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.”


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.”