You would probably be surprised at how many people you know who have addictions. When we think of addiction, we almost always think of alcoholics, smokers, or drug users. Those definitely qualify, but there are countless other types of addictions. They affect far more people than we realize because most people hide their addictions very well. In the last 10 years, I have discovered so many types of addictive behavior affecting fellow Christians and others I come in contact with through criminal law that I know this problem is going to show up eventually in the lives of people in your circle of friends, your small group, or the people you care for at church.
Ed Welch, probably one of the most valuable voices on addiction and idolatry in biblical counseling today, has a short post at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) with extremely good advice for helping confront an addiction. I am going to expand upon his post because I haven't really addressed addiction directly on this blog, and I want this to be a solid starting point. I'll break this up into a couple of posts. I've learned in my law practice and in church counseling participation that addictions have special challenges to achieving accountability and cooperation from the person trapped in his or her behavior. Being aware of these patterns can save a lot of wasted time and discouragement.
Addictions Are Basically Idolatry - and They Enslave People
Virtually anything can become an addiction. What makes it an addiction is the role it plays in your life, and how it negatively affects other things in your life. If you turn to something to escape from stress, or anxiety, or depression, or pain, or loneliness, or fatigue, or fear, or any other problem, and it becomes your "go-to" escape (the thing you turn to again and again for relief), you're in danger of developing a habit of addiction. What makes it cross the line is when you don't have complete control of the behavior anymore: you start using the escape even when you really should be doing other things, or you use it in ways that leave you unable to meet your responsibilities afterwards. Think of the person who drinks too much and can't come into work on time the next morning, or the person watching pornography or playing online games all night and unable to stay awake at work the next day.
Other signs include taking risks in order to get the relief - doing things that a clear head would tell you are wrong or dangerous. For instance, doing things you know are sin in order to get relief, or using drugs illegally (so now you're risking criminal charges), or being under the influence of something while at work, or drinking before driving to go pick up your kids because you're going to be with them all night and won't have a chance later, etc. For people using pornography, already sinking into sin, it may be moving on to chat rooms where they seek interaction with real people, leading to meeting someone solely for sex or following an advertisement connected to prostitution.
What these all have in common is that the person trying to satisfy an addiction is now jeopardizing other things in life to fulfill their need. It is no longer something they do that seems harmless or private; it is now something they need so much that normal common sense doesn't guide their thinking anymore. The addiction must be satisfied, no matter the risk, and even things that are recklessly foolish don't stop the person because the alternative - that you don't satisfy this need - is unthinkable to them.
Welch says: "Addictions continue their upward swing. Given that we live during a time when self-control is not yet prized, our cultural strategy with hardships is to medicate them away rather than stand in the midst of them. And the possibilities for medicating hardships are always increasing. To sexual obsessions, add illegal drugs, then prescription narcotics, then computer games, and there are more to come. With this in mind, the church has a perennial project: to draw out fresh insights from Scripture on modern addictions, and move toward those who are enslaved by them.
You can see that addiction looks just like idolatry: anything can become an idol, and an idol is something we devote ourselves to so much that it takes disproportionate weight and importance in our lives, being fed at the expense of our devotion to God, our marriage, our children, our job, etc. The idol becomes the thing we must have at all costs. Welch and other CCEF counselors like David Powlison and Paul Tripp have done a great deal of work showing the link between sin and idolatry and addiction, and identifying the patterns of behavior that cause us such trouble. Searching the CCEF site on these topics will bring up a host of useful resources.
Idols aren't just 'false gods' like the carved images described in the Old Testament. Here's Powlison on how Scripture describes idolatry:
First, the Bible internalizes the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God. “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.
If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift. Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.
Addictions Are Idolatry - But They Are Also 'Medication' for a Bigger Problem
To understand how to help a friend with an addiction, you have to be aware of these things:
- The addict is afraid to give up his or her addiction. What drives them back to their addiction again and again is something else they feel they can't handle, and they are scared to face it without the numbing escape of their addiction.
- This means the addict does not really believe he or she can face life without using the addiction.
- In fact, far from thinking their addiction is ruining their life, a person with an addiction probably believes that using whatever they're addicted to is what makes them able to face life. They think it's what keeps them from falling apart.
- That means that anyone pressuring them to give up their addiction is threatening to them. It feels like an attack on the one thing they are depending on to make life bearable.
- Often an addicted person will never believe that their addiction is a problem until things collapse so badly that they realize it is ruining their life. That means that the crucial time to get a person with an addiction into counseling or treatment or other help is right after something disastrous has happened (a DWI, a spouse moving out, losing a job, etc.). The window of shock that allows them to see their addiction as a problem is short. Eventually they will 'medicate' away the shock with their addiction.
- The answer is not only to convince him or her the behavior is wrong or dangerous, but to also convince the person that they can face life and can overcome whatever it is that is underneath the addiction. They need to believe they don't need it.
- You need to help them figure out what the underlying problem is. This probably means they will need to see a counselor who has some experience helping people with addictions. Your best help to them is probably to convince them to start counseling.
- If you don't address the underlying problem, this person will not be able to shake off their addiction. Some people may even abandon one addiction under pressure only to take up another because the same root problem is overwhelming them.
- This is also why people with addictions can seem to be "cured" for a month or a few months, which often causes friends to stop being vigilant. But when the pressure of life gets too heavy again, or the person feels hopeless, they return to the same addictive behavior to cope. They may tough it out for a while, but unless they have learned to deal with life without the addiction, that's what they'll turn to when they can't take it anymore.
Therefore, a massive part of overcoming an addiction is helping the person learn to cope with suffering in a healthy and biblical way. It is also essential to remember that the person is vulnerable, and they turn to their addiction out of desperation. They need a lot of encouragement and positive support. The battle to change these patterns of thought and dependence is hard, and it is common for people to fall back into their addiction because they hit a period of hopelessness and despair where it doesn't seem like it matters anymore. Being sensitive to their moods and the life pressures that are happening to them is very important, so that you can perceive when they may be discouraged and help them fight it.
Click here for Part II - Confronting Deception and Concealment, Pride and Shame, which covers what makes addicted people habitually lie and conceal their behavior, and why it takes so much careful work to get them to be honest and open about what's going on.