by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 3 March 2023 |
A modern parable:
Two men went to the local church one Sabbath day. The first was an accountant. He had been top of his class at his Adventist university, and had married a good Adventist girl soon after graduation. He held a partnership in a successful accounting firm by his mid-thirties. Because he was talented and well-spoken, his church was pleased when he agreed to teach a Sabbath school class and serve as church treasurer.
The first man was also faithful in paying tithes and offerings, and if any new ministry, repair, or building was needed, he would spearhead the fundraising, and contribute a hefty percent of the project himself. Of course, those financial commitments required long hours at work. He put in a good deal of overtime. The wife and kids complained, but he reminded them, “We have so many blessings, and we can never outgive the Lord.”
He had a brush with death in his forties, although there was no history of heart disease in his family, and he’d been a lifelong vegetarian. The membership sent up many prayers, reminding God of the faithfulness of the church treasurer—how he had invested his talents and dedicated his life to serving the church so faithfully. When the man had recovered enough to return to work and church again, there was much rejoicing.
The church treasurer agreed to have opening prayer the day of his return. “Dear Lord,” he began, ”I thank you for restoring me to health. You know that I’ve always followed our health message. I’ve been a vegetarian, have never smoked, never used alcohol, never gratified myself with the hollow thrill of drugs or getting high. I commit myself today to thanking you by serving you even more. I know that you’ve restored me, and that this means you must have an even greater work for me to do. I will never forget how you’ve rewarded my faithfulness. I will work even harder for your kingdom, and I will never abuse my body with the sins of drugs and alcohol.”
The second man was the husband of one of the church members. He’d promised for weeks to go to church with his family that Sabbath. Their children had a choir performance, and although Friday night was a time when so many promises had been broken, he swore to his family that this Sabbath would be different.
Around 11:20, just as the first man was beginning his testimony and prayer, the second man had awakened from where he’d collapsed drunk on the couch. He washed his face, combed his hair, changed his shirt, and managed to make it through the church lobby. He stumbled into the sanctuary, and the commotion he made finding his pew, caused the church treasurer to raise his eyes and pause. He bowed his head again and finished his prayer, praying silently that his last words would have a powerful impact on the poor brother who had just stumbled in.
“I need help,” the second man whispered to his wife, who had obviously been crying through the morning. “I’ll go to that rehab place your sister found.”
I tell you, that second man spent thirty days in rehab, and lived clean and sober for a year. For a combination of reasons, he again found himself struggling. He missed some meetings, had a relapse and went back to rehab to begin anew. His wife and kids went to Al-Anon and Alateen. They found sponsors and got therapy and tutors they’d needed for struggles they’d had in school.
When their dad returned from his second stint in rehab, they were happy to see him recommitted to his health and their family. They could tell because he respected boundaries and commitments he’d made to them, and most of all because he respected himself and committed to his meetings and sponsor. They knew if for some reason he relapsed again, he had better tools and a clearer knowledge of how to find his way back. They were helped and supported by following their own programs of courage, strength, and hope.
The first man returned home a few months after that church service to find his wife and children had packed most of their things and moved in with relatives. The note on the dining table read, “We never see you. We’ve run out of hope that anything will ever change.”
When he had a second heart attack a year later, the church members prayed again, but amongst themselves they whispered that the church treasurer’s ex-wife should be ashamed of how she’d abandoned him and broken his heart. The man’s doctors, however, told him, “Seriously, if you don’t slow down, the next time will be the end of you.”
I tell you, one man left that sanctuary conscious of the status of his mental, physical, and spiritual health and headed towards a constant awareness of his condition and his need of God. That awareness allowed him to seek new tools and programs to help him recover his family and the person God had always intended him to be.
The other man had the short-term reward of praise and admiration, but lived in the addiction to work, ego, and achievement that compromised his relationships and damaged his health. He missed finding his true value, and what mattered, because he was convinced that hard work could solve any problem.
One man experienced recovery and redemption, while the other man missed out, confident that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Big questions, big pictures
With all due apologies to the parable in Luke 18, the reaction to the recent Adventist Today article by Stephen Ferguson, “Thank God Ellen White Was an Alcoholic,” seemed to beg for a retelling of that story. While Jesus didn’t always sum up his teachings, he does here. In the process of justification, he explained, we only seek help if we see our need.
That awareness or its absence raises the perennial question about sin: What is it, really? Which behaviors, which drinks, which drugs, belongings, and words are sins? How do we keep a comprehensive list when the times keep on changing, and new vices arise?
I’ve adapted the parable, because of all the items on the sin-lists Adventists tend to view addiction as one of the worst, and something from which we are exempt by virtue of our health message. We are Adventists. Adventists don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Let’s face it, Adventism has built an identity hard-wired to what we “don’t do.”
Given that heritage, it’s predictable that an article suggesting even the possibility that Ellen White tasted or consumed alcohol, let alone had a habitual dependency on it, leads to a loud outcry about sin, disrespect. and shame.
And here is where we smack into the same problem as the Pharisee in the parable. We have the same inherent misunderstanding of the nature of sin. While there’s a larger and ongoing field of scientific and psychological study on the systems and mechanics of addiction, there’s much to be discovered about sins and sinfulness, by examining the human experience of addiction.
Some addiction recovery writers use the broader term “dependency” instead of addiction, so their work can apply to the myriad of substances and behaviors to which people form addictions. Since our personal perspective can limit our understanding of the scientific discoveries about mental health and personality disorders, chromosomal and gender variations, and sociological considerations of trauma and poverty, it might help us assess the things we’ve called “sins” by making a comparison. Perhaps the concept of dependency might help us understand the nature of sin.
At the baseline, we all have dependency issues. Humans were created to be dependent. We “live and move and have our being” in relationship to God. This was true at creation, today, and in eternity. What has changed is that we’ve been separated from Whom we were created to depend upon.
Immediately after separating ourselves and declaring our independence in the Garden, we began to age and die. Without God physically near, we forgot who God was. We forgot who we were. Symbols, sabbaths, and sacrifices were given to remind us, but without God’s obvious presence, our walks and talks together, it was easy to believe that these bodies of death were all we amounted to.
It was easy to think we had to find power or be powerful in order to survive. It was difficult to understand that an unseen God provided our needs and knew us as beloved children.
We have filled that dependency, that God-deficit, with so many things over the ages. We’ve fretted that our garden produce was as good as Abel’s lamb, we’ve built towers to heaven, we’ve offered slave girls to bear children in our barrenness, we’ve deceived and punished brothers we felt were favored above us.
The list runs longer still: kings, kingdoms, chemicals. Each example, each item on the list of right and wrong, was used to “find a god,” or “be our god” as we sought to empower ourselves in our sin-separated state.
The hurts and hurting that result are the acts and evidence of sin. And in that state they are all equal. They all proceed from the great divide that broke us apart from God in the garden.
It would stand to reason then, that redemption includes the restoration of what God created us to be. It is an ongoing process. Though we stand immediately reconnected and saved by the life and human trials and death of Jesus, the recovery of our true garden-selves involves more. If we are to recover the creation we’re meant to be, we have to get to know God and know ourselves again.
Was Ellen an exception?
Unless we are claiming that Ellen White isn’t human, that she occupies a sinless state like Jesus, it only stands to reason that her life was also a life of growth, connection and reconnection. It was a life of discovery and uncertainty as all humans experience it. To recoil in horror, to view a possible struggle with alcohol as dirtier or more shameful than a struggle with gossip, worry, or deceit, is telling.
This is tough, I know. We are comfortable calling out alcohol, drugs, sexual behaviors, and unclean foods as sin. It’s harder to confess that our hard work, our cynical and negative outlooks (or the opposite—our toxic positivity), our false-righteousness, and the religious addiction of our pride and commandment-keeping, are also dependencies on something besides God.
It’s easy for us to condemn being habitually drunk or high, if that’s not our struggle. It’s painful to admit that the thrill of superiority when we gossip about someone’s misfortune is our own dependency. Gossip is, after all, our sin-separated soul trying to prop up our missing confidence and identity at the expense of others.
Taking the first step
What might happen if we took a helping hand from the experience of our drunk, high, more-sinned-against-than-sinning brothers and sisters? What would it look like to take the first step, and be willing to look at what blocks us from God and our best selves?
Our disgust and disparagement of addicts and addictions may point to our larger sin problem; admitting it is the first step.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.
For information on substance and other addictions and dependencies, I recommend the following. Many more resources are currently available, and this serves only as a starting place for those interested in knowing more.
1) “Seven Common Questions about 12 Step Recovery,” Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/understanding-a-twelve-step-recovery-program
2) History of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous.
3) Al-Anon Family Groups are a source of courage, strength, and hope for those who love an alcoholic or addict and are impacted by their choices and behaviors. Developed in close conjunction with AA, these programs have helped millions of families.
4) The ongoing scientific discussion of the dynamics of addiction is an important baseline for medical and therapeutic treatment.
Sometimes called “Clean Addictions,” behavioral dependencies are more common in Adventism with its tradition of substance abstinence.
1) An early and leading researcher on work addiction, Dr Bryan Robinson has recently revisited our culture’s favorite addiction in this article for Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2021/03/08/the-invisible-scars-adult-children-of-workaholics-bring-to-their-careers/?sh=14c8afe37319
His essential work on the subject, Chained to the Desk (Third Edition): A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, is available through various booksellers.
2) Relationship addictions and avoidance are another form of “clean” addiction, and millions of Christians find themselves making gods out of a romantic partner, or serving as a controlling god figure to their partners. Pia Mellody is a counselor and therapist with a series of excellent books, including Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love.
3) The issue of codependency is seen by some as the companion dependency to substance addiction, and by others as the underlying dysfunction beneath all addictions. The best-known book on the subject, Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More, is still the most widely read book on this subject.
4) I highly recommend this reflection on religious-addiction by Shawn Brace, in Rocky Mountain Conference of SDA’s Mountain Views. Religious addiction is particularly toxic because it so often leads to religious abuse. This is a helpful viewpoint. https://www.rmcsda.org/god-we-be-addicted-to-religion/