“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
What is addiction? One definition is the “complex, progressive, injurious, and, often, disabling attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood.” The substances include alcohol or drugs and the behaviors include work, gambling, sex, shopping, exercise, or video games.
So is addiction a sin or a sickness? Judging by the responses one can find to this question, the answer is definitely, er, ah, well—complicated! The majority report from psychologists and sociologists, as well as recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is that addictions are not sins. The basis for this is that addictions are viewed as diseases. Those who are addicted are viewed as lacking a choice because the addiction is “in charge.” So why heap blame or guilt on them?
On the other hand, many verses of scripture indicate that behaviors such as drunkenness, lust and immorality are sins. Thus, the reasoning goes, if someone is drunk or commits sexual immorality or is full of lustful thoughts, they have sinned, whether they are addicts or not. Being addicted to something, according to this line of thought, does not excuse the sinful behavior brought on by the addiction. Even if an addict has reached the point at which he or she has no choice in his behavior, did the addiction not begin as a series of sinful choices, freely made?
Perhaps there are other ways to think about addiction that do not force us into such either/or dichotomies. Scripture does speak of sin as a force that takes on a life of its own in the human heart. The apostle Paul (Romans 7:15 ff.) admits, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Elsewhere, Paul describes the spiritual battle that takes place between Christians and the principalities and powers, the spiritual hosts of darkness (Ephesians 6:12 ff.). Many who have struggled with various besetting sins have experienced powerlessness before their temptation.
It is interesting that though Alcoholics Anonymous describes alcoholism as a disease, it prescribes a very spiritually redemptive remedy: confession of powerlessness, belief in a higher power, relinquishment of the will to the care of God, confession of wrongdoings, praying for the removal of shortcomings, making direct amends to those harmed, and sharing the message with other strugglers. This is a tacit acknowledgement that whatever the roots of addiction may be, its remedy must include a profoundly spiritual process of renewal.
As Christians, I pray that our stance toward those struggling with addictions might be both truthful (“your behavior is destroying you and your deepest relationships”) and redemptive (“we want to support you as you pursue healing”).