The Mortification of Addictions
I used to serve as the deacon of grounds at our church, and weeds were my worst enemies. Weeds are the bullies of the domestic plant world. They steal the precious resources needed for growth from your grass and flowers, and they make no apologies about it. So, they must die. A yardman accepts this duty, and he makes his plan. But not all weeds are created equal, and not all will die with the same efforts. Some are small enough to pull up with your hands. Some require a hand tool. Others take even heavier implements such as shovels, machetes, and even nuclear warheads.
There was one weed on the church property in particular that mocked me. This one was tree-like, stretching far above my head, growing from a well-established root system woven into the very foundation of the church building. Every season, I would take a hatchet, a shovel, and even poison to it. Nothing would kill it. Every time I cut back the visible growth, it would grow back. The main problem was that the root system had integrated into the foundation of the building. And that is a great illustration for how addictions distinguish themselves from the normal habitual sins of life.
The Unique Death of an Addiction
When considering how a person can kill addictions in his life, the different levels of effort required for these different types of weeds serve as a helpful illustration. As my fellow writers have already established in this issue, addictions always involve some idolatry of the heart that, when pursued repeatedly, conditions the soul and the body in such a way that the freedom of personhood becomes warped, bent toward a particular object and, far worse, bent away from God. When this happens, the most entrenched kind of sin takes over a person’s motivations. Addictions are less like a bunch of little weeds out in the open and more like the one weed integrated into the foundation of a building. Addictions thread their roots through the expectations and desires of the soul as well as the impulses and cravings of the body.
So when we speak of putting addictions to death, we have to be careful with what we mean. What I don’t want to communicate is that killing addictions is like pulling up a small weed, root and all, so that it no longer remains a threat. What I do mean is that killing addictions is like going to war with the thick tangle of roots that has penetrated the foundation. It’s about consistently cutting back any sign of growth so that, with no growing leaves to catch the sun’s energy, the roots will weaken their structural hold on the foundation.
Like that one weed, addictions do not die in a decisive action. They die over a long period of time. Of course, we must recognize that God is able to—and sometimes does—free someone decisively from the draw of a particular addiction in a miraculous act. But why does it normally take an involved process over time rather than merely a simple action in a moment? The answer is theological.
God designed us to conform—body and soul—to what we pursue. When we pursue a particular object as a replacement for God over and over again, we condition our bodies and our souls in the shape of that pursuit. In terms of the body, addictive behavior works itself into our neurobiological hardware, our chemical dependencies, and our bodily cravings. The structures of our bodies become dependent on substances not normally needed to sustain life. In terms of the soul, addictive behavior patterns itself into our conception of joy, satisfaction, and wonder; we find ourselves committed to finding those immaterial values in material things. We worship created things rather than the Creator—we become committed to finding God-like value in a particular object that is not God (Rom. 1:21–25).
A body and soul conditioned by such pursuits undermines the freedom of personal choice. That’s not to say that an addict is any less culpable for his behavior, nor is it to say that his behavior is any less voluntary. It’s all voluntary, but in a stretched-out kind of way rather than a punctuated kind of way. What I mean is that we should think of addictions as voluntary, as a broad series of choices rather than as a singular choice on a given Friday evening.
Death by Pursuit
If we think of the voluntary nature of addictions in this way, we will create a more realistic and effective plan of action against it. Instead of treating addictions as something a person can decisively choose to rid himself of in a single come-to-Jesus moment, we ought to think of treating addictions as a series of new choices that accumulate into a new pursuit. Killing addictions, then, means helping a struggler think of his responsibility with a specific verbal force to it: not, “You need to kill this addiction,” but rather, “You need to be killing this addiction.” It’s a practice, not a mere action. It’s a new pursuit that kills an old one.
How do we kill one pursuit with another? It’s helpful to think of a pursuit as a series of tasks. These are tasks—not steps. Calling them steps would imply a strict sequence. These are more like the regular actions a person needs to take in order to mortify addictions.
1. Find the roots in the foundation and acknowledge their strength. In other words, be honest with God, yourself, and others about how ingrained the desires for the particular object have become.
Desires have a physical and a spiritual element, working their way deep into the structures of the body and soul. While recognizing the unique external difficulties that may have provoked the addictive pursuit, an addict must nevertheless acknowledge his physical and spiritual weakness. Physical dependence on a substance often requires medically assisted detoxification as part of the initial treatment. The body has been conditioned to need the substance, and the cravings a person experiences are grounded in the very structure of his body. An addict should acknowledge that the craving is in part a physiological consequence of past behavior, and therefore not a reliable guide for present behavior. When he feels something as a “need,” it is not because it truly is one, but because he has conditioned his body to think it is.
But desires are not just physical; they are also spiritual. They rival desires for what God says is good, and they are therefore not neutral. They are not just wanting the object itself, but something deeper than the object promises to provide—lasting satisfaction, escape from sorrow, settled peace. An addict must see the deeper value being promised by the surface object, then repent of his dark loyalties and acknowledge his helplessness to change them.
Acknowledging the idolatry and the helplessness will bring both grief and fear. Grief and fear are actually proper responses to the reality of what’s at stake: the heart is inclined to worship an object that will destroy it. Can you imagine how the family of an addict would rejoice to see grief and fear mark his life as a pattern of vigilance rather than merely as part of his regret? Such sober-mindedness is a sign of life (1 Thess. 5:5–11).
This is the gospel for addicts: Because Jesus provides all the righteousness they need, they can safely acknowledge before God all of the grievous, frightening things about themselves. They may have roots in the foundation that others don’t—but that is no reason to shy away from God. In fact, the only way out of the addiction involves this painful task of acknowledgment. They must form a habit of describing these desires to God in prayer. As people pour out the particularities of their need for forgiveness and strength, they will find the particularities of grace to help in times of need (Heb. 4:14–16).
2. Cut back the visible growth from the roots. In other words, before God and others, be vigilant over the behaviors that reinforce addictive pursuits. Such honest vigilance over desires will increase alertness to behaviors that reinforce addictive pursuits. Not all addictive behaviors directly relate to acquiring the object of addiction itself. Behaviors can be conditioning as well as explicit in their pursuit of the object. For instance, an alcoholic may place himself in the bar on a Thursday afternoon, but he may also be conditioning himself with other behaviors such as overworking. Alcohol becomes the assumed refuge of escape.
As with desires, an addict has to be honest with God about his behaviors. Not just the behavior of giving in but the thousand little choices that lead up to it. Part of acknowledging these behaviors before God is acknowledging them before God’s people (Heb. 3:12–13). An addict will need people who are regularly present enough in his life to notice these behaviors if he’s going to remain vigilant. This is the toughest part of ministry to folks struggling with addictions—the sheer level of oversight is difficult to maintain, especially in situations where the person’s regular circles undermine change and reinforce old patterns. Helping an addict requires an appreciation of the social aspects of addiction. For success, an addict must place himself in ideal relational conditions insofar as he’s able.
3. Grow something else that’s beautiful. In other words, do small acts of obedience that establish some new, God-honoring pursuit. In a world of sunlight and water, growth is going to happen. The question is, what gets prominence in the limited resources of a person’s time, attention, and energy? An addict needs help in establishing some replacement pursuit. Here we have to think holistically. It’s not just about getting him to read the Bible and pray more, but to see how the pursuit of God in those things then compels other pursuits in the regular occupations of life. A person who finds God privately is freed to enjoy the good things of the earth without being bound by them (1 Tim. 4:4–5). An addict needs to relearn that enjoyment comes from many sources other than the object that has captured him.
You know, I never did kill that stupid weed. But I made it to the end of my diaconal term without its doing any more damage to the foundation or to the grass around it. How? I never stopped killing it. God doesn’t promise instant death to the addiction or that it will be easy to fight. What He promises to those who trust only in Him is that they will always have the strength to be killing it. And in the end, it won’t win.