The Dignity of the Addict Against My Own Mediocrity

One of the most stimulating books I've read in a long time is Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent Dunnington. It's a "practical philosophy" book on addiction, channeling Aristotle and Aquinas. And, surprisingly, it's not just a book for academics and therapists. If you're a human being who struggles with bad habits (i.e., addictions), Addiction and Virtue will help you think more deeply about yourself -- why you do what you do, and what's needed for lasting change.  

Should the addict admire me? 

The book was great, but the ending was awesome. I was floored by Dunnington's closing paragraphs. He finishes by asking and answering the question, "Why does the church despair so easily when faced with addicts?" 

When an alcoholic stumbles into church, when we learn that our pastor has been addicted to pornography for the past ten years, when we drive through the local ghettos and slums that are decimated by addiction, the immediate response for many of us who call ourselves Christians is despair. Is the gospel really powerful enough for all this?

I suspect that many of us feel this way because we doubt the power of the gospel over our own lives. We wonder if we have escaped the grip of addiction, not because of the power of the gospel, but because of circumstances, temperament, fear of rejection or cowardice. Perhaps, unlike the addict, we have not demanded an all-consuming purpose, a coherent and integrated life, and an ecstatic participation in some all-sufficient and transcendent good. For so long we have told ourselves that, in the words of the Rolling Stones, "you can't always get what you want," and we have used this justification to dull and suppress our deepest longings for rest, peace, and joy. We have settled instead for a life of respectability, and we respond to our boredom, loneliness and internal disorder through distraction and diversion. For many of us, the church represents this life of respectability from which we must occasionally escape by going on "moral holiday." For others of us, the church is itself a distraction and a diversion, a place where we go to play a part, to stroke the ego, to be entertained, to socialize, or to get a little "chicken soup for the soul." Thus, when we are confronted with the addict, we doubt that the gospel has the power that is needed to rescue the addict, for we know that in a very real sense the addict has a fierce and desperate need that is foreign to us and for which we do not have a response.

Like the prophets of old, today's addicts may remind us that our desire for God is trivial and weak, and our horizons of hope and expectancy are limited and mundane. We recoil at the presence of the addict, for we fear that the addict's life is an indictment of the insufficiency of our lives. The addict has rejected the life of respectable and proximate contentment and demanded instead a life of complete purpose and ecstasy. We recognize that our own lives are not interesting and beautiful enough to offer a genuine alternative to the addict, and we fear that a gospel powerful enough to redeem the addict would also threaten our own lives of decent and decorous mediocrity. We are not sure that we want the church to be a place where persons with addictions are liberated since that would mean that the church is no longer compatible with our own lives. So we characterize addiction as either physical determinism or moral weakness, both of which allow us to ignore the ways in which addiction places our own lives in question. (192-193)

What a grace-filled, dignifying posture towards the addict! And a gut-punch to me, the "decent and decorously mediocre" church-goer! Could it be that we have much to learn from our addicted friends and family? Could it be, that on the deepest levels, their mess of a life is worth admiring?

If this is true, our churches need addicts in our midst! Welcoming addicts isn't just about charity, but survival and flourishing. But what will such ministry expose in me? Is my faith strong enough?  

More Compelling Than Addiction

The question that addiction puts to the church is whether or not it can offer a convincing alternative to the addicted life, and the challenge addiction presents to the church is whether or not it can embody the purposive, ecstatic and all-consuming love of God in a way that is more compelling than the life of addiction. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came not for those that are healthy but for those that are sick. He came to bring sight to the blind, release to the captive, liberation to the oppressed... and new life to the addict. Addiction, because it is so ubiquitous and therefore unavoidable, must force us to ask whether or not we are willing and ready to be a church that embodies Jesus' mission.

To the church that is laid open to the power of the Holy Spirit, addiction is not a threat to be feared but an opportunity to be welcomed. For the good news is that the gospel is powerful to redeem and transform, to break the shackles of every sin, and to liberate us for lives of abundant joy and peace. Because it is so powerfully destructive and death-dealing, addiction provides the church with its most profound invitation to witness to the gospel it proclaims, to make manifest in its own life the resurrection that is its own origin and end. There is therefore no idolatry so potent, no sin so entrenched, no despair so deep, no addiction so inveterate that it is beyond the reach of the Love that has finally and forever triumphed over sin and death. (193-194)

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.