She lives under a bridge with hundreds of other junkies. Once beloved by her six grandchildren, she now shuns them in favor of squalor and heroin.
I’ve never been well or happy for a long period of time. So when I do feel like I am doing well, I’m afraid because it’s not a feeling I’m familiar with and it scares me. When I do become clean, I’ve got to become a new person because I’ve been this other person for so long.¹
The familiar, even when miserable, can be preferred to the good. It seems the brief high outweighs the misery and any possible good that could come with sobriety. Whatever the reasons, the good—growing relationships, better health, work, warm shelter, a decent meal—is not always perceived as good. You would think that an escape from abject misery would be a strong reason to change, but it is not. There is a pull toward the status quo in addicts—the familiar beats good.
But this is not unique to addicts.
What about people who seem to sabotage anything good by being cantankerous with a boss or accusing a friend? Or children who prefer an abusive parent to someone who is genuinely kind and patient? Why do we so often duplicate our past, even when our past was atrocious? Maybe shame drives some people back to the miserable—worthless people deserve the worst. Maybe guilt—you get what you deserve. In fact, the pull of the status quo affects most of us. To borrow an observation from C. S. Lewis, we prefer our familiar mud puddles to the offer of a holiday at the beach. We are, indeed, a curious people.
All this reminds us of some basic AA insights: we are not reasonable people, so don’t expect reason to change us. We need something or someone much stronger than ourselves if we are to be transformed.
Bad consequences are not sufficient in themselves to change us, insight alone is not able to change us, the offer of heaven itself is not sufficient to change us. We instinctively regress to the familiar. Only the Spirit can revive our moribund souls.
So, in the name of Jesus, we come to him, who is the light, the life and our very sanity, and we invite others to come. He holds out his hands and invites even the most contrary among us (Romans 10:21). He never refuses those who come to him (James 4:8).
We come to him with a slightly keener sense that among the threats to spiritual vitality is that we do not always think the good is that good. Vigilance is the order of the day. So we pray: “Jesus, help. Help me not to regress to the familiar. Help me to see the good.”
¹ From an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, by Sam Wood and Stephanie Farr, “A Heroin Hellscape,” Sunday, February 19, 2017, A18.
Addictions continue their upward swing. Given that we live during a time when self-control is not yet prized, our cultural strategy with hardships is to medicate them away rather than stand in the midst of them. And the possibilities for medicating hardships are always increasing. To sexual obsessions, add illegal drugs, then prescription narcotics, then computer games, and there are more to come. With this in mind, the church has a perennial project: to draw out fresh insights from Scripture on modern addictions, and move toward those who are enslaved by them.
Many of these insights exist within biblical teaching on idolatry, which has both voluntary and involuntary aspects to it. Human beings both purposefully indulge their desires—we sin because we like it—and we are dominated by those desires. We are both in-control and out-of-control. Within these two poles are dozens of important biblical themes. Here are just two.
All addicts lie. As idolaters they forge an alliance with the anti-god and his crumbling empire, and lying is one expression of this alliance. It is a case of like father, like son. “When he [Satan] lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). For addicts, this deception is not only what they speak, it is also what they believe. They also have been lied to and believe those lies—lies from family, friends and Satan himself.
If you want to help addicts, you will create a culture that delights in openness and honesty. Be someone with whom they can speak without fear of self-righteous judgment. Invite them to speak this new language of truthfulness, in which they speak honestly and aim to know the Truth—who is the antidote to all idolatry.
Addicts are complicated. Though they have an idolatrous commitment to their desires, there is usually more happening. Many addicts have been rejected and treated as nothing by those who claimed to love them, and live with a deep sense of shame. Without any way to escape it, they use addiction to avoid it.
If they were not dominated by shame before they began their addiction, they certainly will be after. When you live for something that is ultimately worthless, you feel worthless. When you live for neither God nor people, you will hurt others and degrade yourself. Then the cycle continues—addiction leads to shameful consequences, which leads to more devoted addiction.
So, if we are to help, we watch the life of Jesus. He was born into shame and his people are outcasts. Watch him eat with the shamed and touch the shamed. Watch him identify with them so they can identify by faith with him. At every point, we expect Jesus to turn away and not be sullied by the shamed. Instead, he always invites, always surprises, and offers a connection to himself in which we are given cleansing, covering and belonging. As we follow the story, our roles begin to change. No longer is there an addict and a helper. Now we are two people who are seeing beautiful realities that will take the rest of our lives to understand.
These, of course, are only two of many hopeful things that can attract someone caught in addiction to Jesus. Scripture is crammed with much more.
Counselors spend much of their time in the details of people’s lives, so they often think about matters of public policy because they have seen its effects on particular people. In the case of recreational marijuana, I am just beginning to see these effects, so I expect that more observations will amend my policy thoughts. But there are some things that are clear.
What do we do with this? By its very nature, marijuana doesn’t call attention to itself. It is mellow more than hyper and aggressive, so it is unlikely to ever receive a prominent place on the church’s agenda. Yet all youth leaders must provide a place for this discussion, and pastors will have to decide if and how to speak of recreational marijuana use in states where it is legal.