Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Fitness & Health

Respectable Addictions
by Jan Johnson

Four-thirty p.m. was the best part of Rick's day.  After spending the day responding to "help wanted" ads, he could finally plant himself in front of the television to snack and watch those East Coast basketball games.  On particularly depressing days during his year-long search for a job, he went with a friend to a pizza place to watch the games on the big screen. 

Finally his wife, Linda, confronted him about his problem, "Sometimes I wonder if you're really looking for a job.  It seems like all you ever do is watch sports."

"I watch sports to help me forget about it all, " Rick told her.  "At least I'm not out getting drunk."

"But you forget about me, too," Linda pointed out to him.

"I have to," Rick replied.  "I know you'll ask how the job hunt went.  Nothing is working out, and I can hardly face you.  It's easier to watch television."  

When life's puzzle pieces don't fit so well, we sometimes find ourselves, like Rick, attaching too much importance to otherwise respectable activities.  We use simple diversions such as watching television or reading or gardening more and more until our lives revolve around them.  We promise others we'll cut back, but we don't. 

It's shocking to realize that these feelings of neediness are similar to the ones a drug addict feels for drugs.  Sure, watching too much television isn't life-threatening, but the dynamics are similar.  At first we simply overuse or misuse respectable activities, but if our neediness becomes great enough we feel overpowered by them.  Eventually we understand the apostle Paul's words better than we'd like:  "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." (Romans 7:18)

Hooked on "Good" Things

When we're needy inside, nearly anything can become a crutch to us.  After Kathleen gave birth to her second child, she slept more than usual because she was so tired.  But as time passed, she began using the extra sleep to escape her pressures as a pastor's wife. 

"Too many people needed me and I couldn't face them all.  It was so peaceful to sleep -- no babies crying, no telephones ringing," says Kathleen.  "I looked forward to naps and got angry if I couldn't have them.  I quit praying -- it was easier to go to sleep and stop worrying." 

That necessary task of shopping can also become an obsession.  I'm not one to shop till I drop, but when I'm feeling low I sometimes find myself preoccupied with sale items or scouring the catalogs for bargains.  When Bible study leader Craig tried to cut down buying books, he found that borrowing them didn't give him the same feeling of security.  He liked knowing that they were on his book shelf if he needed them, displaying them and looking informed.

Even Christian ministry can turn addictive if used behaviors, when used to prop up our flagging self-esteem, become addiction-like.  "I love my church and I feel guilty if I'm not at every church event," says church leader Gil.  "I had to skip a leadership meeting to go my son's sixth grade graduation and I felt guilty!  I have never asked anyone to fill in for the midweek small group I lead no matter how sick I've been.  I don't want the pastor to think I'm not committed.  I don't want someone to ask, 'So where is Gil?'"  

Hyper-involvement in church activities is especially subtle because we confuse our desire to serve God with our desire to look good.  Christian psychologist Peter Robbins, who has battled hyper-involvement as his family has grown, notes, "The hyper-involved are popular, they're loved, they're admired.  But at home the family is asking, 'Where's my spouse?'  'Where's my mom or dad?'  How do you argue with someone who's giving their life to God?"

One of my respectable compulsions is being hooked on productivity.  Like workaholism, this isn't the love of hard work, but an inner neediness for the kudos that hard work brings.  Doing significant things becomes my "drug of choice."  This drive to prove myself by being productive has resulted in my: 

  • saying, "yes," to whatever is asked,
  • trying to hike down my "career path" faster and farther than anyone else,
  • hurrying my life away, trying to accomplish twenty things at once,
  • feeling good only when I can check off my long list of daily tasks. 

Other times our must-do activities aren't so respectable, but we rationalize that they're much better than what we could be doing to escape.  As Cindy's marriage of eighteen years crumbled, she read romance novels non-stop.  "'What harm does it do?' I used to ask," says Cindy, a bank teller.  "The books weren't pornographic.  I wasn't watching TV -- I was 'expanding my mind.' I could consume a few chapters while I stirred the soup.  When Christian friends told me these books were garbage, I said, 'At least I'm not out sleeping around like my husband is!'"

Facing Facts

Often it takes a crisis or confrontation to wake us up.  Cindy stopped reading romance novels the day she came home to find her husband packing his bags.  "The game was over and I had to channel my energy into putting the relationship back together. In real life, the hero was leaving the scene and I, the damsel, was sad.  There was no romance writer to fix it."

Our wake-up calls are usually painful.  The Old Testament prophet, Haggai, became unpopular with the Jews when he pointed out their I-never-have-enough attitudes:  "'Give careful thought to your ways.  You have planted much, but have harvested little.  You eat, but never have enough.  You drink, but never have your fill.  You put on clothes, but are not warm.  You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.'"  (Haggai 1:5-6) 

Giving careful thought to our behavior can reveal surprising sources for our drivenness.  Jack, a pager salesman, was forced to look at himself and his love for jogging when he visited Peter Robbins for career counseling. 

When Jack worked at it, he was the company's top sales representative, but he kept taking time off to jog. "Jack told me how his alcoholic father had always told him he would never amount to anything," Robbins recalls. "Jack loved his father and didn't want to disappoint him so he unconsciously fulfilled his father's prophecy by trying to fail.  Jack skipped his scheduled sales calls and escaped by spending hours jogging." 

Promising ourselves and others that we'll stop our compulsive behavior often does nothing but frustrate us.  We have to look at what's going on inside ourselves and ask the tough questions:   How do I feel, how does this feeling square with reality, and how can I realign it with the truth? 

Gil says that behind his excessive church involvement is an unmet need to be valued.  Craig discovered he needed those books to feel important.  Both men felt unloved ad insignificant, but they realized that feeling didn't square with reality.  They were loved by God and significant to Him -- and probably several other people. 

Learning to realign our feelings with the way things are often involves a slow and difficult process.  Knowing the truth that we are loved by God and significant to God means more than simply being able to talk about it.  It's believing within the deepest parts that God loves us no matter what we do.  Here are some ways to sort through feelings and absorb this crucial truth.

Talk about it with someone you trust.  As I began to work through my problem with overeating, I often called a friend.  "I've just downed half a bag of potato chips," I'd say.  "I was feeling miserable."  She would wisely ask me what triggered the negative feelings. 

     One time I explained that I'd just volunteered for a position that scared me.  I asked her (and myself), "Did I volunteer because I want people to notice me or because this is what God is leading me to do?" 

My friend's hugs, grief and laughter made it possible for me to hear and feel God's grace through her.  I saw that she accepted me no matter what, and I began to believe -- really believe -- that God accepted me, too.  The safety of this relationship helps me weed out my unhealthy motives and act on the healthy ones. 

Accountability  Rick looks to his wife for help with his TV sports addiction.   "Several games will be on TV this weekend," he tells her.  "I'll watch one, but no others."  Then they plan how they'll spend together doing things we both enjoy -- walking or gardening or browsing at a farmer's market."

Gil handled his church activity obsession by clarifying his imagined accountability:  "When I feel insecure and guilty about not showing up at church for every activity, I share that with my pastor.  I tell him that I'm committed to the church, but that I can't possibly be there all the time." 

Accountability is a simple application of James 5:16, "Confess your sins to each another, and pray for each other so that you may be healed."  It works best if we don't confess to a fix-it person who slaps a mini-sermon on us and expects our drivenness to evaporate.  When we know we've gotten ourselves off track, we don't need to be told again.  We need someone to listen, to accept us and to ask gently, "What are you going to do about this?" 

Conversations with God  I often work through my feelings by going off by myself and talking it out with God.  Sometimes my words are so slurred and my gestures so exaggerated that if the Old Testament priest Eli were alive and nearby, he would probably mistake me for a drunk as he did Samuel's mother, Hannah.  Like her, I find release in "pouring out my soul to the Lord." (1 Samuel 1:15b). 

God's presence is a good place to reveal our ugliest feelings and far-fetched conclusions.  This is what King David did.  Many of his Psalms begin with expressions of depression, doubt and even revenge (Psalm 6:6, 31:1, 55:15), but they end in praise.  Likewise, when we feel free to be completely honest with God, His presence subtly forces us to look at our motives and bitter feelings.  We sense that God sees beyond our childish behavior to us, His children who need His grace to keep on keeping on.

Journaling  In the privacy of a journal we can admit our feelings -- that we need to be needed or that we need to feel in control of uncontrollable situations and people.  The grammar may be garbled and the penmanship a mere scribble, but the feelings are usually honest. 

In my journal, I address God directly.  Sometimes I reread a paragraph and find I've blamed someone unfairly.  Then I have to ask that important question, How does this feeling square with reality?  I rephrase what I've written until I'm no longer blaming anyone. 

Creative activity Cindy doesn't see herself as an artistic person, but in the loneliness of her marital separation when she felt the urge to read a romance novel, she sketched instead.  Many times she drew a woman sitting in a corner alone in a chair.

"Even though I felt completely alone, I tried to picture the truth by penciling in a mist around the woman to represent God.  I know that God loves me and has a purpose for me, but this helped me believe it." 

Art, especially the pictures of Jesus hanging in my kids' rooms, helps me.  I catch myself lingering before the picture of Jesus hugging a small child and this reminds me that I am not unloved and worthless.  And when I'm terrified of a new task at work, rather than grabbing a Twinkie, I wander into my son's bedroom to look at the picture of Jesus directing a young boy steering a ship through a storm.  For a moment, I admire the confidence in that young boy's face and I absorb the truth that I am not steering my life alone.

You may find that playing an instrument, listening to music, or doing crafts helps.  In fact, any activity that you approach in a creative way can be absorbing and healing.  Many people approach garden and cooking that way

Professional help  When it's difficult to find a non-judgmental person who will listen or when specific direction is needed, counseling can be helpful.  Support groups also help because there we find people to be accountable to who will understand our dilemma. 

An Ounce of Prevention . . .

These tools help us renew our relationship with God and others and a blocked relationship with God lies at the core of many addictions.  For Rick, watching sports replaced interaction with his wife and even with God, who didn't seem to be helping him find a job.  Whatever we can do to relate better to God and others breaks our isolation and helps us become less needy.

Eventually we protect ourselves as soon as sense our neediness festering.  We understand it as a sign to take extra time to talk things out with God, to share honestly with our spouse, to have fun with friends.  In doing so, we inch closer to the goal of being preoccupied with loving and knowing God.  In fact, that’s what facing addicitions are about – our life with God.  They’re not just efforts at self-inprovement. Our bodies and souls were made to run on God, so that sports, food, acquiring things, or even busyness with church activities cannot take the place of a life with God.  The tragedy of many church goers is that they become so distracted by marginal, mediocre activities that they are unable to enjoy the solitude needed to develop a relationship with God.  Some, however, walk through a transforming process similar to the one described above and find themselves open for God to become their constant companion and center of life.


This article originally appeared in Moody.  For more help with these issues, see When Food Is Your Best Friend and Healing Hurts that Sabotage the Soul. {links to those books}.


© Jan Johnson - For permission to reprint, Click Here


Get Jan's Free Monthly Wisbits.   Click here to sign up!

Home  |  Biography  |  Books & DVDs  |  Speaking  |  Articles  |  WisBits  |  Contact

Good Reads

© copyright 2006-2015 Jan Johnson, all rights reserved
Privacy Policy