Saturday, August 08, 2009

Addiction: A Banquet in the Grave

I’m reading an excellent book right now called Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel by Edward Welch. The author is a redeemed ex-heroine addict and has been a Christian counselor and seminary professor for almost 30 years. It is written explicitly for both people who are addicts or recovering and also family members. I’ll try to whet your appetite by sharing what I’ve learned so far.

The Dry Drunk

The book opens by describing what Welch calls a dry drunk. It is a man that he meets with who has managed to stay sober for a year now, through meetings, etc, but displays all the same thought patterns and habits that led him to drink in the first place. Welch describes the conversation as “Jim” complaining that God gave him this disease that he has to struggle with. He’s frustrated that his church doesn’t speak to his alcoholism more, and that his family doesn’t understand his “fight.” Although staying sober for a year has been a great victory, one feels uncertain as to if he might go back to it at any moment. Welch believes that just staying sober is not the true answer to alcoholism and other addictions, but addressing the heart issues that led to the drinking in the first place. To address that, Welch builds a theology of addiction from scripture.

Addiction is sin

Welch’s first point is that the problem of addiction is the age-old problem of sin. Addiction is a very obvious, enslaving, and destructive type of sin, but it is still, at its root, sin, and not a disease. He draws some parallels between the sin of addiction and other types of sin. Addiction may be enslaving and deceptive, but so is pride, so is greed. When we sin, we are saying that God is not providing me with what I need to overcome my problems, He is not my help, I am going to find help for myself. (He defines an addiction as something that gives a mind and body-altering experience that is immediate.) It is a turning from God to something else in order to forget the past, punish yourself or others, avoid emotional pain, fill holes in one’s self-image, manage emotions, prove to yourself that you can do what you want (no one can tell you what to do), keep loneliness at bay, etc. You believe that a substance will empower you to become your own God. You will save yourself through alcohol because no one else (God) is helping you. These are the beliefs that need to change for alcohol to lose its power.

Addiction is not a disease

Welch next explains that part of the reason why the disease model of addiction (and depression as well) have such a following, is that when one is caught in the clutches of sin, it feels like a disease that one is powerless to overcome. But this is true of all sin, not just addictions. John 8:34 says that sin is like a cruel taskmaster, sin victimizes and controls. Galations 1:6 says it captures and overtakes. Paul says in Romans 7:15 and 17 “I do what I do not want to do, but what I hate I do…As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” This is the human experience, that sin enslaves us. But a paradox that he points out is that all sin is voluntary slavery. The infection of sin has spread to our very heart so that we even desire sin and want it. Only Christ changes us from the inside out, breaking the bondage of sin and changing our heart to give us new desires.

What is addiction?

Here Welch gives his precise definition of addiction: “Addiction is bondage to the rule of a substance, activity, or state of mind, which them becomes the center of life, defending itself from the truth so that even bad consequences don’t bring repentance, and leading to further estrangement from God.” In summary, he then adds, think of addiction of a specific kind of sin that is both self-conscious disobedience and victimizing slavery.

Addict as victim

The victim aspect is real in the sense that Satan is like a razor blade hid in a slice of cake you are about to bite into. He is hiding behind the scenes of addictions. In Proverbs, when the young man walks into the house of the wayward woman, he thought he came for pleasure only, but he gets something extra from Satan: death. That is why the subtitle is “A Banquet in the Grave.” It’s from Proverbs 9:18: “But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave.” The alcohol promises comfort from your sorrows and pain, in a sense, it promises life. But it delivers just the opposite.

The power behind Idols

But such it is with all idolatry, Welch argues. Idolatry is the unrelenting theme of the Old Testament, and the New Testament authors make it clear that although we no longer have statues, idolatry is still the core of our problems. Why are idols such an allure? Welch argues that the purpose of the idol is to use it to get what we want. We don’t want to be ruled by the idol, we want to rule the idol. We have rejected God’s rule. We want to rule and this idol will help us do that. We don’t want to be ruled by alcohol, drugs, food, gambling. No, we want these things to give us what we want: good feelings, escape, a sense of control, or whatever our heart is craving. Idols, however, do not cooperate. They will control us while making us think all the while that we are in control. How do the idols control us so? Behind every idol lies the quiet presence of Satan, with his will to dominate and deceive. We are powerless to fight him when we are refusing God’s strength.

The most destructive idols

So far, this applies to every human being. So what is the difference between idols that are satisfied with by a big paycheck, respect, power, and idols that are satisfied by mind-altering or physical sensations? The answer is that some idols hook our bodily passions and desires. Satan loves this arena because he has a special interest in exploiting the body’s natural (and good) needs and desires and turning them into monsters. His purpose is to distort and oppose and malign and destroy all of God’s purposes. Satan has special power over us when we two things work together against us: our heart is determined to find satisfaction apart from God and our physical body receives an immediate and gratifying pleasure. The idols of money and power destroy lives and lead us away from God, but they don’t exert quite the same level of destruction and inordinate slavery as the bodily variety.

One addict writes:
“For the addict, dope is God. It is the supreme being, the Higher Power, in the junkie’s life. He is subjugated to its will. He follows its commandments. The drug is the definition of happiness, and gives the meaning to love. Each shot of junk in his veins is a shot of divine love, and it makes the addict feel resplendent with the grace of God.”
And yet, as scary as that sounds, the addict is deceived and will tell you he is in control and can stop anytime he wants.

This all sounds horribly gloomy but this is the reality of sin. Welch writes: “As a result of spiritual oppression, drug worshipper may be very intelligent, but they can be oblivious to the destruction and slavery associated with drug (alcohol) abuse. They need the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18), the message of Christ crucified and risen. Other therapies can offer sobriety, but only this good news is powerful enough to liberate the soul.”

Scripture Speaks to Addictions

Other themes of scripture that speak to addiction are found in the Bible. Proverbs speaks of addiction when it talks of the human predicament of foolishness. Folly is characterized by thoughtless decisions to pursue a course that is briefly pleasurable but ultimately painful. The scripture speaks to addiction when it describes Satan as a prowling lion, waiting for someone to devour. At first glance, the beast is alcohol. But a close look reveals that enemy of our souls. Finally, although the disease model of addiction is flawed, scripture does use sickness as an analogy for sin. Sin is like sickness in that it is painful, it leads to death, it is absolutely tragic. But sin and therefore addiction are unlike a disease in that it is something we do and not unwittingly catch, we confess it rather than treat it, the disease is our hearts rather than our bodies, and only the forgiveness and cleansing found in the blood of the Great Physician is sufficient to bring thorough healing.

Chapter 4 describes the decent into addiction

People don’t just become addicts one day; there are common steps that lead to it. Usually, the decent to addiction begins without fanfare. “Rather than a huge, noticeable leap of rebellion, addiction is marked by small steps of spiritual casualness or indifference, and a lack of sensitivity to right and wrong.” Next, there comes a time when truth parts way with the addict’s experience. The self-deception begins. They think of the idol more often while thinking that everything is fine. They can’t see clearly enough to judge for something has begun to satisfy the desire of their hearts.

Next is the infatuation stage. At this point the relationship with the idol starts to ruin relationships and work, but reason does not reign and bad consequences are not enough. The addict may notice that things aren’t really going that well, but everything bad becomes the fault of other people. Blame starts kicking into high gear.

Welch writes: “Drinkers begin to hide alcohol. Toilet tanks are a favorite place.”

“When an addict is caught, excuses are masterful. They are offered immediately, without hesitation. They are bold, without averted eyes or a hint of “I just got found out.” Inevitably, they will somehow make friends and loved ones feel guilty.”

The next stage is love and betrayal where the addict now turns to alcohol as a treatment for everything. Welch writes:
“Whatever the emotion, the answer is found in the addictive behavior. It can vent anger, alleviate depression, temporarily quiet the emptiness of loss or failure, dilute guilt, and so on.”

“If families are aware of the problem, they are preoccupied with it. The addiction dominates them. They hide car keys, drive around town looking for the drinker’s car, and dilute the bottles of alcohol in the house.”

“Family and friends will go through every emotion possible. Sometimes they feel like they are going crazy: “Maybe it is my problem after all.” Other times they think everything is fine. They can feel angry, afraid, controlled, threatened, betrayed, jealous, and hopeless. Life has become unpredictable for them. They are never sure what is going to happen next. Unless they are skilled at turning to the Lord, learning how to cry out to Him, they will obsess about ways to curb the addictive behavior.”

The final stage is Worship. “You used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness.” (Rom. 6:19 Again, the problem of addiction is the problem of sin.) The downward spiral has come to rest at slavery. The idol originally promised you freedom, to be at your disposal, to do your bidding. It promised life, camaraderie, and pleasure, but it has delivered slavery. In this stage nothing comes before alcohol. But to the dependant one, denial reigns to the point of self-deception. The addict has become a fool, without insight into the relationship between the drug and its consequences. And yet, the addict still feels guilty for hurting others, broken relationships, and rebelling against a Holy God. But the only way they know how to deal with that guilt is…(you guessed it) more alcohol. They see no other way out. Welch writes: “The grief of those who love addicts who descended deeply cannot be overstated.”

This is as far as I have gotten in the book. But the rest of the book is about how God heals us from all sins, even addiction. Some upcoming chapters are: knowing the Lord, fearing the Lord, turning from lies, being part of the body, and more. I may write more, but the actual book is much better than my summary.

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