Home » Expert Q & A » Christian Recovery » Christian Recovery: Dr. Art Sprunger

Why "All or Nothing" Thinking Fails

  • Asks ...

    I am an atheist but my sister is a very devout born again Christian and I respect her beliefs. She got addicted to vicodin after a number of small elective surgeries a few years back. Things got very bad before she finally admitted to having a problem a few years ago but she eventually did go to a detox center and then a couple of months in a faith based drug rehab facility.

    Unfortunately, since that time she has been on a roller coaster ride of relapses and she just doesn’t seem able to give it up for good. From what I have read of opiate addiction, this is a very normal thing and for long term stability she would be best to go on methadone or Suboxone and use these drugs for a long time as stabilizers.

    Unfortunately, she seems to feel that anything but totally quitting is somehow a failure and that if she has enough Faith and tries hard enough and prays that she will be able to keep it together this time, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    I feel like her faith should be something that strengthens her, but instead she somehow feels that only quitting completely on her own is ever going to be good enough to be the person she is supposed to be. I think the people at the centers she has been to have filled her up with these lofty ideals about abstinence and then they just leave her to live with the fallout after she relapses.

    Is there any faith based reason why this ideal of total abstinence (which is not working) is better than a harm reduction strategy based on methadone or something similar? How can I convince her that she doesn’t need to be perfect – she just needs to get better?

  • Dr. Art Sprunger Says ...
    Dr. Art Sprunger

    I appreciate your observations and concerns. Seeing you are a thinking person, identifying yourself as knowing there is no God, it is good to see you are also a feeling and compassionate person with regard to your sister.

    I am very familiar with the patterns of thought and actions you are seeing with your sister. They may very well be at the core of why your sister is struggling with her addictions.

    Most addiction and alcohol programs work as an initial help because they think like an addict thinks, with a two-basket system of sorting out the decisions of life. It's the all-or-nothing, black-and-white, success-failure, "with me"-"against me" way of seeing life. It usually runs in families, but may impact individuals in different ways. Because this way of seeing everything in the world is a core belief in the addictive personality, programs that systematize the two-basket way of dealing with everything make sense to the addicted person and more easily engages them into following the program. What they offer is a way to help keep the troubled soul in the "right" basket by meetings and support, emphasizing that you cannot rely on your own strength, but the strength of the group - or even the strength of God's "right" way of doing things. Its success is dependent on one's commitment to the program, but it does not free you from the addiction, just the evil of the other "basket." It is a better basket to be in, but true personal emancipation is not available through these programs. It is only the first step to liberty, like the Law of the Old Testament which spoke to the ideal that we are to live up to, and how easy it is for us to fail to experience it. The Law was to humble us to realize we cannot do it on our own. We cannot say to God, "If only You tell me in black and white what I am to do, I will do it!" It shows us that we cannot free ourselves any more than the slaves in America could purchase their own freedom. A greater power than one's self (or an idolized god of our choosing made with our own hands or intelligence) is needed to not only declare an emancipation proclamation, but fight and defeat all that enslaves.

    Jesus said, "if you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you will know experientially the truth, and the truth will set you free." Well, this was confusing to the arrogant Jews who were believing in Him and ready to physically fight for Him to make Him their king. They saw and were taught that they were entitled to be proud and self-sufficient, and that every victory in life was through their own fortitude. They responded, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone! How do you put us down and say, "we shall be SET free?" His response..."Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave to sin.... If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!" (John 8:31-36). "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. . . but thanks be to God that, though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart...having been freed from sin...for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (see Romans 3-6). That is the message that drew your sister to become a Christian. She realized that she was not able to free herself and she entrusted herself fully to Jesus Christ for her salvation.

    However, from what you are telling me, it would appear that some of the old patterns of thinking in two baskets have crept back into her life (like apparently what happened to Whitney Houston). The Bible warns us that "It was for freedom that Christ set us free! Keep standing firm therefore, and do not be subject again to a yoke of bondage...You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh (i.e. your self-sufficient way of indulging yourself), but through love freely serve one another. (Galatians 5:1,13). Another verse puts it in perspective - "If we have been made alive by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit!" Either the program she is in, or the way she has been previously processing things is emphasizing more of a legalistic, self-empowered way of dealing with her addiction.

    I do not know all the details of her individual case (I certainly am available should, she wish to consult me at NewHopeAndFreedom.com), but I suspect, since she originally got addicted to meds that she is doubly afraid of using other meds to help her in the process of getting rid of the original addictive behavior. "Perfection," however, from what you originally said, is a theme you feel that is binding her up. The Bible teaches that it is Christ's perfection, not ours that saves us: "For by grace have you been saved once and for all through faith, and not that of yourselves! It is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is not our perfection that will save us from anything; past, present or future.


Featured Experts