Usually we read stories about drunks who then become Christians. That’s the encouraging progression we’re used to seeing in people’s lives. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sober Mercies by Heather Kopp is the memoir of a Christian who became an alcoholic.
With searing and painful honesty, she shares her descent into a very messy darkness and then how she found her way back to life as a recovering alcoholic.
For several years after she started following Jesus as a teenager, Kopp rarely drank. But slowly she began to drink more, and eventually she became addicted. Although alcohol didn’t satisfy her, she found herself pulled back to it again and again. Drinking became another way of life for her, one of hangovers and blackouts.
Trapped in the grip of addiction, she experienced the particular shame that a Christian drunk feels. Because for those who are already saved, “to even admit that we have become addicted feels like a betrayal of Christ’s work on the cross… in order to shield those we love, and to protect God’s reputation (and ours), we try to hide our problem…it’s our desire to maintain a good witness that turns us into sneaks, liars, and hypocrites.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds familiar to me. How many times have I done something even though as a Christian I’m supposed to know better, to act better? How many times have I begun to think I’m worthy of grace because I have cleaned up my act in a few areas of my life– even if there are many other parts that remain messy and broken?
Kopp’s experience reminds us that when we receive God’s gift of salvation our problems are not solved once and for all. I want to cling to the fairytale of faith: Once upon a time, there was a sinner who found Jesus. She became active in a church, developed a love of prayer and Bible study, and lived happily ever after. But what often happens next is not happiness but struggle and heartache.
We continue to carry longtime brokenness; we fall back into old destructive habits. We can become frustrated and angry that the problems of our past have not disappeared. Then we discover how difficult it can be to live out our faith in God’s redeeming grace.
And we find ourselves developing new bad behaviors and attitudes. We may trade our messed-up life for a proud life. A dishonest life may be traded for a judgmental one. A rigid, authoritarian life can be traded for a slow descent into addiction. Only now we feel more stuck than before because good people don’t do bad things, especially good Christians. Like Kopp, we may try to bargain with God, hoping to find a way to hold on to our unsatisfying craving that is destroying our life.
Kopp finally hit bottom after years of being an alcoholic. At that point she had to begin to face unpleasant truths. Perhaps most importantly she had to accept that her own strength of will and ‘clenched-fist prayers’ weren’t enough to free her from her desire to drink. She started on the road to recovery only when she surrendered completely.
Hadn’t she done that already when she became a Christian? Yes, and probably many times afterwards. But surrender isn’t a one-time act. It’s easy to think of it as the first level on a video game that you have to pass to reach the next level. Sober Mercies reminds us that as recovering sinners, we will never leave the ground floor. Every single day we will need to experience God’s grace. And the only way we can do that is to admit who we really are and what we’ve done, and then surrender our will to God again.
Kopp’s story echoes those we read throughout the Old and New Testament of people who entered into a covenantal relationship with God and then wandered far away. When they turned back to come home, they found their loving Father waiting to redeem their life again.
Recovering from an addition is a hard battle. As in Kopp’s case, there are rarely overnight miracles. But step by step she begins to recover her life, her marriage, her senses. She regains joy and true freedom. This is a story of great hope: God never gives up on us, and when we return to Him, He helps us put our life back together using His love and grace as the glue.
Sober Mercies also reminds us that moral failure is not limited to the pastors and Christian celebrities we read about in the news. There are hiding, hurting, desperate people in church who have been Christians for years. They attend worship services, they are members of a Bible study, they are part of a church ministry. Someone may be sitting next to me in the pew week after week struggling with a shameful secret, and in need of redemption now more than ever.
Someone just like me.
Hello, my name is Annie, and I’m a sinner who needs Jesus. Still.
What about you? Are there areas in your life where you wandered away from God’s transforming grace?
What Christian sinner needs you to love them with fearless honesty and compassion?