When I told my wife about the request, she laughed too. “Don’t you have to stop drinking to write a book about living sober?” she asked. I poured myself a glass of wine and said, “We’ll see.”
I like to drink. I enjoy drinking beer, wine and whiskey. I like to drink with friends. I like to have a couple drinks with dinner and then stop. Sometimes I drink way too much. Sometimes I drink on the weekends. Sometimes I drink every night of the week. Sometimes I don’t drink for a year; sometimes longer.
There are aspects of living with and without alcohol that I love and hate. I’ve been open about that on our talk show and in what I’ve written for Key Life. I suppose that’s what started this talk about me writing a book on sobriety.
Here’s the deal, with all the ways I've abused alcohol, and all the fights that it has caused between me and my wife, I have never been able to take the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous:
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
– The Big Book of AA
Yes, as a husband and father, I have been concerned about my excessive drinking, but after a lot of counseling, I don’t believe I’m an alcoholic; a self-medicating manic-depressive, but not an alcoholic. I just can’t admit that I’m impotent to control the way I drink or don’t drink.
I am willing to admit I may be living in denial. Maybe I just haven’t hit rock bottom yet. I may be lying to myself. But I doubt it. Why? Because with all my faults, I really do live sober.
What is Living Sober?
When it comes to drinking, I can stop at one or go without. However, I am aware that many can’t make that statement. Maybe you are one of those people. If so, you need to know that I have no intention of attempting to universalize my relationship with alcohol.
Living sober is another matter entirely. The need for sobriety is universal.
Living sober is way more than putting down the bottle. Any drunk will tell you that being dry is not the same as living sober.
To put it succinctly, living sober means embracing reality.
Sobriety is not simply about a compulsion or relationship with a substance, but a relationship with ultimate reality that quenches our thirst. To live sober strikes at the heart of what it means to be fully human.
The psychiatrist and therapist, Carl Jung, wrote this in a letter regarding an alcoholic patient of his:
“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God ... You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
Spiritus contra spiritum means “spirituality against spirits,” and this concept is the seed that ultimately grew into Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 steps guide the addict toward spiritual awakening. The guys who started AA knew that the only way to combat the lesser spirits is with the Spirit, and that is just another way of saying we need to combat the counterfeit with reality. We need to live sober.
True spirituality is simply desperation. We are all desperate to experience the transcendent, and when we don’t find that experience in dirt-under-our-fingernails reality, we look for it elsewhere.
When we give ourselves to the lesser spirits, our lives become unmanageable. But when, in our desperation, we give ourselves to the Spirit who loves us unconditionally and hovers over our dark emptiness, ultimate reality invades our lives and brings order from chaos.
The radically good news is that transcendence is ours for the taking by faith. Jesus said, “…the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). And what do we experience when Jesus receives us? Nothing short of union with the Trinity! Jesus told the Father, “…the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:22-23). This is the thirst-quenching living water of ultimate reality.
As a fallen creature without the Spirit, I am weak, needy and susceptible to alcohol abuse. But as a creature in communion with his creator, I have embraced reality by faith. I am sober. I am the image of God, filled with his Spirit, and by his strength in my weakness, I can enjoy making good choices. I’ve proven that over and over again. Yes, sometimes as a child of God I choose to disobey my loving Father who wants the best for me. But I never stop being his child, and that is sobering. My life is certainly not without its sin or struggles, but by God’s grace, living in union with the Spirit, life is quite manageable.
Embracing the Pain and Pleasure of Reality
Reality is infected with the pain of what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone, and what’s been done to us. Reality is also overflowing with the Spirit, God’s merciful presence, all of the undeserved blessings and joys in life, and on top of that, access to the Godhead and the ultimate redemption of the worst evil this bent world can dish out. Sobriety is letting all that hit you with full force.
Sharon Hersh is a therapist and an expert on addiction. She’s also one of my counselors (and she agrees I’m probably not a drunk, so there). Anyway, Sharon says that addicts believe two things that fuel their destructive behavior. The addict believes she deserves relief, and that she should be able to choose when and how she gets it. In that sense, we’re all prone to addiction.
We all construct barriers out of behaviors that provide protection from pain, but these walls also cut us off from all that we were created to enjoy. That’s easy to see in the behavior of an addict, but it also happens when we misuse religion, shopping, power, sex, achievement... pick your prison. We’re all users and abusers, but addiction sets in when we abandon reality in exchange for self-protection. We can’t selectively numb out, the ache and the ecstasy both go when we give up on reality. When we become addicted to providing our own relief, paradoxically, pleasure is drained from our lives.
Living sober in union with the Spirit is the alternative. Granted, we can never be completely free from addictive tendencies. In fact, realizing that we can’t perfect ourselves is part of sobriety; it’s dealing with a hard reality. However, we can move forward into greater degrees of sober living. To do that, we have to be willing to let the waves of pain knock us down, so the pleasure can wash over us.
It’s scary. We have to own all the ways we’ve hurt ourselves and others. We have to name all that we’ve lost, mourn and ultimately accept that it’s gone. We have to trust we really are one with God, give ourselves to the cycle of death and resurrection, let go and hope for redemption. We have to face the fear that relief may never come, and then choose to trust the Spirit.
When we ignore the reality of our pain and the presence of the Spirit, we feel alone, aching for the transcendence that’s ours if we would only believe it. Refuse to embrace the pain and pleasure of ultimate reality and what’s left except to seek relief from the lesser spirits?
It’s so tempting to settle for comforting ourselves. But remember, true spirituality is simply desperation. Nobody is as spiritual as the addict who has encountered the futility of self-satiation. If you’ve come to the end of yourself (alcoholic or not), what have you got to lose? Why not face reality and take a step of faith toward sobriety?
Daring to Believe
Here’s where it gets messy. There’s an exhortation in 1 Corinthians that contains a hidden hope:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!”
– 1 Corinthians 6:15
Before that verse, the apostle Paul just got done telling the Corinthians that all things were lawful, but not necessarily helpful. Then he brings up picking up a hooker. Certainly there are some negative consequences at this point, but those consequences do not include God leaving the believer. In fact, he says that believers are so “one” with Jesus, that if we have sex with a prostitute, Jesus is having sex with a prostitute. He goes on to remind believers that we are the temple of the Spirit.
Isn’t that great news? The ultimate reality of your union with God can’t be undone by your bad choices! Even if you’re drunk right now, God is right there with you, loving you no matter what.
That will drive uptight religious people nuts, but if you’re an addict who has tried to quit over and over and over again, that will give you some hope in the midst of all the shame and guilt.
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
– Romans 8:38-39
Spiritus contra spiritum! Focus on the joy of your union with God instead of what you just drank and it will lessen the attraction to your addiction (especially if the bottle is making your life unmanageable).
Will you dare to believe that you already have the transcendence you’re looking for in that bottle? Will you dare to thank him with lips wet with whiskey? If so, you may not stop drinking right away, but you will begin to live sober... and you will always be as loved and as close to the Father as Jesus is.
Read the follow-up piece to Drunk Believers, Pain is Your Friend.