About a month and a half ago, Raven friend Michael Hardin, author of The Jesus Driven Life and director of Preaching Peace, asked me, among others, to contribute to a volume he is editing about religion and addiction. As an icebreaker, he shared with us essays in which he critiques destructive elements that he finds within particular Christian denominations, particularly Charismatic Christianity. Although I agreed, I was a little hesitant. While it is exciting to be invited to contribute, I am not especially familiar with the Charismatic Christianity that Michael critiques, nor have I been trained to help people cope with addiction from either a medical or a pastoral point of view. However, I have dealt with addictive tendencies of my own. What I write, therefore, is observation and analysis from my own experience, filtered through an understanding of human behavior guided by mimetic theory.
There may be certain denominations or practices of Christianity that encourage and nurture addictive behavior more than others. However, I wish to focus on another angle and discuss the ways in which anyone can be vulnerable to using a religious belief, practice, or community in an unhealthy or addictive manner. I look back on my life and recognize ways in which I have done this. When I am honest with myself, I also recognize a continuing vulnerability to the temptation to “use” faith in a way that falls short of God’s intention for this amazing gift. The gift of faith should help us to magnify the love of God and recognize that love in others, to form relationships in the image of God whose Triune essence is the ultimate relationship of Love. However, all good gifts can be abused, and sometimes faith can be twisted in our minds to assert ourselves above others, providing us with temporary gratification that ultimately leaves us hollow. “Corruptio optimi pessima;” the corruption of the best is the worst, and when faith becomes an instrument of self-gratification and ultimately scapegoating, one of God’s greatest gifts operates against its intended purpose. I think if we are all honest with ourselves, our faith is at best on a continuing journey toward the ideal, with the pitfalls of temptation to use it as a drug or a weapon continually before us. This is my story of stumbling into those pitfalls, climbing (or being lifted) out, and keeping my eyes open, that I may avoid stumbling again.
Addiction could be seen as a misplaced search for wholeness. I can look back on my adolescence and see times when I have used certain religious groups to fill what I perceived as voids in my life, to feel a sense of belonging and boost a shaky self-esteem.
I cannot attribute these voids to any tragedy or trauma; my childhood was pleasant and I am close to my family. Yet from my childhood I had a complicated relationship with “the Church,” both in the sense of the Body of Christ as a whole, and in the more immediate sense of my place of worship. My home church was a place where I felt safe and loved, among true friends. It was also, however, a place of anxiety, where I would wrestle with doubts and fears I didn’t dare fully articulate. I attribute my experience of the church as a source of comfort and confusion to being the daughter of a faithful Christian and a stark atheist.
I mimetically desired the conviction of faith I perceived in the people I knew from church, including my mother and grandmother and their friends. But my desire was mixed with more than a little fear. It wasn’t my church, much less my family, that taught me to fear a “wrathful God.” The myths I came to believe about a God who dispensed punishment on his own Son and a hell of eternal torment were not my church’s teachings, but they are so embedded in our culture that unless they are directly refuted, they may become internalized anyway. For me, living with a doubting daddy “outside” the boundaries of the Christian faith, absorbing his intellectual disconnects with stories of floating zoos and parting seas, men walking on water and divine mathematical equations that didn’t add up (1+1+1 = 1), I couldn’t help but be doubtful. And my doubt terrified me, and kept my heart as well as my mind from embracing the God who, on the one hand was Love, but on the other hand, was ready to cast my father, me, and countless others into a pit of eternal fire if we didn’t believe.
I think the commingling of deep-seeded fear with the palpable aching for genuine faith kept me from walking away from God. Yes, part of me was afraid to make a real break from religion, because of what I perceived God might do to me if God existed! But another part of me deeply yearned to fully embrace and be embraced by the love that I knew was there, because I saw it in my mother and my church. This is the context of my faith journey, and it is in this context that I can say that there were times when religion could, at times, be like a drug to me.
Looking back, I can see that I was always looking for belonging, for validation, and ultimately for a sense of unconditional love. I found that love from my family, but I questioned it in God, and my doubt was reflected in all kinds of anxieties. I struggled with my self-esteem, sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe, and sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just embrace unbelief. I don’t know how many of my social or emotional insecurities could be traced back to this self-doubt, but certainly some of them could. The various faith communities I tried to embrace in turn embraced as much of me as they could – as much as I would let them. But rather than express my full self, I tried to suffocate my doubts under obsessive behavior, behavior that might have been harmless, had I not been using it to try to hide my doubt from myself. I threw myself into Christian music, decorated my walls with Bible verses and hymn lyrics, and made a grand and futile effort to redefine myself to myself as well as hide my weakness (as I perceived my doubt to be) from the world. I must stress that it was not the faith communities that fueled my addictive behavior. Rather, my addictive behavior was fueled by fears that I absorbed and pieced together, in spite of the love that I now realize ultimately saved me.
I repressed my doubts and fears in order to feel a sense of belonging. I wondered, if I tried hard enough, would I find God? Would God find me worthy enough to bless me with faith? I developed my identity around being faithful, hoping to live into it someday. “Faking” would be the wrong word. The longing for God was very real, and everything I learned and thought and said came from a place of truth. But repressing my doubts and fears, from myself at times and also from my friends, stunted my relationships. Even so, in spite of doubts that hindered me, I made genuine connections. Looking back, I now understand that the God I was so desperately seeking was in those connections – with Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, everyone – the whole time.
When I finally found the courage to express my doubts and fears honestly, I was able to open myself to the love that had been waiting for me the whole time. I was blessed in my college years to find friends with whom I finally dared to be fully honest about joys and qualms I had within my meandering faith journey. The acceptance I received as I gradually let down my guard was a grace I slowly came to perceive. I found my anxiety fading as I relaxed into the love of my friends, and the theological questions that swam through my mind lost the baggage of fear that had long clung to them like a parasite. It was in finding myself loved that I began to understand the meaning of “God is Love,” and gradually trust that Love was holding onto me and surrounding me. My trust continues to grow and mature, and my love for Jesus is ever deepening, a reflection of his own love, magnified to me in the people who make me who I am.
The Authenticity of Jesus
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus tells us. The truth is that we are all deeply, truly, unconditionally loved, and understanding that truth is essential to being healthy and whole. Because love is a relational quality, we cannot be “whole” as isolated individuals. We are made in the image of the divine relationship of Love, the Trinity, designed to live in authentic relationship with one another. Addictions and addictive behaviors, I believe, are false paths to fulfillment that collapse us into ourselves and preclude authentic relationships in all of their messy, vulnerable complexity.
A faith community at its best can be a wonderful place to nurture authentic relationship, magnifying the love of God. But to repress fears and doubts to fit into such a community is to be disingenuous to one’s self and others, and stifle true relationship. If we truly seek to serve God and one-another in our faith communities, we must make sure we are contributing to an environment in which we are encouraging genuineness, accepting faults, listening to doubts, providing safe space for fears, and welcoming honesty. There is room for even the best churches to grow in this respect, helping those who go to church in search of belonging to recognize that such a search is joyfully unnecessary, because we already belong with God.
Of course, there are many faith communities that fall short of this vocation. There are churches that, whether unconsciously or deliberately, prey on the human desire for validation rather than preach that God’s unconditional grace is sufficient and universal. Churches that teach that God’s love is limited, erect boundaries between who is in and who is out, and effectively preach sacrifice over mercy, will inevitably mold some parishioners who either cling to a veneer of faith out of fear, or use faith as a source of pride over and against others. Both of these extremes are mirror-images of one-another, because both fear and self-righteousness inhibit intimate connection with God and neighbor. As in any other addiction, any sense of fulfillment in such an environment would be false.
When Paul instructs us to imitate the humility of Christ in his great hymn to the Philippians (ch 2, vs. 5 – 11), he is not giving us a formula for earning God’s approval. He is inviting us to consider Jesus Christ as a model not only of humility, but of confidence in the unconditional love of God that makes such humility possible. It was assurance of the love of God and a mission to share that love with the whole world that drove Jesus to “empty himself” and “become obedient unto death.” What drove Jesus to death was pushing the boundaries of what was considered to be God’s favor. Authorities and powers that thought God’s grace was bound to certain rules, certain people, and ultimately a certain sacrificial system, condemned Jesus for going beyond such boundaries. He embraced lepers and sinners and taught a love of enemies, drawing those on the margins into the circle of grace that some had thought to reserve for themselves. That is how Jesus emptied himself, forsaking the temptation to cling to human measurements of piety or prestige to embrace the marginalized. That is how he obeyed unto death the voice of Love. The consequence of such obedience was incurring the wrath of a humanity that had operated on exclusion and sacrifice. To defy a world order based on sacrifice, Jesus took a risk on the love of God. The resurrection was not only Jesus’ vindication, but the revelation of God’s love embracing the whole world, including those whom we would exclude.
Jesus’s assurance of God’s love allowed him to live authentically, free from searching for the validation of others. Rather than seeking identity in people or objects of obsession, Jesus knew himself in the love of his Father, in the love of the heavenly Father of all. To know ourselves to be in that love and to live it out in giving to others is to fulfill our vocations as image-bearers of God.
Jesus, indeed, is not a drug. Jesus is the true human and the perfect model of authenticity. Following Jesus is not “using” him; it is not seeking a euphoric experience to wash away loneliness. Following Jesus is about embracing the vulnerability necessary to be fully honest and fully open to others, embracing those who think themselves beyond the bounds of love, and receiving such an embrace when you feel beyond love yourself. Jesus is not a quick fix for our ailments but the Way of abundant life, because he models for us the freedom to embrace the love in which we are created. To follow him is not to “become high” but to undergo metanoia, to gradually relinquish the mythology of a world that compels us to seek our identities in objects and the approval of others, and compete for a limited share of prosperity. As we serve others and allow ourselves to be served, letting fear and pride fall away, the grip of such lies loosens its hold on us. The truth of Jesus, made known to us in our imitation of him, shows us that in relinquishing our fruitless searches – our addictions and obsessions – to the love of God, we find ourselves already found.
Image: Photo by Billy Hathorn. Available via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.