Getting addicted to religion.

There are a few things you don’t want to hear in a counselor’s office:

“Although shock therapy has gotten some negative press in the past, I think it might be the perfect way to cure your ‘sarcasm situation.'”

“I’m giving a keynote address at a conference in Boston on weird people. Would you mind coming with me and being a visual aid?”

“In situations like this, I find it’s important to remember that in many ways, the esteemed poet, Roxette said it best. You need to ‘listen to your heart.'”

Those are all unfortunate but they’re just a bunch of silly, make em’ up, giggle sentences. The one I didn’t want to hear but actually got dropped on me like an elbow of death three years ago was this:

“Jon, it seems like you struggle with four different addictions. And one of them is religion.”

That there were so many issues was not that surprising based on some of the horrible decisions I’ve made in my life. Three of the four were actually pretty neon in their existence, but religion? I didn’t even know that was possible. I’d seen people say they were “addicted to Jesus” but this was different from that.

I didn’t know there was such as thing as too much faith or too much Jesus or too much Bible or too much God. But that’s not what the counselor said. He said I was addicted to religion, not God. And there’s a big difference.

I tried to push back on this new piece of information. It wasn’t possible. I couldn’t possibly be using religion as a way to act out, as a method of gaining an emotional high or medicating a pain I didn’t want to deal with. I couldn’t possibly be hiding inside the constructs of religion to escape reality. But slowly but surely, I started to see the truth.

I realized that after coming home to God in the sense of the Prodigal Son story, I had grown impatient. Things were not happening as fast as I thought they should. My definition of redemption was not unfolding in the way I would have planned it. And like author Gerald May writes, I began “trying to command the very process of healing.”

Here is what that looked like:

1. I focused on “doing” instead of “being.”
For decades, I invested the majority of my time and energy in sin. So when I returned to God, I wanted to simply replace all of that with Him. I thought He, like everything else I had ever known, was all about action and activities. So I tried to manically read the Bible in 40 days. I harassed my wife’s friends with my thoughts on scripture and made wild vows like “from this point out, every bit of culture I engage with will be Christian in nature.” Those aren’t bad things by nature, but I perverted them into ways I could “do” religion instead of “be” a son of God. And when those props failed to support me because only a relationship with God can do that, I hit bottom all over again.

2. I focused on ritual instead of relationship.
It’s a mistake to think that all addicts are out of control maniacs with little regard for laws and rules. If anything, for many of us, our attempt to control our lives through addiction results in a complicated, detailed set of ever changing rules and rituals. Often, it’s more about the ritual instead of the object of our compulsion. For instance, I heard an MIT professor report on an intensive study she had done into gambling. She said her team was surprised to learn that many gambling addicts don’t enjoy winning. Rather than being excited about winning the money, they viewed it as a hassle. They had to get the pit boss and count the money and do a million other little things that stopped what they really wanted to do, which was engage in the ritual of gambling. Pulling the lever. Pushing the button. Putting coins or dollar bills in. The act of gambling is what they craved. What they worshipped was the ritual.

I got the same way with religion, secretly believing that if I could just “figure out” God, everything would be alright. I wanted a formula for sanctification. I thought if I said the right prayers and loved people the right way and executed my own twisted religious ritual flawlessly, I could control grace. But again, author Gerald May presents the foolishness of this: “It is possible to approach grace as if it were just another thing to be addicted to, something we could collect or hoard. But this kind of grasping can capture only an image of grace. Grace itself cannot be possessed; it is eternally free, and like the Spirit that gives it, it blows where it will. We can seek it and try to be open to it, but we cannot control it.”

I don’t know if there’s a support group for religious addicts, but there probably should be. When I see things like people protesting at a funeral I can’t help but think I am not the only one that struggles with this weird form of addiction. I mean addicts do really stupid things. I’ve said before that when I was a teenager I used to tell my parents I was going to sled at the dump just so I could dig through the trash and the tractors in hopes of finding dirty magazines. That is stupid and so is telling a mother, grieving the loss of her only child, that her son was killed because “God hates the world” while carrying signs that read “your sons are in hell.” That is such a perversion of our call to love our neighbors that it’s easy to imagine religious addiction has laid claim to another heart.

This topic might fall outside of the traditional sense of being something we as Christians “like,” but I think it is something we do. And the goal of this site is to clear away the clutter and debris that prevent us from engaging with the beauty of God. And religious addiction wildly fits that goal.

I’d like to say that in the last three years I’ve figured out how to cure myself of my addiction to religion. But I haven’t. Just this morning I wrestled with God on that issue and felt like He kept saying, “just be, just be.” But something May said, in the book I quoted today – Addiction & Grace, really moved me.

“If we do not fill our minds with guilt and self-recriminations, we will recognize our incompleteness as a kind of spaciousness into which we can welcome the flow of grace.”

I love the word “spaciousness.” My sin, my struggles, all of my junk has hollowed me out in some ways. I have created the Grand Canyon of failure in my heart. But I think God sees the spaciousness inside me in a different way than I do. I think He sees it as more room in which to unleash an ocean of grace.

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  1. Anonymous says

    God has been trying to point this out to me all summer, and I haven’t been listening. Thanks for your post. I think I finally got it.