The Divine Paradox

We met in the basement of an old church in a small Georgia town. I don’t remember many details about the room itself; I do know the company and conversations I shared there were unforgettable. There were about 20 of us. Some were younger and working, some were old and retired, and others were going through a mid-life crisis. Bill was one of those people.

Bill was an older gentleman with a larger physique, full beard and raspy voice. I never got to know him well, but he seemed like the kind of man who wore his heart on his sleeve and refused to wear masks. As coffee brewed in the kitchen, Bill began the meeting by introducing himself the same way he always would when we met together:

“Hi, I’m Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

I was in my senior year of college and attending my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In the next several meetings I attended, as a requirement for a counseling course, I listened to men and women chronicle how their addiction to alcohol had taken over their lives and stolen much of who or what they loved. They openly exposed the rationale they would use on themselves in order to have, “Just one more drink.” Often they would exchange phone numbers, offering support to each other in their times of temptation. As I listened to those broken, honest, courageous people, I thought, “This is what the Bride of Christ is supposed to look a lot more like.” Attending those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings taught me a lot about being a Christian.

At the time I attended the AA meetings and for the past several years before that, I had my own addiction. Not to alcohol, but to something perhaps equally destructive. I was addictively committed to appear to be a “Good Christian.”

While attending Bible college, I earned the reputation with most people that made my acquaintance of being a “Really nice guy.” Yet the reality of my private life was marked by intense battles with habitual sins—anger, bitterness, jealousy and a critical spirit (to name a few). I was completely frustrated with being a Christian trying to live a holy, obedient, authentic life, because on the one hand I felt like I had this "Good Christian" image to uphold, and on the other I had this terrible, ugly side to me that I never wanted anyone to see, for fear that people would think I wasn’t a “Good Christian”—an image that seemed to be embodied in everyone on campus." I was fortunate to have a few close friends with whom I felt safe confiding in. I expressed to them how much I felt like a fake. I often concluded those discussions with renewed determination, thinking if I only tried harder to obey God (perhaps by reading the Bible and praying more), things would start to change for the better.

What was so refreshing about the community I encountered at AA was that, unlike me at the time, they didn’t wear the proverbial mask. They didn’t pretend to be someone they weren’t. They openly admitted that their lives were, or had been, in shambles because of their addiction. They didn’t judge each other when confessions of failure were made, but encouraged each other to, “Work through the steps.” Alcoholics Anonymous promotes a recovery program called, “The 12 Steps.” These steps are guidelines for recovery based on the foundational principles that an alcoholic is powerless in their own strength to overcome their addiction, and the need for reliance on a Higher Power’s strength to stay sober. The first three recovery steps read as follows:

1. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

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3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The 12 Steps mirror well the Biblical truth that we must come to an end of ourselves and rely on God’s grace alone to live a life pleasing to Him. Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous said, "How privileged we are to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation goes before resurrection, that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth."

Christians believe and confess that our salvation has been guaranteed by God’s grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8). Yet, in regards to sanctification, our becoming more like Jesus, most Christians, like I did for far too long, believe it matures by our strength and determination in addition to God’s grace. Jesus seemed to disagree with that reasoning. When encouraging Paul during his “Thorn in the flesh” experience, Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9, TNIV). If God’s grace is sufficient, that means nothing more is needed. It truly is a divine paradox: that by fully embracing our absolute weakness, we gain God’s strength if through faith we depend on Him for its provision.

Maybe spiritual healing would occur within us and in Christian communities like Bible colleges if we realized how powerless we are in our own strength to live a holy life. Perhaps then, Christians could start living like those honest, broken, courageous people I met at Alcoholics Anonymous. Maybe if we gave up on our own strength and stopped trying to fix ourselves and gave God a chance, He could show himself to the world through His broken and surrendered bride. No more reliance on our clever clichés, regimented spiritual disciplines or goals and strategies to appear to be a “Good Christian” in order to display to the world the beauty of Christ; but simply a completely abandoned reliance on the Holy Spirit to do what only He can: conform us into the image of Jesus Christ, one day at a time.

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