by John Freeman, MA
Gerald May’s book is a wonderfully insightful one about the nature of addiction and how God’s grace and forgiveness intrudes into our deepest compulsions in order to change us and free us from them. Written in 1988, it remains a substantial resource. The astute truths about the spiritual, medical, and psychological nature of addictions are just as fresh, timely, and discerning as any recent literature. This book is the second most marked-up and highlighted book I own, apart from my Bible. As such, it is one I return to and use repeatedly.
Addiction and Grace was written, primarily, about the nature of chemical addiction, although he does apply his research to other areas of addictive behavior. For that reason one might think that it is not applicable to sexual addictions. To think this would be a mistake.
Firstly, recent discussions to potentially include sexual addictions in the DSM V, the Diagnostically and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, rightly regulate out-of-control sexual compulsions to the same category as other destructive addictive maladies, such as alcohol and chemical dependency. Second, recent scientific studies into the nature of addictions and brain chemistry demonstrate how prolonged exposure to and use of pornography and extended and repeated sexual behaviors results in physiological and chemical changes to the brain, similar to those which occur with prolonged drug and alcohol addiction.
Both of these facts, along with May’s unique contributions as a Christian, a physician, and researcher make this a distinctive work; one which proves prominent in the field. His bottom-line understanding of addictions is that they are a short-cut to intimacy and, in a real sense, a settling for the counterfeit of a relationship with God and others. This makes the book extremely insightful and helpful in understanding those who struggle with out-of-control feelings, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—sexually speaking.
The major themes of the book explain the nature of addiction and our desperate need for God’s intervention through his grace. He does this by examining the concept of addiction, considering its impact on the mind and body, and reflecting on the notion of grace as a life-changing phenomenon.
May defines addiction as “a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” (p.14). It is the experience of “always wanting or a perception of needing more of the addictive behavior or object of attachment in order to feel satisfied” (p.26).
He discusses at length self-deception, loss of willpower, habit-formation, developing a tolerance for addiction, withdrawal symptoms, denial and repression, and the difference between attraction addictions (things we are compulsively drawn toward) and aversion addictions (that which we compulsively avoid).
One of the unique ideas I’ve found in this book and not in others is the emphasis that letting go of our addictions will always lead one into a desert. He states quite blatantly, “Any struggle to reform addictive behavior will surely lead us into a desert” (p. 147). This is because deciding to “quit” destructive behavior involves willingly depriving oneself of that which life and day-to-day existence has depended. One’s feeling of security and well-being is overturned—leaving the person in deeply unknown and frightening territory.
May also spends two chapters discussing the impact of addictions on the mind and the body. He explains the mind-games an addict plays—with himself and others. He has a very good section on the topic of how addicts become expert “hiders.” He says, “The addicted person puts on masks of competence, lightheartedness, and good humor. These charades can be very effective at fooling others, but internally they only intensify feelings of inadequacy.”
One of the areas I appreciated was the section on “The Addictive Personality.” He addresses the popular notion that addictions occur because of pre-existing personality defects, something much accepted in psychological circles. Breaking with these theories, May believes that there is little evidence to support this. He concludes, “the symptoms of addictive personality were caused by the addiction, not the cause of it” (p.55). From May’s standpoint, the problem lies in the fact that “It is an addicted personality instead of an addictive personality.” In an intriguing section he addresses the neurological and physiological nature of addiction which demonstrates the inadequate demand that the addict simply “stop it.”
Addiction, Idolatry, and Grace
The author has some deep theological convictions. But be warned—this is not a typical “Christian” book. By that I mean that you won’t find an overabundance of scripture verses or proof-texts, although there are some. What you will find are more major biblical themes of idolatry and dependence on other “gods” (the objects of our addictions). In fact, for May, addiction makes a person depend on and trust in something else, other than God, for ultimate security and sense of well being (p. 31).
His continued reference to and discussion of grace makes this a work which provides hope to the hopeless. May says, “God’s grace is our only hope for dealing with addiction, the only power that can truly vanquish its destructiveness” (p.16). He also realizes how our addictions sabotage grace from being operative. “However dependent we are on God’s grace and mercy for liberation from our addictions, the very nature of those addictions impair our receptivity to grace” (p.18). For May, an understanding and incorporation of God’s grace, through the gospel, is what makes change a possibility.
The Role of Community
Addressing the role of community is something I find missing from most discourses about people who are addicts. Thankfully, May, puts much emphasis on the role of community—and how our addictions impact community. Addictions both inhibit community (our availability to God and others) and yet require community (p.143). May assumes the importance of community. For him, our journey away from addictions can never be a private thing between ourselves and God. God’s grace is something mediated through others on our behalf. He says that grace “pours forth” among people through community. This very biblical concept is often missing from most discussions on addictions.
Addiction and Grace exhaustively explores some crucial territory for anyone wanting to truly understand addiction. This book reflects the essence of what I have seen in my 20+ years of ministry experience. It resonates with what I have seen time and time again in the lives of those seeking freedom from their compulsions and addictions.
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John Freeman is President of Harvest USA, a ministry of truth and mercy to individuals, families and churches impacted by pornography and homosexuality. For more information on Harvest USA, visit their webpage at www.HarvestUSA.org.