Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gotta Serve Somebody

There are a lot of things that go into good writing. Spelling and grammar are important, of course, as is the ability to choose the right words. But I think what is essential to really good writing is the ability to select precisely the right analogy. A lot of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, revolves around making comparisons. When communicating to another person, you want the same thoughts that are going through your head to go through his or her head, and often, the same feelings as well. Sometimes a mere recitation of facts won't do. If you want to communicate a rather abstract process, the best way to do so is to pick as a metaphor something your audience recognizes and understands. So Einstein's theory of general relativity, as it relates to the distortions of space-time caused by the gravity of massive objects, might be best illustrated by asking people to imagine a large rubber sheet which is holding up a bowling ball, representing a large planet. I have heard financial reporters describe the way Wall Street has been operating for the last couple of decades as being almost indistinguishable from a casino. And the infatuation of love has been described as an addiction, something neuro-scientists say is right on the money.

In Romans 6:12-23, Paul uses the analogy of slavery both for being dominated by sin as well as for serving God. And though slavery was a very ancient, universally practiced and legal activity, that analogy might be hard to digest for modern readers. First, because in the West, we don't really don't have any first hand knowledge of slavery. What we know is influenced by the specific kind of slavery we used to have in this country. And, secondly, we see slavery as such a great evil that we cannot see it as a metaphor for anything good. So I'm going to first give a brief description of slavery in Roman times. And then I will suggest a metaphor that may make it easier for believers today to understand what Paul was getting at.

In the US, when we hear about slavery, we think of how it was practiced here until after the Civil War, that is, a racial, involuntary, and lifelong condition. Slaves in the US were not educated (it was illegal) and were confined to menial or manual labor. But slavery in ancient Israel was more complex. There were many ways in which one could have become a slave. One could have been captured in a war. One's parents could have been slaves and so in that case, any children they had were automatically slaves. Children might be sold into slavery by desperate parents. Worse, unwanted infants born to poor parents were often just left in a field or by a road to die. Some were fortunate enough to be rescued and raised as slaves. Or, finally, one could have sold oneself into slavery to work off a debt. In this last case, sheer survival motivated these slaves. Biblical laws protected them and ensured they were fed and clothed. A master could adopt a slave and make him his heir. A slave could own property, make money, save it and buy him or herself out of slavery. Or a relative could redeem someone who had become a slave for financial reasons. And all such slaves were freed every 7 years and during the Jubilee year, observed twice a century. The kind of slavery found in ancient Israel was therefore neither racial, lifelong nor necessarily involuntary.

Even in the Roman Empire, where slaves were considered chattel, they could be educated and become doctors, teachers, or even civil servants in fairly high positions. Some of the Church's early bishops were slaves. So slavery, while not an ideal state, was not as hopeless a position in which to find oneself as we think today.

Thus when Paul uses slavery, it is not entirely a negative term, especially if one had a good and fair master. And he is saying here that one either serves sin or serves God. To Christians he says, "you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God…" So we should not be serving our old master. We are no longer under his domination. And it's a good thing, too, for to remain enslaved to sin leads ultimately to death, eternal separation from God, the source of all that is good. Serving God leads to eternal life in Christ Jesus. It's a clear-cut choice.

But the use of the term "slavery" makes the metaphor a problem today. So I want to propose a different metaphor: that of addiction.

I've used addiction as an analogy for sin before, having seen and treated patients suffering from it. And this week, as I was contemplating the passage in Romans, I heard an episode of "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" in which she interviewed David Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. In his new book, "The Compass of Pleasure," Linden explains how addiction works in the brain. Addicts actually have an impaired ability to experience pleasure. When doing things others find pleasurable, their brains do not secrete the same amount of dopamine, the reward chemical. So whereas a normal person might get a buzz after one or 2 drinks, an alcoholic may have to drink 6 or more to get the same effect. The problem is that this pushes the addict to overdo things that are fine in moderation, like eating or sex, but have negative consequences when taken to excess. And if their particular addiction is to something that is not even safe at low levels, like heroin or cocaine, they may eventually overdose. The odd thing is that, even if the thing they are addicted to gave them pleasure at first, eventually it loses that ability and they simply continue so as to avoid the awful effects of stopping. As many smokers will tell you, they no longer enjoy it; it has become something akin to a need. Quitting is very daunting. Withdrawal from certain hard drugs will not only be extremely painful and sickening but can be dangerous if not properly monitored. And ironically, forcing your body to secrete dopamine artificially damages its ability to do so naturally. The recovering addict may find himself in worse shape when it comes to feeling happy.

It's not hopeless. People do get weaned from drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, and compulsively seeking sex. But it almost always requires getting help. And one of the most effective ways is through the 12-step program. In a little over 2 weeks Alcoholics Anonymous will see its 76th anniversary. As Dr. Drew Pinsky says, "In my 20 years of treating addicts, I've never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps….In my world, if someone says they don't want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren't going to get better."

But how does addiction make a more insightful analogy for sin today than slavery?
First, there is a combination of voluntary and involuntary factors in both addiction and sin. An addict has a genetic flaw that makes him or her susceptible. Yet if he or she never starts the addictive behavior, he will not succumb. 80% of those who try smoking will become addicted to it. (Only 30% of those who try heroin become addicted to it.) But 100% of those who never try it will not develop the habit. In Genesis 4:7 God tells Cain, "If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." God is saying that the possibility of sin is always there but it can only get its hooks into us if we let it. The problem is, we do let it. We give in to selfishness, to rage, to lust, to greed, to laziness, to envy, to gluttony, to arrogance. Once we open that door, sin, like addiction, gets in the driver's seat and takes control of our lives.

So are we responsible or not? Linden makes an important distinction. If addiction is a disease, one cannot condemn a person for having it, anymore than we condemn a person for having heart disease. Linden tells Terry Gross "We should say, okay, well, you're an addict. You have something wrong with your brain the way this other guy had something wrong with his heart. But it's not a free ride. Now that you know you're an addict, you better get in treatment. You should do stress reduction strategies. You should avoid the triggers for your addiction. You should be in a group that can offer you social support. And if you don't do those things, it's your own darn fault." As a nurse, I've been telling patients with diseases the same thing for years. Even with a disease like diabetes, while you may not be responsible for having the illness, if you don't follow the rules for treating it, you will be responsible for the escalating complications of it.

Notice that Linden specifically mentions things like stress reduction. Prayer and worship have been scientifically shown to reduce stress. He says to avoid triggers for your addiction. It's been shown that even seeing places where one used to buy drugs or shoot up trigger cravings in addicts. We call them temptations. Linden talks about being in a group that offers social support. He's talking about group therapy or a 12-step group. The 12-step movement was started by 2 Christians, one an Episcopalian, who were alcoholics. The first step involves admitting one has no control over one's addiction. And the next step is coming to believe that there is a power greater than oneself that can restore the addict. Step 3 is turning over one's life and will to God however one understands God. Basically, the 12 Steps involve what the church calls humility, faith, repentance, confession, prayer and evangelism. The group is like a church in that it is a bunch of people coming together with the purpose of supporting each other in changing their lives for the better.

So maybe addiction is a good analogy for being dominated by sin. But Paul talks of being enslaved to God. Surely the metaphor of addiction is inappropriate in speaking of devotion to God.

This week I also read that love can be compared to addiction. The same reward system in the brain is activated. And anyone whose ever gone through a break up can agree with scientists that it is a form of withdrawal that can affect our sleep, eating, concentration, mood and more. But we would not say that love is something to be avoided. In fact, on the Diane Rehm show, a study showed that love, marriage and kids were all major reasons that can motivate long-time offenders to abandon a criminal career. To break an addiction, you need something stronger than the thing that enslaves you. If love for a person or your children can do it, how much more can love of God free you?

Sin, like addictions, can promise to give us the pleasure we feel we are missing in life. But like addictions, sin really can't do the job and we often end up caught in patterns of behavior that we really hate but are afraid to abandon lest we face an awful emptiness. God's love can fill that void. He can liberate us from the self-destructive habits that enchain us. By giving our lives to him, praying, worshiping, maintaining spiritually and morally healthy practices and seeking the support of a group of like-minded people, we can find a life of true pleasure. As Psalm 34:8 says, "O taste and see that the Lord is good."

As Bob Dylan sang, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." The choice is ours. We can fall victim to the law of diminishing returns that comes when we try to find pleasure in things, or we can obey the law Jesus pronounced the greatest of all: to love God with all we are and have. If we do that, we will find that loving those created in God's image, including ourselves, follows naturally. I can think of worse fates than being hooked on a life of loving God and his creatures.

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