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No Kingdoms and Splendor

The journey through Lent always introduces the character of the devil, as year after year we encounter Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  It was easier for me to understand this gospel passage (Matthew 4:1-11) in the abstract (though, to be clear, my sin is never abstract) when I did not understand the way that temptation can be, as the gospel rightly shows it to us, a relationship.  At the close of the passage, we read:

The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Ah yes, the promise of all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  This is a drunken promise I somehow happen to remember. The devil’s nature is to, as a lifestyle, write checks he can’t cash, and I have the same to say about alcohol.  Alcohol has never been faithful to me, always promising me the desires of my heart it could never deliver. I had internalized the insidious lies of alcohol: that it would make me desirable, that it would help me become more successful as I networked with others, that it made me sexy at the bar, that it brought excitement and joy into events, that no one would date me if I didn’t drink it, that it improved my relationships, that it improved me.  And, one of the biggest deceits: that alcohol made me funny. (I’m proud to announce that I’m still funny and that sobriety has only sharpened my wit.)

Any abstract understanding of forces that drew me away from myself and toward my destruction were shattered when I stared into the bottle and finally saw that it has only ever betrayed me, after promising me a life of kingdoms and splendor.  More clearly stated: alcohol made promises that God alone could deliver. My disappointment in the betrayal of promises made and never kept was as faithful as my practice of queuing up at the store or the bar to get my wine.

People sometimes talk about sin like it’s a bad word and I respect that caution, as it is often born out of righteous anger, because language around sin has been used to hurt specific types of people, people that I love dearly, who should not have to encounter spiritual abuse simply because of who God created them to be. That said, in regards to myself, I think of sin like it is, well, Thursday.  (I am writing this on a Thursday, by the way.) Sin is pedestrian. My sin just connects me to everyone else, like living and dying. Temptation is part of a natural process; I am tempted toward things that are not ideal for me, like any other. Drinking separated me deeply from God and from myself, such that sobriety is the blessed gift and celebration of unity, the formerly elusive experience of trusting what happens when I feel.

What’s so powerful to me about Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is that it reminds me of the deep relational ties I had with my tempter.  I thought it gave me identity, and thus, relationship with myself and others. Quitting drinking evoked in me a real sense of loss; I had to start to re-imagine my life, but without this companion.  I drank for 10 years. Imagine that, after spending even just one night a week with a person for 10 years, you had to say goodbye to them. There would be grief; there would be loss. It would be natural to feel that way.  Through a host of messages—religion, advertisements, family systems—we are told that there is something about alcohol that is connected to our relationships, and it’s fair to grieve that loss the way we would grieve any other, trusting that we can survive this loss the way we have survived loss in the past.  That is not to say that loss is ever easy, but that as Christians, we believe hope does not disappoint, and when we are experiencing loss, we receive the comforting and resurrecting power and presence of God.


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