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The Spiritual Roots of Addiction

Seth Haines talks about his battle with alcoholism and how leaders can help addicts find freedom.
The Spiritual Roots of Addiction

Seth Haines was living an enviable life. A successful lawyer, family man, and elder in his church, Haines seemed to have it all. But when one of his children fell ill, he started to drink a little to numb the pain. Then he started drinking a lot. Soon his habit spiraled into a full-blown addiction. His new book, Coming Clean, is a raw account of his first 90 days of sobriety. Haines talked to us about his journey and the central role that confession and community play in finding freedom from addiction.

It seems that many addictions begin in the midst of crisis. What it is about pain that makes us so vulnerable?

It is true—addiction is often birthed from pain. For me, over-drinking turned into full-fledged dependence when Titus, my fourth son, was admitted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He was failing to thrive, and I’d prayed for his healing without result. When his sickness seemed the direst, I gave up on both God and prayer. In the pain of that moment I wanted to feel no more, and I reached for the bottle of gin.

We go to great lengths to avoid pain, and the anesthetics of our day—alcohol, prescription pills, sex, materialism, and entertainment—are readily available and quite effective.

Crisis exposes pain points that have long been ignored. And to state the obvious, pain hurts. Like any other animal, humans go to great lengths to avoid pain, and the anesthetics of our day—alcohol, prescription pills, sex, materialism, and entertainment—are readily available and quite effective. Is it any wonder that good and well-meaning Christians succumb to addiction in seasons of pain? After all, Christians are humans, too.

Are pastors and church leaders equipped to walk people through the long and difficult process of rehabilitation?

In an ideal world, every pastor and church leader would be well equipped to lead their congregants into healing and wholeness. The unfortunate reality, though, is that some leaders feel unable to identify with the brokenness of addiction, and others alienate (often unintentionally) the addicts within their congregations. To make matters worse, some church leaders conceal their own wounds, their own struggles, and perpetuate a Christian ideal that might seem unattainable to the addict.

The answer begins with vulnerability and grace. The pastor who models confession and affords his congregants the grace and space to confess their own brokenness is well equipped to walk with his people through recovery and rehabilitation.

There is a tension between expecting victory over sin and the reality of addiction and sin as a lifelong struggle. How hard is this tension for those who continually struggle?

I can’t speak for every addict, but the rekindling of my prayer life has been my primary source of strength throughout the recovery process. And though prayer prepares my heart for daily sobriety—and by sobriety I mean unhindered communion with God—prayer is only one facet of the gem that is sobriety.

James writes, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Likewise, Paul juxtaposes his instruction against drunkenness with his instruction to live in Christian Community (Eph. 5:18-19). Scripture teaches us that healing from any addiction, and true inner sobriety, is found through connection with the broader Christian community.

When I’m walking in prayer and confessing my weakness within Christian community, sobriety comes easier. If I stray from either of those core practices, though, my sobriety can feel quite fragile.

Even Christian leaders can be vulnerable to addiction and temptation. How do you counsel leaders who suffer in silence?

There’s no greater disservice to a church body than a leader who refuses to participate in confessional vulnerability. If a leader is unable to model confession, his people will likewise feel an inability to live an honest Christian life. What’s more, the leader who suffers in silence works from a depleted spiritual well. How can he carry the waters of grace to his people when he cannot pull from that well?

I’ve spoken with several church leaders who struggle with secret addictions, and I’ve pointed them to the same passages of Scripture quoted above. I’ve counseled them to confess their sins to trusted friends, and to walk in the sobriety of honest Christian community. This sort of vulnerability may be painful for the spiritual leader who is supposed to have it all together. But walking through that pain, the Christian leader has the unique opportunity to model healing and freedom for his people. And this is no small aside; it’s at the core of his calling.

If you could speak a word to someone who has a friend or relative who is addicted to drugs or alcohol or some substance and wants to help, what would you say?

First, I would ask them to examine their own addictions, ask what things might separate them from sobriety and communion with God. What about shopping, sugar, or sex? What about food or entertainment? What if the addictions of our family members and friends lead us into a deeper examination of our connectedness or disconnectedness with God?

Clothed in that humility, I’d ask the concerned family member to pray—really pray—for the addict. After all, the second admonition of James 5:16 is to “Pray for one another.” If only God—the “Higher Power,” as the twelve-steppers say—can break the cycle of addiction, shouldn’t we invoke his name regularly on behalf of the addict? Shouldn’t we ask that the Christ of Scripture would speak to the heart of the addict, that he would say, in love, “Go and sin no more?”

Once those kinds of prayers become your constant refrain for the addict, love without reservation, and give sacrificially when needed. Buy the addict a cup of coffee. Listen without trying to browbeat the addiction out of them. Don’t heap on the guilt or pile up the shame. If they need long-term care, help them find it. Invite them into the grace and humility of confessional Christian community.

At its root, addiction is spiritual in nature. It’s the process of substituting a dependency upon God for dependency upon something else. And if this is the case—and I believe it is—the most effective tools against addiction are prayer, love, and service. Use these well, and you might just help a friend or family member come clean.

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