Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why You Struggle with Addictive Behaviors--And How to Be Free from them All

I know what it is to be addicted to a person, a substance, approval, success, thought patterns, sexual behaviors and more.

I know what it's like to think about something, desire something, and at the same time loathe something every minute of every day and dream about it when sleep finally comes.

And I know what it is to be FREE.

Completely. Entirely. Free.

It's been a long journey, and there are always invitations to ease back into one of the many addictive behaviors I've embraced at one time or another. It isn't possible to address every addiction in detail, but I can give you the solution to every one. Every single kind. 

I have been asked to share the talk I gave to Living Water's Biblical Counseling group in mid-October on this topic of "Addictions/False gods/False Refuges", so I am sharing an edited version of that evening to include some points brought up in group discussion after speaking.

My Personal Experience with Addictions:

I can not summarize 28 years in a few sentences, but I will share points of my story applicable with this topic. I want you to know that I am open with my story, so if I touch on a life-situation briefly you'd like to know more about, please feel free to comment or email me.

This is a bullet-pointed and incomplete list of addictions I have struggled with, but it is thorough enough to know I deeply empathize because I speak from agonizing personal experience:

  • My first real young adult/adult addiction was to: Attention/Affection/What I considered to be love from a boyfriend.
  • Due to emotional pain and issues in life and in that unhealthy, unbalanced relationship my an additional addiction became: Cutting/self-mutilation to deal with emotional/spiritual pain and despair.
  • When that relationship finally and completely ended I began an addiction to: Drinking.
  • The first time I became drunk at a party led to a date-rape experience. I was 17 years old. The next addiction I dove into was: Promiscuity. This was at first a coping mechanism in response to nightmares and flash backs, but it became an addictive behavior pattern for Pleasure/Attention/Affection/Affirmation/"Love"/Power/"Control".
  • This lifestyle led to my becoming pregnant at 18, and though I knew it was a living human soul, my own child growing inside me, I still chose to have an abortion. I literally physically, and spiritually invited and paid for death to come inside my body. I became almost instantly addicted to an obsession with Death and Drugs.
I take a brief break here--and if you'd like to know more of this part of story, please click on the related links at the bottom of this post-- to explain why and how I began a relationship with Christ.

In a couple of sentences here it is:

I became pregnant again at 19, and I scheduled another abortion. Before I went through with it God did some miraculous things in my life and changed my mind and heart and began changing everything in my life through real relationship with Him. Through that pregnancy and unwed motherhood God taught me a lot about Himself, myself, life etc. Then after 3 1/2 yrs of unwed motherhood I was gifted with a husband, and now I am 6 months pregnant with our fourth child.

But even as a Christian the addictions continued, though they took on somewhat different, and more "church and socially acceptable" forms.

These addictions were:

  • Sugar/Unhealthy Foods--as stress management etc. Sugar is also the only substance I have ever recognized myself being chemically, and not just emotionally or mentally, addicted to. Sugar, for me, has been a stronger physical, chemical addiction than alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine combined.
  • Movies/Media/TV series--especially TV series on Netflix where you can always just click on the next episode--I've lost whole days to some series.
  • Social Media/Approval--constantly checking updates, blog comments, email etc.

I was so frustrated(sometimes the feeling was tortured) that I kept falling into many kinds of addictive behavior, even as someone with a developing relationship and a real love for God, because I did not realize what my core addiction was. 

If you don’t realize what you are addicted to-- how can you address the specific things you struggle with? Often our core addiction is not the obvious substance or person or thought pattern that we think it is--and it may be--but that go-to thing may only be the primary symptom, or expression, of what our real mind, heart, and soul disease is.

Simply as a gracious gift from God one day when I was asking Him "Why am I still doing this?? Why I am really struggling here? I don't even want to…" He showed me clearly:

My core addiction was Distraction.

Every addictive behavior I have personally struggled with, and am still tempted by, has been ultimately fueled by a desire to be distracted from something.

When I became aware of this, no matter what form the temptation(s) popped up in I could ask myself: 

Am I seeking to avoid something? 

To not feel or think about something?

Will this distract me from something I need to be doing? 

Will this give me an experience I feel is satisfying, as a distraction from my real lack of satisfaction?

For you the core addiction may be Control. An attempt to control elements of your life or others lives. Or it could be any number of things.

If you have addictive behaviors that take on all kinds of different forms, or even if you just have one primary go-to addiction, I encourage you to ask the LORD to give you insight on WHY.

Because the WHY--that is what you need to know. Some of the things we struggle with addiction to are not inherently unhealthy or wrong---but how we relate and respond to them is where the problem lies.

Why We ALL Struggle with Addictive Behaviors:

It was a gift to me for God to open my eyes to another level of understanding why I have an addictive personality--even as a new creation in Christ--and why every person I have ever known has struggled with addictive behaviors at some point, or many points, in their life. 

We are created and designed to constantly, continually, be attached to, and draw from a source of Life that gives us purpose, energy, strength, joy, satisfaction, and life. And there is fundamental spiritual truth in our feelings that we can do nothing, or that we are withering, apart from this other source of Life.

The above explanation is, I think, a relatable definition of a common "addict", and here is the spiritual truth behind the description: 

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” ~John 15:5-6

Our Enemy wants to make us feel we are “withering”, or that “we can do nothing” without first embracing some other false god/false source of life/false refuge.

This is where our spiritual world and true beliefs intersect with our feelings, thoughts, and actions: Who or what we are addicted to is what or who we worship. At least in that moment.

I define worship this way: We worship with our lives what, or who, we believe gives the most to us. We worship with our lives what, or who, we believe saves us(from boredom, purposelessness, pain etc.). 

Our Enemy wants us to worship anything or anyone else as Giver and Savior. He takes truth, and a real, fundamental need that God has placed in every one of us, and twists it and tries to deceive us. 

There is a core truth we need to recognize about ourselves: Every single person, every one of us, has an "addict" inside of them. We are designed that way by God. We are in fact created with needs and desires and we are intended to experience and be satisfied.

Identifying Where We Direct our Worship-- Expectations and Hope: 

It can be helpful to take a few moments and think about what makes you discouraged, disappointed, or depressed? Is it a thought pattern you can't seem to stop? Is it when something happens, or doesn't happen at your job/in your business? Is it a person or people who continually let you down? Is it a substance you don't know how to stop consuming? An idea you don't know how to give up? 

Let these feelings of discouragement, disappointment, or depression be arrows, indicators, pointing straight to the person/people, or thing(s) that you place your hope in.

You need to identify where you place your hope, because hope is based in expectations.

When we hope for and expect something and do not receive it, our feelings are affected, sometimes deeply. There is a scripture that speaks to this: Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” ~Proverbs 13:12.

So if our hope, if our expectations are deferred(delayed, postponed, put off, held back)-- it makes our hearts sick.

And we are told in this verse: "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” ~Proverbs 4:23

It is clear that what is going on in our hearts, our feelings and desires, affect much of what we do in life. In Proverbs 4:23, it says "… everything you do flows from it. " This definitely includes behavior patterns.

Our feelings and desires can change rapidly and can reach all kinds of extremes and it is a trap to treat our feelings as truth, or reality. BUT, if we allow our feelings be helpful indicators of where we are tempted to go to have our hope fulfilled and our expectations met, they can be a gift to help set us free from what we really struggle against.

Because what we struggle against is NOT flesh and blood, it can be hard for us to see the spiritual issues that are driving our actions. I don't want to use an illustration of a heroin addict, because not many who read this are likely facing that struggle, and because it is far too easy to say the substance itself IS the core addiction, and not a symptom of deeper addictive behaviors.

Here is a brief(maybe real-life) example of an unhealthy heart perspective/spiritual struggle that seems subtle, but can be very destructive, and can lead into all other kinds of addictive behaviors:


I've had a hard day trying to raise three wild kids while being sick growing the fourth. From the moment the day began they've been testing the limits of obedience, destroying things around the house, and fighting with each other.

I'm exhausted. The house is a wreck. Nothing that I had planned has been done. I start to really look forward to when my husband comes home so I can throw a few kids at him and maybe make dinner in peace. I hope that when he comes home, he can help diffuse the craziness that has been the whole day, give me a few minutes alone, or play with the kids and turn them back into the sweet and loving hooligans I know they can be.

He comes home. He's tired. He's had a day full of challenges and he just wants to relax and eat dinner. He doesn't really like what I'm planning for dinner. The kids verbally assault him with a download of the entire days antics which leaves him extremely frustrated with hearing back-to-back all of the days lowlights and new issues around the house that need to be addressed. He is frustrated and wants to share his feelings about all he's just learned and I'm about ready to explode because now I have to absorb his day and his feelings, too.

My thoughts and emotions are screaming things like:

You just got home, I've been dealing with this all day! Can't you just help me? Can't you be patient? Can't you be grateful for what I'm making for dinner? Can't you bring some solutions instead of venting about the problems I am very, very aware of?

From here my actions can easily develop into shoveling a half-gallon of ice cream, and watching six episodes back to back on an iPad in my room and being too worn down even for prayers with the kids at bedtime.

I'll give you one guess how I know.

* * *

The temptation is to be very discouraged that what I hoped for, what I expected to happen when my husband got home, is clearly not going to happen.

When my hope is deferred, I get sick at heart, and whole lot of ugly is a lot more likely to flow from it. My mouth may speak from the overflow a lot of sickness that has been developing in my heart all day--- by misplacing my hope.

And THIS is what our Enemy does to lure us into addictive behavior patterns: he wraps a ginormous and deadly hook inside some truth.

This is the partial truth that is the bait in this scenario: God can, and does, use other people, specifically a spouse or close family member or friend, to help carry our burdens sometimes. God has done this for me many times. And it is not unreasonable to want help from others or rest after a hard day.

But that twisted and barbed hook is this: our Enemy wants us to place our hope on anything or anyone other than God. The temptation is to hope for, and expect things from people or substance or situations in this life that only God can meet in a healthy and complete and freeing way. 

What I was really wanting, hoping, expecting my husband to do is give me rest when I am weary and heavy burdened-- it is God who promises to always do that.

What I was expecting was that my husband would be compassionate and comfort me in all my troubles-- but that is God's role first and foremost in my life, and while my husband is incredibly compassionate and comforting through countless situations, God is the only source of compassion and comfort that never runs dry.

When I expect, hope, and go to God to meet these desires and needs and to untangle and soothe my feelings, I can then be part of His work, and maybe He will even use me to comfort my husband after his long day.

God may use someone or something to communicate these things to us-- but bottom line is He. Is. The. Source. 

If our hopes or expectations are ultimately placed on anything or anyone else other than God-- we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, discouragement, and depression. And a whole slew of addictive behavior patterns that flow out of a sick heart.

I have long loved the song that proclaims "In Christ alone, my hope is found…"

Practically, for me, this also means "In Christ alone, my expectations are found…"

Jesus alone will never fail us, or forsake us. He is the only Source with everything we need. And I have experienced this truth:

"No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame" ~Psalm 25:3.

How to Guard Your Heart:

Part of what we discussed as a group after the talk was practical ways that we can set ourselves up for success in changing addictive behaviors.

We talked about how to guard our hearts, and therefore everything that flows from them, by having a healthy habit to replace a destructive habit as a critical element to freedom-- because where there is a need, a desire, a void-- it will be filled.

But there is one main truth I want to communicate here:

The first and most important thing for there to be a lasting transformation, a real, core change in your heart, in your desires, in your spirit, we must understand that the war for the heart is fought in the mind

"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will." ~Romans 12:2

If you want to guard your heart, you must guard your mind. 

"Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires." ~Romans 8:5

If you have your mind set on what the Spirit of God desires, and not on your own desires, you will live in accordance with the Spirit, and not the sinful nature. 

You've got to replace what is going on in your mind to change what is going on in your heart and flowing out into your life. How you can "set your heart on things above"(Colossians 3:1) is by "setting your mind on things above"(Colossians 3:2). They are directly connected. 

I will get into specific recommendations about how to do this in a blog post soon to follow, but for a brief note here: I think the most straightforward potent way to set your mind on things above, and not on earthly things, not on what your sinful nature desires, is to replace your thoughts with God's thoughts

Memorize His thoughts. His words. His word is a living, active, spiritual, emotional and mental sword that will protect you greatly through your many battles. 

This is key and inseparable from what set me free, and what keeps me free. 

I will expand more in the next post on practical suggestions for overcoming addictions and replacing those false gods and false sources of life. 

What You are Fighting For-- Why the Battle is Worth It: 

This war is for your life. 

Let's not be deceived and say these battles and struggles are not a big deal-- let's not be deceived and listen to the lying hiss that whispers "you will not surely die…". This is about life, and death.

You already know this in your spirit--so don't believe it in the moment of temptation.

"When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." ~James 1:13-15

"The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace." Romans 8:6

Life and peace. Two things very worth fighting for.

And there's more. So much more. But a few things more to mention here:

When it is truly in Christ alone that our hope and expectations are found, that is the place in life where:

  • We learn and have the ability to do this difficult, but incredibly rewarding thing: give thanks in all our changing circumstances(1 Thes. 5:18) because we hope and trust and expect God to never change(James 1:17), and He is always, faithfully, working things together for our good(Romans 8:28).
  • We learn even through all our troubles to take heart because Christ has overcome the world(John 16:33).
  • We learn to fix our eyes not on what is seen, which is temporary, but on that which is unseen, which is eternal(2 Cor. 4:18).
  • We learn that God so loves us that He gives to us all the time, not only His Son(John 3:16), but all things that we need. Life, breath, everything else(Acts 17:25).
  • We learn to truly do all things, even eating and drinking, all for the glory of God(1 Cor. 10:31).

    One last note: 

    The steps towards your freedom, and life, and peace that passes understanding will require TRUST. 

    Trust implies that there will be things you do not understand, or agree with. Otherwise, it would only be agreement and not trust

    You will learn how flawlessly trustworthy God is as you follow Him more and know more of His thoughts and therefore His heart towards you. But you must begin with trust--I am confident that will develop into agreement--but your relationship with God may not begin there. 

    And as your mind and heart are transformed--what overflows from you will be entirely different and new! 

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”~ Romans 15:13

Is there an addictive thought or behavior pattern that God has freed you from? Please share in the comments! Let's encourage each other by sharing the amazing power of God's love and His evidence of that in our lives! 

Related Links:

When I First Said Yes to God To the Parents of Prodigal Children
Part of My Testimony for "Christian" Kids-- Really Knowing Him is Everything

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