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Why is Addiction Recovery So Painful?



I realize that some titles for articles are just dumb. This one qualifies. I mean, who knows why recovery is so painful? I don’t. But I needed to get you reading in hopes we could dive a little deeper than a silly, unanswerable article title.


Pain is an interesting reality of life. In fact, no one enters the world in a painless way (just ask your mother). From the very beginning of life outside the womb, there is pain; why else would a newborn baby cry like, well, a baby? Fundamental to the definition of pain is suffering and distress. Pain hurts. And we naturally seek out ways to reduce and avoid pain. But does this mean pain is harmful?


Physical pain is a warning system, a way our bodies are made to alert us when something isn’t functioning properly. For instance, if you place your hand into a campfire, if your body is working properly, the nerve endings in your hand will sound the alarm to your brain that this is not a place your hand should be. But pain isn’t the enemy, the fire is! Pain simply relayed the message that the fire hurts and you had better make a decision about whether or not to leave your hand in it.


Since I’m on a theme of fire here, let’s say the smoke alarm goes off in your house. How annoying is that sound, right? It’s quite possibly one of the worst sounds on the planet. But if you hear that, is your first thought that the alarm is the problem? I hope not. Otherwise, you might have more than just a burned hand to worry about. No, the alarm is simply a messenger alerting you to what the real danger is. Pain often works in this manner, an alarm system to warn you of danger.


But what about the emotional pain experienced in recovery from addictive patterns? Is it too an alarm system? Yes, but it can also move us to deeper spiritual insights and greater faith. I say it all the time in our intensive workshops, “The pathway to purity is pain.” It hurts to pull back the curtain that’s been hiding all our sin and expose it to the light of truth. It hurts to see the effects of betrayal in the eyes of a loved one. It hurts to learn to say no to your lust and instead walk in purity. It is very painful, but not purposeless.


If I’ve learned anything about pain, it’s that it always serves a purpose. Remember, pain is only the messenger. Too often, however, in our hurt we fail to dig deep enough to see what message the pain is revealing, what hope it might be offering. Yes, pain can birth hope. Ask any mother holding her newborn after hours of labor. Such beauty and good can come from pain, if only we will search for it.


God is not unwilling to allow us to experience pain; physical, emotional, even spiritual. But He doesn’t allow these moments or seasons of pain simply for the sake of us hurting. No, that would be totally inconsistent with His character. He LOVES us! So His allowance of pain is always born of love for a greater purpose. It’s just hard to see that sometimes when it feels like your hand is melting in a campfire (metaphorically, of course).


I believe the greatest purpose emotional pain can serve is growing our faith in Christ. It seems counterintuitive, but I’ve seen it work. As we face suffering (i.e. pain), whether by fault of our actions or someone else’s, we have a choice: let the alarm warn us of the danger that lies ahead if we go our own way and lean more into Christ, or ignore the warning, go our own way and go down with the burning building. Pain isn’t the problem, only a messenger pointing us to Christ.


I don’t know why recovery is so painful, but I do know that if you learn to listen to your pain more closely you will discover that the Lover of your soul is calling out to you in the midst of it. He knows pain very well, having suffered and died on the cross for sins He didn’t commit. But He walked through such pain for the greater purpose of redemption. He is inviting you to follow His lead and walk through the pain of recovery for the greater purpose of freedom, purity, and peace.


How will you respond to the gracious alarm of pain?

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