May: Addictions Need not Enslave

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gerald G. May. 1988.  Addiction & Grace:  Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The goodbyes this week to beloved actor and director, Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014) place the specter of addiction and death in the public eye. This week it is heroin addiction but the drug of choice changes over time.  In a society that has trouble placing limits on personal freedom (boundaries) of any sort, the pain of addiction bites particularly hard because we all share a bit in the blame.

What is addiction anyway?

In his book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald May (June 12, 1940- April 12, 2005), a Christian psychiatrist specializing in addictions, defined addiction as:

Any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.  It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects (24-25).

May notes that true addiction has 5 characteristics:

  1. Tolerance,
  2. Withdrawal symptoms,
  3. Self-deception,
  4. Loss of willpower, and
  5. Distortion of attention (26).

On reading May’s description in 2011, I became aware of my own addiction—stress.  I loved my work too much—it had become an obsession—evidence of tolerance.  Taking time off away from the office was harder on me than the pounding stress—evidence of withdrawal symptoms.  I told myself that I was advancing my career—this was a self-deception.  I could not help myself; I had to work hard—evidence of loss of willpower.  Was I aware of it?  No—I was convinced that other people were the problem in my career advancement.

When I became aware of this addiction, I took it to the Lord in prayer and committed myself to practicing Sabbath rest.  May advises—the only cure for an addiction is to stop the cycle (177).  Not working on Sunday (not even for God) has freed up time for family; other interests; and self-respect.  I continue to feel the urge to work, but with God’s help my stress addiction is over.

What are you addicted to?

Notice that May’s definition of addiction talks about freedom.  May writes:

Free will is given to us for a purpose: so that we may choose freely, without coercion or manipulation, to love God in return, and to love one another in a similarly perfect way…addiction uses up desire…sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.  Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry [idolatry is anything that substitutes for God] (13).

Psychologists talk about addiction as an attachment disorder.  In order to be free in any sense of the word, we need to be detached from our desires enough to regulate them (14).  This is why the first of the Ten Commandments reads:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV).

The other gods here are things that we become addicted to.  What the Bible is saying is that addiction is a form of slavery from which God can free us.  In my experience, freedom is harder than slavery for many people because they are enslaved to their passions—work, bad relationships, substances, expensive toys, compulsive sex, money, and so on.  My stress addiction is a typical case because our minds are rigged to facilitate habit formation—we all have addictions, albeit not all addictions are life-threatening (57).

Addiction and Grace is written in 8 chapters:

  1. Desire:  Addiction and Human Freedom.
  2. Experience: The Qualities of Addiction.
  3. Mind:  The Psychological Nature of Addiction.
  4. Body: The Neurological Nature of Addiction.
  5. Spirit: The Theological Nature of Addiction.
  6. Grace:  The Qualities of Mercy.
  7. Empowerment:  Grace and Will in Overcoming Addiction.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by various notes.

Clearly, I have left out many of the details that May generously supplies.  Anyone struggling with addiction (or who cares about someone who does) will find this book a godsend.  I clearly did.

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