New Wine (Jan – Jun 1995)

By Matt Dabbs

by Matt Condon
January – June, 1995

They told me I had to admit my weakness and ask God to remove my defects of character.

They told me that through prayer and meditation I had to improve my conscious contact with God.

They told me that if I would only turn my life over to the care of God…I would be saved.

No, not from sin… from alcohol!

“They” were the people of Alcoholics Anonymous, a group founded in 1935 by two seemingly incurable alcoholics. Though that first “meeting” didn’t seem especially momentous, it spawned a movement that has grown steadily in size and influence for the past 60 years. Under the broad heading of “the recovery movement” millions today are using AA’s 12 steps and other principles to successfully deal with problems ranging from overeating to sexual compulsions. When I went to AA for help I was surprised to hear language that was decidedly spiritual in nature and a prescription for sobriety that could have come straight from the Bible.

Because of this movement the ancient language of redemption and modern language of recovery have become almost indistinguishable. The Lord’s Prayer is intoned at meetings of alcoholics, addicts, overeaters, and victims of all kinds of abuse. Basic spiritual concepts such as prayer, confession, and faith are being applied successfully to help people stop destructive behaviors and become productive members of society. At the same time, “recovery” language is creeping into the Christian vernacular. Behaviors long considered sins, such as alcohol abuse and overeating are now spoken of as “diseases.” Just about everybody is “dysfunctional” or “co-dependent” and if you don’t think so, you’re “in denial.”

As a Christian, a minister, and a recovering alcoholic, God has worked in my life through AA as well as through the church. A recovering Christian friend of mine once told me, “AA saved my life so Jesus could save my soul!” I believe that statement strikes at the heart of the Christian dilemma. Didn’t Jesus come so we might have life and have it abundantly? Isn’t a relationship with God through Christ sufficient to make my life healthy and full? And isn’t God’s “support group” supposed to be his church? Why is it, then, that so many people, both Christian and non-Christian, have found in these groups what they couldn’t seem to find in the church?

My first trip to an AA meeting was aborted. I had finally admitted a problem, had finally agreed to go “just to listen” yet when I walked into the room, the first person I saw was a member of my church! This was supposed to be Alcoholics Anonymous, and if I was going to admit to the former, I wanted the assurance of the latter! Seattle being a large city, I finally found another meeting (across town) where I saw no familiar faces. As I listened to people talk, I realized that the demands of sobriety sounded remarkably similar to the demands of the gospel! Hadn’t I already “turned my life over” to God? Wasn’t I already seeking to improve “my conscious contact” with him? Didn’t I just need to repent and apply some good, old-fashioned self control? Skeptical as I was, my skepticism wouldn’t let me ignore the fact that months of repentance and attempts at self control hadn’t given me the one thing these people had… sobriety.

Alcoholism has been passed down in my family like an unwanted heirloom. When I was 15, my dad took his last drink and I took my first, completing a bizarre handoff that started with my great grandfather and maybe even earlier. I drank for only two years before I started going to church with some friends and when I became a Christian I was sure that I was through with alcohol. I didn’t know that it wasn’t quite finished with me.

I had been to college, married, and was the youth minister for a large church in Texas when things began to fall apart. It started with a small pain in the middle of the morning that by noon had worked itself into the mother of all pains! The dentist said it was something called “TMJ.” Treatment would be protracted, so in the meantime I received what would be the first of many prescriptions for pain killers.

I know now that the drug prescribed was a powerful new medication that has its chemical roots in the opiate family, of which morphine is the most famous child. All I knew at the time, however, was that two pills replaced that vast ocean of pain with a floating euphoria that made everything right with the world. I’ve never known exactly when I crossed the line between use and abuse, but sometime in the next couple of months it happened. The pain went away, the need for the drug didn’t, and I was hooked.

The drug addict and alcoholic may be enslaved to different drugs, but everything else is essentially the same. Almost by instinct, when I couldn’t get “legitimate” prescriptions often enough, I went back to the only other drug I’d ever abused… alcohol. This was a little harder to justify to myself. Driving across town to purchase it, hiding it and sneaking around to drink it were not actions I could easily rationalize. Rather than admit a problem, however, it was much easier to chalk it up to a teetotalling religious tradition that “just wouldn’t understand” one of their ministers having a little drink!

On the surface, I held things together for a surprising length of time. Four years later I was working for a church in the Northwest, first as the youth then as the pulpit minister. By this time I had conceded (to myself, at least) that there might be a problem and had “quit” many times. I can’t tell you how often I had flushed pills down the toilet or thrown unopened beer cans away, desperately wanting this to be the last bout of repentance. A day (or a week or a month) later, I would find myself with another bottle of pills or booze, feeling totally defeated and hopelessly trapped in what seemed like an endless cycle of despair.

Finally, I could stand it no longer. When I went to the elders to offer my resignation, however, they wouldn’t accept it. Instead, they called the congregation together on a Sunday night and said, in essence, “Matt has something to share with us.” What came next was the longest 10 minutes of my life followed by the most extraordinary example of Christianity in action I have ever witnessed. For several moments after I finished we all seemed frozen in time, fixed in our seats by the ultimate pregnant pause. No one jumped up to lead a song or a prayer. We simply sat as if waiting for something. Then, one of the most timid men in the congregation made his way to the front, took the microphone with trembling hands and looked at me with tear-filled eyes. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what came flooding forth in an amazing burst of abbreviated eloquence was a pledge of support and a promise to do anything in his power to help me see this through. One by one, for over an hour, people came to the front and spoke similar sentiments while I listened, overwhelmed by this demonstration of understanding and love. The next day I left for 30 days of in-patient treatment, still awash in the glow of the previous day’s experience.

That Sunday evening and the subsequent flood of mail that came to me at the treatment center left no doubt as to the congregation’s desire to help. Aspiration and ability, we all soon found out, were not inseparably linked. One very real dilemma was that, though my brothers and sisters knew very well how to love, they had no idea how to help! That was where AA and the 12 steps came in.

For almost four years now, I have been both a member of the church and Alcoholics Anonymous. Why both? There are several reason. First, though the love and support of Christian friends was an integral part of my recovery, what I also needed was rapport! I needed people who could not only sympathize but empathize because they had been where I’d been, felt as I’d felt, and who could, by virtue of their success, give me hope that things would get better. I also found a level of honesty in AA that was lacking in the church. I don’t mean to imply any dishonesty in my brethren, but it is sadly true that the depth of personal sharing in the average Bible class, small group or worship assembly isn’t even close to what you’ll find at most AA meetings. Another reason for my dual membership has to do with affirmation. Every sober day is a victory and when I stand up at a June meeting and say, “I’ve made it a year” or “two” or “three” there is cheering and applauding and genuine joy for the miracle of me! I need that! I thrive on that and it reminds me that this precious gift of sobriety isn’t worth throwing away for a drunken spree or for “one drink to settle my nerves.”

Some have wondered if Christians shouldn’t attend more Christ-centered groups instead of an overtly pluralistic group like AA. Though I have participated in and am supportive of Christian recovery groups, I have found a unique ministry among AA’s pluralism. Many desperately addicted people seeking help are ready to accept that there must be some undefined “higher power” out there, and most are even willing to “turn their lives over” to the care of such a One. They are definitely not willing, especially at first, to join forces with “organized religion” or even to further clarify the nature of their new deity. What I have found, however, is that having become open to the spiritual realm and the reality of a “god” that is helping them day by day, many people are very open to learning what others believe about their own higher power. At times I have felt very much like Paul at Athens defining the “Unknown God” for the Greeks as I helped someone understand this “higher power” they were already worshipping.

How are Christians to respond to such a sweeping and popular movement? Dale Ryan, executive director of the National Association of Christian Recovery warns, “The worst possible responses would be either to caricature the movement and throw it out as unnecessary, or to embrace it without discretion” (Dale Ryan, “Addicts in the Pew,” Christianity Today, July 1991. P. 20). The middle ground, he suggests, is to learn from it. I believe that the recovery movement calls us back to what we were meant to be as the body of Christ. It challenges us by example to refocus on the essence of Christian “koinonia” and to become honestly and intimately involved with each other’s lives. It reminds us that sin has impacted every one of us in some way and to that extent we all have something to “recover” from.

Even as we learn, however, let us realize that the recovery movement has its roots in basic biblical principles! At first I wondered how my fellow alcoholics were experiencing such amazing transformations while giving the credit to some nebulous “power” that wasn’t Jesus. The more I worked the 12 steps, however, the more clear it became that these steps were simply a collection of Christian disciplines—confession, forgiveness, prayer—and that God honors these disciplines. Just as a good crop is given even to a non-Christian farmer who aligns himself with God’s laws of nature, so a recovering person reaps the benefits of practicing honesty instead of deceit, pardon instead of reprisal, and restraint rather than recklessness. In view of this, I see the success of the recovery movement as a reaffirmation of the truth of the Bible and the reality of the spiritual principles it contains.

As successful and effective as the recovery movement has been, it is not God’s instrument to save mankind. It does not carry the message of salvation through Christ, nor does it bring people to a relationship with the living God. The church needs to learn from support groups and recognize the healing that they provide, while at the same time carrying the message that the ultimate healing, the healing of the soul, is something only Jesus can supply.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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