I was sitting in a doctor’s office one afternoon in 1978, flipping through Sports Illustrated. One article caught my eye. Sebastian Coe, a British middle-distance runner, was quoted by his interviewer as going out for a leisurely “four-minute mile.”

I sat upright. Something in that image grabbed me. The idea that a world-class runner could hit such a pace on his day off made me think maybe I could find my own leisurely pace. I was a full-time grad student, getting my exercise by riding my bike to classes. I’d run track in high school, won some races, and even set a school record in the 440. But it had been years since I’d run and I wanted to stretch myself.

So, I began. That year I ran my first 10K on a beautiful morning in Long Beach, California, breathing my mantra, “I won’t win, but I’ll always finish.”

In the years that followed, running became a regular part of my life. After teaching my classes, I’d slip out for an easy mile or two. On weekends, I’d go to a local track for wind sprints or run through the county parks nearby. During the summer and early autumn, I’d run six or seven 10K’s. It was a good way to relax, get some exercise, and fantasize about becoming Sebastian Coe. 

And then I got injured—badly enough that I couldn’t run. For a few days, even walking was painful. I’d strained my back carrying weights in each hand, trying to increase my muscle tone and endurance. That was the end of my racing career and eventually the end of running for me.

The weeks that followed my injury introduced me to addictive withdrawal. Because I couldn’t run without further injury, I had to stop cold turkey. Nothing felt right. My daily rhythm was off, I felt sluggish and irritable and my Puritan sense of duty was thwarted. How could something that made me feel so good—even the pain was good—be bad? After all, it was a good addiction.

I was planning to begin this essay by claiming I don’t have any addictions. Then I read Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace and understood how deeply entrenched in addictive behavior I am. 

May was a psychiatrist who devoted himself to the spiritual and psychological treatment of people with addictive behaviors. He describes addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human destiny.” 

That got my attention because I rely on habits. At their best, habits are efficient ways to accomplish tasks without the drag of decision-making. At their worst, they are the precursors to addictive behaviors.

Addictions arise out of desires, says May, and when we desire and love, we are vulnerable to suffering. As anyone knows who has experienced unrequited love—or even the garden variety love between two people—love hurts. When it hurts, we repress the passion that fuels our desires (from passio, Latin for “to suffer”). Even our love for God, disguised though it might be, hurts us when God does not always cause us to lie down in green pastures, but appears as a wildfire or mysterious swirling darkness. 

We repress the desires that hurt us, says May, but addictions attach desires. Addictive attachments channel us away from freedom and nail us to addictive behaviors, creating the most powerful enemy of our desire for God.

My desire for God grew during high school. My generation was part of the first fruits of righteousness by faith in the 60s after the famine of legalism and perfectionism. There was a lot of resistance to this by leaders who feared that letting up the pressure to perfectly reflect the character of God would result in anarchy. But it was a liberation and, for many of us, it was the beginning of a spiritual life deeper than religious observance.

We’re all addicts—psychologically, neurologically, and spiritually. We seem predisposed to addiction by the physiological construction of our brains: neurons that communicate through connections called synapses, and synapses that are bound into vast networks that mediate our thoughts and feelings, our sensations and memories, and our actions. Habits create a tolerance that must be upped to maintain balance. The complexity of the brain and its trillions of synaptic connections guarantee that, for all our probing of this mysterious mass, we will never fully understand our motivations and hopes.

When we realize that our addictions are controlling our lives, we tend to choose one of several options. We might deny our addiction, claiming that we’ve chosen these behaviors of our own free will. Or we tell ourselves we can handle it; we can quit anytime. Or we can admit our defeat and trust in God to break our patterns. 

That’s what I thought I was doing when I opened the door to Jesus while giving a talk at a Week of Prayer in high school. I’d been a good kid, a spiritual leader of sorts, but my attitude was merely dutiful. After conversion, I wasn’t demonstrably giddy, but I did experience joy disguised as relief. 

Gerald May notes that we make only three responses to God’s fierce, but loving call. First, we may deny or repress our desire for God. That sometimes works, but just as often Jesus’ call nudges us as Peter painfully discovered. Second, we create an image of our spiritual identity, a new persona to preserve in place of God. Or third, we choose the contemplative way, to be as open to God and reality as we are able. 

My addiction was transactional: I would obey and God would reward me. That hadn’t worked at all. I couldn’t perfectly obey and when I tried, it was for all the wrong reasons. God wants a cheerful lover and I was the petulant and surly sort. After conversion, I fell into a different addiction: the certainty that I was on the winning side and was now a fully-certified evangelist, commissioned to right wrongs and harass people into the truth.

Now, at seventy, I face a new addiction: to distance myself from Christianity and those who have embraced “God, guns, and Trump.” Yet, as Brian McLaren points out in Do I Stay Christian? distancing myself from the fatal weaknesses of Christianity allows me to proclaim my own innocence and to live swollen with spiritual pride.

I am far less certain of almost everything about God except that “nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Trusting in that allows me to admit my distrust and to discover my true self, created in God’s image.

I’ll never be completely free of spiritual addictions, for I am created to long for God, a longing that leads me into temptation as much as it opens me to God’s unfathomable grace. To transcend any idol of addiction is to experience the feast that creates a hunger for the filling of God’s love. Perhaps then we will have an answer, as Jesus asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]