How does recovery from addiction resemble the Christian conversion experience?

In our previous blog, we took a look at the Christian idea of being ‘created to crave’. But what exactly is craving and what do we mean when we say we are addicted?

Addiction is not just a casual fancy. It is an intense and completely out of control craving. Craving may be a term we use lightly in reference to something quite innocent – say, when you have a sweet tooth and indulge yourself with some chocolate. But make no mistake, craving can be psychological hell. When it escalates and takes control, it invades your everyday thoughts and even your dreams. Craving can completely eclipse anything good in your life to the point where all you can think about doing is ending that craving. Whatever the object of your addiction, be it alcohol, drugs or sex, the desire becomes more about ending the craving than enjoying the actual substance or activity.

People who say addiction is not real and prescribe stronger will-power and a more selfless attitude simply do not understand and appreciate the power of craving. It is true that generally people do choose their own behaviour but they cannot choose not to crave. Furthermore, this is not just a psychological process but a biological one too. A neurochemical called dopamine is the common denominator in all addictions – a chemical that drives us to seek out rewards.  So as the addiction grows, so does the power of dopamine.

What we crave depends largely on our culture and environment. Alcohol, drugs and sex have been ways of escaping pain and receiving pleasure for centuries and perhaps sex is the most potent of these. From a Christian perspective, surely God not only created us for His pleasure but also for each other’s? Through sex we achieve not only a chemical joy but the intense pleasure and security of being intimate with another person. But like any other thrill-giving substance or activity, this can become an idol and so for Christians, addiction can become a counterfeit form of worship. Indeed Kent Dunnington appears to agree with this idea when he says in his work ‘Addiction and Virtue,’

“How is the saint really different from the addict who loses control over his life by submitting to the object of his addiction?”

One of the main problems with addiction is that people are often quick to hold a moral judgement, sex addiction even more so than alcohol or drugs. We can associate addiction with being weak-willed and selfish. But it is important to remember that addiction and its ability to thrive has the same dynamics of every other sin. There is denial, deceit, fear, greed and selfishness. But if addiction is a sin in the eyes of a Christian, then they should ask is sin the cause or the consequence? Addiction is not only the basic nature of humanity if we are indeed ‘created to crave’, but it is also a consequence of ‘The Fall’ depicted in the Bible, where we began seeking pleasures outside of God’s will.

So following these ideas, we could go on to say that being in recovery resembles the Christian conversion experience. People often purport to feeling ‘saved’ from their addiction or feeling as if they have escaped from darkness and entered into freedom or ‘the light’. They often reference the 12 steps like Christians might reference the Bible and indeed, the steps share many parallels with the Christian message. They talk of support, challenge and encouragement from community the way Christians might refer to the church. They also claim to have developed new habits of surrender such as meditation, gratitude and service.

In this sense, recovery can also be seen as redemption and in fact, the language surrounding both terms is remarkably similar. Christians generally believe that redemption has already been secured through Jesus Christ, but they must also claim it and walk in it. The same can also be said of recovery because an alternative addiction-free lifestyle is always available, even though it may seem elusive or out of reach. The addict must also claim it and walk the road of recovery.

Most people believe that true healing happens when mind, body and soul are in harmony – whatever definition of soul you might use. When our values, beliefs, thoughts and behaviour are all aligned – we feel happy and content with our lives. However, addiction completely shatters this framework. Our behaviour no longer matches our values and belief system and we feel trapped in a place that we do not want to be in. Furthermore, the accompanying secrecy and shame of addiction begins to dissolve that all important intimacy with loved ones that might help us towards recovery. In this sense, healing requires becoming whole again and bringing all of these things back in line. Cornelius Platinga said in ‘Not the Way It’s Supposed to be’,

“Like all sinners, the addict also needs to painfully unlearn old habits, to dismantle old scenarios, to pay old debts, and then to move steadfastly along the road to recovery one small, secure step at a time.”