By Wilson Lee
In my work at Cityteam, I think a lot about addiction and the mystery of recovery. I wonder why some people are more prone to addiction than others? And what does it take for an addict to recover without relapsing? I don’t know all the answers, but I have learned to see the divine image in those struggling with addiction, and to believe that they are worthy of respect and love from above. In turn, those who are ready to be saved find hope, freedom, and a place they can redeem their lives, sometimes more than once.
Addiction is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional malady. Beyond a mere failure of the will, addiction has psychological, biological, and social causes brought about by physical cravings, genetic dispositions, familial upbringing and societal pressures. It embodies the experience of Romans 7:18b-19, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” And even though addiction is often labeled a “disease,” it is a sickness that hasn’t improved despite society’s best efforts. In 1989, the crack cocaine epidemic affected 0.5% of the population, making it a top national concern; in 2019, the opioid epidemic affects 4.4% of the population, keeping addiction at the top of those maladies that destroy people.
Certainly, addiction’s grip on people and its continued prevalence indicates a deeper cause than just our bodies, brains, and society. Indeed, a big clue of a deeper cause lies in how we often refer to alcohol: spirits. Addiction has a strong spiritual dimension. Satisfying an addiction provides a temporary illusion of paradise, a return to Eden. In this sense, addicts have a strong yearning to go back to a paradisiacal state. But as life teaches us, we can’t reach paradise by going backwards.
Instead, what if addicts could reach paradise by going forward? That is the premise of 12-Step programs such as those used at Cityteam. At the core of all 12-step programs is the belief and submission to a higher power. So instead of reverting to Eden, these programs move addicts forward towards Heaven. These programs use aphorisms, sponsors, and community to support their journey. Addicts often say it’s easier to live your way into right thinking, than to think your way into right living. Addicts will also tell you they are never recovered; rather, they are always recovering, in the present tense.
Seen in this light, addicts are not any more broken than any of us. Addicts merely have a malady that magnifies their brokenness and makes it visible for all to see. We all have our flaws, insecurities, fears, and griefs. We are in a constant state of overcoming these things that grip us. And like addiction, our brokenness cannot be fixed solely through our thinking, willpower, or deeds. Nor can our yearning for paradise be satisfied by earthly means. Rather, believers in Christ have a 12-step journey that includes aphorisms (and more in the Bible), sponsors (our pastors and spiritual mentors), and community (our church family and friends).
I believe that every person is endowed by God to be loved. That they deserve to be seen and heard and in many cases, admired for their struggle. That in the end, they are irreplaceable because their Creator wants them them to return to the paradise that they have been seeking all their lives. As Paul writes later in Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).