Why it is so difficult to overcome addictions? Our world is full of recovery programmes and centres, new advances in medicine mean that we understand more about our biology than ever before and we have more resources at our disposal with which to fight them. But victory seems far from even the expert’s grasp.
The dynamics of our sinful hearts mean that, as individuals, we are easily enslaved – but there’s more to it than that. Scripture speaks of the spiritual battles that are being fought around us each day, of principalities and powers that exist, not just in individuals, but in people en masse and even in institutions. Evil can often be seen in a more concentrated form when we unite under its bloody banner. We see this right from the very beginning – in Genesis 11, when the nations unite to become like God and build a tower that reaches to the heavens. Or in Psalm 2,
‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast their cords away from us’.
As a visual correlative, think of the Nuremberg rallies, or the hooliganism that erupts like a cancer at an afternoon football match. The bullying that drives people to despair. The online pro-eating disorder websites, the chatrooms that promote suicide as a lifestyle choice.
Walter Wink writes in ‘The Powers That Be’ (a book that’s almost as good as his name), about the ways in which principalities and powers are enshrined in institutions as well as in people. In themselves socio-political structures are neutral, but they can become corrupt, repositories if you like, of malignant forces. As he concludes, the implications of this are considerable;
‘It means that every business, corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team–indeed, social reality in all its forms a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual. Right at the heart of the most materialistic institutions in society we find spirit. IBM and General Motors each have a unique spirituality, as does a league for the spread of atheism.’
You don’t need to be a Christian to recognise that there’s more to life than meets the eye.
In her memoir on a life spent battling anorexia and bulimia, Marya Hornbacher observes that,
‘An eating disorder is in many ways a rather logical elaboration on a cultural idea. While the personality of an eating disordered person.. and … the family … plays a fairly crucial part…the cultural environment is an equal, if not greater, culprit in the sheer popularity of eating disorders. There were numerous methods of self-destruction open to me…I cannot help but think that, had I lived in a culture where ‘thinness’ was not regarded as a strange state of grace, I might not have sought out another means of attaining that grace, perhaps one that would not have so seriously damaged my body, and so radically distorted my sense of who I am’.
Of course this isn’t limited to eating disorders. But it is a good example of the ways in which our world enshrines the ambivalence at the heart of so many addictions, whilst claiming to offer freedom from them. Magazines trumpeting the importance of self-acceptance match the bylines with glossy images promoting cadavers cloaked in sequins. Headlines pilloring our binge-drinking, consumerist culture sit side by side with advertisements for alcohol, drugs and easy ways of extending our credit. Men are castigated for ogling women, whilst women are sold a version of equality that objectifies them in exactly the same way.
When I was being treated as an outpatient for anorexia, I was very struck by the fact that the waiting room was filled with magazines promoting weight loss and the importance of the body beautiful. This is explicable to some degree, because recovery means entering a world which can’t be edited or censored. However, it helps to explain why so many addicts feel doomed to failure. To move towards health and life entails rejection of the values of this world, because such values are by nature contradictory and harmful.
Here’s a recent post from someone who recommends anorexia as a positive lifestyle choice. Our natural instinct is to dismiss her and her thinking as crazy and disordered. But although her conclusions are distorted, as an expression of cultural ambivalence her anger makes sense. (The ‘Biggest Loser’ is a TV show which offers a cash prize to whoever of the oversized contestants can lose most weight).
‘Can I just vent for a f—- moment?
I was not allowed to leave my recovery program until I was a “healthy” 120 lbs.
Tonight, the “Biggest Loser” was awarded $250,000 for being 117 lbs.
What the F— is wrong with this picture????’
I’m not for a second suggesting that it isn’t unhealthy for people to be either grossly under or overweight. But what is being sold here is not part of an overall programme for health and wellbeing. It’s weight loss as a solution to life’s problems. Just like new clothes or a bigger house or the perfect Christmas. And it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s dangerous. It’s powerful. It’s about forces bigger than those that we can see. And the true cost is evidenced in the everyday wreckage of human lives. We really are the biggest losers.
Within our world, social integration comes at the expense of psychological integrity. To survive is to compromise. Or compartmentalise at least. Our culture thinks it knows what it wants, but the figures don’t add up. This means that if I want to be whole, I’ve got to move beyond this world, to step outside. Or rather, to let someone else, someone bigger and more powerful to step in. And admidst the shifting vagaries and values of modern culture, to know that His word is an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.