Power and Mercy to Free the Enslaved Heart

Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117)

It seemed only fitting to open my post this week with some strong words of praise to the Lord. In His unfathomable grace and mercy, Jesus Christ set me free from a stronghold of darkness – in my case, alcohol and drug abuse – exactly 15 years ago today. On July 23, 1997, I was on an eastbound flight from San Francisco to Kansas City. It was during those few hours of flight time that I finally admitted to God the depth of my helplessness as well as the extent of my decades-long depravity. Though I did not specifically call on the name of Jesus at that time, my heart cry of desperation to God was entirely sincere, and He in turn was faithful to set my life on a course that would lead me into truth, the only Truth (John 14:6) that would be sufficiently powerful to save me and – significantly – keep me from falling away.

For the alcoholic, there is every manner of treatment available today with which to combat the compulsion to drink to excess. Since all truth is God’s truth, I praise Him for making relief from alcohol addiction available even to the many millions who will never claim a personal relationship with Christ. Success rates for various forms of treatment rise and fall, of course, based on any number of contributing factors. Ultimately – for me, personally – the reason that none of the “more well-known” methods for drying out had worked was that I could see no ultimate purpose beyond mere sobriety, no superintending reason for pursuing the societal good of not drinking myself to death. “Life is hard,” I reasoned, and therefore not really a motivator for me to make choices that would enable me to go on living to 80 years old, as opposed to 35 or 40. What difference did it really make if I recovered or if, as my doctor had repeatedly warned, I died within a few years?

What I came to see is that only God is truly big enough to satisfy the innermost desires of my heart.

Only eternity and the promises of abundant life offered by Jesus were ever glorious enough to allow me to set aside the bottle and consider the scandalous offer being made by God to me through a relationship with His Son. So it was in a prayerful spirit of “cooperating with God” – Whoever He was – that I agreed to worship Him each and every day by not partaking of alcohol or illicit drugs. My thought at the time, as embarrassing as this is to admit, was simply that I wanted to “give God room” to work in my life, to help me see some evidence of the eternal Kingdom that I had heard about as a young man, if it did indeed exist.

Failing that, I could always go back to drinking myself to death, right? “Sure, just pick right up where you left off!” However…

In the intervening 15 years, God has not ceased to lavish grace upon grace in my life. Many of the lessons I would learn were only able to penetrate the hardness of my heart through the introduction of suffering and pain, both physical and emotional. Much to my chagrin, there was no “Hollywood-style ending” to my conversion to Christ, as if I might have just got off the plane that day in Kansas City and all of my problems simply melted away. Quite the opposite. In fact, the date of my conversion was the beginning of some of the most gut-wrenching, painful and grueling episodes through which I have lived. Far from trotting down a flower-strewn yellow brick road to Jesus, my 15 years of faith has resembled something more like being scraped over hot asphalt strewn with shards of broken glass. Strange as this may sound, it has all been more than worth it.

Today, I spend a fair amount of time around other guys who are seeking to throw off some form of besetting sin, whether it be alcohol, drugs, pornography, the abuse of others or some other form of destructive, ungodly behavior. The past 15 years of sobriety have highlighted for me a few simple truths that I have clung to, through the best of days and the darkest of setbacks. I offer them up in the hope that others may be emboldened to invoke the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and in that moment find the lasting escape from enslavement to darkness and the machinations of the evil one.

  1. You must be ready to die. Staple Galatians 2:20 to your soul. The biggest obstacle to throwing off ungodly behavior is the false – but wickedly persistent – belief that we “have everything under control.” We have nothing under control, most obviously our own lives. As long as the addict is able to think they can “manage and manipulate” people and events to keep the natural consequences of their sinful behaviors at bay, the cycle will continue along until the person has lost everything, life included. As just one example, I liked to tell myself the lie that because my body had become so addicted to alcohol, I would have to “wean myself from it” over a period of weeks and months. Can you guess how well this “I am in control” strategy worked? There was never a period of “week and months” whereby I, under my own steam, could reach the goal. It was only after I prayed to God and said, “OK, I am ready to die if that is Your will” that I was finally able to break free…and live. (And live life abundantly, by the way…)
  2. Cultivate a heart of gratitude. I don’t care who you are or what your circumstances might be; if you are still breathing, I could easily point to several things for which you can be sincerely grateful. Gratitude is the strongest-possible antidote to the twin toxins of entitlement and fear, both of which play a huge role in initiating the addictive response of “hiding” and “self-soothing.” A heart that is awash in gratitude is a deadly environment to so many of the “spiritual weeds” that tend to spring up in the unguarded ground of the human heart.
  3. It’s not about you. Never has been, never will be. This truth has been especially hard for a proud person such as myself to embrace, and yet it is thoroughly biblical. The Big Story is all about God and what He has done, is doing and will continue to do. When we elevate ourselves to the center of our attention, we are bound to be disappointed by the vicissitudes of life this side of Heaven. Only by placing God at the center of our lives do we find true meaning, and (paradoxically) only then are we freed up to more fully live as the individuals we were meant to be.
  4. You won’t do it alone; “Lone Rangers” are easy targets for the enemies of your soul. First and foremost, you must have God to help make sense of your life. No one else will be able to put the pieces back together for you in a manner that allows you to harmonize all the events of life toward loving God and serving others. You will also need a close cadre of friends, preferably people who are far more mature in their faith and their willingness to suffer through all of your complaints, objections and backsliding. If you don’t have a group of faithful friends, get one. Start by attending church every week, being diligent about your weekly recovery meetings and so forth. (Asking God to provide some of His people to help you makes for a great prayer!)
  5. Make prayer and confession regular features of your daily life. During the early stages of recovery, it can be tempting to wave off various attempts to help you get by, typically borne out of the very same pride that got you into your sinful predicament to begin with! Accept the help of others. Confess your shortcomings to God and to other people. Commit the rest of your life to being entirely transparent and truthful. Allow other people to say hard things to you, “penalty-free.”

I realize that none of what I have shared above is “new.” You can probably find nearly all of what I have written on recovery brochures and fliers of various types. While I’d prefer to honor God’s faithfulness to me by imparting some “clever new piece of information” that will help others turn the key in the ignition of their recovery, all I have to offer is the testimony of my own life, a clear account of how God can bless even the most pathetic and desperate of confessions, and the follow-up insight of observing the differences between men who succeed in their recovery – and are visibly transformed – and those who are tragically double-minded and still enslaved. The guys I have met who are most stable in their recovery (and most at peace) are those who began by accepting the immediate need for “the sinful old man” to die. Period.

Doxology
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost!
Amen.

Select books that were foundational to my recovery from alcoholism:

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