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Addiction: A Moral Problem, Not a Disease

This column, written by Dr. Heath Lambert, originally appeared in the print edition of the Florida Baptist Witness.

Throughout my life I have walked with many people down the hard road of addiction. The path is a painful one, and is often a very complicated experience to understand. I was recently reminded of this reality from the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton proclaimed on Twitter that, “Addiction is a disease—not a moral failing. We should support those who are struggling with it.” Clinton linked to an article on her campaign website where a great deal of helpful information is related about the quiet epidemic of addiction, and how so many are afflicted with this problem. Clinton is right to be concerned about addiction, and yet her statement is wrong on two counts.

First, with intense moral clarity Clinton pronounced that addiction is not a moral failing, but a disease. This statement is not true. Christians must make a distinction between moral problems we call sins, and physical problems we call disease. Diseases are problems of physical pathology in the body’s tissue, and are not necessarily connected to any personal moral failings. On the other hand, Christians understand that moral problems are sin, and trace back to the rebellion that exists between God and man, for which we sinners are always held accountable.

It is very important that Christians make correct distinctions between these two categories. If we do not, we will rebuke people who are not responsible for their medical conditions like Parkinson’s disease, or we will seek to offer encouragement and medical care for problems, like sinful anger, that God means to address through the truths in Scripture.

Clinton does not make a correct distinction in these categories on the issue of addiction. She believes addiction is a disease, but the Bible considers it a moral failing. Consider a few biblical examples as evidence: the drunkenness of addiction is understood to be debauchery, and at odds with a life characterized by the filling of the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18); in the moral list of qualifications for their office deacons are forbidden to be addicted to wine (1 Tim 3:8); Scripture forbids the greediness of a drunk that demands another drink (Prov 23:35); the food addiction of a glutton is understood to be idolatry (Phil 3:19); and the act of being overcome by a corrupting substance is referred to as spiritual slavery (2 Pet 2:19).

Presidential candidates are certainly entitled to their opinion, but Christians have a higher standard to meet when making our own moral declarations. We must submit to God’s Word, and the Bible is clear that addiction is a moral failing. It is a sin against the living God for which people will be judged.

I mentioned that Clinton’s statement was wrong on two counts, and her second error is at once more subtle and more dangerous. When the secretary says that, “We should support those who are struggling with it” she assumes that declaring addiction to be sin will be at odds with genuine support and care for addicts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is at this point that the beauty of God’s Word shines the brightest light on this dark problem. As Christians we know that God has made provision for every sin through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Christians know that there is a solution for sin. When we say that addicts are sinners like everyone else, that is the bad news we declare before we pronounce the glorious news that Jesus saves from every sin. If Christians agree with Hillary Clinton that addiction is a disease it will lead us to pursue the sort of secular solutions that have increased the addiction epidemic over the last 50 years. When we agree with God that addiction is a sin, then we can begin to point addicts to the help and hope that comes through Jesus Christ alone.

For more information on how to help people who are struggling with addition, check out Mark Shaw’s session, “Addiction Counseling in the Local Church.”

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Heath Lambert
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  • Rochelle Lunde
    January 24, 2017

    I see a slight discrepancy. The addiction itself is not the sin, but rather the act that is done to excess. A person detoxing and physiologically craving an addictive substance is reaping the consequence of a previous sin, but not sinning. It seems too general to state that there is no physical component to addiction.

  • Rebecca
    January 24, 2017

    Would you nuance your argument at all given what we know about epigenetics and addiction? Are “addiction as disease” and “addiction as moral failing” actually as mutually exclusive as presented here?

  • Wanda Cook
    January 25, 2017

    When we speak about MORALITY, we speak about choices we make. When we speak about SIN, we speak about our dependency in Christ and his community to intercede for us.

    Simplifying addiction to an individual MORAL choice ignores the strength of community and alienates our most vulnerable from healing.

    I direct a youth development NPO. We are developing partners to continue our research on the rising problem of cell phone and technology addiction among our children. School leaders have indicated to me that their is a sharp rise in negative behavioral instances stemming from increased mental health problems in children.

    Our research is indicating that children who depend upon technology / cell phone access to social media and gaming, are exhibiting the same ‘addiction” qualities that identify substance addiction in adults. Those qualities include the dependence on dopamine rushes that distract them from engaging in the healthy challenges that form brain development, emotional intelligence, and social connectivity. Research shows that the brain of child gains plasticity or loses plasticity (the inability of the structure of brain to change) based upon what a child sees, hears, and does.

    Addiction in children and and youth is a major concern because the malformation of their brain development stunts their natural maturation process. The potential of our society is dependent on the healthy maturation of our children. We are seeing children engaging in behaviors identical to those in substance addicts: withdrawal symptoms when their access to cell phones is removed, the lack of developmentally appropriate resiliency (the inability to recognize a path forward when faced with a challenge), and an overwhelming fixation on the need to “use”.

    Unfortunately attentive parents believe they are setting boundaries to limit dependency on social media and gaming. BUT in the healing of an addiction, setting a boundary must be accompanied by a therapeutic process that addresses the malformation of the brain and resulting emotional dependency. This as a result of a chemical distribution that has altered the structure of the brain making it nearly impossible for the child to exercise a “moral” choice to stop “using”.

    In a sense the parents, unknowingly, are the “dealers” who offer the substance to children who, as children, lack the mental emotional maturity to resist the soothing feelings that come from constant chemical reactions resulting from engaging in the insincere “reality” of social media and gaming.

    Are the children, whose brains have been altered by their addiction to gaming and social media making a MORAL choice in which they are held responsible / liable under the law of God? Can they freely choose to express their love for God by choosing to depend upon him? Do they understand enough about the character of God as revealed through scripture to “cast their cares” upon the Lord? Or our we confusing this with context of the human experience: SIN vs. MORALITY

    A disease is expressed as the organic alteration of one’s physiology whose outcome reduces one’s humanity away from God’s original creative intent. With a disease, I have no natural power to reduce its negative effect. I cannot cure my cancer, and as an addict, I cannot choose not to not pick up the beer, BECAUSE my physiology has been negatively altered. I need intervention: I need an oncologist for my cancer, and a therapist for my addiction.

    When we speak about MORALITY, we speak about choices we make. When we speak about SIN, we speak about our dependency in Christ to intercede for us. The story of scripture reveals that we make choices based upon the condition of our understanding revealed in the truth of how we Love God, and Love our Neighbors.

    Is addiction an example of the context of SIN in which we live? Do we Love God and our neighbors when we are stuck in a DISEASE that has altered our ability to heal ourselves? Do we need informed intervention that empowers our ability to choose better? If a disease require intervention then SIN is a disease, ADDICTION is a disease, not a MORAL choice.

    Addiction is NOT a MORAL problem. Addiction is condition of the context of SIN in which we all live. We need Christ’s intervention to alter our hearts, and we need the loving intervention of a community to alter our experiences.

    It takes time to recognize what God’s creative intent is for us as his image bearers. Simplifying addiction to an individual MORAL choice ignores the strength of community and alienates our most vulnerable from healing.

    • Edward Ruppert
      March 8, 2017

      Wanda,
      thank you for taking the time to elaborate and articulate this very thoughtful and compassionate reflection on this very serious matter. While it is all about the fall and about poor choices, some can be entered into unwittingly (e.g., cell phones, gaming on devices, etc.), and some by default — a desperate attempt to screen off war trauma (or other forms of trauma, abandonment, neglect, etc.) The issue of moral choice perhaps precedes the individual trapped in such addictive process. Therefore, not only the moral choice of society as to how to compassionately respond, but also our choice as a society (especially as a church) to reach out to better address the precursors of trauma, injustices, and even benign practices such as the over use of devices, which leaves a very vulnerable population unprotected.

  • Kathleen Arnold
    January 31, 2017

    Addiction is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ existence. We may know which came first but we do not know when the other may emerge. Worse, the addicted are experiencing this flux of their will consistently. What inner torment and we have not even spoken of the physical torment. While there is great sympathy and even empathy when considering the addicted’s torment, we cannot say that addiction is moral; we can say that the body affects the spirit and the spirit affects the body (Romans 7:15). Whether the addiction came to the addicted indirectly or by their own desire, it is not moral behavior that results. Why is this hard for us to accept? We are not judging the person, we are identifying a practice. Chicken pox is not immoral but a disease; it does not cause immoral behavior. The addicted are subject to physical effects that they do not control, but the decisions that result from that physical condition have moral ramifications (James 1: 14-15). This said, no one is suggesting that they should not be loved, supported and helped, as much as, they will cooperate allowing us to be that help they need. We do not know whether “Jekyll or Hyde” will win the body, but God does.

  • Emily Wallace
    April 19, 2017

    Video game addiction? That’s not the same. It’s an absurd comparison. playing video games is not a sin. I played video games a lot as a kid and it didn’t stunt my growth in any way. It did help me develop good hand eye coordination and problem solving skills!

  • Ralph Zimmer
    May 29, 2017

    People excellent morals are dying from addictions every day. Biblical counseling is just a little less valid than Astrology. You guys might as well have crystal balls. Do you think you could provide some investment advice. That would be enteraining. Dont share your insight and opinions when they have no basis in fact. Some poor sap is going to believe you and die instead of seeking real medical help.
    God does not exist. The bible was written by men and it’s main story was borrowed from another religion that also failed. I do believe in Jesus when he would bitch slap all.you phairisees of he came back today in his time machine.

  • Ken Blackburn Jr.
    August 18, 2017

    As a Born Again Christian I understand not only the importance of ascribing ‘sin’ to my poor choices of addiction which led to shame and guilt… but I also recognize that without the guilt and shame of sin and the need of redemption I would not need a savior. Perhaps once again this is why the scientific community overwhelmingly has been trying to prove the contrary and advance the thought of addiction perhaps being a disease… after all if it were a disease the person affected by it’s set of circumstances could hardly help it.

    For close to 30 years I wandered the streets of North America in search of the next high the next BIG PARTY… always running away from myself and the love of my Savior Jesus Christ. Male prostitution, drug trafficking, theft… etc. the never ending list of shameful things I would allow myself to undertake in order to procure my next fix seemed infinite.

    No one ever forced me to do the things I did while I was involved in full-blown addiction… no one had to do so I myself chose to escape dealing with reality by seeking to find ‘lies of comfort in a little glass pipe’.

    I am currently half way through studying Addiction Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. Combined with studies in Christian Counselling and Crisis Management I hope to be able to offer my services to help others one day find peace from the demons which seek to destroy them… Jesus is the answer to this loneliness! Jesus is the solution to this shame and guilt that cripples us and fools us into believing we deserve no better that we are not worth it.

    Because of Jesus Christ and what He completely accomplished on the cross at Calvary I have been set free from my past… including my addictions. Has it been easy? Absolutely not! Is there hope? Yes, there is.

    The hope I found was found in the fact that my sins were crippling me and the shame I bore was far too tremendous for me to bare on my own. The Bible says that anyone who calls out to the Lord shall be saved…. I chose to choose Jesus over Addiction.

    ADDICTION IS NOT A DISEASE – ADDICTION IS A SIN.

  • Petra Q.
    October 27, 2017

    Addiction is a disease that manifests as a moral failing and necessitates a spiritual solution. People who are addicts/alcoholics process alcohol/drugs differently. Therefore they compulsively seek more of that substance until they have virtually nothing but that substance left in their life. If they could stop they would and well before losing jobs, homes, families, friends, dignity, self esteem, integrity then resort to crime as a means to provide them with the very substance that facilitated the losses. No one who could control their use would give all that away to live a life stigmatized and condemned. AA offers a spiritual solution and was based on the Oxford Group model (a group that practiced 1st century Christianity). Most who have tried to rely solely on the church have not faired well. Many come to AA and succeed. Perhaps because there is an understanding and acceptance with a viable solution instead of judgement and condemnation. Perhaps AA is God given as it leads many wanderers from faith, agnostics and sometimes atheists back to God. However, if a clean or sober addict does not stay spiritually connected they drink/use and the physical compulsion and mental obsession is manifested again.

    Unfortunately, the attitude or belief that is a moral failing adds to the shame felt by the addict alienating them further and killing them.

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