Overcoming Addiction; Becoming More Than A Conqueror

This post is part II of my reflections from this past Sunday’s sermon on addiction.    You can read Part I HERE, which addresses the problem of addiction.   Today we will consider the solution.

Image

Before going further I think it’s important to note that addictions come in all shapes and sizes.   We can become addicted to anything.   Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in Thee.”   How true this is.   When God is not on the throne of our hearts any number of suitors will take his place.

Equally important to note is that addiction is not the problem.   Addiction is merely the symptom of a deeper issue.   Jesus said that it is out of the heart that good or evil flow, so if you find yourself habitually returning to the same sin over and over again then you don’t need a new program or method or counselor to help you get your life straightened out.   You need what Jesus said you – and I – need:  A new heart.

The good news here is that God is still in the business of turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  He delights in breaking the chains of a sinner whose will is chained at the altar of addiction and idolatry, setting them free “to both will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). 

I know first-hand how difficult it is to come to this realization that our heart’s are desperately wicked and that Jesus wants to make us new, not just better.    If you grew up in the church it is especially hard.   Working against me was a history of being a pastor’s kid, an undergrad degree in bible and theology, a seminary degree, and a number of years serving as a pastor.   With so much religion in my life it was easy to fall prey to spiritual pride, which convinced me I was essentially a good person, that my service to God and others counted for something, and that I just struggled with this “one thing,” but hey, everyone has their “thorn in the flesh,” right?

All of that is a lie which serves to keep us from experiencing the power, freedom and hope that Jesus promises we can have in him.   That power is freely offered to you but will not be fully realized until you accept God’s reality of things.   You are not a good person who occasionally (or often) does bad things but a sinner with a bad heart incapable of ever pleasing, or seeing, God (see Isa. 64:6 and Heb. 12:14).

We need new hearts, and thanks be to God, he is willing and able to give us what we need!

So the first step towards freedom from sin (addiction) is letting go of the pride in us that tries to justify ourselves before a holy God and reckon ourselves as that which God’s word says we are:  A sinner in need of a new heart.

Pastor Tim, in his sermon on Sunday, shared a story from Scripture that has much practical value for us here.   It is Matthew 17:14-21.  The first half of the story is about a man beseeching Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son.  He brought him to Jesus’ disciples first but they were unable to drive it out.   Before healing the boy, Jesus exclaims,

O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?

Jesus diagnoses their generation (and no doubt our own) as “unbelieving” and “perverse.”   Because of these two things, the disciples lacked the power to free this man’s son.  What does it mean to be unbelieving and perverse?

  • Unbelieving is to be not connected to God.

If you are addicted to something then you have something else on the throne of your heart other than God.  God is a jealous God and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can treat his temple (our bodies) casually (1 Cor. 6:19-20).   This is related to the second point…

  • Perverse is to be too connected to the world.

If Jesus’ generation loved the world how much more might that be of us today!   We love the comforts and thrills this world offers us and take little notice of how much of a hold it has on our spiritual lives.  Scripture teaches that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).    God calls us “adulterers” when we put the things of this world before our connection with Him.

And so, Jesus says, it is because we are not connected with God and are too connected with this world that we lack power in our lives to be the victorious, over-coming Christians we are called to be.

The disciples came to Jesus privately in the second half of our story above and ask Jesus why they could not drive out the demon.   Jesus tells them that they lack faith, but also tells us how we can make right the problem of being unbelieving and perverse.  If you are having a hard time driving out your demon of addiction, Jesus says,

This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting

Jesus calls prayer and fasting essential, so lets consider each.

  • Prayer connects us to God

I am ashamed to admit that I was once someone who scoffed at those who advised me I needed to pray more.  They were the sort of people I deleted from my life (mentioned in part I).   Our cynicism towards prayer and it’s efficacy is just one more symptom of our lack of faith and validation of Jesus’ claim that we live in an unbelieving and perverse generation.

However, there is some truth to the critics of “praying more.”    It’s not so much the “more” but the “how” and “why” that matters.   A person can pray 24 hours a day but if they cherish iniquity in their heart (as most addicts still do) or, for you husband’s, if you do not honor your wife and treat her as God commands, then nobody is listening on the other end of the line (see Psalm 66:18 and 1 Peter 3:7.  Also, you may be interested in a post on this blog titled “When God Doesn’t Listen”).

Most of my prayers as a habitual sinner (addict) were about God removing the painful circumstances that my sins have caused rather than submitting to a holy God whom I knew would demand radical heart surgery on me.   When our prayers are motivated by “worldly sorrow” rather than “godly sorrow” we are praying from a place of pride and the result will be further death, not life (2 Cor. 7:10).   The Puritan William Gurnall says of prayer,

Prayer is the main line that leads straight to the throne of God.  By it the Christian approaches God with a humble boldness of faith, takes hold of Him, wrestles with Him, and will not let Him go until he has His blessing.  (The Christian in Complete Armor Vol. I).

We can be assured that the blessing which God desires to bestow upon us is victory over every sin that besets us, including the most pernicious of addictions, for His will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3).

  • Secondly, fasting disconnects us from the world.

One of the great benefits of my time at Pure Life was that it forced me to disconnect from the world.   In doing so I realized just how much the love of this world had a hold on me.  I also learned that I would not die without watching TV!   For 7 months I was without radio, TV, internet, magazines, etc.  I fed myself with a steady diet of Scripture, Prayer, Worship and Christian books.

I also took on a weekly habit of fasting for 24 hours from food, something I had never done before that time, nor did I understand it’s benefits.   God used that time where I denied myself food to teach me that I could, in fact, say “NO” to the desires of my flesh.   Without really realizing it at the time I was strengthening my spiritual “muscles.”   Since I knew I could say no to food when my stomach growled I became increasingly confident that I could also say no to lust when it beckoned.   The fruit of the Spirit which includes “self-control” began to take root in my life from the discipline of fasting.

I’ve been home from Pure Life now for over 7 months and have continued my practice of fasting in order to be less connected to the world.   We don’t have a TV in our home save one in the kids room for Ava’s Mickey Mouse episodes.   We listen to Christian music in our home and read Christian books.   My time on the internet is guarded, filtered, and used as needed.   As a family we always went to the beach for summer vacations but this year we opted not to go, as it was a source of temptation.

Jesus said to be radical with sin that threatens to destroy us – to go as far as cutting out the eye or the limb.   If you find yourself being constantly defeated by the same habitual patterns or sins, I can testify that cutting out the many inroads the world has in your life, while adding prayer for the right reasons from a right heart, will destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and you will be more than a conqueror, (Rom. 8:37) just as God said you would be.

*Thanks to my good friend and pastor, Tim Paul, for supplying the bullet points above.   Your sermon really spoke to me, and I pray my reflections upon it serve as a testament to that. 

In Sunday’s  worship, Pastor Tim Paul preached the first sermon in a series called “Soul Therapy.”   The first of the 4 topics to be covered was on addiction.   It was a wonderful, gospel-centered approach to a topic that for obvious reasons (if you know me or read this blog) hits home.   In the following I want to share some of the points from the sermon while adding some commentary about how they relate to my story, and perhaps your own.      Part I, here, will address the problem.   Stay tuned for Part II, the solution.

The Cycle of Addiction

  • It becomes a part of my identity

I know that 12 Step programs have helped many people but I think they fall short of the gospel’s offer of freedom (I posted an article from the Setting Captives Free website about 12 Step Theology if you are interested in further reading on that).     I was part of a 12 Step program for sex addicts for several years, and what I now see in looking back is how much my identity was wrapped up in being a sex addict.   This was reinforced every time I spoke in a meeting and introduced myself with, “Hi, I’m Chad, a sex addict.”

  • When I try to quit but fail, I feel increasingly hopeless. 

How well I remember the hopelessness!    For so long the addiction had become a part of who I was that I could not imagine a life apart from it.   I cannot count the number of resolutions I made to God, my wife, my friends, and to myself.    The only way I thought I could be free of this was to die.    As it turned out, I was right, but not in the way I thought.

  • Any threat to my addiction becomes a threat to me. 

A hand-full of people in my life during that period refused to coddle me in my addiction.   They called it “sin” and said that I was hiding behind an identity of “addict” to justify my rebellion against God as well as my selfishness.

I cut these people out of my life (my parents being 2 of them).    I told them that they were the ones with the problem as they did not understand addiction nor the struggles I face every moment of every day.    Their “judgment,” I told them, was toxic to my “recovery” and the healthy choice for myself was to delete them from my life.

  • I begin to lose my life.

The addiction, so much a part of who I have become, gets darker and darker, as the last “fix” didn’t deliver what I wanted.    Every moment of every day is spent thinking about the next opportunity to act out in my addiction.   More and more risks are taken.   In my case, I lost everything due to my love of my addiction more than anything else.    I found myself 60 days from being divorced, living in a sleazy hotel room, working at a pizza joint and having to take a taxi even to that.    Life was very, very dark and thoughts of suicide became my new fantasy.

  • I ease my pain by getting my next fix.

The only thing that takes my thoughts away from the misery around me and the thought of ending it all is to get lost in my addiction.    And so the cycle repeats itself, taking me deeper and deeper into despair, hopelessness and an identity more firmly tied to that which I both love and hate.

The Stupidity of Addiction

Pastor Tim shared a passage of scripture, written thousands of years ago, which speaks into this chaos better than any self-help book or program today can do.   It’s Isaiah 44:9-20.

Here, the prophet of God talks about the worthlessness and stupidity of the idols (addictions) we become slaves to and the foolishness of the people who bow to them.     We take what God intended for a good, noble use (in the scripture passage it is wood from a tree) such as food, time, relationships, sex, drink, careers, money, a program(!), etc., etc., and we fashion an idol out of it.   We worship that which was never intended to be worshiped.    We then call out to it for our rescue and help in times of trouble (easing the pain with our next fix).

The prophet knows what some people in my life, and perhaps yours, knew:  That such people lost in addictions such as these are blind, “their minds are shut, and they cannot think” (Isa. 44:18).    He calls us ignorant fools.

The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.  He trusts in something that can’t help him at all.  Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”  (Isa. 44:20).

I wonder how many people deleted Isaiah from their friends list?   It makes sense to me that he was sent to deliver a message to people with eyes yet do not see, with ears yet do not hear.

The lie in my hand, the one I would not bring myself to question, was my identity as a sex addict.    The delusion I was under, which Isaiah names, convinced me that this was just who I was and that I would need to learn how to cope if I was to survive in this world.   Coping might mean surrounding myself with people like myself – fellow sufferers – and divesting myself of any relationships with people who did not accept, understand, and “love” me as an addict.

Freedom comes when we see the lie in our hand and are willing to exclaim with St. Paul,

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (Rom. 7:24)

We have a Rescuer!  More on the victory that can be yours in the next post…