What you worship, you become (Nehemiah 9:22-38)

We are all addicts.  Even if we are not experiencing the symptoms of addiction at present, our hearts are inclined—literally Hell-bent—toward slavery toward sin and self.

Such words might seem harsh in today’s sanitized world of self-esteem and participation trophies.  And such words blur the comfortable divisions we create (or imagine) between ourselves and the really hard cases.  But when speaking of addiction, it’s important to recognize how sin powerfully affects us all, to the very core of our beings.  After that it’s only a matter of degree.

In Nehemiah’s day, the people were gathered for a ceremony in which they confessed their sins publicly, a confession that also included something of a history lesson, a snapshot of the relationship between God and his people:

22 “And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. 23 You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. 24 So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. 25 And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness. (Nehemiah 9:22-25)

God had been faithful to Israel in her past.  But their present had become contaminated by sin.

WHAT YOU WORSHIP, YOU BECOME

Listen to the words that are used to describe Israel’s sinful spiritual condition:

26 “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. 27 Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. 28 But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. 29 And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. 30 Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.31 Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:26-31)

The words that follow only further underscore a basic truth: that Israel’s hardships weren’t behind her; their iniquity had led them deeper into self-imposed slavery:

32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. 33 Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. 34 Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. 35 Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:27-37)

“We are slaves,” he says.  Slaves.  By that he meant that though the people had their Promised Land in their possession, they remained ruled by the Persian government.  Ironically, in seeking to be their own masters the nation had become enslaved.

The same is true for us as well.  You see, what’s really at issue here is worship.  Nehemiah highlights a basic Biblical principle: that what you worship, you become.  What you worship, you become.

Everybody worships, you see.  In his 2005 address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace told his audience that “everybody worships:”

“The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you worship money or things…then you will never have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid…Worship your intellect…you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.” [1]

Though Wallace was not a believer, his understanding of the human heart resonates profoundly with historic Christianity.  You’ve probably heard me talk about this before, but let’s apply our understanding of worship to the subject of addiction.

In the fourth century, a man named St. Augustine had this idea that our hearts indeed have “default settings.”  He called this the ordo amoris, or the “order of love.”  The simplest way to understand this is to picture your heart as a pyramid.  You will never flourish, Augustine would say, unless God resides at the top of your pyramid.  Your other loves—for family, for career, etc.—occupy the lower spaces beneath.

Sin, therefore, is a form of “dis-ordered” love.  When God no longer is my greatest source of satisfaction, something else will always take his place.

WE ARE ALL DIS-ORDERED

So while it may be true that addiction has a unique origin and a unique course of treatment, we can’t afford to treat addiction as a unique form of sin.  We are all “dis-ordered,” for all our sins are forms of dis-ordered love.  Sin isn’t just a set of bad things we do; it’s a condition into which we’re born.  David lamented that he was “sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Jeremiah would describe the human heart as “deceitful…and desperately sick.”  We’re all addicted to something.  We all look to something besides God as our source of joy and satisfaction.  Once we understand that, then, like Nehemiah, we can begin sharing the burden.

RENEWED LIVES FLOW FROM RE-ORDERED HEARTS

In Nehemiah’s day the choice before them was simple: to “renew their vows” so-to-speak, and to re-affirm their commitment to God alone:

38 “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests. (Nehemiah 9:38)

If you know your Bible history, this would be the last time they renew their commitment to God’s covenant until the days of Jesus.  But in the intervening years, things still don’t go well for them.

We cannot, on our own, ever expect to follow God perfectly by sheer force of will.  Willpower alone is insufficient.  Why?  Because if sin is a form of dis-ordered love, then our lives will never change until we change our loves.  This is why addiction treatments fail: because we have addressed the symptoms, not the cause.  In his book Clean, David Scheff laments:

“Our prevention and treatment efforts have failed mostly because they’ve focused on dealing with drugs themselves, but drug abuse is almost always the result of kids starting to use early, genetics, and other problems—stress, trauma, mental illness, or some combination of these factors. The new paradigm is rooted in recognizing that drugs are a symptom, not a cause, and whatever problems underlie them must be (and can be) addressed. Until they are, our prevention and treatment systems will continue to fail most people.”[2]

We have to change the heart.  Renewed lives can only flow from re-ordered hearts. In John’s biography of Jesus he meets a woman by a well in the town of Sychar.  The woman had spent many nights in the beds of her many lovers.  Her most recent partner is a man to whom she’s not married.

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

Jesus confronts her sin, yes, but that’s neither the starting point nor ending point of the conversation.  It’s as if Jesus is saying: “I want more for you.”

In the face of addiction, we mustn’t forget the gospel.  The gospel doesn’t simply promise that if we try hard enough, if we are good enough, God will provide us what we need to navigate our warring desires.  No; the gospel says that because God is good, he gives us himself, and he alone is what we need to satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

That’s why, honestly, if you are currently facing addiction, if you have ever faced addiction, please hear me.  Whether it’s heroin, whether it’s pornography, whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s greed—the greatest thing God wants to change in you is not your addiction; it’s your lack of dependence on him.  The cross offers not only forgiveness for your lack of dependence; it also beckons each of us to come to him—come to Jesus—to pledge our whole-hearted dependence on him and him alone.

 

[1] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Kenyon College, 2005.  Available online at http://bulletin.kenyon.edu/x4280.html

[2] Sheff, Clean, xix.

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