The Strange Odyssey Of a Legalistic Preacher Who Became a Drunk, Discovered Grace And Found Freedom
When I became a Christian in 1970 at the age of 33, I was really excited. This was what I had been looking for all my life. At last I had peace and something to live for. I hit the ground running. I went to church every time the doors opened. As Bill Gillham says, “If you had tied the average Baptist to me I would have dragged him to death.” I wanted my life to count for God. I pursued preparation for ministry with great determination and zeal.
I was the President of a local Stock Brokerage firm, but I gave that up and headed off to seminary. How could I not take the message of eternal life to a lost and dying world? I graduated from seminary and went into the pastorate. It was my custom to spend at least an hour a day in Bible study and prayer. I memorized chapters of Scripture. I fasted and prayed. I read hundreds of books and listened to numerous tapes. I went to every conference that came to town. I went to Gothard so many times I lost count. I witnessed enthusiastically to anything that moved. It was my duty — how could I do less? My children didn’t like to ride in the car with me because I would pick up hitchhikers so I could witness to a captive audience. Julia, my wife, didn’t like to go out in public with me because I would witness to strangers while we were waiting for our ice cream cones in Baskin-Robbins.
I tried to do everything I had been taught in order to live the successful Christian life. What was the result of all this? My wife and children didn’t respect me because in my zeal to make them be good Christians, I became legalistic, harsh and unloving. My marriage was a mess and my personal life was a shambles. I came to the realization that everything I had learned about living the Christian life just was not working for me.
Finally I came to grips with reality and left the pastorate and went back to being a stockbroker. I became the manager of the E. F. Hutton office in Birmingham, Alabama and soon was making more money than I had ever made in my life. But I felt like such a failure. I felt I had failed God, my wife and children, and my church. I turned back to my old ways of dealing with my problems and began to drink. In a short period of time I became a full-fledged alcoholic. I didn’t plan to be one and began trying everything I knew to stop, but nothing seemed to help. This is what I tried:
1. Consistent Quiet Time
2. Bible Study
4. Visitation Evangelism
5. Christian Twelve Step Program
6. Accountability group
7. Hundreds Of AA meetings And Five Different Sponsors
8. Christian Counselors
9. Christian Psychiatrist
10. Secular Psychiatrist
11. Christian Psychologist
12. Secular Psychologist
13. Addictions Counselor
14. Flew To New Jersey And Spent Three days With an Addictions Specialist
15. Secular Treatment Center
16. Christian Treatment Center
17. Read Every Book On Addiction I Could Find
18. Healing Of Memories Session
19. Baptism Of The Spirit Session
20. Casting Out Of Demons Session (Twice)
21. Public Confession
22. Group Therapy
23. Took The Drug Antabuse
24. Disciplined By My Church
25. Rigid Schedule With Every Minute Planned
26. Hundreds Of Hours Studying Scriptural Principles
27. Memorized Chapters Of Scripture
28. Discipleship Groups
30. Promises To God And My Wife
Why didn’t any of this work? All were things I was doing in the flesh and “sinful passions are aroused by the flesh” (Rom. 7:5). Whenever we commit ourselves to a program, rules, method, principles, steps, etc. to perform, we put ourselves under law and the law is what gives sin power in our lives (1 Cor. 15:56). Paul didn’t say, What will set me free, but “WHO will set me free?” (Rom. 7:24). There is no “What” (program, treatment, steps, plan, method, etc.) or anything you can do that can set you free, but “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:32) and if the Son sets you free you are free indeed” (John 8:36).
Where did all of this get me? I became totally out of control. I was depressed for days on end and suicidal. I was like the Prodigal Son — all I wanted was out of the pig pen. I had given up on being a good Christian and the idea of ministry seemed like a cruel joke. Jerry Clower, the Mississippi comedian tells a story that illustrates my predicament: Jerry and his buddy Marcel were out coon hunting one night and treed a big coon. Marcel climbed up the tree to shake the coon out, but when he got up there he found out it was a lynx, not a coon, and it gets after Marcel and is about to tear him up. Marcel hollers down at Jerry, “Shoot, shoot, this thang is killin me.” Jerry hollers back, “I’m afraid to shoot, I might hit you”. Marcel hollers back down, “Shoot up here amongst us, one of us has got to have some relief.” That describes exactly where I was.
Now that was a very painful place to be, but exactly where God wanted me. I have since learned that God’s purpose for us is to bring us to the end of ourselves and our resources so that we can begin to trust Christ to be our resource and our life and to really live by faith. 2 Cor. 1:8,9 sums it up, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, we despaired of life. Indeed the sentence of death was in our heart. But that happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.”
Someone has said that it is when we have shot our last bullet and spent our last buck that God is able to work in our lives. There is no possibility of freedom, peace, victory and joy without coming to the end of self. The way up in the Christian life is down; revival is not the roof blowing off, but the floor caving in. Grace always flows downhill and meets us at our point of need – at our failure – at our brokenness. Grace cannot be merited or manipulated. It is available for those who have come to the end of self and theiir resources.
Does God have an answer for addiction? Is there really any hope for the person who seems to be hopelessly enslaved? Is there such a thing as the victorious Christian life? I lived in constant defeat. My struggles seemed to be more intense and my defeats seemed to be more disastrous than most, but I really didn’t know many, if any, Christians who seemed to be free and living the victorious Christian life. No one seemed to have any answers for me.
As I look back now, I see that not only did I not have a clue as to the solution, I didn’t have a clue as to what the problem was. Dr. Bill Gillham, in his book Lifetime Guarantee, puts it like this, “The problem is you don’t know what your problem is. You think your problem is your main problem, but that’s not the problem at all. The problem is you don’t know what your problem is and that’s your main problem.”
What is the problem? The problem is not the bad behavior but the belief behind the behavior that causes us to act that way. Our behavior will always be consistent with our beliefs. What that means to the alcoholic and the addict or anyone in bondage is that their problem is not drinking alcohol or doing drugs or whatever, but it is the belief (really misbeliefs or lies) that causes them to act the way they do.
When I teach at Christian treatment centers and rescue missions, I always make it a point to say, “If you work this program perfectly and do all they tell you to do and that’s all you do, you will be back in your addiction within a week or two after you leave here because if the way you believe is not changed, you are unchanged”. If you have a life-controlling problem, a besetting sin, an addiction, etc. and want to be free, do NOT look at the addictive behavior, but look at the beliefs that cause you to continue in the self-destructive behavior. As I reflect on my struggle to be free, it is amazing to me that I didn’t question my beliefs and my theology. I did try a lot of different things, but I stubbornly held on to some established beliefs that kept me from being free. Most were along the lines of what I needed to do to get free. Why did I do this? Because I had been taught the “truth” and knew it and I was convinced that my problem was not my beliefs, but my inability to put them into action.
As far as I knew I had tried everything there was to try. Everyone had given up on me. My pastor later told me, “I didn’t know anything else to tell you.” Finally a close friend, Charlie Jones, handed me some tapes and said, “Here, listen to these, maybe they’ll help you”. I had listened to a couple of these tapes before and thought, “I don’t want to listen to these, this theology doesn’t agree with mine.” (See what I mean about stubbornly holding onto old beliefs?)
Then another thought came into my mind and I know now God was speaking to me, “Your theology is not doing you much good!!!” There was no denying the truth of that so I made what would be one of the best decisions I would ever make — I would listen to the tapes with an open mind. However, I went out and got drunk again. The next morning Julia strongly suggested that I go visit some friends out-of-town and give her a break. It seemed like a good idea so I packed a few clothes and headed to Lookout Mountain to visit our good friends, Jack and June Fagan.
I was driving along listening to the third tape, which was “Co-crucifixion is Past Tense”. Bill Gillham was teaching on our death with Christ. Rom. 6:6,7 says, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” What is this? I have died with Christ and I have been freed from sin? That’s what I need, but how do I make that true in my life? Then Gillham was saying, “It is not something you do, it is something that has been done; our death with Christ is past tense, the old person that we were ‘was crucified’ and ‘anyone who has died has been freed from sin’.” And then he said, “You ‘died to sin’ (Rom 6:2), you are ‘dead to sin’ (Rom. 6:11). I know you don’t act dead to sin, you don’t feel dead to sin, you don’t even look dead to sin, you think that is just a positional truth, that’s just the way God sees me, that’s just what God says about me. Listen, the way God sees you is reality. What God says is the”.
It was at that moment that the lights came on and in that moment I knew the truth. I knew I had died with Christ and the old sin loving sinner had died and was no more. Oh I had believed the lie and acted like it for all these years, but that was not who I was. I now knew the truth was that I was dead to sin whether I acted like it, felt like it, looked like it or anyone else believed it — because God said I was. I also knew the truth that I was free, “….because anyone who had died has been freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7). Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). I had believed the lie that I was a hopeless, helpless alcoholic and had lived in bondage all the years that I believed it. But less than 24 hours away from a drunk, I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that I, Mike Quarles, was a child of God who was “in Christ”, because I had died with Christ, was dead to sin and had been freed from sin. Free at last, free at last! Praise God I was free at last!!!!!!!!!
Rejoicing in my discovery of this truth and my freedom, I ran in to Jack and June’s house shouting to them that I was free. I grabbed the phone and called Julia and tried to explain to her what had happened. She thought I was on another wild goose chase and wouldn’t even hear me out. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm though as I knew who I was in Christ and that I was free. I have never doubted it since that day!
You may ask, how could anyone who had been in bondage for years and was drunk the day before be set free by listening to a tape? Actually listening to a tape did not set me free, but believing the truth that was taught on the tape did set me free. The truth is that I was free and had been ever since I became a Christian, but I had believed a lie about who I was that effectively kept me in bondage. Neil Anderson likes to ask the question in his conferences, “How many died with Christ?”. Most, if not all, raise their hands. Then he asks, “How many are free from sin?”. Then he says, “It better be the same hands because it clearly states in Romans 6:7, ‘Anyone who has died has been freed from sin’.” All Christians died with Christ so all Christians have been freed from sin. Now if they don’t believe they have been freed from sin, they will probably not act like it. We always act according to our beliefs, according to who we believe we are. That is why the issue is always identity. If you don’t know the truth about who you are “in Christ”, it doesn’t make any difference how much scripture you know and how many discipleship programs you are in or how much you pray or how long your quiet time is or how accountable you are.
Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist from a few years back, issued a challenge wherever he went. He could be locked in any jail cell in the country, he claimed, and set himself free in short order. Always he kept his promise, but one time something went wrong. Houdini entered the jail in his street clothes; the heavy metal doors clanged shut behind him. He took from his belt a concealed piece of metal, strong and flexible. He set to work immediately, but something seemed to be unusual about this lock. For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. An hour passed, and still he had not opened the door. By now he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he still could not pick the lock. Finally after laboring for two hours, Harry Houdini collapsed in frustration and failure against the door he could not unlock. But when he fell against the door, it swung open! It had never been locked at all! But in his mind it was locked and that was all it took to keep him from opening the door and walking out of the jail cell. (Spiritual Strongholds, Don McMinn, NCM Press, Oklahoma City, OK, 1993).
Christian, the door to freedom is not locked — it was opened wide when Christ died on the cross and you died with Him. Not only have you been crucified, dead and buried, but the new creation that is you was raised up with Him ( Eph. 2:6). What does it take to walk through that wide open door to freedom? All it takes is for you to believe the truth. “It was for freedom that Christ set you free…” (Gal. 5:1). But if you believe that you have to work and sweat and strain then God will allow you to do that until you collapse in frustration and failure as Harry Houdini did. That is exactly what happened to me.
Watchman Nee puts it like this, “Oh, it is a great thing to see that we are in Christ! Think of the bewilderment of trying to get into a room in which you already are! Think of the absurdity of asking to be put in! If we recognize the fact that we are in, we make no effort to enter.” (The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton IL, 1977).
Finally, what did I do to gain my freedom? You may recall that the day before I came into my freedom I had been drunk. The answer is that I did not do anything. I simply believed God. I believed that I had died with Christ (Rom. 6:6), and as a result I was freed from sin (Rom 6:7). You will notice that both of those verbs are in the past tense. What I am saying is that these things had been true of me ever since the first day I became a Christian. Of course they are true of every Christian. Freedom is not something to attain. It is the birthright and inheritance of every child of God.
During World War II, Lieutenant General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright was commander of the Allied Forces in the Philippines. Following a heroic resistance of enemy forces, he was forced to surrender Corregidor and the survivors of the Philippine campaign to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. For three years he suffered as a prisoner of war in a Manchurian camp. During his internment, he endured the incessant cruelties of malnutrition, physical and verbal abuse, and psychological mind-games. Through it all he maintained his dignity as a human being and soldier. But after the Japanese surrendered the war, his captors kept Wainwright and the other prisoners incarcerated — the war was over, but the bondage continued. One day an Allied plane landed in a field near the prison and through the fence that surrounded the compound, an airman informed the General of the Japanese’s surrender and the American victory. Wainwright immediately pulled his emaciated body to attention, turned and marched toward the command house, burst through the door, marched up to the camp’s commanding officer and said, “My Commander-in-Chief has conquered your Commander-in-Chief. I am now in charge of this camp.” In response to Wainwright’s declaration, the officer took off his sword, laid it on the table, and surrendered his command. (Spiritual Strongholds, Don McMinn, NCM Press, Oklahoma City, OK, 1993).
There is absolutely nothing you can do to make these things true in your life. They are already true. God has done it. The prison doors have been opened wide. Will you believe God and by faith walk through them and experience the freedom Christ has purchased for you? “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1, NIV).