Where Does Satan Fit In? (Sept-Oct 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Don Umphrey
September – October, 1993

“It looks good, Don, but where does Satan fit into the picture?”

“Nowhere,” I answered inwardly. Outwardly, though, I tried to put on a polite smile and said something like, “That’s an interesting question, and I really hadn’t thought of it.” It was a Sunday night after church, and I was sitting in the living room of Dr. John and Sandy Bell, friends of mine in Dallas. They had just read the first draft of my book manuscript, Twelve Steps to a Closer Walk with God, and I was there to get their feedback.

As I pondered their question, quite honestly it didn’t set too well. Didn’t they know I was there only to receive praise for my writing? It was clear to me that Satan did not have anything to do with the 12-step model. If the father of lies was included, surely I would have already thought of it, wouldn’t I?

I had been brought up, as we often say, “in the church” and graduated from a Christian college. But soon thereafter I was involved in daily drunkenness and quit going to church. I professed to being either an atheist or agnostic because there was no way I could justify my lifestyle with the Word of God. I grew increasingly miserable and was near the end of my rope – and probably my life – in 1973. After a stay in the hospital, I joined a 12-step group. I soon came to see that my “Higher Power” was the God I knew about from the Bible and his Son, Jesus Christ. I returned to church in 1974 and rededicated my life to the Lord.

As I attended both church and the 12-step group over the years, I marveled in the growing realization that the principles helping to keep me sober were straight from the Bible. Usually, the more practical approach taken at the 12-step group made these things easier to understand. For example, there was a strong emphasis on “just don’t pick up a drink today” and on living one day at a time as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:34. Concerning judging one another, people at the group meeting would say, “If you’ve got a finger pointed at someone else, you’ve got three fingers pointing back at yourself.” A similar lesson is taught in Matthew 7:1-5.

Since 12-step groups are “spiritual” in nature but not religious, people leave their respective religious beliefs at the door and usually no one actually quotes Scriptures. This way we focus on our common goal of sobriety and avoid many of the divisive issues that have plagued the church. But with the obvious parallels between the Bible and recovery program principles, I began using them in the Bible classes I taught. People seemed to appreciate this very practical approach to the Bible studies. As a result, I wrote the first draft of the book with the idea that all Christians could benefit from studying the steps and their biblical basis.

Shortly after I sobered up, an old-time lawyer said our 12-step group was like an adjustable wrench – it would fit any size nut. I laughed at the time, but over the years I could see there was a great deal of truth in what he said. The steps written by early members of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s had been adopted by some 200 groups aimed at a wide variety of problems, such as addictions to food, sex, gambling, controlling others, drugs, child abuse, and the list goes on. The only difference in the steps between these groups is the thing they name in the first step over which they are powerless and in the twelfth step as to whom they attempt to carry the message. So, for example, the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” Rather than alcohol, a sex addict would name sex, a drug addict, drugs, etc.

Why would these same 12 steps work for such diverse problems? What was the common link? The answer proved to be the premise for my book: The steps are designed to take one from being self-centered to being God-centered.

This self-centered behavior might manifest itself in any number of ways, including alcoholism, compulsive spending, gossip, etc. Since we are made in the likeness of God, we will know peace and happiness if we are like him. But there are any number of false gods that might take over our lives. When this happens, we are in a crash course with reality. It’s like trying to defy the law of gravity by attempting to fly and landing on your face. The same thing is true for spiritual laws, only the ramifications are eternal. I landed on my face and nearly killed myself when alcohol became my false god. For many people I’ve known, this fall has been fatal.

With many years of sobriety and while teaching both Sunday morning and Wednesday night classes at church, I nearly landed on my face again. This time work became my false god. And it was only when I became quite miserable (i.e. dizzy spells, waking up at night gasping for breath) that it began to dawn on me that I had become a full-blown workaholic. Once again, another manifestation of self-centeredness brought me to my knees. I had thought I was pretty close to the Lord when this occurred.

With the approach to the steps that they take people from self-centered to God-centered, it was obvious that Christians with various kinds of problems could come together in recovery groups at churches. Though their problems might differ, their common malady would be the bondage of self.

This idea of self-centered and God-centered is parallel to the opposing directions of the flesh and the spirit pointed out by the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:16-25; Romans 8:1-7). Further, Paul seems to have had his own experience with personal powerlessness. In Romans 7:18-19 he relates how he wanted to do the right thing but kept returning to the sin he wished to avoid. How bad a problem was it for Paul? He knew his problem was terminal. In Romans 6:24 he said, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer, of course, is in the next verse: Jesus Christ.

I also could see that the prodigal son went through a process that was similar to the 12 steps. He was full of himself when he left home, took the first four steps in a pig pen and journeyed home with the heart of a servant, a part of Step 12.

With this kind of grasp of the biblical basis of the steps, can’t you now understand why John and Sandy’s question about Satan’s role seemed so irrelevant to me? But if that was true, why did I keep on thinking about it in the weeks and months that followed?

In the spring and summer of 1990, I was a Wednesday night speaker at numerous Dallas-area churches on the topic of both my personal experience with alcoholism and the 12 steps. Then that fall, I started Christian recovery groups at two churches and used my unpublished manuscript as the text. Through the speaking engagements and the recovery groups, I believe positive contributions were made in the lives of some people. I know I learned a lot.

First, I was astounded at some churches when approached by a Christian who would say something like this: “I used to have a problem with booze, but I licked it on my own.” This, to me, was nothing less than blasphemy. In years of going to 12-step group meetings, I had heard literally thousands of people say, “It is only through the grace of God that I’ve been sober since…” and the person would name the date. I’d also seen members of 12-step groups point to filthy-looking, homeless drunks and say: “But for the grace of God, there go I.” I wondered, then, how it was possible for Christians not to give God the glory. Didn’t they understand that they could accomplish nothing for good except for the grace of God?

I also ran into some individuals who objected to the disease concept of alcoholism, sex addiction, etc. In their minds, calling alcoholism a disease negates the fact that the Bible calls drunkenness a sin. Further, this conceptualization seems to relieve alcoholics of being responsible for their own actions. Neither of these things is true, and what it boils down to is a misunderstanding of what the word “alcoholic” means. In the minds of some people, an alcoholic is synonymous with a drunk, but this is not the way 12-step programs view diseases such as alcoholism. For example, I haven’t had a drink containing alcohol since November 6, 1973, but I still consider myself an alcoholic. Thus, it is a matter of whether someone is a sober alcoholic or a wet one. Wet alcoholics are committing the sin of drunkenness. Through the grace of God, that is a sin I haven’t committed in some 20 years.

As for the disease, it is defined by the American Medical Association as being mental, physical, and spiritual. And what else is spiritual sickness but sin? Further, alcoholism is viewed as a terminal disease; there is no cure for it, because once you cross the line into alcoholism, you can never go back to “normal” drinking. It is sort of like every pickle was once a cucumber, but no pickle can ever return to being a cucumber. Thankfully, alcoholics can keep their disease in a state of arrest by not picking up the first drink.

I’ll admit that I’ve heard people on television talk about the disease concept and make it sound as if they were not responsible for their own actions. But these people were either not a part of or not working a 12-step program. Take a look at Steps 4, 5, 8, and 9, and you’ll see where the personal responsibility comes in.

Another hang-up between some Christians and 12-step groups is with the “Higher Power” concept and the mention of “God as we understood Him” in Steps 3 and 11. Eddy Ketchersid, minister of the church where I am a member, told me he bristled when he first saw the 12 steps. “I wanted people to understand God as I did, not as they wished to,” Eddy said. “But then I came to understand that where else could God start with people but exactly where they are.” As far as the “Higher Power,” a lot of people entering 12-step groups have strong resentments against organized religion, and they wouldn’t think of visiting a church. Their starting point is simply a realization that there is something in the universe bigger than themselves. Later, they may grow in their understanding of God.

“But,” some people have said, “These 12-step groups keep people from going to church.” This is probably true in some cases. But if, for example, a black homosexual man with AIDS and also addicted to crack cocaine, showed up at your congregation, would he receive the help he needed? Are there a lot of people at your church who would openly share their own brokenness with this person? Would he identify with the members at your church? Would he feel comfortable in your worship services? What if the person was a white welfare grandmother whose arms and body were covered with tattoos and who was on the verge of delirium tremens due to alcohol abuse? I’ll let you answer those questions. I do know there are 12-step groups where these people would identify and feel comfortable.

While it is true that I have seen some people use the 12-step group as a church, the literature in the anonymous group of which I am a member encourages church membership. I have also seen numerous people in the early stages of recovery in a 12-step group who claimed to be agnostics or atheists and who later returned to church. One of them was me.

When I set up the Christian recovery groups at the two congregations in the fall of 1990, I learned that not all Christians fit into a Christian recovery group, as I had originally thought. One of the groups we established that fall included some Christians who had already admitted powerlessness over food, alcohol, and marijuana. Others in that same group were good Christian people who had not been brought to their knees by an addictive behavior. As we covered one step each week, it was clear that the non-addicted Christians did not identify. They could see how the steps might be beneficial for the rest of us, but some of the terminology bothered them, such as the word “insanity” in Step Two. As I thought about it, I could see that if someone could not take Step One, Step Two would be impossible. This lack of identification with the steps caused the addicted individuals in the group to feel self-conscious about sharing their own experiences. By the time we got to Step 12, just a few people were showing up, and the group then disbanded.

A requirement for attendance at the second congregation was that everyone had to take Step One by admitting powerlessness over some substance, behavior or pattern of thinking. At the beginning we had Christians who were powerless over alcohol, food, sex, resentments, and rage. Because we all recognized our powerlessness, we had a common bond. After more than three years, that group still meets every Thursday night. Of course, not all of the current members are the original members, but I can think of three non-believers who first entered the church via the recovery group who were subsequently baptized; one of those went on to head the congregation’s ministry to the homeless. Others attend the group regularly who are members of other religious organizations.

As a result of these experiences, I changed the book to recommend that only those who can take Step One should attend Christian recovery groups. I still believe it is helpful for other Christians to study the steps and their biblical basis, but in a format such as a Bible class, where participants are not required to share first-person experiences. Something about this still bothers me, though. Since anyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34), aren’t we all powerless over sin? If we aren’t, why did Jesus die for us? Is it just that most Christians don’t realize their own powerlessness? If this is true, no wonder we have a hard time understanding the concept of grace.

As you might expect, I was not able to forget John and Sandy’s question about the role of Satan. After all, who else was responsible for sin but Satan? But where did the father of all lies fit? A book in the theology library where I teach pointed me to an eye-opening scripture. The verses come in the midst of a discussion about the king of Babylon, but most theologians say the quotation could not apply to any human being. In this scripture, God talks about Satan and then quotes Satan:

How you are fallen from heaven,
Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
For you have said in your heart:
“I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation,
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

From this brief quotation you can count five times where Satan, originally an angel, was centered on “I will…” rather than God’s will. He was the first one with self-centeredness, with the big “I,” with pride. Satan said he was going to take over for God. As a result, he was kicked out of heaven. He wants to drag us down with him to the place prepared for him and his followers.

I remember people in my 12-step group saying: “There’s something really important you’ve got to remember: There is a God, and you ain’t him.” I originally thought this was a pointless cliché, but it now took on meaning. It means that not only do drunks worship the idol of alcohol, but the more they indulge themselves, the more their egos get out of whack and the more they “play God.” When anyone ignores God’s law and starts “playing God,” he or she is doing exactly what Satan did. And it is the biggest lie in the world.

I could then understand that Satan was the author of the New Age movement with its emphasis on each person being his own god. It was Satan who inspired the Third Reich with its desire to restructure humanity and breed a “god-man” who would rule the world. And we all know who said to Eve, “You will be like God…” (Genesis 3:5).

But I also could bring it much closer to home. When I judge people, it is a form of “playing God” because only God can read their minds to know their motives. When I start thinking I am always right, it is “playing God” because only he is right all the time.

It was Satan who told me the lie that booze would make me sexy and popular. As I followed Satan’s advice, I denied the existence of God. By doing this I was the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong in my life, a law unto myself, thus “playing God.” Rather than sexy and popular, the belief in Satan’s lie turned me into an undesirable, neurotic, slob on the verge of suicide.

Years later, it was Satan who whispered this lie in my ear: “If you do one more article for an academic journal, you will be number one in the U. S. in your research field.” I slavishly followed his advice and found there was no end to the lure of “one more article.” In the process I became a selfish, miserable workaholic, again with thoughts of suicide.

It’s quite clear that Satan wants the destruction of my body, mind, and soul. And he will lure me into believing his lie by appealing to my ego, my pride, by telling me I will be rich, famous, and that I’ll “feel good.”

I still believe my premise about the 12-steps is correct: they are designed to take people from self-centered to God-centered. But thanks to John and Sandy, I now understand the source of this self-centeredness. The premise of the steps may also be summarized in this way: Am I going to follow Satan or Jesus? It gets us back to a pretty basic question, doesn’t it?

What bothers me, though, is that millions of people around us believe Satan’s lies. You can see the results as these people self-destruct, bringing our society down with them. How can we reach these non-believers? And what about my brothers and sisters in Christ who think they can solve their own problems or who don’t understand they are powerless over sin? I wonder who’s whispering what in their ears?
Wineskins Magazine

Don Umphrey attends the Farmers Branch Church of Christ in suburban Dallas. He is an associate professor of communications at Southern Methodist University.

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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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