Well, isn’t a drug user and a Godward joy seeker just two different kinds of junkies both seeking after a new high, a new spike in an experience they cannot sustain beyond a fleeting moment? Well, there’s an interesting question, and it comes to us from a listener named Bryan.
“Hello, Pastor John! I live in Greenville, not far from where you grew up. My question is one I’ve wrestled with for a long time. How is there any difference between: (1) returning to substances like drugs, alcohol, and sex, once the fulfillment of those things has withered away, and (2) returning to Jesus again once his joy has withered away in us? It appears as if both things, substances and communion with Christ, offer effects that then wear off over time. Neither permanently fulfill — both call us back for another dose or hit. How would you respond to this apparent parallel? Is it right or wrong?”
Rise and Fall
It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s wrong in all the ways that ultimately matter. Now of course, Brian, there is a surface parallel that you’re pointing out. It’s true that the intensity of our pleasure in physical experiences and the intensity of our pleasure in spiritual experience of fellowship with Jesus both rise and fall. There’s a parallel. Both rise and fall; pleasures go up, pleasures go down — in drugs and in relation to Jesus.
“There is an infinite difference between encountering the person Jesus, and the impersonal effect of drugs.”
In this life, while we are still in this body and while indwelling sin remains a reality, there will be till we die a conflict between flesh and Spirit, Satan and God, the old man that needs to be reckoned dead and the new man in Christ.
So there is a superficial parallel between the experience of Christ and our experience of physical pleasure. They both rise and fall. But in spite of that superficial parallel, there are at least five profound differences between our communion with Christ and all of his pleasures and our physical high from substances.
1. Encountering a Person
Jesus Christ is a living, eternal, supernatural, divine, morally beautiful person. We love him. He’s not a thing. He’s not a substance.
There is an infinite difference between encountering a person, and the physical, material, impersonal effect of drugs. There’s an infinite difference between encountering a merely human person and a divine person, the Son of God. When Jesus calls us, he calls us to himself, not to a generic experience that can be duplicated with substances. He calls us not into a physical reaction to substance, but into a personal relationship with himself.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). He is the bread. He is the water. We’re not comparing substance and substance. We are comparing a created substance with the person who created it. That’s the first difference. It’s a massive and infinite difference.
2. New Creations
The second difference in the parallel is that the experience itself is qualitatively different between the physical and psychological effects of a drug, on the one hand, and the spiritual effects of communion with Christ, on the other.
“When Jesus calls us, he calls us to himself, not to a generic experience that can be duplicated with substances.”
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). When you use drugs, you’re not a new creation. You’re not born again by using drugs. You do not have a new nature by using drugs.
When you are united to Christ by faith, you become a new kind of being forever and ever and ever. Your experiences are qualitatively different. You’re not yet perfect, but you are being renewed. Paul says you are being renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 4:23). Your mind is now spiritually and qualitatively doing a different thing.
3. Wooed Back
The third difference between the experience of a drug and the experience of communion with Christ is that the reason we keep returning to Christ is because he himself, as a person who loves us, has chosen to make sure that we return. We’re not being sucked back by addiction; we are being drawn back by a Savior.
He has laid hold of us and made us his own forever. He does not bring us back mechanically, but personally. Listen to this, one of my favorite verses — Philippians 3:12.
Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own.” You could paraphrase that, “I press into Jesus again and again. I press back in again and again.” “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” He has personally owned me, bought me, owns me. When he sees me drifting away, becoming lukewarm, he draws me back because he’s made me his own.
4. Living Water
The more we are brought to him by his personally compelling beauty, the more we become like what he created us to be. We are being transformed from one degree of glory to the next by coming back to Jesus and seeing him again and again and again, until our fellowship is totally unbroken when he comes or when we go (2 Corinthians 3:18).
“We’re not being sucked back by addiction; we are being drawn back by a Savior.”
The more we return to him, the more we fully become whole and rational and free and joyful. But the more we return to substances, the more we become broken, irrational, enslaved, and miserable.
In other words, coming to Jesus makes us more alive, more real, more able to put ourselves resourcefully at the disposal of others for their everlasting good. Jesus says, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Either you will have a spring of water with eternal life or junk. Jesus also says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38).
In other words, drinking from Jesus doesn’t draw us into ourselves and make our own private substance experience. It fills us with overflowing, spring-like, fountain-like love for others. It give us new capacities to love others.
5. Way to Healing
The fact that there is a superficial parallel between the ups and downs of experiencing Jesus and the ups and downs of experiencing drugs may mean something very different than that the experiences are leading to the same outcome. They aren’t.
Suppose you suddenly experienced a spiking fever which fades slightly and then spikes again, and then fades slightly and spikes again. You suddenly realize, because of the epidemic in the town, that you’ve got a fatal disease. You are going to die.
“That’s what happens to everybody,” you think. “Spike, fade, spike, fade, spike, fade — die.” This spiking is a sure sign you’re a goner. Then the medical team arrives, sent by some merciful Red Cross, and they’ve got an antibiotic. And it works. It always works.
They give it to you, and they tell you, “Now you’re going to notice tomorrow that the fever will rise and then it will fall, and then rise again, a little less high, and then it will fall. It’ll rise, and it will fall, and then it will go away. You’ll become better when it falls. You’ll become better even though the return of the fever tomorrow several times will make you think you’re in the same position you were before. But you’re not. That’s a superficial parallel. It’s not where you’re going. That’s the way antibiotics work. You’re going to be well.”
The same similarity exists with the spiking and falling of pleasure in drugs and the spiking and falling of pleasure in Christ. The ups and downs have a totally different meaning. You’re on your way to healing in Christ. It is the ups and downs of our experience in Christ that mean we are on the way to an everlasting, uninterrupted joy.