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TODAY, Vol. 16: 11-14, May 12, 1972
INSIDE VIEW OF ALCOHOLISM
went to seminary to escape alcoholism.
may seem somewhat ludicrous to you, as it now does to
me. But beyond the genuine belief that God had called me
ministry, there was the sick notion that I could flee from
Barleycorn behind the ivy-covered walls of a theological
did not know then that an alcoholic, or incipient
alcoholic, will find a drink anywhere - if he hurts enough.
not know then that a "geographical cure" is doomed
that an alcoholic needs a new heart, a new spiritual outlook,
began my alcoholic odyssey as a newsman and ended it as
clergyman. In the sodden interim, I managed to write my
seminary thesis in a ginmill, escape for a time to an alcoholic's
paradise abroad, be hospitalized twice - and yet remain
of concern of the Hound of Heaven.
grace has been particularly evident in the fact that,
unlike a lot of other alcoholics, I was able to keep my
intact - thanks to the never failing support of a praying
Had I lost my family, I am sure I would not be writing this
article, much less be preaching with all my heart the unsearchable
riches of His grace. Can human nature be redeemed? You bet
can! I stand in my own pulpit as Exhibit A!
my faith in Jesus Christ has never been stronger, my
hope that the institutional church will help to reclaim
suffering alcoholic is much more limited. I used to blame
alcoholism on the narrow fundamentalism of my youth. No
discovered that my liberal colleagues would offer me a drink
prove their own "liberation." They would use and
alcoholic with an abandonment unknown in warmly evangelical
circles. The sad truth is that nobody likes a drunk.
size of the problem is staggering. Dr. Roger Egeberg of
the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare has
alcoholism the number-one public-health problem; it affects
million Americans - far more than the number addicted to
drugs. And the National Council on Alcoholism calls this
which cripples entire families, the most neglected illness
can make a valuable contribution in this area
once they see that alcoholism is a reflection of a much
national malaise. In a sense, the problem of the problem
is the problem of everyman. It is true that for the alcoholic
abuse of alcohol is the immediate problem for which a solution
must be found. But this problem is symptomatic of a much
distress that hits all of us in varying degrees. We are
in our sin, suffering, and need of salvation. Who has not
able to identify personally with the dilemma of St. Paul:
I come up against the Law I want to do good, but in practice
I do evil. My conscious mind wholeheartedly endorses the
I observe an entirely different principle at work in my
This is in continual conflict with my conscious attitude,
makes me an unwilling prisoner to the law od sin and death.
mind I am God's willing servant, but in my own nature I
fast, as I say, to the law of sin and death. It is an agonizing
situation, and who on earth can set me free from the clutches
my own sinful nature? Thank God there is a way out through
Christ our Lord (Rom. 7:21-25, Phillips)!'
apostle's dilemma was certainly my own. I sought indeed
to be "God's willing servant." But the law of
sin and death - epitomized for me in the bottom of a bottle
- held me fast unil I
found the way out through Jesus Christ with the help of
is this not the experience of Everyman? Of every twice
born child of God? Alcohol may not be the problem; the law
and death may grip other men in many guises. But all of
us are but
mere beggars for the grace of God. All of us must find in
the way out of our human dilemmas.
is no mere homiletical point. It is the crucial point
for those who seek to minister to the alcoholic and his
family. For a stereotype of the alcoholic is no more valid
the stereotype of a "lazy" Mexican, a "radical"
black, or a
may characterize alcoholics as being
immature or overly dependent. The alcoholic may be, in fact,
easily frustrated and unable to handle pain. But so are
And when the alcoholic comes to his senses in the far country
- after his brain clears and his body has been mended -
he may grow
in grace and maturity faster than others who have not shared
experience in the valley of the shadow of death or the pit
most obvious problem of the problem drinker is of course,
the abuse of alcohol. Millions of American's at every stratum
society are afflicted by this "disease without a cure."
is also called the family disease" because it unleashes
upon those closest and dearest to the alcoholic. Its effect
industry can only be calculated in billions of dollars annually.
What it does to our highway death toll was graphically illustrated
by an official of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
would be intensive public reaction he said, if the airlines
747 jumbo jet filled with passengers every week. Yet very
is said about the fact that a number equal to that carried
747 lose their lives each week because of alcohol-related
slaughter on the highways.
groups and most evangelical churches have long
identified John Barleycorn with the devil, and there is
biblical, sociological, and psychiatric evidence to support
point of view. Something satanic must be at work when a
woman will sacrifice home, job, and self-respect for vomiting,
blackouts, the shakes, convulsions, delirium tremens, and
death. Nothing other than the satanic can explain why a
woman, once delivered from the ravages of alcohol will return
the bottle that caused his downfall. Man created a little
than the angles, can become worse than a beast under the
Alcoholics Anonymous has traditionally avoided any
association with temperance lobbies. Its slogan is "Live
Live." Its members subscribe to the belief that their
had become unmanageable and that they themselves were powerless
over alcohol. The purpose of their fellowship is to stay
to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
tradition began early in the history of the A.A.
fellowship. Its beloved co-founder, Bill W., experienced
spiritual transformation in New York City's Towns Hospital.
Doctors had decided Bill was a hopeless drunk. But Bill
a drink again, once he came face-to-face with what he called
God of the preachers."
immediate inclination was to evangelize. He wanted to
infuse much of the substance of orthodox Christian doctrine
the veins of the infant A.A. fellowship. To their deaths,
and A.A.'s second co-founder, Dr. Bob, were devout Christians.
early failures to sober up other drunks through
evangelistic appeals convinced these once-sodden saints
would have to change their approach. They soon discovered
they needed to clear an alcoholic's brain to prepare the
the Holy Spirit to change his heart.
doctor encouraged him to skip talking about his
conversion and instead emphasize the medical aspects of
alcoholism. This point was reinforced by atheist and agnostic
members who forcefully pressed the point that many alcoholics,
those who had abandoned the God of their youth in their
would never enter the fellowship if it smacked of yet another
A.A. has never lost its stress on the spiritual
aspects of the program, early in its history the emphasis
from sin to sickness. Its working definition of alcoholism
as a threefold disease, physical, mental, spiritual. Once
drinker has crossed the invisible line from social to problem
drinking, he can never safely drink again. Not even beer.
he has lost control of his drinking, the alcoholic becomes
victim of a physical allergy coupled with a mental obsession.
medical testimony bears this position out.
great friend of Alcoholics Anonymous was Dr. E.M.
Jellinek, who wrote the definitive study The Disease Concept
Alcoholism and played a leading role in the establishment
Yale School of Alcoholic Studies (now at Rutgers). The possibility
that uncontrolled drinking was a disease was hinted at as
as Aristotle's time, possibly even by Isaiah (5:11). However
was left to Dr. Jellinek and the American Medical Association
(1957) to give authoritative medical support to this view.
disease concept of alcoholism has been a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it has helped to lay to rest those old
the problem drinker, if not a moral degenerate, was at least
than a man, and that he could drink if he would only exercise
power and learn to drink like a man. This the alcoholic
do, and the disease concept has helped to instill this truth
the minds of the problem drinker and the public. On the
hand, the disease concept can be - and has been - used by
practicing alcoholics to justify their drinking. Edward
McGoldrick, Jr., author of The Conquest of Alcohol, makes
point that many alcoholics rationalize their way into another
binge by saying: "I am the victim of an incurable disease.
hopeless so I may as well drink myself into an early death."
recovering alcoholic eventually discovers that his
problem is not alcohol alone. It is himself. In the A.A.
an A.A. member commented that her last "slip"
occured when she
neglected to remember the last half of A.A.'s First Suggested
toward recovery. "I had no trouble in remembering I
over alcohol," she wrote, "but I kept forgetting
my life was
the same time, it should be pointed out that alcoholics
are not alone in living lives of organized confusion and
desperation. Many of us fear change because it threatens
of security and stability. Our arrogance, agression, hostility,
and pride often cause us to lash out in a desperate effort
maintain our sense of sovereignity. We will not give up
God. Recognizing these feelings of autonomy in ourselves
us understand the situation of the suffering alcoholic.
doesn't want to admit that he is not the master of his own
that he cannot control his life. He tries his best to maintain
illusion that all he needs to do is cut down, or change
or shift from soda to water as a chaser.
is why it is so agonizingly difficult to work with an
alcoholic who has not "hit bottom." It tears the
heart of the
person who genuinely wants to help to have to tell a concerned
loved one that nothing can be done for a practicing alcoholic
until he himself cries out for help. Psychotherapists such
Harry Tiebout say that there must be a complete deflation
ego, that the alcoholic must admit he is powerless. Jesus
another way in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The boy
story started on the road to recovery immediately after
he came to
his senses and abandoned his own sense of personal sovereignty.
Happiness was at home with the waiting Father, and so it
is for us
unmanageability characterizes the lives of many of us, it
is especially characteristic of the alcoholic's family life.
spouse and children stand by helplessly as a personality
degenerates before their eyes. In the face of mental or
assaults, the response of family members often is retaliation
the threat of retaliation. Where there is no open abuse,
often felt within the family circle. The nagging question
What have I done to make him do this? This is usually an
in futility. The far more positive approach, as Al-Anon
Groups suggest, is for family members to admit that their
lives have become unmanageable, that they too are powerless
alcohol. Within this therapeutic framework, family members
begin to cope with their own emotional problems. They will
encouraged to adopt the Twelve Suggested Steps of A.A. as
own and to learn to give their alcoholic understanding,
sympathy. They will learn that there is a world of difference
between the two. They will learn to live with the enemy
and, by God's grace, in time the enemy will grow weaker
themselves move from faith to faith.
recovering problem drinker and his family eventually
discover that they must always face the problem of unthinking
people round about them. For them, Jean Paul Sarte's words
often tragically true: "Hell is other people."
The scandal is that
this can be as true within the Church as in the world outside
problem facing the alcoholic who is struggling to achieve
sobriety is that people who give lip service to the disease
concept of alcoholism deep down may still believe it is
moral problem. An illustration of this fact is the case
Harold Hughes of Iowa. Here is a man who has not taken a
since 1954. Yet the press thoughtlessly refers to him as
reformed alcoholic rather than as a recovering one. When
for his feelings about having an alcoholic in the White
Senator Hughes reportedly replied he would feel safer with
non-drinker, rather than a "social drinker," controlling
lethal button that could plunge the world into war. This
convincingly to the power for good that recovering alcoholics
have in our tragically fragmented world.
hell can indeed be other people is also evident when one
considers psychotherapists who suggest to men and women
from the pit of hell that perhaps they can drink again socially;
when one sees airlines currying the accounts of professional
who are alcoholics by advertising full bar service in airborne
lounges, when one hears of bosses and associates feeding
another binge when an alcoholic is out because of sickness;
when one hears of evangelicals who shun the sick alcoholic
he had the plague. The tragedy of tragedies, it seems to
that we bask in the Gospel of grace for ourselves but judge
by the false gospel of works righteousness. No wonder St.
power of hell is strongest where the odor of sanctity fills
alcoholic pastor knows this only too well. There are times
when the physical and emotional drain put upon his resources
too great. Then he must retire to the safety of his A.A.
For he finds there understanding and compassion which, sad
he often fails to find among his own colleagues and within
congregation, no matter how dear to his heart.
is not to suggest that Alcoholics Anonymous is a perfect
reflection of the kingdom of God. It is not. It is made
people with all their failings and all their strengths.
myself, I have found the A.A. fellowship successful when
therapies failed. Yet I would not question for a minute
loving God uses other means to raise the suffering alcoholic
new life for His glory.
is my own firm conviction that an A.A.. who has not yet
accepted the spiritual side of the program is missing out
highest and best. Happily, my own group consists of a warm
evangelical bloc. We share not only one another's sorrows
one another's joys. My own testimony is this: As my blessed
turned the water into wine at Cana, he turned my wine into
through the new birth of the Spirit - and the A.A. friendship.
that, I am a grateful alcoholic. Praise his wonderful Name