Why the Church Should Care
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up;
and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” James 5:14-15
“Questions about addictions are, at rock bottom, questions about the meaning of life” –Peg O’Connor
God hates suffering and loves healing. Addiction is one of the most pervasive sources of human suffering in the world. It is incumbent upon spiritual leaders to fully understand what addiction really is, how it works, and how to respond to it. Pastors, clergy, and faith leaders are all called to relieve suffering and bring healing, and they can only do that when they understand the nature of what they are dealing with.
We are all familiar with the word “addiction”, and have our own opinions and ideas about what it means. The definitions vary, and there is an ongoing debate around the question of whether addiction is an issue of moral choice or a legitimate disease. This disparity has important implications for how addiction is viewed and treated medically, and it is also at the core of the theological understanding of addiction.
Understanding the real truth of addiction is the most important thing to address, in order to mitigate the devastating impacts on our world. It is vital that we understand the valid science of it, and that our theological perspectives are consistent with universal truth. Bad science, poor understanding, and misguided theology play enormous roles in the stigma surrounding this problem. Until we are clear about the various misconceptions, addiction will continue to destroy far too many lives, disrupt families/communities, and keep us all from our best possible world. We all have a stake in this, and must act accordingly.
JUST ABOUT DRUGS
In his book, “Addiction Nation”, Timothy McMahon King makes the case that we all suffer from addiction to one degree or another. He states that addiction takes many forms, and impacts our world and culture in an enormous variety of ways. The question for each of us is not “whether we are addicted but how are we addicted, and to what.” King writes.
Addiction tendencies manifest themselves in everyone from time to time. We all suffer from it. When we confess in the church that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”, we are essentially saying we cannot free ourselves from behaviors that negatively impact our relationship with God and neighbor. This is the essence of addiction, repeating the same thing, expecting different results.
The truth is just about anything can be taken to the extreme and abused, leading to a life that is less than what it should be. Addiction is not just about substance abuse, but includes many behavioral process addictions that plague our world. When a person becomes addicted to something that isn’t a substance like alcohol or drugs, it’s known as behavioral addiction or process addiction. Examples include codependency, gambling, sex, food, shopping, internet activities, work, and even exercise. Basically, anything that triggers the brain’s reward system can pose the risk of addiction and lead to dysfunction.
The late Dr. Gerald May, psychiatrist and theologian stated, “I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction. Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being.” It is important for faith leaders to fully understand addiction. Since we all suffer from addiction to some degree, the more fully we understand addiction, the more fully we understand ourselves.
Understanding the mechanics of addiction, and all the ways it is manifest in our lives and society is an extremely useful tool for clergy and caregivers. Addiction has a predictable pathology and predictable outcomes. The more you understand it, the more you can see its presence in yourself and others. This valuable knowledge allows you to provide meaningful care to others.
Codependency—How to Recover from Living a Lie
Codependency is difficult to define, but often develops in the family of origin where guilt and shame are experienced. Frequently codependents come from family systems that have substance use disorders present in them which creates confusion, unclear boundaries, and an abundance of blame, shame and guilt. Having over-exposure to toxic emotions, codependents tend to develop unclear personal boundaries, and a low sense of the self-worth.
Codependents tend to attach themselves to others that they seek to “fix.” Needing to be “fixed” themselves, they seek to fix others in hopes this will make them feel better about themselves. Consequently, many of those in helping professions—including clergy—tend to naturally attract a high number of those with codependency issues.
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Codependency is a behavioral addiction, where the codependent continues to repeat the same unhealthy relationship patterns expecting different results. When hoped for results in “fixing” others do not materialize, it causes the codependent to retrigger familiar feelings of guilt, shame, and sense of low self-worth. The codependent then repeats the same behavior in a new way hoping for a different result, and the cycle of guilt and shame continues. The codependent lives with self-perpetuated and oppressive lies.
Most codependents grow up learning to feel ashamed of their real feelings, wants, and/or needs. As adults they deny, devalue, and don’t express their needs in order avoid their shame. Some can’t identify them at all.
There is a saying “Wherever there is an addict, there is a codependent”. These dynamics of addiction and codependency are closely tied together. What’s important for us to learn is that one of the ways we heal addiction is by healing codependency. Addicts cannot heal themselves, and almost always need someone to intervene. Nearly every addict in recovery who does get well, will tell a story of a codependent (someone who loved them), and sought to “fix” then. As the story usually goes, the codependent got well first, and then became a major reason the addict finally got well too.
For us to fully understand and deal with addiction, we have to fully understand codependency. We need to grasp how it functions in relationship to addiction, and the vital role it plays in the healing process in society.
Impacts of Addiction
Globally, an estimated half million people per year die as a result of drug use (The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)). An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually in the United States, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death. The first cause is tobacco (JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association). Opioid overdose is currently taking 60,000 lives per year in the U.S.
“Drug overdose is the leading cause of
death for those 23-67 years of age.”
-The Center for Disease Control
Apart from substance addiction, there are the behavioral addictions that include codependency, gambling, sex, food, pornography, electronics, etc. These addictions also contribute significantly to numerous societal ills.
Addiction is considered to be the number one public health issue before COVID-19, however, this pandemic has exacerbated it further. Dr. Kima Joy Taylor, Director of the CATG (Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap) initiative states “23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12, but only 11% of those with an addiction receive treatment. It is staggering and unacceptable that so many Americans are living with untreated chronic disease and cannot access treatment.”
With so much at stake, properly understanding and addressing addiction medically, sociologically, and theologically are among the most important of tasks facing human society today.
In an effort to better appreciate the spiritual nature of addiction, we present candid observations from leading authorities (scholars, researchers, practitioners, politicians and writers) on addiction, and importance of faith in the healing process.
“Addiction or substance use disorders are diseases of the brain with physical, mental and spiritual components. The physical component is the inability to stop compulsive use of drugs and alcohol despite all negative consequences. The mental component of the illness is the overpowering obsession to use even when we know it is destroying our lives. The spiritual part of the illness is the total self-centeredness and self-centered fear which can manifest itself differently in different people but may also include Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, isolation, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For others there is simply an internal void—a sense of longing for connection and purpose to something greater than oneself.” Because Ms. McDaid personally struggled with addiction, she understands the challenges, political and personal, of dealing with alcohol and drug issues.
Ms. McDaid is a founding Board Member of Faces and Voices of Recovery and currently serves on the Board of Young People in Recovery. She serves on the Recovery Research Institute Board and is a Board member of the Satcher Mental Health Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine.
George E. Vaillant
Drug addiction involves the chemical “high jacking” of the same brain centers that underlie human attachment and love. Sustained attendance in the home groups of 12 Step Programs represent the most effective treatment for sustained remission of drug addiction. The Second and Third Steps of such programs open alcoholics to Love by inviting them to have FAITH “That a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”`; and next, “We made a decision to turn our lives over to God as we understood Him”. Amongst 12 step programs the home group and a High Power are considered equivalent.
Dr. Vaillant M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and author of Spiritual Evolution and The Natural History of Alcoholism Revised. Dr. Vaillant MD has spent his research career charting adult development and the recovery process of schizophrenia, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorder. He spent 35 years as Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service.
Amy R. Krentzman
MSW, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
How is addiction recovery related to spirituality? That is a profound question. I’m not sure if we will ever really know the answer. We know that AA has a strong spiritual component and that AA has been shown to be helpful to individuals with alcohol use disorders, especially when it comes to sustained abstinence. We know that spiritual practices, such as meditation, can be calming and reduce stress, and that stress and other negative emotions can put people at risk for relapse. We know that faith communities provide valuable sources of social support. We know that when someone goes from being a person with an addiction to a person in recovery that the change can be so dramatic, we need spiritual language to describe it: transformation, awakening, and miracle.
Dr. Krentzman, MSW, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University Of Minnesota School Of Social Work. Dr. Krentzman’s research focuses on recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders. She studies spirituality, 12-step programs, sober living houses, recovery in rural communities, and designs interventions to support the maintenance of recovery.
William L. White
Emeritus Research Consultant Chestnut Health Systems
Addiction is the compulsive repetition of drug use (or other pleasure-inducing / pain-relieving behavior) in spite of harmful consequences to self, family, and community. There are secular, spiritual, and religious pathways to addiction recovery. Religious faith can play a role in reducing risk of drug use, a role in recovery initiation via transformational change experiences, and a role in recovery maintenance and enhancing quality of life in long-term addiction recovery via enhancement of spiritual growth, identity/values reconstruction, and social network reconstruction.
Mr. White is Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut health Systems. He has a Masters degree in Addiction Studies from Goddard College and has worked in outreach, clinical, research, and teaching roles in the addiction field since 1969. Mr. White has authored or co-authored more than 400 articles, monographs, research reports and book chapters, and 21 books. He has received numerous awards for his contribution to addiction treatment and recovery in the United States.
Rev. Kal W. Rissman
Master Addiction Counselor, certified chaplain, licensed social worker and parish pastor
Since addiction is a disease, it has signs and symptoms like any other disease. For example, if a person has stomach flu, we would expect to see aches, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If a person has the disease of addiction, we would expect to see denial, problems caused in major areas of life, a lowering of moral standards, and a loss of values.
The other element that must be present in any disease is a loss of control or lack of power in some area. If we use the example again of a person having stomach flu it really wouldn’t help to tell them to quit being out of control with their nausea, vomiting and diarrhea by using their will-power, because that is what they don’t have. That is what the disease has knocked out.
In they same way, it doesn’t help to tell an addicted person to use their will-power to stop their using behaviors, because that is what they don’t have! If they had it, they would have used it a long time ago. They are not using because they are too stupid to quit, but because they are too powerless to quit.
Lack of power, is what the Big Book of A.A. tells us is the problem. Thus, the connection between faith and addiction – to supply the needed power. The Christian church can play an important role in connecting to the power source.
Rev. Rissman graduated from Christ Seminary-Seminex in 1977 and his first parish was a mission congregation in Jamestown, N.D. He worked as an addiction counselor at an outpatient facility. Rev. Rissman was a Spiritual Care Counselor at a new inpatient chemical dependency center, a Nicotine Dependency Counselor, and a hospital Chaplain. He currently serves as a part-time Pastor for two congregations.
Rev. Alexander Sharp
CEO of Clergy for a New Drug Policy
Addiction is a mental and emotional disorder in which individuals feel unable to stop using substances or changing behaviors, even though persisting causing harm to themselves and often others. How and why does this happen? Simply put, addiction habit run amok. Repeated behavior causes our brain pathways to become grooved so that habits form and any change requires significant effort. The difficulty of change becomes an “addiction” when the repeated behavior causes a “disconnect” between the governance and the pleasure centers of our brain.
It is especially easy for this to happen when the repeated behaviors involve the use of addictive substances such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine; and behaviors such as gambling, pornography, or even shopping.
Some argue from a theological perspective that we are all addicts. Merely by being alive, we form attachments in our daily living that to some degree separate us from full and complete devotion to God, however defined. Such a view explains why those who try hardest to love God fully, become most conscious of how far they fall short.
I do not take exception to this argument. But I don’t think it is very helpful to those in the throes of what feels like a compulsion-those suffering from their seeming inability to break from a life of self-destruction and shame. Here, a difference in kind becomes a difference in definition.
What, then, can we say, about the importance of faith in overcoming addiction? Religious faith is a categorical way of viewing the world. For those of us who hold such convictions – I am a Christian – our faith is the lens through which we view reality. But what matters is not what we call this reality – the terms, labels, and structures of belief we use to describe it. What matters is its attributes, its nature, indeed, its essence.
Didn’t Jesus tell us this clearly? “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.” (Matt: 7:21). In his years on earth, Jesus became authoritative because of the reality he enabled others to see. For them, he so fully embodied this reality that the Christian faith lives on in his name.
I believe that recovery from addition happens, whether in a secular or faith-based setting, because recovering addicts rebuild their lives around certain truths and realities that are determinative no matter what we call them. For me, these start with God’s love and are expressed in love of neighbor and sense of community. These same realities are present to grasp the heart and minds of those for whom so-called traditional religious faith has no meaning.
I place great value on the words of one of my divinity school professors who once said “God is not confined to Christ, only most essentially defined by Christ.”
Rev. Sharp is CEO of “Clergy for a New Drug Policy”. This is a project to mobilize clergy nationally against the War on Drugs, which has been waged for the past 46 years. He has been engaged in faith-based social justice advocacy with organizations in Illinois for over twenty years. He currently is a board member of The Center of Addiction & Faith.
Rev. Thomas Scornavacchi
Rev. Scornavacchi is a Pastor and mission developer for Common Ground Recovery Communities in Wyomissing and downtown Reading, PA. He joined Common Ground in 2010 and was ordained as a Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2013.
As a person in long-term recovery, Rev. Scornavacchi works with individuals and families affected by addiction, abuse, and mental health. In his work he combines the wisdom, spirituality, and practice of the 12-steps with the forgiveness and grace that come from his Lutheran faith. Rev. Scornavacchi is currently a board member of The Center of Addiction & Faith.
William R. Miller
Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico.
Professor Miller states “From a faith perspective, addiction is a lucid example of idolatry: giving to something ephemeral the place and devotion that belong to God. Abstinence creates a vacuum to be filled by a new way of being. Like the 12-step program, the great world religions offer a way of life to fill the void on the longer journey. To me, loving kindness lies at the heart of that way of life”.
Brian D. McLaren
author, former pastor, activist
Addiction is a habit pattern that becomes so embedded in our brain chemistry that our lives are gradually taken over by it. Addiction is so powerful because it provides us ways of avoiding pain and intensifying pleasure. But it does so at a price to our health, our character, our well-being, our relationships. Spirituality is, among other things, about learning to re-wire our brains in the direction of justice, peace, and love. That’s why faith and spirituality are such powerful and precious tools to help us understand, face, and experience liberation in, through, and from our addictions.
When Mr. McLaren was a young Pastor, he was invited to accompany a person in recovery to an AA meeting. He immediately felt what was happening in that room was in many ways what church was intended to be. His relationship with various recovery movements grew in the years to come, and he has learned so much from people in all kinds of recovery.
Rev. Dr. Ed Treat
Lutheran Pastor, founder of the Center of Addiction & Faith
Addiction is a complex disease stemming from a variety of factors, including genetics, family of origin, trauma, mental health, race, culture, and others. A major consequence of this disease and its progression is a degradation of the human spirit experienced through shame, guilt, and low self-worth leading to increasing isolation. Full recovery would not be merely abstinence from the addiction, but must include reparation of the spiritual condition which entails a return to full community with the neighbor. Our relationship with God is only as good as our relationship with each other. Spirituality and healing from every ailment is always essentially about repairing and maintaining bonds of loving human relationship.
Rev. Dr. Treat has been a pastor for 25 years, most recently as senior Pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minnesota. He has been recovering from addiction for 36 years, and has directed the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy (FRLC) for the past 21 years.
He is currently President of The Center of Addiction & Faith, a new national ministry being developed to raise awareness around addiction and how faith communities can better respond.
Rev. Jack Abel
M.Div., MBA. Senior Director of Spiritual Care Caron Treatment Centers
Addiction is a phenomenon of profound misconnection. As a locus of meaningful attachment, faith offers a context for profound connection that can supplant using, sustain abstinence, foster resilience, and enable flourishing, particularly for persons who have become painfully misconnected in the context of addiction.
Human beings evolved as social beings. At the very deepest levels, we depend upon and thrive in the context of secure attachment. Neuroscience, anthropology, psychology and recovery movements converge in their understanding that addictive disorders are often correlated with attachment wounds. Research and experience tell us that persons who suffer such wounding in early life are predisposed towards a host of challenges, addiction being one of the most common.
Faith is variously understood within different disciplines and by different writers. Fowler’s correlation of faith to our deepest questions has value; the writer of Hebrews speaks about a conviction of things unseen. Faith also is constituted within communities, and is experienced, reinforced, and repaired in the context of community and lived practice. Faith, then, can be of value to persons with deep questions; it can assist persons who access it with navigating the unseen and unknown. Faith supports and is sustained through shared experience. Faith connects us on multiple levels: (a) reflexively – that is with our own selves; (b) interpersonally, and (c) theologically (however ‘those’ may be construed).
One of my mentors, Father Bill Hultberg, always liked to emphasize his deep belief, confirmed by contemporary understandings of the neuroscience of addiction, that an addict loses the capacity to make choices with regard to the behaviors of offense associated with their affliction. We are, he would say, “literally too sick to sin.” Faith’s job, he continued, is to “get us well enough we are capable of it once again.”
Addiction treatment, recovery communities, and the relationships of choice that we author as imperfect beings in the journey out of an addictive crisis: these constitute the lived redemption of one’s brokenness. Perhaps equally as important, these steps ameliorate, at least to some extent, the complicated, extensive social wounding that is perpetrated by addicts’ behaviors within family systems, and within personal, professional, and civic communities. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Abel oversees Spiritual Care for Caron Treatment Centers, one of the nation’s leading non-for-profit providers of addiction treatment services for individuals and families. A subject matter expert and leader in clinical chaplaincy for addiction treatment services, Jack brings his ordination in parallel with his Masters in Business to lead artfully and with compassion and insight. A gifted and sought-after preacher and public speaker, he is a member of the UCC Mental Health Network Board of Directors and founding president of Spiritual Care Addiction Treatment Professionals. A summa cum laude graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, Jack also pursued advanced studies at Catholic University and interfaith ministry at The New Seminary in New York.