Augustine, Addiction, and Asses

At my church, we recently had a Narcan training session. For those who might be unaware, this is the treatment used as an immediate counter to opioid overdose in an attempt to save a life. As is my habit, I took some time to reflect upon these things, fully cognizant that as a recovered addict who yet remains in recovery, I have a different view than some. As a quick aside, I have always been interested in the nonpracticing Catholic phenomena. It’s similar to addiction really…yeah I am an addict, but I am not really doing anything related to it…that is what I mean by recovered and yet in recovery. I am not doing anything that involves my actively being addicted, but there is also the reality that it is a part of who I am and what has transpired, but I digress. As I was considering the spiritual implications of this training, I found my thoughts drawn to three interesting places, Saint Augustine, The Articles of Religion, and Balaam’s ass.
The story of Balaam is fascinating really. The Biblical account is fanciful (and in truth, since Shrek came out, I always read the ass’s words in the voice of ‘Donkey’), carries deep meaning, and inspiring in many ways. You can find the story in Numbers 22-25. A very short summary of the story is that Balaam has been summoned by a pagan king to curse the Jews and to guarantee a Moabite victory. God instructs Balaam not to go, Balaam says he won’t, then goes anyway, and God sends an angel to stop him which only the ass sees, and, having God opened it’s mouth, tells Balaam off for it. In fact, the ass veers off the road three times, getting beat each time, all because it saw the angel of God and was trying to save Balaam. Keep this story in mind as we move forward here.
Saint Augustine of Hippo had this really interesting idea. He would write “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You — man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” I want to focus on the thought in bold face type. Our hearts are indeed restless until the rest in God. What then will man do to find rest for his heart? Will we throw ourselves into a job giving all of ourselves to it for the praise that comes with worldly success? Perhaps we will throw ourselves into sex, finding multiple partners, or some form of serial monogamy? Perhaps it is pornography, finding rest in the release of fantasy? Maybe it is an obsessive quest for knowledge? Perhaps it is gambling seeking the rush of winning on speculation?  Maybe it is the local church, doing so much trying to find God that you manage to miss His rest? It can be nearly anything really, and I believe that all of us have at various points in time tried to replace the rest that God will provide our hearts with any number of things. As the community of the faithful, we should understand this better than anyone else. We should also understand that it is not always a matter of sin or moral failing, but rather a side affect of the condition that we are born into that only God can provide true rest from.
The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church has this to say: “Article VII — Of Original or Birth Sin Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” This is the condition that all of us are born into. This is the very condition that causes us to seek rest for our hearts in all manner of things that are not God. This is the condition that causes Balaam to beat his ass for veering off the road when the angel is seen. This condition is what causes Balaam to not see the angel in the road. This condition is what causes us to seek that which is not of God.

This corruption of our nature is the very thing that causes some to seek the rest that addiction promises, but does not deliver on. Yes, there are genetic predispositions and the like, but I am not speaking of biology here, nor do I deny it, but rather an speaking of the condition of our very nature that is in deep need of restoration. (Biology and the mental disease that addiction matters deeply in treating it. I am cognizant of this and do not deny it, it is simply not in the scope of this piece. You can read more about the physical aspects of addiction and my struggle with it here.)  This condition pushes to us to all manner of things, other than God, to seek rest for our hearts. Like Balaam, we are all on an ass that is veering us off the road to protect us in the form of God’s prevenient grace working in our lives. For an addict, that grace can very easily look like this.

I have heard Narcan compared to everything from EpiPens, to cancer treatments. I have heard every argument why it is that it should not be easily obtained, should not be distributed widely, and should not be openly available to those who need it. All those arguments amount to one thing…man trying to prevent the grace that God has extended to all of us from taking hold. We all have an ass that has veered us off the road we were on for our own benefit. In many circumstances, we have the chance to be the ass that veers someone off the road for their own good. In administering Narcan, for the sake of this piece, we are doing just that. We are willingly and knowingly becoming the ass that veers our rider off the road so that they may see the angel ahead of them and to allow God to be heard. We have all experienced God speaking in a way, such as through a talking ass, such as through us, that we would have never expected. It is far past the time that we stop stigmatizing another ass because it looks different than ours.

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