Last weekend I found out that a high school friend of mine had died. She was several years younger than me but a friend none the less. I'm not going to post her name or information here, partly out of respect and partly because her death sparked some things in my soul and I am going to speak my mind and I don't want my thoughts directly attached to her passing.
My friend was a beautiful, sweet girl when I saw her last. She came from a very devout home. Her parents and siblings were good people. Very good people.
In no way would you ever look at her life and, knowing her background, think she was someone who was ever going to wind up drinking herself to death one day. But that's what happened.
I don't know how old she is, but she's a few years younger than me. I'm 49. She was probably 44 or 45. That's awfully young to die from something so awful. It's no way to die at all.
It's also no way to live. What follows here is not an indictment on anyone. It's conjecture, but I believe it's based in fact. I believe this because I have watched too many friends from that period in time, ruin their lives in some form or fashion. And the undercurrent to it all was a horrible, grinding adherence to a legalistic belief system and a miserable, unfathomable avoidance of Grace. Real Grace. The Grace of a loving God. Not the "grace" that makes you feel like a beggar every single day of your life. Not the pathetic, legalistic, Pharisaical, cruel, systematic grace that is never really yours. That you have to earn, but never quite can. That you have to work to keep but never really have confidence that you have kept it.
The kind of horrible excuse for "grace" that forces someone to hide their addictions -whatever they might be- instead of blurting them out to those who would call themselves your "Sisters and brothers in the Lord" and finding the help you need. The niggling, petty, diminutive grace that barely covers our "old sins" and holds no room for any sins in the future. The grace that teaches us that we can never lose our salvation because it was a gift. But then sends the signal that the God who sent us the gift regrets offering it every single day, because we never work hard enough to have "deserved" it or to be worthy of it. In the culture of graceless grace, my friend could never have opened up and asked for help. Because "saved people don't have addictions." Because, after all, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things pass away and all things become new" (II Cor 5:17) Here is the problem with quoting this verse and not understanding it properly...it's dangerous. The circle I ran in, and my friend ran in more so than I did, only adhere to the King James Version of the Bible. Now, I own the KJV and I use it when I am in churches who hold to this particular preference. It's a VERY good translation. It's very accurate. But it is not perfect. The problem with the KJV is that the English is about 600 years old. So verses can be excessively harsh if you don't understand their proper translation from Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. This verse is a prime example.
"If any man be in Christ..." "In Christ" means that a person has experienced the New Birth. They are Born Again. Pretty easy there. Then it says this person is a "new creature". This is where the legalists start getting in trouble. The "new creature" here means not a renewed version of what this person was before their head-on collision moment with Jesus. They aren't a "new" Craig Daliessio. They are a new creature. "New" here is kainos. It's a Greek word that depicts not some new and different but new like a baby. You aren't just going into the shop for a tuneup...you are starting over from scratch. You are not starting as a spiritual adult. You are a newborn. A new creation. A kainos. The term "old things become new" is future perfect tense. Those old things are becoming new...a little at a time...day by day. We grow each day and God removes things as we go along and replaces things as we go along. It is a lifelong growing process. The circle I ran in, and that my friend ran in, never saw it like that. They saw the "new creature" as perfect from the beginning. No excuse for falling and failing. If you failed, there had to be an accompanying trip to the altar where you confessed your state of being "out of fellowship" and you made a tearful penance which had to be as emotional as your salvation was originally. There became a habit of constantly spending time at the altar every Sunday, "searching your heart" for "unrecognized sins" and confessing things that probably didn't need confession. It became a system that produced not strong sons and daughters of God, who walked in the unfathomable love of their Father, but a groveling colony of worms who never saw anything in themselves that God could love and so they spent their lives trying to manufacture something. It produced a hollow, feeble, empty, tenuous grace that we feared losing. Healthy Christians fear God the right way. The term for "Fearing God" is what you feel when you see the Ocean. Or when you stand in the distance as a powerful thunderstorm rolls by. Or when you watch a baby being born. Or when you stare into a starry field on a perfectly clear night and are in awe of the power that could create that. That is fearing God. The fear of God we learned was not reverent fear...it was dread. It was what people felt about Tony Soprano. It was frightful. He was a brut and a capricious taskmaster. He could never be counted on to let His face shine on us as He did on David. We were never told that He was wildly, passionately, ridiculously in love with us. We were never told that He didn't hate us. He wasn't angry at our sin. Read that again...He wasn't angry at our sin. He isn't angry at it now. His anger was vented at Calvary. The debt was paid. From that point on, it was a simple matter of justice, not vengeance. Not punishment. He punished Jesus for those sins. He doesn't ask for double payment. If you accept Jesus as Savior, your debt is paid, and a just God is satisfied. On that terrible day when judgement falls, it won't be a God who is laughing and wringing His hands as He watches the lost walking into an eternal Hell. It will be a broken-hearted God, who did all He could by paying the price. He will have tears in his eyes and no joy on his face as sin is expelled forever. But they never told us this. They never painted this picture.
They taught us about a God who was a tyrant and a fearful, vengeful, capricious score-keeper. We never knew exactly what would make him happy so we'd better be trying everything we could think of.
And God forbid you admit to secrets and sins. God forbid you have an addiction that you can't beat. They'll doubt your salvation. They'll question your faith. They'll shame your parents. They'll use you as an example in sermons. They cast you out and make you grovel and beg to come back. But they won't show you Grace. Not the grace of God. Not the love of God.
And so my friend wrestled with the bottle and the demons that made her drink. And she couldn't find grace and she couldn't find help and she couldn't reconcile her humanity and her frailty with the life we were all told we were supposed to be living. And so she died a horrible, miserable, tragic death.
She will end up in whispers and bywords. She'll be mentioned as the nameless example of how "sin when it is finished bringeth forth death". But they won't ever grasp how this happened. How the lies they told about the God who loved her contributed to her demise.
The graceless prophets of legalism will pick a few bones and crow under their breath. "This is what happens". They could have been Jesus to her when she was wrestling with the bottle in the middle of the night. When she probably tried to cry out to the God she was convinced could never love her or forgive her. They could have been there to explain that He will never, ever stop loving her and there was nothing to forgive that hadn't already been forgiven.
They should have told her how being human means wrestling with these things until the day we die. They should have told her that it was nothing, this alcoholism. It was nothing that God didn't already allow for. That it only became sin when she let it come between her and the love He has for her. They could have been open and honest and transparent and broken themselves over their own sins and failures, But they weren't and so she drank until her body gave out.
She is at peace now. Resting in the Grace she never tasted here. Because it was never offered.