Things We Don’t Talk About: Jesus and Addiction
We think of sin as the universal human problem, but I’ve been thinking about it this week, and I believe that sin may be actually only an outgrowth of a deeper problem.
I think we might be able to classify the true root of most of our troubles with a more modern word that no one in the Bible would have been familiar with: addiction.
It’s comforting to think of addiction as someone else’s problem. Addiction is the stuff of meth labs and crack pipes.
But as our St. Luke’s Bible study talked together on Wednesday, we agreed that addiction is actually a universal condition.
We’re all addicted to something.
For some it’s alcohol or prescription medication, for others it’s food or sex, for others it’s shopping or video games or gossip or exercise.
So why do I call addiction deeper than sin?
Because when we sin, when we hurt ourselves and God and other people, it’s not because we just decided to get up that day and be evil.
It’s because we’re trying to satisfy a need, often some combination of physical and emotional.
Most of us have multiple addictions, often an outwardly visible addiction and an inward, hidden one that mostly takes place in our relationships.
Maybe everyone can see that we’re addicted to cocaine, but they can’t see we’re addicted to acceptance.
Maybe everyone can see we’re addicted to money, but they can’t see we’re also addicted to conflict.
Maybe the outer addiction is pornography and the inner one is self-sufficiency or pride.
Do you see how these inner hungers are the deeper source of the mistakes we make and the destructive habits we can’t rid ourselves of?
Sin is the burden and central problem of human existence, but it has a deeper root from which we need healing if we are to find joy in God and caring for one another.
That healing is another way of talking about salvation.
We see the terrible, destructive events that are happening around our world and in our own communities and we wonder why they are occurring, but when we start to think about addiction as a major driver of humanity, they start to make more sense.
Addiction of various types is all over the Bible. Consider our terribly sad story this morning from 2 Samuel.
If you don’t know the details behind the episode we get here of Absalom’s death, you might need a little backstory.
Commentator Ralph Klein provides a good summing up of one of the most twisted and tragic tales in the Hebrew Scriptures:
“The story of the conflict between David and his son Absalom takes up 6 chapters (2 Samuel 13-18) and is full of intrigue and moral failings by both David and Absalom. It all started when David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. David would not punish Amnon because he was his firstborn, leading Absalom to avenge his half-sister by killing Amnon himself. After Absalom had fled into exile, a wise woman from Tekoa told David a story that convinced him to bring Absalom back. Upon his return Absalom promised people that he would be a more just and righteous king than David, and after four years of political counter-counseling, he went to Hebron, David’s first capital, and raised an army that forced David to flee Jerusalem and go across the Jordan River to Transjordan. I’ve left out many of the twists and turns in this fascinating story, including Absalom’s public raping of ten of David’s concubines to show who was the real king (2 Samuel 16:20-22).
In 2 Samuel 18, from which the First Lesson quotes nine verses, David is urged by his officers not to participate in the battle against Absalom lest the king be killed and send the whole country into chaos. David went out of his way to urge his three officers, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai to treat Absalom kindly, and all the people heard these orders (v. 5). David’s army, called “the servants of David,” killed twenty thousand from Absalom’s army called Israel (vv. 6-8). Riding a mule, Absalom got his head caught in an oak tree…A witness told Joab what had happened, and Joab scolded the man for failing to kill Absalom. The man rebuked Joab and reminded him of David’s command to protect Absalom. Joab took this rebuke as a waste of time and stuck three spears or daggers into the heart of Absalom (vv. 10-14). Ten armor-bearers of Joab were actually the ones who killed Absalom (v. 15). After burying Absalom unceremoniously, Joab sent a Cushite messenger to tell David what happened, but another messenger outran him and told David about the military victory, but claimed he did not know what had happened to Absalom (vv. 16-30). When the Cushite messenger finally arrived, he told David the bad news, wishing that all of David’s enemies would wind up like Absalom (vv. 31-32).
David showed uncontrollable grief: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son” (v. 33)!
Throughout these six chapters David, Joab, and Absalom are highly flawed characters, and many readers suspect that David’s publicly witnessed admonitions to his commanders not to harm Absalom may have been attempts to cover up his own involvement in Absalom’s death. Still anyone who has ever lost a child can empathize with David’s moving lament.
David should have disciplined Amnon, and Absalom should not have compounded Amnon’s violence by murdering him…Absalom initiated a civil war and himself was guilty of sexual violence. David’s army killed twenty thousand of Absalom’s men, and Joab ignored three warnings not to harm Absalom. Talk about a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional royal administration.”
Violence, power, sex, greed, control—these are the addictions that drive many of us and we see how they tore David’s family apart.
Perhaps there are fewer kingdoms involved and it happens on a smaller scale, but most of us gathered here today have experienced the terrible price of addiction and how destructive it can be.
The reason addiction destroys relationships is because it drives us to put the object of the addiction, whatever it may be, above and of greater value than people, both our loved ones and ourselves.
So how do we deal with this?
How do we confront this problem that we all, to a lesser or greater extent, put our own appetites ahead of our loved ones and the work God has called us to do?
Well, the first thing that goes without saying is that we use the medical and social resources available to us.
If you know that your addiction is starting to negatively affect your quality of life and your relationships, ask for help.
Ask me, ask anyone sitting here today, get online and start Googling—there are so many good, helpful, practical resources out there to start addressing addiction, and we should use them.
12-step programs, therapists, support groups, self-help books—these are important tools that can help us prevent our addictions from taking over our jobs and our free time and taking us out of commission.
But how do we address the deeper roots of the addiction? Because I don’t think AA, as wonderful as it is, can do that.
Jesus tells us a very important truth in our gospel lesson today.
“I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
We’ve heard these words so many times that we tend to gloss over them with an “isn’t that nice?” sort of attitude.
But what Jesus is talking about here is really addiction. He tells us that our addiction will be satisfied when we come to him.
Now what I want to avoid here is a simplistic, pie-in-the-sky type sermon that says, “If you have a drug problem, simply turn your life over to Jesus, and everything will instantly be sunshine and roses.”
None of us is that naïve.
It is not a quick fix of any kind.
Instead it is a truth that takes a lifetime to live into, this journey of lifelong conversion.
And that truth is that God is our deepest hunger and longing, and our addiction problems are a result of trying to fill that hole with other things.
Someone here at St. Thomas lost a sibling to addiction not two weeks ago.
Five years ago this summer, I lost my own sibling to the addictions that had taken over her life.
And I can tell you from that experience, that however angry and destructive my sister Maggie was toward me and the rest of our family, all the substances she used were an attempt to medicate the terrible pain she was in, both physical and mental.
What Jesus is telling us is that we have to get deeper than the surface need that presents as addiction, that inner drive for more stuff or more food or more acceptance or more admiration.
When we are satisfying our addiction with our substance of choice, for that one moment we have outrun the pain and need hidden at the center of our hearts that we can’t bear to confront.
In some ways that is the human quest—to somehow outrun the orphaned and abandoned, weak and broken down part of our inner self that we don’t want to see.
But as we all know, the high is fleeting.
An hour after swiping our credit card, we’re eyeing more sales.
Ten likes on our Facebook post isn’t enough, we have to have twenty, and then fifty, and then a hundred.
Have you ever heard of smokers who start craving another cigarette while they’re currently smoking one?
We’re afraid of pain.
That’s why we run.
But Jesus comes to us today and tells us that we don’t have to be afraid.
Because when we put down the tumbler of scotch or the computer or the mirror and go to that inner place we’ve been trying so desperately to medicate with our addictions, we find that it is not a lonely and desolate wasteland, and we find that we are not alone.
Jesus is there with us, offering his very self to our hurting and hungry souls.
Jesus never runs away from our pain.
He embraces it, welcomes it, takes it into himself and enters death to transform our pain into resurrection.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
I hope this sermon isn’t disappointing to you, because I can’t give you a whole lot of mechanics on how this process of Jesus being the answer to our addictions works.
I can’t give you a step-by-step instruction list of how to transform addiction by means of a life-giving relationship with Jesus.
I can’t even tell you that I’ve done it myself, God knows I’m still driven by my addictions every day.
But what I do have, and what I hope you have or we together can find, is the first step in that mysterious and undefined journey: hope.
I don’t know how Jesus is the bread of life that can satisfy all our hungers, but I do believe that he is.
And that seems to be all he asks of us.
He tells us today, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
So we’ll start there.
Maybe church isn’t so different from AA after all. We’re a group of recovering addicts who get together to tell our stories and support one another.
So I’ll start the meeting: “Hi. My name is Whitney, and I’m an addict.”
But I’ll add to that, “Hi. My name is Whitney. I’m an addict and I believe in Jesus.”
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