What are Spiritual Tools to Battle Addiction?
Addiction in America is at an all-time high. We tend to think of addiction in terms of drugs or alcohol, but when we look closer addictions come in different ways.
Frustrated when your technology doesn’t work or can’t find an internet connection? Are you eating what you need each day or too much? Finding yourself online from the moment you wake up until bed? Working long hours and can’t stop? These could all be signs of compulsive cravings.
I would argue that in America today we are all addicts.
We are fighting cravings that get in the way of our living the life we know we should.
The good news of that message is it should reduce the stigma around addiction. When we recognize that we are all wrestling with addiction, it reduces shame. Shame has a way of hiding addiction and making it worse.
Very often people come to me with some addiction in their life that they think will shock me. I assure them that one of the advantages of having a gay minister is it takes a lot to shock me. They usually laugh when I say that, then share. To date, no one has ever shocked me. If you ever need to talk, don’t be afraid of stigma or judgment.
Addiction has been with us forever. In the gospel reading today a rich man tells Jesus how great he is and asks what else is left for him to do. Jesus tells him to give up his money. The rich man walks away sad because he loves money more than anything else.
Addiction to money and status still hold power in our culture today. We give respect to the wealthy and powerful and that attention is something many of us crave.
Today, we scratch our heads when we remember that over one hundred years ago Americans, led by women, launched an ambitious campaign to amend the Constitution to prohibit alcohol. What were they thinking? Was our nation in the grips of a fundamentalist period?
When we study it more closely we recognize that the women leading that campaign were often being beaten by drunk men using alcohol as they adjusting to the inhuman factory life of the industrial era. Historically, water quality was often so poor that people were encouraged to drink alcohol to avoid getting sick. Alcoholism was widespread and undiagnosed.
Alcohol and drugs in terms of addiction often have the greatest visible impact. I just watch Hillbilly Elegy last night which tells the JD Vance story of the hidden drug epidemic in middle America where people lost meaning and purpose as the industrial age fizzled.
Addiction is when some activity becomes your greatest love. You’ll do almost anything to get it and you’ll be incredibly angry and frustrated when you can’t. This love can be anything in our tradition we learn that we are what we love.
The greater our freedom, the greater our opportunity for these activities. In the same way, the adjustment from farming culture to factory work increased freedom and temptations to medicate the stress of the workplace, so too has the information age.
The ability to be tempted by anything we desire is at the push of a button on our phones. Our freedom has never been greater and our vulnerability to temptation has never been greater. When we pray the old phrase, lead us not into temptation we are asking for greater and greater protection.
Marketers know the biology of addiction. With every food option, the addiction to salt and sugar and food activates brain chemistry. Food processors now test to see which chemical they can add to a nacho for us to stick our hand in the bag for the third time.
Addiction in modern America is at the touch of a screen.
Another relatively new object of addiction is the use of online platforms. What do I check each morning when I get up and what do look at during the evening? Screens. And these wonderful screens give me access to incredible cravings. Want to buy something? Click a button and it is delivered. Want some fast food? It is at your door. Sex, the drive that has been the most powerful through history, can be accessed by any number of the 1000’s of phone apps with photos, distance, and desires.
Pornography has emerged as such an addiction among, particularly young men, that they are finding sex life in the real world just doesn’t compare. Also, online gaming platforms can pull in young men for days. And I don’t need to go to a casino for my gambling addiction.
The use of technology has married up to our desires for drugs, sex, shopping, status, and escape from the reality in ways we have not come to terms with. I am very worried about the rising generation because they have been raised in this addictive matrix on hyper speed and are the least likely to have any spiritual tools to fight back.
My friend Tristan Harris who was the ethicist at google just completed an amazing documentary you can see on Netflix called the Social Dilemma. He shows how social media companies have wired online apps in such a way as to produce to dopamine hits in the brain to keep us all hooked and coming back. I encourage you to watch the documentary where the leading tech leaders explain why they never let their kids use screens.
Our secular culture will look at this issue through the means of biology and manipulative marketing, but they are missing the most profound battle going on within addiction—the spiritual warfare. We are spiritual beings in a material body and until we understand the spiritual battles we won’t be able to address the deeper addiction.
Jesus says to the rich man to give it up he’s giving him the gift of self-awareness. You think you are great, but you can’t see your shadow side. We need others to tell us the truth about ourselves.
Swedenborg gives us the most complete spiritual 3-D view of addictions that he refers to as cravings. Looking through a spiritual lens he suggests that there are spiritual communities of evil spirits who thrive off of our addictive behavior. He describes spirits trying to impact what we drink, eat, and even wear. They favor cravings that are thrilling to start, but difficult to stop.
Addiction is the ultimate strategy for the dark forces trying to impact our lives. Freedom is our greatest spiritual gift. But when we get addicted our freedom is diminished. Our world view focuses on ourselves and that thing we crave. Our ability to love others, be there for others, and serve others is lost. We need to focus on ourselves and what we want. That’s the strategy of the dark forces.
During the COVID crisis, I’ve heard the rationalization that if I deserved chips, cookies, and ice cream because to comfort me. I ended up gaining over ten pounds. The more I indulge in bad behaviors that become habits, the less able I can serve others. I’ll need to focus only on myself.
Swedenborg describes dark forces whispering our ear to do one more thing to push us into addiction. We rationalize it, the way I did my eating. There are good reasons why we can do just this one more thing and one more thing won’t hurt us.
Then, as he describes it, slowly these voices of temptation ramp this up until they achieve their goal. When we no longer can choose what we do we’ve lost freedom. When we’ve lost freedom, we’ve lost our most profound spiritual gift. They can move on to the next victim.
What spiritual tools are there to break this cycle?
Swedenborg suggested a twelve-step process toward wisdom as we read in today’s text. This process is what he calls regeneration. He describes it often as a three-step, five-step or 12 step process.
Here’s my quick summary:
We become aware of the problem.
We acknowledge we can’t solve the problem alone.
We seek God’s help to change it.
We take actions with God’s help to change it.
We change behavior and we try to repeat it.
Bill Wilson who founded Alcoholics Anonymous the most successful recovery program in the world. I’d argue that it is also the most successful spiritual community in the world. As addiction becomes everyone’s challenge, it might be the new church. It succeeds because it gets results. Those in recovery programs may just the honest ones who are self-aware enough or have crashed enough to say they have a problem. Those not in a program might be kidding us to imagine that addiction lies with them over there.
If we are all addicts, the only difference is between those working on recovery and those in denial.
Wilson worked toward his sobriety with his wife Lois Burnham and came to Swedenborg through his wife Lois who went on to create Al-Anon for families. Her grandfather N.C. was a Swedenborgian minister who was one of the twelve founders of the New Church Academy in PA with my great grandfather. Bill and Lois were married by her grandfather at the Brooklyn Swedenborgian Church. Lois often referred to her Swedenborgian background impacting her work with addiction.
This passage from Swedenborg likely influenced their naming their program 12 step, “ as a person climbs these steps, he perceives that no one is wise from himself but from the Lord…The twelve steps into the palace of wisdom signify love in union with faith and faith in union with love.” -Swedenborg
The twelves steps are a a beautiful summary of Swedenborg’s teaching on regeneration and strategy for when we need to fight our own addictions. I believe the founders of AA were smart not call these steps Swedenborgian so they could be more accepted by a wider audience.
Reviewing the 12 steps, we can see how it applies to spiritual growth for any addiction or challenge.
Lets’ review the twelve steps of AA through the lens of regeneration.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
The first step and often the most difficult is admitting we have a problem. The applies to any craving or sin beyond alcohol. In the life of an addict, this often means hitting the bottom, but in our lives, it doesn’t have to. We can pray for the Lord’s help to even be honest about what we need to change.
We must pray constantly for self-awareness. I noticed in my case when I recorded what I ate, I ate less.
In my coaching business, I often use a program developed by Marshall Goldsmith where the client commits to finding changing one behavior over a year. They are required to ask those around them how they are doing in changing that behavior and do they have any advice. Humility and self-awareness bring amazing results.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
This means we have to realize we are powerless without God’s help which is a hard pill to swallow in a culture that honors the concept of the self-made man who pulls himself up to his bootstraps. This may be the hardest in our secular culture.
3.Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
This represents Swedenborg’s teaching that all faith paths are good and has also opened AA to criticism form fundamentalists.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
This reinforces to me the self-awareness mentioned in number one. Awareness is like peeling away an onion as we begin to see ourselves honestly for the first time.
5. Admitted to God, to us, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Confession of our sins and seeking forgiveness is possible when we are self-aware. All of us have offended others and have been offended-only confession that we do every Sunday and on a daily basis breaks that cycle.
6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
We are faced with the question do we really want to change? I’m reminded of Jesus healing the man at the waters of the temple asking, “Do you want to be healed?” We must want this.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Humility comes when we understand ourselves at a deeper level. We see our faults and that makes us less judgmental a key sign of a spiritually developed person. The more I’ve become aware of my own shortcomings or sins, the less judgmental I can be of others. People often come to be shy about sharing some secret only to assured that there’s really nothing you can tell them that will surprise me. Great therapists normalize the clients issue.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
It is not enough to do this in your head, we must take concrete action to address our sins.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Similar to number 8. It’s not enough to say we’re sorry to God, we need to try to set thing right with those we’ve harmed including ourselves.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
This is the path of any spiritual person. Regeneration takes place in an ongoing matter. We come to church each week because we are working on ourselves in community. We are never done.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
We engage in ongoing prayer to fight temptations.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
This is another word for evangelism. One reason why the recovery community grows is people are transformed. When you’ve experienced something that has changed your life you want to share it with others.
Note that all of these happen better in the community than trying to do it alone.
These steps of regeneration are the ongoing process by which we grow spiritually. Some cravings and bad behaviors may be small. Some heavy addiction may be great. These steps work in both situations.
We are in an unprecedented time of temptation and access to things that don’t help us grow spiritually. Addictions knock us off our spiritual path.
Through the process of spiritual development, we can all chart out a spiritual path with others to become aware of and uproot our addictions. Only when we move beyond our addictions can we live the life of service to humanity that we were created for. Let’s make that our goal.