Addiction Proofing: A Strategy for Spiritual Renewal

At any one time, 10% of our congregations are addicted (involved in damaging behaviors), 30% are compulsive (hearts preoccupied with pleasure), and all are eventually tempted. If someone tells me they do not experience temptation, compulsion or addiction, then my suggestion is to see a medical doctor. Something is medically wrong! Addiction and compulsion are common problems; we need an uncommon response.

Certainly as pastors, we have experienced these as challenges. During my life as a pastor, I know I did. As a seminary professor and a speaker for our seminar ministry, I've had continued opportunity for honest dialogue with pastors.

Addictions appear to be a growing threat to congregations and to those in ministry. Four to five years ago, pastors shared with us the onslaught on their congregations from the Internet revolution. Men were perusing pornographic sites; women were catching their husbands and becoming outraged. This coincided with a major Bible college's request to our organization that we create a set of lectures on dealing with Internet pornography and gambling.

After connecting their dormitories to the Internet, the school's counseling services were soon inundated with students struggling with pornography and Internet gambling. Recently we presented our "Addiction Proofing" lectures on food, drug and sexual addiction to the student body of a Nazarene university. The counselors at the school told us they largely and continually deal with pornography and food issues (bulimia and anorexia). Churches and Christian schools are awash in an unprepared-for-flood.

Pastors need a strategy for their own lives, families, and churches. We can either be swamped or we can ride this wave to a powerful spiritual renewal. When the spiritual life is taught, identity in Christ is stressed, our relationship to God the Father is underscored, it has been my observation that people's eyes frequently glaze over. They are almost inoculated from hearing as they often view themselves as overexposed to such material.

However, when we teach and talk about pornographic addiction, food addiction, prescription drug addiction and drug addiction, a palpable undercurrent of electric tension pervades the listeners. The reason is that the inner life of many is chaotic and assaulted by temptation, compulsion and addiction. Hell and heaven feel to be in the future; but this inner hell is very present.

We can either ignore what people are going through, or we can capitalize on it. If we capitalize on it, let me assure you, you will not have to invent too many illustrations because the material is already in many hearts. Why and how should we capitalize on it?

Addictions are as prevalent in the churches as in the culture, and they are present in the pastors' homes. To 'addiction proof' is to protect our own.

Addictions are just the secular way of describing the "works of the flesh" from Galatians 5, and therefore the Bible has an immense amount of information on how to deal with them. To addiction proof is to biblically address the great challenges of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The 'addictive cycle,' the well-recognized inner pattern underlying addictive behavior, is the mirror opposite of the basic elements of the spiritual life. Exposing that cycle instantly makes the classic features of Christian spirituality compelling and fascinating. To addiction proof is to help the tempted to deeply appreciate and practice spirituality and to find freedom from the inner chaos.

The addictive cycle is what drives struggles with weight, with sexual preoccupation, as well as with workaholism, codependency, and the two dozen or so compulsions and addictions out there. To addiction proof is to understand the hearts of many, and to heal many wounds.

Through addressing the five-step addictive cycle, the mirror opposite of spirituality, the pastor has a tremendous tool. The cycle begins with unaddressed pain. The person takes the first step by avoiding the pain and pursuing some pleasure. To get this pleasure the second step is to go into isolation. Isolation allows the person to focus on the intended high from sex, food, drugs or something else.

The third step is into a fantasy world of false identities. This is a world where: calories do not count, eroticism does not degrade, drugs cause no harm, and the person becomes nothing more than a sensation. The fourth and fifth step is to initiate a "robotic like behavior" (like driving to a grocery store or turning on a computer) and to carry it out.

True Christian spirituality destroys each part of the addictive cycle. People need to be taught that the unaddressed pains need to be taken to a comforting Father in heaven. Christians must learn and practice relational Christianity. Instead of the lies, the false worlds, and the false identities of temptation, compulsion, and addiction, we need to teach Christians how to live instinctively from their identity in Christ.

False identities and false worlds are created in the imagination, and it is just crucial that pastors and preachers learn how to systematically train their own imaginations and the imaginations of their congregations to embrace the reality of how God sees us and the world. A healthy Christian imagination is a blockbuster of a weapon for destroying addictions. We need to train ourselves and our congregations on how to preemptively strike.

The fourth and fifth steps of initiating an addictive act and carrying it out can be addressed by restructuring the life and by accountability groups. But the real power of addiction proofing comes from addressing pain, associating with God the Father instead of isolation, and intuitively living out of our identity in Christ (seeing ourselves the way the Father sees us). Then, restructuring and groups will be successful.

As you have read this article, I am confident you recognize that the elements of spirituality I have described are what you teach all the time. But to make a significant difference in the lives of individuals, we need to relate these truths to the addictive cycle. Join us in using this strategy and watch how lives are dramatically transformed.

David Eckman, the author of Becoming Who God Intended (Harvest House Publishers, 2005), presented a live satellite seminar, "Addiction Proof Your Ministry, Family, and Congregation" on CCN, July 28, 2005. ©Copyright 2005. Used by permission. All rights reserved.