Addiction, My Father, and Me
By Terry J. Gardner
Text: As Paul “spoke about justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became fearful.” —Acts 24:25
God gave my father many gifts. He was intelligent, handsome, and physically strong. In his youth, he was “tough,” and yet he knew the words of the Bible as well as anyone I have ever met. He could speak fluently without notes, intelligently and, often, wisely. My father was addicted to nicotine, hard liquor, and gambling.
In my earliest memories my father smoked—first, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, then filtered Camels, and, later, Pall Malls. When my father discovered that he could buy a non-smokers’ insurance policy if he smoked cigars, he switched to Rum Soaked Crooks and, later, Bering Imperial Cigars. Today twenty-five Bering Imperials sell for $96.25. Dad had a champagne taste but had no budget. He smoked from the moment he woke up in the morning until he went to bed at night. He showered with a lit cigar. If he swam in a pool, he swam with a lit cigar. When my father’s first grandson was born, someone told my sister that the child favored my father. “Does he have a cigar in his mouth?” she asked.
My father’s trouble with alcohol began when he was sixteen and left home for a year. Later he decided that he wanted to preach and overcame his thirst for alcohol for some time. Yet by the time I was in high school he had begun to drink, more and more. He favored Scotch, Johnny Walker Red Label. He would only have “one” drink at night but that “one” was “refreshed” over and over. When my father drank, he would call me lazy and worthless, suggesting that I would never amount to anything. I knew the alcohol was talking, but it was still painful to hear.
As for gambling, my father preferred the horses—frequenting Bay Meadows, a track near our home in San Mateo. He enjoyed Las Vegas from time to time, and who knows what else. If you gamble long enough, the house always wins. My father gambled long enough.
I detested smoke from cigarettes and cigars, and suffered from asthma as a small child. As I grew older, I pleaded with my father to quit smoking, but he could not do it.
Meanwhile, my father’s alcohol problem became unbearable. In the late 1980s we intervened, persuading him to enter an alcohol treatment program in Minneapolis. He quit drinking for a while, but soon he was again a slave to alcohol. I don’t know that my father ever tried to quit gambling. I do know that—as in the song, Papa was a Rolling Stone—when my father died, “all he left me was alone.”
In his life, my father suffered pain and grief. His mother and father had died of tuberculosis by the time he was seven years old. Two of his older sisters had died from tuberculosis by 1949. Yet many people loved my father and would have done anything for him. His choices made no sense to me. Whenever I asked his advice, his counsel was wise—but he did not follow his own advice.
Jesus teaches that “everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). In my father’s early life drinking was a choice, but once he passed a certain point he became a slave to alcohol and he could not stop drinking . . . or smoking . . . or gambling. The answer was clear: he needed to admit that he was a slave, that he was powerless to stop doing these things, and turn to God in faith. That faith requires humility; my father was a proud man. The Bible warns us, “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 16:5) and “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). My father was determined to “do it my way,” to live as he had chosen, without counting the cost to his health, to his family, or to his God.
I am my father’s son . . . yet God expects something more of me. I can not blame my father for what I am for God expects me to learn from my father’s mistakes and to be a better man than my father was. God showed mercy to King Nebuchadnezzar, who did many things in his ignorance, but God showed no mercy to his son King Belshazzar. Indeed the prophet Daniel delivered the message of God to Belshazzar, reminding him of all that happened to his father, and then added, “Yet you, his son Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this, but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven . . . you praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand, but the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified.” (Daniel 5:22-23).
I have avoided some of the sins of my father, but other sins are more challenging. Christians are to take our thoughts captive, to eat and drink in moderation, and to control every physical passion. I love to eat, and recently found myself becoming addicted to diet Coke. Humility, trust in God, accountability, and prayer are necessary for self-control—it is, inevitably, a daily battle. “I discipline my body and enslave it,” Paul wrote, “so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be lost” (I Corinthians 9:27). Paul’s call to “self-control” terrified Felix. It scares me, too.