This is a blog series built on the premise that “books don’t change people, sentences change people.

We can’t remember an entire book, or even its outline. We remember a sentence or concept that is highly relevant and impacts how we live. The rest of the book gives context to that sentence. This series highlights sentences from my reading in evangelical Christian counseling that stood out to me and reflections on why these sentences have been so sticky.

“Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it is typically the mechanism that closes the trap on an addict (p. 131),” Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin

I came across this quote at a time in my counseling journey when I was beginning to be less concerned with what a struggle was and more concerned with the dynamics of how a struggle worked. There was a time when I would have read this quote and responded, “Yes, but what is an addiction? Is it a disease? Is it a habit? What is the best category to place the experience of addiction in?” As a linear thinker, these questions seemed like the first and necessary questions to address before productive steps could be taken.

Honestly, I am glad I did not come to this quote during that phase of my development as a counselor. As important as those questions are (and they do have value), I think I would have missed something more important.

I would have missed a beautifully simple description of how destructive life patterns (not limited to addictions) often become cemented in our lives even as they destroy us. That pattern is:

initial distress > dysfunction > more, new distress > same dysfunction > slavery

Let’s take the example of lying:

  • There is an initial distress of insecurity
  • The dysfunction of lying
  • The new distress of having to protect or live up to the lie
  • The same dysfunction of more lying
  • A life pattern emerges

Let’s take another example of controlling behaviors in marriage:

  • There is an initial distress of feeling uncertain about one’s spouse
  • The dysfunction of manipulating one’s spouse
  • The new distress of not trusting one’s spouse (often because control is met with resistance which is interpreted as being untrustworthy)
  • The same dysfunction of manipulating/controlling is expressed
  • A life pattern emerges

Then there is Plantinga’s example of addiction:

  • There is an initial life stress
  • The dysfunction of substance abuse as a form of escape emerges
  • The new distress of neglected responsibilities or muted emotional maturation
  • The same dysfunction of escaping through substance is repeated
  • A life pattern emerges

What is the benefit of identifying this pattern? It allows for a more productive conversation than, “Stop it or your life is going to deteriorate,” to be engaged (which is accurate, but often unhelpful starting point).

What is this new conversation? The addict (or liar, or controlling spouse) is focused on the initial distress. Their focus is on, “I can’t handle this insecurity… uncertainty… stress.” They view their dysfunctional behavior as a remedy for what they perceive to be unbearable. Why? Because they attribute the additional distress of their dysfunctional behavior to the original life stressor.

We can ask, “Do you see how your lies create a false front that you feel inadequate to live up to?” or “Do you see how your controlling behaviors create the resistance in your spouse that you are trying to control?” or “Do you see how escaping unpleasant emotions through substance is creating an ever-decreasing ability to withstand unpleasant emotions?”

If we get a “yes” to a question like this, then the dysfunctional behavior which they thought was serving them can begin to be unmasked as the cause rather than the solution to their greatest felt need. Creating mistrust of sin can be an effective step towards cultivating trust in Christ. The more habituated the sin, the more necessary this intermediary step can be.

This sentence from Plantinga helped me concisely put this dynamic into words. Having a concise summary of the pattern helped me be able to explore the possibility that this dynamic may be at the root of an entrenched struggle with many counselees. In many ways, it has served like a modern proverb on folly. It put the dynamic of folly into words so that it could be seen more clearly through the fog of chaos. Seeing what was going on (i.e, pattern) helped cultivate motivation for the wisdom of the next step of obedience.