Religion that Helps
All spirituality is not religious, and all religion does not necessarily involve spirituality. The Bible indicates, for example, that many people fail to make a spiritual application of biblical teaching to their lives. Jesus called people who do this hypocrites, which is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning actor. The idea is that people only pretend to be something, or act the part, because they are not taking their religion seriously. A religion that is not taken seriously is not of much help to those who want to be free of addiction or make other kinds of behavioral changes in their lives.
Before we look at the positive impact religion can have on addiction, let us look in a more general way at the positive impact religious faith can have on physical health and emotional wellbeing. The positive impact of religion on health is usually attributed to improvement in a person’s psychosocial factors. Psychosocial is a compound word, containing “psycho,” which comes from the Greek word psyche and refers to one’s mind or beliefs, and “social,” which refers to the different ways we relate with other people. So, psychosocial factors refer to those personal beliefs and relationships that impact positively or negatively on our health.
It is often the case that poor relationships are the result of our own attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and others. For example, if we generally have a poor view of others and express our anger easily, it is unlikely that we have a good social network of friends. All of this can lead to social isolation, which tends to encourage negative psychological states like anger, anxiety, and depression. When biblical religion has been internalized, these negative psychological states can be changed for the better, and a natural consequence is that physical health is positively affected. What does all of this have to do with addiction? The point is, addiction prevention and recovery are also affected by positive psychosocial factors.
In general, religion can have many positive effects on people, including improved relationships, peace of mind, better attitudes, reduction of crime, and better physical health. Studies showing the positive relationship of faith and health have had mixed results because religion is not easily defined, and if those who are religious in name only are studied rather than those who have a much greater degree of commitment, then the relation of religion and health may not be apparent.
In an attempt to define religious belief and practice, researchers like Spiegel and Fawzy (2002) have tried to differentiate between religion that has been internalized (intrinsic) and religion that is largely in name only or external (extrinsic). Intrinsic religion represents a faith that is reflected in the practices of one’s life whereas extrinsic religion may be a religion of convenience or social standing. Beneficial factors, like spirituality, meaning, purpose, hope, and social support, are characteristic of intrinsic religion and produce positive psychological states that are believed to slow the progression of diseases like cancer, whereas negative psychological states are thought to encourage its growth.
The positive effect of intrinsic religion on physical health may have a natural explanation, such as the way it enhances the immune system’s fight against diseases (Koenig, 2002), or the health benefits of being in a positive emotional state (Williams, 2002). It could also be a blessing from God like, for example, the promise God made to Israel, “I will take away sickness from among you…I will give you a full life span” (Exodus 23:25). In fact, it could be a combination of all of the above. Since God created humankind, it is reasonable to think that God knows what behaviors and psychological states positively affect health and happiness, and by encouraging us to think and behave in certain ways God is directing us to a healthy and happy lifestyle. These positive factors, along with the avoidance of negative behaviors, are all associated with the lifestyle found in biblical teaching.
Over a generation ago, the foundational work of Friedman and Rosenman (1974) identified the negative effects of hostility and anger on health. In their book, Type A Behavior and Your Heart, the Type A behavior describes an emotional style that is generally angry, competitive, hurried, and impatient. The Bible student should recognize immediately how biblical teaching, when internalized and applied, can positively change Type A behavior. Over the years, researchers have built on the work of Friedman and Rosenman by developing a list of psychosocial factors that contribute to illness and early death. Jeff Levin (2001) summarizes this research and attempts to show a connection between religious involvement and the psychosocial factors that positively affect health. For example, his research found that older adults who participate in church activities have lower rates of depression, less anxiety, and live longer than those who are not religious. What is amazing is that this remains true even when taking in account the degree to which religious people tend to avoid unhealthy behaviors, such smoking and drinking.
Mark and Linda Sobell (1993), who are researchers in the field of alcohol dependence, argue that a “sizable proportion of individuals with alcohol problems can solve their problems on their own if they are sufficiently motivated and are provided with some guidance and support” (xi). Religion can provide the incentive for change as well as a support network of other Christians. For Christians, the greatest motivation for change ought to be that the Bible says drunkenness is a sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). If alcohol addiction is beyond one’s ability to control, then God is asking people to do something that they cannot do, which calls in question the wisdom and truthfulness of Scripture. Yet, as Christians, Paul indicates that we not only have the ability to control our behavior, but the ability to change, “And that is what some of you were” (v. 11).
The moral argument can be a valid tool in the fight against addiction; however, it is only relevant for those who take the Bible and their religion seriously. For those who are not as religious, other cognitive and behavioral approaches work fine, depending on the values and motivation of the client. Although some secular approaches to addiction treatment can be effective, religious people have resources and incentives that can improve their chances of success. When behavior is in conflict with values, a good countering technique is to ask a question, “How do you reconcile your behavior with biblical teaching about drunkenness?” The purpose of pointing out the inconsistency between belief and behavior is not to encourage people to abandon their faith, but to discover an incentive to change.
For those who are actively religious, the church can be the ideal place to find guidance and support. In biblical Christianity, the church is described as a supportive family (Ephesians 3:15; Galatians 6:1-5), and Christians participate in a fellowship in the body of believers (1 Corinthians 12:12). Members of the church family have a responsibility to exhort and encourage one another, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). This would be impossible unless Christians met together regularly, which is what the next verse encourages, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (v. 25). These regular meetings are supposed to involve worship, association, ministry, and eating together (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-33). All of this provides many of the essential ingredients in the prevention of addiction, such as a social support network, individual beliefs and values, and important environmental factors.
J B Myers