What Really is Addiction? Answers in the Bible and Science

As a scientist and psychiatrist, I believe the Bible has all the principles necessary for us not only to survive but also to thrive in this spiritual war. Decision-making science (psychology, biology and neuroscience) is a great tool to condense these awesome but often unwieldy principles of the Bible into bite-sized digestible nuggets for daily use.

Since the beginning of time, every culture has used alcohol or natural substances to alter thinking, mood and reality. Recreational use was often accepted, but impaired functioning or harmful behavior was not. In fact, the inability to stop using a substance despite consequences was viewed as psychological weakness or failure.

The 1950s brought the emergence of the ‘disease model’ that defined addiction as substance abuse —producing physiological dependence, withdrawal symptoms and the inability voluntarily to stop using despite consequences and danger.

The ’70s saw the category expand to include substances that might not produce physical withdrawal but are, nevertheless, addictive. These include behaviors like gambling, pornography and shopping.

But what really is an addiction?

God designed us to worship Him. Unfortunately, Satan has tried to trick us into worshipping other items and hoping that we will get the same peace, joy and love from impostors. God warned us in the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” as He knew our focus is easily diverted to things that might seem like a quick fix or a distraction.

We are all broken inside. Call it sin, baggage, issues, imperfections or inadequacies. These wounds cause pain and interfere with our ability to see life and life’s answers clearly.

To avoid pain, we develop a repertoire of “feel good now, pay later” anesthetics. As these seemingly accomplish the goal, we increasingly use them, developing a habit that becomes more deeply ingrained each time.

I define addiction as relying on a go-to coping skill in a habitual, patterned or repetitive way when we anticipate or experience adversity, stress or uncomfortable feelings, rather than going to God and the healthy solutions He provides. In other words, being dependent on the created, rather than on the Creator.

Addictions usually develop over time, and there are five general stages of addiction. In some instances, some of the stages are skipped or last only a short period of time. These stages are:

1. Experimental: first several times of use, not knowing what will happen
2. Recreational: use with friends with no real purpose
3. Circumstantial: use for a specific purpose (sleep, concentration, to stay awake, escape, get high, relieve anxiety, improve mood, hallucinate)
4. Intensified: use in increased quantity, frequency and intensity as consequences occur
5. Compulsive: compelled use and feeling unable voluntarily to stop

This might be a shocker, but the addiction goal for all of us is comfort and pleasure. Whether comfort is in the form of less pain, escape, control, power, a high or rush, improved mood, less anxiety/fear, increased security, less uncertainty, more relational connection, less conflict, better looks or many other ego-stroking activities, we all pursue comfort and pleasure, but we often leave God out.

Addictions come in two categories:

1. Substance addiction is the direct manipulation of comfort or pleasure by ingesting, infusing or inhaling chemicals into the body; these are commonly drug- and food-related addictions.
2. Process addiction is the use of behaviors to achieve pleasure and comfort. Common examples are gambling, pornography, spending/shopping, exercise, love/sex, work, social media, screen, video gaming and productivity.

Substances are harmful, as they have toxic effects on key brain centers and functioning, but process addictions are also dangerous, especially for Christians.

When we repetitively go to something other than God to cope with life, we are rejecting Him, and we will suffer spiritually. We’re also using a coping skill that is psychologically inadequate for the issue we are trying to solve. Physically, repetitive wrong decisions short-circuit our brain wiring, leading to brain damage that is actually similar to that inflicted by toxic substances.

Here’s a self-check: When you experience adversity or stress, what do you turn to first or regularly? That is probably your addiction object. Try turning to God first, listen for His answers and watch your transformation happen before your very eyes.

Remember, decisions determine your life, so choose well.

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