A Review of “Addiction and Grace” by Gerald May

addictionandgraceGerald May was a psychiatrist and spiritual counselor at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. The combination of those two roles has given him a unique perspective and a unique voice. As he writes about the nature and treatment of addictions these two influences shape his work. As a unique approach he offers some compelling and attractive insights, and yet one of his major themes remains ill-defined. The “grace” in Addiction and Grace is formed from such a generic spirituality that it offers nothing concrete from which to draw real hope of change.

May had spent years working with addicts. One of the surprising things he discovered in that time is that traditional psychotherapy is ineffective in treating addicts. In fact the situation is so dire that, in his view, only grace can make a difference. In May’s words:

I think our failure is necessary, for it is in failure and helplessness that we can most honestly and completely turn to grace. Grace is our only hope for dealing with addiction, the only power that can truly vanquish its destructiveness. Grace is the invincible advocate of freedom and the absolute expression of perfect love. (16)

Addictions make us helpless and helpless is where we need to be to experience the true power of grace. Grace alone changes us and we need to embrace it. His concept of grace, however, leaves much to be desired.

For May, addictions are related to “attachments,” and it is the “attachment of desire” to specific objects which causes an addiction. Attachment is “the process that enslaves desire and creates the state of addiction” (14). The object of the addiction, whether drugs or alcohol or sex or routine – or countless other things – are not the primary issue. Rather, it is “our clinging to these objects, grasping for them, becoming obsessed with them” which is the issue (18). In his view, addictions are an effort on our part to find a false sense of love. We were created for love but we seek it apart from the Creator. May, like many Biblical Counselors, sees addiction as a type of idolatry. He writes:

The objects of our addiction become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It is, as one modern spiritual writer has called it, a “counterfeit of religious presence.” (13)

Attachment causes addictions because our idolatrous desires make objects little gods to which we become addicted. There is a great truth here that every Biblical counselor can appreciate.

The book has many great qualities. The various themes that this book picks up on are all relevant to my own work and practice. He touches on idolatry, habituation, desire, worship, and, obviously, grace. His discussion of the impact of drugs on the brain is fascinating and insightful. The physiological and psychological impact of addiction is an area that Biblical counselors need to continue to study and be sensitive to in our care for those struggling with these issues. May also delves into the values of prayer and Scripture in his work. Not in the exact way that a Biblical counselor might, and yet we can still appreciate his use of these practices in the process of healing and transformation. Ultimately, however, it is May’s use of the term “grace” that leaves so much to be desired.

May identifies as a Christian, and I have no reason to doubt his faith. Yet, throughout the book he borrows from and interacts with all kinds of generic spirituality. He speaks positively of Buddhism and Hinduism. He champions practices of meditation that are far more New Age than Christian, and he speaks of God’s love in vague and nebulous ways. He defines grace simply as “God’s love.” He writes:

For Christians, grace is the dynamic outpouring of God’s loving nature that flows into and through creation in an endless self-offering of healing, love, illumination, and reconciliation. It is a gift that we are free to ignore, reject, ask for, or simply accept. And it is a gift that is often given in spite of our intentions and errors.(17)

The definition is noted for its complete lack of gospel language. The mention of grace apart from the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is a surprising thing for a Christian author to do. It is especially surprising to speak of the healing power of grace apart from Jesus. This is the biggest shortcoming of the book.

Addiction and Grace is a compelling and fascinating work. Despite being written in 1988, there is much about it that is still relevant. I found myself applauded and underlining many statements throughout the book. It’s lack of clarity on grace, however, makes it a tool of generic spirituality, not of Christianity. The emphasis on grace is right, but it is only the grace of God through Jesus Christ that brings real transformation. We need more specificity than May gives us to believe that grace can change us.


  1. How shortsighted and prejudiced you are, dismissing the value of anything Buddhist, Hindu or New Age. I am an ordained Independent Catholic priest and my studies of Buddhist and New Age literature continue to inform my spirituality. Shame on you for being so narrowminded.

    1. I agree. I am an ordained Roman Catholic priest and Gerald May is one of the most inclusive (Godly!) saints I have known. Pastors that exclude are NOT the “way” of Jesus.

  2. You said that an emphasis on “grace through Jesus” . . . “brings real transformation” and that you were disappointed that May does not provide “specificity” to this point concerning the transforming power of grace. Could you recommend a book that focuses on “grace through Jesus” specifically for those in recovery?

    1. Great question, John. There is, sadly, a shortage of good literature, in my opinion, addressing recovery from a Biblical perspective. More work needs to be done in this area from within my own discipline of Biblical Counseling. The resource we use currently in our program is Ed Welch’s Crossroads. It’s a workbook that guides readers into a growing relationship with God as part and parcel of their recovery. Welch is a neuropyschologist and Biblical Counselor and so he is able to interact at both the level of the brain and the soul. Yet he puts an emphasis on addiction as a worship disorder with a solution oriented in Jesus Christ. It has its own shortcomings as a resource, but I like Crossroads generally.

  3. I love May’s books, partly because they include other faith traditions. We can learn more by sharing wisdom.

  4. Pastor Dave – I haven’t read anything in the Book that denies grace to all of humanity (just refer to your own Bible which talks at length about the Subject of Grace) I haven’t the foggiest idea of your definition of a ‘Biblical Counselor’ – I am not too sure what brand of theological insights in your discourse of May’s Book – neither does he talks about this book is focused on a special brand of Theological Ideology which you constantly refer to but all willing to accept his discourse on Addiction. I’ve been a Christian Priest for over 15 years and this book speaks volumes about healing the broken spirit of those in addiction – ‘you verbiage ‘leaves much to be desired’ is awkwardly unacademic and theologically naïve – simple minded – spiritually unsound. I hope that you would just embrace gratitude and grace in your work with humanity – there is so much of ‘cleaning’ up of the Addictions in your Christian Church – ‘we should first take out the plank from our own eyes before taking out the sawdust from our brothers eye’ – I share this post with the utmost love and grace with you.
    Dr. Rogers Govender (PhD)

  5. Pastor Dave, I wholeheartedly agree. I read much of this book, as I have loved ones struggling with addiction and I came to the same conclusion. The redemptive power of Christ is not included. In Romans Paul declares ‘ For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.’ Period. No such power in Buddha, Mohammed, Confusius or any Hindu gods. Their ‘spiritual wisdom’ may give you a warm fuzzy for a moment, but it does not have the power to set you free. All Glory to God.

    1. Hi Shelley. I know you wrote this comment several years ago, but I just have to say that I can’t imagine you really read most of the book if that’s the conclusion you came to. The author never says anything about finding hope or freedom in Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, etc… not a single time does he say that actually (I’m on my 4th time reading it in 7 weeks and can assure you that’s true). He says that many of those beliefs actually also depend on a form of grace for their condition of hopelessness. He’s stating that they recognize their dire situation and also recognize that their only hope lies in grace. I think it’s implied (and even stated) that they have misplaced hope in a misplaced form of grace. If you did read “much” of the book, you might consider reading the entire thing before commenting and saying that you “agree” with someone else’s perspective on it. This is an amazing book and I’m seeing amazing things happen in my life and lots of other men around me because of it. God is using this book in my community like I haven’t seen in a long time! Praise God for it!

  6. This was an immensely helpful review!! Thank you for your insights and comments pastor Dave. I pray God raises up other Christian counselors with a clear biblical vision of Grace. On the subject of addiction, christians need to urge one another to do the hard work of putting pen to paper in light of God’s Word. There’s a desperate need for it.

    1. Henri, if you haven’t read it, I would highly encourage you to read this book. It’s an amazing book, even it has shortcomings or fails to discuss everything it could have possibly discussed.

  7. Your review of this book was very helpful Pastor Dave. I have read it at least four times and highlighted so much of it. May was a brilliant therapist and he has some amazing insights and I always get some thing with each reading. But I have always been left feeling that something was missing in his writing, and for me personally, it was the name of Jesus. I, also, see many good things within other religions, but there is no other name I wish we can be saved except that of Jesus Christ. So, I appreciate you pointing out what I have felt every time I’ve read his book.

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