For a long time now, I’ve wanted to tackle addiction in the context of the LDS view of agency. Seems kind of important, doesn’t it? I’ve put it off, however, because as foundational as agency is to Mormon theology, Latter-day Saints seem to be all over the board in their understanding of this doctrine. To opine in the blogosphere about agency is to invite controversy–and I’ve had enough controversy to last me for the rest of my life. Oh, well…
First, let me tell you my understanding of the doctrine of agency. It is incredibly simple. God will not compel me to keep His commandments nor will He force me to accept His plan of happiness. He leaves me free to choose. Period.
The doctrine of agency has to do with my relationship with God, not my relationship with myself or anyone or anything else. Back in high school and occasionally since then, I’d hear people say something like this: “My parents can’t make me do that! They’re taking away my agency!” Or “The Church has too many rules! What about my free agency?” When I heard this, I’d scratch my head. Something just didn’t sound right.
Now I know why. Other people can’t take away my agency. Only God can do that and He has said he won’t.
So what does this have to do with addiction? It seems to me that a lot of Mormons have trouble reconciling the reality of addiction with the doctrine of agency. After all, God gave us all moral agency, didn’t He? Wouldn’t addiction be the taking away of our moral agency? As addicts, we lose the ability to choose the right, don’t we? No! I think that’s the wrong way of looking at addiction. As I said above, God has decreed that he will not take away our agency. Addiction, then, must be something other than a loss of agency.
Rather than seeing addiction as completely at odds with agency, I think it’s more helpful to consider two words: impairment and obsession. Addiction doesn’t take away our agency, but it does impair our ability to make good choices and then renders it nearly impossible for us to think about anything but our drug of choice.
Porn and sex addicts in their addiction can’t stop thinking and fantasizing about sexual imagery. They become progressively intoxicated until they can no longer think clearly. The more the addiction is entrenched in the addict’s mind, the more muddled the addict’s thinking becomes. The sex addict becomes lust drunk. And this can happen even without looking at a single pornographic image.
My point, again, is that addiction doesn’t take away my agency. Rather, without recovery, it can impair my mind and cause me to obsess over sex. Like a drunk getting behind the wheel of a car, I can’t perceive the depth of my impairment. I think I can just take a peek at a swimsuit site or just read that little news article about brothels in another country. That’s not that big of a deal, is it? Yes! Yes, it is a big deal. But I’m too lust drunk to see it.
That’s one reason why I think Sexaholics Anonymous meetings and an SA sponsor are so important for Latter-day Saint men and women who battle sex and porn addiction. We Mormons who struggle with “the little problem” desperately want to maintain the secrecy and isolation that we have so carefully cultivated, often for decades. We are so desperate that we lead double lives. But we’re lust drunk. We’re impaired in our thinking–and we can’t see it. We can’t see that we need help.
When other recovering addicts enter the picture, LDS porn addicts can finally find recovery, kick the obsession and step out of the drunken stupor that envelopes them. Recovering addicts have told all the same lies, have done all the same useless, pointless, childish things to try and overcome the “porn problem” in secrecy and isolation. (My favorite remains flicking a rubber band on our wrist whenever we have a “dirty” thought. Addicts in recovery laugh their heads off at that one!) You can’t really lie to a recovering addict. He’s told all the same lies at some point in the past and he knows when you’re lying to yourself, to him, to God and to everyone else. More importantly, recovering addicts have figured out what works, have done what works and can share meaningfully with others about what works.
When I found recovery (i.e., went to lots of SA meetings, got a sponsor and worked the 12 Steps, among other things) and got sober, I was able to finally see the reality of my past. I had truly been living in a drunken stupor, self-medicating on porn and memories of porn, self sex, planning, fantasizing, lying, trying to remember the lies I’d told, promising never again and promising and promising and promising. And that wasn’t all. It was insanity! It was impaired agency.
Having experienced recovery, I now know that life-long sobriety is possible. That means I get to enjoy clear-headed agency instead of muddled thinking. I can make moral decisions without that drunken stupor. And I have friends in the SA who can remind me when my thinking gets mushy. They help me shake off the obsessive thinking. I can’t do it without them.
I’ve been working at recovery for long enough now that I’m willing to say that I don’t think anyone can recover from addiction by himself. I don’t believe that God “cures” people of addiction on their own and in isolation. Rather, I believe that God requires addicts to find help from other addicts who are further up the recovery road. I also believe that God then requires (and enables) addicts to extend a helping hand to those who are still suffering.
God leaves me free to choose recovery–but I do not get to dictate the terms of my recovery. No one does. We don’t get to pick and choose. We have to do what works. Isolation does not work. As a matter of fact, it’s a massive part of the problem! Anyone who says he’s recovered from sex and porn addiction on his own (usually citing prayer, scripture study and lots of will power) is a liar. Strong words, I know. I’m sticking to them.
My agency is much clearer these days. The obsession has abated. The impairment is gone. It’s nice to see the difference between right and wrong and be able to choose the right. Recovery from addiction allows me to enjoy agency as God intended.