We’re all at best in recovery. In a manner of speaking, anyway.
Many, for sure, are still in the grip of addiction, powerless to make a break from this wretched and terrible bondage which is slowly but surely destroying them: and sometimes it’s not so slowly.
The slavery takes any number of forms.
Some we’re more than familiar with – sometimes ourselves from a first-hand, ‘fingers-burned’ experience: the drink and the drugs, for instance, which, having wormed their way into a person’s life like some deceptive salesman at the door, then tease and taunt their all-too-trusting victims as their lethal, toxic ‘medicine’ starts to poison and corrode the very lifeblood of their unsuspecting host; while all the time, his mind now poisoned too, the person starts to crave the very thing he knows will surely kill him.
Others are subtler, less immediately and openly obvious, and more easily secreted away. Patterns of behaviour which beguile us with a hidden, soft hypnosis ‘til what seemed at first so pleasant and so innocent is found to be enslaving and to lead to our impoverishment. Gambling. Pornography. Computer games. Sex.
You name it, the list is virtually endless. Because the real addiction is self. Self-indulgence. Self-advancement. Self-importance. The servitude of self which has held us in its thraldom since the day that we were born.
We are all of us addicts, deceived into thinking that if only we satisfy ‘self’ then we’ll find what we’re yearning to know. And so we are from the start self-conscious, self-centred, self-seeking. Tied by the lie to the baseline addiction of ‘self’.
We most of us live in denial for long enough, the very addiction we have to the soaring importance of ‘self’ simply blinding our eyes to the fact of our desperate plight. And the first step on the road to our ‘recovery’ involves a sore awareness and acknowledgement of need: the dawning conviction that we are ourselves enslaved, that the ‘self’ we thought the best friend we could ever have is found to be a monster which has chained us to a suffocating pit of growing darkness and despair.
We have a lot to do with addicts here. We live on the street, the last church standing now to front onto the main street of the city. We see life in the raw. We see addiction in its starkest form; and our building here becomes thereby a holy ‘hall of mirrors’ where the addicts who come streaming in afford a sharp reminder that we, all of us, are addicts in reality.
There are lessons we’re needing to learn: lessons regarding addiction, lessons regarding recovery. We work hand in hand with Teen Challenge. Not in any formal sort of way, but more in the sense that we both see the need for a work of God’s grace in the life of every addict; and are glad to join together in God’s gracious gospel enterprise in Jesus Christ, His great and glorious rescue plan which issues in recovery for the addicts that we are.
Teen Challenge takes the addicts right away from that environment to which they’re so accustomed – and in which, of course, they’ve also been so hopelessly ensnared: addicted in terms of their habits, out of work in terms of employment (who, after all, is willing to take them on board?), and surrounded by constant temptation in terms of the neighbours they’re given to share – alcoholics, druggies, prostitutes. This is, in terms of their environment, a ‘perfect storm’ of catastrophic force, a vicious, swirling vortex of destroying winds from which there’s no escape.
It’s akin, I suppose, to that ‘fearful pit’ of which the psalmist speaks (Ps.40.2), its walls so steep and its slopes so mired with clay that there’s no way there’s any way out.
But taken away from this habitat from hell, their time at Teen Challenge sees addicts being given the Rock on which a whole new life can be built. They’re taught about Jesus, as the One who alone truly saves. The Rock. The Rock on whom their feet can be set, and whereby their way can at last be established.
It’s rarely an immediate, overnight change. Nor is it most times either painless or easy or smooth. As the light of a new day dawns only slowly, and the sun only starts to push its fiery ball across the far horizon after long protracted moments of expectancy and hope, so too the dawning of a new day of deliverance for the addict is, most times, a fitful, slow and very gradual sort of pathway into freedom.
And as a new-born babe soon discovers that her life outside the womb brings with it any number of new challenges, undreamed of in that earlier foetal home, so too the new-found freedom which the addict starts to know is marked by massive struggles, with what seem like a daily dose of mountains to be climbed.
They will be at Teen Challenge for months on end, the better part of a year, as they learn to stand on their own two feet again, and to walk instead of stagger through their days.
Day by day their lives are buttressed by the teaching of God’s truth, as through wise and pastoral ministry their lives are re-created and their living re-constructed by the careful, personal application of God’s living Word.
Day by day they’re supported and helped by the presence all around them of like-minded individuals who themselves have learned to love the Lord and now seek to follow Jesus: others with whom they can speak, others who are on the level with them, facing the same sort of struggles, growing the same sort of faith as they look to the Lord Jesus Christ in a spirit of humble reliance.
Teen Challenge is a safe place, where they’re not on their own and they know there are men looking out for them day after day.
And day by day there is work that at last they can do. Useful, productive employment in all sorts of spheres where they learn what it is for their gifts to be used and their lives to have meaning and point.
We’re all of us addicts, I say. And that work of God’s grace at Teen Challenge reflects in a way the work of the Spirit in breaking the bondage of sin and of self and giving us new life in Christ. It’s more often than not a gradual thing, and in those early days of new found faith there is for us all a certain real ‘fragility’.
We have need of careful instruction, the Word of God being taught and applied to our lives in a personal, pastoral way. We have need of the company, friendship and care of a body of like-minded people who’ll support us and encourage us and help to keep us right when problems come – for it is not good that we should be alone. And we have need of the channels down which all our time and our strength can be poured.
We have a lot to do with addicts here, as I say: and the next step on from Teen Challenge is where a local fellowship such as ours comes in. For the transition back to the streets of Aberdeen (or wherever they stay) is a huge and difficult step. For months they’ve known, enjoyed and benefited from, a healthy and daily exposure to Christian instruction, Christian fellowship and Christian service, in a safe, secure environment, free from both the pressures and temptations of their former life.
But once returned to the city, and having to live once again their fragile lives amidst the shadows of a past which haunts them almost every way they turn – that’s hard enough in itself, but on top of that the framework of support to which they’ve grown accustomed is no longer there: at least most times not anything like to the same extent.
I was speaking with one or two men a few weeks back, who’ve been through such a life-transforming period at Teen Challenge; and one of them proffered the wish that the Teen Challenge programme might run for not one, but for three years. He’s back in circulation and he’s feeling on his own: connected with a fellowship in town, and involved in their own network of ‘small groups’. But still feeling somewhat isolated and so very much on his own.
Fragile. And in continuing need of what he simply called ‘connections’. He wasn’t alone. The other man with him ventured exactly the same. The need to meet with others, to have some folk around him on an almost daily basis, to help him re-adjust to living out this whole new way of life amidst the harsh and unforgiving landscape of this sin-stained world.
The shift from the daily exposure to fellowship with other followers of Christ, to a pattern of local church life which can often feel more like a seven-day cycle of grace, a big long gap between such times of coming together – that’s a sizeable gap, and a big ask.
So I asked these men what years two and three might look like in their ideal Teen Challenge programme. And their answer was all about filling the week, when they first came back into ‘real-world’ circulation – filling the week with ‘pit-stops’ of the means of grace: meeting up with others, learning from God’s Word, being held to account in brief, short bursts, discovering spheres of service.
It sounded and felt most remarkably like a re-write in the language of these modern day disciples, a re-write of the sequel to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.42-47): “every day they continued to meet together..”. Meeting together, learning together, praying together, eating in each other’s homes, and sharing with each other.
After the great ‘Teen Challenge’ experience of the day of Pentecost, when these ‘addicts’ of religion were convicted of their sin and then delivered from the potent, deadly poison which had dragged them to the brink of their damnation – after that great ‘Teen Challenge’ day of Pentecost, these were the first and next steps on the pathway to recovery. A kind of decompression chamber, which meant the shift from having dwelt for long enough down in the murky depths of sin to starting once again to live in realms of light and life – that shift was not too sudden or too stark.
And a very real part of that gentle, careful easing of such now recovering addicts back into the life God has in store for them, is affording them work they can do. And here’s why.
We are all of us ‘addicts’, remember. And there’s a sense in which we were made that way by God – made to be pre-occupied with, to find our deepest satisfaction in relationship with God. What David Robertson in the title of that book he wrote describes as a ‘magnificent obsession.’
It’s that original obsession which has gone and got distorted and infected with the wretched virus sin, and now finds itself deceptively diverted down a range of dead-end avenues: we obsess, that is, about all the wrong things. What the Bible calls idolatry.
And addicts, therefore, even when delivered and recovering – they still remain obsessive. They need to find alternative paths down which that instinct for obsession can now run.
Isn’t that what we find in the Scriptures? Isn’t that what we’re seeing when the psalmist declares, “One thing I ask, this only do I seek..” (Ps.27.4)? Isn’t that what’s in front of us, too, when Paul affirms, “.. one thing I do ..” (Phil.3.13)? These men were obsessives, recovering addicts, whose obsession is now with the Lord. As it was always meant to be. The ‘magnificent obsession’.
Isn’t that, after all, what’s so strikingly seen in the One who is most truly human, the Lord Jesus Christ? “Zeal for Your house has consumed me..” – words from the psalmist, expressing the same sort of righteous obsession, picked up and applied to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (John 2.17, quoting Ps.69.9).
An integral part of the path of the addict’s recovery is his learning how best he can re-direct the ‘thirst’ in his obsession down the highways of the service of the Lord.
We were not made to be passive spectators. We were made to be workers. And although such work itself can become a misdirected obsession, it’s important for any recovering addict to have things to do. To serve the Lord with an all-consuming passion.
That’s one of the striking features of the reign of king Uzziah (2 Chron.26-1-16) which has impressed itself upon my heart this past long while. He was a man who in his early days sought the counsel and instruction of an older man to teach him the fear of the Lord; and then ensured that all of his people were usefully trained and employed in the wide-ranging work of the kingdom. It was work which devoured all their energy, encouraged new-found creativity, and gave meaning and purpose to all of their lives. They had a cause down which the juices of that obsession with God could be fruitfully poured.
The need is the same for every recovering addict. They all have time, energy, gifts, along with that great and continuing ‘obsessiveness’, which have to be re-directed. Ideally, they all need outlets of service.
And insofar as we’re all still, at best, in recovery, the work of the Spirit of God in our lives sees Him channelling our time and our strength into spheres of fresh labour for God. The path of recovery (what the theologians call ‘sanctification’ – our being restored, in the end, to the likeness of Christ) is invariably gradual and slow: ‘progressive sanctification’ is the tag-line by which it’s described.
God takes His time, but this is the way our inherent, instinctive obsession is patiently recalibrated. And as we ‘keep step with the Spirit’ as a fellowship, in His on-going ministry of recovery, one of the tasks that we necessarily have is that of helping each other discover the ways our ‘magnificent obsession’ with Christ can find fruitful expression in service for each and every addict.
Which, as I said at the start, is all of us!
Yours in Christ’s glad service,