My husband and I took some vacation time to go to Cleveland on Friday to watch our beloved Rocket Women’s basketball team play in the MAC Tournament semi-finals. Unfortunately, they lost the game in a heartbreaker. We were very disappointed by the Rockets’ loss, but we certainly didn’t experience the despair that’s summed up in the phrase “hitting bottom.” “Hitting bottom” is an idea that is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, but I was curious about where the phrase originated. I assumed it had to something to do with drilling—like hitting bedrock. As it turns out, it’s a term that’s related to ocean science. If you’re really going to hit rock bottom, geographically speaking, you’d have to dive through 7 miles of ocean and drill through 3-6 miles of sediment to reach the 30- to 60-mile-thick rock of the tectonic plates which literally form the ocean’s rock bottom. But, the phrase “hitting bottom” is so closely associated with AA that that’s about all you’ll find if you do a search on the phrase.
Early on, AA embraced the idea that alcoholics had to “hit bottom” before they could make the life changes that would save them. It was believed that no one would voluntarily take on the rigors of the Twelve Steps unless and until they were so far down that they either had to change or die. No one would willingly face their sins as clearly and honestly as required by Step 4, which we learned about last week. No one would commit to doing that for the rest of their lives, as required by Step 10. Only when they realized how bad things really were could they embark on the twelve steps, beginning with steps 1, 2, and 3, which we’ll focus on today. First, they had to admit that they were powerless over their addiction and that their lives had become unmanageable. Second, they came to believe that a greater Power could restore them to sanity. And, third, they had to make the decision to turn their will and life over to the care of God (as they understood God).
To become and remain Christians, we go through a very similar process—a lifelong process that Lent invites us into. We examine our hearts. We recognize the sinfulness that is in us, and we admit that, on our own, we are powerless over that sinfulness. We are able to do this by God’s convicting grace.
When we talk about the Wesleyan understanding of grace, we usually start with the prevenient grace—our experience of grace that woos us to God, even before we know we need God. Then, we jump right to justifying grace—our experience of grace as we are made right with God. But in-between is an experience of grace that we don’t talk about much: the experience of God’s grace as it convinces and convicts us of our sinfulness and leads us to repentance.
John Wesley described this grace-powered conviction and repentance in his sermon called “The Repentance of Believers.” He wrote: “By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, clinging to our words and actions…we are aware that we deserve punishment for all our tempers and words and actions…we have an abiding conviction that there is no help in us, and we reject the very possibility of any other help. Repentance says, ‘Without Christ, I can do nothing.’”
We know what God desires of us, but we run afoul of it on a regular basis. Convicting grace won’t let us pretend otherwise. No matter how much we promise God and ourselves that we will do better, we keep committing the same sins over and over and over again. We’re too proud to admit our errors. We’re so self-righteous that we judge others. We refuse to hear when others have a complaint against us. We withhold our love—from other people and from God. Sin runs rampant in our souls. It may not be as visible as the alcoholic’s uncontrolled drinking, but that doesn’t mean that our sin is any less harmful. We don’t want to act out of our sinfulness, but we do.
Paul knew what that feels like and he expressed it in our passage for today. “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be true that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but another law is at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in me.”
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome, a church he didn’t plant in a place he had never been to. The Christian community was struggling with some serious questions about how Jewish and Gentile Christians could live together, and how to treat non-Christian Jews. In the years before Paul wrote his letter, the emperor Claudius had expelled a large number of Jews from Rome after riots broke out, possibly due to Christian preaching. There was plenty of anti-Jewish feeling in Rome at the time, and it may have made sense to many Gentile Christians that the Jews’ expulsion from Rome was a sign that the Jews (including the Jewish Christians) had lost their place in the covenant with God because they had not followed God’s Law.
When the Jews were allowed to return to Rome after Claudius died, the Church faced a dilemma. In his letter, Paul paints a picture of the law and the covenant that recognizes the distinctive place the Jewish people have before God but also makes a place for Gentile believers. He explains that the defining thing that made Israel God’s chosen nation wasn’t the Law, but the covenant alone. And that covenant remained intact, even though the people, in their sinfulness, routinely broke the law. And, the Law wasn’t the cause of unrighteousness, any more than it was the basis for God’s covenant with the Jews.
Where, then, does unrighteous behavior come from? If the Jewish people had the Law, why didn’t they keep it? If we know the right thing to do, why don’t we do it? If we know what is pleasing to God, why don’t we choose it? Paul articulates what so many of us wrestle with as we travel the road to recovering and deepening our faith and our identity as God’s beloved children. What is at the heart of the battles between our earthly selves and spiritual selves? Paul’s answer is simple: it’s the sin in us. On our own, we are powerless over it, and it can lead us to cry out as Paul did: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Paul knows the answer, of course, and so do we. As we grow in faith, we come to believe that God can save and restore us. Not only that, we believe that God already has. Salvation from sin is a present reality. By Christ’s death and resurrection, our freedom and restoration have already been secured. In Jesus’ death, the power of sin has already been broken. In his resurrection, the power of death has already been removed. Those who believe the good news of the Gospel know that salvation is a done deal on God’s part. Who can rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord, for there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Once we acknowledge our powerlessness over sin and believe that God holds the remedy, we move on to the next step: making the decision to turn our will and life over to the care of God. This may actually be the hardest step, especially if we’ve never had what we think of as a “hitting bottom” experience. You may never have had to face down a particular evil that was ruining your life life. But, “hitting bottom” can take various forms. For me, it came years ago in the realization that I could never be good enough to earn God’s love. I wanted it so desperately, but I knew I would never deserve a place in God’s kingdom.
I was right, of course, and I felt the same way Paul did—wretched—until someone told me that there is another side to that truth: Christ didn’t die to save me because I was good enough to earn a place in the Kingdom; he died to save me precisely because I wasn’t and could never save myself. What a relief it was to be free of the burden of works righteousness! That recognition of my powerlessness led to my confidence in God’s saving grace, and that opened the door to placing my life in God’s hands.
Maybe your “hitting bottom” came during an especially difficult time in your life. Your life may not have been controlled by an addiction, but by an illness that turned your life upside down, or a work situation over which you had no control, or a loved one whom you couldn’t help. That may have been the time when you went to the Lord with your powerlessness in your hand, placed your hope in Christ’s love, and surrendered to the power of God.
Maybe you’ve never even been close to a “hitting bottom.” Maybe your faith has simply been part of the background your entire life, and as the years went by it simply became a habit. You may have been conscious of a twinge of sinfulness, but in general you feel that you’re pretty good at working around it. You believe in God’s power and you believe God’s in charge, but you also like keeping your hands on the controls of your life. Never having “hit bottom” in your spiritual life, you’ve avoided fully and specifically committing your life to God.
Over time, AA began to see that there were budding alcoholics who hadn’t “hit bottom.” They were the people who didn’t feel they had a problem. But, by denying the power of what was taking hold of their life, they were on a downward path. So, AA members began “raising the bottom.” They talked to potential problem drinkers before they reached their lowest point, giving them a chance to be saved from a worse future.
If you’ve never considered yourself a problem sinner, it’s time to “raise the bottom.” If you’ve never reached a point so low that it forced you to accept your powerlessness over sin, to turn to God as the only source of power over it, and turn your life over to God, it’s time to face the fact that each of us has a streak of sinfulness in us. Our lives will be controlled either by the power of sin or the power of God, and our sinfulness will remain in control until that time when we clearly and unambiguously commit our lives to God,
So, once we’ve done that, can we heave a sigh of relief and move on, as though we’ve purchased an insurance policy that will protect us for the rest of our lives? Unfortunately, no. We remain recovering sinners. Ours is not a “once saved, always saved” faith. It’s a “new every morning” kind of faith. It’s a continual process that Paul described as “being saved”—not a once-in-a-lifetime event but a lifelong journey. To make sure we remain on the right path, we need to regularly refresh our admission of powerlessness and renew our commitment to God. The experience of justifying grace is reborn in each of those moments of admission and commitment. In each of those moments, the gift of faith is renewed and deepened.
Faith is the gift we are given when we are justified in Christ before God. It’s what we find on the other side of the repentance that leads us to justification. Earlier I read to you from a sermon by John Wesley. I only read the words he wrote about repentance. But there is more to the passage, and it is beautiful and powerful. Here it is in its entirety:
“By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, clinging to our words and actions; by faith we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands. By repentance we are aware that we deserve punishment for all our tempers and words and actions; by faith we are conscious that our advocate with the Father is continually pleading for us, and continually turning aside all condemnation and punishment from us. By repentance we have an abiding conviction that there is no help in us; by faith we receive not only mercy, but ‘grace to help in every time of need.’ Repentance rejects the very possibility of any other help; faith accepts all the help we stand in need of from him who has all power in heaven and earth. Repentance says, ‘Without Christ I can do nothing’; faith says, ‘I can do all things through Christ strengthening me.’”
The good news of the Gospel is that we have access to the greatest source of power in all of Creation—the power of God. When we admit our powerlessness over sin and surrender our lives to the one who is able to keep us from falling, we are made righteous before God and given the gift of faith. By that faith, we are given the power of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to take back control of our lives from the sinfulness in us. By that power, we can confidently sing, “No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the pow’r of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.” We don’t need to hit rock bottom to be freed from the power of sin, for we know that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law—and the power—of sin and of death. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young