“Recovery” from Sin in the Church

          The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous form a suggestive corpus of material that though not explicitly Christian is largely congruent with biblical faith.  So congruent, I think, that the Twelve Step process can be thought through from a Christian perspective, adapted, and utilized as a salutary process of faith development and spiritual discipline.

          This claim depends, in part, on how one understands addiction itself.  Gerald May makes a case for the universality of addiction.

“I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction.  Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction.  I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being.  The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things.  We are all addicts in every sense of the word.  Addiction is at once an inherent part of our nature and an antagonist of our nature.” (Addiction and Grace, 3-4)

All of us in all our ways experience the reality of addictive dynamics to some degree, according to May.  This certainly accords with the Christian understanding of the universality of sin in our lives.  In fact, the reformed theological tradition calls this universal effect of sin in our lives as “total depravity.”  This ugly sounding phrase is often misunderstood and rejected.  But it expresses a profound truth about us.  Total depravity does not mean each of us are as bad as we could be.  Obviously, we are not.  But total depravity means that all of our attitudes and actions, even our best, most altruistic, and selfless actions, remained tinged and tainted by the prideful self-seeking that lies at the core of the Christian understanding of sin.

Further, Christian faith differentiates two aspects here.  There are sins (in the plural) and sin (in the singular).  The plural are the symptoms, the expressions of the hold the latter, sin (in the singular), has on us.  The former can and does take many and various forms.  The latter, sin as an alien power that has us its death grip, is the core dynamic that leads us to act in sinful ways.  The work of Christ forgives our sins AND frees us from the power of sin.  This is the ground of our hope for growth and maturity in our faith and life.

In addition to the universality of addiction, May describes the dynamics of addiction in a way powerfully congruent with how the Bible describes the power of sin at work in us.  Here’s May’s description:

“Addiction exists whenever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things which are not their true desires.  To define it directly, addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.  Addiction sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest, desire for love and goodness.  We succumb because the energy of our desire becomes attached, nailed to specific behaviors, objects, or people.  Attachment, then, is the process that enslaves desire and creates the state of addiction.” (14)

Now, substitute the word “sin” for “addiction” and you can see that May’s description is as apt for the former as the latter.

“(Sin) exists whenever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things which are not their true desires.  To define it directly, (sin) is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.  (Sin) sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest, desire for love and goodness.  We succumb because the energy of our desire becomes attached, nailed to specific behaviors, objects, or people.  Attachment, then, is the process that enslaves desire and creates the state of (sin).”

In James 1:14-15 we get a very similar description of the process of temptation and sin. “Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.  Note these similarities:

“internally compelled”                             “lured and enticed”
“not their true desires”                            “cravings”
“sidetracks and eclipses. . . attached”       “conceive . . . give birth”
“Attachment. . . enslaves desire. . .                   “gives birth to death”                    and creates the state of addiction”

May would agree with Patrick McCormick who claims that “human sinfulness is a kind of addiction” (Sin as Addiction, 147); as well as his further claim that the dynamics of idolatry and addiction bear profound similarities.  St. Paul would likely agree with both!  Hear his words from Romans 7 as Clarence Jordan renders them in his Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles:

“Actually, then, it isn’t even I who commit the act but the sinful habit to which I’m addicted.” (v.17)

“Way down deep inside of me I appreciate God’s law, but I’m seeing a different ‘law’ at work in my personality – a law which violently wars against my better judgment and takes me prisoner to the sinful addictions of my personality.” (vv.22-23)

All this sets up my claim that the process of recovery as established and refined by AA but now utilized for all kinds of addictions and dysfunctions is worth considering as a process for growth for Christians who are “recovering” from their addiction to sin.  We might well reflect on its possibilities as a “curriculum” for pastoral and educational purposes in the church (both individual and corporate).

Let’s work through each of the Twelve Steps and explore their potential for this purpose.
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
This was Paul experience as well:  I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?” (Rom.7:24, The Message)

This basic Christian confession we call repentance – a recognition that we’re headed the wrong, can’t help ourselves, and must head the opposite direction.
  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Paul recognizes this and acclaims the gracious act of God in Jesus Christ as his only hope:  The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Rom.7:25, The Message)
  1. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
This we would call faith – laying claim to the work of Christ for us, acknowledging and pledging allegiance to him as the one in, with, through, and as, God himself has come to our rescue.
  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
In James 5 we are counseled to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (v.16).  Throughout the New Testament we are exhorted to be “reconciled” to one another.  This process entails an open and honest “moral inventory” that can be dealt with by those we need to reconcile or be reconciled with.

In his book on community, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the importance of James’ call to confession:

“Self-forgiveness can never lead to the break with sin. This can only be accomplished by God’s own judging and pardoning Word. Who can give us the assurance that we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins? God gives us this assurance through one another. The other believer breaks the circle of self-deception. Those who confess their sins in the presence of another Christian know that they are no longer alone with themselves; they experience the presence of God in the reality of the other. As long as I am by myself when I confess my sins, everything remains in the dark; but when I come face to face with another Christian, the sin has to be brought to light. But because the sin must come to light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and another believer, rather than on the last day in the bright light of the final judgment. It is grace that we can confess our sins to one another.  Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment. The other Christian has been given to me so that I may be assured even here and now of the reality of God in judgment and grace. As the acknowledgment of my sins to another believer frees me from the grip of self-deception, so, too, the promise of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by another believer as God’s command and in God’s name. Confession before one another is given to us by God so that we may be assured of divine forgiveness.”
  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Bonhoeffer continues:  “But it is precisely for the sake of this assurance that confession is about admitting concrete sins. People usually justify themselves by making a general acknowledgment of sin. But I experience the complete forlornness and corruption of human nature, insofar as I ever experience it at all, when I see my own specific sins.”
  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  2. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
In C. S. Lewis’ Narnian story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we find a beautiful and biblically informed picture of these truths.  One of the children, Eustace, has turned into a dragon in Narnia (a place where what one is on the inside they become on the outside).  Separated from his companions and increasingly forlorn over his plight, Dragon Eustace meets a great lion in a mountain who commands him to follow him to a garden with a well atop the mountain.  Eustace’s arm hurt him because he had slipped a gold bracelet from the dragon’s lair on his arm before he fell asleep there while he was still human.  In his dragonish state the bracelet cut deeply and painfully into his arm.  But Eustace could do nothing about it.  The fresh water well looked so inviting that Dragon Eustace wanted to get in so that he pain might be soothed.  The lion, Aslan (the Christ figure in these stories), told Eustace he must undress before entering the well.  Eustace tries to scratch off his skin to comply with Aslan’s command – but to no avail.  Each time he scratched a layer off, another appeared, and another, and another.  Finally, Aslan told Eustace he must allow him to undress him.  Eustace tells what happened:

”I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.” “I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund. “Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.”        (Lewis, C. S. (2008-10-29). The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: The Chronicles of Narnia (pp. 108-109). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  3. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Jesus seems to make such a reconciling lifestyle a prerequisite to proper worship.  Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
  1. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
This is how Paul prayers for his churches.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future. God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.” (Eph.1:17-23)

As we join in his prayers for us we practice this eleventh of the Twelve Steps.
  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
This last step rightly recognizes that grace given is grace to be shared.  A renewed relationship with God and transformed life is not a private matter to be treasured in our hearts our own circle.  No, such great grace and mercy are God’s gift to the whole world.  And we who have received it are the ones who will share it with others.
While the Twelve Steps is not in itself a “Christian” process, it is one that by and large  is easily adaptable and remarkably congruent with the growth of faith among Christians. 

The Twelve Traditions of AA, what we might call the ecclesiology or polity of AA, add texture and depth to this process that Christians can learn from.  Let’s look at some of them.

Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity. (Tradition 1)

Unity of the community and the community as context of growth is the first of these traditions.  This is the biblical view as well.  Individuals find both their individuality (i.e, giftedness) and maturity (sharing gifts) in the context of the community of faith.

For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern. (Tradition 2)

Again, a quite biblical concept, a First Commandment affirmation.  Members utilize their gifts in appropriate ways (servanthood) but authority belongs to God.

The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. (Tradition 3)

Similarly, only faith is required for membership in the church.

Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers. (Tradition 5)

As for AA, so also for the church:  the mission is the meaning of the community.

Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers. (Tradition 8)

This, I think, translates into the biblical posture that there is to be no clergy-laity divide in the church.  Service in the church is gift-based.  All gifts are given by the Spirit as he wills to serve the community as a whole.  Different gifts are not differently weighted in value nor distributed on a professional-lay basis.

AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve. (Tradition 9)

Form ought to functional, specific to the local setting of each AA group.  I believe this is also true for the church.  The form a community of faith takes ought to serve the flexibility and effectiveness of their function in their setting.  There is no “set” or prescribed form for a church.

            The other traditions relate directly to specific work of AA and its organizational needs and are not translated to the church and its work.

          Let’s pull the threads of this reflection together.  I have tried to demonstrate that the Twelve Steps of AA form a viable process for growing in faith and that many of the Twelve Traditions situate this growth in a missional community that integrates and energizes both the inward and outward journey.  The Traditions are suggestive of a church community that is non-professional, gift-based, egalitarian, linear-shaped, and evangelistic.  The Twelve Steps call for a relational infrastructure in the church far more supple and profound that found in most churches.  Thus the Twelve Steps/Traditions give us a tested workable process in a form of community that is parabolic of the kind of community God’s people ought to be.  It is thus a useful way to help the church better understand its own best self in form that most people have some awareness/experience of. We ought receive this gift with gratitude.  


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