What the Bible Says about Addictions
“Lord, give me chastity and continence,” the young Augustine once famously prayed, “but not yet.” Indeed, he who would become the bishop of Hippo and one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church described his early life as being bound in chains by the deadly pleasures of the flesh. In his Confessions, Augustine recounts how the Holy Spirit powerfully applied God’s Word to his heart, converting him through a passage from Romans 13:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (vv. 13–14)
Humbly confident in God’s enabling grace, Augustine would learn a new prayer: “Lord, grant what You command and command what You desire.”
In describing his experience in terms of bondage and deliverance, Augustine was assessing his life through the lens and worldview of Scripture, his thoughts expressed in a profoundly biblical manner, supplying us with a helpful entry into the topic at hand. While the word addiction may seem to be an adequate term to describe any sort of engagement that is compulsive and habitual regardless of its negative effects, the term does not appear in the Bible, which speaks rather of the dominating principle of sin—the underlying bondage and root cause for so many of our deviant propensities. The place to begin our biblical consideration of addictions, then, is with the much deeper problem of humanity’s fall and consequent bondage to sin.
The Almighty created human beings in His image and likeness to enjoy Sabbath Day fellowship with Him and to rule as lords over creation on His behalf. This liberty and dignity, however, were scorned and ruined in rebellion. Though the serpent had promised equality with God for eating the forbidden fruit, the bitter result of Adam’s transgression was the revolutionary vitiation of his nature: the human lord of creation became morally corrupt as he fell under the dominion of sin. This condition of sin and misery, moreover, was not limited to the first human couple. The biblical doctrine of original sin, formalized as orthodox through the efforts of Augustine himself, teaches that all humanity descending from Adam by ordinary generation is born with a corrupt nature, stained by the principle of sin. A kindred doctrine, dubbed “total depravity” by Reformed theologians, explains that every part of human beings—our minds, our wills, our emotions, even our flesh—is pervaded by the power of sin. It is not that people are as evil in practice as they could possibly be, but that every part of our nature is tainted and polluted by sin. Because this bondage is forged by the shackles of our own wills and deep-seated desires, we are powerless to deliver ourselves. Bent upon sin, we follow debased passions naturally, delving ever more deeply into the mire of shame and depravity (Rom. 1:21–32). Worse still, the Bible explains further that humanity’s slavery to sin is but the mark that we are under the dominion of the evil one, Satan, are living according to his design, and are bound for eternal judgment (Eph. 2:1–3). Only within the context of this blunt reality—that humanity is spiritually dead, enslaved to sin, under the evil one’s dominion, and wheeling toward a most dreadful judgment—can any meaningful discussion be had about a person’s addictions. Clearly, our need is not first for a plan to keep certain propensities at bay; rather, we need to be delivered from bondage and re-created according to a new humanity.
How despairingly dark this plight would be if God’s Word had not also revealed the infinite, eternal, and unchanging love of the Father, who, being rich in mercy, has accomplished our deliverance through His Son (John 3:16; Eph. 2:4–6; 1 John 3:8). Jesus has taken captivity captive to set His people free; the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to our hearts and re-creates us, giving us heavenly birth and liberty. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul lists many sorts of sinners—from fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals to thieves and drunkards—then declares, “And such were some of you” (6:11). How were these titanic bonds broken asunder? The same verse explains that these who were once so bound to sins as to be defined by them had now been washed, set apart, and made righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.
Being set free from bondage to sin, however, is not the end of the story. Conversion inaugurates our spiritual battle against sinful desires, and the Bible teaches much about our need to engage daily in this war, as well as about the nature of the weapons of our warfare. To begin, Christians are warned urgently of the real possibility of submitting themselves to bondage again. While there truly is wondrous comfort in Paul’s declaration of 1 Corinthians 6:11, his overall aim in that context is to warn saints about re-subjecting themselves to the dominion of even lawful practices—“I will not be dominated by anything,” he writes (6:12). Similarly, Paul warns the church at Rome of the bondage that awaits those who, assuming that grace somehow renders corrupt desires less perilous, yield themselves in obedience to sin (Rom. 6:16). Lest we deceive ourselves, these warnings are buttressed in Scripture by the frank assertion that—regardless of one’s profession of faith—those who are in fact fornicators, sodomites, drunkards, liars, and so forth will in no wise inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5–7; Rev. 21:8, 27). Christians are charged, therefore, to stand fast in the liberty of Christ lest we be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1). As a generation in the West forgets that Christians comprise the “church militant” amid a hostile war and that our enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—rage for our destruction, our spiritual fatalities can be no surprise.
Given this sober prospect, God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification. The Bible typically uses what many regard as baptismal imagery to describe our role in sanctification: we are instructed to put off the deeds of the flesh, as so many rags of our old Adamic nature, and to put on Christ Jesus, His righteous character and obedience (Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:22–24). The “putting off” aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice; Paul, for example, recounts how he buffeted his own body to bring it under submission (1 Cor. 9:27). We are mercilessly to put to death the deeds of the body, making no provision whatsoever for the flesh, and this is to be done—indeed, can only be done—by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13). The Spirit applies to us Christ’s own death to sin, enabling us to die ever more deeply with Him and in Him so as to live ever more deeply with Him and in Him unto God. As disciplined soldiers who don the full armor of God, we must stand in the struggle (Eph. 6:10–18), remembering Jesus’ admonition that practical measures (quite severe in Matt. 5:27–30, even as object lessons) should be applied to mortify sinful habits.
The “putting on” aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior. Often, walking positively in good works is subverted by an obsessive focus on our sinful compulsions—yet attempting to deny fleshly habits apart from cultivating Christian virtues as their replacement is doomed to fail. Nevertheless, God’s desire for fruit from our gospel benefits is both pressing and serious (Luke 13:6–9; John 15:5–8). Again, practical measures should not be ignored: rising early and working hard at our callings for the sake of Christ’s kingdom is a sure antidote against a multitude of pernicious sins, while lack of industry breeds ungodliness (1 Tim. 5:9–14).
Finally, the Bible teaches that the weapons of our warfare are the same means God has ordained for our spiritual growth, all of which flow into and out of communion with God in corporate worship. Overcoming sinful addictions involves learning chiefly to delight in the Lord on His Sabbath Day: basking in His presence as we feast upon His Word proclaimed, nourished by His sacraments, comforted by His renewed pardon of our confessed sins, pouring out our hearts to Him in prayer, engaged in godly fellowship, and receiving gladly His benediction—His enabling presence, power, and protection—for the days ahead. As we grasp our absolute dependence upon the power of the Spirit, who will resurrect our bodies as new creations, and as we understand how He bestows grace only through these channels, we will not quickly dismiss as spiritualizing such pastoral questions as, “Have you prayed ‘deliver us from evil’ about this, with fasting?” Rather, we will humbly begin to learn the tactics of our warfare.
Returning to the point of communion with God, we should take care here not to separate Christ from His benefits. Our true need always is to look to Christ Himself, our all-sufficient Mediator, in the glory of His threefold office: our Prophet who reveals the Godhead to us; our High Priest who ever lives to intercede for us; and our conquering King who subdues our enemies within and without. God’s abundant provision in Him—every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)—is far greater than our weaknesses. Looking to Christ in faith, may we learn with Augustine that God indeed grants what He commands.