10/13/17

Feuding Ideologies, Part 2

© Michal Bednarek | 123rf.com

In the first paragraph of “Dying To Be Free,” you are introduced to Patrick, a smiling 25 year-old who had just completed a 30-day drug treatment center. Among his possessions was “a talisman he’d been given by the treatment facility: a hardcover fourth edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous bible known as ‘The Big Book.” It pages were full of highlights and Post-It notes. He was said to be a “natural” 12-step convert. Four days later, his father found him dead of an overdose.

As you read about Patrick’s struggles with addiction, you get a picture of how he and his parents tried to help him establish sobriety. There is a reference to his residential treatment stay as a “30-day wonder,” where he received a crash course on the tenets of the 12-steps. “Staff at the center expected addicts to reach a sort of divine moment but gave them few days and few tools to get there.” In Part 1 of this article, I addressed concerns that an underlying ideology of addiction as a strictly biomedical disease contributed to a biased, distorted picture of addiction treatment in the U.S. by the author of “Dying To Be Free.” Here we will look at how he also misrepresents the recovery philosophy and history of A.A.

There is a preponderance of religious or magical rhetoric when describing 12 Step, abstinent-based change in “Dying To Be Free.” Already we’ve noted the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, also called Alcoholics Anonymous, was referred to as a talisman and a “bible.” Patrick was a “natural 12-step convert.” Another reference described the AA Big Book as being the size of a hymnal, with an appeal to faith made in “the rat-a-tat cadence of a door-to-door salesman.” Addicts at a certain treatment center were supposed to “reach a sort of divine moment” in treatment or recovery. Entering the drug treatment system, which is dominated by the principles of abstinence embedded in the 12-Steps, was said to require a “leap of faith.”

In a description of the Grateful Life Treatment Center in northern Kentucky, it was noted that the wall above the desk of the center’s intake supervisor had a “Jesus bumper sticker.” Why add that detail unless you are trying to capture the scene in a particularly religious way? When describing treatment facilities modeling themselves on the 12 Steps, not only were recovering addicts said to be cheap labor, they were said to provide the “evangelism” to shape the curricula of the facilities. A resident of Grateful Life was noted to be “as close to a true believer as the program produces.”

At one point, the author of “Dying To Be Free,” Jason Cherkis, said AA came out “evangelical Christian movements.” More accurately, there is a clear historical connection between a nondenominational Christian movement popular during the 1920s and 1930s called the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous. The two cofounders of A.A., Bill W. and Dr. Bob met as a result of their personal association with the Oxford Group. A.A. approved books, such as Pass It On, Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers and AA Comes of Age freely acknowledge the connection and give further details about it. However, a crucial distinction made by A.A. within its 12 Steps is glossed over by Cherkis and others, namely the spiritual, not religious understanding of God and recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps.

Drawn from the thought of the American psychologist, William James, this distinction between religious and spiritual experience seems to underlie the widespread sense of generic spirituality in American culture today. The Varieties of Religious Experience  (VRE) by James had a fundamental influence on Bill W., the formulation of the Twelve Steps and the spirituality based upon them. In VRE James made a distinction between institutional and personal religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion.

Personal religion/spirituality for his [James’] purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.

Whether their disregard of the spiritual, not religious distinction is intentional or not, Cherkis and others give an incomplete and biased picture of Twelve Step recovery when they fail to note it. The very heart of Twelve Step spirituality is the permissibility of the individual to formulate a personal understanding of their “god.” So what unites members of Twelve Step groups like A.A. is the diversity of religious and spiritual belief permitted—even to accepting a lack of belief. I’ve written several other articles on the similarities and differences between the spirituality of the Twelve Steps and religious spirituality on this website. There are three particular articles that discuss the influences on the spiritual, not religious distinction of Twelve Step recovery: “What Does Religious Mean?”, “Spiritual Not Religious Experience” and “The God of the Preachers.”

Another example of how “Dying To Be Free” misrepresents the recovery philosophy of A.A. is the following. While introducing a discussion of Charles Dederich and the origins of Synanon, Cherkis said Dederich and others took a “hardline” message” from some of Bill W.’s written philosophy. Cherkis wrote: “Those who can’t stick with the program are ‘constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves,’ reads the Big Book. ‘They seem to have been born that way.’” The two selective quotes were from the first paragraph of chapter five, “How It Works,” in Alcoholics Anonymous. Notice how the context of the complete paragraph changes your understanding of what Bill W. said in his “philosophy”:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

As Cherkis began to discuss the history of the expansion of drug treatment facilities in the 1960s, he quoted Nancy Campbell, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as saying: “The history of 12-step came out of white, middle-class, Protestant people who want to be respectable.” She added that it offered community and belonging that was predicated on being normal, respectable and having a stake in mainstream society.  Campbell may be a historian, but she seems to have a distorted view of the early history of 12 Step recovery in A.A.

From the sociological perspective of labeling theory A.A. and other organizations based on their 12 Steps, like N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous), can at least partially be seen as social movements that seek to combat negative images associated with socially deviant drinking or drugging behavior, “in effect denying that their actions make them deviants.” This applies the idea of tertiary deviance, first described by John Kituse in: “Coming Out All Over: Deviants and the Politics of Social Problems.” Kituse noted that some people stigmatized as deviant (here as alcoholics) “rebel against their labels and attempt to reaffirm their self-worth and lost social status.” The above quote and reference to Kituse is found in a standard social science textbook by Clinard and Meier, Sociology of Deviant Behavior.  So part of Campbell’s assessment of 12 Step groups as social movements seeking to offer community and belonging, with a “stake in mainstream society” is accurate. However, the quote attributed to her glosses over the early history of A.A., which was the beginning of the 12 Step movement.

A.A. celebrates the anniversary of its founding on June 10, 1935. That was in the midst of the Depression. Bill W. and his wife Lois were living then in a house owned by her father on Clinton Street in New York City. In September of 1936, Lois’s father died and the house was taken over by the mortgage company, which allowed them to stay on for a small rental. In the midst of the Depression, they didn’t want the house to be empty. While struggling with “their acute poverty,” Bill was almost persuaded to accept a position as a paid alcoholism therapist at Towns Hospital, where he himself had been treated several times. He eventually declined the offer.

Almost two and a half years after the founding of A.A., Bill W. was jobless and Dr. Bob was in danger of losing his house. In 1938, through the charity of John D. Rockefeller Jr., $5,000 was approved for a fund that would pay off Dr. Bob’s mortgage and allow a weekly draw of $30 for each of them. Rockefeller told one of his associates afterwards: “But please don’t ever ask me for any more.” In 1939, as the Depression eased, the mortgage company was able to sell the Clinton Street house and Bill and Lois became homeless. They lived “as vagabonds,” as various places for two years. Bill W. and Lois eventually led a respectable, middle class lifestyle, but that wasn’t what it was like for them in the beginning of A.A.

This history is found in Pass It On, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. In the early days of A.A., Bill W. repeatedly turned down offers to professionalize his work with A.A. This doesn’t entirely sound like a movement trying to gain white, middle class respectability. The Traditions of A.A., formally adopted in July of 1950, articulated this philosophy of non-professionalism and a focus on helping other alcoholics in the fifth, sixth and eighth Traditions.

Tradition Five Reads: “Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Tradition Six reads: “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” Tradition Eight reads: “Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”

Alternative addiction treatment ideologies regularly attack A.A. as “religious,” ignoring or rejecting the spiritual-religious distinction A.A. made within the Twelve Steps from the very beginning. The abstinent-based recovery philosophy embedded in the Twelve Steps seems to be the primary target of these critiques. I see the same tendency in “Dying To Be Free.” The first part of this article addressed the biased portrayal of abstinent-based addiction treatment by Jason Cherkis in “Dying To Be Free.” The third and final part will address how it skimmed over the problems with MAT, specifically Suboxone.

10/10/17

Rejecting God in Addiction

© dontcut | 123rf.com

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.

07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

© Eugene Sergeev | 123rf.com

The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

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.”

11/13/15

From Darkness to Light

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

Douglas Moo said Romans 1:21 was the “missing link” for Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20, where he said those who suppress the truth God reveals about himself in creation have no excuse for their actions. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, if you deny or suppress what creation reveals about God, you will never truly understand it. What’s more, your failure to understand is inexcusable because it should have been quite plain to you.

According to Robert Mounce, we can reasonably expect that knowing God should lead us to honor him as God, since He plainly gives all people the basic requirements for life, regardless of their relationship to him. Their response should be gratitude, “But people choose to ignore God and come up with their own version of reality. By rejecting the knowledge of the true God, religion is born.” Mounce’s sense of religion here  seems to be a revision of Edmund/Edward Tylor’s definition of religion as follows: “the belief in spiritual beings” other than the true God. This turning from the revealed truth of God to a personal interpretation of that revealed truth has been described as “the triumph of gods over God.”

The sense of “God as you understand him” in Twelve Step recovery strikes off in two separate directions when the truth about God in creation is encountered. One is compatible with the Romans Road, and one is not. God as you understand Him is essentially “God as I am willing to accept” or “God as I am able to comprehend” Him. This first sense can be portrayed by the word “god” within a circle representing the person’s understanding. This sense of  “god” becomes a projection or manifestation of a purely human attempt to explain reality.

small god

The alternate sense, and one that is compatible with the Romans Road, is a circle of understanding that is infinitesimally smaller than God Himself. Something that looks like what follows: the representation of our understanding as a circle barely discernable with the “O” of God.

big GodThe distinction between these two “understandings” of God is illustrated in Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Anselm said that even a fool can conceive of the idea of “god” as an absolutely perfect being; a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive. But if this idea exists in our understanding, “then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.” So if someone accepts that God is greater than our ability to imagine Him, He must exist in reality because existing in reality is greater than merely existing in the imagination. “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” Brian Davies and G. R. Evans noted in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works that Anselm believed:

God cannot be thought of simply as a concept people have. He [Anselm] thinks people who deny God’s existence can nevertheless be thought of as having some concept of God, for so he says, they have some idea of what it is whose existence they deny.

If reflecting on the meaning of the word ‘God’ shows that God necessarily exists in reality and not just in the mind as an idea of him, then someone who denies there is a God is ultimately proposing what must necessarily be false. Anselm saw his argument for the existence of God as paving the way for serious reflection on what we mean when we use the word ‘God.’ He also believed his ‘proof’ showed that God was what Christians believed God to be. But according to Romans, if this knowledge doesn’t lead the individual to honor and give thanks to God, it is not saving knowledge of God (Romans 1:16, 21).

So if this knowledge does not lead to reverence and gratitude towards God, then it “falls far short of what is necessary to establish a relationship” with God. In Romans 1:21 Paul points to what will happen with an understanding of God based solely on the knowledge of God revealed in creation—your thinking becomes futile; and your foolish heart becomes darkened. Whatever your initial capacity to reason about God may have been, whatever initial knowledge of creation you might have had, failing to acknowledge God’s hand in it means your thinking about it will ultimately be in vain; futile.

You can understand God to be greater than your ability to imagine Him, but still not have that knowledge lead you to worship Him. It requires the light of the gospel. Knowledge of God that does not lead you to honor and give thanks to Him leads to futile thinking and darkened, foolish hearts. Douglas Moo commented that at the very center of every person where the knowledge of God must be embraced is darkness. If the knowledge of God is to have any positive effects, then only the light of the gospel can penetrate that darkness.

As Paul has already said in verse 1:18 of Romans, the wrath of God is revealed against individuals who suppress the truth of what God has revealed. You need more than just an understanding of God as a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive to have a relationship with “the God of the preachers.” John Calvin said of the individuals Paul described in Romans 1:21, “They quickly choked by their own depravity the seed of right knowledge, before it grew up to ripeness.” Robert Mounce put it this way:

To turn from the light of revelation is to head into darkness. Sin inevitably results in a darkening of some aspect of human existence. In a moral universe it is impossible to turn from the truth of God and not suffer the consequences. Ignorance is the result of a choice. People who do not “know” God are those who have made that choice. Understanding God requires a moral decision, not additional information.

According to the Reformation Study Bible, God will not allow human beings to entirely suppress their sense of God. Even in a fallen world people have a conscience; they have some sense of right and wrong. “When conscience speaks in these terms it speaks with the voice of God.” And I think this is true for the Twelve Steps. By meditating on what ‘God as I understand Him’ means, perhaps someone will have a deeper appreciation of what Christians believe God to be.

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 “04,” the fourth one in the series. Enjoy.

10/23/15

Fatal Consequences with Anger

© Twang | stockfresh.com

© Twang | stockfresh.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09/11/15

Practice What You Preach

© vepar5 | 123rf.com

© vepar5 | 123rf.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08/14/15

The Imprints of His Glory

© szefei | stockfresh.com

© 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

© Guido Nardacci | 123rf.com

© 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.

 

07/31/15

A Common Spiritual Path

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

A self-identification as having no religious affiliation was the big news in a study by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. “The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007.” Those individuals who are religiously unaffiliated generally are less religiously active, but many believe in God and even pray on occasion. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, “Many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”

This spiritual, but not religious group of individuals—those indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, reported as “nothing in particular” in the survey—are the third largest “religious” group in the U.S. behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%) and Catholics (20.8%); Nothing in particulars (15.8%). So there is a large group of Americans who are not atheists or agnostics; nor are they religious. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant percentage of this group were active within 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

For a number of years I have been struck by the fact that there are both religious and nonreligious individuals who are critical of the presumed religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Nonreligious critics see it as too religious; religious ones believe it isn’t religious enough. Ironically, A.A. and other Twelve Step recovery programs modeled after it consistently claim they not religious at all.

Historical, religious influences upon A.A. are readily acknowledged by the organization, as are its nonreligious influences. Somewhere in the mix is the claim that it is a spiritual, but not religious program—a claim that is too often dismissed by its critics without an understanding of its origins and meaning. At the center of this debate are the Twelve Steps themselves, whose treatment of God is the flashpoint for both sides.

A.A. was founded in 1935, in the midst of a full social and cultural retreat away from the influence of Christian religious belief on American life. Doctrine, dogma and creeds were found to be increasingly irrelevant after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the Scopes Trial, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. The trial pitted modernists, who saw Christian religion as consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who believed that evolution was contrary to Scripture and Christian belief and therefore should not be taught in public schools.

In many ways, the issues debated in the Scopes trial now haunt the dispute over A.A. and the Twelve Steps. And it seems these concerns can be articulated within three basic questions. First, is there a place for God in the practice of addiction recovery? Second, is Twelve Step recovery consistent with the Christian religion? Third, should Christians holding to the importance of the Bible as the rule for faith and life participate in Twelve Step recovery programs?

Many individuals have answered the first question with a resounding “No!” and organized intentionally nonreligious support groups such as: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Women for Sobriety. On the other hand, many Christians believe there is a place for God in recovery. But they question if Twelve Step recovery is consistent with Scripture and feel that Christians should be cautious about participating in groups that do not explicitly affirm that Jesus is Lord. So they organized faith-based support groups that reach out to the still-suffering addict and alcoholic from a self consciously Christian perspective. Some of these include: Alcoholics for Christ, Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, Christians in Recovery, and Overcomers Outreach. Then there are the Twelve Step-based groups that answer “yes” to all three questions: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and many more.

My own answers to these three questions would be nuanced. With regards to the first question, is there a place for God in addiction recovery, I would answer with a resounding “Yes”! I’d also reject the charge that such an affirmation makes Twelve Step addiction recovery inherently religious. The supposed religiosity of the Twelve Steps rests upon the premise that any belief in a Supreme, Transcendent Being is inherently religious. A.A., which originated the Twelve Steps, held that belief in some sort of God was normal. The A.A. Big Book said: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Twelve Step recovery believes that a religion takes this fundamental belief in God and the rituals that accompany it, and then institutionalizes them. See “What Does Religious Mean?,” “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience,”  and “The God of the Preachers” for more on these distinctions.

With regard to the second question, is Christianity consistent with the Twelve Steps, I would say it is and it isn’t. There are many parallels between Christianity and Twelve Step recovery. Yet Biblical Christianity makes an explicit claim that Jesus Christ alone is the way to God: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). When Christians hold that these words are infallible, that along with all the remaining words of the Bible they are the very breath of God, then compromising them as A.A. does is considered to be a serious break with orthodox Christian belief.

Lastly, I would say that Bible believing Christians can and should participate in non-Christian Twelve Step groups. But I would add that this participation is not a substitute for their fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Christian faith matures within the context of fellowship with other Christians. Members of A.A. know this is true for alcoholics as well. Recovery matures within the context of fellowship with other recovering alcoholics. Sadly, Christian fellowship alone is often not vibrant enough for addicts and alcoholics to establish and then maintain their abstinence and sobriety. Their recovery can be strengthened within the fellowship of Twelve Step-based groups.

I plan to use the book of Romans as the anchor point for a series of articles that will illustrate how there is a common spiritual path upon which Christians and individuals can travel together—at least for part of their journeys. So there are two primary audiences to whom this series of articles is written: bible-believing Christians who find participation in Twelve Step groups helpful and even necessary for their recovery, and members of Twelve Step groups who desire to grow spiritually within the context of Christian fellowship.

I hope to demonstrate to both groups that they can do so without fear of compromising either their Christian faith or their recovery. Religious critics of A.A. can also gain an understanding of what is meant by its claim to be a spiritual, but not religious program. And perhaps soften their opposition to Christians participating in Twelve Step recovery. There is a richness and depth to the compatibility of Twelve Step recovery and Scripture that proceeds from the deep structure of Scripture.

But the concerns that will be addressed here are not just those encountered by Christians involved in self-help groups based upon the Twelve Steps. Increasingly, Western culture itself has become “spiritual, but not religious” in a way that builds upon the view of religion and spirituality found in the Twelve Steps. I think the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey illustrates this. Americans in particular have historically had diverse opinions on what it means to be “one nation under God” that fits with the idea being spiritual but not religious. Self-defined higher powers and the subjective experience of transcendence articulated in the writings of William James have become a basis for the spirituality of millions of individuals.

The same religious and theological challenges encountered as we journey along the path of recovery through the book of Romans occur repeatedly when discussing the relevance of Christianity to the lives of the millions of spiritual, not religious individuals who sit beside us on planes and in coffee shops; who live in our neighborhoods; who commute to work with us; and who even sit in the church pews beside us on Sunday.

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 “01,” the first one Enjoy.