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