One Drink Away

My pastor is an alcoholic. I say "is" because an alcoholic never ceases to be one. Alcoholics are never "cured"; they simply decide to stop drinking . . . and it's a daily decision. An alcoholic who has stopped drinking is always — at any time — one drink away from going out of control.

   For these people there is no such thing as drinking in moderation, nor is there a sense of being beyond danger. My pastor has not overcome some huge personal adversity from which he can rise up, dust himself off, and get on with life as if the problem were over. He must acknowledge that his battle begins afresh every day.

   There is something terribly right about this — not about being an alcoholic, but about acknowledging our inadequacy and realizing that our struggle with sin is very similar to an alcoholic's struggle with drinking. It's never over.

   I often find myself talking about sin in the past tense as if sin is something beyond my present experience, a page I've already turned in the book of my life. But sin is like alcoholism.

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Sinners are never fully cured; they simply decide to stop sinning . . . and it's a daily decision.

   In Galatians, Paul warns, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). Notice that the one who is "spiritual" is not exempt from a fall, but is susceptible to the same temptation from which the other is being restored. We cannot rest on our spiritual laurels. We are all one drink away from being out of control. Therefore, "Watch yourself."

   "But being an alcoholic is so much worse . . ., I tell myself. "So much stigma attached to it . . . so many lives and families ruined. I get off easy, don't I? I'm no alcoholic."

   Or am I?

   Do I have any less of a problem than the alcoholic just because no one's organized a Lustful Thoughts Anonymous? Is being mastered by selfishness a lesser evil than being mastered by drink? Actually, the only difference between my pastor and me is that I can hide my propensity for drunkenness; and for that reason, mine is even more dangerous.

   He can't go back to drinking without revealing it in his face, his mannerisms, his lifestyle, and his absence at AA meetings. I, on the other hand, can be drunk with hidden sin and no one will know for a long time. They won't even miss me at church because, unlike AA meetings, I can get away with deception at church. I don't have to worry about being found out at church because no one else wants to be found out either. We're easy on each other; we all put our best foot forward and we're all hiding — from the pastor on down.

   That's what I like about AA meetings. The word is out. Everyone knows it. They all have been deceiving themselves and everyone else, but now they can't get away with it anymore. Everybody is there because they're alcoholics who want to do something about it. They have to get help because it's too big to handle by themselves.

   Sound anything like what Christian fellowship ought to be? "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

   My pastor knows this reality. For every time he steps in front

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of his congregation and opens his Bible to speak to them from God, there was another time earlier in the week when he mounted a lowlier platform in front of another congregation and proclaimed, "Hi, I'm Frank, and I'm an alcoholic." To which a chorus of gruff blue- and white-collar voices replied in earthy unison, "Hi, Frank," as if to say, "You're one of us. We understand. We need each other."

   People at the local AA meeting know what it's like to be at the bottom; they know what they have to do to stay above it, and they know how much they depend on each other to help them. When you compare the gut-level group dynamics of an AA meeting to a punch-and-cookies get-together in the fellowship hall after church . . . (Need I say more?)

   Yet this same identification is the essence of real fellowship — knowing what it's like to be a sinner, knowing the grace and forgiveness that meet us there, and knowing how much we need each other's encouragement and accountability. It's impossible to have real fellowship without sharing the common bond of our sin as well as our forgiveness.

   Yes, there is a bond in sin that strips away pride, rank, social status, and religion, leaving us all in touch with a common need for our Savior — a sort of Sinners Anonymous, if you will.

   Fellowship begins to make sense only in this context. Fellowship means something to saved sinners; it doesn't mean a whole lot to sanctimonious saints. Saved sinners know that a constant struggle with sin continues even after their salvation. But there is real life in this tension: grace, humility, friendship, pain, forgiveness, sorrow, and laughter.

   Next time you go to church (or if you're a Christian leader, the next time you get up to minister), go with the attitude that the word is out. Everyone knows it. You've been deceiving yourself and everyone else, but now you can't get away with it any longer. You're there because you're a sinner and you want to do something about it — and you've got to have help because it's too big to handle by yourself.

   My pastor is always one drink away from being out of control . . . and so am I.

   And so are you.

   "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).

Chapter 27  ||  Table of Contents