Even I can’t help admitting that there is a bunch of stuff in the Bible that’s hard to relate to. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 to 4,000 years, and I have no form of reference for shepherds and agrarian life, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a king or a Caesar, and I don’t know a single fisherman, much less a centurion, and I guess I can’t speak for all of you but personally I’ve never felt I might need to sacrifice a goat for my sins. That’s the thing about our sacred text being so dang old — it can sometimes be difficult to relate to. Things have changed a bit over the millennia.
But one thing has not changed even a little bit is the human condition. Parts of the Bible can feel hard to relate to until you get to a thing like this reading from Romans 7, in which Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Finally. Something I can relate to. This I know about. I too do not understand my own actions. I too can’t manage to consistently do what I know is right. Paul’s simple description of the human condition is perhaps a most elegantly put definition of what we now call addiction.
It’s no secret that I am a recovering alcoholic. By the grace of God I have been clean and sober for more than 19 years. But, boy, do I remember that feeling of powerlessness that comes from not being able to control your drinking. I’d wake up each morning and have a little talk with myself: “OK Nadia, get it together. Today is going to be different. You just need a little will power.” Then, inevitably, later that day I’d say, “Well, just one drink would be OK,” or, “I’ll only drink wine and not vodka,” or, “I’ll drink a glass of water between drinks so that I won’t get drunk.” And sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn’t. In the end, my will was just never “strong enough” Like Paul, I did the thing I hated. But that’s addiction for you. It’s ugly. Yet on some level I feel like we recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have it easy. I mean, our addictions are so obvious. The emotional, spiritual, and physical wreckage caused by alcoholism and drug addiction has a certain conspicuousness to it.
But the truth is, we are not actually special. I mean, our whole culture is addicted. It’s not just drunks who wake up in the morning and say, “Today, it’s gonna be different.” Perhaps some of you have done some “self-talk” recently. Perhaps some of you have tried to garner up just a little more will power. “Today, I won’t eat compulsively,” or, “I’ll not yell at my kids,” or, “I’ll not spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need.” Today, unlike yesterday, I won’t consume pornography or flirt with my married co-worker or look up my ex-boyfriend on Facebook. Today, I will finally stand up for myself. Today, I will not play video games. Today, I will really look for a job. Today, I will not lie to myself. Today, I will start meditating and become a vegan and start training for a marathon and go back to college and go to the container store so I can organize my closet and be in control.
But we’re not. We’re not in control. That would be the point. We’re addicted to poison, and people, and praise, and possessions, and power. And sometimes I think the church and society fuel a very particular addiction to proving our worthiness.
We live in a worthiness driven culture. The pressure to be successful, hide your weaknesses, get ahead, make your own way in the world … to pull yourself up by your boot straps, win at all costs, and be as impressive as possible to the most people as possible is what drives our entire cultural and economic system. So naturally we think that we should be able to solve our problems through will power and a protestant work ethic. The human will, whether it be a strong will which thinks it can take care of its own problems, or a weak will which just dissolves in the face of addiction, is just about the worst place to look for salvation. The source of my problems simply cannot also be the solution to my problems. I need something or someone external to myself to save me from myself. There simply is no amount of self-talk that is going to save me. No amount of self-help, no amount of determination or gumption. There is God and God alone.
The 12 steps, which (Fr.) Richard Rohr calls America’s single yet very important contribution to human spirituality works precisely because it isn’t a self-help program at all. That’s the point. Isn’t it interesting that one of the most truly transformative things to come out of America — The 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous — is based not on proving your worthiness, but on admitting your failure?
The genius is that the people who started AA recognized that addiction isn’t a drinking problem or a gambling problem or a food problem. It’s not a problem of the will, see, it’s a problem of the soul. It’s a putting-something-in-the-center-of-our-lives-other-than-God problem. And, as such, it can only have a spiritual solution. It took us a while to figure this out, but St. Paul knew it all along. Because as long as we hold out thinking that just a little more will power will do the trick, we remain hopeless. As Paul says, I can will what’s right, but I cannot do it.
So who will save us from this body of death, as Paul calls it? Well, the world gives us but one solution: our will. And as the saying goes — when the only tool I have is a hammer, all my problems look like nails. And I just pound away at everything. But the gospel changes all of that. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us to lay down our silly little hammers and let God do for us what only God can do for us. Jesus doesn’t say, “the solution to your problem is to just try harder.” And our brothers and sisters in 12-step fellowships can tell us that the freedom we gain from our addictions comes only from admitting that we are a mess and that our will is not going to save us. We must, instead, believe that God and only God can restore us, and we must turn our will over to the care of God.
To be sure, the burden of the too strong or too weak will is heavy. It’s exhausting. It’s futile. And so we must hear Jesus say, “Lay it down. Lay down your addictions and fixations and compulsions and all the ways you suffer from the additions, fixations, and compulsions of others. Lay them here at the foot of the cross. Lay them atop the blood- and tear-soaked dirt at the foot of the place where God allowed human will to take its inevitable course. Lay your weighty burden on the holy ground where human ambition was allowed to play itself out to it’s logical conclusion. Here is where you can be free from the bondage of the self.”
Jesus says for the weary and heavy-laden to come to him. You can stop believing in your sin management programs and futile exercises in will power because he is simply stronger than all of it. We can all take comfort that it is not our wills, but the will of the God who named and claimed us which has the strength and power to transform us. Us — the addicted, the proud, the lazy, the failures, the washed-out and those on top of their game. Lay down your burdens and he shall give you sweet rest. For your worthiness lies not in the strength of your will, but in the unyielding determination of God’s Divine Love, which is simply too fierce to leave you unchanged.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado.