As we explore our personal relationship with Jesus, we must look at things that stand between us and God. Gerald May was a psychiatrist who worked with people with addictions. In his book, Addiction and Grace, he speaks of how our addictions interfere with our spiritual lives. He says addictions are not limited to alcohol or drugs. Rather, we are all addicted to something. For some it is coffee or candy or other material things. We can also be addicted to behaviors, work, intimacy, helping others or even praise. These become addictions when we are depressed when we do not receive them (9).
He also says he is convinced that we all have an "inborn desire for God" and that we all long for "wholeness, completion, or fulfillment" (1). Our addictions become "harmful addictions" when they become our focus and distract us from our relationship with God.
Even our spiritual lives can be based on addictions. If we are doing it out of habit rather than faith it might be an addiction. What we seek from faith, in part, is freedom. Our faith should never become another addiction for us. God wants us to be free. I write this on the first weekend of Lent 2008 and I am mindful of how many people give something up for Lent (we can also add something, such as more time for prayer). We are called to make sacrifices. Some people may pick trivial things to give up while others truly seek to give up something they know is not good for them and seek God's help in doing it. This is good but we need to be careful not to substitute one addiction for another (147). For instance, if a person is a heavy coffee drinker and decides to give up coffee for Lent but then immediately starts drink more pop for the caffeine, they have missed the point. They simply replace one substance with another.
Gerald May provides five criteria for addiction; tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, self-deception, loss of willpower, and distortion (26). Tolerance is when we become used to a thing or behavior and need more of it to get the same affect. Withdrawal symptoms are the reactions we have when we attempt to rid ourselves of the addiction. Self-deception is when we deny we have a problem. Willpower plays a role in addiction when we say we can give up the addiction whenever we want and so it is not an addiction only to find out it is more difficult than we thought. Lastly, in distortion, our perception of the reality of the addiction is distorted so we cannot see the problem.
We tend of think of addiction as things we crave. Gerald May points out, however, that we can also have aversion addictions, seeking to avoid something at all costs (36). These aversion addictions can distort our relationship with God. For instance, a person may have an aversion to crying babies. It is not all that uncommon to have a crying baby in church. When one's aversion to the crying baby causes them to totally focus on the crying baby rather than pay attention to the liturgy, their relationship with Jesus is harmed. Note it is NOT the crying baby that is the problem. The problem is when one focuses totally on the crying baby.
Gerald May speaks of how, in tolerance, we become used to a substance such that the same amount no longer has the same effect. He says the same can be true for our relationship with God. Whether we know it or not, we are always recipients of God's love. But we become used to it and so sometimes we are not even aware of God's grace in our lives (123). As such even our relationship with God can be an addiction of sort. We spend a lot of time looking for God when he is right in front of us.
One of the problems of overcoming our addictions is that we see the object as the entirety of the addiction. In this sense of a physical addiction, the thing is not always the problem. (With chemical addiction, of course, the physical thing is important). The problem is whatever causes us to seek out that which we are addicted to (142).
Gerald May then speaks of deliverance. We can put honest, intense effort into overcoming our addictions but without success. Deliverance comes when we try to beat our addictions by the same methods over and over until suddenly one day we are set free without knowing what has happened (153). This is grace. Sometimes, deliverance comes when we change our attitude. For instance, we are taught that we should seek to remove all distress and pain from our lives and that we can only be happy when all our desires are fulfilled. In this case, deliverance comes we realize that we will never be completely free from pain and that we may never have all our desires be fulfilled.
This is where the question of addiction may most directly affect our relationship with Jesus. If we spend all our time trying to rid ourselves of all problems and fulfilling human desires, we can harm our faith by either seeing God as not caring and providing for us or simply that we spend all our time trying to fix things and never open ourselves to God. We find God's peace when deliverance when we realize that we do not need all our earthly desires fulfilled and our problems removed to find happiness in God. We find freedom in God when we let go and we find God in our freedom, discovering who we are truly called to be. It is then that our relationship with Jesus can grow.
For further reading:
May, Gerard G., Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: Harper One. 1988.
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith
"No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."