Addiction is Idolatry

Addiction to pain medication, addiction to spending money, addiction to food, addiction to alcohol, addiction to pornography/masturbation, addiction to gambling, addiction to video games, addiction to exercise, addiction to sex, addiction to vanity, addiction to cutting and self-harm — whatever the addiction — addiction is idolatry.

This is not meant as an emotionless slam on anyone with addictions. If you are human, you have struggled with addictions because you have struggled with idols. And if you say that you really don’t think you have, you are blind to your idols. Adam plunged this world into idolatry; we are born addicted to self, to sin, to death.

The power of addiction runs in at least two directions, probably more. We give in to addictions. We are responsible creatures, responsible for our choices, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and therefore, we are responsible for the choices we make to either give in to our idols, to serve them, or whether we choose to walk in the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). You choose to set your mind on the flesh or you set your mind on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father (Col. 3:1-2). You choose to seek your life in the works of the flesh or else you seek your life in Christ.

But the power of addictions runs the other way as well. The Bible refers to the “powers” of this world, the principalities, demons, gods. We do not know a lot about how they work, and it would be foolish to blame demonic activity for every hardship or misfortune. But it would be equally foolish to ignore the spiritual realities at work in the world. The reason idols have power is because we give them power. Idols are nothing but stone, wood, pixels, numbers, fabric, gold. But human beings are endowed with the image of God. We are creatures with immortal souls. When a man or a woman serves an idol, an idol somehow, mysteriously takes on something of that worth, something of that glory and power. It’s a false and fleeting glory, but it’s real nonetheless. This is the insidiousness of superstitions and sorcery and witchcraft. Of course it’s not real, but there’s something terribly dangerous about attributing powers to lifeless things. The second commandment says the results can be disastrous to the third and fourth generation. This is why addictions seem so powerful; they truly can take on positions of power in your life. Do not give the devil a foothold. When you love and serve a lifeless thing: an idea, a feeling, an image, a thrill, a sensation, a sense of power, of peace, of pleasure, of calm — you can endow those idols with power over you. The Bible describes this as enslavement. And this can include physiological realities as well.

All of this is why the only solution to addiction and idolatry is a greater power. Satan and the powers of darkness thrive off the power of impersonalism. Addictions and idols detach life from its source. They objectify, reify, snatching something good from this world to rule over in isolation from its source, detached from community, alone, in the dark. What is an idol? It is a false image of life. It has eyes but it cannot see. It has ears but it cannot hear. It has a mouth but it cannot speak. It has hands but it cannot help. And Psalm 115 says that all those who make them and serve them become like them. The power of addiction is in isolation. The power of addiction is found in how it turns people away from other people and in on themselves, and ultimately how it turns people away from God. The connections between mental disorders, spiritual powers, obsessions, addictions, and sin are mysterious, but there is plenty in Scripture, history, and human experience to simply assert that they are connected. Addictions are usually ways of coping with loneliness, depression, and broken relationships of all sorts.

The greater power that breaks the power of darkness, the power of idols, the power of addiction — is the power of life, the power of persons, the power of community, all of which ultimately comes from the power of God in Christ. The answer to impersonalism is people, real, living people. The answer to isolation is community. The answer to idols is the living Triune God who sees and hears and speaks and never leaves us or forsakes us. But people all by themselves will keep letting you down because we all have an idol problem; all people have addiction problems. This is why the answer cannot merely be other people, or different people, new people — it must be a person, the only good and perfect person. It must be Jesus.

You must know Christ. You must find in Him the solution to your loneliness, the solution to your hurt, the solution to your regrets, the solution to your shame, the solution to your idolatry. You must talk to Him. You must tell Him everything on your heart. You must talk to Him until you have said everything that needs to be said. You must talk to Him until you know He has heard you. Have you ever prayed like that? David prayed that way often in the Psalms. He cried out to the Lord, and He didn’t stop crying out until He knew the Lord had heard him. Until you have prayed like this, until you have had a personal break through with the Living God, you will not be able to break the power of impersonal addictions in your life. No counselor, no friend, no pastor, no internet chat room, no perfect spouse or child or parent can carry what you need carried. You need Jesus to carry you, and you need Him to carry everything you are currently carrying. But this is only possible through personal interaction with Him. You must talk to Him and tell Him what you need.

Then, having surrendered everything to Christ for Him to carry for you, you must destroy your idols. You must kill them. Jesus told men to cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes in order to destroy the idol of lust. You are to mortify your flesh, crucify it, slay it, crush it, put it to death. Have no mercy on it. But you will be tempted to go easy on it until Christ is your everything, until you know that Christ is better than every pleasure, every hit, every sensation, every thrill. Is Christ better than anything you can get in this world? Then kill your idols.

Get rid of your internet if that feeds your addiction. Get a roommate (or a new one or three) or talk to the one(s) you already have. She’s a real person. He’s a real person. And if she’s a Christian, the Holy Spirit lives inside of her. She has eyes to see and ears to hear and a mouth that speaks and hands that can help. Tell your spouse the truth. Stop making excuses for your sin. Stop hiding it. Stop lying about it. Confess it as idolatry. No euphemisms. No generic apologies. Name the sin. Call it out. Ask for forgiveness. Repent. Change what you’re doing. Stop watching Netflix until 2am. Start getting up early. Stop interacting with those friends who lead you away from Jesus. Go to Bible study. Talk to a pastor or elder or older, godly woman, not because they can fix you but because they are people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Trying to fix addictions on your own is sort of like trying to learn to swim after you’re already out in the middle of a deep lake. Humble yourself and turn toward Christian community. Idols isolate. But the living God draws you into His family.

Work hard. Be industrious and serve others. Remember, David sinned with Bathsheba during the spring when kings go out to battle (2 Sam. 11). How do you have time to fantasize about buying that new outfit? How do you have time to obsess over your body, what your next meal will be, or how you will get your next chemical rush? Paul says that the thief should stop stealing, work with his own hands, provide for himself, and so have enough to share with others in need (Eph. 4:28). Idolaters/addicts are thieves. They are giving energy, love, thought, and time to lifeless things, figments of their imagination, black holes of nothingness — instead of giving to those in need: your children, your family, your neighbors, the sick, the lonely, the lost. You have been purchased with the precious blood of Jesus for good works for the blessing and building up of the Body of Christ. You have the Spirit of God living inside of you in order to make you a powerful blessing to others. There are orphans who need love, will you love them? There are lonely shut-ins, will you befriend them? There are people in your city who have never heard of the love of God in Christ, will you tell them? There are glories still waiting to be found in this universe, will you discover them? God made men and women for work, for labor, for industry, for discovery, for love. This means that there is a deep human satisfaction in hard work and good work. But idleness and laziness are a thick and unrelenting fog, a blinding, disorienting desert. If extra time or extra wealth are causing you to be idle and turn to idols, give the time away, give the wealth away. Require yourself to be oriented to others’ needs. Serve gladly. Pour yourself out. Fill your days and hours with hard work. Jesus promises that if you give your life away, you will actually find it in the end. As my friend Nate Wilson puts it, Life is meant to be spent.

  1. Sue McKeown July 9

    Rev. Sumpter,
    Everything you write is true. But nothing you write precludes additional medical and/or psychological/psychiatric treatment, or church or community-based support groups for some Christians. You cannot deny that Christians have been helped by non-sectarian versions of AA, NA, GA, OA, and other such groups; there are even Christian versions of these groups. If someone has an addiction fueled by an underlying untreated medical or biologically-based psychiatric illness, all the prayer, Bible reading, friendship,and service to others in the world cannot cure the addiction unless God chooses to work a miracle for this person. All Christians need to practice the Christian disciplines, of course, and receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your denomination calls it) regularly, to grow in the knowledge and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. All Christians, whether Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic would agree. Love in Christ, Sue

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