“So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (I Thess. 5: 6 ESV).
I recently finished reading The Book of Waking Up by Seth Haines and it was fantastic. It’s a book every Christian should read. The book is written as a guide to help those struggling with addiction to navigate the journey and “wake up” to life apart from addiction. It is a series of 163 short meditations and reflections to help one process the topic.
The book comes out of Haines’s own struggle with Alcohol abuse, which he shared in his first book Coming Clean. He shares glimpses of his story in Waking Up, but the reason I enjoyed this book, and the reason I think every Christian should read it and would benefit from it, is that Waking Up is not about Alcohol abuse, it’s not even really about addiction. It’s about understanding pain, redefining sobriety, and realizing that the root of our disordered desires is often misplaced worship.
In what follows I’ll unpack those three points (pain, sobriety, worship) and I’ll intersperse quotes from the book throughout.
Every person experiences pain, and every person attempts to dull that pain, sometimes through healthy means, and sometimes through unhealthy means. We call the unhealthy dullings ‘addictions.’
What is the problem underlying our coping mechanisms? They do something for us...The thing underlying so many of our habits, addictions, dependencies, or vices is different: The numbing agents are different too: In almost every case, though, there’s a common human element. Aren’t so many of us using something to manage “all of this”? Don’t we all hope to hide our crazy under a bushel? (p.36&37)
Some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. For Haines, a liter of Gin did the trick. When he stopped drinking, the new trick was book buying (hey… what’s wrong with that?) For others it’s clothes, exercise, Netflix, eating, sex, porn, work, power, money, or some combination of all of the above. These are things we turn to in times of stress to help find relief from the pain.
Though each of these activities present different challenges and consequences, they share a commonality when pursued for the purpose of dulling the pain. But Haines points out that the first step in healing is not dulling or avoiding the pain, but recognizing and moving toward the pain. Here he recounts a conversation with a friend and mentor entering the final stage of his struggle with ALS:
“Physical pain is a curse, but it’s sort of a gift too. Isn’t it?” John asked. He paused for effect. “Is emotional pain any different?” he asked. “Isn’t emotional pain a gift too? Isn’t it a sign that we need treatment? Isn’t it a signaler, an opportunity to invite the great God of healing and comfort to be with us?” (p.68)
So the critical first step in dealing with any addiction is making the connection between the numbing substance and a specific pain creating the behavior.
“Pain is the horse that pulls the cart of addiction.” Dr. Gabor Maté writes, “Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.” Put more succinctly, he writes, “The question is never ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’” (p.146 & 148)
I remember a friend struggling with alcohol abuse telling me he recalls the day that drinking went from something he enjoyed to numb the pain to something he had to do to avoid the pain of not drinking. He crossed a threshold where he had to keep drinking to keep functioning. Otherwise the crash would leave him incapacitated. He had become a slave to the very thing that was meant to serve him. And I guess we all have something that might fall in that category. How do we move toward sobriety? It starts by reshaping our understanding of what sobriety is.
Haines seeks to redefine Sobriety, not in terms of abstinence, but in learning to deal with the pain that motivates the addiction. Specifically he asks, “What pain are you seeking to dull or deaden through this behavior?” Until you deal with the underlying pain that motivates (dare I say demands) the numbing activity, you’ll never be fully sober. Or you’ll never be fully free from the stranglehold of addiction. In fact…
It’s possible to have an unhealthy relationship with just about anything. It’s possible, too, to abstain from those things and still live in the anxiety of a soberish existence. If we don’t explore the why, we’ll substitute one coping mechanism for the other. (p.43&45)
He realized that in his own life he substituted one compulsion (drinking) for another (book buying). One is more acceptable than other, yet they shared a commonality as a means of finding fulfillment apart from Christ.
All those rules about not drinking kept me focused on one thing— drinking. And all the focus on drinking had me missing the transfer addictions. At the end of a stressful day, did I turn to prayer, or did I pour a bowl of cereal? Did I invite God into my stress, or did I one- click another book on Amazon? Did I turn to the adoration of God’s Divine Love, did I incorporate his body into mine, or did I guilt Amber to bed early in an attempt to blow off a little stress? Was I awake to the Divine Love of God in my life, the love that wanted to unite me with his overcoming resurrection, or was I still medicating in other ways? (p.193)
So if Sobriety is not only abstinence, what is it?
Sober and watchful— what does it mean? To Peter, it means casting our anxieties on the Divine Love instead of medicating them with our own coping mechanisms. (p.23) [We need] A sobriety that is less about avoiding addiction and more about the practice of adoration. (p.193)
Is he saying you don’t need to abstain? By no means (note that Haines quit drinking). But some addictions you can’t abstain from (eating disorders for example). If we don’t “Wake Up” to Christ’s healing power, we’ll likely substitute one addiction for another.
True sobriety involves not numbing the pain with our own remedies, but learning to lean on Christ in the midst of our pain. Which is ultimately an issue of worshipping the right things.
Haines says that addiction is also a problem of misplaced worship. When we seek healing through a substance, we are substituting the healing power of Christ for an earthly device that will always come up short. By doing this we have misplaced our worship: we are worshiping the created rather than the creator. Some also call this Idolatry.
As we turn to lesser loves for relief, as we adore them, as we attach ourselves to the fleeting comfort they bring, they lull us to sleep with a siren’s lullaby. (p.157) When we elevate the created over the Creator, the pleasure becomes its own dead end. (p.57)
How silly to be found in the arms of lesser loves when that day comes… when Christ comes calling. (p.24)
Doesn’t it stand to reason that Jesus knew just how anxiety (pain) fuels our wardrobe fixations, our gluttony, our drunkenness? Still, he doesn’t tell us to stop shopping, eating, or drinking. Instead, he teaches us to recognize the pain for what it is, and, instead of turning to acquisition to fix that pain, to turn in to God’s love, Divine Love that provides for all of our needs (Phil. 4: 19). (p.172).
Learn to “Wake Up”
The solution that Haines offers is to move toward waking up. Wake up to a true, authentic life driven by love for God.
In the Scriptures, drunkenness, addiction, attachment, disordered afección, misplaced adoration— whatever you want to call it— is likened to sleep… In his letter to the Ephesians, he writes, “Awake, O sleeper” (5: 14 ESV), implying that drunkenness and debauchery…make us drowsy..“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (p.157)
One way to wake up is through prayer. A prayer Haines offered to help toward this end was the following:
Look into my heart, my anxiety, my pain and see whether I’m attached to any coping mechanisms, any lesser loves. Wake me to those coping mechanisms, and lead me away from them and into your Divine Love. (See Ps. 139: 23– 24.) (p.204)
Turn on the Lights
[Paul] writes, “You are all children of light (1 Thess. 5:5–8), encouraging them to walk in the waking daylight of God’s love instead of the darkness of debauchery (also known as our coping mechanisms). (p.212) “Break up with the lesser loves the world offers and fall into mad afección with God.” (p.155)
How does one do that? Well, the depth of your attachment to an ‘addiction’ will determine how long it takes to wake up. If the tick just crawled onto your skin, it will be easy to remove, but if the lizard has his talons in deep (like in Lewis’s The Great Divorce), it could take a really long time and might leave some permanent scarring.
Now, getting personal, there’s a couple of observations I had about my own life while reading this. I’ve found it’s critical that I keep fueling passions and asking why.
Fuel Your Passions
The times I’m most tempted to get derailed are the times I’ve lost focus on a couple of things. One is the significance I have in Christ. The other is in a passion for my purpose, my calling in life. When you’re overwhelmed by a grander vision and purpose, it’s harder to be distracted by things that will take you off course. But if you’ve lost your way, if you don’t have something guiding you, something fueling your passions, then an addiction is a nice little comforting substitute. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve had this very conversation with this year. So many have given up so much of their heart to a corporation that they’ve forgotten who they are and they’ve lost their way. Thus the addiction is the symptom of the deeper problem.
I’ve often mentioned a quote from the Puritan Thomas Chalmers that talks about, “The expulsive power of a greater affection.” The way to drive out a lesser love is with a greater love. Drive out a lesser desire with a stronger desire. Find your way, fuel your passions, and let that be driven primarily by a passion for Christ. By doing this you have a chance of eventually turning your focus away from what you shouldn’t be doing and rather being consumed by a passion for doing what you must do, what you can’t not do. This will likely take a long time to discover, as it does for most.
Ask Why. A Lot.
Another way to get healthy is to keep asking why. Keep journaling and writing down all you can. By reading Haines’s book and asking why, I realized an insidious truth about myself that I did not like. I really wrestled with the question of Why? Why do I turn to anything other than Christ for my satisfaction? What is at the root of that behavior? What pain am I trying to numb? Other perfectionists out there might relate, or might not, so here it is: The times I’ve gotten derailed are often an attempt to avoid failure. If I turn my attention to something that’s easy and avoid the hard thing, then I can blame the distraction, rather than myself, for failure (or, for not failing, since I technically didn’t fail since I avoided the hard thing). It’s a ridiculous loop of ill-formed non-logic. Yet it’s one I’ve fallen into many times.
This is only a snapshot of all the book offers. I hope more than anything else you’ve seen that this book, though born out of a struggle with alcohol addiction, is a book that every single Christiaan should read and benefit from.
I’ll close with a quote Haines includes from the a song by the “late prophet-bard” Rich Mullins:
“There’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment, and a music higher than the songs that I can sing. The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things.”