Religious Addiction:

One of the Byproducts of Shame

Toxic faith takes several forms: compulsive religious activity, spiritual laziness, extreme intolerance, giving to get, self-obsession, and/or addiction to a religious high.

By David Sedlacek, PhD, Andrews University Theological Seminary Discipleship and Religious Education Department


Since the early 1990’s, authors such as Leo Booth (When God Becomes a Drug: Breaking the Chains of Religious Addiction & Abuse) and Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton (Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction), have articulated that addiction can rear its ugly head even in the midst of the most conservative of religious people.

More recently, Elizabeth Esther has introduced the concept of spiritual codependency in her book Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad. Unfortunately, addiction infiltrates much of what we do, even our religious practices. Arterburn and Felton explain: “When an individual is excessively devoted to something or surrenders compulsively and habitually to something, that pathological devotion becomes an addiction” (p. 83). They go on to explain that the precursors of religious addiction are often rooted in beliefs that we have about our faith. If Satan has deceived us into believing lies about the intersection of our lives and faith, or even about the nature and character of God, then it is likely that elements of our faith might be toxic. Toxic faith leads to toxic behavior. Below are listed 21 toxic beliefs as identified by Arterburn and Felton. Please prayerfully examine each of these toxic beliefs and ask the Lord to show you which of these might be distorted beliefs that you might holds.

  • God’s love and favor depends on my behavior.
  • When tragedy strikes, true believers should have a peace about it.
  • If I have real faith, God will heal me or someone I am praying for.
  • All ministers are men and women of God who can be trusted.
  • Material blessings are a sign of spiritual strength.
  • The more money I give to God, the more money he will give to me.
  • I can work my way to heaven.
  • Problems in my life result from some particular sin.
  • I must not stop meeting others’ needs.
  • I must always submit to authority.
  • God uses only spiritual giants.
  • Having true faith means waiting for God to help me and doing nothing until he does.
  • If it’s not in the Bible, it isn’t relevant.
  • God will find me a perfect mate.
  • Everything that happens to me is good.
  • A strong faith will protect me from problem.
  • God hates sinners, is angry with me, and wants to punish me.
  • Christ was merely a great teacher.
  • God is too big to care about me.
  • More than anything else, God wants me to be happy.
  • I can become God.

As you may have noted from examining the above list, toxic faith takes several forms: compulsive religious activity, spiritual laziness, extreme intolerance, giving to get, self-obsession, and/or addiction to a religious high.

Toxic faith is strongly associated with religious addiction. People who are religious addicts often have the following characteristics. First, they come from a family system where the parents were very rigid in their approach to parenting and life. Some individuals rather than running from rigidity are drawn to it in their own lives.

They are comfortable with what they have learned as children and are uncomfortable when faced with flexibility that is too frightening for them.

A second common characteristic of religious addicts is the experience of disappointment. This disappointment is typically a major one such as loss of a parent through death or divorce. A divorce in their own life is sufficient to contribute to a religious addiction.

A third characteristic of persons with a tendency toward religious addiction is low self-worth. These individuals often feel alienated and isolated. They have a longing to belong in order to increase their sense of value and worth. They are often susceptible to strong persons or leaders who make their decisions for them and are therefore prime candidates for cult membership or victims of religious scam artists. They are loyal to these religious leaders to a fault. Finally, they are often victims of abuse themselves. A history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse in childhood often sets the stage for further victimization in adulthood. Compulsive religious behavior is often a way of filling the void left by parents. Some forsake God altogether since God is often represented by parent figures, for better or for worse. However, there are those who go to the opposite extreme who become bonded to God in a relational way that is dysfunctional. They feel an obsessive need to please God, to work for God, or to perform in an attempt to earn God’s love. They are set up to become religious addicts, as Paul describes it “having a form of godliness” (2 Timothy 3:5).

As with any addiction, religious addiction has perpetrators and victims, users and the used. Religious leaders who are also religious addicts can do an inordinate amount of damage because of their trusted positions. For example, an elder who leads out in worship but molests his daughters at home creates a disconnect in the lives of his daughters between what he professes and what he lives. A pastor who uses his position to enter into illicit sexual relationships with female congregants gives a distorted view of God. A literature evangelist program leader who insists that the students in his program must follow his instructions in the minutest detail or else they are not faithful Christians is using his position as a means of controlling his students. In all of these examples, the power that is associated with the position of spiritual leadership is being used not for God’s glory, but for the misguided agenda of the leader.

It is important not only to describe the problem of religious addiction, but also to suggest principles for recovery. Since religious addiction is difficult to identify in oneself because of its cloak of spirituality, an intervention can be helpful to begin the road to recovery.

Family and church members who sacrificially love another member who is in the grip of religious addiction can lovingly but firmly let the addict know how his addictive attitudes and behaviors are negatively affecting his relationships. Modeling grace and embodying forgiveness can help a religious addict make the internal shift from a performance- based, works-oriented life to one that is living the transformational Christian life that is led by the Spirit rather than one’s own fear. Be aware that these internal shifts take much time and patience. There will be steps forward and backward. Most religious addicts firmly believe that they are acting on principles of righteousness.

A Christ-centered twelve step group can be a safe place in which those who are religious addicts can begin to develop a vulnerable, authentic relationship with Jesus Christ as well as other members of the group. There, they can ask questions and receive feedback from others who have embraced their own need for recovery from various addictions. They can begin to heal from both the abuses they have suffered as well as those they have perpetrated. They can experience the love of God as lived through the Journey to Wholeness.

By David Sedlacek, Phd. Andrews University Theological Seminary Discipleship and Religious Education Department


Journey to Wholeness Recovery Program Resources