Encompass Counseling

Confession: The Only Way to End an Addiction for Good?

Confession. Who needs it?

Criminals admitting their crimes to police? Children caught with their hand in the cookie jar? Congregants talking to their priest?

How about confession for those suffering from an addiction? It’s what Dr. Carl Hart, chair of the department of psychology at Columbia University, thinks. His view of addiction focuses less on the substance and its physical effects and more on the environment and cultural conditions that lead to addiction. In his opinion, the drug is not the problem; the problems are the problems. Drug and process addictions are merely a mechanism for handling the problems of life. Thus, the need for confession of sin for one’s addictive behavior.

“Confession is the act of admitting to oneself, to others, and primarily to God that we have in fact committed an offense,” Hart said. “It is a confirmation of guilt. It is in this sense that a criminal confesses to committing a crime, that a child confesses to taking a cookie, and that a Christian confesses to an evil thought.”

John M. is on board with this. His lifelong addiction to pornography began in childhood, progressed during his teen years, and persisted into middle adulthood. Marriage and children were not enough to keep him from indulgence.

It was not the power of John’s own will or even repentance from the sin that brought him freedom. It was confession—to another person and eventually to his wife—that truly set him free. John has remained married and has remained free from the addiction of pornography since those confessions.

If you’re looking for helps with addiction, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

Addiction as a Disease, Not a Moral Failing?

Is John just one of the lucky ones for whom confession worked? The scientific establishment has been saying for years that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. It’s characterized not necessarily by physical dependence or withdrawal—though it could be—but by compulsive repetition of an activity despite life-damaging consequences. This view has led many scientists to accept the once heretical idea that addiction is possible without drugs, according to Fran Smith, science writer and editor for National Geographic magazine.

“Some scientists believe that many allures of modern life—junk food, shopping, smartphones—are potentially addictive because of their powerful effects on the brain’s reward system, the circuitry underlying craving,” Smith said.

Anna Rose Childress, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction, couldn’t agree more. “We are all exquisite reward detectors,” she said. “It’s our evolutionary legacy.”

Each substance affects brain chemistry in a distinct way, but they all send dopamine levels soaring far beyond the natural range. Wolfram Schultz, a University of Cambridge neuroscientist, calls the cells that make dopamine “the little devils in our brain,” so powerfully does the chemical drive desire.

Is Eastern Philosophy the Answer for Addiction?

But is that chemical so powerful that we can’t stop doing what we’re not supposed to do? Not according to the tenets embraced by Eastern philosophy.

In Buddhist philosophy, craving is viewed as the root of all suffering. The Buddha wasn’t talking about heroin or ice cream or some of the other compulsions that bring people to Brewer’s groups. But there’s growing evidence that mindfulness can counter the dopamine flood of contemporary life. Researchers at the University of Washington showed that a program based on mindfulness was more effective in preventing drug-addiction relapse than 12-STEP programs. In a head-to-head comparison, Brewer showed that mindfulness training was twice as effective as the gold-standard behavioral anti-smoking program.

Mindfulness trains people to pay attention to cravings without reacting to them. The idea is to ride out the wave of intense desire. Mindfulness also encourages people to notice why they feel pulled to indulge. Brewer and others have shown that meditation quiets the posterior cingulate cortex, the neural space involved in the kind of rumination that can lead to a loop of obsession.

John M. is on board with this. His lifelong addiction to pornography began in childhood, progressed during his teen years, and persisted into middle adulthood. Marriage and children were not enough to keep him from indulgence.

Any Yet, There’s Nothing Like Confession for Addiction

Michael Walters, therapist at Encompass Counseling Center, isn’t opposed to meditation and mindfulness to calm the mind—alleviating obsessive, addictive type thinking. But he said there’s nothing like confession to kill the urge to relapse. He cites numerous studies to support his claim, including one from Timmons (2012) in which the author assessed the role of Christian religious engagement in recovery.

A professor of nursing, in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, at Clemson University, Sarah Timmons is an outspoken advocate of Christian faith as the means of avoiding relapse. Her books on the topic include A Christian Faith-Based Recovery Theory: Understanding God as Sponsor as well as A Redemption Story: A Case Study of a Faith-Based Addiction Recovery Process.

According to Timmons, higher rates of success were found when addicted persons would admit to their problem and communicate with God regarding their recovery. The author identified confession as significant component to the recovery process. Supporting her position, Timmons identifies James 5:16 “therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” as representative a Christian application of STEP 5 of the 12-STEP process.

Multiple other studies such as Newberg, et al. (2000), Vasiliauskas and McMinn (2012), and Walker, et al. (2011) have consistently shown that forgiveness is a vital component of the recovery process. “This is true for both the offended and the offender,” Walters said. “Confession is a common antecedent to forgiveness, both in others and in self. It naturally follows that confession would be a necessary component to any recovery process.”

According to Timmons, higher rates of success were found when addicted persons would admit to their problem and communicate with God regarding their recovery.

The A.A. Way of Confession?

Standing in the crossroads of science and faith are 12-STEP groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and others of a similar nature. While these groups are not truly religious in nature or organization, there is a strong commitment to spiritualism implicit in their models. The powerful effect of confession is evident in the several of the STEPS.

In STEP 1, the addicted person “admitted we were powerless over [the addiction] and that our lives have become unmanageable. In this very first STEP, the addicted person is making a powerful confession that he or she is unable to do anything about the problem for themselves. Before any recovery can begin, there must be confession of a problem, Walters said. 

STEP 2 continues the confession process, he added, as “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us.” Here, the confession moves from the self to a power beyond the self. This is the “god of our understanding” as A.A. has come to express it.

The expositional confession process concludes with STEP 3: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.” Here, confession rises to its fullest expression.

“God is the only source of recovery and restoration,” Walters said.  [link to appointments page] “The addicted person must confess his submission to God.”

Throughout the writing, Augustine confesses his wrongs form even stage of his life.

Confession as the Key to the 12 STEPS

These first three STEPS fulfill the secondary definition of confession. That is, an expression of what is known to be true or a tightly held belief. While this is clearly an essential component, according to Walters, the powerful work of confession is found in the primary definition: a confession of wrongs committed.

It is here that the 12-STEP process makes it most profound impact. In STEP 5 “we admitted to god, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is where we encounter the essential essence of confession. The addicted person has taken inventory (STEP 4) of all the wrongs in their past. In this STEP, they must confess these things to another person. It is here that the full weight of their sins begins to become real.

This confession process is continued in STEP 8 where “we made a list of all persons we had harmed.” This additional confessional act pinpoints the true nature of the addicted person’s sins, Walters said, adding that the full weight of their sin culminates in restoration and personal confession to those wronged (STEP 9).

The Big Book makes the point gain and again that it is the effect of the 12-STEPS in their entirety, without skipping, that is the key to lasting recovery,” Walters said. “Therefore, as confession is an essential component of at least six of the 12 STEPS, it would seem that recovery is nearly impossible without confession. In the view of AA, confession is the key to recovery.”

Faith as the Best Catalyst of All

From the earliest days of biblical religious thought, confession has been viewed as an integral component of faith. Psalm 38:18 states “Yes, I confess my wrongdoings, I’m worried about my sin” (CEB). 1 John 1:9 states that if ‘we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (CEB). Walters said that literally dozens of additional verses deliver the same message. Confess your sins and you will be forgiven. Through the centuries, theologians have consistently pointed to the role of confession in the life of believers, as well.

In the early 5thcentury, Augustine of Hippo composed a masterpiece dedicated entirely to the process of confession. His book remains a powerful example of personal confession to this day.

“Throughout the writing, Augustine confesses his wrongs form even stage of his life,” Walters said.  

“He details his errors in judgment, his wrong thinking, and the many people he had harmed.”

In many ways, Augustine’s Confessions is an early forerunner of the 12-STEP process. “In a colorful example, Augustine states:

“I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice. Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing, but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.”

Augustine provides a clear example of confession at its best, Walters said.  Augustine identifies the wrong and confesses his desire for the wrongness of the act, even more than the target. Later, he makes clear the power of confession, and the hope that it provides for recovery: “My Lord, every day my conscience makes confession, relying on the hope of your mercy as more to be trusted than its own innocence.”

Humility and Grace

In more recent times, well-known Christian scholar Andrew Murray tackled the heavy topic of humility. Throughout his work—published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Murray connected the life of faith with that of humility—perhaps the most important component of recovery there is. Murray made it clear that confession of sin causes one to be pure and holy.

“His particular interpretation leads to the reaction that following confession, and the cleansing of grace, the sinner is no longer a sinner,” said Walters. “The sins cease to exist and God remembers them no more. This is the power and the hope of confession for the addicted person. When he or she has confessed his or her sins, in their entirety, the stain addiction is removed. She or he is free of the sin, and free of the addiction. It is from this perspective that the efficacy of the 12-STEP process can be understood.”

Psychology and Faith

In the shadows of Murray is psychiatrist and theologian, Gerald May—well-known in the late 20th century for his writings on psychology and spirituality. He authored numerous articles and books that sought to combine spiritual direction with psychological treatment. They include Addiction & Grace, Will & Spirit, The Awakened Heart, and before his death, Dark Night of the Soul.

May categorizes addiction in a very authoritative way—labeling it as sin through attachment to unholy desires. This premise serves as the thesis for his writings.

May surmises that we are very clever (and very desperate) creatures looking to live our lives in any other way but the right way—God’s way. We will do anything to avoid our circumstances and feelings that make us despicable. Instead of facing this emotion and its accompanying thoughts, we turn to objects, substances, or behaviors to shield us from pain and help us gain a sense of life, control, and safety. Humility is nowhere to be found, and we can become addicted to almost anything to not have to deal with it.

Or as May said in The Dark Night of the Soul,“We cling to things, people, beliefs, and behaviors not because we love them, but because we are terrified of losing them.”

Walters said this is the essence of addiction, and addicts are those who surrender themselves to something habitually or obsessively and in doing so becomes physiologically dependent upon it. Nothing can extricate them from this chain except a realization and sorrow for giving their allegiance to something other than God.

“They have to be honest about this,” Walters said. “Out of honesty comes confession. And out of confession comes the good things that God is always trying to give us. If we will let him. But often our hands are too full to receive them.”

May echoed this sentiment in Addiction and Grace, stating unequivocally that “if our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted. And not only our hands, but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction. Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.”


If you’re looking for help with addiction, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.


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