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  • Prayer and Addiction

    Anyone in recovery from addiction and/or anyone helping others in recovery knows the importance of confession. In modern times this was popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and the 4th and 5th Steps: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This crucial aspect to the 12 Step solution to addiction, as with all of its respective parts, is rooted in the Bible and the Christian faith. We can see a clear Biblical precedent for the 4th Step in James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV). Indeed, one of the early names of the Oxford Group offshoot that became A.A. was “The James Club”, because the members found so many of their fundamental principles from the New Testament letter of James (c.f. Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers).

    There is no missing the fact that prayer is central to recovery. This is expressed in the 11th Step: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” But the emphasis of Step 11 is personal communion with God, similar to other posts I have written about prayer and meditation. The prayer of James 5:16 is less about communion with God and more about intercession and fellowship with others: “pray for one another”. It is this aspect of prayer as intercession that I want to explore in relation to addiction recovery.

    The connection between confession of sin, intercessory prayer, and healing was made more clear to me after a friend told me about the work of Father Christophe Lepoutre, an Eastern Orthodox priest and psychotherapist. He founded a ministry called The Fellowship of the Inexhaustible Cup ( whose goal “is to provide and establish a network of intercessory prayer and support among its members in order to combat the many destructive forces of addictions present in our day and age.” As a Protestant, there is a lot that I don’t fully understand about this ministry, but it shares roots in the 12 Step approach of A.A. It is the component of intercessory prayer that is especially significant.

    Why is intercessory prayer an essential component to membership in this fellowship? As their membership requirements state, 

    “Each member creates a list of individuals, family members and/or friends that they choose to pray for. Members then share their list with other members creating a ministry of intercession.”

    The first and most obvious answer comes from the second half of James 5:16 “the prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working.” Or as the NIV translates, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” So intercessory prayer is crucial because God can use one person’s prayer to effect healing from addiction for another.

    But I believe there is another dynamic at work in intercessory prayer. It is a dynamic that strikes at the very heart and root of addiction. The Big Book of A.A. explains the problem of addiction thus: “Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles” (4th Edition, p. 62). Bill W., co-founder of A.A., explained that his own initiation into this spiritual path taught him the necessity of the “destruction of self-centeredness” (p. 14 ). This personal lesson was passed on to others: “Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible” (p. 62). After entry into the 12 Step fellowship through this admission in Step 3, there was also the requirement of ongoing assessment for selfish fruit. In Step 7 (“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings”), the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions explains that “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear” (p. 76). And the Big Book gives these instructions regarding Step 10:

    “Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code” (p. 84).

    Notice the movement in the above statement. Step 10 states, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” This echoes the call in James 5:16 for confession, but it appears to stop there. However, the exposition of this step makes it clear that confession of sin, admission of wrongdoing, is insufficient. By itself, this confession will not “destroy” self-centeredness. Rather, it must be accompanied by other-focused love. And that is what intercessory prayer is. That is what prayer does. 

    It lifts the mind and heart out of “the dungeon of self,” as George MacDonald expressed it in a sermon on second great command, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” MacDonald continues, “To have himself, to know himself, to enjoy himself, he calls life; whereas, if he would forget himself, tenfold would be his life in God and his neighbors. The region of man’s life is a spiritual region. God, his friends, his neighbors, his brothers all, are the wide world in which alone his spirit can find room. ‘Himself’ is his dungeon.”

    Intercessory prayer, as an aspect of love for others (Matthew 5:44), lifts us out of the dungeon of self and brings us into the “wide world in which alone [our] spirit can find room.”

    Recovery from addiction is more than prayer, but without prayer, there can be no recovery. Intercessory prayer unites us to others, fulfilling the second great commandment and curing our selfish hearts. The first and greatest commandment is also fulfilled by prayer in which we pour out our exclusive love for God. This too serves to cure our selfishness, but that requires another post.

    I will end with a statement from the desert father Evagrios of Pontus. He may well have had James 5:16 when he counseled, “Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.” When I pray for my brother or sister, earnestly desiring that God heal brokenness and rescue from sin, if the desire is true, I will of necessity desire the same for myself. If I don’t desire the same rescue, it’s quite likely that my heart reflects the self-centered arrogance of the Pharisee of Luke 18: “God, I thank you that I am not like _____, a drunkard, an adulterer, a porn addict, a gambler, a workaholic. Help _____ stay sober.” 

    May it never be! Rather, may my prayer simply be, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” This fulfills the first great commandment. And a prayer of the second great commandment is likewise simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on _______.”