THE GOSPEL and Addiction

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Romans 13: 11-14 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

This text of Scripture is directly associated with one of the most famous Christian conversions in history – that of St. Augustine. Augustine was a young man in the 4th century A.D. who was what we might call something of a womanizer. He lived a wild, promiscuous life, partying constantly with friends. By his own confession, he denied himself very little. And, as people frequently still do today, he eventually came to hate himself for that. He had an addiction to sin. He had encountered the teaching of Christianity, it appealed to him, but he could never shift gears in his lifestyle.

One day he was with his friend walking through a garden, lamenting his inability to change from his ways. “O, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow! How can I free myself from these terrible urges within me that drive me to the things that hurt me!” Moping around in despair, Augustine suddenly heard what he thought was the voice of a child. For the record, I’m not exactly sure what Augustine heard that day, but who am I to tell him? He thought the voice was perhaps that of a child playing in the garden next door. The voice said, “Take and read, take and read.” Augustine couldn’t, however, remember any children’s games with words like that. Walking back home he came to a nearby table and found a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans. With the words “Take and read” stuck in his head, he opened the book, and the words he read were those that we read just moments ago (Rom. 13:11-14) – The time is drawing near. Put off your sinful deeds. Be clothed in Christ.

Augustine pointed to that moment as the moment he turned the corner in Christian faith. He had struggled for a long time with the lusts of the flesh, a guilty conscience, and where exactly Christ fit into his life. But it wasn’t until he realized, on that day, that he was robed with Christ’s righteousness, that THAT was the love and excitement and joy and acceptance that he’d been looking for all his life. THAT was the thing which now defined him. It changed his thinking, and eventually he was able to put off the old sinful deeds. While they had lived very different lives, the whole account sounds shockingly similar to Luther’s “righteousness by faith” breakthrough (Rom. 1:17). Luther had commented that when he learned the only acceptance he needed for salvation was that which was gifted to him by Jesus, it was like the gates of heaven flung open before him. True gospel joy lifts the weight of the world, and the guilt of a sinful life, off your shoulders, and into the bloody palms of Christ.

Do we know for sure that Augustine the sex addict grew in his fruits of repentance? Yes. There’s a story that after he was converted, he traveled to a town he hadn’t been to in many years, and a woman came up to him whom he used to have a pretty sexually charged relationship with. She came running on up, and he was polite to her, and he was kind to her, and he was respectful to her, but he was different. She didn’t quite know how to take it. He said goodbye, and it was all so odd to her that as he walked away, it suddenly occurred to her, “Wait a second! Maybe he just mistook me for somebody else. Maybe that’s the reason he was so nice and courteous. What happened?!” So as he walked away, she called to him and said, “Augustine! It is I!” He turned and said, “I know, but it is not I.” 

The gospel had transformed Augustine. But how? It was not merely by willpower or trying harder. Just as you don’t get justified by your own efforts, you don’t grow sanctified by your own efforts either. St. Augustine changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose main work is making real to you/making you aware of your new status by grace. St. Augustine changed because he realized his status as a saint was not his own doing, but his certain righteousness before God was gifted to him by his Savior, Jesus. That’s the part of the gospel, I’ll confess, I never really understood for much of my life. The gospel is not merely Jesus forgiving your sins (although it’s certainly that). But if that’s all it is, then perhaps we’re simply redeemed to a second chance. Perhaps we just get one more swing at the plate? Problem is…we’d screw that one up too. The second part of the gospel, equally essential, is that Jesus gifts to you his righteousness. And that’s who you now are. HE is who you are. That’s what defines you.

Now let’s work this out a little further. In the section we read from Romans, Paul tells Christians to no longer behave in drunkenness and sexual immorality and hatred and jealousy and according to other base desires of the flesh. Notice, however, that he’s simply saying that Christians don’t do that. He’s not motivating Christians not to do that at this point though. Paul really never encourages people to godliness without reminding them of their status that comes from the grace of Jesus. People aren’t primarily motivated to godliness by being told not to do something. Consider the addict for a second. Does an addict want to do the things they’re addicted too? They might derive some pleasure from it, but part of the very definition of addiction is that it’s something they don’t want for themselves, it’s something they’re a slave to. Elsewhere Paul says that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious (Gal. 5:19). This tells us that sin generally isn’t a lack of knowledge. It often, for the Christian, isn’t because he/she wants to do the sinful act. So why do we do these terrible things that we hate? Why would we embark on behavior which we know makes us hate ourselves?

Isn’t at least a significant part of sin due to us trying, in unhealthy ways, to medicate the sadness? Don’t we naturally sense how little we are? Don’t we sense how flawed, broken, weak, and dependent we are? And isn’t that a bit terrifying? Doesn’t that make us feel terribly vulnerable? And wouldn’t we just like to numb the pain?

It’s interesting that in the Bible nakedness is never really just nudity. Nakedness is vulnerability. So how do you erase the feeling of vulnerability that’s driving you to self-medicate. In other words, how do you become motivated to put off the acts of the sinful flesh (“the naughty things that naked humans are inclined to do”)? ANSWER: It can only come when, and to the degree that, you realize that you are robed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. When that becomes your identity, it’ll affect the way you behave both when you’re clothed and when you’re not. You won’t feel the need to escape life if the reality of your life is that you are clothed in the perfection of Jesus. You won’t feel the need to medicate in unhealthy ways if you recognize that the Great Physician has already declared you “well.”

Let me add one final thought for those feeling discouraged that they’re not developing fast enough. Augustine was in that spot once too. Remember, Christian growth is organic (which is why the “fruit-bearing tree” analogy that Jesus gives is so apropos). Organic growth is gradual but definite. When you see a 12-year-old for the first time in a year, you say, “Whoa! Look how much you’ve grown!” But that doesn’t mean he just sprouted up 8 inches before your eyes like the Incredible Hulk. The growth was imperceptible. But, in time, it was undeniable. If your lifestyle doesn’t change in 3 worship services or less, don’t freak out. Give me six months. Every night, say, “Jesus forgive me for trying to find myself in this world. This world is not my righteousness. YOU are my righteousness.” One day at a time. In six months, let’s talk.

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – C.S. Lewis

NOTE: If you are indeed one who struggles with any number of addictions (and all sin is ultimately addiction), in addition to using theology, you should seek out practical behavior modification. The two go hand-in-hand. Pastoral and Clinical counseling work very well together.

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3 thoughts on “THE GOSPEL and Addiction

  1. I just read an online synopsis of the movie ‘Thanks For Sharing’. The movie offers frank discussions and portrayals of people who struggle with various kinds of obsessive and destructive sexual behavior. I applaud Hollywood for making a movie that exposes how the sexualization of our culture negatively affects people. In the movie, Adam (Mark Ruffalo), avoids temptation by not allowing himself to have a television, home access to internet, or a smartphone. And he has walled himself off from another kind of temptation but not having a romantic relationship. Sounds extreme? As Christians, we should realize we are addicted to sin and sometimes need to go to extreme measures to avoid temptation. Thank you for always openly talking about addiction, pornography, and other difficult issues some pastors shy away from.

  2. We are all looking to fill our emotional holes with something. Sadly, the spackle paste is too often something sinful, whether it’s sexual, a mind-altering substance, money, things, food, destructive/codependent relationship, or things that aren’t necessarily sinful in and of themselves but keep us from Christ and relationships that build us up. It takes courage to recognize when we are at our most vulnerable, to recognize our weaknesses, and make those tough and sometimes extreme choices. I’m at that very vulnerable point and am grateful for my pastors and church family more than ever at this time. Being transparent — whether it’s talking openly about the tough issues others shy away from or letting others know when/where you’re weak and vulnerable — is scary from the world’s view. From the view at the cross, there is no other way.

  3. Sara says:

    Interesting. I don’t know much about Augustine, so you’ll have to fill me in later. When Augustine heard the child’s voice saying ‘Take and Read,’ do you think he was:
    a) following signs
    b) following the prompting of the Holy Spirit
    c) being led by the Holy Spirit to the Word so he could be guided into all truth
    d) all of the above?

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