The Power of Powerlessness: The Role of Spiritual Surrender and Interpersonal Confession in the Treatment of Addictions

By Dyslin, Christopher W. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Power of Powerlessness: The Role of Spiritual Surrender and Interpersonal Confession in the Treatment of Addictions


Dyslin, Christopher W., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Empirical studies regarding substance abuse in the Christian church are reviewed, and a psychological model, proposing an analogous pathway for religious experiences and substance abuse, is examined as an explanation for addictive disorders in church populations. The article focuses on one element addressed by the analogous pathway model, common in many spiritually-based recovery programs, and derived from the core teachings of orthodox Christianity-spiritual surrender. The construct of spiritual surrender is defined, anchored in Christian Scripture, and identified through its roots in the contemplative Catholic tradition and integrated (spiritual/psychological) approaches to addiction recovery. The key role of interpersonal confession in spiritual surrender is identified, and a psycho-spiritual approach to substance abuse and addiction treatment, revolving around interpersonal confession and penitential living, is considered.

Chemical addiction is a powerful, common, and very destructive force in our culture. It has been estimated that there are 35 million alcohol abusers in America alone. Given the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) statistics on alcohol and poly-drug abuse, the rate of chemical dependency in America has been estimated to affect 15 to 20 percent of the population (Cummings & Cummings, 2000). The cost to society of substance abuse and dependence, although difficult to measure, has been estimated at over 100 billion dollars annually in terms of specialty care, medical consequences, and accident, business and crime losses (NIAAA, 1998).

Although the Christian church has historically held negative attitudes toward drunkenness which is seen as a sin against the commonly accepted virtue of temperance (Ashley, 1990; Hewitt, 1980; Royce & Scratchley, 1990), problems of substance abuse and addiction continue to affect church members. Research suggests that members of the Roman Catholic Church, which holds a generally supportive view concerning alcohol use, are the most likely among all religious adherents to engage in frequent binge drinking (Michalak, Trocki & Bond, 2007). While there is evidence that fundamentalist Protestant religious beliefs may protect adolescents against problem drinking behavior (Brown, Parks, Zimmerman & Phillips, 2001; Carlucci, et al., 1993; cf. Booth & Martin, 1998), conversely, there is some evidence that binge drinking behavior is higher among adolescents in more prescriptive denominations, i.e., denominations that discourage the use of alcohol (Kutter & McDermott, 1997). The relationship between adult religious beliefs and alcohol abuse may be even more complex. Bock, Cochran & Beeghley (1987) found that religiosity failed to influence the abuse of alcohol among adults, and two more recent studies provide support for this notion as it pertains to drinkers within prescriptive denominations. Based on their analyses of two large U.S. data sets containing alcohol use patterns and membership and adherence rates for 149 religious denominations, Holt, Miller, Naimi & Sui (2000) concluded that Evangelical Protestants tended to have lower rates of drinking and binge-drinking, yet among those Evangelical Protestants who use alcohol the inverse relationship did not hold for binge drinking, suggesting that, despite their religious affiliations, some adhérants of prescriptive denominations still drink excessively. In another recent study, Michalak et al. (2007), using a large national sample, found a strong positive correlation (.90) between abstinence from alcohol and membership in prescriptive denominations, yet those in the sample who were members of prescriptive denominations and still drank alcohol were not any less likely to be heavy drinkers (.03 correlation between prescriptive denomination adherence and heavy drinkers). That is, if one does drink alcohol, being in a prescriptive denomination does not protect one against heavy alcohol use. …

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