“The problem of addiction in our culture is not a drug or alcohol problem, but a people problem.” -William Lenters
“A man must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” -C.K. Chesterton
The author of the book The Freedom We Crave, William Lenters, is a licensed addictions counselor and ordained minister. He has served as campus minister at Purdue University and was director of the Calvary Rehabilitation Center from 1973-1981. Presently, he serves as pastor of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois.
Lenters has counseled hundreds of people addicted to beverage alcohol and countless others addicted to any number of other drugs available in Western culture, some of which he discusses at length in his book. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to each of the three major addictions that he has encountered in his ministry: addiction to romance and dependence upon another person, addiction to alcohol, and addiction to religion. The author included another chapter discussing workaholism, addiction to food, and addiction to fitness – three other very common varieties of dependencies readily available to people in our time. His concern, he states simply, “is with people, with how they develop addictive patterns of living to cope with existence, and with freedom from addiction.” (p. viii of the Preface)
The first point that the author makes, and one that he makes repeatedly throughout the book, is that addiction is not, in his estimate, something that plagues a hapless few who are somehow predisposed by their personality or their environment toward indulgences. We may use that tactic to feel self-righteous or fortunate that we are not among them, but it is incorrect. “Addiction describes something that happens to everyone at the deepest level. None of us is exempt.” (p. 4) In a bold move, Lenters goes on to paraphrase Romans 3:23 as, “All have fallen short of the freedom we crave.” (p. 4) His objective in writing the book, however, is not to discuss the theory of addiction or even the theological implications of it. It is to simply point a way toward freedom, to provide a strategy for recovering from addiction. “Because we bear the diving image, we have the privilege and the responsibility of freedom.” (p. 17, emphasis mine)
Lenters’ work is wide in its scope and bold in its presuppositions. He speaks of addiction, but through the lens of our relationship with God and our very existence in this world linked to it and our need to live well. He relates sin, our refusal to turn to God as our lifeblood and refuge and strength, to personality or character disorders, terms used by the psychological community to describe undesirable behavior. He says,
A central question is this: “How do we cope with existence? How do we live and not simply survive? How do we deal with the sense of being finite and with the limits of our existence?” One answer: We cope inadequately, sinfully, neurotically. We develop almost ritualistic behavior patterns. Our personalities take shape around the habits we thoughtlessly cultivate. (p. 6-7)
He goes on to describe the difference between freedom from and freedom for, and defines the former as one that is compulsively grasped for rather than graciously received, an “absolute freedom” (p. 22).
Our defection results in a loss of freedom brought about by the pursuit of absolute freedom. In this sense “sin” and “neurosis” are two sides of the same coin: the complete isolation of the individual, the attempt to create one’s own world from within oneself, the refusal to recognize and accept one’s cosmic dependence. (p. 22)
And the freedom that he speaks of in his book? He defines it succinctly as “grounded in the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (p. 9)
The author then discusses these sins, these obsessions we give ourselves over to, and the reason that we might give up our freedom in exchange for them. It might be a high, as Augustine experienced, feeling good or an emotional “fix,” unburdening ourselves of responsibility, or even, in extreme cases, the feeling of guilt. “We become addicted to that which makes us feel guilty… such addiction is the criminally insane psychopathic person.” (p. 15) Psychopathological or not, we often worship guilt as a feeling or a stance because we think that it will bring us restoration, that it will lead the way to our freedom. Lenters explains that “there is within us a natural temptation to suppose that feeling guilty will somehow enable us to overcome our guilty behavior and thereby, with one swoop, wash away all our guilty stains.” (p. 16) So pervasive is this approach that it may not in fact be limited to the criminally insane but perhaps the morally bankrupt as well. It is a replacement, a quick switch, refusing Christ as the Savior from our state of guilt, and worshiping instead the feeling. Besides, “there is a security in being unfree” (p. 18), and “we run to the comfort and security of one god or another to escape the terrible burden of freedom.” (p. 21)
This paradox of human freedom is the key to understanding addiction. Ultimately, how we deal with death determines how we will live. “We cannot get out of life alive,” says Lenters, “and that scares us to death… the issue of life… is death.” (p. 24) Addiction, then, is our response to a profound fear and aversion to that reality. Often our response is to repeat “that which produces feelings of safety, reassurance, affirmation, even pleasure. As the addictive process grows in intensity, providing the desired result, we gradually lose our power to choose for or against the activity.” (p. 33-34) And again: “It’s the law within us.” (p. 43) No matter the addiction, the solution Lenters lays out is not a simplistic one, but it is one grounded in the reality that “since the children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15, New International Version) Perhaps this is what Jesus was referring to when he said that if a man “wants to save his life he will lose it” (Mark 8:35, NIV) and C.K. Chesterton’s thought that a man “must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
Thought not stating that everything we enjoy is an addiction, Lenters does examine our insistence upon those objects in which we find pleasure, or safety, or comfort to come through for us repeatedly. Common areas for those to occur are romantic love, alcohol, and religion. The message is the same: “’Let me hide behind your strength’ – whether it’s the strength of a prayer group, the strength that comes from a lover, or the courage that comes out of a bottle.” (p. 34) Regarding romantic love, we may become addicted to the object of our romance if we expect that person to complete us, to address our deep sense of solitude or anxieties, or if we expect love to make us happy.
I was especially intrigued by both the chapters on alcoholism and the use of religion as addiction. The first, because alcoholism seems to be the addiction of choice in my family history for many men, and religion, because I have encountered several folks for whom religion, and not relationship with the Living God, seems to be the central issue of their lives. Lenter’s treatment of both is profound. I found myself reading through a few paragraphs, and laying the book down so as to digest what I had discovered, or heading off to find a Bible to see what more might be said about a controversial statement laid out by the author on the theological implications of addiction. For example, as stated earlier, sin and character disorders are of the same lineage. “Addiction is first of all a life-style, a behavior disorder.” (p. 55) The effects of addiction are the same.
Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces on a given person. Generally this is an effect that relieves tension; but paradoxically it decreases one’s ability to cope with life’s complexities, thus causing more anxiety, not less. Persons who are addicted to a drug are addicted to the experience that the drug creates for them. The depressing effects of beverage alcohol lesson a person’s feelings of pain and sense of life’s difficulties at the same time than they cause the person to deal less capably with those difficulties. Potential addicts who turn to booze in order to gain rewards they are not presently earning or receiving from life will eventually find that their only rewards come exclusively from the drug experience itself. And so the merry-go-round of addiction proceeds. (p. 57)
The hope Lenters offers, too, is interwoven throughout the book. The addict’s hope and source of healing are one and the same. “As a victim or as agent, the [addict] is still in need of Christ’s ministry. Forgiving sins and healing the sick (note that he made a close link between these; Mark 2:3-12), Jesus was present ‘full of grace and truth’ when he ‘dwelt among us,’ and he expects his body to be present in the world full of his grace and truth.” (p. 69) In addition to Lenters’ profound theological insight, his use of case studies at the end of his discussions lend practical and thoughtful aid on how a counselor or a friend or the body at large might intervene to help someone caught in an addiction. Lenters also offers an inventory for the reader, “steps to healthy living,” at the back of the book.
I agree with Lenters’ closing words on the matter of addiction. “The mini-hells we experience are our own creation. We try to unseat the Creator from his throne, or to flee from his presence. Either way we lose. The gospel is good news counterpointing this fiasco. There is winning in losing; indeed, the only requirement for winning in this life is to lose. In biblical language, that means to die; and that includes all of us, because we all die. Becoming alive to this truth is what sets us free.” (p. 114)
Amen. May we all, then, come alive to the truth of our death with Christ on his cross, that we may rise with him in the Resurrection, to “somehow… attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11, NIV), where our real life begins and where we “shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15-16) That is something worth dying for.