Ministering to People With Addiction: The First Step

Few characters better embody the nature of addiction than the slimy underworld creature, Gollum, in J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy series The Lord of the Rings. Gollum was once a man, but an obsession with a ring that makes him invisible has turned him into a sniveling, grasping, enslaved wretch, part man, part animal. Gollum’s pathetic, groveling submission to this one thing, the ring, and his willingness to do anything to have “My Precious,” causes repulsion even as it can strike a chord of recognition: at least a little bit of Gollum is in each of us.

A similar dynamic can play out in how we relate to people with addictions. If we are preparing to help an addict into recovery and find ourselves dealing with intense feelings of revulsion and disgust toward his compulsive behaviors, we have not done the hard work of looking at our own inner Gollum and sizing it up for what it is: a dehumanizing compulsion to choose our own enslavement over the Spirit’s life-giving freedom. Chances are, too, that the greater the repulsion, the great the externalizing of that inner Gollum.

Philosopher Francis Seeburger at the University of Denver describes the dynamic this way:

At least part of what makes us react with such abhorrence to images of the depths of addiction, refusing to admit any community with addicts who have plumbed those depths, is our hidden fear that we are like them, or might become so, if we relax our vigilance. Perhaps we can, in fact, all too easily imagine ourselves in their places. Perhaps that is really what frightens us so.

Effectiveness at getting an addict into recovery thus first requires some rigorous interior work done either alone with God or, preferably, with a close friend or accountability partner, before all else. The following components can belong to this spiritually formative process:

Make a moral inventory. A good place to start, if you are not already doing this daily work in your personal devotional life, is to “make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself,” to paraphrase step 4 of AA’s twelve steps. Here you are examining the messes in your own life and the areas where your soul needs a bit of housekeeping work. You may have issues with anger or fear or the use of your sexuality. In recovery groups like AA, step 4 usually takes place in the context of working with a sponsor, someone who’s further along in the working of the twelve steps; so, in the spirit of the twelve-step model, this work should be done with at least one other person, like a close accountability partner or spiritual mentor or director.

If this exercise of introspection seems daunting at first, some resources can jump-start and guide the process. The eighteenth-century theologian John Wesley’s “22 Questions,” developed for the sake of private daily devotional use by members of Wesley’s Holy Clubs—small groups committed to encouraging one another in the pursuit of a sanctified life—are one helpful tool; they are also easily accessible online. The Alcohol Addiction Foundation has also made a handy worksheet with a checklist for approaching step 4.

An exercise in ruthless inspection before even approaching the task of getting other addicts into recovery is also in keeping with the advice of Jesus himself: to take the plank out of our own eye before taking the speck out of our neighbor’s (see Matthew 7:5). We all have at least one plank to assess and unload in the light of God’s tender love for us. Writing out a list of these things can help us to look them squarely in the eye. So ask yourself whom you resent. Do you find yourself harboring anger toward something or someone, and if so, why? What groups of people do you resent? Who has wronged you? Who do you need to forgive? What have you “done and left undone” (a phrase from The Book of Common Prayer)?

Review fears. Now review your fears. What keeps you awake at night, and what is the source of that fear? Where do you most seek to control outcomes in your life, and how? Do you worry about finances, a relationship or your reputation? If so, these things may be, metaphorically, idols that you need to let go of and let God replace. If addiction is in fact “a disorder of worship,” as some contemporary Christian scholars have called it—or if addiction is a matter of “disordered loves,” to borrow St. Augustine’s language—then unveiling these misplaced objects of love will help reorder priorities, so that God is at the center rather than at the outskirts. These blockages of real connection (with God and, in turn, with neighbor and self) may be feeding unhealthy patterns of behavior. Again, write these things down.