Grace In Addiction: What AA Can Learn From The Church

All of the other excerpts we’ve posted from our new publication, Grace In Addiction, have […]

David Zahl / 7.15.10

All of the other excerpts we’ve posted from our new publication, Grace In Addiction, have dealt with what the church can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous. Of course, it is not a one-way street. So we thought we’d post a portion of the inverse section toward the end of the pamphlet “What AA Can Learn From The Church.” Be sure to order your copy today! 

Far from being completely misinformed about Twelve Step groups, the Christian community does have some legitimate and helpful input to offer people in recovery. To quote The Big Book on this matter: “Not all of us join religious bodies, but most of us favor such memberships… Be quick to see where religious people are right” (pp. 28, 87).

In Twelve Step programs addiction itself can become an idol. People in recovery often become interested in human identity only as it relates to addiction and recovery. Consider the student in early sobriety who was kicked out of one of his college classes for sleeping during a lecture. In his defense, the student told the professor about his recent experience of “rehab” and former drug addiction, how he was seriously involved in Twelve Step groups. Essentially, he was asking the lecturer to pat him on the back for sleeping through his class. How awkward for the poor professor! While most people in recovery soon learn not to manipulate the world into thanking them for their sobriety, the story illustrates a bigger problem that can plague the recovery mindset.

In the world of AA, there is often talk about two kinds of human beings: “alcoholics,” and (normal) “earth people.” And the two conceivably cannot make heads or tails of each other. Alcoholics understand alcoholics, and earth people understand earth people. The alcoholic may find that they have a lot in common with a drug addict, and even a gambling addict, but nothing in common with the those people out there who don’t struggle with the problem of personal powerlessness and the compulsive behavioral meltdown that accompanies it. This view is naïve.

Traditional Christian theology, in contrast, understands the universalities that unite and define all people. The church teaches that addiction displays, in fact, the true nature of what it means to be a human being living in a fallen world. The bridge between the alcoholic and the non-alcoholic is called sin, and faith affirms that the alcoholic has no greater need for God’s grace than the “earth person” does, even if the circumstances in one case are more dire. Both people will die, and both people need love. The same is true for men and women, people of different races, and ages, etc. Is the cancer patient who feels “fine” really any less sick than the depressed person who cannot get out of bed?

Sound Christian teaching about original sin and the bound will makes perfect sense of addictive behavior and is in no way caught off guard by self-destructive behavior. In fact, it is primarily secular humanist schools of thought that have a harder time accounting for powerlessness.

Sobriety should represent the end of being ostracized from society, not the beginning of it. The church can help to facilitate and make sense of the experience of re-entry that every addict in recovery has to undergo. To associate oneself with only one particular expression of sin is to misinterpret the core data.

Most importantly, the church has the story. The old, old story of “Jesus and his glory.” The God of salvation is a revelation, grounded in a very specific set of historical truths that undergird and underline the spiritual realities that the addict has experienced. God is more than a subjective truth – He is an objective reality (that many of us wish to avoid).

Of course, as discussed above, the church does not always do the story justice. Often it puts the cart before the horse. Sometimes it even gives the wrong story, stating that Christianity is about morality rather than forgiveness of immoral people, about good people getting better, not bad people coping with their failure to be good. But when the church gives the right story, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “the friend of sinners” – a story which deeply coheres with the insights of AA – nothing could be more powerful or profound or positive. The spiritual picture painted in Twelve Step recovery comes into amazing focus, and vice versa. The TV show changes from black-and-white to Blu-Ray high-definition color.