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Recovering from the Recovery Movement

by Ron Rhodes

The words “addiction” and “recovery” have become household words in our society. The song “Addicted to Love” was a number one best seller this past year in the secular rock music world. At the time of this writing, the album “Addicted to Jesus,” by Carmen, is the top selling Christian album in the United States. Today recovery experts tell us that people with various behavioral problems are addicted to those behaviors. Hence, there are not only drug and alcohol addicts, but also sex addicts, love addicts, money addicts, shoplifting addicts, child abuse addicts, fast boat addicts, successful business addicts, religious addicts, and a host of others.


Such “addicts” are in need of “recovery,” we are told, and the recovery industry has virtually exploded in the past decade. One indicator of this is that the Hallmark company has recently released a “recovery” line of 51 cards. The company is also marketing recovery bookmarks, buttons, key chains, framed prints, mugs, journals, magnets, T-shirts, and even self-stick notes.


The marketing experts at Hallmark say that 15 million Americans now attend weekly support groups for chemical addictions and other problems. (Some “experts,” as we shall see, place the figure much, much higher.) Another 100 million relatives are cheering on their addicted loved ones. This means that half of all Americans are either “in recovery” or helping someone who is.[1]


Statistics reveal that between 1978 and 1984 private residential treatment centers increased by 350 percent in this country and case loads quadrupled. This was largely due to the marketing savvy of the recovery industry.[2] As well, experts say that there are now as many as five hundred thousand self-help (recovery) group meetings every week in America.[3]


Citing figures much higher than Hallmark’s, an article entitled “Making Room for the Recovery Boom” in a recent issue of Library Journal reports that there are now 140 different kinds of support groups in this country with approximately 45 million members. Recovery is “everywhere,” the Journal reports, and “there are a plethora of titles from publishers.”[4]

There are recovery groups for just about any problem one can imagine. Groups include Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Spenders Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Fundamentalists Anonymous, Parents Anonymous, Child Abusers Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Shoplifters Anonymous, Pills Anonymous, and Emotions Anonymous.


Many such groups teach those who attend that they are “diseased” by their addiction. Messies Anonymous, for example, teaches that messy housekeeping is a disease. Kleptomaniacs Anonymous teaches that stealing is a disease. Compulsive Shoppers Anonymous teaches that consumerism is a disease. Even Christian recovery writers speak of behavioral problems as “diseases.”[5] Apparently, we live in a very sick society.


Recovery writers tell us that a key component in recovering from behavioral “addictions” is that one’s present problems are inextricably connected to past traumas. One cannot recover, we are told, without understanding and analyzing these bygone hurts. The ghosts of the past must be silenced.


In their book Love Is a Choice, Roger Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier say that “our concept of family and adulthood is shaped by our childhood, and we are bound (or condemned, some would say) to repeat the family experience we remember” (emphasis in original).[6] Indeed, they say, “unresolved issues in childhood, particularly matters having to do with abuse or neglect, doom the emerging adult to recreate, to repeat, the past. This compulsive need effectively eliminates freedom of choice. It is infinitely worse for the Christian. The ability to hear and follow God’s will is stifled. The compulsion becomes the guiding force.”[7]


From reading the above, it is clear that Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier (and other Christian recovery writers) place a heavy emphasis on subconscious drives, motivations, and compulsions. Stressing the importance of the subconscious mind, Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier write: “Only a small percentage of the brain is under conscious control. We are responsible for this part of our thought processes. The vast majority of brain function is subconscious.”[8] Moreover, they point out, only “twenty percent of our decisions come from the conscious, reasoning mind. The rest come from deep within.”[9] By examining our past, we are told, we can resolve some of the subconscious turmoil that is disrupting our behavior in the present.


Another related assumption in the recovery movement is that a lack of self-esteem is largely responsible for much of what is wrong in our lives. A brochure for the (Christian) Rapha Hospital Treatment Centers tells us that “at the core of all emotional problems and addictive disorders is low self-worth.”[10] The matching assumption is that if one’s self-esteem is properly restored, then such problems can be largely corrected. The restoration of self-esteem in the “addict” is often viewed as the critical factor in helping an individual “recover.”[11]



In preparing for this article, I read over a dozen Christian recovery books. Having done this, I have no hesitation in affirming that the writers in the Christian recovery movement are committed evangelical Christians. In most of the books I found clear affirmations of the essentials of the Christian faith — including man’s sin problem, Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, and the need to place faith in Christ for salvation.[12] And most affirm that, ultimately, God is the answer to our “dependency” problems.[13] Nevertheless, I have serious reservations about certain aspects of the Christian recovery movement.

The Mislabeling of Behavioral Problems

Critics have argued — correctly, in my view — that it is illegitimate to apply labels such as “addiction” to behaviors. Dr. John Temerin at Cornell Medical School has commented that “the whole concept of addiction is in danger of becoming meaningless.” He also notes that “calling any kind of compulsive habit people have trouble managing an addiction moves addiction far away from the basic meaning, which is a biological dependence.”[14]


Along these same lines, an article on recovery in the New York Times cited the Psychiatric News, which said: “Addiction medicine is at risk of becoming the laughingstock of the medical community by forcing everything into a Procrustean model of addiction.”[15] Procrustes was a giant in Greek mythology who seized travelers and made them all fit in a bed, either by stretching them or cutting off their legs.


Another example of mislabeling is the practice of calling behavioral problems “diseases.” Now, of course, there are some mental disorders that can affect behavior — schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of depression — that are associated with physical diseases. But does this mean that behavior can be diseased?


It is critical to recognize that there is an element of volition in behavior that is not present in real, biological diseases. People do not succumb to apoplexy the way they succumb to adultery. Stanton Peele, in his book Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control, says that “disease definitions undermine the individual’s obligation to control behavior and to answer for misconduct. They legitimatize, reinforce, and excuse the behaviors in question — convincing people, contrary to all evidence, that their behavior is not their own.”[16]

Critics thus emphasize that a “disease” is something one has; “behavior” has to do with what one does. Addressing this issue, anthropologist Melvin Konner said: “We would all like to point at an illness — a psychiatric label — and say of our weak or bad actions, ‘That thing, the illness, did it, not me. It.’ But at some point we must draw ourselves up to our full height, and say in a clear voice what we have done and why it was wrong. And we must use the word ‘I’ not ‘it’ or ‘illness.’ I did it. I. I.”[17]


Now, to be fair, despite the fact that a number of Christian therapists have bought in to the disease model of behavioral addiction, they nevertheless emphasize personal responsibility much more than their secular counterparts.[18] They point out that one’s so-called addiction to a particular behavior does not absolve him or her from being responsible for that behavior.[19] However, I agree with those who say we should dispel with the “disease” concept of behavior altogether. Whether recovery writers want to admit it or not, calling a behavioral problem a “disease” can lessen one’s sense of personal responsibility for engaging in that behavior.


Roots in Humanistic Psychology

Another problem I see is that, despite their Christian orientation, many Christian recovery writers have undiscerningly based much of their recovery model on assumptions rooted in the writings of humanistic and other secular psychologists — including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Alfred Adler, William James, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow. These assumptions include the conscious-mind/subconscious-mind dichotomy, the effect of the subconscious mind on behavior, the past-present connection, and the self-esteem theory.


Now, it’s not that such assumptions necessarily are false in every respect. It is possible for nonchristians — including humanistic psychologists — to stumble upon true principles of human behavior. And these could be integrated into a biblical framework by discerning Christians to help suffering people. However, on the basis of these assumptions, humanistic psychologists have developed larger theories on the nature of man and the method of changing man’s behavior that are contrary to biblical teaching on these subjects.[20] Unfortunately, these larger theories have been uncritically accepted by many Christian writers. To illustrate my point, let us briefly consider two of the fundamental assumptions recovery writers make regarding how to change human behavior.


Self-Esteem. Is the reestablishing of self-esteem the key to “recovery?” While I believe there is a biblical basis for the Christian’s sense of worth that is based on being created in the image of God and being the object of God’s love (as evidenced by Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross), I believe the answer to this question must be no. First, scientific studies have shown no cause-and-effect link between self-esteem and behavioral problems.[21] Moreover, when self-esteem is given priority it can easily conflict with the development of traits which the Bible accords much greater priority: self-denial and genuine humility (Mark 8:34-35; Rom. 12:3; Eph. 3:8; Phil. 2:3; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5).


Related to this, based on reading a representative sampling of Christian recovery books, I don’t think the doctrine of total depravity has received sufficient recognition in the recovery movement. Yes, Christian recovery leaders clearly acknowledge that people are infected by sin.[22] However, more often than not the bad in our lives is presented as being more the result of unjust social conditions or growing up in a bad environment. As one critic put it, “in place of the idea of original sin, recovery experts put forward their own first cause of all our ills — the American [dysfunctional] family.”[23]


C. K. Chesterton once observed that the doctrine of fallen man is a Christian belief for which there is overwhelming empirical evidence.[24] Indeed, as one looks at the evidence, it would seem that our psychologized society is not getting any better. If anything, it seems that people (and society) are “sicker” than ever.

We must emphasize that regardless of the attainment of self-esteem, people will continue to behave badly and suffer the consequences for their actions because they have a nature that is bent on evil. Feeling good about ourselves will not remove or alter this depravity. Hence, seeking self-esteem as a solution to inappropriate behavior seems misguided.


Focusing on the Past. I do not deny a past-present connection regarding how people behave. But I do question whether such an in-depth examination of one’s past history and “resolving” childhood conflicts is a precondition to correct or appropriate behavior. I can’t go along with the idea that “we are bound (or condemned, some would say) to repeat the family experience we remember” (emphasis in original), and that “unresolved issues in childhood doom the emerging adult to recreate, to repeat, the past.”[25] This is too fatalistic for me. Besides, experts tell us that peoples’ memories can and often do distort the facts to one degree or another.[26] Hence, a detailed investigation into the events of one’s past may not yield an accurate picture of what actually happened in that distant time anyway.


The apostle Paul had a legalistic upbringing, and was guilty of severely persecuting the church prior to his conversion. But instead of focusing on the past, he declared, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Should this not be our modus operandi as well?


Frankly, I like what secular writers Stan Katz and Aimee Kiu say about analyzing the past: “It’s a bit like trying to drive a car while looking only in the rear view mirror. You don’t get very far that way, and you run the risk of a crack-up. I prefer to check the rear view from time to time, making sure that the reflection is accurate, but concentrate most of my attention on the road ahead. Only if I see something gaining on me from behind do I stop to deal with it.”[27]

Recovery Groups: A Replacement for the Church?


A serious problem I see with some who attend Christian recovery groups is that they come to consider the group a virtual replacement for the church, something that should never happen. An article on recovery in Christianity Today notes that “the problem comes when recovery from addictions becomes salvation in some final sense, and the therapy group becomes a church substitute.”[28] Such concerns are all the more urgent when we hear statements like that of psychologist Henry Cloud: “The recovery movement makes for a much more biblical church than we’ve seen so far.”[29]


Dale Ryan, the executive director of the National Association for Christian Recovery, acknowledges that “support groups are by no means a replacement for the local church.” But, he points out, “some go to a support group and find a level of honesty and integrity about life that is in contrast to what they experience in church. They wonder why one seems real and one seems pretend. It can be very confusing.”[30]


Certainly, the church must take its failures seriously and remedy its past ineffectiveness in helping people deal with behavioral problems. But the church must remain the central institution for the gathering and helping of God’s people, not a treatment center that involves thousands of dollars in expenses (even for minimal treatment).


Related to the above, it seems that the recovery movement has, to some extent, undermined the authority of pastors and others who minister in the local church. In a Christianity Today article, Stanton L. Jones of Wheaton College notes that “overpromotion of professional [psychological] services has undermined the confidence of clergy and laypersons in their capacity to minister effectively in the name of Christ.”[31]


This undermining is reflected in a 1991 Christianity Today survey: “29 percent of readers have received counseling for themselves or a close family member within the past three years; they were three times more likely to receive it from a professional counselor or psychologist than from a pastor.” For readers of Today’s Christian Women, the percentage was even higher: 38 percent.[32] These statistics reveal an alarming lack of confidence in the abilities of local pastors to counsel church members, a phenomenon due in no small part to the marketing efforts of those in the recovery movement.


From my perspective, the pastor of the local church should be the primary counselor for the Christian. This is not to say that a biblically oriented recovery group is never warranted. Sometimes it may be. But why not make the pastor — who interprets life’s problems through the lens of Scripture — the first step in the recovery process? Through a solid course of biblical (nonhumanistic) counseling from the pastor, the counselee may obtain all he or she needs to deal with his or her particular behavior problem.


Such biblical counseling should include:

An emphasis on the importance of becoming biblically literate. Biblical doctrine enables us to develop a realistic world view, without which we are doomed to ineffectual living (Matt. 22:23-33; Rom. 12:3; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). Moreover, doctrine can protect us from false beliefs that can lead to destructive behavior (1 Tim. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 2:18; Tit. 1:11).


An emphasis on what the Bible says about the nature of man — including his soul (1 Pet. 2:11), his spirit (Rom. 8:16), his heart (Heb. 4:12), his conscience (1 Pet. 2:19), his mind (Rom. 12:2), as well as his sin nature and its effects (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:18; Rom. 1:18—3:20). An accurate understanding of man’s nature is a prerequisite for prescribing the correct treatment for a particular behavioral problem.


A thorough understanding of man’s sin nature is especially important. Too often, recovery experts speak of getting rid of “character defects” in the patient. However, the whole “old” self is defective or depraved (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:18; Rom. 1:18—3:20) and must go. As one critic put it, we do not need a tune-up in our lives. We need a brand new engine.


An emphasis on the threefold enemy of the Christian — (1) the world (including the things of the world, which are expressions of “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does,” 1 John 2:16); (2) the flesh (the sinful nature itself, which is bent on sexual immorality, impurity, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, and drunkenness, Gal. 5:20-21); and (3) the Devil (who seeks to tempt us [1 Cor. 7:5], deceive us [2 Cor. 11:14], afflict us [2 Cor. 12:7], and hinder us [1 Thess. 2:18]). All three of these “enemies” have some bearing on human behavior.

An emphasis on dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Scripture tells us that self-control is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). And as we “walk” in the spirit (habitually depend upon the Spirit) (v. 25), such fruit will inevitably grow in our lives.


An emphasis on the sufficiency of God’s grace in the midst of trying circumstances (2 Cor. 12:9-10). As the apostle Paul discovered, God’s grace enables us to cope with difficulties that can be overwhelming when approached through human strength alone.


An emphasis on the role faith plays in the midst of trying circumstances (Heb. 11). Scripture says that without faith it is impossible to please God (v. 6). It is also true that without faith in God it is impossible to effectively deal with behavioral problems and live victorious Christian lives (cf. Acts 15:9; 1 Thess. 5:8).


A counseling regimen based on these and other practical truths may completely solve the counselee’s problem. (There are a number of good materials available for those interested in a truly biblical method of counseling.[33]) But if, during the course of biblical counseling, it is determined that a biblically oriented (nonhumanistic) recovery group would be helpful, then that becomes an option at this point.


I’m convinced that small groups can be beneficial — if the purpose of the small group is to console, compassionately listen, empathize, and share experiences with one another. These are the hallmarks of true friendship, and such activity can contribute greatly to the healing of an individual who has been ravaged in some way in our impersonal and often callous world.


During the time the counselee is attending the group, however, I believe he or she should continue to meet with the pastor so that progress can be monitored. This way, the pastor can still play a significant role in the recovery process and continue to offer instructive counsel and prayer support. And once the person has recovered, he or she can then serve as a shining example to others of the truth of Paul’s inspiring affirmation: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).


1 Marilyn Gardner, “The Marketing of ‘Recovery,’” The Christian Science Monitor, 19 May 1992, 12.


2 Melinda Blau, “Adult Children Tied to the Past,” American Health, July-August 1990, 61.


3 Robert Hemfelt, Richard Fowler, Frank Minirth, Paul Meier, The Path To Serenity (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 4.


4 Alice Dowd, “Making Room for the Recovery Boom,” Library Journal, 1 May 1992, 49.


5 Hemfelt, Fowler, Minirth, and Meier, 8; Alfred Ells, One-Way Relationships (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990), 53; Stephen Arterburn, Addicted to “Love” (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books, 1991), 215; Grant Martin, When Good Things Become Addictions (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), 24.


6 Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier, Love Is a Choice (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990), 27.


7 Ibid., 135.


8 Hemfelt, Fowler, Minirth, and Meier, 62.


9 Ibid., 65.


10 “Road to Recovery,” Rapha Hospital Treatment Centers, Houston, TX.


11 Pat Springle, Learning More about Codependency (Dallas, TX: Rapha Publishing/Word, 1991), 2, 3, 20.


12 Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier, 277-78; Hemfelt, Fowler, Minirth, and Meier, 77-78, 126, 233; Martin, 166; Arterburn, 136.


13 E.g., Arterburn, 136.


14 Daniel Goleman, “As Addiction Medicine Gains, Experts Debate What It Should Cover,” New York Times, 31 March 1992, B6.


15 Ibid.


16 Stanton Peele, Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1989), 27-28.


17 Melvin Konner, “The I of the Storm,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, 8 October 1989, 17.


18 E.g., Springle, 59.


19 Arterburn, 113-14.


20 Martin and Deidre Bobgan, critics of Christian psychology, met with Christian Research Institute’s research staff and gave convincing evidence for this position. While I do not agree with everything the Bobgans set forth in their books, I believe they are right on this point.


21 Andrew M. Mecca, Neil J. Smelser, and John Vasconcellos, eds., The Social Importance of Self-Esteem (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).


22 E.g., Arterburn, 113.


23 Michael Vincent Miller, “How We Suffer Now,” The New York Times Book Review, 17 May 1992, 43.


24 William K. Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 40.


25 Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier, 27, 135.


26 Stan J. Katz and Aimee E. Kiu, The Codependency Conspiracy (New York: Warner Books, 1991), 105-23.


27 Ibid., 106.


28 Tim Stafford, “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps,” Christianity Today, 22 July 1991, 19.


29 Tim Stafford, “Franchising Hope,” Christianity Today, 18 May 1992, 26.


30 Michael G. Maudlin, “Addicts in the Pew,” Christianity Today, 22 July 1991, 21.


31 Stanton L. Jones, “Demonizing the Head Doctors,” Christianity Today, 16 September 1991, 21.


32 Stafford, “Franchising Hope,” 24.


33 Write the author at Christian Research Institute for a bibliography of suggested materials.

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