Monday, April 19, 2021

Repression, Addiction, and the Return to God

                                    (Field of purple clover, in Monroe County, Michigan)

I've been doing a slow re-read of clinical psychiatrist Gerald May's exquisite, helpful Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.

May writes: "After twenty years of listening to the yearning of people's hearts, I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and our most precious treasure. It gives us meaning." (1)

I preached about this yesterday at Redeemer. Some call this the sensus divinitatis. J. P. Moreland calls it "the recalcitrant imago dei." I've called it the "metaphysical impulse." In support of this, Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that "God has set eternity in our hearts."

This creates, as C.S. Lewis described it, an "inconsolable longing."

The root of this deep longing "is a longing for love. It is a hunger to love, to be loved, and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of the human spirit; it is the origin of our highest hopes and most noble dreams." (1)

This desire is God-given. God nourishes this desire. "But something gets in the way... The longing at the center of our hearts repeatedly disappears from our awareness, and its energy is usurped by forces that are not at all loving." (1) Persons give themselves over to things that, in their deepest honesty, they really do not want. What addict truly and deeply wants bondage?

Pascal writes that people try “vainly to fill [their emptiness] with everything around him…  But they are all inadequate, because only an infinite and immutable object—that is, God himself—can fill this infinite abyss.”

We see that this was the problem the OT prophets were speaking to.

Isaiah put it like this in 55:2–3:

Why do you spend your money
   for that which is not bread,
and your labor
   for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in abundance.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   hear that your soul may live.

 The Message puts it like this.

Why do you spend your money on junk food,

your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?

Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
    fill yourself with only the finest.
Pay attention, come close now,
    listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.

The biblical-theological answer to what turns us away from love is: sin. Sin turns us from loving ourselves, loving others, and loving God. May writes: "When I look at this problem psychologically, I see two forces that are responsible: repression and addiction. We all suffer from both repression and addiction. Of the two, repression is by far the milder one." (2)

We often repress our desire for love because love makes us vulnerable to being hurt. "Along with bringing joy, love can make us suffer." When the latter happens we often repress our desire for love to lessen the suffering. "This happens after someone spurns our love; we stifle our desire, and it make take us a long time before we are ready to love again. It is a normal human response; we repress our longings when they hurt us too much."

I know this is true, as verified by half the country western songs ever written (the other half being about alcohol).

Stuff that we repress does not go away. "It remains within us, skirting the edges of our consciousness. Every now and then it reminds us of its presence, as if to say, "Remember me?"" (2-3)

So that is "repression." And then there is "addiction." May says that "repression, in spite of its sinister reputation, is relatively flexible. It is workable. Addiction, the other force that turns us away from love, is much more vicious." This is because, while repression stifles desire, addiction attaches desire, bonds and enslaves the energy of desire to certain specific behaviors, things, or people. These objects of attachment then become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives." (3)

The last verses of Ecclesiastes give us the solution. We read,

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Gerald May's deeply insightful text is necessary reading for anyone longing for God and the love of God, others, and freedom for oneself.