“The idea of sin being able to deceive us, suppressing truth so that we believe a lie, should send shivers down our spines. It is one thing to deceive other people. That is scary enough. It is even more frightening when we realize that each lie we tell leaves us more self-deceived. All practiced sin teaches us to believe lies. We don’t often consider the boomerang effect of our deception. In the end it will get us.” Ed Welch
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John 8:34
So much of the modern understanding of addiction has been fabricated and interpreted through the lens of Bill Wilson’s A.A. Twelve Steps. Is this a bad thing? In my honest opinion, based upon what little research I have done in regards to the beginning foundation of A.A., what started out as a potentially beneficial resource for the addicted has been distorted in time into somewhat of an idol. I use the word idol, to bring notice to the fact that, A.A. was initially founded upon moral principles that have their origin within the Christian worldview; however, as time has progressed, A.A. has sought congeniality with any and all religious preferences, to the extent that, it has diminished any solid leanings toward a biblical model of recovery it once possessed. Let us not forget, that A.A. has its roots in what was called the Oxford Movement, which was distinctly Christian by profession, and it was made up of some fine Christian participants. To its demise, however, Bill Wilson desired to see the A.A. material be made available to everyone, despite their religious affiliation. That said, Ed Welch makes the remark in his book, A Banquet in the Grave, “I don’t think that even Bill Wilson could have foreseen that his material would eventually be amenable to atheists.”
Welch goes on to say, “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) speaks very frankly about ‘vengeful resentments, self-pity, and unwarranted pride.’ The AA literature has never been shy to talk about what Christians call sin. Furthermore, there have always been religiously oriented writers who have tried to bring sin into the discussion of addictions. They are now being joined by more and more secular authors who suggest that the disease approach is incomplete at best, and that further discussion—or even a paradigm change—is needed. (Keep remembering that, except for Scripture itself, every system of thought is in need of further development. Nothing is a finished product.) The idea that ‘you aren’t responsible for the cause, but you are responsible for the cure’ doesn’t always fit the data, and the near-exclusive reliance on the disease metaphor can stifle discussion. With this in mind, Scripture and its teaching on sin can be called on to sharpen and guide our thinking.”
So this brings us to the initial question, “Is addiction a sin?” Without hesitation, one’s response to this question ought to be an emphatic, yes! On the contrary, however, anyone who has experienced addiction knows all to well that it is unlike any other sin that they have ever committed, whether we speak of sins of commission or omission. Addiction, no doubt, feels very much like a disease. Every addict has at one time or another felt like they were out of control, desperate, even enslaved, if you will, to their drug of choice. Their thoughts and emotions were no longer a result of their own unhindered volition; but rather, the drug of choice controlled them and told them how to live, think, and feel. It is important to point out that the Scriptures often compare sin to an illness or disease. For instance, Isaiah 1:5-6, “Why should ye be stricken anymore? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.” Make no mistake, sin can feel exactly like a disease; and I’ll go even further to say, that there is no other sin that a man can be engulfed in, that is closer in comparison to a disease, than that of addiction. It should be noted, however, that all metaphors and analogies indeed have limitations. In other words, there are ways that addiction is like a disease, and consequently, there are ways that it is not. There is an incalculable difference between saying that one’s genetics can influence them, and saying that one’s genetics or physiological makeup determines them to be or do something. Scripture is not at variance with the supposition that some humans are physiologically predisposed to a particular drug; however, physiological tendencies can not and should not lead us to conclude that self-control or personal responsibility is impossible.
If one takes the time to search the Scriptures for an answer to such questions as this article poses, they will inevitably reach the conclusion that behind addiction lurks sin, which always has, and always will be man’s deepest problem. This is why this article is so important. We are not dealing with some frivolous definition of terms. If sin is not considered as man’s core problem (as opposed to a disease), then the gospel is marginalized. That is to say, as Welch concludes, “If sin is not our primary problem, then the gospel of Jesus is no longer the most important even in all of human history.” But does this conclusion not leave any room for maintaining that the sin of addiction is in some way different than all other sins that humans commonly struggle with? I do not see how this could be the case. I believe one would be perfectly justified in declaring that there is indeed, something particular about the sin of addiction, that separates it from all other forms of sin. This particular character of addiction can even be likened to that of an illness or disease; but beware, no matter how illustrious the metaphor of disease appears to be to that of addiction, it cannot and should not be equated to a disease under no circumstances. The results are not incalculable. One needs only to look unto modern society’s treatment strategies, recovery programs, secular psychotherapy, etc., to calculate how destructive this fallacious presupposition has become. This quote by A.W. Tozer, albeit in reference to doctrinal issues of theology, has much relevancy to the issue at hand, he says, “I think it might be demonstrated that almost every heresy that has afflicted the church through the years has arisen from believing about God things that are not true, or from overemphasizing certain true things so as to obscure other things equally true. To magnify any attribute to the exclusion of another is to head straight for one of the dismal swamps of theology; and yet we are all constantly tempted to do just that.”
What exactly is particular about addiction? What about the nature of addiction makes it a candidate for being likened to that of a disease, even within the realm of Scripture? As Welch mentions, “…the deepest problem of both the murderer and the diabetic is sin, but that doesn’t mean that diabetes is sinful. Are addictions themselves sinful?” The book of Proverbs speaks of the wisest of men as those men who possess the most trustworthy knowledge of themselves. To regulate addiction to a disease which, thereby, dismisses those addicted from any moral accountability whatsoever, will inevitably create addicts with the most untrue knowledge of themselves. The truth is man does suffer from a moral dilemma, which is the result of a universal, indeed global, disease. Some have told the addict he need not beat himself up over his addictive behaviors, for he is the victim of an allergy that prevents him from being able to use substances successfully. The latter statement is true; however, the former not so much. Man needs to realize above all else that he is a sinner, not just that he sins, and is therefore declared a sinner; rather, he came forth from the womb a sinner. The disease of sinning is man’s only birthright apart from the redeeming grace of God. No man, even with the cessation of using substances, will alleviate himself from this disease of sin without having been regenerated by God.
Would it not be cruel of a physician to neglect revealing to the cancerous patient that they are, in fact, infected, just so the patient will not (justly) dwell upon such dreadful information? Likewise, so the moderns have done when they essentially treat addiction to crack cocaine as equivalent to the patient who is diagnosed with breast cancer. Supposedly both, addict and patient, are victims of a disease. It may be suggested that the difference is that the addict chooses to use, which is a choice that the cancerous patient doesn’t possess in whether the disease of cancer begins to become manifested. But does this suggestion not prove the antithesis? Specifically, that addiction is not a disease without moral ramifications; but rather, a disease that is a choice by all those afflicted? Proverbs 1:17, “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.” Just as a bird sees the awaiting net beyond the bait, so the addict chooses the very substance that will result in his ruin.
I can just hear those who are among the pro-disease approach to treating addictions replying with, “Indeed, it may be accurate to describe the addict’s first rendezvous with their drug of choice as sin; however, overtime, the drug makes the choice. They no longer are acting self-consciously.” The results of such thinking are also, incalculable. Such presuppositions are against everything that our judicial punitive sanctions are framed upon. If we follow such logic to its inevitable end, it does not come as a surprise to us as to how so many have received lax punishments who have claimed insanity or mental disorder. How in the world can we ever punish anyone who is not in control of the decisions they make? Are we to conclude therefore, that all those who steal in order to fund their drug of choice were only acting out of necessity? That is, the addicted thief cannot and should not be punished for actions that were influenced by a disease that has subconsciously determined that he use by any means necessary?
Welch continues, “But the disease model doesn’t fit as well as we might think. The cravings and desires at the core of the addictive experience are not quite the same as an invading virus. If you catch a virus, you have no choice. You don’t want it, and you would be glad to be rid of it. Heavy drinking, however, doesn’t just happen to us. Instead, the drinker feels there are payoffs—however temporary—to drunkenness. (There are for any sin.) In other words, addicts make choices to pursue their addiction…This does not deny either the feeling or the reality of being taken captive by an addictive substance or behavior. It is just to say that, for the addict, slavery with the object of desire is sometimes preferable to freedom without it.”
I can but hear some people’s response to where I am taking this article. “How convenient, he has once again found occasion to put before our face his ardent and dogmatic Calvinist views. What must be understood about addiction and my understanding of it, however, is that I do not merely believe the Calvinistic doctrines because I read them in Calvin’s Institutes, or Luther’s Bondage of the Will, but I myself have lived them. Not only was my will bent toward sin prior to God saving me, but I have never come so close to my pre-regenerated sinful heart’s desire than when I found myself in the trenches of addiction. I have never needed the grace of God upon my life more after my initial re-birth than when I found myself addicted to heroin and crystal-meth. The best way I can articulate this matter is by saying that I desired once again to desire God; but sadly, apart from God’s own renewing grace, I could not. Addiction is a disease of the human heart. The addict’s will becomes bent towards it. Martin Luther in his timeless classic, Bondage of the Will, wrote: Man…does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief…being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter…”
Everyone who has experienced addiction has uttered those words, “I can quit when I want to, I’m not addicted.” To this, I would only argue with the latter and not the former. Indeed, when one wants to quit, he will most likely quit in due time. However, what one cannot do on their own, is conjure up the desire or will-power to quit. That desire, much like the gift of grace through faith, is just that; a gift. The desire to quit is a God-given desire. It matters very little how this desire becomes a reality in one’s life, just so long as it does become one. For some, mere circumstances permissively allowed to come about by God may be the means to this end; for others, it may be the direct providential hand of God intervening in one’s life that removes the veil from their eyes. Some have not entirely been wrong in alluding to the enlistment of a higher power as being essential to one’s recovery; where they were wrong, however, was in assuming that one can choose for himself/herself who or what that higher power will be. That is to implicitly presuppose that they themselves have the highest power in and of themselves; namely, declaring who or what is God. Power is not any higher than self when self determines for itself what is powerful and what isn’t. Power is power, whether the powerless addict gives intellectual assent to this or not. May God be true, though every man a liar.
A biblically accurate way to think of addictions is that it typically begins as a naïve act of rebellion, which in time hardens one’s already idolatrous heart until it becomes trapped. Unconfessed and unrepentant sin inevitably results in voluntary slavery when God abandons his people to their own desires. Ed Welch, gives a precise definition of addiction based upon a biblical framework, “Addiction is bondage to the rule of a substance, activity, or state of mind, which then becomes the center of life, defending itself from the truth so that even bad consequences don’t bring repentance, and leading to further estrangement from God.”
I’ve often wondered what purpose God had for allowing me to continue in the destructive path of addiction for so long. I have since, through introspection, came to many conclusions, but none so sobering as this one by the Prince of Preachers, C. H. Spurgeon, “I think the Lord permits many sinners to go to the full length of their tether in order that they may know, in the future, what stuff they are made of, and may never trust in themselves. Those who, from their youth up, have been under restraint do not know the evil of their own hearts and are apt to think that they can scarcely be heirs of wrath even as others. But those who have developed their innate depravity by actual sin dare not dream such proud falsehoods, for their actual sins would cry them down if they did so! When the Lord leaves us to ourselves, awhile, and just stands back and lets us have our spin, what pretty creatures we are!”