Gerald 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.