Addiction. Idolatry. Your “besetting sin.” These three are synonymous, expressed through the lens of psychology, prophetic exposure, and the Christian language of the New Testament. Whatever you name it, it’s the same thing: an insidious cancer with which every person must do battle, or else be consumed by the weight of it. We’re told in the Bible that there’s a force of darkness afoot in the world whose deepest intention is to steal, kill, and destroy. Sometimes we surrender to it willingly, actively embracing its seductions, so that some particular indulgence becomes our ’go to’ means of comfort or coping for living in such a messed up world. Other times we passively allow it to become our “new normal,” slipping casually down, as single choices become patterns, become habits - sometimes affirmed by peers and culture, always soothing to our wounded and fragile heart. Either way, we become poster children for that passage about theft, death, and destruction.
The quality and manner of life our creator had in mind for us is stolen. We can’t be the people of confidence, hope, peace, honestly, and courage we’re called to be. Instead, much of our strength, time, and resources is devoted to sustaining and/or hiding our addiction, leaving little left in us to give to the world. This is hardly the ‘life in abundance’ of which Jesus spoke.
Our hope dies, killed off by the shame of recurring failures and falls - always back into the same patterns, in spite of our own internal protests and declarations to do better. (Falsely) believing ourselves to be unworthy, we pull ourselves out of the game, convinced that we’re made for the shadows and sidelines, not the arena. We settle there, bored and disappointed in ourselves, two responses that become kindling to fuel the fires of our addiction, sending us even deeper down the hole of shame.
Our life of hope, meaning, contentment, and clear conscience is destroyed. We’re looking over our shoulder, afraid of getting caught. If not that, we’re anxious about sustaining the lifestyle that allows us to feed our soul with our addiction (”precious” is what we calls it, so attached are we), or we’re consciously depleting our resources, whether they be time, money, relational capital, or emotional energy. Any addictive behavior that controls us promises life but takes life away instead.
Psalm 115:8 says, regarding idols, “Those who make them will become like them.”
Such problems present in countless ways in our culture: consuming, shopping, toxic sexual activity, exercise, entertainment, social engagement, body image, success, reputation, work, our relationship with food. We can also be addicted to being right, being popular, winning, being powerful, being ultra-spiritual. We can be addicted to a place or to an activity.
I use addiction here as a synonym to idolatry because both addiction and idolatry are looking to something other than the Creator as the fundamental source of meaning, or comfort, or provision. One story from the Bible offers a powerful illustration of how idols and addictions take hold:
Addiction is born in the midst of disillusionment and pain - In Exodus 32, Israel’s waiting for their leader Moses to come down from the mountaintop where he’s meeting with God. They’ve been waiting until they’re beyond tired of waiting. They’ve interpreted his failure to return as a kind of betrayal, so in the pain of uncertainty and impatience, they take matters into their own hands. “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” The end result of this is a statue made of gold with character qualities attributed to the statue that allowed the people to self-medicate the pain of living in the uncertainty of the desert. They would do this through indulgence: excess drink and what the text calls “revelry” which is a big umbrella word covering things like excess partying and sexual over-indulgence. They’d also find (short term) comfort in making a god they could control, because, let’s face it: being in control feels better than the other options, which require trust, hard conversations, waiting, and the humility to acknowledge that we don‘t control the world, not even the tiny world that is our sphere of influence.
Life is hard. We’re in pain. God’s not coming through for us in either the manner or timetable we expect. We take matters into our own hands, stepping out of our calling, out of God’s story, in order to medicate our pain away and find “meaning” in such an escape. Whether its binge television, binge work (which takes us away from nurturing relationships with God and people), sexual addiction (pixelated or personal), chemicals (including excess alcohol), exercise, eating (or not eating), social engagements, or social withdrawal, the source of our problem is the same: Life is hard. We’re not waiting for God’s comfort - God is too mercurial, too fickle, too invisible. We’ll make our own comfort shelter - and thus an addiction is born.
What’s insidious is that our self-made shelter is comforting, at least initially. We wouldn’t have gone there if it weren’t. It’s temporary, though, and when the adrenaline, or dopamine, or whatever other chemical we activated through the magic wand of our indulgence fades, we find ourselves not back where we started, but further down the mountain. We’ve fallen into pits of shame, self-loathing, and frustration. We swear we’re done with it, really. This time for sure.
A pattern’s been born though. Pain triggers a desire to self-medicate. Self-medication leads to comfort. Whatever happens after comfort isn’t important to us at the crisis moment of decision because the pain and longing for comfort are all we feel. So we indulge again. Feel good again. Feel shame again. Swear it off again until life gets hard again. Then: Rinse. Repeat.
Some addictions are socially acceptable, like the 65 hour work week. Others are despised, like preying on innocents for one’s sexual pleasure. Most fall between these, on a spectrum of cultural respectability. Set the spectrum aside, though, and let’s call all of them what they really are: addictive idols.
In his outstanding book, “Breathing Under Water,” Richard Rohr makes two bold statements:
First: “We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature,“ which is important because Rohr rightly declares that “the problem must be correctly named before it can be exorcised. You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.”
It’s true, of course. The culture offers a narrative from Nike, Gatorade, various phones and the best 5G, insurance for everything, and drug ads to remind us that pain and suffering can be fixed with a pill. These message punctuate our reading online, and our entertainment choices - a slow drip of invitations to a pain-free life served up while we watch the Madness of March, or the Masters, or whatever it is we consume. The cocktail lulls us into believing that all’s well, or at least that wellness can be bought. Athletes have good boundaries. Moms with the right cars aren’t stressed. If we pick up our pizza rather than having it delivered we’ll be richer. Concerts and movies are back. Masks are off. Zoom is history. Baseball’s starting. Mmmm. Good stuff.
We might even comfort ourselves a bit further by feeling moral outrage over the war in Ukraine. We’ll add a dash of political outrage to the mix - if we lean left, we’ll talk about January 6th, and the right’s blindness to its own authoritarian tendencies. It we lean right, we’ll talk about the inflation that comes about whenever you pour money into a system, and the risks of parental authority being undermined by public schools, and a few other social outrage issues. This line of self-talk gives us the moral high ground, so we conclude, “We’re fine. It’s the idiots over there that are wrecking things.”
If we’re ever to be the presence of the truly free spirit of Christ in this world, we’ll need to spend some time suspending our moral outrage and taking a look in the mirror as we ask some questions:
Where do I go (emotionally, sexually, bodily, with my time and money) to escape the pain of living in this fallen world?
Do I go there so often that it’s become automatic rather than a choice?
How do my consumption habits (of books, movies, sports, TV, news, social media) balance out compared to my production habits (spiritual reading, prayer, creating art, practicing hospitality, interacting with creation)?
Do I break my go-to habits regularly (like… a week or two without alcohol, ice cream, coffee, or social media) in order to pursue the goal of, as Paul says, “having liberty to do all things, but being enslaved to nothing” ?
These questions are just one aspect of the “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” which is step four of the 12-step program that has been central in pointing millions to freedom from addiction. It’s nothing less than what Paul the apostle spoke about when he encouraged us to "bring everything out into the light."
A main way of bringing things into the light happens when someone gets caught: driving with lots of alcohol in the blood, web browsers exposing nasty stuff, infidelity, massive debt accrued because you needed the shopping fix, or the drug fix, or whatever. You get the picture.
It’s better, much better, to bring things into the light intentionally rather than accidentally. For that reason I invite you to pour a cup of something to drink, find a quiet place, maybe a journal, and answer those questions above as writing prompts. Be honest - because as Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.”
It’s important that you and I both do this work because of the other thing Rohr writes: Christians are usually sincere and well intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend be pretty much like everybody else. We (leaders of the church) often gave them a body’s version of the gospel, some fast food religion, without any deep transformation of the self, and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer oriented, proud, warlike raciest, and addictive as everybody else…”
We’re called to something better of course. We’re called to freedom.
Make space. Answer the questions. Join me here and on youtube as I offer tools to move toward real freedom.
Over on youtube: How identity and calling help break addiction chains