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I had another conversation that went like this. A man from church tells me of his daughter who got clean in AA. He admires the twelve steps but says that he has a disagreement. AA thinks that alcoholism (or the many other 12-step ailments) is a disease that needs to be managed through meetings and program for the rest of her life. The church thinks it is a sin that needs to be repented of towards a deeper cure in Christ.
I’ve also heard the conversation the other way. Someone in the rooms talks about his addictive disease. He rejects the moralistic teaching of the church and the idea of sin. He has come to believe that the god of his understanding doesn’t judge and pretty much accepts him the way he is.
When the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous spoke of addiction as a disease they were attempting to describe what was not understood in the 1930’s. The popular assumptions of the day were that if someone was a drunk, they were weak and were morally deficient. But this flew in the face of people who were strong and moral in every aspect of their life except in this one area. In their addiction, they were fighting on an unfair playing field.
Most people when drinking alcohol enjoy it until their body tells them to stop. But if someone who is constitutionally an alcoholic drinks, they don’t have the same reaction at all. They have a different physiological reaction much like people allergic to strawberries have a different reaction than the rest of us. The alcoholic develops an intense phenomenon of craving. There is something in their very being that longs and pines for more. Adding to this strange reaction of the body, their mind begins to obsess over it. As a result, they get another drink triggering once more this phenomenon of craving putting them on an endless cycle. This combination of craving of body and obsession of mind is what AA calls disease.
Behavioral addictions are similar though there are some differences. Unlike alcohol which can usually be avoided, sexual ideas can drop into one’s head at any moment. When the addict says “yes” to the idea on some level, it too triggers a strong internal euphoria much like the alcoholic craving. Add to this an obsessive mind (justified by Hugh Hefner’s concept of fantasy and our societies celebration of most things sexual), the only thing that awaits is opportunity and unaccountability.
Most people don’t encounter this craving of body and obsession of mind. Someone with an addiction does. In 12-step programs, the first three steps address this. Step one is the addict’s acknowledgment of this disease made up of craving and obsession and the unmanageability and havoc it has brought. Step two gives hope of sanity coming from a God who is not them. Step three is a commitment of action to stop trusting one’s own instinct and take direction from a higher power and authority.
But what of sin? The twelve step program of AA is not Christian but it does have Christian roots. Christian ideas and principles were not abandoned when the approved material was written. While disease is seen in step one through three, the reality of sin is seen in many of the other steps.
I once asked an Evangelical pastor when do we practice the admonition in James, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Other than a minority of Catholics who go to confession, the church has largely abandoned this.
Nevertheless, in AA and other twelve step groups, this is the high point of step work. Step four instructs the addict to make a through, written inventory of their life – misdeeds, resentments, fears, financial indiscretions, sexual unfaithfulness. In step five, the addict reads this inventory to another person, usually their sponsor. This coming clean process is much more thorough in dealing with one’s personal sins than most churches are where coming clean is often mumbling a brief mental confession to God a few minutes before the bread and wine arrives.
In step six and seven, the inventory is used to identify and pray for the removal of character defects. If there was no moral or sin component, why would one think that one’s actions sprung forth out of character defects? The action of sin springs forth from what I am as a fallen human being and bringing that fallenness to God in prayer is something both 12 step and the church have in common.
Finally, step eight and nine reviews the inventory and character defects to work on a plan to make amends to all that the addict has hurt. Again, the question can be asked if addiction includes no sin or moral component, why this insistence on making amends? After all, if I have a disease, the time and money I stole from the job couldn’t be helped. But twelve step teaches nothing of the sort.
I remember an epiphany when talking to a pastor about the moral wrongness of pornography as it was beginning to emerge on the scene as a new, major addiction. The pastor turned to me and says, “Dave, the people I work with know what they are doing is wrong.” The church can be stuck in this trap of thinking that if we only tell all addicts of substance and behavior that what they are doing is wrong (and even back it up with Bible verses), they will somehow have the strength and stamina to walk away. The lesson of groups such as AA is that it is not that simple. In many, there is a whirlwind of insanity, triggering, and obsession that puts the addict in a trap that she is not able to simply walk out of. Starting with the moral component doesn’t put out this strange fire. It stokes the fire further with the addition of shame.
On the other hand, there are many in 12-sstep that fall into the opposite trap of believing in a god they made up in their head and really approves and likes everything they do. Sin does not exist because this god always agrees with them. Nevertheless, conservative churches and synagogues remind us of a transcendent God who has spoken into the world laws and rules and social orders. A Creator-God implies there is a way things really are that are unalterable in spite of the impulses, longing, and personal narratives of the subjective heart. When we depart from these laws and rules and social orders, we hurt ourselves and others, human flourishing is diminished, and our relationship with God is damaged. This is the very reason we come clean with our sins, address character defects, and make amends to others.
So is addiction a disease or a sin? It is both but AA has shown that addressing the disease first brings the better hope for recovery. The church reminds us not to get lost in our own head and understanding when looking to the Divine.