005 Sin-as-Addiction and Grace-as-Remedy

I’m told Dr. H. Orton Wiley, the dean of Nazarene theologians, often said that once you know a person’s definition of “sin” you could rather accurately predict his or her position on a whole collage of other theological issues. Just as you’ve a pretty good idea how a cook’s meal will taste after you’ve sipped the soup or nibbled the salad, so you’ve a pretty good idea of what a theologian will dish up once you know his or her definition of sin. Wesleyans have traditionally understood sin to be a pervasive bent-toward-evil (the sinful nature, the “old Adam”) graphically illustrated in specific acts (sins). (In my study of history, the doctrine of “original sin” seems one of the easier Christian truths to document!) Still more: both Scripture and experience, as John Wesley insisted, amply confirm this view, though not all theologians have upheld a clear distinction between sin as a tendency and sins as manifestations of that tendency. Now Wesley’s definition of sin finds persuasive, if somewhat differently-phrased, confirmation in some recent studies which could help us better grasp and explain the life of holiness.

For many years Keith Miller has written books, deeply personal in nature, chronicling his spiritual journey. In 1987 he published Sin: Overcoming the Ultimately Deadly Addiction, which was retitled, in subsequent editions as Hope in the Fast Lane: A New Look at Faith in a Compulsive World (San Francisco: Harper & Row). The new title probably reflects a public more interested in hope than sin! Whatever its title, the book adds depth to the life story he started telling two decades ago in A Taste of New Wine.

All his life Miller’s sought meaning and inner peace, so coming by faith to Christ thirty years ago satisfied many inner hungers. But despite his conversion, despite his seminary studies, despite his at times frantic efforts to serve God as a lay minister, a haunting inner something gnawed like a tapeworm in his soul. The root of his problems came to him with the power of a fresh revelation: “I saw, in short, that I am an almost completely self-centered person. . . . Since this had not been conscious, I’d never faced these behaviors and had built a life and a ministry trying to solve this need for feeling OK about me” (p. 16).

When he first turned to God, he “experienced a sense of freedom, exhilaration, and rightness” which accompanied his “conversion. And my life really did change in every area. But the trouble was that, after a few glorious years of witnessing and writing about the faith, I found many of my old habits and behaviors had not been dealt with and healed–even though I prayed about them every day” (p. 38). Getting “saved” was marvelous, but he needed something more. Beyond conversion, more than getting saved, salvation, he’s come to believe, “includes the power to face and recover from the disease we are examining” (p. 160).

In part, at least, Miller’s spiritual paralysis stemmed from an “evangelical” theology which said much about justification by faith but little about holiness, much about being saved by grace but little about the God of peace sanctifying us wholly, much about forgiveness but little about consecration. In a very real sense he tasted the ultimately bitter taste of “cheap grace.” Consequently, Miller discovered, lacking “repentance, confession, forgiveness, and restitution after conversion, evangelicals [like himself] had no process or liturgy” or ordo salutis (sequence of salvation), which encouraged believers to cultivate the cleansing, healing work of God’s Spirit in their lives (p. 38).

What he’s now learned by experience is that his inner tensions, fears, and vanities are manifestations of “a compulsive spiritual disease” called “Sin,” a self-centered insistence on controlling his world. At the heart of all human disorders there’s a puss-packed infection discharging its poison. The “sins” which we often try … and fail … to control and then cover up are mere “symptoms of a basic and all-encompassing self-centeredness,” an “underlying attitude that is Sin (with a capital S)” (p. 27).

It’s best understood, Miller thinks, as an addiction resembling, but worse than, the chemical addictions which so enslave alcoholics and drug addicts. For “this blinding self- absorption called Sin” is what “causes sinners to seek instant gratification, to be first, and to get more than their share–now” (p. 52). As Miller assesses himself: “I was stuck in the center where only God should be. I had felt powerless before I made my first serious commitment to God on a roadside in Texas in 1956, but I had never seen the raw, naked strength and pervasiveness of my own Sin and felt the evil it had cause in me” (p. 124).

And just as alcoholics deny and rationalize their addiction, so sinners deny and rationalize their all-consuming selfishness. Too often religious folks, intent on impressing others with their “spirituality,” deny and rationalize more than others. It’s the main game in the human community. The consequences, like graffiti on an historic landmark, stand everywhere apparent. “Sin, like traditional addiction, leads to an exaggeration of character defects such as dishonesty, manipulation of people, blaming, gossiping, insatiability (with respect to attention, power, money, etc.), irresponsibility (often hidden behind respectable busy-ness), and an exaggerated sense of the importance of his or her life and/or work (often cloaked in a appearance of humility” (p. 53).

Typically we deal with the sin problem by denying it, excusing ourselves and blaming others for the damage we do. (We’ve all know “saints” who blithely blame others for bleeding after they’ve been sanctimoniously stabbed!) The only good way to deal with it is by confessing it and surrendering, utterly, to the only One who can heal it–God. Admitting one’s own powerlessness, surrendering totally to God, facilitates healing and deliverance. After reaching the end of our human resources, “after trying in every way we could think of to solve the problems our Sin caused us, we had to consciously realize our powerlessness. Then we had to make a specific act of surrender or decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. These steps are the only way we have become able to use the power of God to overcome the Disease in our lives” (p. 110).


To break Sin’s shackles, Miller proposes an adaptation of the 12-Step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. He does this most clearly in A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps As a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1991), his sequel to Hope in the Fast Lane. He considers this 12 Step approach fresh and unique, especially in its spiritual sequence: rather than heeding to an authoritative message one begins by dealing honestly with one’s illness.

The 12 Steps begin without clear Christian affirmations, just a willingness to trust some “Higher Power” of some sort. Yet along the way, Miller argues, those in the program almost always encounter the God preeminently revealed in Jesus Christ. Having listened to lots of folks tell their stories, he says “we hear how they learned to move from trusting vaguely in a Higher Power of some kind to beginning to invite the loving spirit of God into the deepest, most con- fused, most fearful, most painful, and most practical areas of their lives. The change has usually taken place in a way that was personal rather than propositional. This was not the truth about God they were learning but the Presence of God with which they were interacting. This sense of the presence of God changed the whole atmosphere in their lives–from despair to enthusiastic hope” (p. 180).

Some advocates of the 12 Step programs, anxious to eliminate any specifically theistic dimension to the program, would reject this notion–indeed there are 12 Step groups which deliberately delete religious terminology from their program. But Miller believes there’s something deeply spiritual about diligently following the steps, something which leads one to get acquainted with a “Person” rather than a nebulous “Higher Power.”

That’s because “Spiritual has more to do with how much one is in touch with reality–one’s own reality and feelings, the reality of other people, and ultimate reality, which is God and his will” (p. 6). For in all addictions, “As Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book) puts it, ‘Selfishness–self-centeredness: that, we think, is the root of our troubles.” And to get well, ‘First of all we had to quit playing God'” (p.8).

A Hunger for Healing carefully follows AA’s 12 Steps, a chapter at a time, supplying biblical references to support the spiritual dimensions of the process. “The Twelve Steps of Sinners Anonymous” declare:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our Sin– that lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our- selves over to the care of God as we under stood him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory or ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I was struck, reading these 12 Steps, as well as Miller’s discussions, by the many similarities between his discoveries and the message of “entire sanctification” as shaped by the Wesleyan tradition. Such points of contact include: the definition of “Sin,” singular, as a self-centered condition; the need for entire consecration; the importance of restitution; the necessity of continual self-scrutiny; the power of prayer. These suggest to me that the realities of life uncovered by addicts of various sorts square with that discerned in Scripture and Tradition.

Though we must not make Keith Miller an advocate of Wesleyan-style scriptural holiness, his analysis of Sin and his adaptation of the 12 Step approach to addiction, might provide us in the holiness tradition both an illustration of its enduring worth and perhaps some fresh ways to explain it to our generation. Miller’s confessions, as well as illustrations drawn from other sources, make the book eminently readable practical.


Whereas Miller is a lay-theologian and popular writer, Gerald G. May, M.D. is a practicing psychiatrist who writes out of his professional background and personal experience. One of his books, Addiction and Grace (San Francisco: Harper & Row, c. 1988), supports and blends nicely with Miller’s. He too finds the human tapestry dyed by Sin. We’re born into and permanently colored by it.

Simply “To be alive is to be addicted,” he says, “and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace” (p. 11). Though created by the God Who Is Love and inwardly (if perhaps unconsciously) aware only His Love will satisfy us, we insist on charting our own way and in the process idolize our addictions, thereby avoiding the God Who Is Love. “After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people’s hearts,” he writes, “I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God” (p. 1), yet by the millions they (like Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden) hide from Him, basically taking refuge in innumerable addictions.

With great skill, May describes the various kinds of addictions and the ways they affect us. In successive chapters he explores “MIND: The Psychological Nature of Addiction,” “BODY: The Neurological Nature of Addiction,” and “SPIRIT: The Theological Nature of Addiction.”

Psychologically, addiction leads to all sorts of self-deception–rationalization, hiding, and delaying tactics–designed to insulate us from the truth. Thus many addicts, May finds, try to live according to one of two simple formulae: “I can’t handle it” or, conversely, “I can handle it.”

In the face of life’s difficulties, some just give up trying to do anything, taking refuge in irresponsibility. Failing to overcome an addiction, they just surrender to it, drowning in a sea of negativity, saying such things as “Who cares? What difference does it make?” Or they may take refuge in cynical criticism: “Yeah, I may be no good, but neither is anything else.” Such addicts live like drifters, tossed about by whichever wind’s the strongest.

Others claim they’re perfectly in control of everything, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Whatever they face, such addicts pretend to have the strength to handle everything, to control their world, to stay propped up like a petty dictator on the throne of their private kingdom. Some play the role rather well, “succeeding” in business, “controlling” their family, apparently “doing well” in life. But in fact they’re out-of-control, putty in the hands of their addictions . . . and of their mainline addiction to self.

Neurologically, May shows how the body adjusts to addiction. Habitual behaviors, such as drinking alcohol or eating endless snacks, drinking coffee or relishing the adrenaline highs of stress, initially invite the body to embrace them. But then the repeated behavior awakens a neurological hunger for the addiction, a powerful if strangely self-destructive attachment to it. The behavior becomes an indelible part of our memory, for “the brain never completely forgets what it has learned” (p. 90). Physical desires thus become a deeply-embedded part of the controlling addiction.

Spiritually, through addictions we give up the freedom which is our birthright as God’s children. We’re designed to live freely, to respond to Love. “Ultimately,” May says, “our yearning for God is the most important aspect of our humanity, and our most precious treasure; it gives our existence meaning and direction” (p. 92). Sadly enough, “we try to fulfill our longing for God through objects of attachment” (p. 92). We get hooked on addictions! Addictions which take God’s place!

The spiritual remedy for addiction, as the book’s title suggests, is God’s grace. From us, what’s needed is a simple, childlike request. “As the giver of grace, God deserves a straightforward request. As children of God, we have the right to make that request. We can also search for grace, in both obvious and hidden places. The obvious places … include the sacraments, Scripture, and community of our faith, as well as personal prayer and meditation. The hidden places include times of turmoil and failure, encounters with people we dislike, daily drudgery, boredom, and, of course, our addictions” (p. 126).

Marvelously, the grace we need, the grace we should ask for, is neither remote nor impersonal. It’s not a purely forensic reality, hidden within the being of God, which we hope for. “It is the active expression of God’s love” (p. 120). It’s God’s Holy Spirit’s empowering Presence. As May states: “For the power of addiction to be overcome, human will must act in concert with divine will. The human spirit must flow with the Holy Spirit. Personal power must be aligned with the power of grace” (p. 140). “Addiction cannot be defeated by the human will acting on its own, nor by the human will opting out and turning everything over to the divine will. Instead, the power of grace flows most fully when human will chooses to act in harmony with divine will” (p. 139).

This becomes possible when we totally surrender ourselves to God–for “consecration is our assent to God’s transforming grace” (p. 150). In the midst of all our struggles, there are moments when we can say “yes” to God. If we do, that little assent means “our struggle becomes consecrated. Consecration means dedication to God. It occurs when we claim our deepest desire for God, beneath, above, and beyond all other things” (p. 149).

Fully consecrated to God, we learn to participate in His life through prayer, meditation, and action. The only way to know God, the only way to live immersed His love, is to “try to be present to the mystery in a gentle, open-handed, and cooperative way. This is the contemplative option–not any system of complicated exercises, but the simple and courageous attempt to bear as much as one can of reality just as it is” (p. 107).

Many of our difficulties remain rooted in our desire to manipulate rather than contemplate, to master things rather than surrender to the mystery of things. So the day-by-day solution is to stay open and surrendered to God’s will. And “Here we find another meaning of consecration: the willingness to participate in mystery through faith instead of through comprehension” (p. 156). True surrender involves the unknowns as well as the knows, the hidden surprises of the future as well as the clarified actualities of the past.

Such consecration, he suggests, “is the bridge between reformation and transformation, the integrating choice that assents to God’s homeward call” (p. 162). For all of us have a hunger for God, a hunger to live with Him for ever. By living constantly consecrated to Him, by living prayerfully, honestly, obediently, lovingly, we discern His ways with us and His world. And we discover, to our delight, the personal wholeness for which we’re designed.

Other works by Gerald May (Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology and Care of Mind, Care of Spirit: Psychiatric Dimensions of Spiritual Direction) merit the attention of anyone concerned with the intersections of psychology and theology. He is one of the more openly Christian psychiatrists I’ve read, and he has a wealth of learning and insight to share. His psychologically-oriented diagnoses and prescriptions do not always fit tidy theological categories. Yet much he says rings true, enlightening the way we think and live. Though I don’t think “addiction” fully explains “original sin,” it certainly helps illustrate its nature. And imparted grace, the Presence of God’s Spirit, certainly seems the only solution to the sin problem.

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