Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions by Gerald May

Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions

Summary: We are all addicted to something; only grace can set us free.

Addition and Grace is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It was assigned for my Spiritual Direction and Psychology class, and it was a book I argued with the whole way through. I have 43 highlights and several comments that you can peruse on my Goodreads page to get a sense of what I was arguing with.

My main argument is with Mays’ shifting understanding of addition. At times he means what we traditionally think of as addiction, a psychological and/or physical need that negatively impacts the people around us or our ability to interact in the world. At times he used addiction as a metaphor for sin. His most explicit definition is:

Addiction is any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire. It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects. The word behavior is especially important in this definition, for it indicates that action is essential to addiction. As I have indicated, attachment of desire is the underlying process that results in addictive behavior.

But he does not seem to limit himself to just that definition. Quite often, these flexible definitions do help give insight into our human lives.

…no addiction is good; no attachment is beneficial. To be sure, some are more destructive than others; alcoholism cannot be compared with chocolate addiction in degrees of destructiveness, and fear of spiders pales in comparison to racial bigotry. But if we accept that there are differences in the degree of tragedy imposed upon us by our addictions, we must also recognize what they have in common: they impede human freedom and diminish the human spirit.

But at other times addition seems to mean everything in a way that becomes unhelpful. For instance, there appears to be no room for obligation. (I do not think it is accurate to describe responsibility or obligation as slavery or addition.)

It is surely good for parents to care for their children and for people to be kind to one another and to seek God. It would be wonderful if we could make a habit of such activities. But there is a vast difference between doing these things because we freely choose and doing them because we are compelled. In the first case, the motivation is love; in the second, slavery.

One of my significant concerns is his dismissal of therapy, trauma, and abuse all at once. While there can be issues with therapy or friends excusing addiction because of a history of trauma or abuse, I think the more common problem is in the other direction. Addiction is often trying to solve a problem, the addictive solution is often unhelpful for the long term, but without dealing with the underlying need, trauma or abuse any ‘solutions’ to the addition are temporary because there will be a new addition eventually. I broadly agree with this point:

When the community surrounding an addicted person tries to help in any way that does not support ending the addiction, it will wind up supporting the addiction instead.

But there can be legitimate disagreement about what is ending an addition and what is supporting the addiction. May often seems to come down hard in areas where there are not hard lines.

As much as I can see some benefit in talking about addiction as a metaphor, or an actual sin, May does not seem to have a significant enough theology of sin. He is a psychologist, and maybe that bias toward the individual did not allow him to see the impacts of sin on systems, but there is a significant weakness in understanding how systems and relational networks are impacted by sin and addiction, not just abstracted individuals. Of course, even in our spiritual practices, sin affects the way we approach God.

From a more specifically spiritual viewpoint, we naturally seek the least threatening ways of trying to satisfy our longing for God, ways that protect our sense of personal power and require the least sacrifice. Even when we know that our hunger is for God alone, we will still be looking for loopholes—ways of having our cake and eating it too, ways of maintaining our attachments to things and people while simultaneously trying to deepen our intimacy with God. We seek compromise not because we are evil or conniving, but because of the way we are made; we naturally look for the least painful ways of living.

His turn to grace and Christ as the ultimate victory over addition (and sin) I think is right and accurate in many ways, but still too abstracted.

the crucifixion itself demonstrated the extent to which God would go to liberate people from their attachments. Jesus proclaimed that there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and then he proceeded to do just that. Finally, and most important of all to the Christian faith, Christ’s resurrection proclaimed absolute and unquestioned victory over attachment itself, over its consequences, and over its causes.


To put it bluntly, God became incarnate to save the addicted, and that includes all of us.

As much as I was frequently frustrated, there is real insight here.

Many other reasons exist for our lack of appreciation of God’s constant love. Sometimes the activity of grace so transcends our understanding that it becomes essentially invisible to us. We cannot notice God’s loving presence because it is too numinous, too elusively mystical to be perceived. There are also occasions when we cannot appreciate grace because we really do not want to. If God has not lived up to our expectations of how a true lover should act, for example, we may stifle our awareness because of anger or because we want to protect ourselves from being hurt again. And sometimes, as I have indicated, God actively hides grace from us. But of all the possible explanations for our lack of awareness of grace, there is no possibility of God being indifferent, or falling in love with someone else instead of us, or pouting because of some insult, or being otherwise elsewhere attached.

But as soon as I find the insight, I see him missing the point. This next quote was almost immediately after the previous one.

Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved. It is not extracted through manipulation or seduction. It is just given. Nothing in our conditioning prepares us for this radical reality. Some would say that early childhood experience with our parents is important in determining how we come to accept grace in later life. If we had loving, trustworthy parents rather than rejecting or unreliable ones, we would grow up more willing to accept God’s grace as a gift. I do not think this is so. We all have trouble accepting the radical giftedness of God’s grace, no matter what our childhood experience.

This seems to be a real problem with the book. As much as we are all addicted to something (which I think is a helpful insight), that does not mean that there are not influences on our lives that make additions worse. Our relationship with our parents I think really does influence our relationship and image of God. That does not excuse addition or sin, but it does help to explain it. Explanations can be helpful even if they are not exculpatory.

I was happy to be done with the book. There is insight, but a lot of frustration.

Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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