Christianity is Not a 12 Step Program!
There are probably more 12 step programs than we have people here this morning. The 12 step program originated with Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. Now it is the most popular self-help way of dealing with addiction to anything. We are awash in these programs, so much so that we think the path to improving always has 12 steps. But Christianity is not another 12 step program. It doesn't deal with addiction the same way. Christianity is a 2 step program.
The first step is to recognize that addiction is a state, a condition that all people are born into; it's not a particular sin with a particular substance that only particular people are guilty of. This means the problem is not alcohol, drugs, or sexuality. St. Paul is quite clear about that in I Timothy saying "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude." Since alcohol, legal drugs, and sexuality are all gifts of God, these in themselves can't be the problem. The problem is much greater than any 12 step program would lead you to believe. It's not this or that substance which if you can stay away from or control you've solved your problem. Addiction is a state of being, a condition of existence.
And no it's not just people with certain genes or types of upbringing who find themselves addicted. All people are born into this world addicted. The natural state of fallen humanity is addiction. What varies is what people are addicted to. Some forms of addiction are socially acceptable, addiction to work, success, or perfection for example. Others, like addiction to alcohol, drugs or sexuality are not socially acceptable. Addiction is the problem of us all. It just shows up in different ways with different people.
St. Paul describes our condition in his letter to the Ephesians. He calls it living "as the Gentiles do," or the "old self." This is the way all are naturally apart from God,. Study his description and see if you don't find that it agrees with what is commonly called the "addictive personality." Paul says the Gentiles live in the futility of their thinking. They literally live "aimlessly," without goals; we would say, "They never amount to anything." Doesn't this describe the addict? He or she doesn't look beyond the next fix of whatever substance or thing they are addicted to. Paul goes on to say, "They are darkened in their understanding." Is not this the addict? You've talked to them before. You might have even seen this in yourself. An addict doesn't think clearly. A dark veil is across his mind and the only thing he can think about is what he wants. All he can understand is that he has got to have more of it.
What causes this state, this condition isn't the thing you're addicted to. What causes this condition, according to Paul, is that from birth you're cut off, alienated, from the life of God. You're a stranger to God because of your ignorance of Him and your hardness of heart toward Him.
Adam and Eve before the Fall knew God perfectly and were tenderhearted toward Him. But once the Fall happened they hid from God as if He were a scary stranger. When He questioned them they acted like He was some mean ogre rather than their Friend who walked with them in the garden in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve felt this way before they drained their first bottle, smoked their first funny plant, or chased their first immoral sexual encounter. Their alienation from God, their ignorance and hardheartedness toward Him proceeded their chasing things excessively, compulsively, addictively.
Alienation, being cut off from the life of God, leads us to losing all sensitivity, and this in turn leads to addiction. Paul says those cut off from God develop callouses, and as a result they hand themselves over to more an more vice. One translation has it this way, "Having become callous, they have given themselves over to a life of lust - to practice every kind of vice with a constant desire for more." They constantly need more of something to feel the way they want. Now we see the addiction we are familiar with - the empty, aching need for more. It's a desperate desire to fill the vacuum that exists in the heart when it is cut off from the life of God. People try to fill the hole with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, work, success, family, friends; anything and everything will be stuffed into that hole trying to cease the craving, the aching, the needing.
Understand this: if we try to fill the void with socially acceptable things, people will leave us alone, even reward us, but it still doesn't mean we're spiritually healthy. We may look better, be highly thought of by others, be a big success, but we are still an addict trying to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with what can never do it.
This is addiction, and this is the state of us all. The first step is to recognize that addiction is not a particular sin with a particular substance that only particular people are guilty of; it's a state, a condition, that all of fallen humanity is born into. The second step of Christianity's 2 step program is to realize that salvation is the answer. God doing something is the answer, not you doing something.
This is the grave danger of all 12 step programs. They teach you that the answer to your sin be it drunkenness, anger, or pornography is you doing something. And you know what? You may think you've done it. You may think you have succeeded in saving yourself by what you've done. And what a tragedy that would be because St. Paul says, "You who would be saved by works, have fallen from grace!" But more than likely you won't succeed. Oh you may not give in as much to that continual lust to fill the gaping hole, but the hole that comes from being separated from God will still be there because in the end only God can fill it.
The answer to 12-step self-help programs is not to make Christianity a 3 step program by find 3 steps in the last paragraph of our text. God says, "Step 1 put off your old self. Step 2 be made new in the attitude of your mind. Step 3 put on the new self." People try that. They go home and throw away the booze, the dope, the porn, whatever they are addicted to and say, "I'm through with it." Then they are determined to take on a new attitude. They try to look at life differently, happily, positively. And finally they put on a new self that acts more like God, righteous and holy. Things go well for a few days, weeks, maybe even months, but then it comes back. The emptiness, the longing, the hole that won't be filled. They end up more discouraged then ever.
The problem is they have read God's Word as a self-help book, as a 3 step program to spiritual living. This makes you think that the answer to our addictive personality, our aching emptiness is to follow 3 steps and then poof we'll be better. But this takes the divine, the miraculous, the truly spiritual part right out of it. The 3 steps people find here: to put off the old, to be renewed, and to put on the new are not steps according to Paul; these 3 things are what they learned Jesus did for them. The steps are the results of what Jesus did for them.
The answer Paul presents to the addictive state we are all born into is not 3 steps you do. Once Paul shows the Ephesians what the problem is, he doesn't launch into the 3 steps. He goes right to Christ. Paul says, "You did not thus learn the Christ." Christ is the answer Paul puts before the Ephesians struggling with addiction. He tells them Christ is the subject that they learned. Christ is the One they heard. Christ is what is fills the gaping hole; Christ is what reconnects people to the life of God.
Christ is the answer, but where does Christ teach and fill people? In Word and Sacrament. The Ephesians learned what you have about Christ. In Baptism, Christ buried them with Himself and that as He was risen from the dead by the glory of the Father even so He has brought them out of their baptismal grave into a brand new life. In Baptism, they learned Christ washed them so as to be regenerated, reborn. They learned the 3 things Christ does for us: He puts off the old man; He renews our mind; He puts on the new man. They are the steps Christ takes us through by Word and Sacrament.
Christ puts off your old self which is ruined by deceitful desires. We come into this world addicted to more, aching to fill this God-shaped vacuum, and always trying to fill it with something other than God. Christ by Baptism grabs that empty old self and nails it to the cross and then buries it in the grave with Him. He kills it. The sinful self of yours that always wants the wrong thing is dead. By whose hand? Not by yours but by the hand of Christ in Baptism.
What about a new attitude? If this text is saying we must get a new attitude, it is nothing but power of positive thinking nonsense. Renew is passive; it's not something we do. Our minds that were born darkened in their understanding have had the shades pulled up and the lights turned on by the work of Christ not us. The Ephesians learned what the Corinthians did: "If any man is in Christ, He is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come." This is a result of what Christ does, not something we do.
Christ has renewed you in the spirit of your mind. You once were ignorant and hard toward God. But He came and reconciled you to Himself not counting your sins against you. You once would run and hide from God, as Adam and Eve did, cutting yourself off from the only thing in life that could ever satisfy you. Now in your mind renewed and reborn by Christ you see God as the Bread of Life who comes to fill you so that you'll never be hungry or thirsty again. Your old self, the one that continually feels empty, that always needs something has been buried in your Baptism. You can count on it being dead. And you can count on you're mind having been renewed, filled up, by the Holy Spirit found in those waters. Moreover, you can count on the fact that right this very minute you stand clothed in Christ's righteousness and holiness because as Paul teaches, "As many of you who have been baptized you have put on Christ." If you can find sin in Christ, only then can you find sin in you.
Go ahead; check you new self out. You won't find any sins, any stains, any doubts, any addictions, any holes, any needs. Think you need something? I challenge you to find what it is. All things are yours in Christ teaches Paul in Corinthians. You lack no good thing in Christ. What do you need in order to be filled up? Nothing. You're free to use any of the good gifts of God, not to fill your emptiness but to enjoy your fullness.
Friends, we all come into this world addicted. That is empty, hollow and constantly needing to be filled because we come into the world cut off from the full life that is in God. No earthly thing can satisfy this need, but in ignorance and hardness of heart we try. Christ Jesus rescues us from constantly trying to fill our emptiness with some created thing by filling us through Baptism. There He drowns the old self that could never be satisfied; gives us a new mind made different by the Spirit of God; and creates a new satisfied self.
The choice is between endlessly having to do something and Christ. Between always having to try and fill your emptiness and the fullness of Christ. Between being on an endless staircase of some 12 step program and being brought to the top by Christ. Between 12 step programs that identify you as an addict every step of the way and Christianity that identifies you as addict in the first step and, then for Christ's sake, as righteous and holy in the second step and in every step you take thereafter. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XI (8-27-00) Ephesians 4: 17-24