Prayer as an Entrance into Freedom

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

Part 3 of 3

You cannot become addicted to God. We learned this in the first post in this series. We are going to consider this again. You will want to see this clearly, because this God-you-cannot-be-addicted-to is the perfect one to help you out of your addictions.

First, let’s look at a couple of traits that make humanity so susceptible to addiction in the first place.

As humans we are both complex and adaptable

Our complexity includes what Gerald G. May called “multisystem involvement.” The systems of your body interact, and this complicates addiction. Without being aware of it, you begin to associate your addiction—whatever it is—with different parts of your world and your daily routine. Sights, sounds, smells, everything gets associated.

As May pointed out, this gives addictive behavior deeper roots in your life than you may suspect:

Each of our major addictions consists not only of the primary attachment itself; it also includes the involvement of multiple other systems that have been affected by it. To put it quite simply, addictions are never single problems. As soon as we try to break a real addiction, we discover that in many respects it has become a way of life.[1]

Because of these interconnected systems, it feels like your world is ending when all you are trying to do is quit some addiction. In the second post in this series, we saw that one mind trick of addiction is to fill you with a sense of terror when you try to quit. There really is nothing to be afraid of, but the fear is real all the same.

We are not only complex, we are adaptable. This is a blessing. It helps us survive an ever-changing world. But it also means that we tend to get attached to things. As we adapt, we begin to feel normal. As we get addicted to some behavior, it starts to contribute to our feeling normal.

May stressed the power that feeling normal has over us:

Adapting to change, then, means going through the stress of withdrawal from the old normality and finding relief when a new normality is established. At this most basic level of human functioning, attachment has made its appearance. I am attached to whatever makes things normal for me. I don’t let that normality change without a struggle.

We human beings are the most adaptable creatures in God’s creation. Our adaptability has allowed us to dominate the world. But our very capacity to create new normalities for ourselves also makes us vulnerable to countless attachments. As every attachment forms, a new normality is born. With each new normality, addictions exist.[2]

God refuses to become normal for us

There are some religious feelings and activities that we can become attached to. For example, sometimes prayer begins to feel a certain way. It gives us good feelings of comfort and peace, perhaps. But God will not allow us to get too attached to these feelings, because they are not him. To love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength requires us to love him for who he is, not just for how he makes us feel.

May explained that we can never become addicted to God. This can be scary at first, but it is ultimately liberating. We realize he is leading us into his addiction-free presence:

One of the most powerful and potentially frightening realizations is that there is no new normality of freedom to replace the old ones of addiction. As I have said, there can be no addiction to the true God because God refuses to be an object. God is more with us, more intimate, more steady than anything else in life. God is our ever-present Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. God is the one completely passionate and faithful Lover of our lives. And yet, God is never “normal.”[3]

Your deepest and truest self is something of a stranger to you (but not to God)

Breaking an addiction means going through the distress of withdrawal. One thing that makes this so difficult is that you don’t feel like yourself. You don’t feel normal. This may not sound serious. After all, it is a simple matter of your body readjusting its systems to find a new balance.

But it is serious. The physical feeling of normality affects your sense of identity. You have developed a familiarity with what it feels like to be you. In fact, you have different images of yourself in different roles. These are what May calls “self-representation systems,” and they make us act slightly different in different settings (at work, among certain groups of friends, at home, etc.).

Yet our own self-images are never perfectly accurate or complete. It might be helpful to remember this when suffering the distress of withdrawal from an addiction. Instead of looking to fill the emptiness with something else that will make us feel normal, May suggested that we should hear a kind of invitation in the emptiness–which he called “spaciousness”:

Like God, and perhaps in the image of God, our deepest sense of self with never be “normal.” Because our brains are used to dealing with normalities that have boundaries and qualities, the spaciousness, its beckoning security and confidence notwithstanding, is terrifying.”[4]

Why substitution is not the best method for quitting an addiction

Sometimes substitution is medically necessary when people are addicted to dangerous drugs. Sometimes it just makes things easier. Lollipops instead of cigarettes is an example of this, or healthy snacks instead of junk food.

Substituting one attachment for another helps us along from normality to normality. However, May suggested it would better to leave the space empty. Even more, he challenged us to try to become friends with the new and terrifying spaciousness.

In addition to minimizing withdrawal symptoms, the substitution of one normality for another allows us to avoid the open, empty feeling that comes when an addictive behavior is curtailed. Although this emptiness is really freedom, it is so unconditioned that it feels strange, sometimes even horrible. If we were willing for a deeper transformation of desire, we would have to try to make friends with the spaciousness; we would need to appreciate it as openness to God.[5]

Why prayer is important

The emptiness is freedom, May insisted. It is a spaciousness that invites you into friendship. It invites you closer to the deepest and truest version of yourself. This deep self could be called your heart or spirit. It is what the Bible refers to when it says things like Christ dwells in your heart by faith (Ephesians 3:17), and whoever is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him (1 Corinthians 6:17).

God wants us to live out of our true heart. Our addictions lead us away from this goal. Prayer gives God more room in our lives, and so it helps us in the fight against addiction.

May especially recommended the kind of prayer he called “contemplation.” By this, he meant simply spending time with God without an agenda. Here is his definition:

This is the contemplative option—not any system of complicated exercises, but the simple and courageous attempt to bear as much as one can of reality just as it is. To be contemplative, then, is not to be a special kind of person. Contemplation is simply trying to face life in a truly undefended and open-eyed way.[6]

In another place, May describe contemplation as the “practice in which one just sits still and stays awake with God…noticing the thoughts and sensations that come and go, adding nothing to them, subtracting nothing from them. The mind is allowed to be what it is, but it is seen…When properly practiced and truly graced, this kind of meditation—to the extent that we can bear it—can be very powerful in exposing and vaporizing mind tricks.”[7]

Powerful things happen when we sit quietly before God, allowing our thoughts to been seen, but not allowing them to influence us:

Psychologically, we are becoming a little more willing to let things be what they are. Spiritually, we are becoming a little less attached. Freedom is happening.[8]


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


[1] May, Gerald G., Addiction and Grace, p. 85 (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988)

[2] May, p. 78

[3] May, p. 97

[4] May, p. 103

[5] May, p. 147

[6] May, p. 107

[7] May, p. 166

[8] May, p. 104-105