Religion is powerful. It has justified and motivated wars that have killed millions of people. And it has moved people to great social change, from nonviolent movements like the abolition of slavery, India’s independence, and the Civil Rights Movement.
So why is the Church so often ineffective when it comes to addiction? In fact, why does every religion seem to fall short in this area? The most successful approach, the Twelve Step programs, are specifically nonreligious!
One problem is our definition of religion. In the U.S. in particular, religion is supposed to be a set of inward beliefs that do not intrude into the public realm. Sure, we may pray in public. We may even seek converts. We regularly acknowledge “one nation, under God.” But regardless of what we say we believe, for most of us our religion looks a lot like either patriotism or consumerism.
That’s because we don’t believe what we say we believe. And that, in turn, is because belief isn’t an intellectual exercise.
We may know the Bible (or the Dhammapada) backward and forward. We may be able to spout doctrine and even make deep theological points. But that’s knowledge, not belief. Knowledge is stored in the head. Belief comes from the heart.
“I can tell your future: just look what’s in your hand.” –The Grateful Dead, “Playing in the Band“
How do you know what you believe? Look at what you do. If I say I trust God to provide me with all my needs (Matthew 6:25), but I spend my time worrying about how to pay the bills, then I don’t really believe that God will provide. If I say I believe in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, do my politics agree? Or do I skip over the part of Matthew 25 where it says those who don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoners will come to an undesirable end (Mt 25:41)?
Addiction and Religion
Most people who become addicts are prone to addiction to drugs and alcohol because of early childhood wounds like trauma or abuse. They find that the substance kills the pain. And, as they increasingly turn to the substance for relief, they fail to develop other coping tools. They have only one: their drug of choice.
Over time, the substance becomes what the person believes in. It also provides structure for life, which revolves around getting and using the drug. And purpose: to stay medicated so as not to feel the pain. And a moral code: anything that furthers drug accessibility and use is acceptable. In addition, as we become social outcasts, we become part of a group with common beliefs, practices, and interests.
These are sociological elements of a religion. And one could argue that if addiction is the worship of a false god, then we addicts practice our religion daily and with much devotion.
Addicts are religious devotees. But our religion is self-destructive and false. It is false because the substance never quite fulfills its promise. It can’t. There is no healing, only temporary relief. And that temporary relief brings with it more pain from the shame, guilt, and misery of the addicts devotion. We lie. We steal. We may commit acts that horrify us if we are ever sober long enough to feel the weight of them.
But the point is, addicts don’t act from a place of knowledge. We act from a place of deep faith. We are so committed to our religion that we will willingly sacrifice anything for our god. Even our lives. Ask me how I know. Though we may protest that we don’t want to die, our actions tell a different story. And, as one who overdosed five times and lived, I can affirm that some part of me, sometimes a very big part of me, wanted any way out of the misery in which I was trapped. Even death.
Here, of course, a non-addict would ask, “Then why didn’t you just stop?” The reason was simple. Miserable as my addiction was, living without the drugs– and without any other coping tools– was worse.
Religion and Discipleship
“Any conversation about the Gospel begins with one question: ‘Are you sure you’re going to Heaven?'” –A local pastor
Imagine a person who is devoted to their religion. You invite them to check out your religion, and make attractive arguments for why it’s better. So they come to your church. What they see is a group of people who seem to have it all together. They don’t seem to have any problems. And, although they’re very friendly, most of them won’t see each other for another week.
“What do I have to do?” your prospect asks you.
You reply, “Just believe in Jesus, read the Bible, and come back next week.”
Perhaps you take the prospect’s look of disbelief as a positive sign. Maybe they didn’t realize it could be so easy?
You would be mistaken. The prospect is likely thinking, “What do I do for the other six days? What is this religion all about, anyway?”
Which brings us to the difference between religion, as a set of intellectual beliefs, and discipleship, the daily practice of the religion in the world. Most of us favor the former. If we take Jesus as an example to which to aspire, who wants to live without an income or a home, devoted to service to others every day, spending hours in prayer, and willingly being executed by the powers-that-be? That takes more commitment than many of us can summon!
And yet an addict has exactly that level of commitment. They worship their false god every day. Their lives revolve around it.
Whatever replaces addiction must ask the same commitment and occur with the same frequency. Once a week isn’t going to satisfy. And a focus on some far-off promise won’t help, either. We need tools to help us live through today!
That’s why the Twelve Step groups are so successful. They don’t tell you what to believe. They tell you what to do. They offer structure, belonging, purpose, and moral code. And they work, which over time develops faith.
Ironically, the Twelve Steps were cribbed from a Christian discipleship movement back in the 1930s. But they were separated from religion so as not to alienate anyone who suffers.
So, if these programs work, why do I still call for a Christian approach to addiction? Because I’ve seen the amazing work of the Holy Spirit in healing the wounds we carry, from generational curses to childhood wounds to guilt and shame from the practice of our addiction. Let’s face it: a “higher power” that can help us stop drinking and using has to actually have power– and I’ve seen it.
But there’s a secondary reason: Addicts know how to worship. We make great disciples. We have to. We’ll die if we don’t. Imagine the impact on the Church if addicts started practicing Christianity with the fervor we used to bring to our drinking and using! That could be a powerful example of what the Gospel really looks like!
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