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The Heart of Addiction

Book Review

Mark Shaw’s book is an excellent resource for biblical counselors helping those enslaved and burdened by addiction.

Aug 11, 2021

If you have ever counseled a person addicted to drugs or alcohol, you may have felt out of your depth. The world labels addiction as a disease, which implies counseling will not solve the problem. Also, the manic nature of some who are given over to substance abuse may often confuse the counselor as to the seriousness of the counselee’s request for help. Well, if these observations trouble you, or if you are troubled by addiction, fear not. Mark Shaw’s The Heart of Addiction: A Biblical Perspective both helps the addict and equips the counselor to biblically address and resolve this problem.  

True to biblical counseling, the book first sets out to identify the right vocabulary. What the world calls addiction, the Bible calls idolatry (pages 7-8). This is the general term provided by the Bible, and the more specific term is drunkenness. This latter word applies not only to alcohol, but any addictive substance. The varying degrees of severity of either addiction or abuse always result from the same inward problem of idolatry.  

One helpful thing Shaw sets out early on is the incompatibility between the world’s disease concept and the Bible’s sin-nature concept as it relates to addiction (pages 14-15). Though substance addiction or abuse manifest as physical problems, the root is always spiritual. The fundamental problem for the addict is a worship disorder. However, since humans are a psychosomatic union of body and soul, substances affect the body in natural/physical ways, leading to physical symptoms (e.g., Proverbs 23:29-35), and often progress to emotional despair due to the struggle. However, these must be countered with objective truth, not emotional or subjective feelings. Furthermore, secular models seek to get the addict back to normal, but a biblical approach understands that normal is slavery to the sin nature, and therefore the biblical counselor aims to get the counselee to embrace and conform to the new creation in Jesus Christ. The heart must change. For the believer, God has already made the person into a new creation with a new heart, possessing the ability to break the idolatrous addiction. The unbeliever needs to repent and believe so they too may be granted divine enablement to overcome this sin. Shaw offers many helpful appendices, and the unbeliever is encouraged to read Appendix B (pages 217-218).  

One problem with worldly models is they seek to simply break the habit, but this never achieves a permanent result. The Bible demonstrates the need to replace the bad habit with a new godly habit (Ephesians 4:22-24). The human problem is we have an inclination toward sin, and each person differs in the particular sins in which they wish to indulge. No one can blame God, however, for their addiction. Each addict is making an active choice to worship the substance over God. Therefore, God requires the putting off of the idolatrous addiction and the putting on of the worship of God. He is supposed to be our greatest satisfaction, and when He truly replaces the false satisfactions of addiction in both the heart and actions, the addictive cycle will be broken.  

Sadly, addiction often causes people to be feelings-oriented rather than principle-oriented. This explains their extreme behavior in being “on fire” when they are trying to get off the drug, but also the hard fall that quickly follows. They often are looking for the quick fix rather than the disciplined approach required by the Bible. Therefore, the way forward is active rather than passive. Shaw demonstrates a number of biblical examples where the believer wins the battle against sin by actively resisting the devil and persistently disciplining the flesh to get it into submission (pages 132-134). This is even more important for the sin of idolatry and drunkenness since this slavery tends to affect and overwhelm every area of a person’s life. Shaw offers Appendix D (page 295) to help the addict understand this. The path to victory necessitates the putting off of the sin, which means removing certain people and situations from one’s life (Appendix C, pages 219-223, helps with this). It requires, as Proverbs 28:13 says, both confessing the sin and forsaking it. If one repeatedly confesses the slavery to a substance, but does not actively forsake it, then the confession is empty. Furthermore, if the desire to put off is genuine, then it must be supplemented with the renewing of the mind. We absorb so much of the world’s faulty thinking that we need to renew our thoughts on this subject with God’s own words. When one seeks to worship God first and forsakes sin while being immersed in Scripture (i.e., reading, memorizing, and meditating), then motives, thoughts, and desires change (Appendix G, pages 235-238, helps with renewing the mind).  

In conjunction with the putting off of the substance and the renewing of the mind, Shaw highlights the need to put on the right things. Serving the church with one’s spiritual gifts is a huge component of this (pages 176-177), since the opposite of drunkenness is being filled with the Holy Spirit. Also necessary are the attitudes of responsibility, gratitude, and a submissive spirit. The counselee needs to submissively follow through on the restructuring of his life (Appendix F, pages 233-234, offers much practical help). The replacement of the wicked with the righteous behaviors requires the mentality of a Nazarite (page 195). Finally, legitimate rehabituation (i.e., replacing the sinful habit with a biblical habit) requires one to shift from being self-focused to being other-focused. When a person stays away from the substance, is immersed in Scripture, and is actively loving God and others and putting them first, indeed the person will be free from the idolatry. The person instead has put on the new man which is being conformed to Christ’s image. And of course, none of this is possible without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who will make all this operative in transforming the individual.

Shaw has provided biblical counselors an excellent resource to help those enslaved and burdened by addiction.  

Helpful Quotes: 

  1. “Both the love of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (or escape) fuel any addiction” (page 7).  
  1. “Know this: if you are a Christian struggling with an addiction, occasional substance abuse, or drunkenness, you will always be God’s son or daughter; however, your relationship with God is hindered by your chemical use” (page 63). 
  1. “The truth is that every human being on planet Earth is capable of becoming ‘addicted’ to any pleasurable activity because of the capacity for idolatry in the human heart” (page 79). 
  1. “When churches promote the unbiblical idea of reaching a point in life where a Christian can become perfect, or sinless, they are driving addicts—and all those that struggle with sin for that matter—away from the church and to secular modalities. Churches that promote ‘perfection’ in this life are not biblically grounded in this doctrine of sanctification” (page 169). 
  1. “God creates in your heart a change from your desires to fulfill self-centered and temporary pleasures to a desire to fulfill self-less and everlasting pleasures that please God first and foremost. The primary goal of the biblical counselor is to challenge the Christian addict to desire nothing less than this type of genuine heart change” (page 185).