Recently I found out that a former high school classmate of mine died two years ago from a drug overdose. I hadn’t kept in touch with him, even though we met when we were young and had even shared a ride to elementary school for a year.
Among my illusions and misgivings has never been the belief that age makes someone invincible. “The grass withers,” Isaiah 40:7 (NKJV) says. “Surely the people are grass.” But seeing someone a year younger than me, someone who fathered a child in his teen years, lose himself to drugs has left me with a dark recognition of our universal problem—our dependency on sin for identity.
My area, Northern Kentucky—as distinguished from “the rest of Kentucky,” as we like to say—has suffered from an addiction epidemic for several years, especially since the state government passed “reforms” that lessened penalties for heroin dealers. Addicts and dealers from other states have flooded Kentucky with the drug trade. The users aren’t just homeless or poor people, but soccer moms, lawyers, high school students. Our police are staking out grocery parking lots to catch addicts stopping for a fix. If not money, what is missing from these peoples’ lives?
Followers of Jesus know that only love and an identity founded in Christ can erase a person’s corrosive habit, whether it’s greed, or a harsh temper, or dependency. For all sin involves a quest for self outside of God—that’s why Scripture calls it “self-seeking” (James 3:16). If people practice sin long enough, even a conventional one like coveting their boss’s Lexus or cursing, that waywardness grafts into their sense of self like a parasite, until the thought of rejecting it seems tantamount to destroying themselves as well.
This tragic tendency lies in our churches as much as our overpasses and food pantries. It lies in me, and in you. And it is slavery. “Whoever commits sin,” Jesus says, “is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). But Christ has not left us without our own emancipation proclamation. “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed,” he tells us (v. 36). In him we can be “set free from sin” to become “slaves of righteousness” who find their sense of self in God (Romans 6:18) rather than transgression, pride in good looks or education, or possessions.
But this means something much harder than the simple and triumphal tone of these words might imply. It means a wholehearted yielding to “newness of life” (Romans 6:4), not just a patch job in which we try to heal ourselves with a small dose of religion while secretly clinging to the basis of the old self (Luke 5:36). It means saying, “This is not who I am in Jesus,” every time the chance arises for an evil dependency on something or someone who is not God Himself.
Because killing your sin in this way does not mean killing yourself. Rejecting our well-worn habits will hurt, but we will come out on the other side, “delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). This is the new birth, the best love, and the greatest freedom—a birthday, Valentine’s, and Independence Day wrapped into one.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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