Replacement, not Revolution

flightLast year Paramount Pictures brought to the big screen the remarkable movie entitled, “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington. Denzel played the role of Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with the fictional South Jet Airlines.

When we first meet Captain Whitaker he is in an Orlando hotel room with a flight attendant, suffering from a terrible hangover, a hangover he remedies by snorting a line of cocaine, just before climbing aboard to guide Flight 227 to Atlanta. The flight never arrives.

It crashed, not because Whitaker is drunk or jacked up on coke – though he is. The aircraft crashed because of mechanical failure, and the Captain’s efforts are regarded as nothing less than heroic, as there are but a few casualties in the crash. The incident, however, pulls back the veil on Whitaker’s addiction, forming the plotline for the movie.

While it could be said that the producers of the film took creative license with the flight and crash scenes of the movie (check it out for yourself), what the producers perfectly nailed is the nature of addiction. It devours. It gobbles up a person’s physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

Addiction consumes a person’s capacities and rationality, all his or her better angels, and sense of responsibility. That is the nature of addiction, if not its very definition: Addiction uses up a person’s identity. And, of course, the condition is not limited to alcohol and cocaine. Sex, food, video games, smoking, religion, gambling, shopping, pain killers, the internet, relationships, your iPhone, or work: The list is exhaustive. Anything that initially empowers us, in the end, can enslave us.

So what do we do? In those moments of clarity, when we realize that life is a mess and we can’t keep doing unhealthy things or living in these destructive cycles, we decide that we want something better. We want transformation; to turn over a new leaf; to get on the straight and narrow; we want change. But our attempts to revolutionize our lives almost always fail. Yes, we improve for a while, but we can’t seem to stay that way.

A person gets sober and we all cheer. Then, he falls off the wagon, and when he falls, his condition is worse than ever. A friend finally came to her senses and ditches that loser she’s been living with, recognizing that he is a controlling son of a gun who was robbing her of herself. Life is grand until tragically and inexplicably, she gets into a new relationship with a chump who is even worse than the first one!

On and on the endless examples could be catalogued. So many legitimate attempts at life-changing revolution wind up being exchanges of one tyranny for another; a swapping of one set of chains for another; trading one evil task master for another one. The recognition that life must change is simply not enough. Transformation is not accomplished by giving up what is bad for you. No, the bad has to be replaced with what is good and healthy.

I think this is what Blaise Pascal meant when he said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man and woman which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God.” I think this is the highest expression of the Apostle Paul’s mysticism when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but it is Christ who now lives in me.”

And I think that this is exactly what Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was talking about when he articulated those necessary steps toward sobriety, where one must acknowledge his or her powerlessness and turn life over to a Higher Power who is the only source of health and sanity.

This isn’t mere self-help. This is Spirituality 101. This is the essence of the Christian life: Our desires, impulses, and very lives have to be crucified, as it were, so that the life God has for us can be born and lived in its place. It is replacement, not simply revolution.