Words have tremendous power.
They define and describe. Illumine and awaken. Point, challenge, suggest.
Words connect us. They enable love. They carry thoughts and arouse passions.
Words truly matter. They reflect assumptions and values. They betray prejudices.
In an ever-shifting culture that is easily offended, one cannot be too careful when using words. Many long-used words have now been ruled rude and insensitive. Others, hateful and criminal.
Language is fluid. Changing social conditions impact word meanings and connotations demanding reevaluation of their appropriateness.
Some words out-live their shelf life and need to be decommissioned.
There are other words, however, that must be vigilantly protected. They are sacred.
One such word is “sin.”
We need it.
We can’t understand reality without it.
We can’t speak the truth about ourselves or the world without sin.
Whether it’s a discussion about petty theft or child abuse, vandalism or corporate fraud, bullying or international terrorism.
Whether it’s racism or misogyny, exploiting the poor or harming the environment, overeating or cheating on one’s taxes, viewing pornography or gossiping, gambling or gaming.
These actions are not fully comprehensible without bringing sin into the conversation.
I have only to look in the mirror as I question human impropriety and malice. From my frequent less-than-noble ideations about fellow motorists to my often repeated less-than-enthusiastic reactions to my dear wife when she asks for a helping hand, to my regular less-than-generous responses to road-side beggars. I know experientially all too well the ugliness of selfishness, arrogance, stinginess, and judgmentalness.
Psychology, sociology, and biology can help with understanding these failures of human conduct, but their explanations are only partial and incomplete without theology.
We need sin for a clearer picture.
Alcoholism is no exception.
Few disagree that alcoholism is a disease.
But alcoholism is also a sin. A sin which results from being a sinner.
Scripture teaches that through Adam’s Fall, the human race has inherited a sinful disposition, one that makes us morally disabled. We have passions and longings that have become perverted and which cause us to live in self-absorbed, self-serving ways.
From this sinful constitution proceeds individual acts of sin. Jesus put it like this, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean.’” (Matthew 15:19).
Let me be clear: Saying someone is a sinner is not saying someone is bad. Sin is a descriptive term. Sin is a statement about the nature of human beings.
Understanding alcoholism as sin (in addition to disease) opens incredible new possibilities for healing and freedom.
Strict classification of alcoholism as disease is both untruthful and harmful.
I am not arguing that alcoholics don’t need medical intervention. Many do.
But alcoholics also need God.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ.
As sinners, alcoholics need divine forgiveness and cleansing. As sinners, they need supernatural strength to resist their destructive compulsions and holy grace to do what is right.
Medication assisted treatment (MAT) can be of great value, but it is not sufficient.
Alcoholism is more than disease. It is sin.
Alcoholics are sinners who need reconciliation from the alienation sin brings. They need hope that while their past cannot be undone, it can be redeemed. They need wisdom “that is from above” that will lead to a life of flourishing.
And all of this is found in Jesus. Jesus alone.
Jesus is the one true Savior who died on the cross, bearing the punishment of our sins, in order that we might be forgiven, have access to the Father, and be adopted into his family. This same Jesus rose again and offers his Spirit to enable us to overcome sin’s insidious power by “uncurving us” so that we might live lives of love to the glory of God.
But let me also make it clear: What is needed by alcoholics is also needed by liars, cheaters, adulterers, narcissists, boasters, slanderers, the apathetic, lazy, inhospitable, mean, jealous, and bigoted.
We are all fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God.
And we are all broken.
Sinners who may need treatment, and sinners who all need salvation.
Yes, some people sin more than others. Some individuals commit “greater” sins than others (but who can really make that assessment?). Anthropology, political science, family-systems theory, neurology, and chemistry can give us some answers as to why some sinners are worse than others. But all such conclusions are incomplete without theology.
We need sin. That is why “sin” is sacred.
Episcopalian priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Abandoning the language of sin . . . will simply leave us speechless (i.e., dumb) before the deformation we experience.”
In the world today, however, the medical is given pre-eminence. This is a travesty.
One of the great seductions of present medical models of addiction-recovery is money (along with power, who has control). If addiction can be construed and framed as predominantly medical, it is a health condition. Billable. With lots of government and insurance dollars available for lots of parties (e.g., pharmaceuticals, hospitals, doctors, counseling clinics, employees, politicians, etc.).
In 2022, over $19 billion was given by the federal government for drug treatment alone. Additionally, in another study that came out earlier this year, the CDC estimated that over $35 billion was paid by employer-sponsored health insurance for workers suffering from addiction. (Of course, the article’s title began with the words, “Substance Use Disorders Cost . . .” Nomenclature is everything.)
Addiction-recovery is big business.
It’s time for us to be honest. Each branch of knowledge has its own strengths as well as limitations. It is also time for us to collaborate, to work together. Lives—men and women caught in the terrible clutches of addiction—are at stake.
I am not denying or minimizing the medical components of addiction. But just as over-spiritualizing alcoholism is detrimental, so is over-biologizing it.
While science enriches our understanding of reality, so does the Christian faith. These two arenas are not in opposition to each other but mutually interdependent. One without the other leads to not only incomplete understanding but false and damaging understanding.
Without sin, we cannot give an accurate diagnosis and, therefore, cannot give an adequate “prescription.”
We are bio-psycho-social creatures.
Creatures subjected to chemical reactions and conditioned behaviors.
But we are much more than atomic reality.
We are spiritual beings. Spiritual beings with fallen natures.
Sinners who need more than medical intervention and therapy (and meetings, sponsors, anger-management and assertive training courses, etc.).
Sinners who need redemption.
“The gospel is this:
We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves
than we ever dared believe,
yet at the very same time
we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ
than we ever dared hope.”