The Bible affirms that every human being has a sense of what is right or wrong. There are moral absolutes which God has clearly revealed, and which we know, regardless of whether or not we live our lives in obedience to his will. There are no circumstances in which a person can ultimately say, “I didn’t know that was wrong.” We all have a moral compass. It is with this moral compass that the alcoholic does his “searching and fearless” moral inventory in Step Four. We are without excuse and cannot deny culpability for our actions before God. Even in our rebellion, God has seen fit for us to know His will. God’s judgment was to give Adams and Eve what they wanted: knowledge of right and wrong independent of God’s revelation.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis affirmed the reality of the doctrine of objective value, which is the belief that certain attitudes towards the universe and ourselves are really true, and others really false. Lewis referred to this conception of objective truth in all of its forms, as the Tao; a term he borrowed from Chinese thought. Other conceptions of what he calls the Tao in Western thought are: Natural Law, Traditional Morality, and the First Principles of Practical Reason. This doctrine of objective truth is also found in nonWestern thinking.
In Hindu thought, conformity to Rta (righteousness, correctness, and order found in nature) is human conduct that can be called good. The Chinese of course speak of the Tao, which is the greatest thing; the Way in which the universe goes on; the Way in which every person should walk in imitation of the cosmic order, conforming all activity to that great exemplar. The Navajo spiritual/religious concept of hózhó seems to be their conception of the Tao as a spiritually based, balanced lifestyle. Hózhó means to live in beauty; to observe the Navajo philosophy or religion of living and interacting with the world around you so that your life has beauty, balance, calm, and stability. To be out of hózhó is to be “sinful” to a traditional Navajo.
This Tao is not just one among a series of possible systems of value. “It is the sole source of all value judgments.” If rejected, all value is rejected. Lewis said that in the history of the world, there never has been—nor will there be—a radically new judgment of value. The logic here is that if the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real objective value that proceeds from God’s general revelation, then conjugal fidelity, self control in sobriety and other “objective values” are points on God’s moral compass in his special revelation, the Bible. This sense of a moral compass lies at the heart of the downward spiral of sinful, unmanageable behavior specified in the following passage from Romans:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
Once again in Romans 1:28 Paul said: “God gave them up”, using the same Greek verb tense to communicate past completed action as he did in verses 24 and 26. First note the intensification of the repeated judgment by God. Then notice that “impurity, dishonoring their bodies among themselves, dishonorable passions and doing what ought not to be done” are all consequences of failing to acknowledge God (Romans 1:21).
v. 24 God gave them up (in the lusts of their hearts) to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.v. 26 God gave them up to dishonorable passions.v. 28 God gave them up (to a debased mind) to do what ought not to be done.
The passage reiterates the “root and fruit” association of heart (or mind) and behavior evident in verse 24. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Or in this case, they did what ought not to be done. As a result of failing to acknowledge God, and being given over to a debased mind, they were filled with all types of sinful desire. As Robert Mounce said in his commentary on Romans, “When people turn from God, the path leads inevitably downward into degeneracy.”
There is a subtle change in the Greek grammar of the passage that helps to distinguish the wrath of God in giving them up to a debased mind from the sin that came as a result of their debased mind. In essence, the verses say that God gave them up to a debased mind, filling them with unrighteousness, evil, covetousness and malice. As a result, they did what ought not to be done: envy, murder, strife, deceit, and maliciousness. This downward spiral of sin has a root and fruit, heart and behavior pattern: sinful behavior is inescapably influenced by a debased heart and mind.
The unrestrained nature of this downward spiral of sin is illustrated with a further litany of sins from gossiping to ruthlessness. For the most part, they are rarely used terms in Biblical Greek, again intensifying the sense in which it seems that sinful behavior gushes out from a debased heart. The summary here reads like a checklist of character defects for individuals preparing to complete their “searching and fearless moral inventory” in the Fourth Step.
Perhaps the most damning assessment of unrighteous is saved for last. Despite the whirlwind of sin that comes from God giving them up to a debased mind, they still know that these vices are worthy of God’s judgment; they are still capable of recognizing right from wrong. Even in the depths of their depravity, they know their sin and its consequences. What can be known about God is still plain to them (verse 1:19). Yet they encourage others to engage in the same cycle of sin and judgment. They know that by their actions they suppress the truth of God to their eternal damnation; and yet they still encourage others to do the same.
We are not only bent on damning ourselves, but we recruit others to follow in our footsteps. As John Murray said in his commentary on Romans: “Iniquity is most aggravated when it meets with no inhibition from the disapproval of others and where there is collective, undissenting approbation [endorsement].” So the gathering of heavy drinkers to watch a football game and get drunk; the licentiousness of an out-of-control bachelor party; and an opioid addict shooting up a friend for the first time all find their condemnation here.
I’m struck by the strong parallels in this passage of Scripture to the heart attitudes and unmanageable behavior of active addiction. Beginning with verse 18, the wrath of God is revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who deny (suppress) the truth by their unrighteous behavior. The order of the terms ungodliness and unrighteousness has some significance here, as moral decay (alcoholism and addiction) follows from the rejection (denial) of God. In the chapter “We Agnostics” of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. wrote: “When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. . . . Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?”
God has revealed His divinity in creation. Unrighteous (addictive) behavior suppresses this truth and seeks to be like God. Ernest Kurtz wrote that “the fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God.” Every alcoholic’s problem begins with wanting God-like powers, especially the ability to control their drinking. But an alcoholic cannot control their drinking. At some point in their addictive career, they experience a loss of control over thoughts, feelings and behavior when they drink. Eventually they lose control over the act of drinking itself and will deny or minimize their inability to control it.
Craig Nakken, in The Addictive Personality, suggested that much of an addict’s mental obsession resulted from refusing to recognize the loss of control they experience. Denial, suppressing the truth of the addict’s inability to control their drug or alcohol use, is thus a fundamental part of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous saw denial as the fundamental symptom and deep core of alcoholism. It is the initial issue addressed by the First Step: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol [addiction]-that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Recognizing this denial is then an essential part of recovery; failure to do so means that the addict becomes futile in their belief that they can control their drug use. Their foolish hearts are darkened to the reality of addiction. Alcohol or drugs become their God. Narcotics Anonymous simply says: “Isolation and denial of our addiction kept us moving along this downhill path. Any hope of getting better disappeared.”
God gives him what he wants; He gives the addict up to the lust of his heart and to a debased mind; to do what ought not to be done; to pursue the false god of his addiction. He is filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness and malice. He is and does everything noted in verses 1:29-31. This litany of consequences provides a summary of the unmanageability present in the life of the addict and alcoholic. He becomes hopeless and helpless as a result of his rejection of God (ungodliness) and the addictive behavior that results. His only hope is in the God he rejected from the beginning.
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 “05,” the fifth one in the series. Enjoy.