Redeemed Rebels: A Biblical Approach to Addiction, Part 1
Sometimes we can catch a glimpse of God’s majesty in His providence in such a way that we are left bewildered and in awe all at once. These are sweet moments. That is certainly the case concerning my redemption out of the headlong plunge into depravity and my slavery to drug and alcohol addiction. After my addiction, my wife Candi and I used to ask God and ourselves these questions:
Why did you allow me to go that way?
Why didn’t you do something to stop me?
Why did I lose so much of myself, destroy so much, and come close to losing my life so many times?
About a decade after my descent into darkness and my consequent redemption, we caught that glimpse of His sweet providence. I found myself as the chaplain at one of Arizona’s oldest drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, standing daily in front of a room filled with people undergoing detox, lives shattered, hopeless addicts. Every day I looked across the room into tear-filled eyes. I recognized those eyes. Those were my eyes.
I watched God bless the proclamation of His gospel and after four years simply lost count as He redeemed people from their slavery and brought them to life. This ultimately led to the formation of what is now called, Apologia Church. Apologia Church was a church plant that grew up because God was saving so many addicts; we needed a place and a community for them. If you could have looked upon my bony frame and pale lifeless face in the midst of my addiction and told me that in ten years I would be an expert guest on The History Channel being interviewed about the Christian approach to drug and alcohol addiction, I more than likely would have laughed you out of the after-party I was getting high at, dropping two or three more tabs of Ecstasy as I showed you the door. I loved my sin. I loved being a rebel. There’s a problem, though: God loves to make Himself famous through redeeming the rebels.
Hello, my name is Jeff, and I am a Redeemed Rebel.
If you are familiar at all with one of the most popular approaches to drug and alcohol addiction (Alcoholics Anonymous and its variants), you know that I chose those words very carefully. That statement is loaded with content that is not taught or believed by the drug and alcohol treatment industry. More to the point, the approach to drug and alcohol addiction pursued by a vast number of Christian churches in our culture today doesn’t even resemble the Biblical model, definitions, or path to healing and peace. We have handed our certificates of authority to the secular world and washed our hands of our responsibility to take dominion over the field of drug and alcohol addiction for the glory of Christ. The problem at bottom is rebellion. The way to healing is redemption in Christ—the whole problem and the whole person.
Of course, this does not deny the chemical and toxicity factors involved in drug and alcohol addiction. As Christians, we can affirm the deeper issues involved in addiction (sin and idolatry) as well as addressing the physical components tangled together with them. We can (and should) engage this issue in a holistic fashion because we have a worldview that comports with reality: human beings are not simply bags of biological stuff dancing out their DNA. Treatment methods practiced by the secular community are not monolithic. However, there is a consistent trend to devalue the human being to the same level as a lab rat. The disease model of addiction is pervasive and offers no new identity, does not address the real issues that lead to addiction, and focuses more on coping skills that mask the core issues leading to addiction in the first place.
Our “checking out” on this issue has led to a broken system that does not point people to the real nature of their problem, nor to peace. The result is that we have inadvertently created an entire industry that is a revolving door, never addressing the core issue, and in general amounts to nothing more than a switching from one idol to another by way of the long-term detoxification, intensive outpatient protocols, and underlying worldview propagated in the “addict” community.
I entered into the addiction industry as a chaplain, as a Christian. I had a history of very serious drug and alcohol abuse. At the height of my addiction you could have followed me as I walked down the Las Vegas Strip, at six in the morning, after two days of partying, drinking from the hotel’s complimentary ice-bucket that I had the bartender fill with Long Island Ice Tea (don’t worry; I had a straw) after a binge of copious amounts of Ecstasy, Cocaine, and opiates. You also could have been a spectator of me floating down an Arizona canal at sunrise, nearly drowning, when I blacked out shortly after choking down four tabs of Ecstasy chased by a whole bottle of rum. There was a trail of blood for nearly a mile from all of the slices into my body from the random sharp objects and broken bottles in that canal. Suffice it to say, I was lost in addiction and I felt like there was no escape.
So how did I get free? I experienced redemption in Jesus Christ. I am not ashamed to admit that the experience of new life in Christ is entirely supernatural and a God-thing. I almost died one night. Most users of Ecstasy are smart enough to do their research and know that Ecstasy users are in danger of overheating. I dropped six tabs of Ecstasy that night, followed by at least a bottle and a half of vodka. Everything seemed like the normal drug-infused party until all at once I realized my heart was running as if someone had their foot on the gas-pedal and would not let it up. I looked at my arms and was shocked to see that they were as red as blood and my temperature was so high that I could’ve melted a frozen stick of butter in a matter of seconds just by holding it. I ran to the freezer and grabbed a bag of ice, turned the air conditioning down as low as it could go, and dumped the ice in a bath of cold water. It didn’t help. I melted the ice and turned a cold bath into a warm one.
At this point of my life, I had what I now believe was a false profession of faith. I knew about Christ, knew the Bible, and had even attended Bible College. I sat on the bed, realizing what was happening, and began to talk to God. I told Him I knew what was happening. I knew that my addiction was a display of my sin against Him. I asked Him not to kill me. I told Him that I knew that He had every right to kill me at that moment and that I deserved it for rebelling against Him. I pleaded with Him not to take my life, yet. I begged Him to crush my life. I pleaded with Him to destroy everything in my life and to help me. All at once, my heart stopped pounding, my temperature went down, and I was as sober as a fundamentalist Baptist preacher on Sunday morning.
About two weeks after this incident, God answered my prayer. He was quite good at it. In a single day, before noon, my water was shut off, my electric was cut, my car was dragged out of my parking space, my phone was shut off, the company I was working for put a stop payment on my check, and there was an eviction notice on my door. I told you He was good at it.
The music had stopped. No more voices. No more lights. There was only silence. There I was, sitting in eerie quiet, looking into the face of my wife, my one-year-old son, and a brand-new baby girl. This was my doing. I did this.
All I had was God’s Word and this inescapable moment of reckoning. I began reading the Bible again. I saw Jesus’ promise of eternal life and forgiveness. Only this time, I saw Christ calling people to repent. His call to come and die to self leaped off the page and cut my heart. I began to wonder if I had ever actually turned from my sin and trusted in Christ. The truth of my wretched condition was so real I felt like I was covered in a coat of sin made of cement.
My problem was not the drugs or alcohol. I could see that. This was my sin against God. I ran to my closet and closed the door. I didn’t even mention the drugs or alcohol. I told God that I knew that my sin was the problem. I told Him I wasn’t good and that I had nothing to offer Him. My body was trembling like a leaf and I was overwhelmed with grief—grief over my sin against such a beautiful and merciful God. I don’t remember every detail of what I said to God that day. I do remember pleading with Him to save me from my sin and I told Him to rule my life. That’s where it happened. That’s where my heart changed.
I immediately got to church. I had an insatiable hunger for intimacy and obedience toward God. I surrounded myself with Christians who loved God and loved me. I filled my life with God’s Word. Even my driving time was time for worship. My stereo played sermons about God’s attributes and salvation. My heart was full and I was experiencing life with God in a way I did not expect nor did I think was possible. I did not attend any specialized group detached from the church. I was not perfect, either. A war had begun within me. I surrounded myself with Christians who kept me accountable, loved me, and spoke into my life. My wife was probably God’s sharpest tool in His arsenal to shape me and encourage me. I couldn’t think of my past in any other way than rebellion and I couldn’t imagine my future being anything other than knowing and enjoying God.
Many years later, while in ministry and working as a pastor, I received a phone call from a friend asking me to come and speak for a chapel service at the hospital where he worked. I had never been involved in specific ministry to drug rehabs, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to preach the gospel to a captive audience. I went that night.
Right in the middle of preaching, I experience that moment of bewilderment and awe that I mentioned to you. I realized that I was looking into the eyes of myself. In an instant, the vision of God’s sovereign hand and providence over my life was right before me in high definition. I felt the presence of God in that small room, spilling over with very broken people, in a way that I cannot explain. God had pulled me out of darkness and allowed me to drink it in for this very moment. He had redeemed a rebel. And He was about to redeem some more.
I began to preach. I reached for Romans 1 and told them the story of the fall. All of us are made in the image of God and we were made to glorify Him and to worship Him. But we have chosen darkness over light and rebelled against the infinite God of love and holiness. The Apostle Paul wrote:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. 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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18–23 ESV)
We are all inescapably bound to a relationship with God. We cannot help being what God has made us to be. As a result of abandoning God and rebelling against Him, we have not decided not to worship. Now we will worship anything. Our default position, as fallen people in God’s world, is idolatry. We will switch God for idols. John Calvin said it well: “The human heart is an idol factory … Every one of us from our mother’s womb is an expert in inventing idols.”
We are created for worship. Because of our estrangement from our Creator, due to our rebellion, we are in a lifelong pursuit of the blessings we can only have in and through Him. God is a community as Trinity. Therefore, as His image, we will long for fellowship and intimacy. Only now, in a fallen condition, we will suffer with loneliness and we will switch God, the only true source of deep and lasting fellowship, for false intimacy and fellowship. The reality of our sin and guilt before God is manifest. Rather than running to the light where there is provision for eternal cleansing and peace in Christ, we run to the bottle to wash our consciences and to forget. Guilty people have been known to drink a lot. However, guilt and shame can swim very well. In God’s presence is fullness of joy and in His right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11). As His image, we will have an undeniable and necessary pursuit of pleasure and joy; but now, we will exchange God and true pleasure in Him for a fictitious, pseudo, fleeting pleasure whether chemical, physical, or mechanical. This is our plight as fallen people: the dark exchange. Paul said it:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24–25 ESV)
My contention, as a pastor and a Christian is simple: we do not have a drug, alcohol, sex, or gambling problem. We have a worship problem. Addiction is idolatry. We glory in, and sacrifice to, something other than God. It’s in our nature as fallen people. We don’t want God. We’re at war with Him. So we try to function as His image, in His world, gaining from anything else what we can only have with Him. This isn’t just a problem for the unbeliever. Even as Christians, bought by the blood of Christ, we have a work of sanctification happening as God conforms us to the Image of His Son. We are to “put to death” all the sin that is ultimately idolatry in our lives (Colossians 3:5). The Apostle John gave a final exhortation to a body of Christians in the first century. He said:
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21 ESV)
Before this problem is ever chemical, it is spiritual. This is a worship problem. But there is hope. Our message to the world is that there is real hope, a new identity, cleansing from our guilt and shame, freedom from loneliness, true peace, pleasure, and joy, gladness over depression, and an internal source of power that will be victorious over our broken condition.
Addiction is idolatry. We are idolaters because of our sin before God. Our freedom from this condition starts with eternal life and redemption in Christ. The Lord Jesus came to redeem rebels. He did not have a separate message for addicts. He had a single message of reconciliation and peace with God through Him. He calls us to repent of our sin (not simply addiction) and to turn to Him in faith, being joined together with Him in His death and resurrection. We will experience new life and the promise of new birth, a new identity, and the very direct power of God Himself causing us to desire Him and to flee from our idols. God says:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV)
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