One of the most asked questions that I receive privately is how to help a loved one or friend to overcome an addiction. To better answer this question, there is great need to first understand what an addiction is.
The American Addiction Centers states on its website that addiction is anything that fits into these four categories:
Is a substance or experience,
Is repeated or habitual despite substantial harm,
Is pleasurable, promises a reward, or is perceived to be of great value,
And is harmful, impairing, or destructive.
The word addiction comes from the Latin addictionem, which means “an awarding,” “a delivering up,” or “a sacrifice.” The term’s etymology suggests that an addict is a person who sacrifices or gives themselves up to pursuing an award or value that is harmful and destructive rather than freeing.
In this definition, we again see the four criteria accepted within secular thinking as qualifying as an addiction. When considering this definition, it is most beneficial for Christians to examine what God says about addictions biblically. Of course, Scripture does not use the modern term, so we must look to discover what word(s) or concept(s) the Bible utilizes to describe the same human tendencies framed today within humanistic theory as addictions.
Repetitive Controlling Experience
The Bible says a great deal both about human repetition as well as the human tendency to be controlled by our pursuits/values. By nature, sin is a desire/value that offers a promise of pleasure and reward but is ensnaring and destructive. Proverbs 5:22 states, “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin.”
The natural man (foolishness) tends to repeat his folly just as a dog returns to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11). The nature of all sin is to enslave its participant, and the nature of all humanity apart from Christ is to repeat folly.
Pleasurable End or Great Value
Humanity’s natural desires are both destructive and deceitful, and sin is an outward manifestation of these spiritual pursuits. So much so, that the Bible utilizes a unique word to describe the natural heart’s destructive and deceitful pursuit of pleasure and harmful “reward”: lust.
John 8:44 relates it this way, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires (lusts). He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are all sourced in our spiritual heart and naturally carried out in our behavior. Our human tendency is to pursue whatever our “spiritual heart” perceives to be pleasurable and beneficial to ourselves, but our natural heart is deceived and tells us to seek things that destroy us despite their promise of deliverance and satisfaction.
In truth, there are only two foundational reasons why people do drugs: a promise of deliverance/escape from the reality of their lives or the pursuit of pleasure/ transcendence beyond their current state. If there were not a false promise of satisfying pleasure or blissful escape, people would not pursue drugs or any other vice. All sin, not just illicit drugs, falsely promise satisfaction and deliverance that only God can provide.
Harmful, Impairing, or Destructive
Scripture also describes sin as destroying people. The Bible lists all sorts of substances and experiences/pursuits that it declares to be sinful and harmful. For example, Ephesians 5:18 says: “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (NLT).
In this particular verse, the writer contrasts the control of the Holy Spirit by the control of alcohol. When a person is drunk, he has given himself over to or sacrificed power to a destructive substance through repetitive behavior.
The pursuit of these false pleasures/false promises of our hearts not only harms us but also kills us. James 1:14-15 explains, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown (when it is mature) brings forth death.”
James uses the metaphor of childbirth to illustrate that our natural desires grow into powerful sins that overpower us and digresses us toward death. This result is the very definition of addiction, and Scripture views it as normal human nature rather than as a disorder or a disease.
Everybody Is an Addict
This last criterion, the harmful or impairing criterion that secularists insist qualifies someone as being addicted, is vital to consider further. If you remove the “impairment and harmful” criterion from the definition of addiction, what remains in the definition of addiction relates to a desired positive character trait in people – perseverance toward rewarding goals/good habits.
Stated differently, it is not the pursuit of desires/rewards or repetitive behavior that is the real concern of addiction, but the object or experience. Parents, for example, desire and teach their children to form goals, habits, and pursuits that allow them incredible life experiences, satisfying pleasures, and yield them great rewards. Successful people are those who repeat behavior until they achieve mastery, fulfill a desire or obtain a reward. It is the moral nature of the object of desire that genuinely determines whether a lifestyle is viewed as addiction or as mastery.
We praise those who fulfill most of this list when it is beneficial to the individual or person, but when desires and subsequent behaviors are harmful and lead to destruction, we have been taught by secularists to consider these pursuits as addictions.
One illustration of the importance of the “impairment axiom” can be observed in what the American Psychiatric Association (APA) calls “Gambling Disorder.” It says that the most important feature in recognizing this tendency in people is: “Persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” Essentially, any human impairment or distress that is brought about by a strong desire and subsequent repeated behavior is considered by the APA to be an addiction or a disorder.
This reality is also why “Caffeine-Related Disorders” exist in the DSM-5. If a person has “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” from consuming “coffees, tea, caffeinated soda, ‘energy drinks,’ etc.,” that individual qualifies as being disordered and is labeled as an addict.
One must consider, then, that if it indeed is our natural bent to pursue rewards and find value in empty promises because of our deceived nature, why should we consider negative pursuits that are harmful as abnormalities? Is it that some objects control people or that something is wrong? In truth, we are all naturally addicts when we enter the world, and what they frame as addiction reflects both our natural bent and the sin that is by nature controlling and destructive.
A Need for a Moral System
One must also consider who is allowed to decide what is harmful and what is not and on what basis. Is pursuing a career with an intense dedication to the point of sacrificing health, relationships, and other desires an addiction or a discipline? Nowadays, people must engage in such behavior to achieve some admirable goals such as becoming a medical doctor, for example.
Many medical journals now admit that being a physician is incredibly distressful, and such a lifestyle is destroying many lives. Editor and Chief of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Katherine Gold, recently stated,
I think that there’s a universal understanding that there is a great deal of distress among physicians.
We certainly know that there are high levels of depression in physicians both in training and in practice. Physicians, who have the best access to healthcare, are still committing suicide. People are reducing their hours seeing patients, because you can’t simply do as much as you used to be able to do, because there’s so much work outside of the work with the patient. I think what people find rewarding is our time with our patients, and we have less and less time for that.
Is the desire to help people and the pursuit of such reward an addiction? All four criteria are met within this definition, yet being a doctor is not considered to be an addiction.
Take as another example, rock climber Alex Honnold, who became the first climber to scale Yellowstone National Park’s El Capitan without any protective gear. Rock climbing is unarguably one of the most dangerous pursuits that someone can have. But Honnold is praised and honored for his accomplishment and was even asked to speak at TED Talks about how he obtained his dream.
Indeed, the experience and potential reward of conquering a mountain without safety gear, the repetitive attempts, and the clearly dangerous and harmful reality of those attempts (including the many who have died trying), fit well into the secular definition of addiction. There is no point in climbing a mountain in this way other than the triumph/reward itself of conquering it and the pride that no one else has achieved it.
Realistically, the definition of addiction has no value unless you establish and uphold a moral system of “good and bad.” A blogger online who is clearly addicted to attention is not thought to be addicted until it is perceived to be negative or threatens his life. What is considered to be harmful by some is not considered to be harmful by others and thus, is based upon each of our value systems—what is a worthy reward.
The use of drugs, pornography, and violence are seen by many as morally wrong not only because of their destructive nature but also because God declares them to be sin in Scripture. From a biblical perspective, these reasons are not separate ideas; God in His goodness warns people not to pursue their lusts or engage in sin—that which ensnares offers a false promise of satisfaction and deliverance, and which destroys people’s lives. An essential tenet of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to free humanity from the bondage of sin—addiction.
If a person accepts God’s moral system, you must view any experience or substance that God declares to be sinful as an addiction that is destructive. It is not merely immoral activities, though, that can be addictive; so too can everyday activities and substances that become controlling if the desire to please self is the highest pursuit a person has. Even something as seemingly neutral as food (“a substance or experience”) can become destructively controlling if it is not consumed with the right desire to please God.
Paul expresses this truth in 1 Corinthians 6:11-13: “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated (ruled or enslaved) by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
I must emphasize, however, that it is not just the behavior that is destructive, but also the pursuits/treasures of the heart. No one becomes an addict who does not first desire to please self above all else, and the lusts themselves destroy people.
1 Corinthians 10:31 illustrates the right mindset we are to have: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” One might say, then, that what each of us naturally pursues apart from worshipping God and pursuing Him as preeminent is our addiction; we are all born addicts, or as James 1 says, each of us is drawn away by our own particular lusts.
Only when someone’s sin is so clearly observed as controlling and dominating a person’s life do we as a secular society begin to call it an addiction. But this is part of the deceit of sin itself and the nature of our own lusts; sin never intends to leave us where it begins to entice us. Addictions are not abnormalities; they are simply the heart pursuing its naturally destructive lusts and pleasures that produce sin that naturally enslaves and destroys both spiritual and physical natures.