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Examining The Heart of Addiction Biblically

Examining The Heart of Addiction Biblically

by Mark Shaw, ACBC Certified Biblical Counselor, CADAC II Addictions Counseling Certification

Many who have experienced severe difficulties in either military or civilian life have turned to alcohol and drugs as an escape. Alcoholism and addiction are not biblical words. If you open any good translation of God’s Holy Word, you will be hard pressed to find either of these words in there. The natural assumption is that there aren’t any answers in the Bible for these problems. Asking an alcoholic to find answers for alcoholism (as it is often called) in the Word of God is almost as preposterous to him as asking him to use a cookbook to help address his car’s mechanical issues. The truth, however, is that the Bible is a powerful and hope-filled resource that is often neglected when it comes to alcoholism and other addiction problems. The disconnect people encounter is a result of the terminology we use. Words matter because they define the problem and then point in the direction of a solution.


A Spiritual Problem

Here’s the irony: alcoholism and addiction are viewed by most secularists as spiritual problems. Even some atheists and agnostics in the secular counseling field view alcoholism and addiction as spiritual problems. Isn’t that incredible to think about? Secularists promote the use of any so-called Higher Power for sobriety. In fact, they believe people can choose their own Higher Power and then "fire" that Higher Power whenever they want to. But I say, if a person can choose to hire and fire a Higher Power at will, who really is the Higher Power? I am not saying we are pre-programmed robots. But I am saying that our concept of God cannot be conceived from within ourselves. Instead, our concept of God must come from our Creator, who reveals Himself through the truth of God’s Word.

God provides truth about Himself for us to understand who He is and who we are. The Bible explains to us why there are two approaches to addiction. One passage that explains the contrast best is 1 Corinthians 2:11–16:

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 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. (ESV, emphasis mine)

Notice that verse 13 above is bolded for emphasis. This verse says there are two types of words: "human wisdom" words and words "taught by the [Holy] Spirit." Born again believers are bilingual in the sense that they can understand and speak the language of human wisdom as well as the language of the Holy Spirit when they become regenerated.

In the realm of alcoholism and addiction (as the world labels these behaviors), these two languages are like signs that point people in opposite directions. The usage of human wisdom words points people in the direction of secular treatment and rehabilitation that are often disguised as medical expertise. The usage of human wisdom words also points people away from the Bible, especially since human wisdom words are not found in the Bible.

From my vantage point, there really are only two approaches to helping those in the throes of what is called alcoholism or addiction. First, there is a secular approach that embraces the concepts of human wisdom and uses signs that point people away from Christ. And second, there is the biblical approach that uses biblical words inspired by the Holy Spirit that point people toward Christ.

Defining the Problem: Two Opposing Views

The way you define the problem with the words you use will determine what solution you are pointing the struggling person to!

My books, The Heart of Addiction and Relapse: Biblical Prevention Strategies, have much more to say about the similarities and differences between these two approaches. In this brief post, I can highlight only one major difference between the biblical approach and the secular approach. That one difference involves the words related to the idea of the disease concept of alcoholism and addiction. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) was one of the first to suggest alcoholism is like a disease. That idea was popularized in the 1930s by the co-founders of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. But this theory is simply an idea birthed from sinful man and not derived from the Scriptures. Human wisdom terminology revolving around the theory of the disease concept is directly opposed to the Holy Spirit wisdom that describes mankind’s flesh and its desires.

The secular theory that alcoholism and addiction are brain diseases sounds true but is not proven by science. "Experts" often cite brain scans that light up when someone is on a powerful drug as "proof" that addiction is a brain disease, but similar observations are made with excessive video game usage and pornography viewing. A brain that lights up like a Christmas tree is not scientific proof that alcoholism and addiction are diseases. This is an important truth: just because something is observed does not prove causation or explanation! Furthermore, there are no scientific research studies that demonstrate these are diseases. This idea is simply a theory. Theories require belief because they are a compilation of ideas meant to explain something. The theory of alcoholism and addiction as diseases must be believed by faith because there are no scientific findings to back them up!

Sin Points to the Real Problem

Speaking of belief, the Bible is the book Christians read and obey because it contains the truth revealed to us by God that He commands us to believe by faith. The Bible calls the worldly label of alcoholism simply "drunkenness." Drunkenness is a sin (Ephesians 5:18). The Bible calls what the world labels as addiction to be idolatry. Idolatry is a sin (1 John 5:21). These sins and all others originate in the heart of a person (Mark 7:20–22), which is often called "the flesh" in the Scriptures (Galatians 5:16–21). These sinful desires reside in the inner person of all of us (note: the inner person is also sometimes termed either "the heart" or "the flesh," and in this article they are interchangeable).

"It's My Disease"

So why does this matter? What’s wrong with using the term disease instead of the term flesh? Aren’t they the same? The answer is that these two terms are similar but not the same. Calling the behaviors and choices involved in alcoholism and addiction diseases seems like a very loving, humane thing to do at first. But the problem is that a disease strips the user of responsibility and places blame on a so-called illness. The image we form in our minds by using this term is that the disease is attacking the person from the outside (or possibly from within!) so the illness is not their fault.

But when you use true biblical terminology and label the user’s behaviors and choices as either idolatry or drunkenness, then, since those are sinful behaviors, you are holding the user responsible and identifying a need for a Savior. Typically, no one needs to repent for a disease, but everyone needs to repent for sinful heart choices made when living according to the flesh. Biblical language brings conviction and illuminates a problem for the user, but the good news of the gospel is that Christ provides the solution for any sinner!

That’s the key difference in the two approaches: the secular approach points people to a so-called disease so . . .

• it is not their fault and
• it requires specialized (often described as medicalized, even though it often is not) treatment because
• the solution is found in working the steps and choosing any higher power since the disease is also considered to be a "spiritual" problem.

Meanwhile, the biblical approach points people to:
• their own sinful nature and
• their desires to please their flesh rather than God so
• the solution is found in the Person and finished work of Christ on the cross.

True Hope

True hope is this: Once desires are repented of, forgiveness is obtained through Christ alone and the person is free. Then commitment to the hard work of submitting to a disciple-maker will be required. New structure, new patterns, and a new schedule for living are then created for practical help. That’s the same system Christ used to disciple His twelve men in the Bible as He spent day-to-day life with them while teaching them to understand and obey the Holy Scriptures empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God holds us all responsible for our thoughts, behaviors, and choices. We don’t just single out the drunkard and idolater (not alcoholic and addict). God holds them and all of us accountable. Many consider alcoholism and addiction to be diseases; however, the Bible directs the struggling person to examine the heart motives that drive choices. And all of us have had wrong heart motives that have driven us to choices that are wrong before God. Look at the person described in Proverbs 23:29–35 who is choosing to escape the painful experiences of this life by drinking alcohol to excess. The person described in this proverb is making a volitional choice.

At the heart level, addictive choices are what the Bible calls drunkenness in a specific label and idolatry in a general label. Those biblical labels may seem unkind at first glance, but they actually remind the struggling person of two things:

1. God holds everyone responsible for the sinful heart desires and actions of drunkenness and idolatry.
2. God has also provided the solution in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Grace Through Jesus Christ Alone

There is no way to escape God’s divine judgment except through confession using biblical terminology and repentance (Proverbs 28:13). God’s forgiveness is then provided to a repentant person who no longer must carry a man-made label of alcoholic or addict for the rest of their life. The true label now is a redeemed sinner by God’s grace. Then a faith-filled relationship with Jesus Christ can begin and grow through biblical disciple making by someone in a local church who is spiritually mature.

John 8:36 reminds those struggling with this issue, "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (ESV) . Freedom doesn’t come from believing in the theory of alcoholism and addiction as diseases because that human wisdom promotes a lifelong, progressive, and fatal disease. The disease can never be overcome but will be something to cope with for the rest of the struggling person’s life. There is no hope for transformation in the secular disease model!

Galatians 5:16–18 teaches responsibility as well as victory provided by the power of the Holy Spirit: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (ESV). Freedom from the flesh’s desires comes when a person learns to walk by the Spirit. It is possible for any believer to walk by the Spirit and to be transformed (Romans 12:2).

Transformed by Truth

My desire is to see hearts transformed one person at a time. We must start with translating the world’s wisdom words back into biblical terms to bring true heart conviction and true heart change. God holds everyone accountable for their volitional choices no matter what the human wisdom words might say. God is not mocked, and re-labeling sinful heart desires into diseases will not fool our Creator God.

Before the emergence of self-help groups, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ was doing a better job of using biblical terms for these sin choices. God’s people need to reclaim the care of souls in the area of drunkenness (not alcoholism) and idolatry (not addiction). God’s Word is the answer for drunkenness and idolatry because God’s Word points us back to the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Forgiveness has been provided once and for all by the blood of Jesus on the cross—and that’s Good News!


Dr. Mark E. Shaw
ACBC Certified Biblical Counselor, CADAC II Addictions Counseling Certification

FSM DISCLAIMER: The above represent the views of the particular author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of this organization or any of its members.

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