3.3 Repentance

Here again the believer has a lot of advantages over the unbeliever. Stuck in an airline lounge for a while, I skim read George Best’s autobiography The Good, The Bad And The Bubbly. In it he chronicles his battles with alcohol, frequently making the point that despite wealth and fame, or perhaps exactly because of them, he had no real motivation to quit the bottle. This lack of motivation is what stops so many alcoholics from quitting. Their fear of the consequences of their last drunken bout may motivate some alcoholics, but only for a limited time. For us, the motivation is not merely selfish- that we wish for a happier family or economic life, etc.- but we have a duty towards God. We recognize that alcoholism is a sin. It is not God’s will. Disease it may be, definable it may be in physical and psychological terms, even understandable as it may be given a person’s path in life...but all the same, it’s a sin. And we love God; for He loves us, loves us and loved us more than we will ever perceive, even throughout the ages of eternity that surely await us. We therefore want to live as He would have us live; we seek to live the Kingdom life right now. We earnestly seek to be like the One who loved us to the end, who laid down His life for us His friends. For the alcoholic believer, this involves quitting alcohol. We want to be like Him, to live and be and perceive as He did and does.

Repenting of alcoholism is vital for the alcoholic. Drunkards will not inherit the Kingdom; so say 1 Cor. 6:10 and Gal. 5:21. Does this mean that no alcoholic who can’t quit will be there? No. On what basis, then, will they be there? Because they are repentant. They have a state of mind that turns back time and again from what they have done. It’s easy to point the finger at alcoholics. Theirs is a sin that is open and goes before them to judgment. But we are all, sadly, habitual sinners. We sin, repent, and do the same again. We despair. We hate the sin. We cling on to Paul’s words in Romans 7:15-25 and take comfort, that this is us. Yet we read further into Romans 8 and see that the spirit of new life in Jesus has set us free from the apparently inevitable law of sin within us. We wonder yet further at our repeated failures. And we cling on to grace and a genuine, totally genuine, hatred of the sin we commit and a fervent desire to overcome. And we look forward with joy to the salvation of the Kingdom. And little by little, we succeed in changing. Now this is what God is asking of the alcoholic brother or sister, as a bare minimum. For those living with alcoholics, you have the same tendency which we all have- to max out on the more public sins of others, within a smug complacency with ourselves whose sins are not so open, and yet just as habitual. Realize your tendency to self-righteousness, write down and analyze your habitual sins. And recognize that your alcoholic family member will be very sensitive to any self-righteous or perceived hypocrisy in you. You want to love them, with a Biblical love, into the better way. Hypocritical condemnation isn’t the way to do this. Point out to the alcoholic that drunkenness is listed along with idolatry, strife, wrath, jealousy, factionism, over eating as a sin that will exclude from the Kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21)- and you too are sometimes factious, wrathful, self-indulgent, jealous, idolatrous, covetous etc. It’s as well to admit this up front, because alcoholics are well known for being penetratingly critical of those around them.

The difference with alcoholism as opposed to occasional drunkenness is that it is a sinful way of life, continually repeated as part of life. But you, too (and many others in the brotherhood) are committing sins which the more you commit them, are on the brink of leading you into a similarly sinful way of life. This is where living with an alcoholic is used by the Lord to inspire a true humility and self-knowledge in the lives of those around him. What’s sinful about alcoholism is not simply that we are ingesting chemicals [ethyl alcohol] in volumes which the Bible proscribes. What’s wrong with it is the lying, the damage to self and others, harm to the body by a selfish habit, the distortion of the image of God, the failure to even try to live up to the wonderful intention God has for us, the studied lack of love to oneself and one’s neighbour. Yet every one of those sins is habitually repeated in the lives of many Christians. This doesn’t justify alcoholism, but I submit this point needs to be conceded to the alcoholic. We’re not ganging up on the alcoholic. We’re all battlers against sin. Nobody is too far from God to be helped. This needs stressing time and again. The Lord Jesus took pleasure in addressing Himself to the very lowest of society in first century Palestine.

The Only Judge

We must not come over to the alcoholic as judges, eagerly waiting to punish. Love must evidently be our motive. And we seek to inspire the life of love in the alcoholic; for what is essentially wrong with alcoholism is not merely breaking commandments but most fundamentally, a lack of love. When facing the woman taken in adultery, the Lord points out to her accusers that they too are sinners, to the point that they cannot condemn her. They leave the scene, one by one. And then the Lord tells her to sin no more (Jn. 8:3-11). He perhaps did this entirely for her benefit rather than theirs. Maybe He sensed her deep feeling of unfairness, injustice, and awareness of the hypocrisy of others. Perhaps she had slept with every one of those self-righteous accusers; or at least, she was aware of their own moral failures. But the Lord didn’t want that to hinder her from repenting. The other point of that incident is that the Lord alone has the power to condemn. He didn’t have to say any words; His self-evident perfection convicted her of her sin. If the family of the alcoholic start condemning, they inevitably run the risk of the alcoholic seething with resentment at their hypocrisy. There needs to be an openness about our own serious failings when counselling the alcoholic. There needs to be real confrontation – with real consequences, if no change is forthcoming. And a deep, prayerful resort to what Alcoholics Anonymous would call ‘a higher power’- known to us as the peerless, matchless example of the human, perfect Jesus. The Lord told the accusing men to let he that was without sin condemn her- and He clearly had in mind Himself, the only One without sin. He was asking them to leave all judgment in the sense of condemnation to Him- and He did not condemn her. He forgave her and exhorted her to sin no more.

Repentance In Practice

I submit that repentance needs to be verbalized- it must be “confessed” (1 Jn. 1:9), which implies a verbal or written statement of the issues. It’s like praying or Bible reading out loud; it makes our minds think not quite so fast. We need to get to grips with all the aspects of our sin. We must face it, in all the ugliness of what we have done. The alcoholic who wants to quit needs to sit down sober, and write out a list of all the people he or she has sinned against, and all the ways and occasions that he or she can remember where alcohol has led them into sin. They should write out how much they have spent on alcohol. And encourage them to carry these jottings with them, in a shirt of trouser pocket, along with a list of all the reasons they want to quit alcohol. And encourage them to read it throughout the day. They’ll be helped in doing this by someone close to them shocking them by showing them the list they have drawn up about themselves, perhaps relating to weaknesses other than alcohol. Especially does the alcoholic need to write at the top of the piece of paper, in large, carefully and slowly written letters: “I am a liar”. This is so crucial to their recovery  [cf. Steps 4-9 in the AA recovery program].

Believing that we have been forgiven is perhaps the greatest challenge to the faith of any of us; and it’s especially hard for the alcoholic believer, whose faith is at low ebb anyway. The frankness of the forgiveness available (Lk. 7:42), the utter purity and totality of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8,9)- these things need to be discussed with the alcoholic. Perhaps try to get over to them the amazing logic of Romans 8- if God justifies us, then nobody can bring anything against us. If so much was achieved by the Lord’s death, how much more by His resurrection and new life, which He wishes to share with us? If God did not spare even His own Son, how much more is He willing to give us literally anything else? Where sin has increased, grace increases the more, and God is yet more glorified (Rom. 5:20). He turns the Valley of Achor, symbol of Israel’s shameful departure from God, into a door of hope, where one day Israel shall sing as in the days when she came up out of Egypt (Hos. 2:14,15). The promise to clean us from all unrighteousness is real and meaningful (1 Jn. 1:9).

Repentance is inspired by what we could loosely call fellowship. It is the example of others that inspires in practice, no matter how finely we grasp the issues that have come between God and ourselves. There are many Christians who have fought and won against alcohol; and many families who can bear testimony in a way which will he helpful to the person who is really and sincerely striving for mastery. And there are many others still fighting the battle. You can get in touch with such by sending an e-mail to christianalcoholics@carelinks.net. We assure you of total, utter confidentiality. A.A. teaches that one access to a power outside of yourself is through meeting with others fighting the same battle, and taking strength from them. And for some, this works. But think of the even greater power which there ought to be in taking strength from the body of Christ! Meaningful fellowship with the alcoholic is required. Notice how the Lord fellowshipped with sinners in order to bring them to Him. Contrary to what we might expect, they didn’t reason that the fact He was willing to share table fellowship with them meant they were OK in His books. His very grace and the insistent, intrusive effect of His personal holiness and gracious acceptance inspired them to change. Sadly many Christian groups have been tainted with the “guilt by association” complex, whereby someone like an alcoholic is not to be associated with lest we be defiled. But this is not the pattern of the Lord’s dealings with us. The wounded man rescued by the Samaritan is so like all of us, stricken by sin and left half dead and naked on the street. Yet the image of the man lying there is very much reminiscent of the alcoholic, stripped and robbed by the ‘robbers’ of social drinking, alcohol advertisements etc. Yet the Samaritan [= Jesus] took him to the inn, and arranged for his care until He returned. The inn is surely the ecclesia; there we find spiritual strengthening and healing of our condition. And this will go on until the Lord returns.

Each member of the body, be they alcoholic or not, contributes to the overall strength and health of the body. No member can say they do not need the others. The body “makes increase of itself” and builds itself up in love, strengthened by the nourishment mediated by the other members (Eph. 4:16). There is therefore strength and power from outside of ourselves within the body of Christ. Tragically, the body of believers is perceived by many alcoholics and their carers to be judgmental, shaming, not understanding etc. Yet the Scriptures are in the end true; there is, yes there really is, strength, power and health to be taken from the body of Christ. This is where if total confidentiality is observed, there is great strength to be found in sharing one’s alcohol-related problems with others within the body. What we all need is a mighty tough rollicking about the sin of gossip, and the sin of being judgmental. These two communal sins of the Christian church stop us from being the power of good, even the cutting edge in this generation, which we so easily could be.

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