We just heard Paul’s account of doing the very thing he hates. The struggle he faces with behaviors he does not like and yet does them anyway. When I first read this, it reminded me of a person struggling with addiction. Of course, this speaks to so much more, but today I will look at these passages through that lens. Then turning to the gospel reading, I was surprised to see what people were saying about Jesus, “Look a glutton and a drunkard.” They were trying to discredit him, more than say he had a problem, but clearly addiction was alive and well in Jesus’ day. My hope is that when we can see destructive behaviors in the extreme, we can also see our own struggle even if we have never been caught in the throes of addiction.
Lee and I recently watched The Wings of Eagles, the 1957 John Wayne movie where he is injured and they spend half the movie chanting, “I’m gonna move that toe!” and remarkably he does. But what struck me about that classic is that everyone smoked, including the doctors who were smuggling booze into his room. Smoking and drinking were woven into the culture. The behaviors were not problematic, move expected. But then things changed. “To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did; I ought to know because I have done it a thousand times” Mark Twain.
Raise your hand if you smoked. Raise your hand if you still smoke. Were there times when you were trying to quit that you lit up, even though you had promised yourself you were done? Did you come to hate smoking or at least the health risks involved, and yet you found yourself buying a pack and hiding it? Did you do, not what you wanted, but the very thing you hate? Did it feel like someone inside you was lighting up? When you took that drag was there an element of self-loathing? If so, you know what Paul is talking about. Maybe smoking is not what calls your name. Rather it is that dessert that sits there and whispers, “You can have just one bite,” but it never stops there. Or you simply live on a perpetual diet, because you have a love hate relationship with food. Or pain medication, alcohol, or pot have become a very large part of your life. You never set out to be addicted to these things, and yet you say like Paul, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
I must pause here, Paul is not speaking about addiction to substances like food and alcohol. He is talking about the actions we take, the sinful actions that separate us from God.
You might not be able to stop gossiping, so you tell stories about people without their permission, even when you know it is hurtful.
You might flirt when it is not appropriate, or even cheat on your spouse.
You might speed even though you know the risk.
You might lie on your taxes, or yell at your kids even when you don’t want to.
Paul never names his problem, but let’s sin cover a multitude of possibilities. The point is we all have things that can get the better of us. Sins that seem to take on a life of their own. When it reaches addiction proportions, the havoc it reeks is visible and felt. Your thing, whatever that may be, can destroy your relationship with yourself and with God.
Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” We hear the struggle, the self-loathing and the plea for God’s help.
“In the film a Beautiful Mind, the brilliant psychotic mathematician John Nash assures his psychiatrist that he will deploy his analytical skills to cure his own illness. ‘You can’t reason your way out of this,’ his doctor replies, ‘because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!’ Just so, Paul says the self by itself can neither enact its good intentions nor heal its relationship with God. It can be rescued only from without” (Feasting on the Word, A3, p. 211).
In addictions terms, that is when a person hits their bottom, and seeks help. They get a DUI, they wake up to discover the entire cake is gone, a family member leaves them because they cannot deal with the pain any longer. They surrender to the truth that what they are doing is hurting themselves and others. The denial they have lived in thinking this is really not a problem is shattered.
Matthews speaks of a generation that is in denial. They do not hear, they do not respond to the music before them; the children play a flute but they don’t dance or a dirge and no one mourns. Jesus has just made the case he is the messiah and says, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (11:15). But people don’t listen. They deny Jesus is the messiah, instead calling him a glutton or drunk.
Jesus is asking them, and us, to see the truth in front of you and respond. As people of faith we see Jesus, relate to Jesus, as our Messiah. As people responding to our sinful actions we respond by shattering our denial about our behavior. We seek God through Christ to help us with our addictions, with our sinful behaviors, with the way we deny the realities of our life. Even in his prayer, Jesus speaks of God hiding things from the wise and the intelligent and revealing them to infants. Wisdom and intelligence will not save us. Trusting in Jesus with honesty and simple faith is how we break the denial and find hope. In the 12-step program, they refer to this as HOW dealing with your addiction with honesty, openness and willingness. I think these apply to how we approach our Christian walk of discipleship as well. The more honest, open and willing we are with Jesus the better.
Paul certainly knows this. He is not only honest with Jesus, he shares his personal and humble revelation with all the people in the church in Rome. He has not met them before but wants to connect with them. He has all the reasons in the world to boast as a Pharisee (Philippians 3:4) and yet he shares his personal struggles with sin.
He acts like a sponsor who shares their own struggles with the addiction to help the newcomer know they are in the right place and not alone. And right after admitting being a wretched man, Paul does a wonderful thing. He shows gratitude for God through Jesus Christ our Lord. No matter how far down the scale you have gone there is hope, the hope of Jesus Christ.
People in recovery seek a higher power to help them minute by minute to fight their urge. For many that Higher Power is God. There is a complete dependence upon God to sustain you when it feels like someone else in acting in your body, seeking that smoke, or taking that first drink. They surrender to Higher Power after they have hit their bottom, after life has become too painful to continue as they are. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus speaks into this moment when we need help most, when we realize that what we are doing isn’t working anymore. When sin has gotten the best of us, or we are trapped in the clutches of addiction. Into that moment Jesus promises rest. And not rest like a break from activity. But rest as the quietness of your soul becomes a reality, because you have found your home in God. And not a moment of rest, but a lifelong journey of abiding with God. It is much like the rest God promised to Moses on his journey. God has just called him, and to ease Moses’ anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). Recovery from addiction is a journey, discipleship is a journey, and being honest about our sinful self is a journey and into these realities Jesus promises you rest, for he is gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. Amen.