A Christian Psychologist Looks at Addiction

Making Friends with the Spaciousness: Lessons from Gerald G. May’s Addiction and Grace

Part 1 of 3

Gerald G. May didn’t offer any guaranteed solutions or easy answers to the problem of addiction. He didn’t make any grand promises. What he did was struggle to confront and understand his own addictions in the light of his faith as a Christian and his understanding as a scientist.

Maybe this is part of the reason his book Addiction and Grace is still helpful after twenty years. In drawing some lessons from that book, let us begin by asking some basic questions about addiction.

What is addiction?

According to May, one sign of an addiction is that it drains your energy and diverts your attention: “Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires.”[1]

In another definition, May again pointed to the negative effect addiction has on your desire: “Addiction is any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire. It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects.”[2]

Is it compulsive and habitual? It is probably an addiction. Does it limit the freedom of your desire? This may be harder to tell at first, until you begin to resist the addiction. Then you will start to see the freedom you are missing out on.

Is everyone addicted to something?

May’s answer to this was an emphatic yes:

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. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things.[3]

Addiction is a form of idolatry of the heart. And idolatry is always a sin. And we are all afflicted.

Addiction is a failure to live up to the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. It also hampers our ability to pursue the second greatest commandment, to love others as ourselves.

Working with this understanding of addiction, we can say that the only human being who lived free from addiction and unhealthy attachments was Jesus. We can certainly grow towards our goal of being like Jesus, and the more we do so, the less we will be attached to earthly things. But this begins with a clear understanding of the nature and severity of our addictions.

Do some people have an “addictive personality”?

This term refers to the theory that “chemical addictions occur because of preexisiting personality defects.”[4] Such a person is by nature likely to take things to the extreme and become addicted.

This is not the case, said May. It is true that some things can be inherited, like a propensity for alcohol addiction. But this is not the same thing as a personality disorder.

There is no such thing as an addictive personality. Whatever defects or shortcomings can be observed in severely addicted people, they are not the cause of the addiction. On the contrary, they are caused by the addiction. It is more accurate, said May, to speak of an addicted personality rather than an addictive personality.[5]

And all of us, to some degree, are affected by our addictions. Some people are just pushed further out of control and out into the open. May put it this way: “It is as if these severely addicted people have played out, on an extreme scale, a drama that all human beings experience more subtly and more covertly.”[6]

Can you be addicted to something good?

Yes. Work is good. So is exercise. So is going to church. Yet you can become addicted to these things. May composed a long but incomplete list of things that someone can be addicted to. The list includes things such as housekeeping, being right, competition, exercise, pizza, politics, and art.

Can addiction itself ever be healthy?

No. Addictions and attachments are not beneficial. Some are less harmful than others. But, according to May, they all “impede human freedom and diminish the human spirit.”[7]

This is true even when we are addicted to good things.

Can we become addicted to God?

Some addictions are religious in nature, but no addiction is an addiction to God. This is actually impossible.

We cannot be addicted to God because of his nature as God. Addiction is a form of idolatry, and love and worship of the true God cannot be idolatry. Understanding this can help us on our journey to freedom. We will consider it further in the third and final post in this series.

Focus on the positive

Addiction is a plague on humanity. It is dehumanizing and destructive. It is widespread and deeply entrenched. This reality can be discouraging, but it is not our focus.

The Christian perspective offers an amazing hope. As I have already said, there was somebody who lived a life free of addiction. He still lives. The Bible teaches us that those who trust in him are destined to become like him (Romans 8:29-30).

If this is your destiny, then this present life is the time to begin growing into it. Today is the day, and now is the moment, to become more like Christ than ever before. And becoming more like Christ in this life means becoming less addicted to things, less attached to ideas and images, more free to love.

Let God set your heart free. You will become a more complete person. Being less attached to things will not make you emotionally detached. It will have the opposite effect. It will make you more alive. Breaking the power of addiction, said May, is not about “freedom from desire, but freedom of desire.”[8]

Recognize and defeat your addictions. Start with the most obvious and harmful ones. Acknowledging them for what they are is a necessary first step. Another step is to see the ways in which you can become your own worst enemy in this matter. In fighting addiction, it helps to understand the tactics you use against yourself. We will look at this in the next post.

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Making Friends with the Spaciousness: Lessons from Gerald G. May’s Addiction and Grace

Part 1: A Christian Psychologist Looks at Addiction

Part 2: Seven Mind Tricks that Hinder People from Breaking Addictions

Part 3: Prayer as an Entrance into Freedom

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[1] May, Gerald G., Addiction and Grace, p. 14 (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988)

[2] May, p. 14

[3] May, p. 3

[4] May, p.54

[5] May, p. 55

[6] May, p. 43

[7] May, p. 39

[8] May, p. 14