Sermon Illustrations on Addiction
A.A. Meetings are Totally Predictable
A friend of mine, an alcoholic in recovery, likes to explain the dynamics of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting this way: “It’s funny, the meetings are always the same, the exact same things get said over and over again. Everything is totally predictable; everyone, except those who are there for the first time, knows already what will be said.
And we’re not there to show our best sides to each other. I don’t go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to share my talents or to be a nice guy. No, I go because if I don’t, I know, and know for sure, that I will start drinking again and eventually destroy myself. It’s that simple. I go there to stay alive!”
Addiction & Idolatry
In his excellent book on the subject of power (Playing God), author Andy Crouch describes the connection between idolatry and addiction:
In modern, secular societies perhaps the clearest example of idolatry is the pattern we call addiction. Addictions begin with essentially good, created stuff; even the chemicals that become addictive drugs are part of God’s good creation and often have beneficial uses in the right context. But in the throes of addiction, we invest that created stuff with transcendent expectations.
It begins to hold out the promise of becoming like a god. The most powerfully addictive substances, like crystal meth, are the ones that can deliver the most dramatic sensations of godlike freedom, confidence and abundance—in other words, power. A behavior like gambling promises to give us a sense of mastery over the random forces of nature and the ability to bring something out of nothing, to create wealth without having to work. Pornography promises intimacy without risk, commitment and the limitations of our often awkward and vulnerable bodies.
Addiction Begins with Self-Deception
Every kind of addiction begins with similar self-deception:
“This won’t hurt anybody.”
“I’ll only do it once.”
“I haven’t had any for a week.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“I can handle it.”
“I can quit whenever I want to.”
As you read, I hope you’ll see how anything can form a sort of slavish attachment, a sort of addiction. Habits like checking Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook? Yes. Substances like booze and opioids? Of course. Dependencies on the material, on money, on entertainment, on sex? No doubt.
I’ll suggest that our bad habits, addictions, and dependencies are the things we use, attach to, or love in an effort to cope with the pains of life. So throughout this book, when you see the term coping mechanism, read it as my shorthand for any habit, addiction, or dependency.
Coping mechanisms—we all have them, even the best of us. Mine was booze, then book buying, then a bowl of cereal and a good Netflix binge. Anything to take my mind off the pain. Some might overeat or undereat or exercise too much or binge shop or click-click-click on porn into the wee hours of the morning.
The Advantage of Being an Addict
The advantage (if you can call it that) that addicts have is that they have their identifiable addictions. Whether you are an alcoholic, a drug addict, a compulsive gambler, or an uncontrollable overeater, you know what you are fighting. But if you are a woman who makes poor love choices, a serial philanderer, someone who sabotages friendships in the workplace by gossiping, someone whose go-to emotion is fear, or someone whose neediness drives people away, there is a good chance you have remained blissfully unaware of your addiction until significant damage has been done.
The saddest wake-up call of all is the news that your actions have brought damaging turbulence into your daily life and more often than not the lives of others. Most likely, none of you are lacking for concerned friends or family members who are more than willing to act as human billboards reminding you of where you fall short. You screw up, the wife points out why, you turn to her with a look of intense gratitude and say, “Thank God you were there, Cindy. I never noticed. THAT won’t happen again!” Meanwhile, back in real life, we know that seldom happens. More often than not, the repeated complaints of partners, lovers, and friends only drive us deeper into our cave of “Honor thy cravings; screw the rest of the world.”
Addiction is a powerful foe.
So it may be an unwelcome revelation, but awakening to the fact that the fly in the ointment is you is the beginning of change. The truth is at your door, and with it, the possibility of a new beginning.
Blind to Love
All addictions begin in shame. They don’t begin with troubling behavior—a binge on pom, a night of overdrinking–but with a sense of lack or limitation. An addict may be loved deeply, but sense of lack or limitation.
An addict may be loved deeply, but like Narcissus he is blind to it, trapped in a desperate cycle of attempted self-salvation. Adam and Eve had everything, but they perceived that something was missing and then took satisfaction into their own hands rather than embracing their creaturely, God-given limits.
A Different Perspective on the Narcissus Myth
In his important book When Narcissism Comes to Church, professor and therapist Chuck DeGroat makes an important connection between shame, narcissism and addiction by looking at the myth of Narcissus.
The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love that Narcissus was lacking. It’s a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. This is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect and cannot become vulnerable. He is immovable, untouchable.
Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a drink. In the water he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort. Leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized before the pool, he pines for the image that will never return his love and eventually succumbs to the neglect of his basic needs.
… Narcissus is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness—a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction that Narcissus experiences.
“Do Not Believe”
Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.
Dopamine and the Desire for More
The brain’s reward center, which includes the production and release of dopamine, pushes us toward both making and spending money, playing video games, use or overuse of the internet, and consumption (even binge consumption) of the latest Netflix series. Dopamine even spikes when you hear the hook to your favorite Beyoncé jam on your bumper-to-bumper morning commute.
Yes, pop music produces almost addictive brain chemistry. Every compulsive thing works on the same neurological systems. And though different whizz-bang chemicals might be involved in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, one neurotransmitter is common—dopamine. It’s the neurotransmitter that locks the memory of the whizz-bang in place, that drives our desire.
Priming us for more, more, more.
Fear: The Core of Every Addiction
At the core of every addiction is an emptiness based in abject fear. The addict dreads and abhors the present moment; she bends feverishly only toward the next time, the moment when her brain, infused with her drug of choice, will briefly experience itself as liberated from the burden of the past and the fear of the future—the two elements that make the present intolerable.
Many of us resemble the drug addict in our ineffectual efforts to fill in the spiritual black hole, the void at the center, where we have lost touch with our souls, our spirit—with those sources of meaning and value that are not contingent or fleeting.
Our consumerist, acquisition-, action-, and image-mad culture only serves to deepen the hole, leaving us emptier than before. The constant, intrusive, and meaningless mind-whirl that characterizes the way so many of us experience our silent moments is, itself, a form of addiction—and it serves the same purpose.
The Feeling of Being Right
Studies show we actually get a dopamine hit when we think we’re proven right. We can literally become addicted to the sensation of our rightness. “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure,” writes clinical psychologist Renee Carr. “It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”
This might explain why we spend time scrolling through and enjoying information and news links that prove—once again—how right we are. Wow, do we love that feeling. It also might explain why many have gone to their graves insisting they were right, even if it made them miserable in the process. Addictions work that way.
The Greatest Positive Event of the 20th Century
Thus I believe the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935, when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first AA meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement.
That is the other reason why I think of addiction as the sacred disease. When my AA friends and I get together, we often come to conclude that, very probably, God deliberately created the disorder of alcoholism in order to create alcoholics, in order that these alcoholics might create AA, and thereby spearhead the community movement which is going to be the salvation not only of alcoholics and addicts but of us all.
The Greatest Problem with Video Games
The greatest problem with video gaming is not that gaming is innately evil, but that it’s addictively good. Gaming taps our social competitiveness, our love of narrative, and our interest in problem solving. As gaming franchises grow, digital dreamscapes are becoming holistically immersive. The greatest problem with TV is not that TV is innately evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our on-demand platforms continue to bulge with options.
Pushed to the Brink of Destruction
Psychiatrist James Knight describes in graphic detail the experience that members of Alcoholics Anonymous experience:
These persons have had their lives laid bare and pushed to the brink of destruction by alcoholism and its accompanying problems. When these persons arise from the ashes of the hellfire of addictive bondage, they have an understanding, sensitivity, and willingness to enter into and maintain healing encounters with their fellow alcoholics. In this encounter they cannot and will not permit themselves to forget their brokenness and vulnerability.
Their wounds are acknowledged, accepted, and kept visible. Further, their wounds are used to illuminate and stabilize their own lives while they work to bring the healing of sobriety to their alcoholic brothers and sisters, and sometimes to their sons and daughters. The effectiveness of AA’s members in the care and treatment of their fellow alcoholics is one of the great success stories of our time, and graphically illustrates the power of wounds, when used creatively, to lighten the burden of pain and suffering.
We tend to spoil any good thing, human as we are. We turn the gifts of God into coping mechanisms, just like I did wine, and we do it with any old gift. Consider my friend Rich, a good and right man whom I consider the paragon of health. He’s a runner, and a darned good one at that.
But one morning over coffee he confessed. “After a stressful day, after a day when I feel like an imposter or a failure or like I’m measuring up short, I put on my shoes and run till I puke.” “Why?” I said, jerking upright, cocking my head to the side. “Maybe I’m trying to cope by doing something I’m good at? Maybe I’m trying to run away from my problems? I don’t really know.” And therein lies the problem. Running itself isn’t the problem. Running away is.
Why Can’t We Just Quit?
In a 1995 edition of The Orange County Register, a professor at McMaster University in Ontario described famed physicist Albert Einstein’s approach to solving the apocalypse: “When Einstein was asked how he would save the world in one hour, he said he’d spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.” It was an apocryphal quote; one which Einstein likely didn’t speak.
But still, isn’t there wisdom buried there? When we examine our habits, addictions, dependencies, and vices, we so often ask this question: Why can’t we just quit? The alcoholic asks it this way: Why can’t I stop drinking?
The workaholic, porn addict, or shopaholic asks it another: Why can’t I shut off the computer? The runaholic (yes, this is a thing) asks, why do I keep trying to outpace my problems? The approvaholic (yes, this is a thing too) asks, why can’t I say no to the next PTA assignment, organizing the next church potluck, and hosting the next neighborhood party, all of which fall in the same week? How to quit—this is the solution, not the problem. But to reach the solution, we have to define the problem. What is the problem underlying our coping mechanisms? They do something for us.
Sermon Illustrations on Addiction
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