Her stricken face is etched in my memory. An out-of-town visitor to our church, the troubled woman approached us in anguish after the service. Her problem? Our church’s failure to have an invitation at the end of the service so she could “get things right” with God.
Spiritual addiction. It’s the idea that I can’t feel good about my relationship with God unless I ritually fulfil certain “religious” duties. In this particular lady’s case, her addiction was public repentance—a classic “altar athlete.” She was obsessed with experiencing a certain kind of emotion in order to make her feel right with God. For other people their spiritual aberration can take the form of certain private obligations—a set amount of prayer time, the compulsive need to pray through every item on a prayer list, having to be at church every time the doors are open regardless of other responsibilities, robotically ticking off devotions on the daily list of to-do’s. Another kind of spiritual addiction is the pressure to be always right, to win every religious argument and have all the “right” answers. What makes these behaviours addictions is not the behaviours themselves. Some of them are excellent spiritual disciplines and necessary means of grace. But when they are cast in an unhealthy frame of ritual obligation, they can be symptoms of a diseased soul.
Ask yourself a few questions to discern whether a spiritual behaviour has become an addiction.
1. Does unwarranted guilt follow my failure to perform the spiritual task? For example, if I must stay home with a sick child instead of going to church, do I feel compelled to apologise and explain to cover my “failure.” Or if my prayer time doesn’t go as planned, do I blame negative outcomes on my shortcomings in prayer? If a witnessing opportunity didn’t result in scoring watertight arguments, do I feel hopelessly defeated?
2. Is the obsessiveness of my spiritual behaviours destructive to normal relationships? If church must come first–no matter what—will a family crisis be improperly managed in order to meet my addictive compulsion to be at church regardless of other real needs. In high school I had a friend whose mother literally fasted and prayed in her bed for weeks. Imagine the impact on her family of her being missing-in-action in her motherly role all that time! That spiritually addictive behaviour was a destructive force in her family. A healthy relationship with God will bear the fruit of healthy relationships with others.
3. Do toxic levels of anxiety rise in my soul when I am unable to “get my fix”? Do I worry about God’s acceptance of me and what other people are thinking about me if I don’t comply with my urges to perform certain spiritual acts or produce certain kinds of emotional responses such as weeping in prayer? That kind of anxiety is what I observed in the nervous behaviour of the lady who didn’t get a chance to “go forward” at the end of our church service.
4. Is the law of diminishing returns at work in the process? In other words, when current levels of spiritual activity fail to produce the desired effect, do I feel the need to do more and try harder in order to feel good spiritually?
Do you see yourself in these addictive patterns? Do you have a friend who struggles with spiritual obsessions like these? Contrary to the thinking of some, feeling guilty does not equal feeling good in a healthy Christian life. False guilt will lead to false fruit rather than a Spirit-empowered, faith-filled obedience.
Next week, we’ll discuss the distorted theology that drives spiritual addictions and hope for healing of the soul.
**If you would like to read more about spiritual addiction, I recommend the book Soul Repair by VanVonderen, Ryan and Ryan.