It’s that time of the year when we enjoy giving and receiving gifts and recently I enjoyed sharing my story of God’s gift in my own life with Hope For Glasgow. As I look back over the past twenty years of sobriety and try to reflect on the work of God in my own life I’m grateful for Jesus Christ God’s greatest gift to the world. I looked at four areas where God worked in my life to help me share my story and which I’m rewriting now.
As I look back over the past twenty years the first thing I would say is that it’s gone by in a flash! God speaks with wisdom when he asks us to number our days.
However it wasn’t always like this. Early in sobriety I remember the difficulty of getting through one week which felt like a lifetime. I remember that for a long period I just wanted to feel better than I did in the present. I remember the desire to have years of experience in a brief period of time.
It was Jesus’ teaching on worry that helped the most in the early days. His instruction to live daily helped immensely during the slog of the early days and the fear that things wouldn’t work out. This idea has actually followed me throughout the past twenty years. It helped me to find my feet again in life and has helped me to deal with all manner of challenges in life without getting too far ahead of myself and trying to control the future.
There are four things I want to mention as I look back over the past twenty years. These are four things I believe God did in my life that I’ll use to share my story.
The first as I look back is to say that I now believe that God created some of the turmoil of my life and left me to my own devices which turned out to be helpful. Of course this is a common theme in the bible.
Whether it’s the tower of Babel or the Babylonian Exile or Romans chapter 3 we often read about God creating disaster and confusion and a bit of ruin before building something new. He allows people to sink low before he lifts them high. He gives people a taste of life without Him to help foster a change of heart and even give a new heart. That was my experience through the train wreck of my old life.
The story of my drinking life was one disaster after another interspersed with brief periods of respite. It was a constant cycle of ruin and recovery, darkness and light, chaos and order but this cycle persisted for years and any respite was brief.
It was also a lifestyle that had wide ranging effects. In the bible sin is an all-encompassing malady. We may sometimes think we’re committing just one sin at a time but the shockwaves of that sin reverberate through our lives and the tentacles reach into other areas.
For example, my manner of drinking and my behaviour affected my relationships, my finances, my health and my work ethic and I’m sure you can imagine why. The physical and emotional strength needed to recover from a binge also affected how I thought and felt. It made me hyper sensitive and paranoid. I would easily overreact to people and circumstances and my thinking was distorted to the point of being unreasonable.
In short, it was a dark and depressing state of affairs and as the years rolled on it always got worse and never got better. Through this experience though I was laid low and brought to ruin but it turned out to be the means through which God drew me to Him.
As I look back, the emptiness of my life and the emptiness within caused me to seek help and I found out about turning to God from people who had been there themselves through a support group.
I would later view this experience through the lens of God’s common grace and natural theology. I experienced a general work of God where I found my feet again and some basic order returned to my life. I would also later find out that it was a common tactic of God to draw people to him as they taste the emptiness of life and this developed further as my sober life unfolded.
I say this because although I was now on my feet again it was also surprising that a low level emptiness persisted even after two years of sobriety. I had resolved some basic life issues but there remained a sense of dissatisfaction. One early example of this is when I travelled to Australia and for all the buzz about my backpacking adventure and the promise it held out, it turned out in fact to be a fairly average experience. Understanding already that life can feel empty even when you think you’re having fun helped me and so I began to think that there was something more going on.
I can now see that there was a growing dissatisfaction with how I was relating to God. For example I had an urge to return thanks for a changed life but often felt I was praying into a void. I sensed both a God who was far and near. He was near enough to help me but far enough away to perplex me. There was nothing concrete to pin my worship on and so I was left slightly bewildered.
This is what caused me to turn to the church. I was raised in a Church of Scotland church but I made a sharp exit from a young age. Perhaps there was something I had missed so I found a church on the internet and attended a prayer meeting and one thing lead to another.
My previous experience seemed to make me ripe for the gospel as I began to see that a drink problem was a symptom of a greater problem that we all have. It was an expression of the wider sin problem albeit a very stark one.
With this came the realisation that even though the issue had been resolved at one level there was still a deeper heart issue involving the need for forgiveness and for my sin to be addressed. If God could change a cold heart he could also give a new one. This is what lead to the personal encounter with Christ in the gospel and his work at the cross.
I can put the pieces together today with a bit more precision. From where I stand now I look back and identify all the more with several aspects of the Christian gospel that resonated with my experience with alcohol and subsequent turn around. This is what made me ripe for the gospel.
For example I can identify with the fact that we cannot avoid sin when left to our own devices and so the debt of sin remains outstanding. To quote R.C. Sproul we’re not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners. Left to my own devices I found I was unable to stop drinking and it had mastery over me which gave me a clear picture of the greater problem of sin as described in the bible and which is evident in other areas of my life.
I can identify with the notion of judgement and hell and a deep need of forgiveness. I was already aware that my actions, especially during a binge were worthy of judgement. I knew it all too well. The guilt and shame could not be ignored or pushed aside as we’re able to do with other sins in our life.
Hell came in parable form through the life I was living as an active drinker. The bible simply widened the picture for me. It presented the terrifying and awful picture of a place in the future which is devoid of God’s love and grace and where there is a perpetual handing over to our own devices and all the hell that goes with it. A place where experience is nightmare. My former life echoed this in a small way.
I could also identify with the need to look outside of ourselves for a solution. When drinking I tried every experiment going with no success. I put every effort into fixing my habit. I tried to cultivate inner strength and draw upon youthful resources all to no avail.
It was only when I made the step (with limited understanding) of looking to God and drawing on his resources for help that there was any substantial change in my life. I later found out that one of the most powerful works of the Holy Spirit is to give someone the ability to control their actions and what was experienced in a general way became specific and fully realised through the gospel and Jesus Christ.
Finally, if confession of sin was essential this also resonated in my experience for how can a problem be dealt with if the person doesn’t confess that they have it in the first place. To quote John Stott;
“Nothing keeps people away from Christ more than their inability to see their need of him or their unwillingness to admit it…For just as we go to the doctor only when we admit that we are ill and cannot cure ourselves, so we will go to Christ only when we admit that we are guilty sinners and cannot save ourselves. The same problem applies to all our difficulties. Deny the problem, and nothing can be done about it; admit the problem, and at once there is the possibility of a solution. It is significant that the first of the ‘twelve steps’ of Alcoholics Anonynmous is: ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.’”
So as I look back I now see that God was drawing me to Him through these means but then He did something else. He put faith to the test. Testing came in various ways. There were the obvious tests that continually come up in my Christian life today. Temptation to sin, succumbing to sin, prayerlessness, bad habits and bad attitudes that creep in. However there were other tests of faith. For example I’ve often noticed that anything I’ve done in the Christian life has involved an element of the test. Will I press on and do what the Lord wants me to do even when it feels uncomfortable and difficult?
So I sensed a test whenever I embarked upon some new area of service in church life. I was almost never comfortable until I did something long enough for it to become fairly normal. This has also been true for me for the Christian life in general. In a sense it is an unnatural way of life but for the grace of God.
There was also some theological testing. I had to grapple with some tough ideas many of which didn’t fit with my understanding of God. It was slightly ironic that it was after I became a Christian that I grappled the most with God’s Word but that’s probably because I had now definitely entered the battle of the worldviews.
I was tested in the workplace. As a public servant there was the challenge of dealing with the public in a Christian manner and respecting people equally and in a dignified manner. I also worked in an atmosphere where cutting corners was par for the course and rewriting standards to suit the means was fairly common. At times I failed these tests but I tried to avoid the easy excuses when I did. The test was still on and I was going back in!
I was also tested in relationships especially when I met my wife to be. Would I love her and treat her well? Would I handle the clash of wills and my desire to be right all the time? Would I put my money where my mouth is and step into the unknown of marriage? When I look back at my previous life there is absolutely nothing to be proud of when it comes to this kind of relationship.
You might wonder what this has to do with my drinking. The answer is that dealing with all of these challenges was part and parcel of moving on from it. It was all part of my repentance. I was now making decisions and leading a life that was the complete opposite to what was going on before and it had taken a concrete direction in the way of Christ. So I tried not to shrink back from these tests.
Once again my previous experience actually helped me with all of this. The idea of losing my life to save it in and saying thy will be done not my will had meant a lot to me in the early days of sobriety. Previously there was a clear pattern where left to my own devices my old life was a shipwreck until I gave up the ghost of self determination. This idea which comes straight from the bible was now being applied where it should be. To the Christian life.
So renewing the mind and dying to the old self was always going to be hard which is why I’m glad that I can say that the final thing God did was redirect my desires which in the bible is the result of a new heart given in Christ.
Gradually new desires replaced the old. When I became a Christian there was no blinding light or big fanfare. It was a fairly routine prayer in a church on an alpha course.
But from that moment (notwithstanding the bumps) my desires began to shift and the personal experience of Christ and knowledge of forgiveness of sin through his sacrifice at the cross was undoubtedly the game changer.
Over time the bible, God’s Word became attractive to me. Prayer became enjoyable. I now wanted to serve God in church which is a desire that has taken me from drunken binges to all manner of church ministry including the short term missionary trip where I met my wife.
Much of this came about from a settled desire and thirst to know God more. Obviously there were and are peaks and troughs but the thirst developed over time to the point that I left a career to go to Bible College. It became the only thing I wanted to do and so in my four years at Bible College I did a BA and a Masters in theology.
Today I’m working for a church where I’ve been for the past 7 years. I’m married with a family. Of course there have been difficulties. The Christian life is a battle. There have also been so many good things to write home about over the past 20 years. It makes me glad of the gift of life and I look back with fondness to those early days of sobriety that paved the way for the gospel to take root in my heart.
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