The Heart of Addiction

Does the Bible have anything to say about a sin so desperate and devastating as addiction? The problem of addiction is so overwhelming, both in its scale (it seems to be everywhere in our society) and in its utterly devastating effects on individuals and everyone connected with them. Does God really get into the nitty-gritty underbelly of the addicted life?

Yes, thankfully He does; His Word does not leave us without clarity on this topic. In this hard-hitting book, counselor Mark Shaw shows how Scripture is sufficient to diagnose, understand, and remedy the sin of addiction. Because yes, it’s a sin—not a compulsion the person is helpless to defeat, nor a disease they can’t treat or escape. Defining the problem biblically is the first step toward real change. There are many passages regarding the general sin of idolatry (which is what addiction boils down to), as well as the specific sin of drunkenness. The author points out that alcohol is just a drug in liquid form and people were addicted to it thousands of years ago when Scripture was given. People haven’t changed over the centuries, and the problem of addiction remains the same.

I appreciated the point that God created drugs and addictive substances for a good purpose: the relief of pain in our fallen world. What is sad is how we take something that has a good purpose and pervert it. But that’s the definition of sin, isn’t it? Nothing was created evil originally.

I found Shaw’s description of “go-button” and “stop-button” people helpful. Go-button people like the feeling of losing control and immersing themselves in something pleasurable, while stop-button people dislike the sense of losing control and therefore stop the behavior that is causing that feeling (p. 80–81). There’s a study that speculates on the “kindling effect,” that some people possess natural enzymes that act as a buffer, warning them when they begin to lose control. However, stop-button people can still become addicted if they indulge in repeated use of a drug because it wears down their natural physical defenses. And being a go-button person doesn’t remove personal responsibility. Sin is always a choice.

Shaw is primarily a counselor to men and writes directly to the addict. I liked the prayers he included at the end of each chapter and his practical suggestions for change, like training the mind, the put-on/put-off principle, and accountability. However, for someone not indwelt by the Spirit of God, a lot of his admonitions and exhortations could be interpreted as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work harder.” It’s true that there is a lot of work involved in changing a life-dominating pattern like addictive choices, whether you’re a Christian or not.

There’s no magic fix. At the same time, Shaw makes it very clear that nonbelievers are not able to discipline themselves out of addiction. Sure, they may stop using a particular drug (usually only for a time), but even if they are successful in completely cutting the drug/alcohol addiction out of their lives, they’ll just replace that idolatry with another.

Now for the tricky part. Though I wholeheartedly agree with Shaw’s thesis and arguments, I found myself occasionally wishing he had presented some of his subject matter a little differently. His completely unapologetic, unaccommodating truth-speaking is refreshing, but at times I wished for a more tactful (and tactical) approach. Bible-believing Christians will always be written off as crazy by the world, but let’s not make it too easy.

Stylistically there are some things that could be better as well. He overuses quotation marks, subtly undercutting his own points (consider this example on page 178: ‘One of His “best” goals for you is to make you mature in your faith, thinking, feelings, and acting.’ Notice how using quote marks here calls the adjective ‘best’ into question). And the book could have used a good hard edit overall; one sentence even repeats its second half (also on page 178). But these are small things in light of the rich and helpful truths Shaw presents. A little more polish would have made the book perfect.

I read this book because a friend was dealing with addiction issues. Yes, the problem is huge, rooted in so many wrong patterns of thinking and perceiving the world that it may seem overwhelming. But there’s hope. I’m thankful for this resource that helps us understand how the Bible is relevant, life-giving, and sufficient even in the realm of addiction.  )

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