“Honesty may be more difficult than sobriety.” I love that insightful quote from Brad Hambrick. Addictions require deception. In order to maintain an addiction, you have to become skilled at lying, representing yourself and your life in a different way. You have to become adept at hiding so that others don’t interfere, life can still be managed, and addictions still enjoyed. Of all the struggles that addicts have to overcome, learning to tell the truth is at the top of the list. Practicing truth-telling, then, becomes an important part of recovery.
The role of deception
Deception allows an addicted individual to maintain their habit. Exposure will require those who love them to intervene, take steps to help, confront, and issue consequence. But, secrecy, hiding, manipulation, and outright lying become necessary if an addict hopes to keep up the habit.
Tommy, for example, was an alcoholic. Pretty much everyone knew it, but he had developed a series of lies that kept people from being able to confront him. He missed his son’s ballgame because he had to “work late.” He said hurtful things to his wife because he was “tired from working late.” He drank a “little bit,” but that was just to take the edge off of the long day. If his wife had any compassion, then she wouldn’t have picked that fight with him when he got home. These were the sort of distractions that Tommy could throw around to keep people from talking about his alcohol consumption. He was just good enough at it that others, despite knowing he had a problem, could never find the avenue to confront him.
Self-deception is, of course, the biggest form of lying in which the addict participates. He convinces himself that he is in control. “This isn’t that big of a deal. Other people are being dramatic and blowing things out of proportion. I can stop whenever I want.” Wendy regularly used the excuse that her doctor had prescribed her pills, so they were medically necessary. She was taking more than she was prescribed, but that was a non-issue since she had a script that proved her need.
Self-deception is a common and necessary preservation tactic for developing and maintaining an addiction. It’s not that the addict doesn’t know that there is some level of a problem, but the deception is a form of denial that allows them to keep engaging in the habit without guilt or recognizing the responsibility to change.
Deception, while common enough, will always keep people stuck in sin. Until an addicted individual is ready to take personal responsibility for their desires, attitudes, and actions, they will remain stuck. Honesty must occur, but it is hard to cultivate
The hardship of honesty
Honesty is hard for several reasons. Deception often arises from a place of fear. We don’t tell the truth because we are afraid of the consequences, we are afraid of change, and we are afraid of letting go of something that brings us comfort. Learning to tell the truth, therefore, requires confronting our fears.
Addicted individuals have often turned to substance abuse because they do not have good life management skills. When you don’t know how to manage your emotions, resolve conflict, develop relationships, or work hard, then drugs and alcohol provide an escape. They become the means by which a person “resolves” problems. Using substances to avoid addressing problems, however, simply compounds them. The consequences begin to mount up. If Bill drank to avoid dealing with his wife, his drinking often meant that he dealt with his wife in destructive ways. If Sarah used drugs to escape her failures, using only prompted more failures. The consequences are real, and honesty requires us to deal with them.
At other times, deception prevents us from facing disappointment. Change is hard, and overcoming a substance abuse problem is notoriously difficult. Many addicted individuals have tried, in small or sometimes great ways, to break the habit. Yet, every time they have relapsed. There is something unbelievably discouraging about trying and yet not actually changing. Sometimes the fear of disappointment is so great and we fear that it means we simply can’t change—we are just too broken to ever quit drugs and alcohol. So, rather than be disappointed yet again or face the supposed reality of brokenness, some individuals simply don’t try. Deception allows them to avoid hopelessness.
Finally, honesty is hard because addiction is pleasurable. The longer you indulge in a substance abuse pattern, the more your addiction dominates your life. Addicts have let go of many other healthy outlets of fun, pleasure, and joy, whether friends, hobbies, or social outings, in order to engage in drug use or alcohol consumption. Furthermore, substance abuse changes their experience of the more commonplace fun in which they used to engage. The “high” they get from using makes all other pleasure seem mundane. Being honest about an addiction means letting go of the only thing that makes them feel good. That’s how Derek felt when I first began meeting with him: “If I give this up, I am giving up the only good thing I have left.” He was scared.
Understanding these dynamics about honesty and deception allows us to begin to point beyond addictive habits to hope. God gives grace to help us face our consequences (2 Cor. 4:8-10); he gives us promises to guarantee our eventual change (Phil. 1:6); and he ensures that joy is possible as we grow in his Spirit (Gal. 5:22). But honesty is still hard and is going to require cultivation. Just as addictions formulate over time, so too can honesty become a habit as we practice it over time.
Lying can become its own “addictive” habit. Addicted individuals may find that they are so used to lying that they do it even when it serves no immediate advantage to them or their addiction. It becomes part of their routine. Likewise, honesty is going to have to be practiced. They will need to learn to tell the truth with regularity.
Jesus is the truth who sets us free from being enslaved to our sin (John 8:31-32). He call us to walk in the truth. And the Bible is clear that God hates a lying tongue (Prov. 6:17). Cultivating honesty means that we must begin to evaluate what we say and how we live according to biblical standards. The following three questions can help to serve as a grid for evaluating our statements:
- Is it true? In other words, is it factual?
- Is it the whole truth? Are you trying to leave anything out, or are you declaring the full reality?
- Is it nothing but the truth? Are you embellishing or adding to the facts?
We can use these questions and begin evaluating general statements we make about events. Practice it. Pick one thing that happened to you in the last 24 to 48 hours (it can be anything). Share what happened and how it made you feel, filtering the event through these three questions.
If you’re an addict, practice, this and then discuss this exercise with a friend. How did this exercise make you feel? Was any part of it challenging? Did you struggle to answer any of the three questions? Were you tempted to be deceitful in any of the three questions? How will practicing this exercise help you to be more truthful?
Do this again and again. Start with the more routine aspects of your life, describing them honestly. Cultivate the habit of truth-telling. Eventually, however, (and sooner rather than later) you want to increase the gravity of the events you describe. Progressively select events that are more important, that you would be more likely to lie about, and those with consequences. Keep practicing.
Addiction and deception go hand in hand, but you can learn to tell the truth about yourself and your problems with the Spirit’s help. By practicing truth-telling, you are already beginning to change. By continuing to do it, you are growing. Truth telling won’t solve all your problems, in fact, it may mean that you have to deal with more problems initially. Eventually, however, the truth will empower you to fight against sin and to get the help you need. Those who lie and deceive will stay stuck, but the truth will set you free.