Addictions and the Church
Addictions and the Church. Why the church should be interested in addictions.
Why should the church be concerned about addictions? Recently I was invited to talk about addictions as the Sunday message at a church as part of Addictions Awareness Week 2023. For a long time I have worked with sex and pornography addictions. Many of my clients attend 12-Step fellowships such as Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous (similar to AA). I have often heard Christian clients say, "I wish my church was as understanding, non-judgemental and supportive as my 12-Step group." I have never heard them sate the reverse. The talk explored three areas: What is addiction, why talk about it and what to do about it. You can listen to the addictions talk here.
What is Addiction?
A simple way of considering addictions is as a pathological, habitual, escalating, obsessive and compulsive relationship with a behaviour or coping strategy, often used to change mood, that they can not stop.
They are pathological because we engage with these behaviours in spit of the harm they cause. These harms can include our own emotional and mental well being, physical and sexual health, loss of friendships relationships and families, being made homeless, loss of income or employment, loss of civil liberties due to illegal behaviours, loss of life including suicide.
Addictions often have a habitual or ritualistic pattern to them. Behaviours are engaged with at specific times or in specific ways. They are often planned ahead and thought through. This is not just poor impulse control. Over time those struggling often find that the behaviours escalate and get worse. We find our selves needing something more to get the same 'hit' or effect.
Addictions become obsessive because even when we are not engaged in the behaviours we find ourselves thinking about it more and more. It intrudes on our normal routines which can be neglected as a result. It feels compulsive with a sense of being totally out of control, the craving and desire are too much to resist.
There is real sense that while engaging in the behaviour all the burdens and troubles of the world have gone away. But afterwards we find this is not true and the pain returns.
Addiction - Paraphrase of Romans 7 and Ephesians 4
In the letter to the Romans, Paul expresses a sense of being caught up in something he can not stop even though he wants to. This is a pretty good picture of addiction which you can find in Romans chapter 7 verses 15 to 25. Paraphrasing with an addiction viewpoint it might look something like this:
"Those struggling with sexual addictions often feel trapped and can closely connect with elements from Romans 7 vs 14-20; the idea of being sold as a slave to the addiction, not understanding what they are doing. They know what they want to do but do not, and hate what they do. They have a sense that it is not them doing it, but the addiction living in them. Those addicted have a desire to do good but find themselves unable to carry it out, not doing the good they want to do but pursuing the addictive behaviours they do not want – this they keep doing. So they find this law at work: Although they want to do good, the addiction is right there with them. In their inner selves they delight in God’s law, but see another law at work within themselves, waging war against their better hopes, values and dreams and making them a prisoner to the addiction at work within.
What wretchedness they feel!
Who will rescue them from this body and way of living that is subject to increasingly chaotic and detrimental lifestyle and death?"
Again, these themes of addiction can be picked up in Ephesians 4:17-19 which might read thus:
“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the addicted do, in the futility of their thinking. Addicted people are becoming increasingly darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (or increased pursuit of their addiction). Having lost all sensitivity, in their addiction they have given themselves over to the pursuit of their behaviours so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual longing, craving, desire and lust for more.”
It is obvious that this kind if life is one that is a long way from the abundance promised by Jesus. It is not a life free from fear, guilt shame or a need to hide.
Why talk about it?
But what is the issue? How common are these as problems in the church? Well, basically because it is not that uncommon. And it seems the rates of addictions are the same in the church as in the general population. Consider a church with 100 adult members or youth. Recent studies would suggest that of a group of 100 adults:
1 has a problem with alcohol dependence
3 are struggling with drug dependencies (men more than women)
5 have an issue with sex and pornography addiction (men more than women)
Over 10 are trying to stop vaping or smoking
8 may have food related issues (more women than men)
4 have issues with gambling
3 struggle with their general internet use
8 to 10 struggle with workaholism
(see below for the sources of these numbers)
And this does not include issues around gaming, exercise, shopping and the like. So even with this list it suggests a church of 100 adult members will be facing addiction issues.
Addiction is not just about the individual
When talking about addiction, we can often focus on the individual struggling. We tend to forget that this person is a member of a family. A mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother and so on. Addiction never affects just one person, the whole family is impacted. This is often the forgotten side of addiction. If we consider our hypothetical church of 100 people and the numbers given above it would suggest that many, many of the families are facing issues that result from addictions
And yet, sadly the church still seems to remain ignorant and the issues are very rarely addressed
Personally, I would love to see the effectiveness, compassion and support from churches spoken of much more highly among those I work with who are struggling with addictions. I would love for churches to see how addiction recovery is discipleship. I would love to see churches become a natural place for family members who are impacted to go to for support and care. I know this is not an easy call to answer and there are many, many challenges. Addiction recovery is a long term thing and can take years to establish. It requires addressing the whole of life and not just the behaviours. Over time, it becomes transformative not just for the individual, but the whole family and community.
For me, this is an answer to the call to "release the chains of the oppressed and set the captive free."
If you have read this and are interested in finding out more then please do get in touch. Perhaps your church, or the churches in your area, may benefit from a day exploring addictions and recovery as they think through this call to service.
References for Addiction Prevalence
Sex and Pornography: https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2006/12/2/article-p393.xml
Eating and Food: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31051507/