Musings About Addiction

Musings About Addiction

With a sidebar addressed to all professional ministers

As with others whose titles begin with the word “Musings,” this essay does not pretend to be comprehensive. Rather, I present miscellaneous thoughts about addiction that some people may not have considered.

Addiction is immeasurably more widespread than we think. It’s not just alcohol and drugs and pornography and marathons and a few other things that people have begun to discover in the past several decades.

We can become addicted to nearly anything.

It’s all the same

Neuroscientists discovered years ago that nearly all addictions are similar so far as their neurochemistry and neurocircuitry are concerned. You may have read that dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins can be involved, and of course the brain’s so-called “pleasure center,” the nucleus accumbens. Here’s an article that briefly describes some of those factors. For much more detail, see this Wikipedia article.

Whether you’re addicted to nicotine or alcohol or cocaine, to gambling or basketball or to the highs of dangerous adventures, what happens in the brain tends to be largely the same.

In keeping with the purpose of this website, I focus here not on biology but on the interactions between addictions and spirituality.

How to tell?

It can help you decide if you’re addicted to something if you ask yourself the following questions: (1) If I don’t do/have it, do I feel significantly down or depressed or physically uneasy/restless, or even miserable? (2) When it is absent, do my thoughts turn inordinately or even obsessively to this thing? (3) Do I insist on doing/having it even when deep inside I realize that I am neglecting other important things (e.g., spending time with spouse or kids or parents or friends; taking care of work that I know is important but that I usually put off; being responsible financially)? (4) If exigencies of life, or even a voice from heaven, demanded that I not do/have this thing ever again, would I be OK with (although sad about) that or would I be nearly inconsolable?

A number of addictions are unambiguously harmful—they need no deep scrutiny in order to determine if they are bad news. These include addictions to street drugs, of course, and nicotine and alcohol, but also some activities that on the surface seem defensible but are difficult to excuse according to nearly any moral system.

For example: there is nothing inherently wrong with rock climbing. It’s an awesome sport that can provide wonderful experiences that expose a person to the beauties of God’s creation and that help create robust physical health. But free solo climbing on high cliff faces, in which the climber uses no ropes or other safety equipment, is (I would argue) not an appropriate activity. Ditto for climbing Mount Everest. Any activity that drastically increases your chance of dying is probably inappropriate for a person who desires to live as a servant, as Jesus calls us to do. We are not our own. According to what I have read over many years, I strongly suspect that many individuals involved in similar pastimes are addicted to them. Danger can be highly addictive.

What true maturity looks like

When we are as close as possible to being the individuals God wants us to be, we are able to find pleasure and even childlike delight in the widest possible variety of human experiences. We’re fully alive and engaged with everyone around us and with the physical creation. We’re pretty fearless. We’re adventurous. We celebrate every pleasure we experience. We are able to pray-as-we-go and to bring God into everything we do; yet there’s nothing we must have, nothing we must experience.

But that describes very few of us. Here are a sampling of items I have observed to be possibly addicting (I must have it!):

*Being with my loving family

*Having a joyful, peaceful, everyone-together family time at Christmas

*Having a neat, clean house

*Relaxing at a local bar after work every day, having a beer with friends

*Playing video games

*Watching television

*Listening to the radio in my car

*Listening to music via earbuds or headphones everywhere I go

*Posting important opinions on social media

*Using social media in general

*Engaging in my favorite hobby

*Engaging in vigorous aerobic exercise


*Engaging in adventurous activities such as skydiving, mountain climbing, scuba diving, etc.


*Having a quiet time every morning (or evening or whenever)

*Attending inspiring worship services every week

*Having a close-knit small group where intimate sharing is possible

*Ministering in the church: preaching, teaching, leading worship, being a leader, etc.

*Witnessing to others about Jesus

*Being in charge, being a leader

*Being admired

*Being successful (however I define it)

*Being famous

*Remaining OUT of the limelight, being able to keep to my shy self

*Being a failure (yes, that can be an addiction)

*Being depressed (that also can be addicting)

*Grieving a lost loved one

*Having a lovely, landscaped yard

*Working in the vegetable garden

*Having a dog (or cat or gerbil or whatever)

*Being able to take regular vacations to the mountains (or to the beach, etc.)

*Having sufficient money to live a comfortable life

*Having a nice, late-model car

Please note that not one of the items in the list above is inherently bad. Every one of them is in itself good or at the very least understandable and/or legitimate under some circumstances.

The question is, Can you live a successful, victorious life without it?

These are representative samples of the kinds of things to which we can become addicted—in addition to the usual “villains” such as drugs, alcohol, sex, fame, money, and power. You probably can come up with dozens more examples.

If there is anything that you desperately need and without which you would be somewhere on the spectrum from unhappy to miserable to suicidal—you are likely addicted to that thing.

And addictions are destructive. They compromise your ability to lead a victorious and joyful life, they compromise your ability to have deep fellowship with God, and they compromise your ability to extend love and blessing to others.

Note also that enjoyment of activities such as those listed above is not a question of either/or—that is, you’re either indulging in these activities innocently or you’re addicted to them. Not at all. We rather go through endless shades of gray. We typically seek after most of these kinds of things simply because they are legitimately enjoyable, or because they provide reasonable escapes from the less positive exigencies of daily life. They become addictions only when we cross over into that situation where we can’t function well (or even at all!) without them.

Paul made an astounding statement that we tend to gloss over without contemplating its deep profundity:

I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.                                                  –Philippians 4:11-12 RSV

 Whether your potential problem is similar to something on the list above, or is quite different, ask yourself honestly if, should exigent circumstances require you to no longer have/experience that thing, would you be to some extent undone? I’m not referring to being sad, to being unhappy for your loss. Of course you would be! That’s completely natural. But would you be devastated, perhaps even unable to function?

Alternatively, would you be able to say, in so many words, “OK, Lord, this sucks, but I don’t have to have this. You are all I absolutely need. With you, I’m good to go.” That’s essentially what Paul said immediately following the sentences quoted above:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:13 NIV

Through the power of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit we are able to let go of our toys, our idols, and say, “Lord, you are enough!”

God takes no delight in depriving you of life’s joys and pleasures. He invented them in the first place, and he created within you the ability to enjoy them! He wants you to have a joyful, happy life. But circumstances often intervene in ways that neither you nor God can avoid. Or, as the vulgar cliché says, “Shit happens!” We want to be ready for any possible contingency.

In fact, it is only when we are free of addiction—i.e., free of having to have something—that we can enjoy that thing to the fullest! If I am strongly into whitewater kayaking, for example, I will draw immeasurably more joy from each trip if I am able to see it as a unique gift, as a special adventure, if I can thrill in it in a childlike way, as much as I did on my very first trip, than if I experience it as something I must have, as a sine qua non of my happiness, as something to which I am clinging. Clinging is bad. Letting go is good.

I am most free, most happy, when “I know how to abound,” that is, when I can derive maximum joy and pleasure from the good things in life.

 I also am most free, most happy, when “I know how to be abased,” that is, when I am able—through the supernatural power and grace of the Holy Spirit—to face the loss of family and home and income and all else that I hold dear, and still remain content in the love of my Lord.

It’s not a trivial thing! It’s not a simple level of maturity that I can attain via a few superficial prayers. It is rather a status within a deep, personal relationship with the Most High that comes from long periods of seeking and obedience and trust. And in many cases, suffering. It is a privileged standing that is at once a gift but also a deeply-sought-after attainment.

How to be set free from an addiction

Life is almost always messy. There is no single cut-and-dried remedy for addictions. The basic resources are not in question; it’s just difficult and complicated to access those resources, or to make most effective use of them.

The resources are, on the one hand, the Holy Spirit (often acting through the body of Christ); and on the other hand, human resources such as psychological counseling, group therapy, twelve-step programs, and psychiatry. In various contexts and for different individuals, any or all of these resources can be helpful. Just because you are actively seeking the power of God both one-on-one and with a group of Christians who are praying for/with you, that in no way implies that you cannot access legitimate “secular” resources—anymore than it is inappropriate to seek God’s direct physical healing through prayer while you also seek help from medicine or surgery. All good things are godly. Even though many Christians as well as secular health professionals may claim that only their approach is legitimate, they’re wrong. It’s quite OK to mix things up. God’s actions and human actions. Consider the story of Gideon in Judges 7. God miraculously routed the Midianites and Amalekites before the men of Gideon; but the Israelites still had to join the fight and use their swords to finish the job. The key is to seek God’s guidance. Ask him to show you the most direct route to healing. For some, that may be solely through the Holy Spirit’s intervention. For others, it may be solely through counseling or psychiatry. A mixture of resources is appropriate for most people.

It gets sticky. I understand that. If you’re seeking supernatural healing, do you do it on your own, just between you and God? Should you fast and pray for a number of days, or go on a month-long solo camping/praying trip? Should you attend a healing service led by an individual or individuals with known gifts of healing? (Just be sure they are legitimate—there are quite a few “healers” out there who unfortunately are well known and very much admired in Christian circles but who are charlatans.) Should you ask for prayer on a weekly basis from your small group?

If you believe God wants you to seek “secular” help, how do you find a good counselor or a good psychiatrist or a group overseen by a good psychologist? (Plenty of incompetent ones out there. Or worse.)

Should you do all of the above?

Two stages of freedom from addiction

Few people’s experiences are as cut-and-dried as the following, but I believe what I’m about to describe is realistic in many situations.

Healing can come directly from God, of course, and/or through secular means.

Whether it is God who is delivering you, or you are receiving help through a twelve-step program or through counseling or whatever, it’s not unlikely that the first stage will be one where you are able to grit your teeth and say No whenever necessary. For a couple of years I was dreadfully addicted to alcohol. I would be so drunk, lying on the cold floor of my office, that I couldn’t even raise my head up, much less sit up. Then, through a rather dramatic event involving a friend’s prophesying to me, I was instantaneously delivered from my drunkenness. I stopped drinking altogether. By God’s grace, I was delivered from being compelled to drink by forces over which I had no control. Yet even though I no longer drank alcohol—i.e., I was delivered from the destructive behavior—I was in no way delivered from the desire. At that time I did all our family’s grocery shopping. Without fail, every time I walked past the supermarket’s liquor aisle my pulse would increase, I would feel flutters in my gut, and I would want desperately to turn my shopping cart down that aisle and load it up with alcohol. I did not do that, even once, because God had given me the grace to overcome those drives. But I very much wanted to.

A few years later, through an event too complicated to describe here, God healed me instantaneously of the desire. At first, I didn’t even realize the healing had happened—the event in question, while deeply spiritual and powerful, had nothing overtly to do with alcohol. I discovered the healing the next time I went grocery shopping: I made it all the way to the check-out lane before I realized I had walked right past the alcohol aisle without the slightest twitch of desire to buy anything. And that second stage of healing was permanent. (For the record, I drink alcohol now. But I am not enslaved to it. I have on a few occasions overdone it, but it’s not a problem for me. The healing that God accomplished over twenty years ago is still quite effective.)

My experience certainly is not universal. But in my observation, it is not unusual. There are significant implications. If someone is delivered from an addiction, whether supernaturally through the Holy Spirit or through a twelve-step program or through counseling or whatever—it does not always follow that the person is delivered from all desire. That may be the case, but often it is not. Sometimes, initial deliverance simply enables people to steel themselves against temptation, in spite of continuing to experience a strong need or desire. Ideally, such individuals need to be shielded from exposure to whatever it is that had controlled their lives, until they are completely delivered from the underlying, enslaving desire. If a person had been dangerously enslaved to sweets, for example, and by whatever means was set free from that addiction, it’s quite possible that being alone in the ice cream aisle of a supermarket could become a disastrous temptation to falling back into the addiction. It is to be hoped that good friends or family will help that person avoid similar temptations until even the strong siren song of sugar is no longer tempting.

Let God set the agenda

The chances are good that you are addicted to a number of different things. Most people are, unless the Holy Spirit has been strongly and for a long time active in their lives to deliver them.

But it is counterproductive to do too much navel-searching in order to identify your addictions. Better to turn your face, your attention, your heart toward God: “Lord, show me the things in my life to which I am enslaved. Set me free from the slavery, according to your wisdom and your timing.”

It is almost inevitable that, left to my own choices and faced with a long list of addictions, I would choose certain specific items to which I want to be set free. And it is almost inevitable that the Holy Spirit would respond, “Yes, you are indeed enslaved to those things, but that’s not what is most important in preventing your ability to live a victorious life. Here are the items that are most important in that respect. . .”

And it is almost inevitable that my reaction would be, “Yes, Lord, I realize those are very important. But let’s talk about these other addictions. . .”

To which he would interrupt, “Don’t change the subject. Here are the slave masters from which you need to be delivered now. It’s not what you want to hear—but trust me!”

For you see, we all have pet sins that we prefer to hold onto, while we are quite willing for God to set us free from other sins that are annoying to us. I can almost guarantee you that the bondages to which he wants to set you free now are not the ones that you would freely offer up to him for deliverance. But remember: He knows more than you do and he is wiser than you are and he really does desire what is best for you. Which means that it’s always best to trust him no matter how painful we think that trust will be.

Letting God set the agenda includes letting him direct your healing. For Christians, there is always the possibility of direct healing from the Holy Spirit. But just as with physical healing, where God usually uses doctors (at least in our skeptical culture) but sometimes heals directly, you should keep your mind open to taking advantage of less-supernatural efforts. There is professional counseling, there is group therapy, there are residential programs (both Christian and secular), and for certain kinds of deep addictions there is even psychiatry and therapy using pharmaceuticals. You may find it useful to seek “secular” therapy as an adjunct to spiritual healing (or vice versa). There are no rules. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you down the most effective path.


Sidebar for anyone involved in ministry

Are you willing to give up your ministry? Are you willing to give up your calling?

If you have been called and gifted as an evangelist, are you willing not to witness about the salvation of Jesus? If you believe you have been called and gifted to work on the mission field, are you willing not to go? If you have been called and gifted as a teacher/preacher, are you willing not to teach or preach? If you have been called and gifted as a prophet, are you willing to hold your tongue even when you clearly discern that the Holy Spirit has a message that needs to be addressed to God’s people?

For, you see, even though in most circumstances God works on this planet only through his human servants rather than directly, it is also true that God does not need you. To quote a common aphorism: The need does not constitute the call. You are infinitely superfluous. Whether or not you perform any given ministry, the Kingdom of God will prevail, and in the end God will have his way, and in the end “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” The Lamb of God, sacrificed before the worlds were even created, has secured that outcome for all of us, for all time.

Let me tell you a story. Once there was a man who had zero chance of having children. Both he and his wife were much too old. And yet God told him that he would have a son, and that son would be a unique source of blessing and salvation for the entire world! The miracle actually happened: The very old couple had a baby boy, fulfilling God’s promise! They loved their son dearly. But a number of years later, God spoke to the man: “I want you to kill him.”

And the old man, never wavering in his trust that God knew what he was doing, prepared to do just that. Until God intervened. “No! Do not kill your son! He will be a source of blessing and salvation to the entire world! This was a test! The test was necessary to make it unambiguously clear that you trust me to fulfill my promises, that you know I can do that with or without you. I know that you trust me completely; and you now know that you trust me completely! And that’s the mindset I need you to retain for the rest of your life, for that is the mindset that will enable you to most easily take advantage of my presence and power.”

Read the entire story in the 22nd chapter of Genesis. God had given Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, miraculously. He was their only son. God had promised that, through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants would inherit the entirety of Palestine (and much more), and that all the nations on the entire earth would be blessed through Isaac’s descendant! It was explicit. It was unambiguous.

But then God said, “Sacrifice him.” In his obedience, Abraham clearly was surrendering all his hopes about God’s promises. He was surrendering the gifts and the calling God had given him. He was laying them all on the altar.

That is what God calls each of us to do. Lay your gifts, your calling, on the altar. Tell your Lord that you want him to accept them as a burnt offering. Tell him: Yes, he gave them to you, but you now give them back to him to be consumed in his refining fire. Commit to him that in the grand scheme of things these gifts are his, not yours, that you are totally willing not to have the gifts, not to exercise them, that you are totally willing to do nothing to advance the Kingdom if that is what God wants.

My highly subjective guess, based on personal experience, is that a majority of professional ministers I have known or even observed over the past several decades are addicted to their ministries. The ministries are their very lives. They have never surrendered them to God. Their ministries give meaning to their lives. They are, in fact, idols. Take their ministries away and they would be completely undone.

It is vitally important that everyone whom God calls to a ministry—whether assisting bed-ridden elderly people or building houses for the poor or preaching to thousands of parishioners every Sunday—should surrender that ministry, placing it on God’s altar, explicitly confessing, “Lord, I am genuinely willing not to do this. This ministry, this calling, is yours. Refine this ministry, refine these gifts, refine me in your holy fire! If you want me to turn aside and do nothing but work anonymously in a soup kitchen, that’s OK with me (along those very lines, I strongly recommend a book written more than half a century ago by the great operatic bass Jerome Hines: This is my Story, This is my Song). I just want to follow you and obey you.”


An immeasurably more simple version of everything I just said is this: During a period of deep prayer and worship, ask God,

Is my ministry an idol? Am I addicted to it?  Show me, Lord. And if that is the case, deliver me!