“God and Addiction”

Mark 5:1-20
Matt Goodale
November 21, 2021

*Most of the insights for this sermon come from my graduate professor, Sonia Waters. A majority of these ideas and the concept of connecting addiction to the Gerasene demoniac come from lecture notes from Waters’ class on mental illness, as well as her phenomenal book, Addiction and Pastoral Care. Her insights are so phenomenal that I could hardly find ways to put them other than to quote her directly.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing up here; and this is one of those days.

Addiction is a difficult topic to preach about, and I do so with much apprehension, because many of us have either experienced firsthand or heard stories of an addiction’s destructive ability to leave piles of wreckage in its wake. Wrecked careers. Wrecked marriages. Wrecked families. Wrecked lives. The wounds from the wreckage caused by addiction do not fade easily.

And as we examine the piles of wreckage and take note of the wounds felt, our first impulse is often to seek blame. We blame our self for giving into an addiction that began harmless enough but then quickly warped into a craving, a need, an infallible desire that possesses our every thought and action. We blame our loved one for making the selfish choice to indulge their addiction even though they know its destroying your relationship, your family and turning them into a shell of their self. We blame our inability to rescue them from what is slowly killing them. Questions such as, what if I could’ve done more, said more, been more to them, echo in our soul.

But it would be too simple to assume that an addict is completely in control of their thoughts and actions. It would be too naïve to assume that an addiction is chosen, that every hit, every drink is a conscious choice, made in spite of the pain the addict knows it causes. It’s only relatively recently that addiction was classified as a mental illness, as a disease in the brain. Researchers have been discovering that addiction is very rarely, if ever, chosen.

I’m not a doctor or a psychologist, so I won’t go into how an addiction develops in the brain and reshapes our cognitive processes (if you want to learn more I can offer you resources). I won’t expound any more other than mentioning that addiction is often tied to genetics and trauma. Addictions at their base, are chronic behaviors that are attempts to survive our lives. These conditions aren’t for pleasure (though they may start out like that), but they’re often about escaping pain. They’re about coping and self-regulating.

I’m not a psychologist though, and so I’m probably not the best person to talk about the neurobiological or psychosocial conditions of addiction. But as a pastor I’m very interested in how we view addiction through a spiritual lens. It’s not enough to understand addiction from merely a biological or psychological perspective—though those are important. Those perspectives help explain, but how do we make meaning from the wreckage left by an addiction? How do we begin to put the pieces of our identity and our soul back together? What does addiction do to our spirituality? What does God think of our addiction or our loved one’s addiction?

These are the questions I’m deeply interested in, because these are the questions that will help facilitate our healing, that will perhaps offer us stepping stones that we can begin to tentatively walk upon. And there’s a powerful story from Mark’s gospel that I think is a crucible for all these questions.

Our story begins on the way to the land of the Gerasenes, as a storm threatens to sink the boat that carries Jesus and the disciples. The disciples gather around Jesus in fear, and they ask him, “Do you care that we’re perishing?” Remember this question, because this is the question that surely guides the story that follows. Because after Jesus calms the storm and the disciples’ fears, and after they make their way across the quieted water to the land of the Gerasenes, they encounter a man caught in the throes of a soul-sickness.

“This man is the embodiment of that stormy sea and he is perishing. He is restless and sleepless. He bruises himself on the rocks without seeming to notice. He moves at the impulse of an inner violent force. No one can control him, though many have tried, using shackles and chains, imprisonment and rejection. He is rejected by those who might once have cared for him.

He is estranged from himself, yet, at the same time, [he is still somehow the agent of his own destruction]. He has been left to deteriorate at the edge of his society, roaming the tombs as if he no longer cares whether he is alive or dead. The frenzied death of the pigs [at the end of the story] suggests that whatever possesses him is powerful, malevolent, and actively damaging. It is a destructive and progressive condition that eventually would lead to his death” (Sonia Waters).

The Gerasene man’s possession helps us to better imagine the suffering of the addict’s soul in distress. This is not to suggest that addiction is demon-possession, but that the possession experienced by the Gerasene man is not so different than an addiction’s possessive hold on an addict’s life. “In this soul-sickness the addict is possessed by his behavior. Much like the Gerasene man, his actions are not completely his own. He can no longer access the beauty of God’s creation or his own belovedness as a child of God. He is dulled to reality, lost in a kind of twilight at the edges of civilization. In the divided mind that now infects him, he is strangely incapable of feeling the consequences of his behavior deeply enough to make a change. What is most compelling to the addict is the storm in his own head—a tightening cycle of stress, mental struggle and self-involvement. He is stuck in a condition of pain, a state of being that has emerged over his continued substance use and has locked into place. [It is a spiritual bondage] that estranges him from self, others and God” (Waters).

And it is in this state that the Gerasene man encounters Jesus. As the wild figure rushes to meet Jesus, he throws himself down upon the ground and begs him, “Do not torment me!” At first it appears that the man is the one begging Jesus not to torment him. Then we realize that it is the demon speaking. Soon we realize that in fact it is a legion of demons that have taken up residence inside of the man and speak now with one voice. “Do not torment me.” Is this the voice of the man, or the legion of demons that now infect his soul? Perhaps it is all of them combined, controlled by the singular will of the possession.

“The Gerasene man’s sickness blurs the lines between agency and possession, action and identity. We could say that the Gerasene is no longer himself, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Gerasene no longer knows himself apart from his demons. The translation of the Greek phrase in Mark, ‘a man in an unclean spirit,’ suggests that the Gerasene has been swallowed up in the demon’s identity, as if an independent agent is operating outside of the man’s will. The needs of the possession are prioritized and they motivate his actions. The Gerasene moves where the demon takes him and speaks through its voice. This points to that strange feeling that one can get when talking to addicts who are in the storm of their condition. They can speak with passion and emotion—even with conviction to change—and yet feel somehow absent, as if something else is doing the talking” (Waters).

The Gerasene’s sickness speaks to the divided mind in an addict’s experience. The addiction seems to have a mind of its own, driving and directing the addict’s thoughts and impulses. “Loved ones often struggle with the feeling that a drug or substance is more important to the addict than they are. And in some sense this is true, but the addict is not evaluating reality or prioritizing action in the way that a normal person would. As one man said, with the purposeful irony that often marks a recovery story: ‘They told me I was a bad example to my little sister, and that really got to me. Because I loved that girl. It didn’t stop me from robbing her blind, of course. But I loved her unconditionally” (Waters).

The divided mind caused by an addiction can at the same time truly desire change, and also do whatever it takes to protect the addictive behavior. Much like the legion of demons seek self-preservation, the addict spirals into more and more of a self-preserved state, because the further into the addiction you go, the less you have to reckon with the wreckage and pain that is piling up. But deep down, even these harmful consequences become part of the addict’s self-identity. “This is who I am” is what he hears over and over again: “I’m bad. I’m worthless. I’m unlovable. I’m punished. I am my own demon.”

Addiction, while changing our brain chemistry, is also more than just a biological condition; it is a condition of spiritual bondage. It is a sickness of the soul in distress. The question that rings out from the soul of one who is in bondage to an addiction is familiar to the question raised by the disciples caught on a boat in a storm: “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?”

There are too many horrible Christian theologies that would say, “No, God doesn’t care that much. You’re getting what you deserve. The consequences of your addiction are the punishment for your sin. You should have chosen better. You should have known better. God cannot be around your sin—your condition is a result of God’s rejection, God’s separation from you. God will save you once you decide to change and sober up.”

But these theologies prove to be empty because of the God who walked among us in Jesus. Because in Jesus, the Holy touched sick and sinful flesh. “Jesus meets the demon-possessed man before he can change himself. There is no need for him to come to consciousness about his spiritual sickness or to repent of his sins before he can draw near to Jesus. Jesus has no plans to punish him, and Mark is careful to tell us that punishment and control have not worked for this man in the past. Instead, Jesus meets him as he is. Jesus meets him and holds him before he is even capable of change, because the Gerasene cannot change his possession alone” (Waters).

This story reminds us that human beings are sacred even in their deepest sicknesses. They do not become sacred once they get sober or cleaned up, once they get healthy again. They are sacred because their suffering is sacred. It is not sacred in the sense of punishment being paid. It is not sacred as a kind of romantic ideal about the specialness of the poor and the outcast. Suffering at its base level is horrendous and should always motivate justice.

“But suffering is sacred, because it is what touches the heart of God. Human fragility touches God so deeply that only God’s presence standing in the midst of it is sufficient response to satiate God’s great compassion for us. God moves toward us, not away from us, because of our suffering. So when we witness another person’s pain and their attempts at survival, we are seeing what moved God to walk among us in Jesus” (Waters). When we witness another’s pain and are let into their most guilt-filled and out-of-control places, then we are seeing what breaks the heart of God.

This is surely what the disciples witnessed. During the storm as they feared for their lives, they asked Jesus, “Do you care that we are perishing?” When the Gerasene man falls at Jesus’ feet on the shore, they find their answer to that question. Jesus cares deeply that we are perishing. Not just our souls in some future life, but right now—here among these tombs, in the possession of these addictions, these attempts at survival.

“As Jesus’ disciples, they feel for the plight of the man [even] as he protects what is trying to kill him. They see his desperation and his need. They feel the estrangement of a divided mind cracked by a pitiless environment. But perhaps most profoundly, the see Jesus there in the middle of that complexity” (Waters). Fortunately, the disciples witness a happy ending to the story. The man is sent home by Jesus to do the hard work of recovery within his community. And I think it’s poignant that Jesus doesn’t let the man follow him. He sends him home to recovery, to do the hard work of repairing with his community.

But we also know from experience that there is not always a happy ending. Many in this congregation know Natalie Downing’s story, the daughter of Ed and Jane Yarwood. With their permission I wanted to share some of the words she wrote while in the throes of her own addiction. These are the words she wrote to her addiction:

“Even after the intense experience you gave me, you cannot be seen as a positive overall, because of all the pain, stagnation, hurt and deceit you brought. You stole my money, you stole my people, you stole my health, but most of all you stole me. You went from doing what I wanted to my doing what you wanted. You took my shine. You are the dark and the shadow” (Natalie Eve Downing). As many of you know, Natalie fought for her family and for her life as long as she could, and a few years ago she died from an overdose.

Tragically, not every story with addiction ends as nicely as Mark’s story. And yet, it is not its ending that justifies God’s love for those entrenched in and possessed by their addiction. It is who they are, who they are created to be, who they belong to, that motivates God’s endless love and grace for them. The happy ending is not the point of this story. The point of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene man is to reveal a God who meets us in our soul-sickness—who loves us in our addiction and despite our addiction—who promises to hold us and keep us, even if the demons of our addiction tear us apart.

Since we are Jesus’ disciples, the conditions of suffering that drew Jesus close are now ours to touch. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” is the question now addressed to us. May we reach out in compassion to those who are in the throes of a terrible soul-sickness. May we be the embodiment of a God who will never let us go, because he loves us much too dearly. Amen.

-That was a heavy sermon. Probably one of the heaviest I’ve preached.

– Part of why it’s so heavy is because I know many of us in this room have experienced the piles of wreckage caused by addiction.

– I did not think it fair to try to paint a rosy picture or put a cherry on top, when the reality is that our lived experiences don’t always come with a cherry on top.

– And yet, part of why we gather here every Sunday is to be reminded that we have a God who meets us where life is least rosy, who enters into those stories and circumstances that seem to end with no hope.

 – And this God who meets us here promises us that our tears, our pains, our wreckage, our soul-sickness will not have the final word. As incomprehensible and as outlandish as that may seem at times, this is the hope that came down to meet us. It is a hope that the story of our lives has a redemptive arc. That our life is not random or meaningless, but that everything has meaning and everything, even our demons, have the ability to draw us close to Jesus.

– Because if it is indeed God’s love that created and sustains the universe, then we and our loved ones are in good hands.

– If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. I can help you process that and point you to the help you need.