Addiction is a beast. It is a complicated issue that involves a network of disharmonious breakage in both the spiritual and the physical aspects of our experience and existence. Addiction is at the very bottom and ultimately a spiritual problem that manifests itself in more obvious ways than a host of other sins. It corrupts every inch of our being, disrupts the farthest reaches of our purpose as God’s image, and destroys the very fabric of our physical makeup.
The difficulty we face, at the moment, in answering the question of how we can be free from addiction (whether to drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, etc.), is that the popular remedies to the problem do not approach it with a foot planted on the proper foundation. In the current addiction industry, the starting point is man and not God. Our perspective about human beings, our anthropology if you will, is blatantly humanistic. We are simply protoplasm dancing out our DNA. So, whatever the problem is, it has to be something that is inherent and part of our chemical makeup. We are what we are and we had better get about the business of just accepting it. In the popular Alcoholics Anonymous program (including its spin-offs), we are “alcoholics.” We are never going to cease being alcoholics (not drunkards; that’s not nice). We are never going to cease being pill-addicts. We are never going to cease being heroin-addicts. These are the cards we’ve been dealt. It’s a disease. It’s in us. How can we get free? We need more coping skills. We need to “fake it until we make it.” We need a change of environment, a new pill that replaces the old one (just not the icky ones, thank you), and we need to learn to wear the new clothes that will cover our spots. In a word: hopelessness.
This is what the world offers. This is what I heard every day for four years as the full-time pastor at a rehabilitation hospital.
As is always the case, if we start with God as our reference point, if we stand on His revelation about Himself, us, and His world, our perspective will not only be hooked into reality, it will be brimming with hope and new life. We are not simply dancing out our DNA. We are not locked into a body that is controlling us. We are not doomed to life in an identity from which there is no escape; there is the promise of new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The problem of addiction is not beyond the grasp of God. Addiction is a beast. Nevertheless, like all beasts before God, it is bound for submission to Him.
A Myriad of Voices
Hold a conference on addiction. Invite the top names with the highest repute. Fill the auditorium with the white coats. When the first coat approaches the microphone, listen as the expert constructs the most sophisticated answer as to why we have this great trouble of addiction. Not a moment will pass before the applause has ended and the subject defined as settled when the next white-coat has nudged his way up to the microphone, telling everyone how wrong the first coat is and how the trouble of addiction is really solved in another way. On and on it goes; each distinct voice not being permitted to trail off before the tap on the shoulder and the next refutation. When the starting point is not God the opinions are innumerable.
I remember observing my first group therapy session at the hospital. The main facilitator that evening was a well-groomed, gruff sounding man, oozing with confidence, know-how, and success. The room was filled with patients, many wide-eyed and alert and a few half-dozing due to the detoxification medication. After calling the meeting to order, this gentleman began to relate his story:
I used to love to party. I had a very successful business; beautiful house, great cars, I had everything. Then the disease got me. I abused alcohol and cocaine and lost everything. Every day, I was going down to the bottom of the bottle and snorting a new bump of cocaine as often as I could. That was fifteen years ago. I came to understand my disease. I came to terms with it. I learned what I hope all of you learn: we have a disease. These are the cards we’ve been dealt and we need to learn to function in the world living as non-addicts all the while having the disease of addiction. You have to learn to fake it until you make it.
He then began to instruct everyone on the method he uses to maneuver his way out of the obsession to use drugs: golfing. He encouraged everyone to give it a try and see if it helps to take their minds off of the temptation to return to the old habits. Now, I don’t want to rustle any jimmies for any golfers that may be reading this, but I hate golfing. Put down the silly-shaped stick and just hear me out. The idea of wearing brightly colored, tight, itchy pants, while hitting a tiny little white ball for miles over perfectly manicured lawns, under the hot blazing sun, just doesn’t appeal to me. That seems rather like torture, really. However, there is something exceptionally serious to be said here. Listen to the hopelessness: disease, these are the cards we’ve been dealt, and learn to cope. There’s simply no hope there. There’s no freedom. There’s no new life. All we have is the same heart, with the same desires, with the same inability to rein it in and get a bridle on it.
I heard this hundreds of times. Each new day was a new therapist, counselor, or group facilitator repackaging and respinning the same hopelessness. The stories varied. The foundations were the same. The answers: endless and all colliding with one another.
Here’s the nuts and bolts of the thing: we don’t want God’s explanation. It’s rather simple and involves a humble dependence upon Him. He defines the problem and He offers the help and hope. Our culture prefers to blame our environment, our upbringing, our bloodline, our chemical makeup, our lack of discipline, etc. Listening to God means having to reckon with Him. His explanations are not allowed, and frankly, it bothers us.
But if we are ever to be free, if we truly want the whole story of us and our problem, if we long for new hearts and something that can actually change our spots, we’re going to have to put our feet on a more solid foundation. The Lord Jesus said,
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24–27 ESV)
Therein lies the fundamental problem in humanity. We like to build our houses on the unstable sands rather than on the Rock. It’s vital to our freedom and hope that we recognize that when God became a man in the Person of Jesus Christ, He told us about the final plight of homes built like that. They don’t make it. When the full issues of life come (and come they will), only the houses built on the Rock are left to see the brightness of the refreshed morning sun.
The mesmerizing part of the Bible, to my mind, is the fact that God has spoken. He is the Creator of everything. He spoke and the universe leapt into existence (Gen. 1:1). He stands above all things, was before all things, determines all things, and yet is mindful of rowdy little rebels like us. He has spoken (Matt. 22:31). He preaches to us in the things that have been made (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20); He has revealed Himself to every single person made in His Image (Rom. 1:18–19); nobody is outside of the realm of His presence and knowledge, and that’s not all: He has walked among us and given us His Word (John 1:1–18). It’s spectacular. We can know things with certainty, with full assurance and without wavering (Heb. 10:23) because we know what He has said. God says,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17 ESV)
It’s vitally important for us to be fully convinced of this truth. We do not have to clamor around in the dark. There is light in this darkness. We can know what the true nature of our problem is as well as the path to peace. We must however place our feet on different ground than fallen people are inclined to do and look up to the One who chases the rebels, speaks to them, and redeems them from slavery. We have to start with the Rock. Our foundation is the Word of the Living God. We can listen to His voice over and above the myriad of contradictory voices and noise. His voice is settling, His promises sure.
Ultimately, we do not have an addiction problem. We have a worship problem. It is not so much a problem of the brain, but a problem of the heart. Don’t get confused, you’ll remember that I told you that addiction is a beast and permeates the entirety of our being, spiritual and physical. Nevertheless, it starts at a much deeper level. If as Christians we engage the issue of addiction (in whatever form) trying to wrangle in the symptoms we miss the effective solution of dealing with bad fruit: the problem is in the root. Deal with that, and we will successfully handle the problem of the fruit.
Is the problem of addiction fundamentally a problem in our chemical makeup? Is it primarily environmental? Is it something merely the result of our “evolutionary” past? Is it summed up in not having the proper coping skills? Not according to the Scriptures. The Bible tells us a much different story.
All of us are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). We reflect His glory, were made for Him, created to enjoy Him, and are inescapably built for worship. Our problem isn’t a lack of knowledge of the true God (Rom. 1:18–21). Our problem is a sinful suppression of the truth about Him (Rom. 1:18). The Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are not simply spirituallysick. Our condition is much worse: we are spiritually dead and alienated from God (Eph. 2:1–3). From a Biblical perspective, focusing on any one particular sin misses the whole point. We are corrupt to our very core. Our whole life is in rebellion against the infinitely Holy God. Paul summarized it:
As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. (Rom. 3:10–17 ESV)
It wouldn’t be outlandish or improper to call addiction slavery. That resonates with me. I feel the weight of that claim. Perhaps you feel it now? It’s important however to point to the greater reality of what kind of slavery we are really involved in. The Lord Jesus summarized our plight:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 ESV).
On its own, that statement is devastating. It reeks of the same hopelessness that is echoing throughout the house built on the sand. If He had left it there all we would have is unrelenting despair to confess. However, God has good news. That’s what “gospel” means: good news. This is part of the story:
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36 ESV)
Jesus sets people free. He does not come to make our lives simply better or more manageable. He came to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Lost: that is the summary. Many family members of people struggling with addiction have thrown their hands up in dismay over their loved one’s seemingly ruthless commitment to a pursuit of death, destruction, and darkness. Jesus tells us why we are this way: we love the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19).
Now we have wiped away the layers of dirt and are looking upon the root that has been feeding the fruit of this problem. We are image-bearers of God made to worship Him. However, we are at war with Him (Rom. 8:7). In the fall, we will be in a constant struggle to live in God’s world as His image apart from Him. Our lives are defined by self-seeking behavior. We are the new lawmakers; not Him. We do not want to live lives that are in line with His character and law. Now enter: the dark exchange. The Apostle Paul wrote,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Rom. 1:18–25 ESV)
Our problem is a problem of bootleg worship. We don’t want God. Therefore, in a sinful suppression of truth, we exchange God for an idol. We were made for worship. In our rebellion, we direct our worship elsewhere. As God’s image, we have an inescapable need for fellowship, peace, joy, pleasure, intimacy. However, as rebels against the King, we choose rather to be satisfied with idols that do not satisfy. We need peace. Rather than going to God who is the very God of peace, we drop a pill or inject a substance that overwhelms us with a fictitious and fleeting peace. We need pleasure and joy. Rather than going to God, where in His presence there is fullness of joy and in His right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11), we snort the powder or pop the molly (ecstasy) to taste a moment of fleeting joy and pleasure. We were built for pure and wholesome intimacy and fellowship (with God and others). Rather than going to Him to be satisfied we exchange His blessings and sell His gifts to pursue a life of addiction to pornography and sexual immorality.
This is idolatry.
God says as much. We are not sexaholics. We are idolaters. In the third chapter of Colossians, the Apostle Paul lays out a category of sins and says:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col. 3:5 ESV)
Nevertheless, there is hope in the gospel! The beautiful story begins after this indictment upon us. The One and only true and living God prepared a plan before the foundation of the world to save His people from their sins. The Father planned a people for His own possession, the Son redeems them, and the Holy Spirit brings them to life, indwells them, and empowers them to obey Him. The good news is that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus the Messiah. God became man, lived the sinless life of obedience to all the laws of God, died in the place of sinners, was buried, and conquered death by rising again. He is now ascended as the King bringing salvation to the ends of the earth and He calls sinners to repent of sin and to come to Him for life, forgiveness, peace, and salvation as a gift of His grace through faith in Him apart from any work of law (Rom. 1–5).
So how does this answer our problem of addiction? The problem is sin. The pursuit of any addiction is the pursuit of an idol. When God redeems a person, He redeems the whole person. He reconciles us to Himself and brings us to a place of peace with Him removing our condemnation, having poured it out on Christ. He gives us a new heart, puts His Spirit within us, and causes us to obey His laws (Ezekiel 36:24-27). There is the promise of new life. We are bought out of our slavery, taken up out of our death (Romans 6), and joined to Christ (Colossians 3); covered in His righteousness (Philippians 3).
Addiction is idolatry. In the Ten Commandments, God’s first law is clear:
You shall have no other gods before me. (Exod. 20:3 ESV)
In Christ’s redemption, we are not only saved from wrath and forgiven all of our sin, but we are indwelt by God’s Spirit who gives us the power and future hope to live lives passionate about true worship and obedience to His law. This is His promise:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27 ESV)