The Addiction of Sin

Of all the models for sin, it may be that none have captured the modern imagination as much as sin as addiction. The Christian community has long viewed sin as a stain or blemish, a crime against law, and as a matter of personal responsibility. Some have recognized the significance of the biblical model of sin as a disease.

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:3, NKJV).

Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed (I Peter 3:24, NKJV).

Attention is not always given, however, to the concept of sin as an addiction and the sinner as an addicted person in need of deliverance. I have taught lessons discussing this idea, and I plan to present that concept in a series of posts, this being the first.

The Addiction of Sin: Lesson 1

Daniel L. Segraves

Authors who have addressed the model of sin as addiction include Gerald G. May, M.D. (Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988]), Patrick T. McCormick (Sin as Addiction [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989]), and J. Keith Miller (Sin: Overcoming the Ultimate Deadly Addiction [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987]). Although he does not specifically use the addiction model, Larry Crabb’s approach has many points of similarity (Inside Out, rev. and updated [Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988]).

Gerald May’s Addiction Model

Some reject the addiction model because they fear it means we do not bear personal responsibility for our sins and that we are helpless to resist temptation, but that is to misunderstand the nature of addiction. May defines addiction as “a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.” He points out that “temptation … is the starting point of addiction.” True addiction is marked by five essential characteristics: “(1) tolerance, (2) withdrawal symptoms, (3) self-deception, (4) loss of willpower, and (5) distortion of attention.”

Addiction is caused by the “attachment … of desire to specific objects.” These objects may be “specific behaviors, things, or people.” They “become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives.” The result is idolatry, because “addiction … forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another.” Worship is “what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love.” Addiction “displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire.”

In order to determine whether the addiction model is biblically accurate, we must compare the nature of addiction, the cause of addiction, and the five characteristics of addiction to what the Bible says about sin.

Is sin a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire?

In a candid discussion of his own experience that is especially relevant to this question, Paul wrote, “Sin … produced in me all manner of evil desire” (Romans 7:8, NKJV). He continued, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … I do what I will not to do. … to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. … I do what I will not to do … I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. … But I see another law in my members … bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15, 16, 18-21 23-24, NKJV).

It is clear from this description that sin enslaves desire and will. By May’s definition, sin is an addiction.

Is sin caused by the attachment of desire to specific behaviors, things, or people?

Describing the struggle between the flesh (sarx) — the sin principle — and the Spirit in a regenerated person, Paul wrote, “For the flesh lusts (epithumei, is continually strongly desiring) against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. … Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Galatians 5:17, 20-21a, NKJV).

Here, sin is identified with strong desire that is attached to specific kinds of behavior. These behaviors are rarely done in isolation; they involve other people and things.

Does sin have the same five characteristics as addiction?

The first characteristic of addiction is tolerance. 

“Tolerance is the phenomenon of always wanting or needing more of the addictive behavior or the object of attachment in order to feel satisfied” (Mays).

It is in the nature of sin that it does not fulfill what it offers: satisfaction. Rather than leading to fulfillment and satisfaction, sin leads to further sin. Paul describes slavery to sin as “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” (Romans 6:19, NKJV). This tendency can be seen in the increasing corruption experienced by those who reject the knowledge of God. From the initial sin of failing to glorify God, they progress through unthankfulness, futility in their thoughts, darkening of their hearts, idolatry, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness, whispering, backbiting, hating God, violence, pride, boasting, evil inventions, disobedience to parents, lack of discernment, lack of trustworthiness, lack of love, lack of forgiveness, and lack of mercy (Romans 1:21-31). Sin leads not only to personal corruption but also to approval of corruption in others (Romans 1:32).

The account of David with Bathsheba demonstrates the progressive nature of sin. From lust, David progressed through coveting his neighbor’s wife, adultery, deception, giving his neighbor drink (Habakkuk 2:15), murder, and denial. (See II Samuel 11; 12:1-6.) At no point in the progress of David’s sin did he find satisfaction. Further sin or continuing sin characterized his downfall. His only hope was found in repentance (II Samuel 12:7-15).