Chief of Sinners: The Deceit of Religious Addiction

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We resiliently sat in the awkward silence common to unacquainted men in a circle. It was the first evening of Redemption Groups, an intensive at our church designed to dig into the junk we all have, but just don’t talk about. What the fellas didn’t know, however, was that I was ready. You see, I had heard about the time for deep confession and other believers probing your heart and the tears that would flow. So I went ahead and prepared to get the worst of me out on the table.

Guys, I know what’s the most messed up in me already. I’m totally convinced that, like Paul, I’m the chief of sinners. I’m the worst of the worst. God has helped me see how bad I really am. 

My somber confession convinced most of my fellow group members. They shook their heads in appropriate disappointment. I had knocked it out of the park with my regret. But my group leader looked at me inquisitively, which made me a bit nervous. And he said in a way so cool that I thought I could see his breathe,

Honestly, it sounds like you’re pretty proud of yourself, chief.

I was horrified. Because he was right. In an instant I could see the prideful bile I had just vomited. I had turned a confession into a conquest. The real me was on display. I had been knocked out of the park. When everyone took a break for dinner, I took off for home. And wept like a baby.

I think this falls into the category of what Mike Wilkerson calls “religious addiction”. A religiosity that is

about the show, the “impression management,” and the trappings of religion, but not its faith and certainly not its God. Like any addition, religiosity serves as an escape from reality…religious addicts are harder to break than addictions to cocaine or heroin because they are the hardest to see, and this blindness seems to be strongly reinforced by the authorities of the church culture, certain Bible passages, personal experience, and even God himself (175-176).

On the one hand, my claim to fame during Redemption Groups was true. Though I sat beside porn and drug addicts, my addiction to Satanic self-glory was probably a far greater stumbling block to my needing and knowing Christ. Yet on the other hand, being the chief was total crap. My sin struggle was and is remarkably normal. It’s in all of us. Both sons are prodigals, the younger who wants to earn his keep as a slave and the older who thinks he’s already earned his keep (Luke 15:11-32). Both peoples miss the point, the proud Jews who demand proof and the foolish Greeks who demand to prove it themselves (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Both kinds of leaders bail on grace, pastors who make a name for themselves and missionaries who go unnamed for themselves. It lurks within. And we don’t even see it.

That’s why I’ve been taking comfort in a very uncomfortable sentence. It comes from the weird story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who after belting out his pride one day was turned into a minotaur-sasquatch-bird thing. After returning to his former self he declared,

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble, Daniel 4:37

Those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Oh, precious words for the one who knows their own deceitful and desperately sick heart! Not only does Jesus pay the price for all our narcissism, he is committed to removing every cancerous nodule of it that remains. And he with the precision of a surgeon knows exactly how to expose lingering pride to the blinding light of Christ (Ephesians 5:8-14). Only Christ in us could lead us to such a desire for this divine chemotherapy (John 3:19-21).

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