Ten years ago, few of us would have considered chemical dependency, sexual addiction, or eating disorders suitable topics for polite conversation within the church community. These were among the “silent issues” in the church. Today, however, addiction, compulsive behavior and abuse are widely recognized as problems of enormous personal and social significance. Consider these statistics (Washton, Bundy, Willpowers Not Enough, Harper Perenial, 1998).
- At least six million Americans are addicted to cocaine.
- Between five million and ten million are addicted to prescription drugs.
- Ten million Americans are alcoholics.
- More than 50 million Americans are addicted to nicotine.
- Countless more are addicted to television, shopping, exercise, sports, and even cosmetic surgery.
- It is estimated that every addict directly affects at least ten other people.
- Divorce impacts Christian families as often as secular couples.
- Abortion is the choice in 1 in 5 pregnancies, since 1973 Roe vs.Wade over 25 million performed.
The Christian community is not immune to these difficulties. Many life-long Christians struggle with addiction. In addition, many people come to Christ hoping to find freedom from the bondage of addiction. Often these new Christians expect their problems will immediately disappear as a result of their conversions. Eventually, however, many discover that true healing requires a lengthy process of righting the wrongs of their past. Some of these people who suffer from addiction, compulsive behavior, or abuse find it difficult to be part of a church community. They may find that within their church, self-defeating behavior is denied, ignored, or minimized by those who use religion to shield themselves from life’s realities
Pastors and church leaders are becoming
aware that there are hurting individuals within their congregation, but they sometimes lack the appropriate tools or training to cope with the problem effectively. Fortunately, more and more church leaders are developing practical programs for people who struggle with abuse, addiction and compulsive behavior. These ministries provide a safe place where individuals can begin to confront their personal difficulties.
In contemporary life, virtually anything or anyone can become an object of addiction or overattachment. Whenever people focus obsessively on an object or compulsively search for something, they are exhibiting a strong attachment beyond the point of enthusiasm or ardent feelings. They are addicted.
Looking to this self-defeating behavior for comfort and satisfaction, these individuals ultimately become separated from God, thus diminishing their spirits and impeding their freedom.
Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, defines addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.” May goes on to list five essential characteristics that mark true addiction. They are:
Tolerance—the phenomenon of always wanting or needing more to feel satisfied. Tolerance can be experienced either physically, as when the body adapts to increasing doses of chemical substances, or psychologically, as when people continually adjust their standard of living upward in response to increased income.
Withdrawal symptoms — reactions to the removal of the addictive behavior.
Self-deception — mental defense mechanisms such as denial and rationalization invented to counter attempts to control the addiction.
Loss of willpower — an inability to conquer the addiction despite the illusion of control.
Distortion of attention — a preoccupation with the addiction that usurps our concern for the true priorities of life, especially God. For this reason, addiction can be viewed as idolatry.
As pastors and other church leaders become aware of hurting and fragmented Christian families in their midst, they are realizing the importance of reaching out to these people. They recognize that most individuals can deny their problems for only a limited period of time. Confronting their negative behavior requires support and understanding. Through compassion and love, these hurting people can find a solution for the contradictory feelings and behaviors that accompany the pretense of always seeming “fine.” Some of these wounded Christians may fear harsh judgment for not relying on their faith in dealing with their problems. As a result, they might feel inferior and assume something is wrong with them. Someone may even admonish them within the church community to pray and read more scripture, or to trust God more fully. As long as these people avoid their actual problems, however, the outcome can be a graceless pretense of religious life.
As more recovery programs are started in churches, a growing network of committed people are learning to build congregations that are both safe and helpful for those in recovery.