Dependency and Addiction
According to experts, alcohol and drug addiction are diseases; obesity and overeating are due to genetic predisposition; obsessive relationship attachments are labeled “codependent;” and excessive spending may be a symptom of bi-polar disorder. To refer to these matters as sin is considered taboo. After all, it isn’t our fault if we have a physical malady, genetic flaw, poor childhood, or biochemical imbalance.
Focusing on sin, some argue, is harsh and promotes guilty, shameful emotions. I argue that telling someone there is no remedy or cure for their behavioral prison is harsh. Without transformation, we can only teach someone to manage their illness rather than resolve their sin.
Addiction is indulgence of the flesh and the temporal pleasures that come with the element of attraction. For some substances, medical addiction can, and does, become a complicating factor making deception and entrapment still greater. Yet in its origin, it is the placement of something or someone above God.
Edward Welch (2001) calls addiction a worship disorder, pointing to idolatry as a central theme in our excessive consumptions. He writes:
Furthermore, the problem is not outside of us located in a liquor store or on the Internet; the problem is within us. Alcohol and drugs are essentially satisfiers of deeper idols. The problem is not the idolatrous substance; it is the false worship of the heart (p. 49).
Scripture states: “Now the works of the flesh are evident…” (Gal. 5:19). If the cravings and actions of our flesh are evident (obvious), then through them our heart is revealed. The heart conveys our affection; our devotion of time and energy; our longing; and our commitment.The heart invested fully in a person or substance will have little evidence of godly worship, service, or holy conduct, as these assets cannot be attained apart from godly adoration.
Many suggest that the Bible has little to say about addiction in general. For example, the Bible does not speak of pornography, drug addiction, or relationship dependence at all. The Bible also does not mention automobiles and rocket ships because they did not exist at the time God gave His revelation. But theologically and structurally, Scripture has volumes to say about idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14), worship (John 4:23), respect and maintenance of the body (1 Cor. 3:16-17), lust (1 John 2:16, sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23), a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7), temperance (1 Cor. 6:12), and pure meditations (Ps. 19:14). Perhaps Paul summed it up best:
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any (1 Cor. 6:12).
The Temporal Nature of Dependency:
No matter the focus of one’s misplaced worship and idolatry, it offers a lifeless, powerless substitute for the workings of Jesus Christ. The investment in the temporal soothing of carnal discomfort has always been seductive and deluding, and has never been enduring, substantial, or real. Scripture warns of the impotence of idols that eventually drains the capacities of man:
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
Eyes they have, but they do not see;
They have ears, but they do not hear;
Noses they have, but they do not smell;
They have hands, but they do not handle;
Feet they have, but they do not walk;
Nor do they mutter through their throat.
Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them (Ps. 115:5-8).
As with anything false, the promise is far greater than the result. When hearts create these temporary sources of relief, in which trust, faith, and reliance are entrusted, the creator of the idol soon becomes like the idol: mute, blind, numb, lame, stifled, and powerless. This is the maddening element of dependency: the repetitive return to a source that not only fails to edify, but in fact destroys the body, mind, soul, and spirit.
With addiction, we opt for the most expedient answer to the desires of the flesh. Without an abiding, worshipful relationship with Christ (John 15:5), we have no endurance, no perseverance, and no willingness to sacrifice. Comfort becomes the aim, no matter the consequence.
This problem is heightened over time, by the use of substances that inflame the flesh with cravings and physical discomfort. Now the attraction is not only psychological (relief), it is also physiological. Spiritually divided from the Lord, our flesh reigns. Now fueled with the toxins of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sugar, etc., the flesh screams even more loudly. Paul wrote:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:5-8).
Paul answers this dilemma later in the same book:
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts (Rom. 13:14).
Discipline or Relationship:
Regarding addiction, one may rightfully say: “Just saying no…is not enough.” A cursory review of the Bible passages above could suggest that we are simply speaking of discipline and obedience:
“Forsake the flesh, embrace Christ, and take no opportunity to act rebelliously.” Yet, we recognize that while this structure is true, it is simply the framework, within which, transformation occurs.
In reality, secular programs teach a very simplistic pattern of abstinence. The message of Alcoholics Anonymous, treatment programs, and therapists sounds like this: “Since you have a disease (disorder, brain imbalance, character flaw of childhood, poor genetics, etc.), you can never be cured. For the rest of your life you will have to manage and control your illness through abstinence: the avoidance of contact with the object of your addiction. You will always be inclined to abuse alcohol (use drugs, act out sexually, view pornography, etc.) because this issue is imbedded in who you are. You will never be free, but you can be sober (straight, keep boundaries, etc.).”
But the message of the cross is one of sufficiency, power, grace, and reconciliation. It is a gift that modifies the essence of who we are and how we live. No longer flesh only; the believer is flesh and Spirit. He/She has a power unavailable to the rest of the world; an ever present Helper, Comforter, Counselor, and Truth. We, as Christians, are not subject to bondage in this world because Christ has overcome the world (1 John 5:4).
So when we speak of life according to the Spirit that allows us to “put off” our previous conduct and lust (Eph. 4:20-24), we are addressing the enduring elements of life lived in the light of Christ. It is not a determined position of willpower we promote, but a submitted, trusting, worshipful, and empowered union with the Lord; from which proceeds discipline, abstinence, self-control, sound mind, and the capacity to “make no provision for the flesh.”
So often, we attempt to put the cart ahead of the horse by placing control and obedience ahead of love and worship. In dealing with dependency, we are either relying upon the substitution of the world or the genuine Christ. We cannot help the dependent person by promoting containment and strength, when they are depleted, hungry, thirsty, and lost. Jesus taught: “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55). As Christ told the Samaritan woman at the well:
Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:13-14).
The promise of peace is of little comfort; but the experience of peace through the sustenance of Christ builds hope, endurance, love, and obedience. Any effort that ignores this process is doomed to failure. Yes, certain individuals can remain “free” of behavioral contact with the source of their dependency, through some version of willful avoidance. But, under this scenario they are still slaves who have temporarily escaped their captors, wondering when they will be reclaimed. Once claimed and known by the Lord Jesus, they are “free indeed” (John 8:36) and “…no one can snatch them” (John 10:28) out of His hand.
Biblical counseling with cases of dependency and addiction must maintain a focus that is hopeful and a belief that total transformation is available. We must not resonate with the idea of physical and/or emotional limitations that restrict the person to simply hold on and fight against their innate tendencies.
In the cases of drug or alcohol dependency, there are medical concerns that cannot be ignored. But these concerns are grounded in the effect of the substance on the body; not the cause of the addictive process. The origin is sin; the outcome can be illness. Some who seek biblical counseling may be physiologically addicted, making it unsafe to simply stop the drug or drink. When this is a concern, a referral must be made to appropriate medical resources who can evaluate and treat the withdrawal from the substance.
Alcohol and drug withdrawal can be life-threatening without proper medical care. Other times, the withdrawal symptoms may not be dangerous, but are intense enough to make successful abstinence almost impossible. The physiological cravings can be strong, distorting the counselee’s focus, resolve, and willingness to confront the issue.
Generally, anyone reporting the regular use of drugs and/or alcohol should be referred for a physical exam and be given input from a medical doctor, as part of the counseling process. It is not your role as pastor, counselor, or lay leader to discern what may, or may not be, a medical risk.
As the potential for medical complications is addressed, the counselor can begin the biblical unraveling of the addictive problem. When the issue is one of relationship dependency, pornography or sexual acting out, gambling, etc., medical evaluations are not necessarily indicated. The determining factor has to do with the ingestion of a substance that literally defiles and weakens the body, making one physically compromised and vulnerable.
As with all sin, dependency of this type is paradoxically self-serving and self-destructive. Yet, the addicted individual is rarely motivated to see this truth. In fact, the more involved he/she becomes in their dependency, the less sensitive they are to the affect it has on their health and/or the affect on those closest to them. The misplaced worship and adoration of the person, activity, or substance, so clouds one’s judgment that personal and relational destruction is common.
Someone who abuses alcohol may love the substance to the point of death through cirrhosis of the liver or an automobile crash. He/she may adore the drink to the degree others are killed on the highway, abuse is advanced, murders are committed, etc. There are a great many heinous outcomes attributed to being under the influence.
Pornography obsession has become so important to some that professional positions have been lost because of pornography use at work. Others have exposed their children and spouses to vile sexual perversions by filling their computers with residue that is inadvertently viewed by others in the home. This form of sexual engulfment has led to extramarital affairs, homosexuality, disease, and even death.
Relationship dependency is rife with the potential for exploitation and abuse. Chaotic and excessive spending has lead to bankruptcy, broken marriages, and suicide. Gambling produces similar stories of loss, injury, death, and sometimes criminal involvement.
When one is carried away by his/her own desires (James 1:14-15), the outcome is progressive deterioration that can only be interrupted by true repentance.
This penchant for destruction requires direct and firm attention from the biblical counselor. To provide excuse through the various medical, genetic, and environmental explanations is detrimental to the counselee and does nothing to covey love or truth.
Case Study: Rebecca
Rebecca is a 42-year-old, married, mother of two middle school daughters. She and her husband Jay are members of a local church and both are professing Christians. Recently, Jay discovered numerous email exchanges between Rebecca and another man that suggested a sexual relationship. When confronted, Rebecca confessed she had been seeing the other man regularly for about six months. Under the threat of divorce, Rebecca has come for counseling.
Rebecca: I know you must think I am awful for doing what I did…I am guilty of hurting so many people. I have thought about it a great deal and believe I have an explanation.
Counselor: An explanation? What do you mean by that?
Rebecca: I know why I fell into this affair. The Lord has shown me that it is not my fault.
Counselor: Your affair with another man is not your fault? Do you mean to say that you were abducted and raped by this man?
Rebecca: In a way…I was. My husband doesn’t know this, but long before I met this man on the Internet, I had been drinking regularly. Some might call me a closet alcoholic. I was so unhappy in my marriage, that I began to drink a little wine during the day. It made me feel better. Then before I knew it, I was drinking wine practically non-stop throughout the day. My mother was an alcoholic and now I see that I might be too. I lost control of myself because of the wine.
Counselor: So the sin of adultery is cancelled because of your sin of drunkenness?
Rebecca: Well that’s not a very kind way to put it! I am simply saying that if I wasn’t alcoholic, I would never have taken the steps I did with Roger (the other man)…My disease caused me to take this step…not my sin.
Counselor: Disease is what the world calls alcoholism. What does God’s Word say about it?
Rebecca: Well judging from your question, I am sure the Bible must call it sin. But that really isn’t true anymore. We now know that alcoholism is something we inherit, not something we choose.
Counselor: (Opens the Bible) Rebecca you told me that you have professed Christ as your Savior, correct?
Rebecca: Of course. You aren’t going to tell me that I am not saved because I made a mistake are you?
Counselor: You will have to make that evaluation before God. But Scripture shows us the expectation of changed conduct beyond our salvation. Look at this passage: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:13-14).
Rebecca: (Quiet, then rebellious) What does that have to do with me?
Counselor: I think this passage quiets the debate concerning disease and inheritance. Did you not walk in “drunkenness” and “revelry?”
Rebecca: Yes but it wasn’t my fault.
Counselor: Did you not walk in “lewdness” and “lust?”
Rebecca: Well I guess I walked in lust, but I wasn’t lewd! (Angry).
Counselor: (Opens a dictionary) Let’s see…lewd means: “showing an inordinate interest in sex or sexual excitement.” What do you think?
Rebecca: (Angry) Ok…lust AND lewdness. What is your point!
Counselor: Let’s just complete the passage…What about “strife” and “envy?”
Rebecca: (More Angry) Yes, Yes, Yes…I had strife! I hated my life with Jay. I hated him. I envied other women who had men who made them feel loved and appreciated. I envied women who felt passion in their marriage. I wanted what they had. So, I found a way to escape! And nobody would have ever known if my husband had kept his nose out of my private emails! That’s exactly the attitude that forced me away from him to begin with! (Shouting).
Counselor: You truly feel you are justified in the actions you have taken.
Rebecca: You bet I do!
Counselor: So long before you discovered your “disease,” you were an angry, bitter, dissatisfied wife, filled with envy, fantasy, and desire for something outside your home. Before you ever took a sip of wine, your heart had nursed on resentment, unforgiveness, and rage. And rather than “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” you put on rebellion and made “provision for the flesh.” Your heart led you to drink, not your mother’s genes. Your heart led you to adultery; not a disease. Your heart defiled you, not your environment.
Rebecca: (Quietly crying).
Counselor: God will receive you and restore you if you repent and return to Him. But He gave you every warning in His Word, and He is not interested in explanation and excuse. Nothing changes in your heart, behavior, or marriage until He is the focus of your devotion.
In this short example, we see the progressive nature of sin and its power to delude reality. Many who are under the sway of chemical and/or relational power, are oblivious to the origin of their despair. The nature and basis of sin is almost always grounded in issues of the heart that precede long before the most obvious conduct.
Long before Rebecca’s adultery was observed, her alcohol abuse was active. Long before she took her first drink, her envy and sense of self-entitlement was inflamed. Before she was envious and engulfed in fantasy, she was angry, bitter, and inconsolable. And even before her anger, there was selfishness and disregard for others.
The Scripture used in this session was brought to mind by the Holy Spirit because it confronted all of these conditions; strife, envy, lust, lewdness, revelry, and drunkenness. Any attempt to address her package of sins individually, would have been met with great opposition and justification. Anger was justified by a poor marriage; drinking was a remedy for her unhappiness; drunkenness was a result of genetic influence and disease; adultery was a by-product of her alcoholism; and all were linked to her perceived right to be happy and to have what others have. But given as a package of truth, there were no turns to take, no rationale to bring.
Rebecca came to repentance, dealing completely with her angry, selfish nature. From that core, the advancement of other sin was halted and her marriage was restored.
Clearly, we are unable to address every form of severe and complicated case in the course of this text. Rather, we have attempted to provide an overview of some common issues, which bear special consideration. Others might include eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia; abusive and/or homicidal situations; and chronic personality problems like borderline or anti-social personality disorders. Regardless of the nature and context of the issue, the biblical counselor must be prepared to address matters of immediate safety, proper referral for medical evaluation and support, and the utilization of community and church resources. Additionally, the biblical counselor must be willing to wade into the waters of chaos for the cause of Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, the church has tended to avoid matters of this type. Certainly there are exceptions, but by and large, the Body does not know how to react when exaggerated symptoms occur. Biblical counselors have avoided these complicated matters as well, addressing the more routine issues of life. But it is our position that in the last days “perilous times will come” (2 Tim. 3:1). Scripture tells us: “Evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). The potential for delusion, spiritual deception, evil corruption, and apostasy is tremendous. The minister of God must be armed to detect and address the extreme manifestations of this spiritual battle.
Respect medical need; always give priority to physical safety and preservation of life; contact and utilize professionals, agencies, and resources when needed; but be ready and willing to address the spiritual elements in every situation. Failure to stand firm with the message and process of biblical counseling in such matters, will only give credence to the secular explanations that have become so prevalent in the world and within the church. Biblical counseling is the presentation of Christ to a world that is perishing:
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:14-15).
Welch, Edward, (2001), Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave: Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel, P & R Publishing, Philipsburg, NJ.
Copyright (c) 2015, Dr. W.P. “Ab” Abercrombie and The Biblical Counseling Institute