Addiction: Who’s In Control? (Part 1) October 27 2017

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

This is a two-part blog, prompted by the feature article in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic titled “The Science of Addiction – How new discoveries about the brain can help us kick the habit.”  Part 1 of this blog describes how pervasive the problem of addiction has become. In contrast, we will look at the amazing hope that comes by understanding the problem in light of the Scriptures.  Part 2 will explain the biblical steps one can take to have victory over addiction.

The National Geographic article cited some statistics on the impacts of drug and alcohol abuse:  over 33,000 Americans die each year from opioid overdoses; 3.3 million worldwide die each year from alcohol.  It also cited a report  from the U.S. surgeon general released in November 2016 that 21 million Americans have a drug or alcohol addiction.  This is over 8 percent of the adult population and a sad commentary on where we are headed as a society. The most recent data from the Center for Disease control indicated some 64,000 deaths in 2016 from all drug overdoses, a massive 20% increase from 2015.  This is more in one year than the number of American deaths in the entire Vietnam war (58,000) and 14 times as many deaths as in the Iraq war.

BCF had a series of three blogs in January and February, 2017 on “The Tragedy of Opioid Abuse.”  https://bcfministries.myshopify.com/blogs/news/the-tragedy-of-opioid-abuse-part-1. Prescription opioids, developed to help people deal with pain, have sadly been a gateway to addiction for many people.  What starts as a prescription  for pain relief can become a  craving that can lead to a life-dominating practice.  In many other cases, however, people have purposefully indulged in substances or certain activities purely for the sake of having pleasurable experiences.   One thing leads to another and another, resulting in defeated lives, devastated relationships, and sometimes death.

The National Geographic article provides an extensive explanation of the chemistry of the brain.  It cites research indicating that craving is driven by dopamine, the flow of which is increased with the use of drugs. Pleasure is stimulated by other neurotransmitters in what the article calls “hedonic hot spots,” and when craving overwhelms them, “addiction occurs, leading people to pursue a behavior or drug despite the consequences.”

But substance abuse is not the only thing that can destroy one’s life. The National Geographic article noted that when South Korea made super-high-speed Internet cheap and widely available, it became clear that some people were ruining their lives through excessive game playing.  Apparently, the Korean government now pays for treatment.  Although the Internet has enabled a multitude of conveniences and efficiencies in 21st century life, it has also brought with it unprecedented levels of temptation, fundamentally impacting human relationships and making it easier to ignore everyday responsibilities.

The article continues, “Some scientists believe that many allures of modern life – junk food, shopping, smartphones – are potentially addictive because of their powerful effects on the brain’s reward system, the circuitry underlying craving.”  If you want to see an eye-opening expose’ of the addictive power of smartphones, watch the CBS 60 minutes episode entitled “Brain Hacking: Phone, Apps, and Social Media Addiction.” The first part of the segment can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqFxCf_0sW4.

To be sure, temptations have been with us from time immemorial, and people make sinful choices, leading to tragic consequences.  This is nothing new, and the Bible is replete with examples of how this happens, from Adam and Eve onward.  But the visibility and scale of the problem has become even more apparent in today’s society.

Although science may be able to explain how the brain responds to various stimuli, the world’s research merely confirms what the Bible has been saying about human behavior for many centuries.  Before we came to know Christ, our own natural inclination was to focus on human pleasures and lusts:

“Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Ephesians 2:3)

Even as believers, we have nothing to brag about.  We are still capable of succumbing to temptation. For example, the book of James is addressed to “the brethren,” and verses 13-15 of Chapter 1 state:

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

You can see in these verses the progression and consequences of our choice to let our flesh control us rather than the Lord. The scientific research has done us the service of explaining the mechanics of how this happens in the chemistry of the brain.  But the Scriptures clearly show where the responsibility lies: with us.  Science typically deflects that responsibility to being a disorder or disease, with us being the “victims.”  As we will see, this approach is not only inaccurate, but it actually lacks compassion, because it focuses mainly on the effects of the problem, not the root of the problem.  Although people dealing with addictions may be sincere in their desire to help others, a treatment that does not deal with the fundamental cause is insufficient.

The National Geographic article acknowledges that “Science has been more successful in charting what goes awry in the addicted brain than in devising ways to fix it …. Most medications used to treat addiction have been around for years.  The latest advances in neuroscience have yet to produce a breakthrough cure.”

Part of why science has been unable to find a cure for addiction is because it has been looking in the wrong places.  Interestingly, the words “choice” or “choose” do not appear in the article.  Addiction is referred to as a disorder or disease.  As we will see in Part 2, there is an important role for medical professionals to play in helping people through certain addictions, but fundamentally, a “cure” depends on what people choose to do.  Therein lies the great hope. We will pick up on this in Part 2, but suffice it to say that the very next verse after Ephesians 2:3 is the ultimate hope:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions [this includes addictions], made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) ….(Ephesians 2:4)

Ephesians Chapters 4, 5, and 6 go into detail about the outworking of God’s grace in our lives.  For example, Ephesians 5:18 directly addresses our propensity to let other substances and behaviors control us.

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.”

We will get into this in the next blog post, but suffice it to say that we have a decision to make, whether or not to get drunk with wine.  People may make deliberate choices to take a drug, get drunk, indulge in video games, or commit an immoral act, but they are not somehow forced to sin because of their background or past indulgences.  Even under intense craving, a person is not forced to make the choice to take that drug, take the next drink, play the next game, or commit the immoral act.

For example, it would be highly unlikely that a college student would stand up in the middle of class and shoot up with heroin.  He can make a choice not to do that, given the right set of conditions.  Likewise, it would be highly unusual for a drunkard to take a bottle of liquor to church and start drinking in the middle of the service.  Even an unbeliever can make a choice not to succumb to intense cravings when he puts himself in a position where it is obvious he needs to resist.

Here we have an even greater hope as believers. We have the resources of the Holy Spirit as our awesome Helper, not only to resist temptation, but to also live out the rich, abundant life the Lord intends for us. This in no way minimizes the challenges that individuals have in their struggles with temptation and addiction, and the challenges that their families and friends have in helping them.  But the Scriptures provide tremendous hope that is very often overlooked even within the Christian community.  We’ll cover how to take full advantage of this hope in Part 2.

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Steve Smith