No, Alcoholism and Homosexuality are Not Analogous

"LGBT Pride Parade San Francisco 2008," David Yu, Flickr C.C.
“LGBT Pride Parade San Francisco 2008,” David Yu, Flickr C.C.

I blew up at a guy on the Internet for trying to make a comparison between alcoholism and homosexuality. To sexual traditionalist Christians, it may seem like a valid analogy to make. Just because you’re born with a certain genetic proclivity doesn’t mean that you have to act on it. If drunks can get sober, then gay people can stay celibate or go straight. But it’s only possible to make this analogy without really thinking about how 12 step recovery actually works and what it actually addresses.

Alcoholism is a subjective self-diagnosis. There is not an official quantity of consumption or set of physical symptoms that make someone an alcoholic. A phrase we use is “problem drinker.” I’m an alcoholic if my drinking creates problems. I’ve been taught that alcoholism means I can’t enjoy and control my drinking at the same time. The reason we seek help is not because we feel guilty for having violated some kind of abstract moral command, but because our alcohol consumption is destroying our lives and the lives of those we love. It’s not merely that my judgment is impaired while I’m intoxicated. If I’m actively drinking, I become a toxic person even in the interim periods when I haven’t had a drink.

Actively indulged addiction makes me guilty, resentful, anxious, and paranoid. Or as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1, I become “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice” (Romans 1:29). This is a critically important truth to understand about sin. It is not only the injustice that causes harm, but also the idolatry that makes me harmful. The way that I know drinking is sinful for me is because of the damage that it does to my character. People who drink without becoming guilty, resentful, anxious, and paranoid are probably not alcoholic or at least not yet recognizably so.

I have met a lot of LGBTQ people in the recovery world. Almost without exception, they began drinking or using drugs as a result of having repressed their identities in order to conform to a hostile, homophobic culture. Their cleanliness and sobriety coincided with coming out, gaining dignity and self-acceptance, and having a greater ability to live in holy, healthy, committed relationships instead of living in the shadows. Romans 1:28-32 does describe what I look like in the throes of addiction. It doesn’t describe any sober gay people I have met.

Addiction recovery shapes people in a diametrically opposite direction from conservative evangelical Christianity. We are not taught to hate ourselves for being sinful and to muster up a heroic level of hypervigilance to live up to the other people’s expectations. We are taught to start by accepting ourselves and accepting the world as it is. Only after starting with acceptance can we let our defenses down enough to invite God to change the parts of our character that are toxic. Importantly, we’re not asking God to turn us into an entirely different person so that we can fit other peoples’ mold. We’re asking him to remove every source of turmoil and confusion that keeps us from being our true selves. Serenity is the goal, not conformity.

Addiction recovery is an innately pragmatic approach to morality. It’s a journey of becoming less toxic and harmful through the power of God’s grace. In the LGBTQ world, what tends to make people harmful and toxic is when they try to repress their identity, not when they make peace with themselves and live according to how they were created to be.

The apostle Paul believed that celibacy for all people was ideal because it meant directing all erotic energy towards God in devotional practice. But he says “it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Note that Paul is not concerned with committing prohibited acts on a legalistic basis. He doesn’t want Christians to let their inner turmoil and passions derail their discipleship, whether they’re actively having extramarital sex or not. If we take the concerns raised in 1 Corinthians 7 seriously, then it’s reasonable to ask whether the church is sinfully disobeying Paul’s teaching by prohibiting gay marriage and thus sabotaging the biblically prescribed antidote for distracting inner passion.

In many ways, I think the recovery movement is doing Christianity better than the church is because the church has been sabotaged by ideology and the self-justification needs of some of its members. Alcoholics Anonymous keeps it simple. Give up trying to control everything, examine the character defects that make you harmful, and ask God to remove them. Control is incompatible with the surrender to God’s will that makes us Christian. Too many Christians use talk about God’s will as a basis for justifying their own obsession with control. For that reason, I would say the true analogy is between Christians who try to control others and alcoholics who try to control their environment through alcohol.

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