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. Lod says

    Good stuff… very straight on to what I have experienced personally and also seen in others. I am still trying to fight the urge to do do do rather than to be be be. Sometimes I hit the mark and other times I’m too busy to know that the mark existed. A friend told me that busy stands for being under satan’s yoke. True unfortunately.

  2. Elizabeth says

    “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand, you have failed.” — St. Augustine

    Despite liking that quote very much, and thinking it is quite true, I’m always trying to nail down a God formula. So I’m right there with you on #2.

    I have to admit, Roxette holds a strangely dear place in my heart. I have a friends whose mother was obsessed with her one summer, and she always used to play her Roxette tape while driving us to baseball games (Little League, to watch my friend’s younger brother play). So to me, Roxette is youth, summertime, and Freeze Pops.

  3. katdish says


    For me, you are the modern day grand master of the object lesson. Thank you; just thank you for putting big, scary concepts into language and analogies that I can truly wrap my mind around. You are an artist in every sense of the word.

  4. heather of the EO says

    This post is so great. So spot on in so many ways. Thank you for your willingness to write about tricky stuff.
    Roxette rocks the party.

  5. Tamra says

    This post has given me a lot to chew on.
    Once again, you’ve taken something that floats around in my head and put it into words, with a different twist to it that I needed to hear.

  6. labiodental says

    Is the Prodigal Jon dead? No posts since March… if so, I am sad because it’s my favorite site of yours.

  7. ruth, from california says

    I have been reading your blog/s for about two weeks and have found myself laughing hysterically while reading some of them and being touched/blessed profoundly by others.

    This one really spoke to me! and is another reason to continue recommending your blog to all my christian friends & family.

    May God continue to bless you and use you.

  8. Augustino says

    Wow PJ! – I’ve got to clear the useless clutter from the vast wasteland of my heart to make room for that flood of grace. I have tons of patience and respect for addicts but, not so much for religious bullies – this helps me understand, and hopefully love them better. I suspected I really had more in common with those folks than I wanted to contemplate; your words helped me see without God’s grace we’re all in the same pit, we just react differently to the emptiness. Thanks!

  9. meghan says

    Thanks so much for posting this, Jon. I think somehow I’m aware of this issue in my life, yet you were able to pin it down. Sometimes I wonder if I even know how to just be–I especially struggle with this with the non-Christian people I love, who are good and amazing people. I keep myself from even bringing up faith sometimes just because I know religion is coming out of my mouth and not truth. And religion is so much easier to criticize than the gospel. It’s hard to spread the Word when we can’t sift it out of the rest of our messy lives.

  10. mayberry says

    “just be, just be”

    God’s been telling me this for a while. It’s easier said than done.

    This was an amazing post. One I REALLY needed.

  11. Dog snob says

    Very well put Jon. Thanks!! (There’s really a lot I want to say, but I think I’ll leave it at that.)

  12. Brian says

    Thanks, Jon – you are an artist. Your contrast between religion and grace really hit me. It seems to me that the two may have a hard time co-existing. I’ve never thought of it like that before.

    Elizabeth, thanks for the St. Aug quote. That’s a good one.

  13. UTaylor526 says


    Great post. I definitely see this addiction around me, and in my own life some of the time, and it has led me to the creation of my own site/hopefulbookcreation/study/whatever. I’d love to talk to you more and also about what God is doing in my life with advertising if you don’t mind. I’m not sure how you prefer to communicate though…

  14. Steven says

    As with many others, I completely relate to what you’ve said. That was the story of my life for a long time. It still is, probably, but at least now I’m working at it.

  15. Anonymous says

    I heard this during a radio sermon this week..and I like it..

    Two natures beat within my is sinful one is blessed I love I hate..the one I feed will dominate..

  16. Brad says

    Another great post Jon!

    “I think religion is probably keeping more people from Christ than everything else put together, because it gives them a false sense of security. But they will be in for a big shock when they find out that religion will not satisfy the requirements of a holy God.” (Greg Laurie)

    Religion or Christ

  17. Sarah em says

    Jon, this is amazing:
    “I wanted a formula for sanctification. I thought I said the right prayers and loved people the right way and executed my own twisted religious ritual flawlessly, I could control grace.”

    That so completely describes my brief foray from the evangelical Christianity of my childhood into Catholicism. (Any Catholics reading, PLEASE don’t be offended, that was just my experience). I’m easing back into the faith of my childhood and feeling *grace*.

    Thanks, Jon, for your thoughtful words.

  18. redheadcsm says

    Awesome post, Jon. Your serious insights are as incisive and well thought as your humourous ones. God is seriously using you to get His truth hout there. This one is huge.

  19. david romero says

    religion is everywhere, even in churches. one time after service my pastor gave me 1 peso (that’s like 10 cents of a dollar). when i asked him why he told me that my hair was very long and that money was for a haircut (my pastor’s humor is weird). so next sunday i showed up in dreadlocks. when he asked me what happened, all i said was: remember that peso you gave me? this hair is all i could afford.

    also i remember one time that my friend was playing my pastor’s guitar and he took it from my friend because -it didn’t play rock music-. don’t get me wrong, i love my pastor, he’s been such a blessing in my life.

  20. Gabe says

    “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.”

    wow. dude, you broke me open with that one.

  21. KELLY says

    I believe that addiction makes everything better before it makes everything worse!

    I personally struggle with control. Specifically when it comes to being a mother. Almost 1 year ago, my son began driving. We purchased a vehicle for him. Before he took off by himself for the first time, as silly as it seems, I annointed his truck with oil and prayed over it. Then, every single time he left our house, I begged God to watch over him and protect him (as I am sure all parents do)! We even have him text everytime he leaves one place and goes to another…and then he lets us know he arrived safely.

    Last Saturday, my son pulled out of our driveway – and I once again – begged God to watch over him. Less than 2 mintues later, we received a call that he had been in a very bad accident (at the front of our subdivision). A lady ran a red light, at a high rate of speed, and flipped his Tahoe across the intersection and into an electrical pole. (You can see pictures of this miracle on my blog). He walked away with 3 scratches. It was a miracle. God had answered my prayer….but, looking back, I am amazed at how quickly I panicked – begging God for a miracle – how quickly I forgot that my son ultimatly belongs to HIM! I began to wonder if I really trusted God with my son – realizing that I had let my need for control once again become like an addiction.

  22. Makeda says

    Jon, I whole-heartedly understand that addiction to “doing”. I used to live in that place and like you, the Holy Spirit often has to remind me to “just be”. Some days I do a good job remembering to just be but then there are those moments when I fall back into my old habit of “doing”. Thanks for the reminder that God’s grace is enough and I don’t get to control it no matter how much I might think I need to.

  23. Faerylandmom says

    I get easily sucked into the “doing vs. being” thing more often than I care to admit.

    Welcome to the club, Jon. Welcome to the club. :-)

  24. Thursday says

    Wow. I definitely need that support group. Oh, wait…I think it’s supposed to be called “the Church,” isn’t it? Hm. Let’s get better at being that (in a “being” way, not in a “so we can cross it off our checklist” way).

    Space for grace…excellent.

  25. Tina S. says


    Until a couple of days ago, I would beat myself up for not spending quiet time with God and digging in the word like other Christians I see.

    But the other morning I was telling God how bad I feel about not spending time with him and he stopped me in my tracks. He said in my heart, “Do read about me in the morning?” yes…through devotionals and blogs…”Do you think about me throughout the day because of it?”…yes, I ponder all the time…”Then this is your quite time with me. I’m here when you think of me and grow.”

    That was such freedom for me! So now I spend time reading blogs like yours and ponder on the greatness of God.

    Thank you for being apart of my journey to the Father.

  26. dwilli58 says


    Read your comments and listen to God speak to you! What you wrote was what most of us “stuff-christians-like” need to hear. Religion can be “the opiate of the masses,” but God will never be. It is God that Jesus pointed to and exhibited, not religion.

    This is just part of what you expressed to me and the multitude of others who have read and commented on this blog. Perhaps, you have more to say, or maybe God had you say-here-everything he wanted you to say. Only you and God will know. But if something else is holding you back, then I hope you turn to God, as you did in this post.

    If this is what you have to say, then may I suggest that you change your blog name to, “Stuff Christians Need!”

  27. Cara says

    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.”

    Profound. Awesome. I need to remember this.

    I struggle with control issues. God is showing me this. And rather than me trying to “change myself” (which is in itself “controlling my need to control things”) I’m hearing God say the same thing to me ‘ Just let Me in, and let it go. My grace is sufficient.”

    Thanks Jon.

  28. GraphicArtist2k5 says

    That’s exactly right. We sure can get addicted to religiously doing things. This goes for everything, though, and not just for doing what God’s Word says to do. If we’re going to be religious about anything, though, then we need to be religious about loving others the way Jesus loves us, which is UNCONDITIONALLY, which means we need to always want to be closer to Jesus every day and not just when we are in church. God doesn’t stay in the churches we go to when we leave, does He? Then how can we expect to have a close relationship with Him if we treat Him that way? There IS no formula to having a right relationship with God. All we need to do is keep His Word hidden in our hearts and continue to be faithful to His Word EVERY SINGLE DAY. Give up on the whole “formula” thing, because God doesn’t work according to any “formula”. He’s not limited by scientific jargon, nor is He held back by our lack of understanding of what His Word says.

  29. Chadwick says

    Tina S.,

    I am a bit concerned about your comment. I in no way can know your heart or what God has said to you. But I do know that the Bible says “The heart is deceitful above all things.” (Jer 17:9). So just because you felt something in your heart, don’t assume it was from God.

    I too beat myself up for not spending time in God’s word, but I don’t think this is a case of self-imposed guilt. I think this guilt is the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Sure it’s good to think about God and read things about him, but only through his word can we really know Him.

  30. robyn collins says

    i would love for people not to quote scripture at other people in judgment. that would be excellent…

    talk about a spiritual buzzkill when someone has learned something crucial – wow.

  31. Chadwick says

    Robyn Collins,

    I’m guessing your comment was directed at me. I wasn’t judging. I was simply saying “be careful”.

    Maybe I was too harsh or didn’t make my point clear. I was simply trying to state that I feel that devotionals and blogs are not a substitute for spending time in God’s word. And I used scripture to back up my point.

  32. Scott says

    great, convicting thoughts…i’m sure a lot of folks can relate to this addiction

    i’ve got a few ideas for posts…making acronymns for Christians words, have you written that one, yet? Like GRACE–God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.

    Another idea…explaining sins as “struggles” when confessing at small group …ie, i’ve really been struggling with gossiping lately. translation, i’ve been willingly trashing my coworkers behind their backs every chance I get…doesn’t sound like a struggle to me, usually isn’t. good ideas?

  33. Ur Man CD says

    This has been one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all month. Just so personal and yet pointing so much to who God is and what He’s done for us in Christ. Powerful stuff, thanks ever so much, Jon.

  34. 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.

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