Two Ways That Sex Addiction Is a Spiritual Problem
ADDICTION AS A “SPIRITUAL MALADY”
If you take a look at AA’s Big Book or go to a 12-step meeting of any kind, it won’t be long before you hear about spirituality, and for good reason.
One of the first requirements of any 12-step program is for the addict to “turn over” or surrender his addiction to God or a “Higher Power.” It’s a important act of surrender as many addicts have tried and failed to stop using or acting out alone and by their own efforts.
Moreover, the 12th step of all 12-step programs that I know of promises the addict a “spiritual awakening” if he actively works the program. But what exactly do 12-step programs like AA mean when they describe addiction as a “spiritual malady”? And is addiction a spiritual problem?
The short answer? You bet it is. But there’s more to the story. So let’s dive in.
AA’S TAKE ON ADDICTION AS A “SPIRITUAL MALADY”
A quick Google search will turn up websites like this one that list the following “symptoms” of addiction as a spiritual problem as described in the Big Book:
- being restless, irritable, and discontent (p. xxvi)
- having trouble with personal relationships
- not being able to control emotions
- feeling miserable and depressed
- not being able to make a living (or a happy and successful life)
- having feelings of uselessness
- being full of fear
- inability to be of real help to other people (p. 52)
- being like “the actor who wants to run the whole show” (pp. 60-61)
- being “driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity” (p. 62)
- possessing self-will run riot (p. 62)
- leading a double life (p. 73)
- living like a tornado running through the lives of others (p. 82)
- exhibiting selfish and inconsiderate habits
According to the Big Book, then, what’s the problem? “Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles” (p. 62).
The solution? “Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness (‘the ego’). We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self (ego) without [God’s] aid” (p. 62; bold text added).
AA portrays addiction as a problem that only God can heal. It’s a trenchant statement of how powerless addicts feel over their addiction, isn’t it? But there’s still more to the story.
SEX ADDICTION AS A RELATIONAL PROBLEM WITH GOD
I’m a therapist who helps sex addicts and their partners heal. Addiction is the only mental health problem that I know of that is described in any way as a spiritual problem. While I don’t agree with AA’s views on all of the points listed above, they nail it when it comes to sex addicts, who often:
- Live a double life
- Have loads of trouble in their relationships
- Feel unhappy, anxious, ashamed, alone, and fearful of anyone finding out about their behaviors
- Don’t know what to do with painful feelings (feelings often the result of trauma and abuse in their backgrounds)
- Often demonstrate thinking that’s unrealistic or distorted by their addiction
- Are afraid of losing those closest to them and are convinced that they can’t be “real” with anyone for fear of exposing their secrets
Now, having read that, take a look at AA’s list again in the previous section.
What do you notice?
About half of the points, counting conservatively, describe the devastating effects of addiction on the addict’s relationships. (I would argue that the rest of the points discussing the addict’s feelings have everything to do with relationships too, since we don’t feel feelings in a relational vacuum.)
If addiction causes problems with our relationships with other people, is it any surprise that addicts have trouble with their relationship with God (i.e., their spirituality)?
I have theological training too, so it’s not uncommon that Christians who are struggling with sexual behaviors will seek me out for support. It happens often that addicts tell me that they’ve prayed a lot and leaned on others for accountability and prayer for help.
In my experience, when an addict who is a Christian talks about his addiction, he often means that his addiction is a sin. So often, Christians struggling with sexual addiction are wracked with guilt, especially since the Church has often been uncomfortable at best when addressing sexuality. Addicts frequently say things like:
- “I can’t connect with God.”
- “I feel bad when I’m at church.”
- “I can’t show others in the congregation what’s really going on with me.”
- “I have trouble praying.”
- “God going to judge me. I feel so guilty.”
So, from a Christian perspective, addiction is a spiritual problem in two ways: 1) addiction causes a rift or a rupture in the addict’s relationship with God, and 2) only God can heal addiction. If you’re not a Christian, the same is true with regard to whatever Higher Power you may trust.
But there’s still more the story.
SEX ADDICTION ISN’T JUST A SPIRITUAL PROBLEM
Sometimes Christian addicts who speak with me wonder why God won’t heal them, why he doesn’t perform a miracle and take away their addiction through intercessory prayer, anointing, a healing service, or some other means.
It’s a great question that refers to the problem of suffering (i.e., theodicy), one that theologians have wrestled with for millennia.
Now, I have no doubt that God has indeed miraculously transformed some people’s addictions. I believe that the God who parted the Red Sea, who gave sight to the blind, and rose on the third day has that power.
But even if that happened to every addict, even if every addict were reconciled to God in that way, each one would still have to clean up the mess that their addiction has left in their lives: shattered relationships, lies, manipulation, heartache, broken promises, and the list goes on.
Addiction tears at the very fabric of relationships, including one’s relationship with God.
Addiction thrives in isolation, and addicts often do indeed have “trouble with personal relationships” because of their shame about their addiction—and that shame causes them to emotionally distance themselves from others and present a “false self” to loved ones, even God.
Recovering from addiction must involve the hard work of repairing one’s relationship with God and those the addict has hurt.
And that’s where God can show up.
HEALING SEX ADDICTION: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
One of my favorite definitions of sin comes from Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher and theologian. He describes sin as anything that takes us out of genuine dialogue with God.
Genuine dialogue—two fully present beings really connecting with one another in open, honest, authentic conversation—is only possible when there is no shame, fear, or guilt.
Addicts are beset by their shame. That’s why they keep their behaviors a secret or lie about it.
The more addiction thrives, the less genuine dialogue is possible.
In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve screwed up big time. They ate fruit that God said was off limits, and when they realized what they’d done, how they’d hurt God, they were ashamed and hid from him. But God sought them out, saying, “Where are you?”
When there has been a wound in a relationship, when one person has injured another, reconciliation is possible. The beauty of AA and other 12-step programs is that the steps require the addict to be reconciled to God (or a Higher Power of the addict’s choosing) first and then pursue reconciliation with others.
Only God can heal addiction, it’s true. Only God can restore, heal, and bring reconciliation to the world. But he uses us—loved ones, therapists, and other addicts—to do it.
SEX ADDICTION AND THE POWER OF GRACE
Even when addicts continue to use or act out, God seeks them out, pursuing them with radical grace. “Where are you?” God’s question to Adam and Eve echoes in every heart that cares for the addict, everyone that wants them to find healing.
Brennan Manning, beloved author of The Ragamuffin Gospel and a recovering alcoholic, knew this radical grace well. That’s why he once wrote, “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
This radical grace is most evident—most felt—when we can be truly ourselves with another person, in all of our messiness. When we can be authentically real with someone else in all of our vulnerability and raw feelings, it changes us. This kind of genuine dialogue can transform addiction.
This kind of acceptance, empathy, or grace has the power to transform us. In its presence, we can feel safe enough to allow all of our deepest longings, feelings, and thoughts to be seen, and we can be surprised when grace still seeks to understand and connect with us.
When that which has been hidden can come into the light, lasting change happens.