Spending Lent with people in recovery

In the company of church members in recovery from addiction, I’m feeling more open to the doctrine of original sin.

Lent is here, and I am settling into the words of Ephesians 2:8—I was a sinner saved by grace. Each year in this season, this verse leads me into contemplation and contrition as I recognize my role in small troubles and great catastrophes. That time my temper got the best of me, a bit of gossip, wanting what is not mine, sins of omission I choose to air only to God.

I am less reflective, if at all, on my total and complete corruption as an inheritor of Adam’s sin. Karl Barth is right that “the reality of sin cannot be known or described except in relation to the One who has vanquished it.” I take my sinful condition seriously but with gratitude for its remedy. I’m also wary of the ways the church has used this doctrine to cudgel ordinary believers with shame and guilt. But this year, in the company of people in my congregation in long-term recovery from addiction, I’m sensing a new openness within me to the doctrine of original sin.

It’s complex and cautious work to talk about sin and addiction in the same breath. For longer than not, public opinion concluded that alcoholism was a sinful condition rooted in the laziest form of immorality. Drunks were bad people who wouldn’t muster the willpower to stop drinking. It wasn’t until 1956 that the American Medical Association diagnosed addiction as a mental illness characterized by compulsive decision-making with notable signs and patterns of recovery. With compassion and medical support rather than judgment and isolation, addicts began to recover.