Addiction and Grace

Monday, October 31, 2011 — Week of Proper 26, Year One

Paul Shinji Sasaki, Bishop of Mid-Japan, and of Tokyo, 1946

Philip Lindel Tsen, Bishop of Honan, China, 1954

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 990)

Psalms 56, 56, [58] (morning) // 64, 65 (evening)

Nehemiah 6:1-19

Revelation 10:1-11

Matthew 13:36-43

So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. Revelation 10:9-10

The little scroll that John the Divine consumes contains another prophecy that John is to deliver. He will soon be speaking of coming conflicts and woes.

But as I read the description of the scroll, I was reminded of the characteristics of my temptations and addictions. So many things that bring us troubles appear attractive and may be “sweet as honey in [the] mouth,” but they produce a deeper bitterness in the pit of our being. Our addictive behaviors and patterns then become the venue for much of the conflict and woe in our lives.

In his seminal little book Addiction and Grace, the late Gerald May offers a theological and neurological map of addiction:

I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction. Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. Moreover, our addictions are our own worst enemies. They enslave us with chains that are of our own making and yet that, paradoxically, are virtually beyond our control. Addiction also makes idolators of us all, because it forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another. (Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, HarperOne, 1991, p. 3-4)

May dissects the way we all become attached to our addictions, which always begin as apparently good things, as attractions — sweet as honey in the mouth. But we become habituated to the sweetness, and our tolerance grows, so that we need more and more in order to continue to match our stimulation. Below our intention and will, our neurological system is creating super-highways of stimulation and desire for more of what does not ultimately satisfy — our stomach becomes truly bitter.

While reading May’s book many years ago, I took a little card and began listing some of my own addictions — some of the things that I believe I need profoundly, yet they seem to limit my equanimity and freedom. I ran out of room on the little card when I had listed well over twenty addictions. That tasted bitter indeed in my stomach.

Gerald May goes on to explain that the power of our addictions lies at such a primitive place in our neurological system, that they are literally below our will, outside of the range of our intentional control. Addictions never sleep.

Our hope is grounded in grace. God’s freely outpouring love liberates and frees us to receive the goodness that is sweeter than the desire of our addictions. We can open ourselves to grace, which seems to me much more a movement of surrender than of grasping. God’s grace like God’s being is a mystery, blowing where it will. Usually we find our experience of grace enhanced in community. The love and support of community can help us to let go of attachment and become open to grace. It is unqualified, absolute, divine love that truly satisfies our deepest desires and longings.

I find that my movement away from addiction and toward grace is less of a struggle, and more like a gentle, inward turning. There is the effort of discipline, to turn, but it is more accomplished in letting go, relaxing, surrendering into the love that is more dependable and fulfilling than my hungers and needs. From a place of deep, divine acceptance, love flows, creating hope that translates into freedom. Gently. Moment by moment.

Past Posts