(An excerpt from Chapter 6 of “The Beautiful Letdown: An Addict’s Theology of Addiction”)
One of the verses of Scripture most commonly used to summarize the work of Jesus in the world and thus the popular view of salvation is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). There are many conclusions about Jesus’ work in salvation that have been drawn from this single verse of Scripture. One is that salvation means saving someone from eternal death and delivering them to eternal life. The other is that this deliverance is dependent on the individual’s ability to believe in Jesus. And finally, there is a clear assumption that God sent Jesus
into the world to die for us.
When we focus too much on a single verse of Scripture we do ourselves a great disservice in missing the larger theological and scriptural context within which that verse lives. There is a lot going on in the Bible, including a vast array of genres all interwoven into this Book of many books. There are layers of cultural context and assumptions, both in terms of the broader societal structures the authors and individuals found themselves in and the various religious contexts within which they were located. For one, most of the writers of the various books in the New Testament were operating from a Jewish worldview, with varying degrees of familiarity with Hebrew Scripture. When we remove this verse from its larger context in the Gospel of John, we lose the nuance of what the Gospel writer is trying to convey about salvation and the work of Jesus in the world.
When we read John 3:16 with the preceding two verses, John 3:14 and 3:15, we see a very different picture of salvation painted by Jesus than what we can glean from just the 16th verse itself. Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:14 –16). In adding the context of just these two verses we are met with a dynamic interplay of meaning, implication, and depth of tradition that is far beyond a simple one-step guide to salvation. We find Jesus referencing a story from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures in order to put his understanding of salvation and his work in the world into the context of a larger narrative of history. Jesus is using the truth of a story to indicate the truth of salvation, of the saving work he is doing in the world.
The story Jesus is referencing is from Numbers 21:1–9:
Numbers 21:1-9, NRSV
From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Israel is the ultimate addict. When faced with the discomfort of transition, of the desert, of the place in between leaving suffering and entering the promised land, they consistently want to return to that which does not work, to bondage and slavery, and to the suffering they know rather than the promise of what might be but is not yet. Sobriety sucks. It feels like death. It is a desert wasteland where you have not yet figured out how to live without your addictive behavior and each occurrence of not partaking in that behavior feels like a punch in the gut. The voice in your head calls out: why did we leave that (drink, porn, drug, etc.) just to wither up and die
out here in the unknown? Sobriety — the first moments of engaging with the wandering chaos of the desert land that lies immediately outside the bondage of addiction — is enough to make you wish for the addiction again, no matter how painful it was.
Jesus is using this story as a metaphor for the spiritual journey he is inviting everyone to follow. The Israelites cry out to God to remove the snakes and take the source of their suffering away. But God does no such thing. Instead of removing the snakes that God sent, God tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole so that whoever is bitten by a snake shall look at it and live. Rather than removing the source of suffering, God transforms the source of suffering into a source of healing. The snakes are still there, the consequences must be lived with, but God responds to the suffering with a source of healing, that again is not the removal of the suffering, but the healing of it through its very source. By lifting up the serpent on a pole, gazing at it directly, in full view, in the full light of day, in front of everyone, lifting it up in vulnerability, the person is healed.
And thus, Jesus says, it will be with him. There is more to this journey of believing than just professing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jesus ties this story directly to what is happening in his life, death, and resurrection. Belief here means more than just signing on to a specific tenet of doctrine about who Jesus is or is not. It is about having enough faith in Jesus, believing in him
enough, trusting him enough, to walk this journey that he has set before us. One that clearly includes suffering, uses our very sources of suffering to destroy us, but then uses those same sources of suffering to transform us, to bring us to new life, to bring us back to ourselves, to help us engage with the world and ourselves and God in a new way. It puts us back in touch with
our own depths, which are the same as the depths of God.
Jesus would die on the cross from wounds in his side and hands, but these very wounds were to become sources of healing and salvation for the whole world. We may be afraid of our addictions, our capacity to cause suffering, and the chaos in us and around us, but Jesus sets before us a path not of fear but of joy. Rather than hiding our addictions and wanting to cut out and remove those parts of ourselves that we don’t like, we are called to raise them up high in the light of day, gaze at them, and let them gaze back at us. In doing this we let ourselves be transformed and let those very sources of suffering be transformed in us.
As we see in the resurrected Jesus, those wounds are not healed, at least not in the way we think of healing. Even healing itself has taken on a new shape in Jesus’ saving work. Healing no longer means to close up a wound, to cover up those places of suffering. Healing is the transforming of wounds into sources of healing, where we can touch the very places where
we have been destroyed and find hope. Healing is not the removal of suffering, healing is the transformation of suffering for the sake of our own transformation and the transformation of the world. It is a transformation we can bring about when we allow ourselves to die, to be brought to new life, and to engage deeply with ourselves and the world, through our wounds, the sources of our powerless power. Addiction is not a threat to the world, it is our gift to the world, and a gift we all possess.