When Heather Kopp arrived at rehab, she didn't fear the physical agony of withdrawal or the chance that she would relapse. Rather, she worried she wouldn't fit in. A 40-something mom of two and a veteran of Christian publishing, Kopp had never been in jail or on the streets. Her husband drove her from their comfortable Colorado Springs home to a group facility where the other patients, she feared, would look down on her for not having fallen quite as far. She'd simply let a nightly glass of wine turn into two, which turned into a bottle, which eventually led to additional mini bottles hidden and secretly chugged in the bathroom. Soon enough, every moment of her life revolved around her next chance to sneak away for a drink. It was a bad situation, but it wasn't exactly the kind of flashy rock-bottom story that, say, sells memoirs.
But Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk (Jericho Books) proves just how wrong she was to minimize the depths of her descent. Kopp's highly readable account draws the reader in, opening up a window into the mind of a burgeoning alcoholic. But as it moves through her rehab and recovery phases into her struggle to understand God's presence amid her alcoholism, the book grounds everything in a universal truth: Substance abuse is a physical manifestation of a spiritual addiction to sin. And everyone, it turns out, is an addict.
It takes only a few days at rehab before Kopp realizes that trying to come across as "relatable" to the other patients means she is positioning herself above them. The only reason any of them are there at all, she realizes, is a physical dependence on alcohol they have tried and failed to shake on their own. Through her recovery process and relationships with other recovering alcoholics, she begins to question her former ideas of who God is and what it means to respond to his love.
The intersection of addiction and faith is not new territory—Alcoholics Anonymous has led millions of addicts out of alcoholism through reliance on a higher power, and Mary Karr's fantastic memoir Lit offers a stunning portrait of this process in action. But this isn't a story of how addiction led Kopp to God, or how God pulled her out of addiction. Sober Mercies is, instead, a story of confronting the nature of sin and understanding more fully the necessity and beauty of God's grace. Through her battle with addiction, Kopp learned how to live toward the possibility of redemption by living one day at a time.
In a final scene, the author and a loved one reflect on how others view their sobriety: "They think I just resist temptation over and over because I'm a good person or because I have all this willpower. Can you imagine? How do you explain to people that it's not anything like that?" Recovery is a living example of the miracle of grace. When addiction removes the illusion of self-sufficiency, the addict must reach a point of surrender from which to accept grace without conditions, and to have confidence that God really is in control, no matter what. Those final three words are hardest to grasp for anyone who has ever felt like they have something to lose.
It's tempting for the nonalcoholic to read a memoir about alcoholism as a detached observer. We can marvel at the depths from which God can save a person from pursuits that bring only harm, pain, and grief—and to thank him that we haven't fallen as far. But Sober Mercies reminds us that we are each living our own addiction story. And we can't lose sight of the complete and total dependence on God's sustaining grace that offers any hope of a way out.
Laura Leonard is associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and a contributing writer for Her.meneutics.