The Folly of Spiritual Deal-Making, Using Sobriety as a ‘Bargaining Chip’

Today marks an anniversary of sorts for me; as of July 23, 2018, I have officially been sober from illegal drugs and alcohol for 21 years. As I enter into Year 22 of this particularly-grueling adventure with Jesus, it seemed like a good idea to pause and recount His faithfulness to me – even as I very often kicked against the goads (Acts 26:12-15) – and to offer a few thoughts from the perspective of hindsight.

As the summer of 1997 got underway, I was separated from my first wife and not doing at all well. Even though I was by that time 36 years old, I had nonetheless jumped right back into a lifestyle that looked more like that of a mid-20s post-college party boy…with everything that a lifestyle of that variety often entails. Thinking I was once again “free” to do as I wished, I found out in short order that I was, in fact, a slave to my passions (John 8:34). In short, I was unable to free myself from a deathward spiral (James 1:13-15) and forced to very reluctantly admit that I was completely out of control.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667/1670) by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667/1670) by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Once my life had unraveled sufficiently – and my doctor offered me a realistic prognosis on how long I might reasonably expect to continue breathing if I did not stop drinking – I grudgingly entered into a bargaining session with Jesus, something along the lines of “God, I’ll worship you every day by staying away from drugs and alcohol…if You agree to repair my marriage.” It should perhaps be noted that I was in no great hurry to return to my estranged wife, but I really, really hated the idea that my three-year-old daughter would grow up as a child of divorce. In that season, when the deal was initially struck, I was completely blind to the multiple levels of insincerity contained in my offer to pursue sobriety “for Christ.”

And then a funny thing happened. Despite my foray into surrendering my sobriety to God, Jesus chose not to restore my marriage.

In my mind, I had “kept up my end of the bargain,” staying clean and sober for six months…right up to the day that the divorce was finalized. It’s difficult now to find words to adequately explain how betrayed I felt – more by God than by my ex – and yet, at the same time, my six months of “silent worship” had not gone by unnoticed. Despite the insincerity of my bargaining, God had graciously accepted my pathetic offer; I had fallen into His hands (Hebrews 10:28-31).

His intervention on my behalf soon became clear; He had somehow changed my heart and reordered my thinking.

Had I continued to utilize the sort of reasoning by which I had entered into sobriety six months prior, I might well have chosen to go off the rails yet again, drinking and drugging myself into stupefaction as before. To my way of thinking, after all, Jesus had not come through for me, so I had absolutely no remaining obligation to stay sober. My first marriage had ended in divorce, my daughter’s life would be forever negatively impacted, so the next “logical” move was to go out and get hammered, right? Anyone who had been observing my life for the previous 20 years would confidently have bet their life savings on that outcome.

But that’s not what happened.

Looking back now, what seems clear is that, during the ordeal of my divorce, God had been quietly at work in the inner recesses of my heart, fine-tuning my deepest desires to actually make me hunger and thirst for more, not less. The desire for the transcendent had overturned the tables in my spirit such that I knew for certain that the deepest longings of my soul could no longer be satisfied with the various diversions this world has to offer. An ache that might previously have been soothed by a 12-pack and a bottle of Wild Turkey could now only be satisfied by an ongoing, stumbling, 21-year pursuit of Jesus.

In the summer of 1997, I basically came to Christ as a half-hearted prodigal, not at all thinking that the cost of “doing business with God” would include absolutely everything in my life (Matthew 8:18-22; Luke 9:62; Luke 14:28-30; Colossians 3:1-11). At the time, I was foolishly seeking to keep the cleansing work of Christ neatly confined to my drug and alcohol problems, not realizing that God would not be satisfied with anything less than the entirety of my life and spirit.

It’s ridiculous, when you stop to think about it, to even imagine that the God Who searches every heart could somehow be manipulated. Back in the summer of 1997, I did not want to offer the entirety of my life to Christ, and in many ways I still wrestle with that, even to the present day. What is absolutely scandalous, if I pause long enough to think about it, is that Jesus – the God of the universe, the long-awaited Messiah, the Alpha and the Omega – accepted me on these terms anyway, and began a far greater work than I could have imagined.

21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful by John PiperCan we say the following with Augustine? “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had so feared to lose! … You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” Or are we in bondage to the pleasures of this world so that, for all our talk about the glory of God, we love television and food and sleep and sex and money and human praise just like everybody else?
John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful (Pages 64-65)

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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