Category Archives: addiction

Why addictive behavior is so hard to resist

Why are addictive behaviors, well, so hard to resist? We know they are bad for us. We know they won’t give us what we ultimately want. We’ve had times where we assure ourselves that we will not return to behaviors that have hurt us in the past…and hurt our families. We’re sure we would never find them appealing again.

And then we find ourselves returning to the habit again.

I’ve written more recent blog posts here and here on the topic of addictions (you can also use the search engine on this page to find others). You may also check out my “Slides, Articles, etc.” for links to talks on the cycle of addiction. Here, I want to help non-addicts take the mystery out of why addictions are so addicting.

It is quite simple, really. Addictions work–in the short run.§  Here’s out they work:

  1. I feel a particular “need” (craving, desire, want, …and I feel desperate about the “need”
  2. I solve the need with something that fills the need, at least temporarily.

Think about it. You wouldn’t drink alcohol for 2 days in order to get the benefit. You drink because in 20 minutes you will get the benefit. You wouldn’t view porn for a week in order to finally get some payoff. You view porn to get the pay off now.

Of course, when we solve with the addictive behavior, we rarely calculate the cost because the cost does not seem all that nearby. But the cost is there nonetheless. Cover-ups, deception, use leads to shame, self-hatred, distance from family, and ironically, increased desires or “need.”

On the other hand, “waiting” delays the use of the “substance.” When waiting includes using spiritual resources, friends, and other helpful mechanisms, it often encourages careful self-assessment. In time, the “need” may become more distant and the addict may come to see how unhelpful the “substance” really is. In Christian terms, this casting our burdens/desires on the Lord reminds us that we are not in the fight alone.

Why is it so hard to resist addictive behavior? Because they always give a pay off now. And Godly, wise, mature, delay or waiting tactics will never pay off in the immediate at the same rate of power. Praying IS powerful but God is not a vending machine and so praying rarely gives a person a cellular high.

If you are walking alongside an addict, remember that addictions make lots of sense and resisting almost always means increased pain, angst, and desire. So be sure to encourage them along the way. Telling them that their “I need” isn’t accurate may be true but probably won’t help them let go of desire. Rather, try hanging out with them in the “decision” spot pictured above. Sometimes when we delay deciding to use for a bit, we actually gain capacity to say no.



§By “work” I mean how we move from desire to action. I am not speaking here of the biological processes of addiction.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling

Stopping addiction temptations or delighting in God?

A friend of mine in the blogosphere has written this fine piece on addictions. Love how he starts it…that we think repentance should kill temptation. Further, he goes on to talk about Satan’s end-game with addictions. Is it getting you to imbibe in your addiction or is it something else?

And what is our end game? Not having to struggle with saying no to an addiction? Maybe it should be something else.   Click the link above and read his short but helpful response.


Filed under addiction, Biblical Reflection

What causes mental illness and do you have any choice?

The common medical assumption is that mental illness is the result of multi-faceted vulnerabilities in combination with stressors. A person may have some vulnerability markers but those alone are not likely to result in mental illness without biologic, social, or environmental stressors “turning on” the markers.

If you want to see this model in action, you should watch a most troubling episode of “Independent Lens” on your local PBS channel. It aired in Philadelphia last night. You can find more about the episode here on their website and watch clips of the show.

The hour long episode follows a 16 year old girl, Cyntoia, facing life for murder. You will see extended conversation with the girl, her adoptive mother, her biological mother (who she never really related to). Her bio mother drank throughout her pregnancy, smoked crack and prostituted herself. Cyntoia was being prostituted and was at a “john’s” house when she shot him thinking he was going to kill her.

You can see that Cyntoia probably meets criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. Watch her mother for a bit and you can see that she comes by it quite naturally. They both have a similar pattern of speech and attitude. There is a long history of suicide and paranoia in the extended family. Very interesting to see how this young woman talks to the forensic psychiatrist.


Watch and wonder how Cyntoia could have avoided her predicament. She started out with poor genes, alcohol exposure and poor attachment opportunities. She lists 36 people she had sex with (she felt obligated to have sex with those who wanted her). The issues are legion.

Even more brutal is to watch the interviews with her adoptive mother who is trying to wrap her head around the facts that come out during the investigation. Watch also how Cyntoia talks about her and to her. Notice that there is love.

Very rarely would you get this kind of information from 3 generations of rape and sexual abuse (and adoptive mother’s story).

Watch the episode and consider this question: just how much choice do some people have? Even with her incredible insights (e.g., “everybody wants admiration, everybody wants to be desired. That is my **** problem too.”), this young woman had 3 strikes against her.

The truth is we often believe people have easy choices to avoid trouble. Cyntoia’s story reminds us that trouble begins generations before some people are conceived.And even when we acknowledge that Cyntoia could have made choices to tell adults about her abuse or to escape her pimp, we are left with the gnawing question, would we have made any different choice if in her place? For the record, I am a firm believer in that we do have choices to make. But some have a whole lot more than others and the roadsigns to better choices are bigger for some of us than others.

Challenging story which also pulls on your vision of redemption, restoration and appropriate punishment for minors who commit murder.


Filed under Abuse, addiction, cultural apologetics, Psychology, stories, suffering

Christian lust?

As heard in a sermon last Sunday by our intern, Jomo Johnson:

We are made to lust…

The good is the enemy of the best

Ever thought of lust being a good thing before? I hadn’t. He is saying that lust is a response that humans SHOULD have but that we turn this human response from the best object (God) to a good (and then later self-serving) object (others). When we speak of this, we usually use words like burning desire for…zealous for…

Context for these comments were his thoughts on Psalm 63. David’s lust, he said, got him into this trouble (curse given him after Bathsheba was violence in his family). Lust would now get him out (properly focused on God rather than self).

Helpful thoughts for those who struggle with strong addictive urges?


Filed under addiction, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity

Gardening illustration that works for persistent problems in life

5 years ago a friend of mine asked if I wanted some purple cone flowers for my flower garden around my house.

Having admired them in other gardens, I said yes and promptly planted them in a spot next to some other flowers. Turns out they were Brown Eyed Susans, a relative of the intended flower. And, further, they spread terribly. I enjoyed them the first summer but began ripping them out the next year as they spread through the iris and choked out some other plantings.

Now, some five years later, I am still pulling these plants. They grow and spread quickly. I never let them flower but pull them as soon as I can make sure I get them and not another plan that might be right in the same spot. When I pull them I know that some little root fiber remains and so I’ll be back pulling again in a week or so.

The truth is I will never be free from these plantings. I do have some choices:

  • ignore them and let them take over the garden (BTW, they would be fine in an isolated spot surrounded by grass so they couldn’t take over another planted area)
  • be irritated that I can’t get rid of them and thus fail to see the beauty around them
  • stay vigilant but enjoy the garden
  • try shock and awe by killing everything in that spot.

I find this is much like our persistent life problems. Whether by naive choice or by something beyond our control, we develop persistent struggles with things like anxiety, depression, addictions, relational challenges, etc. While God sometimes provide miraculous removal of these struggles, we rarely find complete freedom from these kinds of struggles. We may not be in crisis mode forever, but total relaxation and assumption of no return of the problem is rare also.

So, we too have some choices:

  • be angry and bitter that the problem continues to have some place in our life
  • blame others for our problems
  • ruminate on why only we seem to have these problems
  • try shock and awe and so destroy lots of other things
  • accept the need to stay vigilant, going after the roots and shoots as soon as we notice them.

Does this illustration work for you?


Filed under addiction, Anxiety, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, Depression

How the church misrepresents healing of addictions

Now, a post title like this deserves a long and fair answer. Lacking the time, I’m only going to address one issue–that of the healing process with addictions. If you ask a person in AA how they defeat addictions they will quickly point out the need for God (or higher power) and the need for community in changing their lifestyle. They need a sponsor, they need to feel they are fighting with others to maintain their sobriety. Will power will not be enough.

I suspect that most Christians would agree. But, here’s the problem. When we are asked about the healing agent for any sinful or repetitive problem, we point to Jesus. True, without God we do not have a shot of defeating our nemeses. When we talk like this it can sound like an isolationist, just me and God, healing process.

One of my students said it well. When he got saved out of his addictions he got new friends, new discipleship activities, and a new view of the reality of addictions (friends died). He had new activities to replace the old, new reinforcement patterns, etc. And, while he points to the saving grace of God, it wasn’t an isolating event.

That is our problem. We continue to think of our sanctification as a me and God experience. AA does a better job (often) than the church in reminding each other of the need for support without any condemnation for needing years and years later.


Filed under addiction, biblical counseling, christian counseling, Christianity

Check out my podcast on sexual addiction

CCEF is giving away my talk last year at their annual conference on sexual addiction. You can listen to it her:

I’ll be back there this November to talk about another sex topic: when sex in marriage doesn’t work. No, I don’t have it on the brain, it was their request and conference title….well, I guess that doesn’t exonerate me afterall.

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Filed under addiction, biblical counseling, counseling, Sex, sexual addiction

This is your brain on caffeine

I’m a caffeine junkie. I have to have a cup every day or I have a headache. To be honest, I have 2 at home and probably 2-3 at work. It is my version of Ritalin.

But this past weekend I saw what it can do to the uninitiated. We took a trip to State College for my 10 year old’s state gymnastics meet. At dinner my son had 2 root beers. Normally we don’t let him drink much more than one sierra mist but, hey, its a fun weekend away from home. I assumed, wrongly, that root beer didn’t have caffeine. About 2 am, he wakes up and is twitching to beat the band. Crying, thrashing, nearly hyperventilating. Not quite psychotic in his thinking but just about. Never went back to sleep! Poor guy. By the end of his meet he was completely out of sorts.

Talked to him this am about it. He has sworn off coffee and caffeinated drinks for the rest of his life. Probably a good thing if he never discovers the positive properties of coffee.

I probably should cut back my own intake but the 3 pm sleepies will drive me upstairs to the coffee pot. That’s right. It controls me. Or I let it. And frankly, a 3 pm, I don’t care which is true.


Filed under addiction

Jack Miller on repentance (again)

If you haven’t seen Jack Miller’s little book on repentance I encourage you get ahold of the new edition published by CLC publications (2009). The cost is under 8 dollars! Jack Miller wrote the first edition in 1975 under the title, “Repentance and the 2oth Century Man”. This one, entitled: Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrenderalso includes a foreward by Andree Seu (World Magazine) and an epilogue by Miller’s widow, Rose Marie.

Here’s why I find this little book very helpful. It clarifies the subtle but oh-so-important differences between true repentance and penance; between true repentance and regret. It reminds us that repentance is a daily moment-by-moment attitude but is not something that is full of shame and morose feelings. 

As someone who works with Christians struggling with addictive patterns, I find one of the greatest challenges is to help clients move from penance to repentance and from guilt to freedom. This book ought to help with both.   

For those unfamiliar with Jack’s legacy, he started New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside (my church) and out of that church a number of other churches were planted as well as the founding of World Harvest Missionwhich has 170 missionaries now in 15 countries–including Uganda where missionaries were intimately involved in the care of those suffering through last year’s ebola outbreak.

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Filed under addiction, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Evangelicals, self-deception, sin

Great illustration of the strength of addiction

Am reading CS Lewis’ The Silver Chairagain (my least favorite of the Narnia chronicles). If you’ve not read it, it tells the story of the King Caspian’s son, Prince Rilian, and his escape from the underworld by the help of two British children and a Marshwiggle. Prince Rilian has been captured by a witch who keeps him insane and believing that he was rescued by her and that she will put him on a throne soon in the overworld. He stays sane except for an hour when he is bound to a silver chair at which point he comes to and know who he is and that the evil witch murdered his mother.

The children and the marshwiggle help him escape the chair while he is sane. He turns on the chair with a sword and shreds it to pieces. At that moment, he has all the clarity of sane thinking and sees reality as it really is. But moments later, the witch returns and begins to cloud his mind with a soothing music, voice and something thrown on the fire. Within minutes they begin to doubt the truth and believe that what is bad is good and what is good is only a fantasy. They disbelieve Aslan, the sun. The Overworld is fantasy and the underworld is the true world.

Now, this story is not about addiction but it reminded me how quickly we can move from seeing the abomination of an addictive habit to beginning to believe it might not be so bad. The addict “repents” from the consequences of their action only to fall right back because the siren song has their number.

Do you notice this in your life about irritability, rage, jealousy, substances, food, internet sex? It doesn’t have to be a traditional addiction, just something that we find ourselves telling (to ourselves) those sweet little lies.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling, christian psychology, Desires, self-deception, sin