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Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice.

Once, there were no addicts. Or at least if there were, no one could have known it. The notion of the “addict” and the corresponding concepts of “addiction” and “addictive substances” are of modern vintage. The first recorded use of addict as a noun dates to 1909. The contemporary notion of addiction is distinctly American in its ancestry. It was developed and refined in the crucible of the American temperance movement.

But if there were once no addicts, today it seems everyone is an addict. Since its formulation in the early 20th century, the addiction concept has been assimilated into public consciousness and has since been buttressed and extended to cover an ever-growing catalogue of addictions. Now, we all live in an “addicted society.” “Addiction is our way of life.” And, “major addiction is the sacred disease of our time.” Such a view of the ubiquity of addiction has become almost de rigueur in contemporary life, especially in America.

Even those of us who have so far managed to avoid a definite diagnosis nevertheless tend to view our own behavior through the lens of the addiction concept. Thus we worry we may be getting addicted to any number of things: what was once a sweet tooth is now a chocolate addiction; what was once a long day at the office is now workaholism; what was once lust is now sex addiction.

We all know addiction is rampant in our day. But why? What exactly is it about our time or our culture that seems to make addiction itself such a compelling option and the concept of addiction such a natural way of interpreting and describing our behavior and experience? I believe addiction is, in fact, a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet. The church has a great stake in listening to such unwitting prophets. If the church will listen, it will be led to examine how its own culture contributes to the production of addiction, whether it offers an alternative culture, and what such an alternative culture would require.

Alluring Idol of Addiction

Addiction is—like all sin—a form of idolatry because it elevates some proximate good to the status of ultimate good, a status that belongs to God alone. But addiction is uniquely alluring, uniquely captivating, and uniquely powerful because its object comes so close to making good on its false promise to be God. All sin is an attempt to overreach our powers and to establish on our own a flourishing and fulfillment that can only be found within right relationship to God.

In this sense, all sin is rebellion against God. But addiction is powerful, captivating, and alluring because it is a rebellion that comes so close to succeeding. Major addiction is not necessarily the most tempting form of idolatry; it is too extreme, totalizing, and demanding to tempt many of us. But exactly because it is so extreme, totalizing, and demanding, addiction is the most potent form of idolatry on offer.

As a result, the life of distraction and diversion that anesthetizes so many of us would in a real sense constitute a loss of meaning for the addicted person, and it is, therefore, unlikely such a life could provide a rationale as compelling as the rationale of addiction.

This is, I suspect, why many of us in the church feel so powerless in the face of addiction. We feel the power of addiction in our own lives, and we doubt that the gospel is strong enough to overcome it. Of course, we do not say this sort of thing. But when an alcoholic stumbles into church, when we learn that our pastor has been addicted to pornography for the past 10 years, when we drive through neighborhoods decimated by addiction, the immediate response for many of us who call ourselves Christians is despair. Is the gospel really powerful enough to conquer all?

I suspect many of us feel this way because we doubt the power of the gospel over our own lives. We wonder if we have escaped the grip of addiction, not because of the power of the gospel, but because of circumstances, temperament, fear of rejection, or cowardice. Perhaps, unlike the addict, we have not demanded an all-consuming purpose, a coherent and integrated life, and an ecstatic participation in some all-sufficient and transcendent good. For so long, we have told ourselves that, in the words of the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want,” and we have used this justification to dull and suppress our deepest longings for rest, peace, and joy.

We have settled instead for a life of respectability, and we respond to our boredom, loneliness, and internal disorder through distraction and diversion. For many of us, the church represents this life of respectability from which we must occasionally escape by going on “moral holiday.” For others, the church is itself a distraction and a diversion, a place where we go to be entertained, to socialize, or to get a little “chicken soup for the soul.” That’s why we doubt the gospel has the power needed to rescue addicts; they have a fierce and desperate need that’s foreign to us and for which we don’t have a response.

Addicts Threaten Our Comfortable Church

Like the prophets of old, today’s addicts may remind us our desire for God is trivial and weak, and our horizons of hope and expectancy are limited and mundane. We recoil at the presence of addicts, for we fear their life reveals the insufficiency of our own lives. The addict has rejected the life of respectable and proximate contentment and demanded instead a life of complete purpose and ecstasy.

We recognize our own lives are not interesting and beautiful enough to offer a genuine alternative to the addict, and we fear a gospel powerful enough to redeem the addict would also threaten our own lives of decent and decorous mediocrity. We’re not sure we want the church to be a place where persons with addictions are liberated, since that would mean the church is no longer compatible with our own lives. So we characterize addiction as either physical determinism or moral weakness, both of which allow us to ignore the ways in which addiction places our own lives in question.

The question addiction puts to the church is whether or not it can offer a convincing alternative to the addicted life. The challenge addiction presents to the church is whether or not it can embody the purposive, ecstatic, and all-consuming love of God in a way that is more compelling than the life of addiction.

The good news of the gospel is Jesus came not for those who are healthy but for those who are sick. He came to bring sight to the blind, release to the captive, liberation to the oppressed . . . and new life to the addict. Are willing and ready to be a church that embodies this message and mission?