critic and a 12-Step Advocate Get Along?;” “Recovery Bullies.” In “I’m Deathly Allergic to AA,” Juliet stated:

I can say I worked the steps, I felt the mental shift inside changing my interpretation of the past. Guilt. Blame. Darkness. The steps were harming me, not because I “quit before the miracle happened,” but because I “kept coming back.” Because I’ve been abused, I can get addicted to abuse. It’s real simple, and real deadly.

While Juliet is clearly anti-A.A., I think she is trying to be more objective than “Cougarblogger.” I suspect that both of them would see my reflections on how the Sermon on the Mount applies to A.A. and recovery as evidence of how A.A. is religious. But to do so you have to assume an understanding of “religion” that different than that of A.A. and William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience from which they self consciously drew their distinction between “spiritual” and “religious.”

Evangelical Christians have also been critical of A.A. and what they saw as integrating psychology with Christian doctrine. Gary and Carol Almy said that: “The 12-step groups follow the doctrine of the psychology gospel and are determined to grab the benefits of what Paul called ‘the new life in Christ’ without the crucifixion of the old.” Martin and Deidre Bobgan see A.A. as Christless religion, offering a counterfeit salvation: “Because of the many versions of God represented in AA, professing Christians are uniting themselves with a spiritual harlot when they join A.A.”

The “persecution” of A.A. and 12 Step recovery has been mocking and demeaning at times—curiously—from both religious and nonreligious sources. But remember what Jesus says here in the Sermon on the Mount: “rejoice and be glad” when you are persecuted. Nonreligious members of A.A. won’t like or agree with the promised reward in a heaven they don’t believe in. But they could see an “eschatological” ending of their own by working the Steps—continuing in abstinence until they die.

One last comment related to the “prophets” mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Stanton Peele, another A.A. critic, approvingly mentioned Charles Bufe’s prediction of the end of “A.A.’s reign of terror over” American alcoholism treatment. Bufe, writing in 1998, suggested that several factors would “virtually ensure that AA will begin to shrink significantly” within five to ten years. “They make it entirely possible that AA will cease to exist as a significant social movement by the second quarter of the 21st century.”

In 2014, Alcoholics Anonymous estimated its total groups at 115,300, with more than 2 million members in over 170 different countries. Data on A.A. members and groups I received in 2007 indicated there were an estimated 2,044,855 members and 113,168 groups worldwide. (See my free ebook, The Age of Miracles is Still with Us). So far, it doesn’t seem that A.A. is “shrinking significantly.” And it doesn’t seem likely that it will “cease to exist as a significant social movement” by the beginning of the second quarter of the 21st century. Will it still be around by 2050? Let’s wait and see. I think the words that Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister, spoke in 1955 are relevant: “I believe that A.A. will go on serving men and women as long as it may be needed, if it keeps open to God for inspiration, open to one another for fellowship, and open to people outside for service.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

03/27/15

Present and Future Blessings

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

The Beatitudes are named and structured after the Greek word makarios, meaning someone who is the privileged recipient of divine favor. It is also a literary form found in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, the book of Psalms opens with a beatitude: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The greatest concentration of beatitudes in the Old Testament is within the Psalms and the Wisdom literature. Robert Guelich indicated there were 44 examples of beatitudes in the New Testament, primarily in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Jesus begins his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount by underlining the various ways his disciples have and will receive divine favor. Both the poor in spirit (5:3) and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (5:10) receive the kingdom of heaven now, in this present time. The others—in between—have a future promise of fulfillment. Beginning and ending with the same expression is a stylistic device called an inclusion, according to D.A. Carson. So then the present and future blessings are all part of the same theme—the kingdom of heaven. Craig Blomberg said: “Complete fulfillment of Jesus’ promises often requires waiting for the age to come.”

Implied in the Greek word for blessing, is having a right relationship with God and enjoying fellowship with Him. Instead of focusing on what we are to do, the Beatitudes describe the blessings. The obligations or expectations in this relationship come later on in the Sermon on the Mount. Sinclair Ferguson commented that the blessings also weren’t new teaching or revelation. Jesus took some of the themes from the Psalms and Isaiah and applying them to the disciples. “He was pointing out what God’s word tells us is the blessed life.”

Several commentators have noted where Matthew has eight beatitudes, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain only has four (Luke 6:20-22). Another difference is how Matthew’s blessings are all in the third person (5:3-10), where Luke’s are in the second person. Biblical scholars have given a variety of explanations, but it seems to me the best is to see the two sermons not as edited versions of the same one, but as two occasions where Jesus used the “beatitude” approach. So those who receive divine favor are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.

The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual bondage. They are conscious of their sin debt, which separates them from God. All they can do is “cry for mercy, and depend upon the Lord.” D.A. Carson said poverty of spirit was: “The personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy. . . . The conscious confession of unworth before God.” Note how Carson’s thoughts reflect the process of coming to believe in the first two Steps.

Poverty of spirit becomes a general confession of a man’s need for God, a humble admission of impotence without him. Poverty of spirit may end in a Gideon vanquishing the enemy hosts; but it begins with a Gideon who first affirms he is incapable of the task [powerless], and who insists that if the Lord does not go with him he would very much prefer to stay home and thresh grain.

The mourners grieve the evil and sin they see in themselves and the world around them. The meek are “humble, gentle and not aggressive.” These are not typical qualities of the movers and shakers of this age. But in the age to come, they will lead the meek to come into the possession of what the movers and shakers sought to possess in this age—the earth.

Meekness as humility is throughout the A.A. Big Book. Bill W. said that when making a Third Step with an understanding person, if it was “honestly and humbly made,” it could sometimes have a very great effect at once. Working the Steps meant relying upon God rather than ourselves. “To the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly relay on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.” The process of the first three Steps is one of admitting spiritual bondage to alcohol and turning it over to God. The Third Step prayer in the Big Book reads:

God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!

By combining hunger and thirst in 5:6, Jesus intensifies the sense of longing after righteousness—the quality of judicial correctness or justice, with a focus on redemptive action. This righteousness is then seen in granting mercy to others; being pure in heart; being a peacemaker.

Mercy is being concerned about other people in their need; being compassionate. Those who show others mercy will be granted mercy. The final judgment comes to mind here: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

In January of 1953, a man in the Huntsville Texas prison reflected in the Grapevine (“From Within These Walls”) on how A.A. helped him and others gain a new conception towards those who were distressed. He said the alcoholic prisoner tended to look upon the world through “a mist of resentments.” The desire for revenge poisoned the life of the person who cherished it. Revenge begets revenge, he said. “While forgiveness melts the stony heart and brings reconciliations.” If anyone were to ask him what was the most inherent and conclusive proof from the Gospels that Jesus understood humanity, he would point to the Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Being pure was to be free from moral guilt. Leon Morris noted this is the only time in the New Testament where purity is predicated of the heart. “To be pure in heart is to be pure throughout.” And in the age to come they will see God, reversing the separation to goes back to the Garden of Eden. The Greek word for peacemaker occurs only here in the New Testament and refers to someone who works to restore peace between people; who seeks reconciliation or amends with others. They will be called sons of God. Craig Blomberg said: “Others will identify them as God’s true ambassadors, as those being conformed to his likeness.”

Becoming a peacemaker is embedded within the Eleventh Step. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. suggested the St. Francis Peace Prayer as a beginning for meditation and prayer in Step Eleven  (See “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” for more on the Peace Prayer and A.A.)

There are many other ways that the Beatitudes and 12 Step recovery are associated. If you start your own study, you will discover them. This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applied to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”