THE CURE, The Theme

Spoiler alert. What follows will give away important parts of the plot of my novel, The Cure, so if you have not read it and you think you might some day, you may want to stop reading today's post right here.

Still reading? Okay, you were warned. Here goes:

I received the following email today from a reader: "I read The Cure and I really did not get the ending. Riley was cured of alcoholism, so why did he have to become an alcoholic again to have to overcome it? I'm all for leaving things to the imagination, but did he get right with God?" Since this is not the first time a reader has asked me this question, I thought it made sense to answer here, where I can send other readers in the future. Following is my reply.

Dear Reader,

Thank you for taking time to ask this question. It's an important one.

The short answer is, Yes indeed, Riley does end up being "right with God." To understand why, we first have to open up the story a bit more broadly. Jesus did not die and rise to save us from our sins; he did it to save us from our sin addiction, the broken thing inside that makes it impossible NOT to sin. (We were "slaves to sin" as Paul says in Romans 7, from which I chose an epigraph for The Cure.) So when you read about Riley's alcohol addiction, think of the story in broader terms. The Cure is not just about one man's struggle against alcoholism. It's about your own struggle against your particular sin addiction, no matter how it might be manifested in your life.

We know willpower alone cannot save us from our sin addiction, and in the same way, we know there is no cure for sinfulness in technology. We can "cure" gluttony with stomach stapling; we can "cure" pornography with filters on computers, and so forth. But nothing human beings can do will cure us of our sin addiction. This is why Jesus had to die and rise, and why only God's grace is sufficient.

But your question remains a good one: why would a Christian voluntarily accept the urge of alcoholism?

Notice what Riley tries to do about his addiction. He takes the "cure" while he's still drunk on Scotch. Like Riley, the apostle Paul had a "thorn in the flesh," but Paul was wise enough to ask God to remove it. Riley does no such thing. Taking the cure is not a decision he makes with God; it is a choice he makes completely on his own while in the grip of the very thing he hopes to cure. Riley never prays for forgiveness; on the contrary, he prays for "something good to drink." Then the technology kicks in and Riley no longer "needs" to drink, but notice why: it is the technology at work in him. It is not the Holy Spirit. So while the external evidence of his sin addiction is controlled, the internal cause--the thing that made him start drinking in the first place--remains unchanged.

Remember Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. God doesn't just care about murder; He cares about anger in our hearts. God doesn't just care about adultery; He cares about lust in our hearts. Again, Jesus did not come to save us from external sins; He came to save us from the broken thing inside that forces us to sin. And although Riley is no longer drinking, that internal brokenness remains. Riley is not drinking anymore, but he is far from right with God.

We see this in the fact that Riley carries an overwhelming sense of guilt in spite of his sobriety. He often says he feels "weighed down". What does he do about that? He does what any pagan who is scared of hell would do. He works hard to try to make up for all the bad things in his life. He works hard to be "good." But of course, all his efforts come to nothing. Indeed, they are worse than nothing; they actually cause more damage. Hope is suspected of taking bribes, his daughter is pregnant out of wedlock, the town is dying, and all because "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me," as Paul said in Romans 7. Finally, when technology and willpower and good works have all failed, when the town is in ashes, Hope is in the hospital, Willa is dead, and Riley is in jail for murder, at last we come to this (on page 318):

"He thought about the weight that never lifted no matter what he did. Sober, drunk, broke or flush, in love or alone, it did not matter. And suddenly he realized what it was he had forgotten in a clearing choked with carnage seven years ago, the reason for his incapacitating weakness. When I am weak, then I am strong."

Now Riley knows his mistake. He was weak in his alcoholism, but he must allow himself to be weak in an entirely different way in order to accept the strength of God's amazing grace. He remembers what he once forgot: God will give no grace to those who think they're strong. But how can Riley Keep be weak, when he is now sober and the richest man in Maine?

You know what he does with the Communion wine, how he voluntarily accepts his alcohol addiction back into himself, and hopefully now you are beginning to understand his reason.

Riley's drinking started with a spiritual mistake. He needed a spiritual solution. Another Christian might not express that solution the way Riley did. I'm not saying they should. That's the kind of individual decision each person must make with the Lord. But lest we be tempted to condemn Riley's choice in his own case, remember God said "No" when Paul asked for his "thorn of the flesh" to be removed. Remember God explained that Paul was better off with that thorn right where it was. And as much as it hurt, Paul accepted this. In fact, he boasted about it. This is the very event that led him to write those famous words: "When I am weak, then I am strong." The idea for The Cure came to me one day when I asked myself, "If someone had come along with an instant cure for Paul's particular problem, would he have taken it in spite of what God said?"

When faced with trials, a Christian's decisions must never be made on the basis of what's easiest, or least painful, or less of a struggle. Christians are not called to easy, painless, struggle-free lives. This is the meaning of the sentence on page 326 of The Cure, just before Riley drank the Communion wine and took the urge/thorn back into his flesh:

"He had begun to remember crosses to be lifted up and carried, and follow me, and follow me."

So, dear Reader, now that you understand these things the way Riley understood them, I hope The Cure will help you think about the meaning of your own particular sin addictions, whatever they might be. In your struggle for holiness I hope this story helps you think of your sinfulness as an opportunity to be weak before the Lord. I hope it reminds you not to try to cure yourself. I hope you will remember you can't do that, except maybe on the surface. Deep down where it matters, like Riley Keep you are utterly powerless when you try to be strong, but if you have faith enough to let yourself be weak, the Lord will make you strong enough to do more than just survive the trials of life; if you let yourself be weak, you will boast about the triumph of the Lord's amazing grace in you.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:33 AM  


Kay said... November 7, 2007 at 11:19 AM  

Ok, sometimes while reading the book, I thought, "Sheesh, what are you talking about!?" But in the end, that's what I really liked about the book. I had to engage my brain a bit to really get it. And that is a very good thing!
And I felt very sorry and very joyful when he took the Blood of Christ in the end. I thought it was beautiful.

J. Brisbin said... November 7, 2007 at 11:29 AM  

An "epigram" is a pithy or humorous saying. An "epigraph" is "a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme" [Oxford Am. Dictionary]--which is, I think, what you meant. I was recently chided in my poetry class for using epigram when I was supposed to say epigraph. :)

Other than that nitpicky, who-cares thing, great post!

Athol said... November 7, 2007 at 11:59 AM  

Ha ha! Jon, you are so right!

But this is nothing compared to what I did in my second novel EVERY HIDDEN THING, where I referred to an old Southern mansion as "antediluvian". :)
I knew (and know) the difference of course, but sometimes my mind things one think and my fingers type another.

I'm changing it in the post now. Thanks for the catch!


Kay said... November 13, 2007 at 7:33 AM  

Just finished River Rising.
Wow. I feel a little battered; a little breathless. But in a good way!

Athol said... November 13, 2007 at 9:06 AM  

Thanks, Kay. If I can get a reader to say, "Wow," I'm a happy guy. :)

Kay said... November 16, 2007 at 7:50 AM  

I'm giving away a copy of River Rising on my blog.

Rachelle said... November 16, 2007 at 1:32 PM  

WOW. That's a great explanation. A wonderful theological lesson, too. Thanks!

Carrie K. said... December 3, 2007 at 8:37 AM  

I've been saving this post in my Bloglines because I knew The Cure was coming up in my to-read stack.

I finished it yesterday, and I have to echo the "Wow." The ending surprised me and really made me think. Would I take a "cure" for my particular besetting sin if it meant that I no longer needed to rely on God's grace in that area of my life? Hard question.

I posted a review on my blog, if you're interested.

Athol Dickson said... December 3, 2007 at 12:06 PM  

Carrie, I went to your blog and read that review. THANK YOU so much for your kind words about THE CURE!

Doni Brinkman said... January 19, 2008 at 7:29 PM  

I read this posting before I read the book. I thought I understood your point but realized I was going to have to read the book to really "get it". I just finished The Cure this evening and I feel, for lack of better word, humbled by Riley's decision. I look at myself and wonder if I would have had the courage to do that. I would love to have the weight of temptation simply lifted but I would surely boast in my flesh if the source were any other than Christ. For the last four years I have been thinking on the words of Paul "when I am weak I am strong". My youngest son was born at 25 weeks and his NICU Dr. put those words on his little isolette but did not credit the apostle Paul for them. Realizing Paul penned those words, I long contemplated the far reaching effects. For me, in the scariest hours of my life, believing my son would die, I had to embrace my weakness in my fear and allow God to fill me with His strength - despite all outcomes. Ty's fourth birthday party is tomorrow. It seems appropriate that I finish this grand tale on the eve of it. I don't expect I will ever really understand the depths of Paul's words but I hope that with each lesson learned, I am weaker so that He alone can get the Glory. Thank you for writing this.

Athol said... January 20, 2008 at 6:38 AM  

Doni, I'm glad you were able to read THE CURE and sense a connection with your story as Ty's mother. We all have to face those kinds of struggles one way or another, and sin being the addictive thing it is, we're all tempted to rely on something other than the Lord to get us through. I love your phrase, "embrace my weakness," because it so well expresses the counter-intuitive answer to life's challenges, when the strength to make it through is simply more than we can muster. As I mentioned in the post above, not every reader understands Riley's choice. It was a courageous decision, as you said, but some see it as a form of "testing God." The difference lies in Riley's motivation. Maybe life and death experience in something one simply cannot overcome is required before a reader understands. Obviously, that was true in your case. Thanks for your comment.

DeedieLynn said... May 18, 2008 at 6:03 PM  

The Cure is the first book I have read by you - I enjoyed it, and it got better the farther (further? which is it, by the way?) along I went!
I was figuring Riley's reason for taking Communion was something like that, but you articulated it so very well.
I am looking forward to reading more posts (got the link from Angela Hunt's blog). The tetragrammaton thing is cool, too.
I'm a church librarian in California - exploring Christian fiction, as I am more familiar with nonfiction at this point.
God bless!

Athol Dickson said... May 18, 2008 at 6:40 PM  

I'm glad Angie steered you over here. Wish I had more time for posts these days, but I'm working on a difficult first draft of another novel and it's been pretty all-consuming. I'm getting close to wrapping it up, and after that I should be back to posting much more often.
P.S. I think you can use "farther" and "further" pretty much interchangably, but if you want to be technically correct, "farther" deals more specifically with physical distance, while "further" is more metaphorical ("further back in time" etc.).

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