The Wounds That Heal: Addiction and Salvation

(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:


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.

Born From The Rubble

(a sermon on the Proper 28 readings at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, San Diego)

Today Jesus predicts to his disciples the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem.  This temple had been the center of Jewish life for centuries.  It was the place of pilgrimage for all of the Jewish feasts and celebrations.  The reason that Jesus and his disciples are there in the first place is because they are making their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem to take part in the annual remembrance of Passover.  This temple though, was not the first great temple that had stood in Jerusalem, it was the second. 

The first temple had been destroyed over 600 years before Jesus and his disciples made their pilgrimage there.  In the sixth century BC, Jerusalem was sacked by the invading Babylonian armies on their conquest of the Mediterranean world.  The temple that Solomon had built to replace the roaming tabernacle in the years in the desert, that had been the center of Jewish thought and life for centuries, was destroyed and the Jewish people expelled from the land, into Babylon and its surrounding territories, in what we now refer to as the Exile from the holy land.  It was in this time of exile, when the temple had been destroyed, when the center of the life of the Jewish faith had been destroyed, when hope was almost impossible to find, that this section of Isaiah from this mornings reading was most likely written.  The author writes of God’s promise to this Jewish community that had been expelled from their home:

“For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

God is promising this exiled community a new heaven and a new earth.  A new Jerusalem that will be a joy and a delight to the people.  A Jerusalem that will stand forever, that will be a place overflowing with life and safety for centuries and millenia to come.  A home that will never be taken away again.  In the midst of death and destruction, in the midst of exile, in the midst of being removed from their life source, God promises hope in the confusion, joy in the midst of sorrow, delight in the midst of sadness.  And ultimately the Jewish people are delivered back to their home, and rebuild this temple, and re-create their life as a community.  It is within this second temple that Jesus is standing with his disciples, and telling them that once again, it will be destroyed, that not one stone will be left upon another.

In the year 70 ce, some 40 years after Jesus and his disciples stood in the temple, the Roman empire, much like the great Babylonian empire before them, in a show of force, quelled a Jewish rebellion and sacked Jerusalem again, destroying this second great temple.  The Jewish people were once again expelled, escaping death and destruction, and found themselves spread throughout the Roman empire, in a new exile, a new diaspora, again wrestling with what Jewish life would look like now that the center of it all, the temple, Zion, Jerusalem, was gone.  And this time, forever.  It is in this time that the author of Luke most likely wrote this gospel, and this story of Jesus foretelling the temple’s destruction.  It was this question that the evangelist is dealing with.  What does this destruction mean for God’s promises, for salvation, for faith itself?  Through the words of Jesus in today’s story, God’s promise is re-framed.

But the joy and delight, the hope and newness that Jesus promises are not ones that will be born out of safety, but out of destruction, not out of comfort, but out of persecution, not out of peace, but out of alienation, not out of life, but out of death.  But, as Jesus reminds his disciples, these things must take place.  And not just on a personal level, but on a communal level. On a worldwide level.  On the level of all creation.

He says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” 

The people who are reading these words from Jesus are living after this destruction has taken place, in the midst of persecution, in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of destruction and death.  And yet, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth still echos through history.  From the laments of Babylon and the cries of fear from the diaspora, they ring in the hearts these first century communities searching for answers.  And they still ring true for us today.

Later in the first century, the writer of the book of Revelation would renew this promise of a new heaven and a new earth from Isaiah, in this new time of exile and fear:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

God’s dwelling place will be among the people, the author of Revelation says.  And looking at the temple on this day, Jesus can see this vision laid out before him. Because ultimately the Jewish people would never return to the temple in Jerusalem.  There would never be another one.  But community would continue to be found in the diaspora.  The Jewish faith would grow, and adapt, and God would move in new ways.  Jewish life would move out into the world, and give birth to synagogues, local centers of community, that would take the place in Jewish life of the one temple.  The temple would spread-out over all creation, and people would recognize God’s presence beyond the walls of Jerusalem.  This diaspora would also lay the groundwork for this first century Christianity to spread and adapt alongside its sibling Jewish tradition.  And thus something both new and old would be born, though none of it would have happened, there would have been no newness, no recreation, without this unthinkable destruction, without every stone being torn down. And as Jesus reminds his disciples after these predictions, ““You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Another way of translating this last line is, “By your endurance you will gain your selves, your truest identities, your deepest life in God.”  Jesus knows, standing with his friends and loved ones, that not one of them will find their truest selves without being completely broken to pieces.  And that destruction will be painful, it will be death, it will be hopeless feeling, but by their perseverance, as individuals and as a community, their truest selves will be revealed to them.  A new heaven and a new earth will be born.

Jesus tells us today that even in the midst of death and destruction something new is being created.  Yes, the temple was destroyed, but a new temple was born. A temple that burst from the confines of Jerusalem. That burst through the boundaries of Israel. That burst through the powerful empire of Rome.  What was born from the devastation of this great temple was a new one, the temple of all creation. The temple of the new heaven and the new earth.

And thus we can be assured that even when things seem most hopeless, when we feel devoid of God’s presence and love, when everything falls apart and not one stone is left on another, something new is being born in us. It is in these times of fear and trembling that we are forced to co-create with God and a new heaven and a new earth are born. A new way of seeing everything.  Seeing the presence of God everywhere, even and especially in the rubble of those fallen stones.  The new heaven and new earth are revealed to us, not as something that has just been created, but something that has always been there and we had simply never been able to see.  When our delicately constructed walls are brought down by life, we are ushered into a newness that is both ancient and eternal, old and new, life and death, and step by step we are ushered into the kingdom of God, where we can see God in all things, and know that every moment of fear and trembling is moving us closer to the new heaven and new earth. To a new creation, that has always been and yet is still being created.

Where is newness being born in your life? 

What is being destroyed in you?

How is God creating out of the rubble? 

Why Should I Care About an Ancient Institution and Even More Ancient Book?

I am what some might call a “millennial.” I’m 31 years old. I grew up in the 90s and 00s. I remember Doug, Rugrats, Xanga, and the beginning of Facebook. I graduated from high school with a flip phone and from college with an Iphone. I am the person who churches can’t figure out how to talk to. And yet, I am bought in. I have been part of the Episcopal Church for my entire life. I have been to seminary, I have a Masters of Divinity, and I work in churches. I am of two minds, a foot in two worlds.

One in the institutional church, with committees and Baby Boomers and pledge campaigns and reverence for the clerics and fear about dying. The other is with my friends, my 20 and 30 year old community made up of people who, on the whole, are not bought in, in a good way. In a way that says, “I don’t care about your institution.” In a way that says, “I am going to need a better answer to ‘Why’ than ‘Because that’s how we do it.” In a way that is inviting the institution to evolve, to grow, and to respond to the actual needs of the world, of a new generation, with a new cultural language with which to communicate.

I am torn between these two perspective. On one side, why should a religious tradition that seems to adhere so stringently to a 2000 year old book have anything to teach me? And from the perspective of the institution, why don’t my fellow young people realize that there is something here for us?

Progress and Liberation

There is a common refrain among people who are not involved with any kind of faith community, or are estranged from one, or even those that are part of one: Christianity has become irrelevant. They say the blind morality, based on antiquated teachings, has nothing to offer a fast-paced world of progress and liberation. But even as I write that sentence, my two-sided brain has a hard time computing this idea. What I know, what I have experienced, is that if Christianity is anything, if the Bible teaches anything, if we can know anything about God, it’s that it is all about progress and liberation.

I get it, though. The church, over its 2000+ year history, has caused more suffering than healing. It has contributed to the oppression of people, and stood completely at odds with that liberation it claims to be built on. Many denominations (or non-denominations) are still doing this today. And, to the detriment of Christianity everywhere, Christian churches have done it all while claiming that the foundation for this oppression is found in the Bible.

The Bible, therefore, has become equally frustrating. It was created in a variety of contexts and cultures that are disconnected from our current cultural experience. They require a lot of background information to fully appreciate, not to mention the fact that unless we are reading these books in their original language or translating them ourselves, we are reading someone else’s interpretation right off the bat. There are layers and layers of manuscript transmission, source criticism, textual criticism, interpretation, translation and other such interpretive hurdles to hold simultaneously every time we open that book of many books. And while this might make it seem more and more irrelevant and out of touch with our current reality with every passing moment, I have a deep abiding sense within myself that it actually is doing the opposite. The more hazy and murky and confusing this beautiful, sacred, scary, weird, frustrating book is, the more it lines up with my equally hazy, murky, confusing, beautiful, sacred, scary, weird, and frustrating life.

A Book of Many Books

While we often think of this compilation of texts we call the Bible as a single book, as is constantly reinforced by references to it such as “The Good Book” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” it is not and has never been that. This book we call the Bible is a collection of many books, written and edited and curated over thousands of years by who knows how many hundreds of people. Thus we have the common experience of seeing all these contradictions, which make little sense if we think the whole thing is one continuous story written by a single person over the course of history but make a lot of sense if each of these books was written by a different person in different times in different places with different worldviews and different experiences of the world around them and of God.

Not only that, but they aren’t even all the same genre or style of writing. Within the book of many books there is history, poetry, biography, song, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, letters, orations, and all kinds of subtle variations on each of these. The Bible is not so much a single book as it is a snapshot of an entire shelf of books in your home, which happen to have all been used by a community of faith over thousands of years and thus have been bound together, but not in order to homogenize them. Just like those books on your shelf, these books are in the Bible because they have resonated truth in a community of faith for long enough that they kept them around, kept reading them, even when they moved, even when the generations turned over, even when the house burned down. They read them on specific occasions, like that summer book you always read on your first day at the beach or the poem you read every time your family gathers for a special occasion.

You see, these books that make up the Bible, and thus the Bible itself, are not true because they have been marked authentic by a high and lofty God with a giant “inerrant” stamp. There is truth in the Bible because it is made up of people telling their own truths about their experiences of God throughout these thousands and thousands of years of history. Yes, we have bound these together and marked them as sacred and holy and authoritative, but this doesn’t mean we stop interpreting them for our current context, in light of our own experience and in light of the interpretation and experiences of those who have come before us. Often, we refer to the Bible as the “living word of God,” but these words are not living if we stop interpreting them. Once they are the set-in-stone, the-Bible-says-it-so-it’s-true words, they are dead. They have no more life to give.

Implicitly Relevant

The Christianity that I am talking about, the thing that Jesus taught the people who surrounded him, the very foundation of the scriptures on which Christianity is built, cannot be irrelevant, because it is infinitely adaptable, always transforming and moving into new eras and contexts and times. A Christianity that is irrelevant, that is dead, that has stopped moving forward, that has stopped working for the liberation of the oppressed, is not Christianity. That is some sort of frozen idolatry subtly or not so subtly adding to the oppression from which, at it’s very core, it is supposed to be liberating people.

Jesus was not creating a new set of laws to which he expected everyone for the rest of eternity to adhere. His goal and his mission was to show us how to adapt in any time and context. How to continue to liberate ourselves and those around us. How to be present with our own suffering and the suffering of the world. How to let ourselves be transformed in that suffering, and know that when there is death, large or small, it is not so much the end of something as it is the resurrection of a new thing all together. Life, suffering, death, resurrection, transformation, and new life.

This cycle, this trajectory of our spiritual journey that Jesus taught is not tied to a time or a place or a culture, though Jesus did embody them in a particular time and place and culture, as had all those many prophets and poets and writers before him. What is true is what lies underneath all the particularity. The particularity of time and context and culture are not meant to limit relevance to that one place and time, but is meant to be the window by which we see the eternal through the particularity. We can see that there is something in our humanity that connects us across time and place and culture, there is a universality at play that manifests in particularity, and it is those particularities, each pointing to the universal, that populate this book of many books, this truth of many truths, that is the Bible, that is the foundation of the Christian tradition.

Thus we are meant to continue the exploration of this universal through our particular place and experience and situation. The Bible is the starting point, the faith tradition is a foundation on which to stand, but our experience of life and of God is just as authoritative and true now as it was for those poets and priests and prophets for so many thousands of years before us. The Bible is relevant, Christianity is relevant, God is relevant, because we are relevant. Rather than standing opposed to the witness of scripture, our experiences, our stories, are meant to extend the witness of scripture. We are the books that follow Revelation. We are part of the canonWe are relevant because each one of us is inextricably and inherently linked to the life of the divine, and that can never be irrelevant.

Where Do We Go Now?

If the Christian tradition is founded on and rooted in this book of many books, many peoples, and many truths that extend from the time-before-time all the way to the here-and-now, then its relevance is rooted in us. If there is something in the tradition of Christianity that is irrelevant, that has died, that no longer resonates, then I hope we can bury it, and thus let it grow into something new as well as something ancient. I know that the church has hurt people, but Christianity is not the church, God is not the church. God, and the truths of Christianity, are both much bigger than an institution could ever hold.

The church, at its best, is a window into God’s grace and healing power, God’s co-suffering with the world and attuned response to each and every need. It is not always, and rarely is, any of these things, but it can be. All of this is in the church’s DNA, but the further away these two worlds get — the ancientness of the tradition and the progression of the now — the less and less we are able to respond to the needs of the world. I need both things. I need the progress of our time, but I need it to be rooted in something deep and ancient, to anchor it to a reality and identity that is greater than my individual one, but is still dependent on my experience to stay alive.

There are churches, there are communities, where this is possible, and all we have to do is re-engage. Gently, cautiously, angrily even, but re-engage nonetheless. And that is our invitation to one another, to these two worlds that I live in, to these two worlds that have been tricked into thinking they are different, but yearn for the same thing: Home.

Continue The Conversation

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below and keep the conversation going.

The Fall, The Invitation

From the Introduction to The Beautiful Letdown

“It felt like everything was gone. All of my efforts to save myself had failed. Those walls of lies which I had built to prop myself up had come down. My delicately constructed defenses crumbled around me and as I fell with them, I felt that I may never land. It felt like I may fall forever. At the same time, that falling began to feel like being ever so softly, ever so gently, held. The falling was in itself a holding. The crumbling was itself a recreation. The death was itself life. When everything was gone – my image, my security, my certainty – the only thing left was the simple fact that I still existed. The object of my addiction, the thing I thought was the most important thing in the world, had let me down. It had dropped me into the bottomless depth of myself: a depth that I never would have known if it weren’t for my fall, a fall that I never would have experienced without being addicted. My addiction was an invitation to something more, to something unfinished and yet whole, to something eternal and always becoming, to something true and still developing. It was an invitation from God, one that I had carried with me for so long, but had never opened – until it opened me.

What if, instead of thinking about addiction as a disease that needs treatment, an epidemic that needs eradication, or a moral failing that implies weakness, we saw it as a hand-written invitation from God? How would we operate differently if we saw addiction as an invitation to union with the transcendent, to knowledge of our true selves, and to spiritual depth and wholeness?    How would we respond differently to those we know and love who are addicted?  How would we treat ourselves differently in the face of our own addictions?  Do you see how this way of thinking can change the way we understand and respond to our own suffering and the suffering of others? 

Addiction is not something to hate, to run from, or to disown. We can no more label the experience of addiction a simple human tragedy than we can label the crucifixion one. There is something more to it than meets the eye. There is a “joy set before” us (Heb 12:2 NRSV), a promise present in this excruciating experience. In all its pain and fear it is something to grasp, to run toward. If we do, it will lead us to vibrant life, to our true selves, and to peace. Each one of us has received this hand-written invitation and now is our chance to examine how we will respond. It is an invitation that we do not discover in our happy times, in our religious devotion, or in our own moral purity. No, it is one that finds us through the very parts of ourselves that we wish didn’t exist, that we tried with every ounce of energy to hide. If our addictions – our sins – are our invitation, how much longer can we afford to throw them away? 

This is the question of our lives.”