Addiction as Idolatry

When I was in Thailand, I saw idols.  They were outside bakeries and 7-11s.  They would be sitting on shelves behind the cash register at restaurants.  Cab drivers glued them to their dashboards and placed pieces of their lunch in front of them.  I even saw them outside of brothels when a group of us did a prayer walk through the Red Light district in Bangkok.  I watched as women offered food to these small statues surrounded by incense before entering for her their night’s work.  They asked for forgiveness and sought protection in these idols, and they may have even hoped for salvation.

I’ve also read about idols.  In the Old Testament, idolatry is such a common practice that at times Israel is said to have an altar to some god on every high hill.  And in the New Testament, idols are similarly present in every day life.  They show up in restaurants, and just by going out to eat, some Christians apparently were complicit with idolatry.

But it seems to me that in our western society, idols just aren’t a part of every day life.  Apart from seeing them in Thailand and reading about them in the Bible, I don’t really have much experience with idols.  They seem foreign and culturally irrelevant.  I’ve never experienced the temptation to offer a sacrifice to an idol, and I’ve never had the urge to put my trust in an idol’s ability to help me.  But lately, I’ve been reading a book by Gerald May that has cast the issue of idolatry in a whole new light.  He argues that addiction is a form of idolatry.  Addiction is a form of devotion to an object that parallels religious ritual. It is western society’s version of idolatry.  He writes:

Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It is, as one modern spiritual writer has called it, a “counterfeit of religious presence.

Addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire. Addiction sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest desire for love and goodness. We succumb because the energy of our desire becomes attached, nailed, to specific behaviors, objects, or people.

He then goes on to talk about addiction as being far more commonplace than we might initially think.  Addiction isn’t limited to just those with chemical dependencies.  It’s not just the alcoholic or the homeless drug addict who struggles with addiction.  Addiction is pervasive and pernicious.  It infects our daily routines and sabotages our ability to love God and love others.

He tells a story from his personal life of a bout with depression he experienced.  As a professional psychiatrist, he become depressed when none of his patients were getting healed.  Another psychiatrist comforted him with the good news that his depression was a sign that he cared deeply for his clients.  He said, “you are depressed because you care deeply about their well-being.”  Upon further self-reflection, however, he discovered that it wasn’t his love for his clients that was causing him to feel depressed.  It was his addiction to professional success, and the utter absence of any signs of it that caused his depression.  He was suffering from withdrawal not compassion for his clients.

He says many of us are addicted to professional success and other seemingly innocuous intentions as well.  We can be addicted to feeling loved, getting praise from others, the comforts of TV, being thin, sex, or power to name just a few.  Some of these addictions are obviously more serious than others, but if we are forced to go without them, we will become depressed, irritable, angry, manipulative and much more.  Our addictions become intertwined with our deepest desires and even our identity, and in this sense they do function like idols in our lives.  They replace God as our source of hope, desire and love with life-draining patterns of behavior.

And just like sin and idolatry can only be overcome by the grace of God, so also the addict can only experience real healing through an encounter with grace.  As I recognize my addictions and try to stop engaging in them, I also know there is no way we can rid ourselves of idols and addictions by effort alone.  We are set free from our idolatrous inclinations and our addictive appetites only as we experience the unconditional love of God.

I experience the love and grace of God in the pages of a good book, the warmth of a loving friend, the prayers of a fellow church member, the sacrificial service of my spouse, and in the practice of spiritual disciplines like sabbath and meditation.  They are the pathways of God’s grace in my life.  They are the means by which Gods grace brings healing to my addictions and sets me on the road to recovery.