Addictions never stay at the level of behavior alone. Eventually the strike at our very sense of self. The deeper we go into an addiction the more we may feel that it becomes us. We don’t simply do our addiction, then, we become it. Such a path certainly impacts our emotions, but those emotions can also help identify the problem. The experience of shame over an addiction may be a signal that we have reformulated our identity around our addiction.
Guilt and shame, though often associated, are not the same thing. Guilt stems from what we do, while shame stems from who we think we are. Guilt is the negative emotional response to our behavior, which acknowledges that what we have done is wrong. Shame is the negative emotional response to what we think about ourselves, the belief that we are wrong. The distinction is important. Since shame is about identity, the deeper our experience of shame the more hopeless we can feel about our recovery. Paul Tripp explains:
In fact, the longer we struggle with a problem, the more likely we are to define ourselves by that problem (divorced, addicted, depressed, co-dependent, ADD). We come to believe that our problem is who we are. But while these labels may describe particular ways we struggle as sinners in a fallen world, they are not our identity! If we allow them to define us, we will live trapped within their boundaries. (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, 260)
Addictions can alter our sense of identity and enslave us further. As Brad Hambrick writes, “Once a struggle has become who we are, we feel even more powerless to change it” (“Overcoming Addiction”, 27). Shame is one indicator that we’ve begun down that path.
Addictions impact our identity in two ways. First, maintaining an addiction requires users to give up significant parts of their pre-addiction life. They are forced to abandon dreams, jobs, family ties, moral convictions, and more. The deeper an addiction goes and the more long-term it is the greater the sacrifices will be on the part of the active user. As a result, significant parts of who they were are being left behind in pursuit of drugs and/or alcohol. Second, part of our identity is shaped by maturation. As we have our beliefs about ourselves and our world challenged, reinforced, or refined we grow. Substance abusers, however, are not interested in engaging in such activities. There is a cost to this sort of engagement, an emotional vulnerability that most addicts seek to avoid. In the process, then, they are denying a significant part of their own maturation, an aspect of increased self-awareness and identity-formation.
In place these two key elements of self is the addiction. The addiction itself becomes the key marker of identity. Who I am, in these scenarios, becomes synonymous with what I do. Shame, for those whose moral conscience has not been seared (1 Tim. 4:2), evidences this identity shift. I feel shame because I hate myself. I feel shame because what I do evidences that I am “a bad person.” The deeper I experience that shame the more hopeless I feel and the less willing I am to fight for change.
The great problem with this is that from the start the addict has sought to shape his identity apart from God. Who we are can never be fully realized apart from the Divine. Since God is our creator and Lord, He determines our true identity. The pursuit of autonomy and the refusal to submit to God’s loving Lordship can lead a person down the path to addiction, as they seek to obtain pleasure and escape pain on their terms. The longer a person lives with their addiction, however, the greater hold it achieves on their own sense of self. In both cases, pre-addiction and within addiction, the user is seeking some sense of self-awareness and knowledge of His world apart from the Divine author. Even some recovery programs encourages addicts to see themselves, forever and always, as “addict.” “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” they are taught to repeat. Such views, in the words of Kent Dunnington, “run the risk of rehearsing the illusion at the heart of all addiction, and indeed at the heart of all sin, namely the illusion that we can know who we are apart from our relationship to God” (Addiction and Virtue, 182). Apart from God we cannot know ourselves. But in God there is hope for identity renewal.
Knowing God helps me to see my guilt and shame clearly. Yes, I am a sinner, and any right understanding of God will give me this identity. But also in God I learn of the gospel which is the redemption of sinners, so that I don’t have to remain enemy of God (Eph. 2:11-22). Now I have peace with God, I am called a friend, His child even. I have been forgiven, and I am made a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). My identity has been re-formed, so that now I am not sinner, not addict, not alcoholic. Rather, I am “Christian.” The deeper my relationship with God goes, then, the more rightly I see myself.
The problem with addiction, both for those just beginning and those engaged in long-term use, is that they believe they are the center of their story. They get into addiction because of this line of thinking, and they stay stuck because of this line of thinking. God disavows me of this self-centeredness. Dunnington explains:
Thus Christian worship graciously displaces us from being the center of our story and instead incorporates us into the story of God. Worship of the triune God releases us from the need to justify ourselves through strategies of self-deception by continually revealing that we are justified by Christ alone. And worship of the triune God relieves us of the burden of achieving our own identity and sustaining our own story by drawing us, through the work of the Spirit, into the life of God. (178)
In God I find who I really am. Shame is dismantled in Christ because a new identity is given in Christ. “The old has gone,” says Paul, “and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Shame says, “I am my addiction.” Our emotions will tempt us to believe that lie and rehearse it to ourselves. Some counseling will even commend that idea to us. Christ, however, would take that identity from us and give us a new one. In Him we may still struggle with an addiction, but there is hope of freedom because I am not my struggle. Rather, I am a “Christian.” That identity empowers me, then, to fight sin and find transformation.