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What is Addiction … and is It a Sin?

Dependence is defined as the presence of three or more of the following**: 

  1. Tolerance: Developing a tolerance to the substance/behavior such that more and more is needed for the same effect
  2. Withdrawal: Absence of the substance/behavior leads to physical or psychological withdrawal
  3. Overuse: Using larger amounts than what was intended
  4. Desire to cut back
  5. Time: A great deal of time is used in pursuit of the substance/behavior
  6. Activities are given up due to the habit
  7. Persistent use despite knowing the negative effects

**American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text revision). Washington, DC.

Chris Sumey, MD, member of St. Paul Lutheran Church (CLC), Denver (Lakewood), Colorado

How often do you hear statements like, “I’m addicted to chocolate,” or “He’s such a workaholic”? But when someone develops a true addiction to drugs or alcohol, the results can be devastating.

* After we heard Dr. Sumey’s presentation at our District Delegate Conference, we invited him to share a condensed version of his essay with our readers. We thank him for doing so. We (as well as Dr. Sumey himself) would encourage any who are suffering from an addiction to be in contact with their local pastor for further scriptural guidance and counseling. Part II will follow next month.—Pastor Paul Fleischer, editor

This brief study of addiction was first presented at the CLC’s West Central District Delegates’ Conference in 2011.* It will be reprised here in two brief installments:

  1. “What is addiction and is it a sin?” and
  2. “How can Christians help those struggling with addiction?”

One can be addicted to all sorts of substances (alcohol, cocaine, tobacco, etc.) or behaviors (gambling, pornography, and so on). This article will focus primarily on the former.

First of all, we need to define some terms, since the word addiction is too loaded and vague. Clinically we use the words dependence [see box] and abuse.

Abuse is a dependence that also has clear interference in the individual’s personal life. Examples include getting into legal problems or hazardous situations, failure to fulfill obligations at work/school/home, and relationship troubles with family and friends.

Virtually all substances of abuse act directly on our brains, causing both short-term and long-term consequences. Drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and nicotine (found in tobacco) act on the basic reward pathways in the brain, which essentially “hard-wires” a person to want to use those substances again and again. Alcohol and other depressants decrease the activity of the main inhibitory signals in the brain, which helps explain the lapses in judgment often seen with abuse of drugs.

Anyone who has earnestly tried to break such an addiction can certainly identify with what the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:19).

So, is substance abuse sinful? 

With all the harm that we know these substances bring to the body, on-going use is clearly not honoring our body, which (as far as Christians are concerned) is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). By definition, substance abuse means neglecting one’s duties and leads to many selfish acts. This temptation does not come from God. In other words, we have only our own sinful flesh to blame for this predicament (see James 1:13-15).

There is a strong temptation to imagine that we are somehow better or stronger than those struggling with addiction, that we would never allow something like this to happen to us. We need to remind ourselves that the sinful nature which we all have is essentially an addiction to sin.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a
slave of sin’”
(John 8:34).

When we see those who abuse substances “fall off the wagon,” we need to be mindful of our own daily relapses into sin.

The apostle Paul includes “drunkards” among the list of the unrighteous who “…will not inherit the kingdom of God.” He goes on, however, to say:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but
you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God”

(1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

In the next installment we will consider some of the ways Christians can minister to those struggling with substance abuse.