I often find that the best people to speak to are recovering addicts. I mean by that the people have been through some version or equivalent of the 12-step process. I am privileged to count some of these people amongst my friends, and also have encountered their ministry to me in my different professional capacities over the years. I find that in conversation with people who have come to terms with their addictive dispositions and have done something about it that we do not encounter any of the tortuous self-justifying in the face of the bald facts of sin which so many of us undertake. I am powerless. Left to my own devices I am a slave to something other than God. Herein lies the first step on the road to healing. It’s no coincidence that this admission of powerlessness is both the first of the 12-step process for [alcohol, drug, sex … ] addicts and also a crucial, unavoidable step for all of us on the path of following Jesus. Admitting I am powerless.
The key in this for the addict (and as I often find myself saying, we’re all addicts; to misquote a character in one of my favourite films, some of us just happen to be addicts in more socially acceptable ways) is that the process identifies the problem as wider than just the substance or behaviour. The substance (let’s call it that for now) is the toxic catalyst through which the addict has been bought to her knees; but what lies behind the addiction, as the 12-step process will reveal to her, is that there’s far more going on here than loving cider too much. A view of self and others is being covered up, a pain medicated rather than treated.
This is why people often relapse – slip back into the addictive behaviour – once the process has been started. Starting to peel back the layers is a painful process, and it’s perfectly human to want to opt out of that. The ‘typical’ addict will need to start all over again, several times. It’s possible, you see, to give up the substance without giving up the behaviour. I’ve heard recovering alcoholics call this being ‘dry drunk’. The person may not have had a sip of alcohol for years, but she’s still covering up the pain with something, medicating in a more ‘acceptable’ way. The 12-step process is a 12 step process (say those last 3 words slowly and distinctly) for a reason.
Which brings me, naturally, to social media. I know people for whom serious problems are raised through social media. Social media, like alcohol, are not the problem; Facebook, Twitter are simply the crucible through which the problem is exposed. What’s painful about this is that it’s disarmingly public. It’s very easy to use these media to Instagram your life – to present it as a beautiful series of triumphs, successes, deep moments of revelation and joy. Or the converse – as struggle after struggle. In short, to use these media to suck the ‘normal’ out of your life. Occasionally something normal will seep through, though. The ‘normal’ here are the parts of us we cover up with the negative, positive or dramatic we present to the world; these are exposed through a well (or sometimes not so well) meaning comment or tweet, a misunderstood ‘like’ or a hashtag hijacked. Then comes, for some as I’ve noted with what appears to be increasing regularity recently, the social media sabbatical or full-scale opt-out.
Now that may be a good, necessary and healthy thing to do. It may well be. This represents no judgement on any one individual by me; there is no one person on my mind here. Doing so, though, may be the social media equivalent of going dry-drunk; cutting out the presenting issue but not dealing with the root-cause. We can get addicted to anything, really. We love enslavement so much we seek it out in subtle forms which we can over-paint with the word ‘freedom’ and kid ourselves that we’re free just because we say we are. Social media are, in truth, just the latest version of that. We do need to know the particular temptations and pitfalls of this still new reality; we need to be wary as much as we need as Jesus-followers to engage with it in constructive and loving ways. Like anything containing people, which is what these media are about at the end of it all, these media will bring out the best and the worst in us. They will present us with our capacity to show compassion and our potential to hurt with anger; they will show we can be brave and that we can be egocentric cowards.
All of which is why ‘healing’ may not always be healing. I know of cases where people have been prayed-off addictions. In some cases that may have been necessary to save a liver or a life. But has the prayer addressed the heart? Has it replaced one addiction with another? Maybe, in some cases, it’s addressed the whole person. In others, maybe not – the healed still has a way to travel to embrace full healing. I know of cases where people have been instantaneously healed of depression; if that depression is purely chemical, then let’s rejoice. If there’s other, more complex reasons for the depression, then harder questions may need to be asked, more steps taken and prayers prayed. I know of people who have, after prayer, opted out of a church or a community or social media. Maybe that was necessary. Have they, though, gone to the heart? Maybe … or maybe not.
I don’t mean to judge healing or opting out of something. I really don’t. Sometimes instantaneous healing really is immediate and total. I’ve seen it happen and rejoiced in the fruit. Sometimes the opt-out is a wise, life-giving choice. I also know, though, my own capacity to deceive myself into looking good, holy, healed and a little ascetic in the face of others. It may look pretty or godly to them; it may be the stuff of front-of-church testimony and comforting Christian paperbacks. The reality is in that often sung-about but rarely actually experienced, secret and quiet place I know God wants deeper work. Which is less comfortable, less pretty and longer-lasting.