Addictions: the Cult of Self-Worship

Addiction-Series-The-Heart-of-AddictionThe disease model of addiction has become the prevalent paradigm by which our culture understands the subject. Certainly the influence of genetics and the biological and physiological components of addiction need to be recognized for effective treatment. However, most recovering addicts that I have spoken to have recognized a far deeper issue that needed to be addressed. They remembered days of being out of control; when they reached the point when “the drink (or drug) made the choice” and not them. Yet, when they sobered up for any length of time they recognized the need to take responsibility for their powerless condition and to realize they were not helpless; though they felt out of control, they still had to make choices. While genetics and biology may influence addiction, they cannot an addict make. There is a vast difference between influence and determinism.

God created us with physical needs and desires which when kept within the boundaries of our love and obedience to him can lead to pleasure and joy. However, sinful human nature wants to consume these cravings upon itself and enjoy them without the limits of restraint. These become our idols and we worship them so they will give us what we want. Edward Welch in his helpful book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave writes: “The purpose of all idolatry is to manipulate the idol for our own benefit. This means we don’t want to be ruled by idols. Instead, we want to use them. For example, when Elijah confronted the Baal worshippers on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), the prophets of Baal slashed themselves and did everything they could to manipulate Baal to do their will. Idolaters want nothing above themselves, including their idols. Their fabricated gods are intended to be mere puppet kings, means to an end.”

We do not want to be ruled by God. Every addiction breaks the command “You shall have no other gods before me.” We also do not want to be ruled by our cravings. No one wants to be a sex addict, a gambler, an alcoholic. We just want to be happy and to satisfy our hearts with our “drug of choice” without any consequences. Our selfish hearts want to construct a world in which we can live as we please and have everyone else live for our benefit and under our control. (I think Hitler tried that.)

However, our idols do not cooperate (Welch). Instead of allowing us to manipulate them for our benefit, they begin to control us. Jesus said “No one can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matt.6:24) In the context Jesus was talking about money, but it should be noted that there is a deeper significance here. Jesus implied that we are never the master, but always the slave. Paul said the same thing; “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey; either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” (Rom. 6:16) So much for being in control!

How could sticks and stones enslave Old Testament Israel? How can simple substances or lifeless objects or harmless images enslave us? Certainly they hook some of us who have emotional vulnerabilities or trust issues because of our dysfunctional backgrounds, while others of us are captured biologically or physiologically. All of this is explained by the disease model. However, there is a deeper spiritual struggle that rages in every form of idolatry. First, there is desire to run from the worship of the true God, and run to those gods who will help us cope, give us pleasure, and ask nothing in return (so we think). Second, behind every idol of addiction there is a world of the demonic and we expose ourselves to the power behind “not-the-god.”

Thus we do not struggle in our addictions “against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) This is why we need a power greater than ourselves not only to restore us to sanity (a new mind), but to help us turn our lives and wills over to God (a new heart). This comes through the gospel. Our addictions may have morphed into a disease, but our healing will always begin with the spiritual; with the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Not-the-momma: not-the-god…

solomon-idolatryMany years ago there was a TV program called Dinosaurs; a very funny show about a family of human-like dinosaurs who experienced marriage and child-rearing problems, in-law conflicts, etc. Each episode dealt with one of these issues in a very unique way. The family had two teens and little baby who kept referring to the dad as “not-the-momma,” which humorously indicated the centrality of mom and the irrelevancy of dad at that point in the baby’s life.

When God gave his commandments to Israel, they began with a similar perspective on idolatry (Exodus 20:3). Yahweh was central and all idols were “not-the-god.” This wasn’t ignoring reality; it literally meant that there were no-other-gods. Isaiah 44, 45, 46, repeated a form of the verse “I am the Lord; besides me there is no god.” To my knowledge there is no indication in the whole of Scripture that idolatry was really a competition between the one true God and any other divinity. In fact, Paul actually said the same thing in 1 Corinthians 10 where he acknowledged that idols were nothing. So what was the big deal then about idolatry and why did God seem to be so defensive about it?

Paul continued in 1 Corinthians 10:20, “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.” The danger of idolatry is that there is a spiritual reality behind the idol which robs God of his glory. Thus, according to Paul, what we eat or drink can ultimately become worship issues. (Paul implied a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 when he talked about sex.) This was why Paul had such an expansive view of worship; “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) I think this is so clarifying—whatever I do becomes an altar of sacrifice and praise; a platform for worship. Paul told Timothy “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4, 5) He said a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 10:30.

Giving thanks for our food or drink, or whatever we do, does not make things kosher; just like it does not make wrong actions right. Thanksgiving is not magic; it is worship. Thanksgiving acknowledges God as the Giver as well as expressing our gratitude and obligation to use his gifts properly. This is even true when it comes to our finances. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17, 18). My wealth is a reminder that it is God who provides for me, and it should deepen my dependency on him and not on his gifts. My wealth also provides an opportunity for me to glorify God by my generosity to others.

Just as all of life is an act of worship to the God who has provided for his creation, so all of these gifts can be used and abused when they replace the Giver. This is where we become idolatrous and begin to worship “not-the-god.” This is where we exchange “the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25) This is also where we enter into the world of the demonic and expose ourselves to the power behind “not-the-god.” We must understand this if we are to effectively deal with our addictions… more about this next week. Today, however, whatever you eat or drink or however you use your money, may it be as an intentional act of worship.

The “Greater Jihad”

jihadWhen we hear the word jihad our minds race to the horrific scenes of 9/11 or to the many other acts of terror that have been perpetrated in the name of religion. However, some Muslim scholars have distinguished between the “lesser jihad,” which is the struggle against the enemies of Islam, and the “greater jihad,” which is the inner personal struggle against sin and to fulfill one’s religious duties. I have spoken with my Muslim friends who believe that it is this internal suffering as one struggles with human nature which is the true understanding of jihad (al-jihad fi subil Allah; striving in the way of God).

There is a certain affinity here with our Christian understanding of sanctification, which is the divine process or work in the soul of the believer whereby he/she comes to exhibit the life and character of Jesus Christ. Sanctification is composed of two basic parts which happen in us at the same time: mortification and quickening. Mortification is where we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in “crucifying the old man,” “putting to death the flesh,” “denying ourselves”; various ways of describing the ongoing struggle against our human nature. At the same time, God’s Spirit continues to quicken our souls with new life; where our desire for holiness increases, and where a new course in life is set and promoted. Someone has likened it to the old structures of sin being torn down and the new structures of God gradually erected. Sanctification is a work of God, but we are engaged in the process—and it is a struggle.

I think we have failed to realize what a struggle it is to be a follower of Christ. We tend to define suffering in the Christian life as the result of persecution or the effects of sin and sickness in this world. Rarely do we hear of struggle and suffering as part of the drama of discipleship as we say “no” to our nature’s attachment to this world and “yes” to the narrow gate obedience (Luke 13:24) to God. In fact, we are almost embarrassed to talk of our struggles. We certainly must not be very good Christians if we continue to struggle with sin.

Is it any wonder then that we can’t imagine a God who would give us a sexual ethic that is so pure and exclusive that it often demands suffering in order to live up to it? I can’t have two wives, but I must limit myself to one regardless of what my culture says. We cannot simply live together, enjoying conjugal freedoms like so many in our culture, without first committing ourselves to each other by entering into the covenant of marriage. My marriage must be to a woman and not to another man; the same sex attraction of my human nature does not invalidate a creation mandate and design. Celibacy is the alternative to marriage’s sexual intimacy. And within my marriage, I must be monogamous in my sexual intimacy—this excludes emotional affairs as well as pornographic fantasy.

All of the above is a part of my discipleship and it involves suffering because I must deny what my flesh craves and what my culture views as normative. Yet, it is through suffering that I am driven to a deeper trust in a redemptive God who has a purpose for me, and that purpose cannot be found apart from his sanctifying love. He is shaping me to look like Jesus and that process is going to be a painful one because it is antithetical to my sinful human nature. So let’s talk about our struggles and about our pain because they are a vital part of our discipleship.

“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? My son, do not regard lightly the disciples of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:3-5).

God Moves in a Mysterious Way…

I am planning a last preaching series for my church entitled GOD. I am also redoing a series on the Book of Job for a week of teaching this summer. The combination of the two has brought a couple of ideas together that I need to think about more deeply.

All that we know about God comes to us through his self-revelation. We commonly speak of his general revelation through the observable creation and in the inward “notions” of the supernatural with which most of humanity seems to be possessed and driven to worship something greater than itself. (Romans 1:19, 20) While these evidences are sufficient to render accountable anyone who denies the existence of God, they cannot lead to a true understanding of the true God. This comes only through his more specific or special self-revelation in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 1:1, 2)

Thus God reveals himself as Just, Merciful, Holy, Good, etc. We have a vague understanding of these because we have been created in his image so that we might reflect these same characteristics though in an imperfect way. (Theologians call these characteristics of God “communicable attributes” because we find them resembled in humanity.) We also learn through God’s self-revelation that he is Self-existent, Infinite, Majestic, Immutable, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-present, etc. These characteristic we do not fully grasp or understand because they have no markers within our experience as humans (i.e. incommunicable attributes).

OK, so you know all this. However, do you also recognize that while all of this may be sufficient knowledge, it is not complete knowledge? This knowledge is sufficient to show us our sin and our need of a Savior; sufficient to save us and transform our hearts when mixed with faith; sufficient to form an ever- deepening eternal bond to the Living God which nothing will sever. As incredible as this sufficient knowledge of God is, however, it is still not (nor will it ever be) the complete knowledge of God. “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)

OK, so you know all this as well and it drives you to worship the Triune God. Yet, there is a problem which arises even to the most ardent worshipper—like Job ( and his friends). We tend to take what we know to be true about God (sufficient knowledge) and make it the boundary lines for God’s actions (we think it is complete knowledge). Thus when God acts in such a way to transcend the boundaries we have set for him, we question his character or trivialize his ways.

I remember when I was in Junior High; I went to the library to write a paper on the subject of “Ghosts” in Macbeth and others of Shakespeare’s plays. I read one article in the encyclopedia, wrote the paper, and walked out of the library in less than an hour with the distinct feeling that I knew everything there was to know about the subject! Compare this with the feeling I had when I finished my doctoral dissertation a couple of years ago, defended it before my professors, and actually turned it into a published book. I felt I knew a lot after years of study, but was more keenly aware that there was still so much I did not know about my subject.

Many times God really does move in a mysterious way and we must learn to “judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace.” (William Cowper) Is there anyone of us who has never experienced God jumping the boundaries and acting in ways beyond our figuring out? Perhaps this is what CS Lewis meant when he said that Aslan was good, but not safe. Our proper response before this mysterious undomesticated God should be like Job’s first (and last) response: “Then Job…fell on the ground and worshiped.” (Job 1:20)

And so, let us remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we might do all the words of the law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29) God is his own interpreter, but sometimes he does not make it plain. We must trust him in the darkness by hanging onto what he has revealed to us in the light.

Slaughter in Africa…

mcentafrThis is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. A constant message we hear from the nations is one of apology for not intervening and stopping the horrors there before they turned into genocide. A similar horror is taking place in the Central African Republic that demands the world’s attention before an apology will be necessary there as well. The whole world knows about the missing Malaysian airplane with 239 passengers and crew. Forty-four million dollars have already been spent on the search. There are thousands missing in CAR, and it barely makes the news.

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote the following article last week in in Time Magazine. He recently traveled to the CAR on behalf of the U.S. State Department, along with a Roman Catholic Cardinal and the President of the Islamic Society of North America. The trio was chosen because the religious make-up of CAR is 52 percent evangelicals, 29 percent Catholics and 15 percent Muslims. The following are his comments:

It’s not easy to explain what’s been happening. And, not everyone agrees to any explanation. The best chronology begins with a corrupt and failed central government that has been accused of injustice and incompetence. A rebel group called Seleka swept across the country with brutality and established a new government with a new president. The new president didn’t last long. An anti-balaka militia organized [itself] for protection and retaliation against the Seleka and have been accused of further brutality. A transitional government has been established, but it is poor, weak and often overwhelmed.

We heard stories that break your heart. Thousands killed, often with machetes; widespread rape, destruction of homes, shops and villages. There were 36 mosques in Bangui; now there are seven. One man told us that 13 of his brothers were burned to death the same day. Another told about a hand grenade thrown into a group of people while they prayed. The National Highway was closed by all the unrest, so trucks and supplies can’t access the country. Villagers have fled into the bush out of fear; their villages are empty, and no crops are being planted. One million people have fled the country or are internally displaced. There is a refugee camp at the little airport that swelled to 100,000.

Seeds for planting are not available; some will be imported from Cameroon, but they are also in short supply and giving priority to their own farmers saying that any surplus will be sold to CAR. There is threat of wide-scale famine. Before all this CAR was one of the poorest nations in the world with people living on less that $2 per day. Current shortages are inflating food prices. In Bangui, the capital of CAR, chickens are selling for $12 each. (To make a comparison: If you earn $50,000 a year in the United States, it would cost you over $800 to buy one chicken for your family.)

Some say that this is a religious battle between Christians and Muslims. It is a common assertion in our western press. I can see why they say this, since there are similar lines politically, demographically and religiously. However, the leaders we talked to in CAR insist this is not a religious war. To the contrary, the religious leaders are the loudest most courageous voices against the violence and the strongest promoters of peace.

As we sat in the ambassador’s residence, one of the militia representatives said that the people of CAR have not made God the priority. He said that most important in the Central African Republic is for the people of the nation to turn their hearts and actions to God. His prayer was that human tragedy would turn into spiritual renewal.

I am deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy of our own culture to racism. We can take such swift action against the offensive comments of an NBA team owner made in private, while we show little to no concern for Africans starving, suffering, and being slaughtered in CAR. Wouldn’t it be amazing if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took that 2.5 million he is fining Donald Sterling, added several million more from any other owner or player in the NBA who ever made a racist comment in private, and then sent it to help our brothers and sisters in CAR? That would be an incredible statement! Back to reality- let us pray for CAR, financially help the aid organizations working there, enlighten our elected representatives, and do whatever we can to keep this tragedy on the world stage.