Whether it is ourselves or a sibling, parent, friend or coworker, we have seen how addiction impacts not only the life of the addict but also the lives of those around them. Yet addiction can be difficult to define. Sure there are addictions that are more prominent and obvious such as drug or alcohol abuse. What about addictions to work, food or pornography? Some are more easily hidden than others. Reactions in the church to addiction can swing wildly from simplistic moralistic solutions to cold dismissals after repeated failure to just throwing our hands up in the air in exasperation. Sharon Hersh has written a book to on this issue. As a recovering alcoholic Sharon knows the cost of addiction but also the blessing, joy, and freedom that comes from being in a relationship with Christ. This book directs us to the root of addiction and the way to break free. Now, this is not a new book. It is a book I read years ago which I found very helpful in thinking about my own struggles and those around me who struggle with addiction. I have been thinking through books which impacted me to recommend on the blog and this title is one of them. You purchase it at Amazon, Christian Book. You can learn more about Sharon at her website.
Throughout the book, Hersh relates portions of her own story as well as students she has taught and the people she has counseled. The theme she communicates is a shared fallenness that reveals itself in various ways. Sharon points this out by stating that we are all addicts of one degree or another because we all suffer from the same condition. Even in trying to care for an addict a person can “become ensnared in …the last addiction, the belief that we are responsible for saving others.” But this experience can also be positive because unless we experience the “hopelessness that [comes] at times in relationship with an addict you wouldn’t need a Hope that is out of this world.”
Addiction is idolatry
Sharon finds various ways to define it through stories, scripture, and clinical expressions. Generally, she defines addiction as idolatry: “it is a person, place, substance, activity or ideology that becomes central to a human being’s mind, body, soul, and spirit.” Existentially she writes that addiction is, “giving my heart and soul over to something that I believe will ease my pain and provides an outlet for my fury at being out of control.” She points out that addiction is desire aimed at the wrong place. Addicts become trapped when they “believe that they can completely and continually satisfy that hunger with something that ultimately devours them.” For the addict to realize they are addicted they need to see the evidence of their addiction. Addiction reveals itself in the lies addicts tell themselves such as “I am crazy, alone, unforgivable and hopeless.” Addiction reveals itself in how it uses up all a person’s time; “addiction narrows life and destroys passion.” There is a momentum of addiction in that it takes the place of the driving force in a person’s life. It has become “the central activity-the momentum of life…the belief that I deserve escape and the fact that I demand control.” Addiction changes “one passion for another lesser passion.” Addiction says at its heart that God is not doing it right so “I will be in charge because I know what is best.”
The surprising gifts of addiction
Rather than giving large space to the damage of addiction, Sharon focuses upon what she calls the “gifts of addictions.” The gifts as she defines them are the gifts of getting caught, wisdom, humiliation, surrender, woundedness and last of all the gift of freedom. Though she treats these separately, all the gifts eventually lead to the great gift of addiction which is that “sooner or later [addiction] proves that we are not gods.” This gift gives way to facing the last addiction. Hersh defines this addiction as the one from which all the others derive their power; it is the enslavement to “our own determination… our own ability to keep the rules,…our own will, our own self…our own pursuit of control.” In the end, the gift of addiction teaches us that we cannot free ourselves, we must be set free.
The gifts are treated separately, but they begin with “getting caught” for this seemingly negative experience allows the opportunity “to be known, to be forgiven, and to still be wanted.” In regards to our relationship with God it is “that we might come face to face with Love- a Love greater than human love-that knows us, knows our horrible struggles, knows our hidden struggles and loves and longs to forgive us.” Included in the gift of getting caught is the gift or surrender. This, after being humbled, is the next step to transformation. The gift of addiction makes this possible by teaching addicts that they need a “wild man…who loves us when we wander…the God-man who has gone to the absolute extreme for us.”
The answer to addiction
Hersh hammers home the point that self-effort or self-help doesn’t work. “Self-help doesn’t explain life. It only explains life’s limitations. Self-help is not life, but the ending of life.” Self-forgiveness is not enough because it is often merely an acknowledgment that we are not as good as we thought we were. If this is the only conclusion the addict comes to then it “results in a determination to not do the same wrong again, in the hope that our better selves are strong enough to win over our addicted selves.” The reason self-help doesn’t work is that humanity, as it stands today, is broken. What is broken is incapable of fixing itself. She continues stating that “an addict will never change unless something in his or her heart begins to hope apart from the addiction.”
So what is the answer? Hersh writes, “There is only one source of Hope, and that is Jesus.” Methodologically, she encourages just about everything from medication to support groups. She warns, though, that these techniques only go so far. As noted before, if this is all a person does then they will just be acting out the addiction to their own self-will. Spiritually she argues that “we can only value ourselves by grasping how much God loves us.” An addict’s recovery, as Hersh writes, depends “on whether we can find a forgiveness that we cannot bestow on ourselves.” Thus her prescription is an encounter with the loving God. Knowing God face to face just might be the “Promised Land.” He is the parent, lover, and savior. This relationship is characterized by surrender and transparency from us and unconditional love from God. “[God] seeks, saves and loves the destroyed. We are made by Him, saved by Him, set free by Him and redeemed by Him.”
Towards the end of the book, Hersh starts talking about the “deepest story.” She begins with the biblical truth that God created people to love, worship, and serve him. She then continues that God wants to love and serve us. She explains that in our brokenness God is there in Christ. Christ was made desperate because he loves us even in the midst of our acting out of our addictions. Her conclusion is that the deepest story is not about behavioral change and becoming a winner, but being a loser who is loved. She concludes that it is through suffering that we find humility, which is what frees us from the last addiction. Sin and the wounds it leaves are where divine love comes in. Finally, she reminds her readers that they will experience moments of success and loss as they live in the tension of the already but not yet.
My main criticism of this book is some vague terminology particularly used when speaking about God. What is frustrating about this language is that she is not clear as to what she means by it. One example is describing God as “desperate.” The word by definition communicates that God is somehow incomplete. In some way, God is overwhelmed with anxiety or is needing/wanting something very badly. This seems to be an attempt to connect the addict’s desperation to God’s desire for their redemption.
The second one is the idea that we need to forgive God. Hersh does clearly explain the idea of forgiving God as “a way of saying, ‘I don’t understand you but I trust you. I don’t need a neat and tidy explanation of things, but I will be sad about difficult and disturbing realities.’” Why can’t the person not just say that? The book of Job was written convey that message. Hersh does state explicitly that God does not need our forgiveness: “Of course God didn’t need our forgiveness. But we needed to forgive him.” The terminology here is unnecessary and confusing.
I really think this is just a matter of using unclear words and phrases in order to communicate God’s passionate desire for his people and our struggles with the messy realities of addiction. If we consider the passion of the prodigal’s father for his sons and the sufferings of Job I think we can easily get what the author is saying.
Overall Hersh does a wonderful job of defining addiction, the lies that addicts tell themselves, the pitfalls for those who love addicts and the way to transformation. Her method is Christ-centered and for the most part biblical. Hersh treats addiction seriously without condemning the addict. Anyone who has ever loved an addict can attest to the frustration that comes from the addict’s seeming constant failure and/or refusal to change. Also as Hersh writes, addicts can feel unforgivable by God and this is perpetuated by many well-meaning church members. Thus there is a great need for affirming hope for the addict. Yet the addict cannot save themselves. Hersh’s continual reminders that self-effort is not enough is needed because as humans our constant struggle is to do things in our own power and on our own terms.
Hersh is right that the answer to addiction is not merely methodological, but spiritual. She rightly commends to try everything (well not everything). But if all an addict does is go through series after series of detox centers, AA/NA meetings, then they will end up trapped by the last addiction, that is, the addiction to their will to fix themselves. It is the transforming power of Christ that makes the eternal difference.
So do I recommend this book?
Of course, I do! I said as much at the beginning. I have recommended this book to families who have wrestled with addiction. If you are looking for a book that deals with addiction biblically and compassionately because you struggle with addiction or you love someone who does, this will be a helpful resource for you.