At a recent recovery meeting, I met a woman who wore a chunky cross necklace and clasped her hands nervously in her lap. Clearly a newcomer, her voice trembled as she gave a little speech I recognized.
"I'm a Christian, actually," she said. "I mean, I have a relationship with God and have for a long time. But for some reason, that hasn't kept me from getting addicted to food and alcohol. I don't why. I can't believe I'm here."
My heart went out to her. And I wondered for the umpteenth time if we Christians don't make the most miserable of addicts.
I should know. For more than twelve years, I was a Christian drunk living a double life. By day I wrote books about parenting and prayer, and by night I drank myself blotto from a stash in my closet.
I knew blotto was a sin, of course. Coming from an evangelical Christian background, I was familiar with the Bible verse, "Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Alcoholism, I assumed, was simply the sin of drunkenness repeated over and over again. So with "do not be drunk" as my standard, I aimed not to drink to excess. When I did, I begged God for forgiveness. And then I asked God to help me not do it again.
But I always did. As the cycle of my over-drinking, repentance, trying harder, and over-drinking again became a pattern, I often despaired. Didn't I love God enough to quit? Didn't God love me enough to deliver me?
Convinced that alcoholism was a sin issue only, it never occurred to me that my response to alcohol -- I got thirstier the more I drank -- could be abnormal or indicate a physiological condition.
And I'm not alone. Thousands, if not millions, of us Christians have made the same mistake and been caught in the vicious cycle of addiction.
Embarrassed by our lack of self-discipline, we pull up our spiritual bootstraps and try harder. We pray and repent until we're blue in the face. When our efforts continue to fail us, we feel ever more guilty and ashamed.
And confused, too. As new creations in Christ, we're supposed to have been set free from the power of sin, right? So to even admit that we have become addicted feels like a betrayal of Christ's work on the cross.
Or worse, living proof that it didn't work.
No wonder most of us go to great lengths to hide our problem. There's our reputation to protect, after all. And God's. Ironically, our desire to maintain a good witness gradually turns us into champion sneaks, liars, and hypocrites.
This is how once joyful Christians become jaded, miserable ones.
One day in 2007 after I finally got into treatment, I heard an addictions counselor say, "We're not bad people getting good, we're sick people getting well."
My hand shot up. "But we can't become alcoholic unless we drink," I objected. "So isn't calling it a sickness or a disease just an excuse?"
The counselor nodded and smiled. He'd met my kind before. "Okay," he said, "but since lung cancer can be caused by cigarettes, and diabetes can be caused by overeating, does that mean they're not progressive, often fatal diseases?"
I didn't have a comeback. And I had to admit, treating my alcoholism solely as a moral failure hadn't worked. Here I was, after all.
Today, instead of seeing addiction as either sin or sickness, I believe it involves both. When we battle obsessions, we make choices that are fair to call sin. But when these behaviors progress to the point of addiction, we're dealing with a condition that includes very real physical and psychological components.
How else but sick in body, mind, and spirit could you describe a mother who drinks so much she can't recall anything her kids told her the night before? Who, if she hasn't had enough alcohol, can't get her contacts in her eyes because her hands shake too much? Who, though she imagines she would die for her husband and children, can't quit drinking for them?
I was that woman.
I'm the last one to get hung up on semantics. But I think labels like "sin" and "sickness" matter, especially for those in the faith community. Because how we define a problem largely determines how or if we reach for a solution.
I'm not saying that prayer and repentance are never sufficient, or that God can't miraculously deliver an alcoholic to permanent sobriety. But taken alone, the label--sin--can keep people from reaching out for the kind of help they need.
This is part of why I wrote Sober Mercies. I wish someone had sat me down and given me the good news: "You're not a uniquely horrible person, Heather. You're mentally, spiritually, and physically sick...and while there is no cure, there is a solution."
Today, I know I suffer from a treatable disease called alcoholism. Because I'm involved in an ongoing program of recovery, it no longer defines my life.
Today, I also know I'm a sinner saved by grace--not just once so I can get into heaven, but every day so I can live sober, happy, and free.
We should all be so blessed.