Addiction can be a bewildering affliction. We’ve all heard the stories: tragic, heart-breaking accounts of betrayal and defeat; of ruin and despair too heavy to bear. It’s not hard to imagine the final dissolution of a life nearing the end of that strange illness of mind, body, and spirit that is addiction, but neither is it easy to make sense of.
What could cause someone, healthy in other respects, to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of their own undoing with such reckless abandon? What lies at the root of this thing that draws men and women from every walk of life to exchange the good things of their lives for the bondage of a merciless and endless thirst? What could it be, other than that mysterious, deadly, and undeniable brokenness that runs across every human life, and cuts through every human heart? What could it be, if not sin?
The addict cries out with St. Paul in lament: “I do not understand my own actions; I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate!” If you have watched the progress of addiction in the life of an addict, you have seen him or her falling before the power of the sin that lives in them. And it is a terrible sight.
It is terrible because sin in the life of an addict, like sin anywhere, seeks first to twist and mar the image of God implanted in every human soul. And with addiction in particular, it is the longings of our hearts that are bent and turned against us. The desires of our infant souls, the yearning to stretch and hold and embrace; these were planted within us in order to draw us ever upwards to life and to love. These longings are precious gifts. Yet they are the same desires — the same hungers and thirsts — that drive us, when yoked to our sin, to anguish, suffering, and despair.
Maybe we drink too much. Maybe we eat what we shouldn’t. Maybe we lie to ourselves and to others, or we’re in love with our own comfort, our own outrage, our own woundedness. Whatever the particular fault may be, the sin that lives in us will approach us there, and will offer whispered promises of distraction, or security, or relief — if not forever, then at least for the moment. “And surely,” it will say, “even a moment is enough for now.”
We may relent and entertain the notion that just this one time, just this one indulgence won’t really hurt. More likely, though, there will be a vague uneasiness, and a grasping in the dark after something that is always just out of reach. And the longer we endure in that futile pursuit, the deeper our souls will descend, desperate for goodness, for beauty, and truth, into a place of frustration and anguish. The way back will become increasingly obscured and even forgotten.
Being attached by habit, by need, and by desperation to the passing things of a passing world, our everlasting desires will ache and burn, but they will not lead to satisfaction, not so long as they are led by lies. Those in bondage to chemical addiction will show the marks of their illness more quickly than the rest of us, but wherever sin has taken root, there will be bondage. As long as we set our hopes on anything other than the one who has made us, we will suffer. We will hurt. We will be addicted.
But God, who has all power, is rich in mercy and perfect in love; and so there is hope for the addict and for the sinner. There is hope for you, and for me. There is a way out, and Christ has gone before us to open the way. It may feel a lot like dying. It may feel a lot like coming back to life. It will begin to happen when we trust the yearning of our hearts to the one who has entrusted us with hearts to yearn. It will begin to happen when we trust that the desires of our hearts are not endless thirsts, but that they find their end in Christ alone, who longs to satisfy our every holy desire.
Hope, for the addict and for the sinner, does not come at the cost of our deepest desires. It comes when we are baptized. It comes when the broken pieces of our hearts are set back into place, to serve, and to enslave us no longer. This is the longing that is set deep into our hearts, and it is God who rests at the heart of our longing. We may seek him there, and find him. We may drink deeply of him, and never thirst again.