Addictions and Idolatry
by Edward Welch
“I want”—addictions start here. Then, through small steps, want becomes need. There is no one recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.
Every descent into addiction is unique. There are thousands of ways to fall into this bondage. Yet there are general observations that can help us understand and be more skilled helpers of those who have addictions.
Addicts typically pursue an altered physical experience—the quicker and more intense the better. So, stimulants, cocaine, narcotics, opioids, sedatives, and alcohol are popular. Food—especially “comfort food”—makes the list, but it doesn’t have the efficiency or intensity of prescribed or illegal substances.
Sex yields one of the most potent sensory experiences. As such, it has been pursued throughout human history, and it has led to much tragedy, both for addicts and for those who love them. Since it is easily accessible in person, in print, and in digital form, all things sexual will remain prominent temptations to addiction.
Social media and video games are more recent objects of desire, but they can be so consuming that elementary schools are already sponsoring weeks wherein children voluntarily give up all screen time. Social media has power through its promise of social connection and being “in” rather than “out.” Video games offer some social power, and an opportunity to spend time in an alternative universe. Both social media and video games bring neurological stimulation to the brain that exceeds whatever can be experienced in an ordinary conversation or a good book.
Though the unrestrained human heart is always crying out, “I want” and “I want more,” addictions are more prominent in some cultures than in others. In order to maximize our addictive potential as human beings, a culture should include an emphasis on individual freedom and personal indulgence, and the most common addictive substances must be readily available. Leisure time is a plus. In these settings, addictions will flourish and multiply.
These are general observations that are well known and not dependent on special revelation. There are other observations that are only available through the lens of Scripture.
Scripture’s most essential insight into addictions is that addictions are about God. Addictive substances become “a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Though it is common for addiction discussions to turn toward spirituality, such discussions do not usually talk about trust in the one, true God, and they do not often reflect the fact that addictive decisions are about God. Though the popular literature on addictions identifies making amends, it never identifies repentance before the Lord.
The Godward nature of addiction is neatly packaged into the biblical account of idolatry. Here you find wayward human desire and much more.
First, circumstances matter in idolatry (addiction). The seminal story comes during the exodus from Egypt. The human heart is, to use John Calvin’s image, a perpetual forge of idols that needs no provocation to do its work. But times of uncertainty and distress provide the ideal heat. In other words, we can usually identify tests and temptations that precede blatant idolatry. In the wilderness, the people had limited food and water, the prospect of death for all, and a leader who was secluded on a mountain with God and could not be contacted. Such a setting was conducive to the Israelites’ committing idolatry.
The most common among the tests and temptations identified in modern addictions is that some people are wired for addictions, and that wiring gets further tangled by the addiction itself. Scripture is not opposed to this idea, especially when wiring is taken as a contributing rather than an irresistible cause. But, as we would expect, Scripture adds more.
Scripture adds the “world” as another influence on addictions. This includes ways that the culture, friends, media, teachers, or parents can contribute to addictions. Consider, for example, those who grow up in a neighborhood where the most respected people are drug dealers. Or consider the influence of a home in which pornography is available and acceptable. These are temptations that are more than most can bear. More often, however, the world’s power doesn’t grab us by the throat. Instead, it exerts its influence through casual conversations that suggest the good life is found in following our desires.
Scripture also includes the hardships of life as a provocation for addictions, and here we come especially close to the wilderness story. Life is hard and filled with trouble. Nearly every moment is a reminder that something is askew in our world. In response, we seek relief. The only possible places for refuge are in God Himself or in something from His creation. Addicts turn to creation rather than the Creator.
When you consider these hardships in your care for an addict, you often discover victimization, rejection, shame, and so many sorrows. Your conversations, as a result, may be more about God’s comfort and affection for the dispossessed and less about the relationship with the addictive substance.
Addictions, at least in their beginnings, have their reasons. They are a way to manage life—sometimes a very difficult life—on our own. Wise helpers get into the details of a person’s story that helped provoke the addiction.
Second, idolatry (addiction) is about desire. The Old Testament focuses on actual idol worship, while the New Testament takes aim at the desires that underlie idolatry. We are, it turns out, people of desires, loves, and antipathies. Our desires can be good or idolatrous, and even natural. For example, we are to desire or love God above all else (Deut. 6:5)—that is the best of desires. We are prone to desiring what others have, which is a covetous or idolatrous desire. And God’s people were told that in the land of promise they could eat whatever they desired (Deut. 12:20)—a natural desire.
Idolatrous desires typically start from a seed of desire that is natural and appropriate when kept in check. These desires could be for adequate finances, health, obedient children, inclusion, pleasure, rest, and justice. The key insight from Scripture is that these normal and even good desires have a tendency to grow (James 1:15). As they gather strength, they battle against us like an unbound giant that finds little satisfaction (Eph. 4:19; James 4:1). Anytime our desires are aimed away from God, our hearts will be left wanting more.
This change in focus from actual idols to underlying desires immediately brings us into idolatry’s net. Before we consider the more attention-grabbing idolatries of drugs, sex, and alcohol, Scripture reminds us of the everyday idols of people and money. We live for the respect and approval of others (Prov. 29:25), and we are obsessed with personal income (Matt. 6:24). Many of the more blatant idolatries are built on those two objects of worship.
Wise helpers know that they themselves are prone to idolatrous desires and that, like addicts, they come under this rich teaching on desire and its remedy.
Third, practiced idolatry (addiction) is slavery and tragedy. Over time, idolaters take on the characteristics of the beloved object. As such, idolaters become increasingly hollow as they ape something that has no life; they lie because what they follow makes promises but can’t deliver (Isa. 44:20), and life devolves into a tragedy (Prov. 23:29–35). What is unclear is the source of the object’s power since it is a mere stone or stick of wood. Yet behind the stick is a world of rulers and authorities who are in league with the devil. Apparently, the devil is pleased to be worshiped through proxy.
Addiction, therefore, is voluntary slavery. Addicts make choices. They are in control. They are committed to their way of managing life. Yet, they are also enslaved and out of control. They are overpowered by the triumvirate of the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is why addiction experts no longer wait to intervene until someone hits bottom, because there is no bottom that brings clarity or empowers an outof-control, enslaved person.
Fourth, liberation from idolatry (addiction) began in the ministry of Jesus, and it continues as we trust in Him, discover the many benefits of the cross and resurrection, and receive the Spirit of Jesus. God began to call His people out of idolatry in Eden. This work, however, became unmistakable when Jesus went into the wilderness on our behalf and trusted in His Father through the direst of tests and temptations. Then, as the perfect substitute through His active and passive obedience, He bore the punishment of the law, ascended in order to bring us to the Father, and gave us the Holy Spirit of power. Now, we are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable. The battle seems to move forward in small steps, and the lure of old gods can be felt longer than we would like, but, with the fellowship of the church of Christ, we fix our eyes on Jesus and insist on knowing Him until we can say with the psalmist, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25), and our friends are blessed and can say, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
The people of God have received the words of God. These words open our eyes so we can see how we still forge idols of all kinds, and these words point us to Jesus, whom we can proclaim to each other, with patience and kindness, and know the God who speaks truth and gives life to the full.