February 9, 2014

Joy – The new Ecstasy

According to a report in The Weekend Australian yesterday ice – an ampethamine-type  stimulant – is set to become the most pervasive drug for addicts in the world, and Australia is no exception.  The article “Inside The Ice Storm” documented a series of interviews and casual encounters with those affected by the drug, as well as those who work trying to put its casualties back together. Much of it was harrowing reading, not least of all the encounter that investigative journalist Matthew Thompson had with an ageing, ailing prostitute whose brain was an addled mess.

A key term in the article was the word “bored” or “boring”.  Most addicts are sitting around waiting for a hit, getting over their high, or sorting out how to get the money for the next one.  There was a clear pattern of a fear of the boredom of being straight.  And let’s face it, with the lives being described in the article, much of life for these people is  sheer terminal boredom.  Being clean doesn’t make you live any longer, it just seems like it.

Anyway, one of those interviewed was a rehab counsellor, Tim Morris, who made the observation that handling an addict is like having a five year old on your hands who is constantly whining “I’m bored, I’m bored!”.  But it was this paragraph that made me sit up and take notice:

I put to Morris the idea I’ve long held that it is practical for addictive people to embrace evangelical religion or boxing or long-distance running or some other compulsion or discipline that keeps them on the straight and narrow. “How long can you hold a brick in the air? Doesn’t work, mate,” he says. “Without healing inside it’s just switching obsessions and white-knuckling it.” He clenches his fist until his arm shakes. “What we do, how we live, has to come from joy. If they hurt their knee and can’t run or have a problem at their church, before you know it they’re back to their old habits. We need to be joyful around what we do. And it helps to help others – not just to talk about our own issues but to do service, give back.”

A few thing to note:

1. Thomas Chalmers  – the 19th century Scottish Puritan pastor was onto something in his excellent sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, in which he stated that a misplaced desire of the heart can only be expelled, not by force of will, but by some new desire.  In other words, exactly what journalist Matthew Thompson is saying:  Refocus the person on something else – hopefully something positive – and it will replace one addiction with another addiction.  The trouble, of course, is that the addictive personality remains.  And that is exactly the problem Tim Morris has with such a solution.

2. The evangelical church experience of some addicts tends to be less than what many Christians might hope it to be, if Morris is any indicator, and he probably has a good deal of experience in ex-churched junkies. As Morris says, it’s just switching obsessions and   “white-knuckling it”.  Too often, as he claims, if something goes amiss with their new obsession, it’s back to the drug habit. This does raise the question of what these churches are offering.  I am aware that breaking a drug habit is hard, and that churches are not always equipped to deal with the nitty gritty of that lifestyle, given their often middle-class framework.  And many of the inner-city pentecostal churches might provide the ecstatic experience that seemingly kicks the habit, but if this is not backed up by the liberating gospel of grace, the result will be be a failed moralist experience that inoculates the person against the gospel.

3. Most importantly, Morris is right when he says that joy is the answer.  The most startling thing he said was: “What we do, how we live, has to come from joy.”  Startling perhaps, but completely in line with Chalmers’ observation that the human heart – and hence the human practice – is only changed permanently by joy, a new desire that completely, and forever, dispels all of the misplaced desires.  Of course Morris is coming from a different worldview when he makes this claim, but he is on the money.  If an addict’s experience of church is not rooted in joy, and only in either an equally addictive spiritualised experience, or in a moralist framework that ticks certain boxes, then joy will be absent.

This is a huge challenge to our churches. If the world around us looks at us and does not see joy at the centre, joy that is transformative, then all we have left is exactly what Morris says – an obsession.  And you know what it is with obsessions: Unless we are equally obsessed by the same thing as someone else then that obsession, rather than attractive, is actually off-putting and often not a little bit creepy.

If the solution is a life-changing joy that delivers people from a sordid addiction such as ice, then this same life-changing joy is also the solution to our respectable, civilised addictions. Addictions such as the drive for the autonomous life; the search for authentic experiences; a life of ease and comfort; security in our finances; freedom to choose multiple sexual partners that suit our needs; self-satisfaction in our political and social leanings.

After all, this is what Thomas Chalmers understand that Morris does not. Joy found anywhere outside of the God who created us in joy and for finding our joy in Him is, ultimately, idolatrous, and when found wanting will need to be replaced.   Chalmers, memorably, puts it like this:

 It is thus, that the boy ceases, at length, to be the slave of his appetite, but it is because a manlier taste has now brought it into subordination—and that the youth ceases to idolize pleasure, but it is because the idol of wealth has become the stronger and gotten the ascendancy and that even the love of money ceases to have the mastery over the heart of many a thriving citizen, but it is because drawn into, the whirl of city polities, another affection has been wrought into his moral system, and he is now lorded over by the love of power. There is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.

Our heart’s desire for desire and joy is unconquerable, but thankfully the one who knows the heart can conquer it. It is no surprise as we read the New Testament that central to the apostles’ lives is not a stoicism to keep going, or an obsession that looks and feels creepy, but joy.  Hence St Peter in 1Peter1:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Praise and joy are central for the Christians Peter is writing too, even in the midst of  suffering rejection for following Jesus. Morris’s approach has merit, but it misplaces the locus of our joy.  He says we need to be joyful “around what we do”. Fine as far as it goes, but unless our joy pre-exists what that “whatever” is, it is not sustainable.  Joy in Peter’s letter is much more radical, because it flourishes in suffering. And such suffering, without joy is an experience that, if it does not exactly push us onto ice, will at least send us off in a furtive search for ecstasy in something  – anything – that holds out the promise of delivering what only Jesus truly can.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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