American shame researcher Brené Brown describes the current generation of adults as “the most obese, in debt, medicated and addicted adults in human history”. I don’t think I know many people who would seriously disagree with that assessment.
What’s driving this trend? I would say it basically boils down to one thing: reality avoidance. The world is just too painful and difficult a place, so rather than deal with the distressing reality of it, we find all kinds of creative ways to distract and numb ourselves.
Some go shopping, even when they don’t really need anything and can’t afford it anyway (sometimes half-jokingly but tellingly referred to as “retail therapy”). Others begin to indulge in eating sweet or fatty foods; at first, they find comfort in it, but it soon morphs into something they need in order to survive. Many immerse themselves in social media, spending every spare moment presenting a curated version of themselves to the world, all the while carefully hiding their true selves. Some are addicted to work; for others, it might be porn or sex; still others find themselves enslaved to alcohol or drugs.
In one form or another, addiction is all around us.
(As a bit of an aside, you might think the world has surely always been just as painful as it is now, if not more painful. I would agree with you. In which case, why the recent massive increase in addictive and compulsive behaviours? I’d say the key difference is that we now live in an age that is driven more than ever before by image. From TV and magazine ads and celebrity idols to the carefully crafted perfect personas with which we are bombarded hour after hour on Facebook, we are surrounded by unrelenting pressure to look the best, be the best, know the most, earn the most, have the nicest house, raise the nicest kids. And, conveniently, the consumer model quickly steps in to constantly pepper us with an array of products and services that will help us achieve those very things. It’s a double whammy: we feel more pressured than ever before to live up to an idealised image, and we’re offered more promises than ever before to help us do it. The prevalence of addictive and compulsive behaviours is simply evidence that these promises never deliver.)
But there’s another form of addiction that I haven’t mentioned so far, yet which is very common and very subtle – and which serves exactly the same purpose as all the other addictions we’ve already talked about. I’m talking about being addicted to religion.
Now, most evangelical Christians today would vehemently deny being addicted to religion. They would say they go to church, believe what they believe and engage in the religious activities in which they engage not because they are compelled to do so, but because they choose to. Well, okay… but bear in mind that many alcoholics also claim they could stop drinking whenever they want to.
In fact, there’s one main reason why I believe religion is a major addiction, and that is that it very often meets the definition we began with above: it’s a near-perfect form of reality avoidance.
It seems to me that much of the focus in organised religion is around convincing ourselves that if we believe some things hard enough, get sufficiently involved in certain activities, worship (by which we basically often mean sing) passionately enough and generally put enough effort into being good, we will have the security of knowing that we are in the winning camp of those who have God’s divine stamp of approval come judgement day. (If you don’t believe any of this is entrenched behaviour sometimes bordering on the compulsive, just try questioning the way things are done in your church.)
Meanwhile, what is very often missing from Christianity as it is commonly practised in churches up and down the land is any acknowledgement of the reality of what it means to be a human being in a broken world.
Think about it: how many sermons have you heard about how to be a better this or a more effective that; how to be an overcomer and a giant-slayer; how to know God’s amazing destiny for your life; or how to perpetually walk in victory? If your experience is anything like mine, I’m guessing the answer is somewhere near plenty.
But how often have you heard anyone in church talk about dealing with crippling fear or debilitating shame, coping with the heavy burden of regret, or even surviving the reality of serious illness or death? And yet, if we’re honest, aren’t these the things we all have to live with and cope with pretty much every day of our lives?
When church becomes mainly a way for us to feel better about ourselves while avoiding dealing with the messy reality of our shame, our pain and our brokenness, I would say it’s stopped being the life-giving body Jesus intended it to be, and has instead become a narcotic: a shot in the arm that gives short-term relief but ultimately brings necrosis and death.
To put it another way, if church has become a hamster wheel and the thought of getting off the wheel fills you with trepidation, that’s probably a very good sign that you need to get off that wheel and take some time out.
Addiction – whether it’s to hard drugs or religion – ultimately never leads anywhere good. What God desires is not endless religious activity or outward passion, but truth in the inward parts. To me, the first step towards this is honestly facing up to the pain, the struggle and all the weights we carry around with us.
The way to wholeness is not through denying pain and seeking to apply a religious bandage over it. The way to wholeness is to bring all of our pain, our messiness and our failures to Jesus in the midst of a loving, authentic community, and to receive the cleansing word of acceptance from God and from those with whom we have chosen to share our lives. The sad thing is that it’s often very hard to find such communities within the established church.
Lord, deliver us from religious addiction; and lead us instead into the all-embracing and healing light of your love.
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