Lessons From Rock Bottom

By Philip Yancey

In earlier times, some theologians wrote "natural theologies" by first explicating the wonders of nature and then gradually moving toward theism, revelation, and Christian doctrine. If I were writing a natural theology today, I think I would start with recovering alcoholics. It staggers me that psychiatrists, pharmacologists, and scientific reductionists cannot improve on a spiritual program devised by a couple of Christian alcoholics 60 years ago.

Anthropology, original sin, regeneration, sanctification -- the recovery movement contains within it seeds of all these doctrines. As an alcoholic once told me, "I have to publicly declare 'I am an alcoholic' whenever I introduce myself at group. It is a statement of failure, of helplessness, and surrender. Take a room of a dozen or so people, all of whom admit helplessness and failure, and it's pretty easy to see how God then presents himself in that group."

The historian of Alcoholics Anonymous titled his work Not-God because, he said, that stands as the most important hurdle an addicted person must surmount: to acknowledge, deep in the soul, not being God. No mastery of manipulation and control, at which alcoholics excel, can overcome the root problem; rather, the alcoholic must recognize individual helplessness and fall back in the arms of the Higher Power. "First of all, we had to quit playing God," concluded the founders of AA; and then allow God himself to "play God" in the addict's life, which involves daily, even moment-by-moment, surrender.

Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, reached the unshakable conviction, now a canon of twelve-step groups, that an alcoholic must "hit bottom" in order to climb upward. Wilson wrote his fellow strugglers, "How privileged we are to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation goes before resurrection: that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth." The Apostle Paul could not have phrased it better.

The need for humble dependence continues throughout recovery. Although an alcoholic may pray desperately for the condition to go away, very few addicts report sudden, miraculous healing. Most battle temptation every day of their lives, experiencing grace not as a magic potion, rather as a balm whose strength is activated daily by conscious dependence on God.

One alcoholic wrote me,

"I know that I can go out and start drinking today and .. have all the sex I want with all the women I want and live in a state of continued drunkenness for quite some time. But there is a catch. I know firsthand all the misery and guilt that comes along with it. And that is something I want no part of. I have experienced guilt and misery so extreme that I didn't want to live anymore at all--and that, my friend, is why I would rather not have to take advantage of God's generosity in being willing to forgive me once again should I go that route.. .  Plus, in my present life, every now and then I think I do manage to do God's will. And, when I do, then the rewards are so tremendous and satisfying that I get kind of addicted to that closeness to God. There is a common saying in AA: 'Religion is for people who believe in Hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.'"

In correspondence with Bill Wilson, the psychiatrist Carl Jung remarked that it may be no accident that we refer to alcoholic drinks as "spirits." Perhaps, suggested Jung, alcoholics have a greater thirst for the spirit than other people, but it is all too often misdirected.

Early in the AA program, two groups divided over the issue of perfectionism. One, an offshoot of the Oxford Group, insisted on "Four Absolutes" and required its members to commit to a strict Christian creed. The other, led by Bill Wilson, started with a dependence on grace, an acknowledgment that its members would never achieve perfection. Absolutes, said Wilson, either turned alcoholics away or gave them a dangerous feeling of "spiritual inflation." Over time, the perfectionist Oxford Group shriveled up and disappeared; grace-based AA has never stopped growing.

We in the church have as much to learn from people in the recovery movement as we have to offer them. I was struck by one observation from an alcoholic friend of mine. "When I'm late to church, people turn around and stare at me with frowns of disapproval. I get the clear message that I'm not as responsible as they are. When I'm late to AA, the meeting comes to a halt and everyone jumps up to hug and welcome me. They realize that my lateness may be a sign that I almost didn't make it. When I show up, it proves that my desperate need for them won out over my desperate need for alcohol."

Christianity Today OnlineŠ, 7/11/00

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