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07 March 2014

Our own worst enemies

Our own worst enemies

For some people planning the weekend ahead, a hangover is an inevitable part of the deal. Even those who don't drink to the point of making themselves feel ill might well avoid, as I often have, adding up their weekly units, because well, ignorance is bliss.

Research tells us that the majority of people in the UK drink more than they should. This has implications beyond our faintly guilty consciences. Alcohol is now the most common cause of death for men under 50, and the cost of alcohol-related diseases is more than £3 billion.

Well help may be at hand, in the form of a new alcohol substitute being developed by David Nutt,
professor. This week he's been talking about the new drug which will have all the intoxicating effects of alcohol, without its toxicity. It's based on the same group of drugs which Valium comes from, so it offers no threat of anti-social behaviour, and Nutt has even developed an antidote that you can use to instantly reverse the drug' s effects. It holds out the promise of protecting us from ourselves.

Evangelical Christians are not in the main known for being heavy drinkers, though that of course doesn't mean that it's not a big problem for some. However, this story should lead none of us to feel smug. Because of course it's not just alcohol that we struggle with.

There seem to be some things in life that bring out our self-destructive streak. Though the story society tells us is of rational individuals who make self-optimising choices, the need for strict diets, e-cigarettes, swear jars and accountability groups undermines it. We are often our own worst enemies.

The Apostle Paul is not always known, at least in the popular imagination, for his high levels of humility and vulnerability, but it was he who wrote in sheer frustration: "
" (Romans 7:15).

I know that feeling. I'd hazard a guess that every human being does. I am far more frail than I like to admit, doing things every day that don't live up to my own, fairly low, standards, let alone God's.

Although technology may be of some practical help, as a Christian I know that it doesn't address the deeper problem. The problem used to be called sin, but as writer Francis Spufford has pointed out in his book Unapologetic, that word is now so synonymous with lingerie, ice cream and harmless self-indulgence it no longer carries any weight. Spufford uses instead "the human propensity to mess things up", and Kant referred to the "crooked timber" of humanity. This is the tragedy of the human condition, and one that crosses all barriers. One of the reasons I think real Christianity is so psychologically healthy is that it is realistic about this. We also have something to offer beyond an accurate diagnosis.

For the Church, ultimately it is only God's grace- the help and forgiveness that we don't deserve and can't earn, that gives the tragedy a redemptive ending and frees us finally from the prison of our own failings. It's also about honesty in our relationships with other people. This kind of vulnerability, with God and those around us, this admitting that we can't do it on our own, that we need help, that we are not the people we would like to be, is painful to our egos and tremendously countercultural. It can, and should also be tremendously refreshing to those outside the Church.

Connecting over our shared brokenness, and then humbly offering out some hope for change  might just be a more lasting solution than replacing a 12-year-old Ardbeg whisky with a dose of drugs, to try and save us from ourselves.

Elizabeth Oldfield is director of Theos, a public theology think tank