04/11/17

Love Your Enemies

© Lane Erickson | 123rf.com

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

© KrasimiraNevenova | stockfresh.com

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

© Wolfgang Steiner | 123rf.com

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.”

01/17/17

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Serenity Prayer

Heath Union Church, Heath MA

In May of 1943 Reinhold Niebuhr completed teaching his classes at Union Theological Seminary and left for a two-month series of meetings, conferences and lectures in England and Scotland. The German Axis forces in North Africa surrendered on May 12, 1943. Four days later, German troops crushed the last resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, killing thousands of Jews. The rest were sent to Treblinka. Soon after Niebuhr returned to his family in Heath Massachusetts, Allied troops landed in Sicily on July 10th. On July 24th, the Allies began bombing the German city of Hamburg. By July 25th, Mussolini was overthrown and the new Italian government began peace talks. Somewhere in the midst of these earth-shaking events, Niebuhr preached a sermon at the Heath Union Church and uttered what would become known as the Serenity Prayer for the first time.

The above-described origins of the Serenity Prayer were given by Elisabeth Sifton, the daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr, in her book: The Serenity Prayer. Sifton deftly placed its origins in the midst of the work and ministry of her father during WW II. She said at some point in late 1943 or early 1944, a friend of her father’s, Howard Robbins suggested this little prayer about “grace, courage and wisdom” would be appropriate for inclusion in material he was preparing for army chaplains in the field. Niebuhr gave Robbins a copy of the prayer, and in 1944 it was included in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces.

This was its first publication in any form and in any language, and its because of this little booklet that eventually it became famous. . . . A short while later Alcoholics Anonymous, then a fledgling small organization scarcely a decade old, with my father’s permission, also started to use the prayer in their regular meetings.

Sifton said she doesn’t know when or how AA simplified the text of her father’s original version of the Serenity Prayer. And although he let it happen “and didn’t fuss when the wordings were altered,” he did mind the changes. But Niebuhr never copyrighted his prayer. Sifton said it was inconceivable to him to construe prayers as a source of revenue. So he could not and did not control its misquotation, misattribution or embellishment.  The original text for Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is followed by the shortened AA version, and one of the longer versions.

Niebuhr’s 1943 version: “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

The AA version appears in the Third Step essay of the AA book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

One version of the so-called “Complete” Serenity Prayer is in the linked article below by Nell Wing, an A.A. archivist. It is as follows:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right; if I surrender to his Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen. 

Elisabeth Sifton said she has no idea where the additional clauses of the “complete” version came from. But their message and tone were not in any way “Niebuhrian.” She noted how the A.A. version simplified the opening and framed the prayer in the first person singular, rather than the first person plural of her father’s original text. It also omitted the spiritually correct, but difficult idea of praying for “grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change.” Instead, it focused on the simpler idea of obtaining “serenity to accept what cannot be changed.”

Nell Wing, an A.A. Archivist, wrote a paper in 1981: “Origin of the Serenity Prayer.” There she described several different purported “origins” for the Serenity Prayer that A.A. was told over the years. Bill W. and A.A. have attributed their initial discovery of the Serenity Prayer to Niebuhr, but still seem to repeat information about it that conflicts with Sifton’s above-described version—which she was told to her by her parents. For example, A.A. attributes their initial discovery of the (then) anonymous prayer to an obituary found by an early A.A. member in a New York paper in June of 1941. The connection to Dr. Niebuhr didn’t come to A.A.’s attention in the late 1940s.

Wing said an A.A. member reported seeing the prayer in Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings, “as if it were original to him.” She also quoted from a 1951 letter by an A.A.  member to Bill W. The man who had been in contact with Dr. Niebuhr, who confirmed that he did write the prayer and that it had been distributed to soldiers during WWII. Bill W. responded by saying that it was probable the Serenity Prayer existed in some form or other before Dr. Niebuhr. “Now it is pretty certain that Dr. Niebuhr did write the prayer in its present form and we also have on file a letter from him to that effect.” Bill then referenced a September 1950 article by Jack Alexander, which Wing quoted:

 Originally thought in Alcoholics Anonymous to have been written by St. Francis of Assisi, it turned out on recent research to have been the work of another eminent nonalcoholic, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary. Dr.Niebuhr was amused on being told of the use to which his prayer was being put. Asked if it was original with him, he said he thought it was, but added, “Of course, it may have been spooking around for centuries.”Alcoholics Anonymous seized upon it in 1940 [actually1941], after it has been used as a quotation in the New York Herald Tribune. The fellowship was late in catching up with it; and it will probably spook around a good deal longer before the rest of the world catches up with it.”

Wing also referred to several other “origins” of the payer that have been sent to A.A. at one time or another. There was even the reprint of a letter written by Ursula Niebuhr, Reinhold’s wife, which briefly reviewed the background to the Serenity Prayer given above by her daughter.

In the January 1950 issue of the AA Grapevine, there appeared an article entitled: “The Serenity Prayer,” that attributed the prayer to Niebuhr, and even gave what they said his original text. The prayer attributed to Niebuhr in the Grapevine article was not the version quoted above as the Niebuhrian 1943 version. The A.A. article also dated the origin of the Serenity Prayer to 1932. Howard Robbins is said to have received permission to place it in a compilation of prayers he then published in 1934. An A.A. member saw the prayer in an obituary in 1939, and brought it to the attention of Bill W. and others in A.A. The history described here seems to contradict that given above by Sifton. For more on the A.A. understanding of the origins of the Serenity Prayer, see: “The Serenity Prayer and A.A.”

Elisabeth Sifton, her mother and father all seem to have a similar sense of the Niebuhrian version of the Serenity Prayer coming from a sermon that he preached at Heath during WWII. Nell Wing reviewed several other possibilities, some of which were shown to be false. Yet the consensus from A.A. seems to believe the 1943 Niebuhrian version wasn’t the first. Writing for the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008, Fred Shapiro wrote of his own investigations into the origins of the Serenity Prayer, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?”

Shapiro noted that Niebuhr’s version of the Serenity Prayer was selected by the editor’s of the World Almanac as one of the ten most memorable quotes of the last 100 years. In English and German-speaking countries, he thought it was probably the only prayer to rival the Lord’s Prayer in popularity. Shapiro said Niebuhr himself said it was possible he assimilated its concept from some earlier, forgotten source. Nevertheless, Niebuhr made it clear that he believed the prayer originated with him.

Shapiro’s research found versions of the Serenity Prayer in newspaper databases before 1943. He stated how the evidence was by no means, conclusive; and it is entirely possible Niebuhr composed the prayer much earlier than he himself remembered. When he found at least eight versions of the prayer in newspapers before 1943, he contacted Elisabeth Sifton with his evidence. In response, Sifton commented that prayers evolve, are borrowed, transmuted and revised—by their original writers and others.

Sifton herself noted in her own book where the ideas expressed in the Serenity Prayer existed in previous works by her father. She noted how the tone of the Serenity Prayer radiated throughout Niebuhr’s classic work, The Nature and Destiny of Man. Niebuhr gave a series lectures with the same name at the Gifford Lectures between 1938 and 1940 at the University of Edinburgh. She pointed out where the second volume ended with a consideration of the ideas he was to express in his little prayer just a year or so later:

Wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding in the fruit of “grace,” in which faith completes our ignorance without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge, and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

The following are two examples of what Shapiro found. Follow the above link to his full article for more.

In the January 16, 1936 edition of the Syracuse Herald, the executive secretary for the Syracuse Y.W.C.A. quoted the following prayer in her annual report:

O God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.

In the February 19, 1939 edition of the Ada (Oklahoma) Herald the home counselor for Oklahoma City’s public schools prayer said the prayer for both parents should be:

Oh God, give me serenity to accept that which cannot be changed, give me courage to change that which can be changed and wisdom to tell the one from the other.

Shapiro said it was possible that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting. It was then quickly disseminated with his identification largely forgotten. But he said it must be asked why Niebuhr himself never suggested he had used the prayer in the 1930s. However, he believes a second alternative is more likely. The prayer really was “spooking around for years” and Niebuhr unconsciously adapted it from some already-existing formulation.

Sifton responded to Shapiro’s conclusions in “It Takes A Master to Make A Masterpiece.” You can find her response at the end of the link for Shapiro’s article, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” She still affirmed her father as the essential author of the Serenity Prayer. Shapiro merely demonstrated that her father’s voice reached far more American churches and organizations than they had previously realized. Prayers are presented orally and become famous orally long before they are put on paper.

Yet the great masterpiece prayers don’t materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition’s most gifted practitioners. In my book, I quoted prayers from various sources that my father knew well and whose cadences and theology feed into the Serenity Prayer’s concise wisdoms, because I wanted to suggest how the rich texture of worship as experienced by generations of believers nourishes the creation of new prayers. To throw light on this long, often anonymous process was one purpose of my book.

Sifton commented that since the Serenity Prayer has become so associated with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, most people think of it as expressing what we must work on within our “personal self-improvement projects.” Yet it was composed in wartime. It addresses “the inconsolable pain, loss, and guilt that war inflicts on the communities that wage it.”

She said her father drafted his prayers rapidly, or composed them right on the spot, rewording them many times before he felt they were in final form. Most of the prayers she cited in her book were not published until after his death in 1971. But by then generations of student and worshipers had known them well and used them for decades. “The Serenity Prayer was unusual in his oeuvre [body of work], then, only in the odd circumstance of its wartime publication and subsequent diffusion.”

The Niebuhrian version of the Serenity Prayer seems to have clearly come from Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1943 sermon. It also seems likely that the concepts within the prayer had been part of his teaching, thinking and writing in the years prior to that fateful sermon. And yet, religious believers and philosophers for thousands of years have struggled to be at peace or in harmony with the things in life that cannot be changed; to find courage to change the things they can; and to know the one from the other. The dilemma of the Serenity Prayer strikes at the heart of all religious and philosophical quests to know the will of God. Lord, by your grace grant us the serenity, courage and wisdom to know and do your will.

01/6/17

The Serenity Prayer and A.A.

Alcoholics Anonymous and the Serenity Prayer are forever bound together. The prayer originated with the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, but its dissemination within the wider culture occurred through A.A. So there are two distinct historical threads that can be followed in tracing the history and use of the prayer. One thread follows its presence through A.A. itself and another traces its origins with Niebuhr. This article will concentrate on the A.A. connection, while another one, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Serenity Prayer,” will trace its origins with Niebuhr.

Pass It On is the A.A. approved history of Bill W. and how the message of A.A. reached the world. It described how one of its members saw the prayer in an obituary of an early June 1941 edition of a New York paper, the Herald-Tribune. Pass It On quoted it as existing then in its commonly received form: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” An A.A. member had the idea to print the prayer on cards and paid for that first printing out of his own pocket.

It was initially referred to as: “the A.A. prayer” or “God grant us” by A.A. members. But by the late 1940s, it became known as the Serenity Prayer. Nell Wing, the first A.A. Archivist and a secretary to Bill W., wrote “Origin of the Serenity Prayer: A Historical Paper” in 1981. She quoted from a June 12, 1941 letter written by Ruth Hock, the A.A. secretary at that time, to an A.A. member and a printer by trade about getting the prayer printed on a wallet-sized card. He responded:

Your cards are on the way and my congratulations to the man who discovered that in the paper. I can’t recall any sentence that packs quite the wallop that that does and during the day shown it to the A.A.’s that dropped in and in each case have been asked for copies.

In the January 1950 edition of the AA Grapevine, an article appeared that “solved” the mystery of the origins of the Serenity Prayer. Although its origin had been previously attributed to several different sources, the article said it originated with Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. He was said to have written it around 1932 as the ending of a longer prayer. In 1934 a friend asked Niebuhr’s permission to use the shorter section in a compilation of prayers he was making at the time. Niebuhr was quoted as saying: “Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.”

According to the AA Grapevine article, the original form of the prayer, as written by Niebuhr was: “God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed; Give me courage to change things which must be changed; And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” The article said Dr. Neibuhr didn’t mind the changes from his original rendering of the prayer, saying: “In some respects, I believe your way is better.”

Nell Wing’s article reviewed the variety of supposed original sources for the Serenity Prayer, which included: St. Francis of Assisi, the early Greeks or Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and even ancient Sanskrit writings. Research done by a German member of A.A. Peter T., attributed the first written form of the prayer to a Roman statesman and Christian philosopher named Boethius (480-524). Nell added in a footnote:

While this is a fascinating story in its own right and appears to correct a long-standing misconception, Boethius’ connection with the prayer remains unclear and haunting! What were his thoughts and ideas that so affected succeeding generations of religious dissidents?

Boethius was born in Rome and educated in Athens and Alexandria. In 510 he became a Consul under Emperor Theodoric. He was accused of treasonable dealings with the emperor in Constantinople, imprisoned and eventually beheaded. While in prison he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, his most influential work and that from which Peter T. said the first form of the Serenity Prayer appeared. His commentaries on Aristotle became a major source of knowledge of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas in the Middle Ages. More information on Boethius can be found in: New Dictionary of Theology; and Classical Pastoral Care, Volume 4: Crisis Ministries. You can also read this article on him by Carl Trueman: “Boethius: The Philosopher Theologian.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill W. said when he first saw the Serenity Prayer on that day in June of 1941, “Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words.” After the cards were printed up, A.A. included one in every piece of correspondence they sent out. This continued for several years, and the Serenity Prayer rapidly came into general use within A.A. After reiterating the possible origins of the prayer, Bill said: “Anyhow, we have the prayer and it is said thousands of times daily. We count its writer among our great benefactors.” Over 950 references have been made to the Serenity Prayer in the AA Grapevine since its first issue in 1944.

What is it about this prayer that gives it so much value for A.A.? Bill W. unpacked its usefulness in his article for the March 1962 issue of the AA Grapevine, “What is Acceptance?” This article is also available in the A.A. published selection of Bill W.’s Grapevine writings, The Language of the Heart. Bill said one of the ways to get at the meaning of the principle of acceptance is to meditate on it within the context of the Serenity Prayer. Essentially it is asking for the resources of grace by which we can make spiritual progress. Emphasized within the prayer is the need for wisdom that discriminates between the possible and the impossible.

Sometimes we need the right kind of acceptance for each day. Other times we need to develop acceptance for what will come in the future. Yet again, we may have to accept a situation that will never change. Then there are misuses of acceptance. “It can be warped to justify nearly every brand of weakness, nonsense and folly.” We can “accept” failure as a chronic condition without failure or remedy. We can pridefully “accept” worldly success as something we did ourselves.

This is why we treasure our “Serenity Prayer” so much. It brings a new light to us that can dissipate our old-time and nearly fatal habit of fooling ourselves. In the radiance of this prayer we see that defeat, rightly accepted, need be no disaster. We now know that we do not have to run away, nor ought we again try to overcome adversity by still another bull-dozing power drive that can only push up obstacles before us faster than they can be taken down. . . .Therefore our very first problem is to accept our present circumstances as they are, ourselves as we are, and the people about us as they are. This is to adopt a realistic humility without which no genuine advance can even begin. Again and again, we shall need to return to that unflattering point of departure. This is an exercise in acceptance that we can profitably practice every day of our lives. Provided we strenuously avoid turning these realistic surveys of the facts of life into unrealistic alibis for apathy or defeatism, they can be the sure foundation upon which increased emotional health and therefore spiritual progress can be built. At least this seems to be my own experience.

I’ve read an article that sees the Serenity Prayer as creating an either/or, black-and-white dichotomy, “as if all of the situations and challenges that a person in recovery is confronted by can be neatly placed into one or the other bucket.” But I don’t see Bill W. using the Serenity Prayer as a black-and-white dichotomy. He said it emphasizes the need for wisdom to discriminate between the possible and impossible. He also said there can be misuses of acceptance—when it is used to justify “weakness, nonsense and folly.” The goal of acceptance in the Serenity Prayer, at least for Bill W. and A.A., is to have humility; to avoid turning a realistic assessment of the situation into an alibi or excuse for apathy or defeatism.

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.”

08/14/15

The Imprints of His Glory

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© szefei | stockfresh.com

“I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God.” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 17th)

Before venturing onto the main highway of the Romans Road of Recovery, we should start our journey by looking at chapter one of Romans and what it says about general revelation, the certainty of God and how it can be applied to addiction. Since belief in Jesus Christ is optional for Twelve Step spirituality, there will be a divergence between the Romans Road and the path of recovery. Yet for an extended part of their journey, Christians along the Romans Road and sojourners along the path of recovery travel in the same direction. The theological explanation for how this is possible is found in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God has made it possible for all people to have some general knowledge of who He is and what He requires of us to live life—including how to live a sober life.

Romans 1:20 sets this ‘general revelation’ of God within an oxymoron: the invisible attributes of God are clearly perceived in the created order. Commenting on this verse, John Murray said: “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” No one who truly looks at the created order around them can deny the reality of God. The A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, seems to echo this thought: “He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us.” It is in this sense, and this sense only that the path of recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps and the fellowship of self-help groups exists. From a biblical perspective, it is the path to a life aligned with the general revelation of God in the created universe. It provides the way out of the active enslavement for all human beings to drugs and alcohol.

“The Way Out” was originally proposed as the title for the first edition of the Big Book. A search of the Library of Congress showed 25 previously published books titled “The Way Out,” so Alcoholics Anonymous was chosen instead.

Discovering your place in the natural order is a common theme in many non-Christian philosophies and religions. And this idea exists within the recovery literature. Bill Wilson wrote in the “We Agnostics” chapter of the Big Book: “As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe, underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction.” Within Came to Believe, a collection of the diversity of opinions on God as we understood Him, “I believe that the A.A. program is simply the will of God being put to practical, everyday use.” And from the AA Grapevine, the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, “I like to think that putting myself in harmony with what seems to be the spirit of the universe is in actuality ‘turning my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him.’”

The Introduction to the “Blue Book” of Narcotics Anonymous, a fellowship for drug addicts adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous, states that: “We believe that as a fellowship, we have been guided by a Greater Consciousness, and are grateful for the direction that has enabled us to build upon a proven program of recovery.” In dedicating their book, the writers of the Blue Book said:

God grant us knowledge that we may write according to Your Divine precepts. Instill in us a sense of Your purpose. Make us servants of Your will and grant us a bond of selflessness, that this may truly be your work, not ours–in order that no addict, anywhere need die from the horrors of addiction.

As humans we straddle the border between health and sickness, good and evil, happiness and sadness. We are always trying to gain harmony in life; to preserve beauty and to find order again after balance has been disturbed. All these beliefs have similarities to Stoic philosophy, which was popular during the time when Paul wrote the book of Romans.

Stoicism was founded in the third century BC and remained popular though 529 AD. More than just a philosophical system, it was a way of life. The theologian Paul Tillich said it was “the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” Stoic philosophers said that happiness did not come from the accrual of goods or success, but from virtue. Echoing Twelve Step recovery, they emphasized self-control as the path out of destructive emotions. This self-control was established and maintained through meditation, training, and self-vigilance.

David Davidson said that in meditation the Stoics would visualize their futures. They would imagine the worst possible outcomes as present sufferings—not as distant, unlikely events. “They sought to realize that even the worst misfortunes can be survived and are not worth fearing.” In their training they practiced various physical disciplines from sexual abstinence and vigorous exercise to the avoidance of tempting foods. Their self-vigilance meant they monitored their thoughts and emotions, “seeking to avoid lust, greed, and ambition in favor of reason.” This contemplation, discipline and vigilance have similarities to both Twelve Step recovery and Christian thought.

Stoics applied the imagery of head and body to God and the universe respectively. The universe was the body, and God’s logos or reason was the mind or head that directed it. Stoic ‘salvation’ was then to seek to align your will with the inherent Reason or Logos of the universe. A person was happy when he did not want things to be other than the way they were. He was to strive to know the system of nature and then cultivate an acceptance of it. He was to search for and discover his place within the natural order; and then consciously seek out the things in life that suited his place in that order. It was best to see this life of service as the ‘natural’ life, a life aligned with the logos of the universe.

Although a Christian prayer a written by Reinhold Neibhur, The Serenity Prayer seems to capture this Stoic alignment with logos of the universe. Not surprisingly, the Serenity Prayer holds a special place in A.A. history and Twelve Step Recovery.

The correspondence noted here between Christianity, Stocism and Twelve Step recovery is a product of the general revelation spoken of in Romans 1:20. “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” Part of that handiwork lies within the system of meditation, self-vigilance and training embodied in the Twelve Steps as a way out of the thralldom of active addiction.

For Christians, there is a biblical concern in how we understand general revelation. The theologian G. C. Berkouwer cautioned that while Romans 1 was “good material” for the confession of general revelation, we must be careful of how we apply it. The knowledge of general revelation should never be isolated from the prevailing theme of Romans 1—the wrath of God. Berkouwer said: “The history of theology parades before us numerous attempts to isolate it from the context.” Perhaps the greatest objection of some Christians with Twelve Step recovery lies at this point. If by applying the general revelation of the Twelve Steps, an individual is able to stop the unmanageability in his or her life because of drug or alcohol abuse, they may be aligned with the Logos of the universe in a broad sense, but they will not have reckoned with the wrath of God for their unmanageable, ungodly behavior. They may be sober, but they are not saved from the just spiritual consequences of their unrighteousness.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “03,” the third one. Enjoy.

08/7/15

The Romans Road of Recovery

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© Guido Nardacci | 123rf.com

The Church ceases to be a spiritual society when it is on the look-out for the development of its own organization. The rehabilitation of the human race on Jesus Christ’s plan means the realization of Jesus Christ in corporate life as well as in individual life.  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, July 12)

I made a public profession of faith in Christ about 1 1/2 years after I first began working as a drug and alcohol counselor. So my personal faith journey has essentially paralleled my experiences as an addictions therapist. In the late 1980s when I read Pass It On, the story of the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and one of its co-founders, Bill Wilson, I was struck by the description of his encounter with the “great beyond.” Bill reported that when he cried out to God in his hospital room, he became aware of a Presence, which seemed like “a veritable sea of living spirit.” He thought it must be the great reality, the God of the Preachers. He felt that God had given him a glimpse of His absolute self. He never again doubted the existence of God. He also never drank again.

At first Bill wasn’t sure what to make of his spiritual experience. He thought he might have been hallucinating. A friend, who was then sober through his own participation in a Christian fellowship movement called the Oxford Group, didn’t know what to think of Bill’s experience. After asking the advice of others, the friend brought Bill a copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. “James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him.” (Pass it On, pp. 120-125) I wondered as I read this, what would have been different if the friend had brought Bill a copy of the Bible instead. That was the beginning of my own journey along the intersecting paths of Scripture and Twelve Step spirituality.

Regularly in the Bible drunkenness is associated literally and metaphorically with the progressive unmanageability of sin and rebellion that ultimately leads to God’s judgment. Within a judgment oracle, Ezekiel (23:25) said of Judah, “you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.” Jeremiah (13:13) said that the Lord will “fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David’s throne, Òthe priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Isaiah is especially fond of these associations with drunkenness. Addressing the irresponsibility of Israel’s leaders, he said: “‘Come,’ they say, ‘let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.’” (Is 56:12) Within a judgment oracle against the earth, Isaiah (24:20) said, “The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; Òits transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.” Egypt will stagger like a drunkard in all its deeds: “And there will be nothing for Egypt that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do.” (Is 19:15).

Proverbs 23:29-35 so aptly pictures the downward spiral of sorrow, strife, and “wounds without cause” associated with drunkenness, that it sounds like one of the personal stories in the A.A. Big Book: “‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.’” And so it is true that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Pr 20:1) There is very little, if any, mention of mind-altering drugs in Scripture. But what is said of drunkenness can be readily applied to drug intoxication. It’s not wise to be led astray by drug intoxication either.

Despite the clear, obvious understanding in Scripture of the progressive unmanageability that comes from alcohol abuse, many members of the self-help groups of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) remain ignorant of the similarities Twelve Step recovery has with what the Bible says about how to live life on life’s terms. Conversely, there are some within Christian circles who almost instinctively recoil from A.A. and N.A. as “unclean” because they permit and at times advocate for their members to formulate a god of their personal understanding; even if that god is a rock, a flagpole, or the fellowship of A.A. or N.A. itself.

Prejudicial wariness on both sides keeps the recovering alcoholic or addict at arms length from the “recovering” sinner who surrenders his or her life to the care of Jesus Christ. I have spent most of my adult life counseling within the Twelve Step recovery model and worshiping within Bible-believing churches, and I have long ago seen how each can learn from the other; how each has similar wisdom to offer us on living life if we are willing to listen.

Twelve Step recovery originated with A.A. and its cofounders readily acknowledged their debt to the Bible and its ministers. In an article published in the AA Grapevine, “After Twenty Five Years,” Bill Wilson said that Sam Shoemaker (an Episcopal minister) was responsible for ten of the Twelve Steps, “the basic ideas on which our recovery program is founded.”

Speaking in 1948 on where A.A. got the ideas for the Twelve Steps, Doctor Bob Smith, the cofounder of A.A. said, “We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book.” (“Dr. Bob’s Last Major Talk,” AA Grapevine). Within that “Good Book,” there is no better exposition on living the Christian life than Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

The book of Romans was the first well-developed theology of the Christian faith and it arguably remains the single most important work of Christian theology ever written. It has had an inestimable influence on the formation of Christian theology. One of the many examples of this lies within a selection of verses from the epistle referred to as “The Romans Road,” which is used to present the way to salvation in Jesus Christ. This “road” covers our need for salvation, God’s plan for salvation, how we obtain salvation, and the results of salvation. Typically, the verses addressing each section of the Romans Road for salvation include the following.

  • Our need for salvation: Romans 3:23: (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God).
  • God’s plan for salvation: Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord).
  • How we obtain salvation: Romans 10:9, 10; (if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved).
  • The results of salvation: Romans 5:1 (Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ).

In a similar manner, we can look for how these verses and others in Romans apply to a lesser route, the path to recovery; the way out of an active addiction to drugs and alcohol. So in imitation of the Romans Road, we can search for the need for recovery, the plan for recovery, how to obtain recovery and the results of recovery.

Let me be clear from the beginning. I am not equating recovery from drug or alcohol addiction (or working the Twelve Steps) with salvation in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is striking how rich the parallels are between God’s call to the Christian life in the book of Romans and the program for recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In addition to seeing how the Romans Road of salvation corresponds to the path of recovery in Romans, we can find insight into recovery concepts such as, “surrender,” the “we” of a recovery program (fellowship), walking the talk, and keeping spirituality simple through love, service and tolerance. So we will have to “step” off that Road periodically and walk along the side trails in Romans where these aspects of Twelve Step recovery crisscross Paul’s discussion of the Christian life.

C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Great Divorce that he did not think that all those who chose wrong spiritual roads would perish. But, he added, their rescue consisted in being put back on the right road. It is my hope that it in reading this series, you will discover how to get from the path of recovery to Augustine’s City of God, since the path of recovery veers off in another direction, away from the City of God. If you already walk along the Romans Road of Christian faith, I pray that by reading what follows, when anyone on the path of recovery asks you for directions to the City of God, you will be better equipped to help them find their way. Shall we begin our stroll along the Romans Road?

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “02,” the second one. Enjoy.