In the Garden of Eden, immediately after eating the fruit of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil, Adam and Eve find themselves naked and ashamed (Gen. 3:7). They respond to their shame and nakedness by making a covering of fig leaves for themselves (Gen. 3:7), hiding from God (Gen. 3:8), and when confronted by God, blaming someone else for their sin (Gen. 3:9-13). These verses highlight some of the dynamics operating in those struggling with addictions, whether with substances or in other areas such as pornography and gambling.
While Adam and Eve are initially naked and unashamed, there is a hint in Scripture that they were always meant to be clothed. In 2 Corinthians 5:2-4, Paul says, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (ESV). Paul points to how, in Christ, we look to be further clothed, rather than be found naked. The same can be said of Adam and Eve in the garden: they are naked and unashamed, but are waiting to be further clothed in glory. While Adam and Eve seek to be like God in eating the fruit of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil, they ironically cut themselves off from God and are left scrambling to make their own (very inadequate) clothes to cover their nakedness. Instead of being clothed in glory given by God, they attempt to conceal their shame with a covering of fig leaves. In this we have a snapshot of what it looks like when we try to justify ourselves; to do so, we must cut ourselves off from God and the true justification he provides. And when we seek to justify ourselves, there is always a need to deceive ourselves in order to stay righteous in our own eyes. So while initially deceived by the serpent, in trying to provide their own coverings for sin, Adam and Eve fall further into the pit of the deception of both self and others as they try to blame their sin on someone else (i.e., Adam on God and Eve; Eve on the serpent).
These verses very early in Genesis reveal a lot about the human response to sin in general, but for those who struggle with addictions, the response of Adam and Eve to their sin and nakedness is prominently at work. Particularly for those who desire to stop acting in addictive ways, there is a lot of shame following a relapse. To hopefully make this more concrete, let us imagine a Christian man who struggles with pornography. He has been trying to stop looking at porn for years, but has once again succumbed to temptation. He thinks to himself, “What is wrong with me? How could I have done this again? Am I really a Christian; am I truly saved?” He feels ashamed in the core of his being as he instinctively imagines how appalled his wife, friends, and those at his church would be if they knew of his struggles with pornography. Imagining how disappointed and angry God must be with him, he may be unable to pray or even think of God without feeling dreadful.
Themes of exposure and nakedness pervade our responses to addiction and fuel the propensity to relapse. If others knew or “saw through” the man, he fears he would experience an even deeper sense of shame than he already does. And the one being he knows sees through him (i.e., God), who knows what he does, he may feel too ashamed to approach. Like Adam, he feels he needs to make coverings for himself and hide. He hides from God by not going to him in prayer. He hides from others by ensuring that no one knows his secret. But he also ends up deceiving himself in the process. He desperately desires to be alright and acceptable, but his addiction creates a tension in his life by suggesting that not everything is ok. And so he must justify himself.
It is very common for those struggling with addictions to think something like, “If this one thing was just out of my life, I would be fine. I am a good person otherwise.” Thus once the shame of relapse subsides a little, the person struggling with an addiction renews his or her efforts to cut down on or eliminate the addictive behaviors. So prominent is this impulse amongst those who struggle with addictions, that often the very efforts to cut down or eliminate the addictive behaviors ultimately leads right back to relapse and acting out the addiction.
What, then, is the way out of the addictive cycle? If trying harder after relapse perpetuates the addictive cycle, what else is there to do? Before answering this question, let us jump back to Genesis 3 for a moment. While the clothes that Adam and Eve made for themselves are ultimately inadequate, it is incredible to note God’s compassion and grace following their sin, for he kills an animal and makes a garment of skins for them (Gen. 3:21). This foreshadows what the Father does for us now in Christ, for he sacrifices his Son, the Lamb of God, on the cross that he might provide a greater covering for us, which is Christ himself (Gal. 3:27). In His love for us, Jesus sees us and becomes the perfect covering for our sins and nakedness. He is the final and complete sacrifice to wash away all our sins.
The first step out of addiction is to turn to and cling to Christ, the covering that God lovingly provides, instead of clinging to our own meager coverings for sin. This lays the groundwork for the rest of the work involved in overcoming an addiction. Our flesh naturally rebels against this reality and seeks to tell us that we are still alienated from God when we sin, so the question becomes, how do we begin to believe the reality that we are truly children of God who are clothed with Christ? We cannot will ourselves to believe this, as if having been made alive in the Spirit we now perfect ourselves by our own flesh (Gal. 3:3).
For those struggling with addictions, let me suggest a first step that you can start to take now: begin to pray that God would give you a deep knowledge of the safety that Jesus is your true covering for sin and nakedness. Our loving and compassionate Savior covers our sin so that we can confidently approach the throne of grace, especially following relapse (Ps. 32; Heb. 4:16). The first step of asking, seeking, and knocking (Luke 11:5-13) is just that, a first step, but it sets the stage for being able to honestly look at your life without needing to "cover up." I will explore other aspects of overcoming addictions in two upcoming Compass articles.
Dr. Ryan O’Farrell is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping individuals and families struggling with addictions.
Article previously published in the July 2017 edition of The Carolina Compas