by Pastor Chad Wiles
“I don’t know how to stop. It just feels like the urge to use comes over me and the only way to find peace is to give in to the urge.” Anonymous
It is no wonder why addiction is commonly referred to as a disease; the experience of an addict is similar to that of someone who has found out that they have a disease like cancer. A person struggling through the slavery of addiction feels out of control, helpless, and trapped like a victim. It is as if the controlling substance or object tells them how to think, feel, and act. Similarly, if someone gets a virus or a disease such as cancer, then they would play victim to it until it runs its course, a cure is given, or it goes into remission.
Even after the disease goes into remission it can still dictate parts of your life. Regular follow-ups with the oncologist and dietary restrictions would be ongoing. Similarly, addiction is treated with a long-term prognosis of a coping plan because, according to psychologists, it is seen as something that can never be fully overcome. Addicts are taught that addiction is part of their identity. Therefore, freedom will come through the consistent accountability of a program which helps them to keep the controlling substance at bay. The hope is to remain sober, but the possibility of the addict relapsing is always just one choice away.
There is much about the disease theory that seems hopeful. It resonates with the part of us that feels out of control and like a victim. We feel like we can finally understand the issue and find a reason for the way we are without having to feel responsible for the desire of addiction. However, there are a couple major issues with the disease theory that, when explored, prove addiction not to be a disease, but instead a sin issue.
What must first be addressed is the issue of authority. Who is claiming, and providing evidence for, the disease theory? The disease theory is birthed out of the profession and practice of psychology. Psychology is the study of mind and behavior, and is largely an observational science. What that means is psychologists are excellent in their ability to observe behavior. And that allows them to associate behavior patterns with different types of mental and emotional issues. Where they struggle is understanding the cause, or the why, behind the issue, which in turn, leaves them lost on prescribing real solutions.
More importantly, the practice of psychology excludes the acknowledgement of God as the creator and authority over his creation. It would be like trying to understand how my Dodge works without acknowledging the existence of the Dodge manufacturing company or taking any advice from a Dodge-certified mechanic. Over time, I would figure out some things, but I would be very limited at best. This is, in other words, man (limited in knowledge, fallible, sinful in nature) coming up with theories about mind and behavior based upon observations about sinful man. The only way to understand addiction rightly is to look to the Creator of all, the one who has full and perfect wisdom—God (Col. 1:16).
The second issue is that God’s word never calls addiction a disease. The Bible always addresses addiction as sin (Gal. 5:19-21 & 1 Cor. 5:10-11), so we should too. The disease theory does not actually offer hope or freedom. Managing addiction as a disease and focusing on sobriety may offer some help—the addict may see improved relationships, new-found stability, and financial success—but this does not address the issue of sin which is far greater.For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
The addict is not a victim to disease but a willing slave to sin. Another way to say it is that addicts are idolaters. Trying to be the god of their own life they have set up objects or substances that serve the deep motivational drives of the heart—control, comfort, approval, and power. The substance came into their life to serve a need, but at some point the addict began to serve the substance.
For example, a salesman—we’ll call him Mike—feels the pressure each month to perform for his company, and if he doesn’t meet certain goals, he could lose his job. Mike’s boss has supplied him with a large expense account to cater to clients in order to close the deal. This leads to many golf outings and late-night dinners with a lot of alcohol. At first, it was just a couple drinks to take the edge off but with mounting pressure to close each new deal, his drinking started getting out of control. Soon other substances like cocaine were introduced. The first time Mike took a bump of cocaine he was hooked. It made him feel invincible and confident which really helped boost his sales. However, over time the cocaine and alcohol use started to control his life. He couldn’t wake up without it and eventually he got caught being high at work and his production tanked. Mike had soon lost everything, and even added a few stints in jail to make matters worse. Mike’s need for approval and control is how the addiction began, but before long the addiction had Mike.
Ed Welch in his book Addiction: A Banquet in the Grave rightly redefines addiction:
The best part about understanding addiction as sin, as opposed to a disease, is that sin has an answer that leads to freedom. So how should we approach the issue of addiction? Here are three main ideas that I hope are helpful.
- In Christ we know that hope begins with the understanding that sin is common to man. Sin feels like a disease because the desire to sin is inside of us all. Without Christ we can do nothing but sin. The issue with addiction is that the substances we turn to have addictive properties of their own. This causes a physical dependence that compounds a spiritual issue. (Eph. 2:1-3, Rom. 3:23, Rom. 3:10-12)
- The Bible shows us that God frees us from the slavery of our sin through the gospel. We do not need to cope with our sin—we need to repent of it. Taking responsibility for our sin is the key to freedom. We are not victims—we have chosen our sin because we want to be our own god. However, when we lay down our pride and humbly come to the Lord, accepting Christ as our Savior, He makes us new. (Eph. 2:4-5, Rom. 6:23, Gal. 5:1)
- Standing firm in the gospel truth and in community is the long-term hope. The temptation to sin will always be inside of us, but Christ gives us the strength to fight it. One of the fruits of the Spirit that we receive is self-control, but we are not expected to do it all alone. God has provided the community of the local church to help us to grow and bear the burdens with one another. As, I mentioned in point one, substances have properties that make an addict physically dependent. So early in the process of repenting from addiction, the addict will need a lot of encouragement and accountability to break free from the physical dependence. (Gal. 5:22-25, Prov. 27:17, Gal. 6:1-2, Rom. 12:9-21, Col. 2:6-8)
My prayer is that if you or anyone you know struggles with an addiction, you would run to Christ and seek him for freedom that only he is able to provide.