I wonder what you’re addicted to. There’s no point pretending – we’re among friends here. I know that for my children, it’s computer games (in Gregor’s case, it’s Minecraft – in Olivia’s case at the moment it’s something to do with looking after a tribe, except she keeps letting them starve). For Carolyn it’s Crosswords. For my mother, it’s Sudoku.
For me, I’m a bit of a sports car addict and the most unhealthy addiction I have is a computer game that simulates car racing. It allows me to buy all the cars I could only otherwise dream of and race them on the great race tracks of the world – all with pretty convincing graphics and simulation. So in an idle moment between meetings or late at night, when I should sensibly be going to bed, I’m tucked guiltily in a corner, having first checked to make sure no-one’s looking, hurling a Lamborghini Aventador around Silverstone.
The simple truth is that addictive behaviour is not only the preserve of drug addicts and alcoholics. It is a human trait. We like to think we’re free and in charge of our own lives, but in fact, we’re just slaves to whatever it is we happen to be addicted to. If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, you’ll have discovered just how pathetic your self-control really is. Sometimes, we can get rather smug about this – like when people get addicted to things that don’t attract us at all.
I have no interest at all in gambling, yet for some people that is an addiction that is all but impossible to break. I can very easily feel morally superior to those who are so weak as to get themselves caught up in gambling addiction. And then I remember how many hours I waste racing a pretend car on my iPad and I feel rather ashamed. And of course, there are darker addictions too – things we dare not admit in public, but which bother us deeply.
Now, of course crosswords and computer games are not sinful, but the addictive behaviour is an issue for us. And it points to a simple truth, which Paul is unpacking in our first reading today: that if we’re not addicted to God, we will be addicted to something – probably many things – and ultimately those things will not be for our good. We tend to think that the choice between God’s way and our way is the choice between being told what to do and freedom to do what we want. But that is just an illusion. The Bible points out again and again that God’s way is freedom and our way is slavery. Or rather more starkly, we have a choice between two forms of slavery – we can be slaves to God’s will or we can be slaves to sin. In the end, the Bible says, sin will kill us, but choosing to addict ourselves to God’s will, shall set us free now and forever.
Paul puts this rather starkly in our reading today: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience [to God], which leads to righteousness?”
And look at where our choice leads us. We tend to think of doing God’s will as a burden, something that restricts us from all that is pleasurable and enjoyable about life. So we shrug it off and consider ourselves free (that’s what Paul means when he says “you were free in regard to righteousness” – you didn’t have to follow God’s will, because you’d shrugged it off). But, “what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed?” asks Paul. “The end of those things is death.” What was the point of choosing things that just made us ashamed? That’s not freedom. It’s a trap and in the end it leads to death. And let’s be clear, Paul isn’t, here, saying that God is going to punish us for those things by killing us. He’s saying that death is the natural consequence of sin – it’s what sin does, it kills us: “the wages of sin is death”: that’s how sin repays us.
So why do we choose it? Sometimes, of course, it’s pretty subtle. Generally, when we make a bad choice in life, it’s because it seemed a really good idea at the time! And you look back on it and think “how did I not see where that was going? How, how could I be so stupid?” But sometimes it’s pretty blatant, and we still do it. We know that too much wine will kill us, but it always seems a good idea to have another glass. We know that junk food kills us, but it’s so tempting! Why do we choose that which kills us? Because we’re enslaved. We’ve chosen a path that seemed like freedom, but is actually slavery and we can’t get out.
The problem is that we were created to be in the closest possible relationship with God and that is what our souls desperately long for deep down. But by choosing to live without God, there is a God-shaped hole in the centre of our being – something missing that we don’t quite understand. And we try to fill that hole with all sorts of things that we hope will bring us comfort and assurance, but none of them really fill the hole, so we become addicted to them, desperately longing to fill the hole. But ultimately, only God can fill that hole completely. And only if we’re addicted to him can we begin the business of driving out all other addictions.
You see, a central overriding theme of the Bible is that God gave us freewill, but he urged us to use that freewill to love him and to live our lives his way. It’s the theme of our Collect today: “give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service”. Now, he could have forced us to do it his way (after all, he’s God), but he doesn’t want automatons. He wants human beings, because you can’t love an automaton, you can only love a human being. He loves us deeply and he wants us to love him back. But you can’t force love. If you want someone to love you, you have to set them free, you have to take the risk that they might choose not to love you. And that’s the risk God took. Because what he most wants is for us to use our freewill to love him back and to do his will, not because we have to, but because we want to.
And he does this because this is his own nature. A few weeks ago, on Trinity Sunday, we were thinking about the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s a strange and unique aspect of the Christian God that we believe he is made up of three people. But these three people, Father, Son and Holy Spirit love each other perfectly. And that means that all they want out of life is what’s good for the person they love. So all Jesus wanted to do in life was his Father’s will – even when it led him to the Cross. Because he loved him. That’s what love is – you stop thinking about yourself and your own needs, and instead you become obsessed with what your loved-one wants and needs. You become addicted to your loved one. And if your loved one returns that love and becomes addicted to you, the two of you become one. And that’s why we can only talk about one God, even though he consists of three persons, because that’s what love does: we become so addicted to the person we love that we become one with them, only doing what they want and need. That’s love. That’s life. And that’s freedom, because we’re doing what our souls really long to do.
That’s how God loves us – he is totally addicted to us. And he longs for us to receive his love in our poor, damaged hearts and return it. And so extreme is that love, that he himself came and died the death that our sin would have led to. That addiction to sin, which infects and enslaves every human being, God dealt with, by becoming one of those poor, addicted, dying human beings. He faced the death that was the natural consequence of our sin and he died it for us. And he rose again to reverse the power of sin and turn it back into life and freedom. But only if we choose it, of our own freewill, because we can’t be free unless it’s something we choose for ourselves.
And that’s what a Christian is: someone who has surrendered their own will to God in love. Someone who has seen the futility of being addicted to the things of this world, who has seen that that road just leads to death; someone who has glimpsed the love that God has for them, seeing that God died the death that was theirs in order to set them free; one who has exercised their freewill to choose God in return: to love, honour and obey.
“Thanks be to God.” says Paul. “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” “Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.”
Next time addiction strikes and your passions possess you, what will your choice be? And right now, what choice does your soul make? How will you exercise your freewill? Will you continue to choose the things of this life? But be aware that everything in this life only wants you for what they can get from you. Or will you choose God: the only person in existence who only wants what is best for you, who wants nothing from you except that you should love him and live and thrive? Let’s not pretend: we are all addicted to something. Will you be addicted to sin and death, or will you be addicted to God and be set free and live?
Preached: Clifton, Crosby Ravensworth, Great Strickland 2 July 2017