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Addiction: Conflicting Solutions

Updated: Oct 18, 2023



"In the realm of addictions AA controls the discussion, even within the church. The result is that what really guides the thinking of many people who struggle with drugs or alcohol is a syncretistic set of beliefs that combines AA, pop psychology, pieces of Scripture, and miscellaneous features of American culture." - Ed Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave

In a culture with ever changing definitions, it is crucial to clearly define both addiction and gospel centrality. The definition of, and solution to addiction has changed several times over the years. The church at large has embraced the solutions of the world, not knowing how to help addicts, and the world is convinced that their solutions are the only solutions. For example, the belief that addiction is a disease or disorder and the church is not qualified to help is widely accepted. The problem with this belief is, the further we get from biblical definitions and understanding of the gospel’s relevance in our lives, the harder it is to cultivate lasting, transforming heart change. Few programs actually address the root problem: the heart and sin. This article will explain the true problem of addiction, how the world defines addiction and how we, as believers, should define addiction.


ADDICTION DEFINED

From August 2020-September 2021, more than 104,000 people died from drug overdose. This is nearly a 30% increase over the previous year. These staggering statistics do not include overdose from alcohol, or deaths associated from complications of addiction, like MRSA infections. In 2019, the CDC reported that almost 66 million U.S. adults reported past-month binge drinking and nearly 36 million reported illicit drug use or prescription pain reliever misuse during the past month.1 Estimates show that 1 in 8 American adults are addicted. This means there are people in our churches that struggle. How many people are in your church congregation? Multiply that number by .125. That’s how many people in your church likely choose to cope by using drugs or alcohol. If your church has 500 members, that means at least 62 of them are struggling.


According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), addiction is defined as: a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.2 Over time, the culture has shifted how it views addiction, and now the latest diagnostic term for addiction is “Substance Use Disorder” (SUD). Over the past 50 years we moved from a war on drugs to classifying addiction as a mental disorder. The NIH in the attempt to classify addiction as a disease shows a brain scan in a normal brain and that of someone who has recently used cocaine. Indeed there are changes that happen in the brain when someone uses substances, but does that mean the brain was broken prior to use that caused the substance use? Or is the change in the brain caused by the drug? In the opinion of the NIH, addiction is a medical problem that requires medical treatment, making it impossible to be in recovery through willpower alone. While some cases require safe detox, many people HAVE become sober through willpower alone. Substance use becomes medical after prolonged use, not before.


The government spends 740 BILLION dollars annually to address the problem of addiction, but year after year, the problem only increases.


Solutions are only effective if the problem is properly diagnosed. If a car mechanic replaces a fuel pump when the real issue is the starter, the vehicle will not run. The same is true in our assessment of addiction. The definition of the problem, or the diagnosis, matters in order to properly bring solutions. Is addiction a disease that requires a medical “treatment” or is it a sin struggle that requires a spiritual solution? Or is it both?


"If we don’t properly diagnose the problem we won’t be able to prescribe the cure."

-Virgil Walker, G3 Ministries


The worldview of secular culture has so infiltrated the church that over time, our biblical view has been eroded and we have embraced the wisdom of the world and its solutions. The church at-large has become comfortable with the world’s definitions for common problems, even addiction, and this makes it challenging or impossible to bring biblical solutions. In order to bring the light and hope of the gospel to the lost, we must properly define the problem of addiction.


There are people who have true brain illness and mental health issues and they need medical intervention. For those who have used drugs or alcohol for an extended period of time, they will experience intense physical responses and pain when they stop using. The body is dependent, and when the substance is removed, there is severe withdrawal, and medical treatment to help them detox is helpful. Sometimes it's life saving. Alcohol detox especially can have serious complications. Short term medical detox is helpful, and possibly a 30 day inpatient treatment. Once the medical issue is resolved, there are spiritual and emotional concerns that must also be addressed. The culture recognizes this, but treatment is mostly focused on medical interventions or external behavior modification therapies. This is where the church is vital to bring real and lasting change!


Above, I shared the NIH definition of addiction. In contrast, Ed Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the grave, explains, 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.


Due to the out of control nature of addiction, it is easy for us to think addiction is a disorder, and the world’s assessment, and therefore solutions are correct. But the solutions aren’t working. If we see addiction as defined in scripture, it gives us a path toward hope. Addiction is not a new condition, rather, it is a human one.

Addicts feel trapped and out of control, similar to someone who has a terminal disease. They can feel like a victim, and what is happening to them is regrettable, but often they feel it is completely unavoidable.


After time and severe consequences, it is not a behavior that is enjoyed, or even desired. However, you often hear that resisting this unwanted behavior is genuinely beyond their control; In fact they often feel that they are not responsible for their behavior; rather the illness, or sickness, or disease is what is truly responsible. They want to change but change is based on curtailing the effect of the disease on them, or the situation around them.


There is an element of truth in what the addict experiences that has similarities with an illness. With an illness, they don’t want it, want it to go away, and like a cold, they have no control on when that will be. It could get worse before it gets better. The symptoms of a disease can be taxing and discouraging. They did not ask for this, and want it to stop, but do not have control over its effect.


In a similar way, one can often be controlled by the extreme symptoms and affects that rule their lives from substance use. Their bodies have become physically dependent upon such substances, and trying to do without them causes uncomfortable and painful withdrawals. The body does seem like it is responding to an issue beyond its control. But is that true?


Scripture addresses all of life, including addiction. While scripture does not specifically say “drugs,” it is clear about drunkenness. Drunkenness is seen in both the Old Testament and New Testament, and it is always called a sin, never is it referred to as an illness.


These examples in the Old Testament show the problem of drunkenness, the unwise choices made in this state and the destructive outcomes:


Genesis 9:18-27 – after the flood, Noah was drunk and dishonored himself with nakedness

Genesis 19:30-38 – Lot was drunk and was led to ungodliness with his daughters

1 Kings 16:9-10 – Elah became drunk and was killed

Proverbs 23:29-35 – Addresses the description of the heavy drinker, and is spot on in the experience of being drunk even by today’s standards.


In the New Testament, Paul treats the pattern of drunkenness no differently than sexual immorality, thievery, greed, or selfish ambition. They are all an act of the sin nature:


1 Corinthians 5:11 – included in the description of ungodliness and sin

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – drunkenness is listed with the description of the unrighteous

Galatians 5:19-21 – drunkenness included as the works of the flesh


"Addictions are defined by our society as a disease needing treatment and therefore that it has its ultimate cause, a problem found in the body, not in the soul. The bible would indicate that addictions find their roots in the motivations and cravings of the heart, which leads us to identify the true culprit, our sin." - Ed Welch


This is good news for the struggling addict! The solution of the world takes away his responsibility for his problem and thus, takes away his hope for change and leaves him powerless. The world says, you are always an addict, God says, For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).


CAUSE OF ADDICTION

Let’s look at the cause of addiction. The NIH explains the reasons that people use:

  • To feel good

  • To feel better

  • To do better

  • Peer pressure or curiosity/boredom


Have you ever wanted to feel good or feel better, do better, or felt peer pressure? The world would indicate that the “predisposition” of someone toward addiction causes them to turn to drugs or alcohol as the solution. They are “disordered.” If we look at the problem of addiction without a proper biblical worldview, it makes sense that we find this behavior troubling and define it as an uncontrollable disorder. The world views people as mostly good. With this belief of people as good, it is easy to come to the conclusion that addictive behaviors are a result of some abnormality. Scripture however, gives us a proper view of all human behavior.


"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? "

- Jeremiah 17:9


Theology matters. A right biblical view of the problem of addiction provides a day-to-day, practical theology and makes scripture alive and relevant to the daily struggles against addiction. With a biblical understanding of the problem, we can offer an explanation for this behavior. We are not inherently good. Genesis 3 gives us more insight - we live in a fallen world. Sin entered the world and shattered what God created, bringing sin and suffering. In our fallen state, we are capable of all kinds of evil. God’s redemption story has been unfolding ever since. This is good news for the addict! You see, when we take away someone’s responsibility, we take away their hope for change. If addiction is not a choice, an addict has no hope for change. I’ve seen this personally with my former husband. He believed the lie that he was not responsible and he died in the hopelessness of his addiction six years ago. His inability to take responsibility for his addiction was what kept him trapped in it.


"We need to go back to basic biblical teachings - teachings that are generally accepted by the majority of evangelical churches - and make them practical. If addictions are really as prevalent as they seem we would think that scripture would be preoccupied with this struggle. And it is." - Ed Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave

A BIBLICAL VIEW OF ADDICTION

Let’s look at the NIH’s list of reasons people use drugs, bring a biblical view and make it practical:


Feel good, feel better

Biblical view: Find refuge or comfort in something other than God


In all my years working with struggling addicts, I’ve only met one who did not have deep suffering. Most of the people I have encountered started using or drinking to cope with abuse, trauma or deep suffering. Using drugs or alcohol became a refuge from pain. When someone gets clean, this pain remains, and now all the added emotional and physical pain from years of addiction is piled on top. Can the gospel bring hope? Without gospel hope, is there even motivation to live soberly? If recovery simply means “returning to a normal state,” why would someone want to do that? Normal means pain and suffering and confusion. They DO need a refuge from all of this! And they need comfort. The gospel not only gives hope for the present, but also for the past and the future! The good news of the gospel shows addicts that their most urgent need, salvation from sin, has already been accomplished through Christ. They are new and being renewed day by day. Christ secured freedom from sin. Jesus is now the refuge and comfort.


"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

- 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. "

-1 Corinthians 6:11

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

- Psalm 51:10


No amount of drugs, alcohol or therapy will solve the brokenness in us. Only Jesus does that. When Christ is the refuge, there is true comfort and peace.


The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Psalm 9:9


One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD. Psalm 27:4-6


Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2


Jesus gives us a better refuge than substances or anything else on this earth. Refuge in God brings true comfort and peace and gives hope, no matter the circumstances. Substances bring instant gratification (just as sin does for a time, Hebrews 11:25), but the result is destruction. Only Jesus provides true rest and refuge for a troubled soul.


Do Better

Biblical view: Try to be God, self-sufficiency


Another reason people use, is to do better. Who doesn’t want to do better? But using drugs to accomplish this? Seems disordered, right? No! We all have desires, but scripture tells us when these desires become bigger than God, these desires are now idols. When a desire to do better becomes an idol, we now desire to BE God or are being self-sufficient.


A desire for a good thing becomes a desire for a bad thing when that desire becomes a ruling thing. -Paul Tripp


As a believer in Jesus, we live for God and His glory. Our righteousness is in Christ. We have no sufficiency in ourselves.


for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:13


Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 2 Corinthians 3:5


When we desire things other than God’s glory, we will never find fulfillment and will always strive for something more to fill the emptiness. This is true for everyone.


Peer Pressure

Biblical view: Fear of man


There are those who start using drugs or alcohol due to peer pressure and then become trapped in the cycle of addiction. For those trapped in a life of addiction, their community is other drug or alcohol users. Pleasing others is part of the trap. Scripture calls this fear of man.


For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. Galatians 1:10


Pleasing man is a struggle for all of us, and isn’t so disordered after all.


BIBLICAL SOLUTION

With a biblical definition of the problem of addiction, we can bring biblical solutions and gospel hope for change and freedom.


To simplify, addiction is a matter of who or what we worship. Addiction is:

  • finding refuge in something other than God (feel better)

  • Being a lover of pleasure or self (feel good)

  • Trying to be God, self-sufficient (do better)

  • pleasing someone other than God (peer pressure)


Scripture tells us that worship of anything other than God is idolatry, and idolatry leads to slavery. Now that we have a better understanding of addiction from a biblical view, are there scriptures that come to mind that help you care for a struggling addict?


If sin is the problem, we have a solution in Christ and we have a clear path to freedom. The best the world can offer is sobriety. What we have in Christ far exceeds sobriety!


Ephesians 1:

  • We have every spiritual blessing

  • We are holy and blameless before God

  • Adopted as sons

  • Saved for his glory

  • We have redemption and forgiveness

  • We have grace, lavished upon us

  • We are united to him

  • We have an eternal inheritance

  • We are sealed with the Holy Spirit


This is a much more encouraging and hopeful solution for the struggling addict!! Yes, we recognize the very real physical effects that need to be addressed, but we cannot neglect the spiritual need. That is where true change takes hold. This is where the church shines!


God made each of us with a need for community. Even the world understands this. An article from The Atlantic says,


"When, as a culture, we ascribe the addict the lowest possible social value, is it any wonder why they flock to a fellowship of equally alienated individuals with common lived-experiences? Organizations like AA? It’s true addicts are deserving of treatment plans based in something more than blind faith—...—but pills and therapy and data and evidence aren’t necessarily enough to treat a condition so inherently linked to emotional wellbeing and self-worth. The addict, like any human, craves community. And if the greater community persists in shunning and shaming addicts, and AA remains the only door left ajar, then it’s to AA the addicts will go. And who could blame them?"3


The world recognizes the need for community in order to find any success in sobriety. In 1971, an experiment to understand addiction was conducted by putting a single rat in a cage with access to heroin. The rat went back to the heroin over and over until death. A second experiment created Rat Park; a large cage with activities and lots of other rats. These rats mostly chose regular water over methadone water. Even rats fully addicted to methadone, when placed in rat park, chose regular water more than methadone water.4 The results showed that an environment with community, activities and hope made a difference. This study shows that community is vital. But we already know that, because scripture tells us that we need each other.


And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:13


God ordained Christian community precisely because I can’t face life on my own. The fallen world will bring me to my knees, and if I did do life my way, it would be a complete and utter disaster. It is a sweet grace to have someone come alongside us and help us remember what we need to remember. I need the intervention of truth from someone who really loves me who can confront and correct the distortions in my view of life. -Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemers Hands

Just as the need for Christian community is true for us, it is especially true for struggling addicts. Imagine the impact if we, the local church of believers, confidently brought the hope of Christ in practical ways!


ADDICTIONS MINISTRY IN THE LOCAL CHURCH

When we think about ministry to struggling addicts, we tend to envision crisis situations, lending money, providing housing, confiscating drugs, strung out people, overdoses etc. Depending on the resources of your church, location, etc, you may be able to intervene in crisis situations and that is amazing! However, most churches are not set up for crisis care. You may encounter someone in active addiction, and it is helpful to have local treatment and detox center resources to refer to. You may have some leaders who are more comfortable or have experience to assist with crisis situations (first responders, caretakers, others with addiction or prison experience, etc), but realistically, trying to deal with crisis situations for your entire community will likely be unhelpful, unfruitful and unrealistic. Crisis care for those in your congregation is different, of course.


A sustainable, fruitful approach to addiction ministry to your community will be more about identifying those ready for discipleship and change, those with some level of stability, those God is drawing and those who pursue spiritual help more than financial or physical. Think of addiction ministry as fellowship, encouragement, prayer and discipleship while you help someone become a part of your local church community. We are a bridge into the church and shine the light of the gospel to those who struggle with addiction. What does the local church of believers offer to struggling addicts?


We lead people to a growing relationship and trust in their Savior rather than a process:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. Psalm 20:7


We help people walk in the light and in faith, being led by biblical imperatives, rather than worldly imperatives:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:6-8


If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:20-23


We lead people to the one true God:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, Acts 17:22-27a


We have confidence in the message of the gospel, there is no hope outside the gospel:

having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 2 Timothy 3:5


Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 3:7


Destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God. 2 Corinthians 10:3-6


Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:12-16


O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. 1 Timothy 6:20-21


But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:2-6


1 Timothy 1

Sound doctrine (ESV Gospel Transformation Bible commentary says healthy doctrine that is “life-giving” doctrine).

V 5 our charge is love that issues from a pure heart, good conscience and sincere faith.

V 6 when we swerve from this we wander into unhelpful discussions, desiring to be teachers of the law

V 11 we are entrusted with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God

V 15 Christ came to save sinners, we are an example to those who will believe in him for eternal life


A Biblical Solution brings true freedom

In order to help someone find freedom from addiction, we must first help them understand their problem through the lens of scripture. When we present biblical truth, we help people see their need is actually much greater than sobriety. The gospel gives hope far beyond sobriety. Sobriety is the result of a changed heart, of transformation and the fruit of one who is a new creation in Christ. If the church embraces and presents the same message of the world, where will a struggling addict find hope?


The apostle rightly viewed human philosophy as a subtle attack on the biblical gospel. Consequently, Paul engaged in active combat against the invasion of worldly wisdom into the church in order that “the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17b). “Made void” means “to dwindle to nothing, to vanish under the weight of rhetorical ornament.” Charles Hodge states it well: “whatever obscures the cross deprives the Gospel of its power.” Paul’s point was that the gospel loses its power when it is cloaked in worldly wisdom.


"The wisdom of secular psychology does not bring people closer to God but turns faith inward and thereby leads them away from the hope and the power of God’s salvation found outside themselves—in Jesus Christ."


- Paul Tautges, The Wisdom of the Cross Is Infinitely Superior to the Wisdom of Psychology, Part One, Biblical Counseling Coalition article 5


The solutions of the world turn inward. There is no hope in ourselves to change. Only the power of the Holy Spirit transforms. Let’s help people understand that Christ has already provided a solution for their most urgent need and lead hopeless people to the Savior. Sobriety comes as a result of a transformed heart. As people grow in their understanding of gospel truth and walk by faith and in the light, the goal of their life is now to glorify God (Ephesians 1), which is much more fulfilling and life-giving than sobriety. Let’s be confident in this message! We have the message of hope people are desperately searching for! The church must engage if we are going to make a difference in the lives of struggling addicts.


1. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7123a1.htm

2. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-misuse-addiction#ref

3. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-failures-of-12-steps/284616/

4. rat experiment video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-0KfwFCMRM

5. (https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2022/09/14/the-wisdom-of-the-cross-is-infinitely-superior-to-the-wisdom-of-psychology-part-1/)


About the author: Liz Beck is the Founder of Hope for Addiction.

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