Sin as an Addiction: Lesson 2

In a previous post, I proposed the idea that sin has the characteristics of an addiction. We may be used to thinking of sin as a stain, blemish, crime, or even a disease, albeit a spiritual one (e.g., Isaiah 53:5; I Peter 2:24).

Following Gerald May’s addiction model, we explored the possibility that true addiction is marked by five essential characteristics:

      • Tolerance
      • Withdrawal symptoms
      • Self-deception
      • Loss of willpower
      • Distortion of attention

Then, we began to examine whether the addiction model of sin is biblically accurate, comparing the nature of addiction, the cause of addiction, and the five characteristics of addiction to what the Bible says about sin.

In that first post, we asked:

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

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

Does sin have the same five characteristics as addiction?

Now, we will consider two more questions from May’s discussion.

Do those who attempt to refrain from sin experience withdrawal symptoms?

The first type of withdrawal symptom that occurs when an addictive behavior is curtailed is a stress reaction. These reactions “may range from mild uneasiness and irritability to extreme agitation with rapid pulse, tremors, and overwhelming panic.” Before he confessed his sin, David’s experience could be described this way:

“When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4, NKJV).

Isaiah wrote,

“But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt, ‘There is no peace,’ Says my God,’ for the wicked'” (Isaiah 57:20-21, NKJV).

There are negative physical, emotional, and mental consequences to sin that seem to be exacerbated when the sin is recognized but not confessed to God, even if the sin is in the past, as in David’s case. Even though David had ceased this specific episode of sin, the stress did not come to an end. The stress that occurs when a person attempts to curtail sin can be seen in Paul’s words:

“For what I am doing, I do not understand … what I hate, that I do … the evil that I will not to do, that I practice … evil is present with me … O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:15, 19, 21, 24, NKJV).

When an addictive behavior is curtailed, the “second type of withdrawal symptom is a rebound or backlash reaction.” This means that the person “experiences symptoms that are the exact opposite of those caused by the addictive behavior itself.” This is obviously true as it pertains to specific sinful behaviors, but is it true for the principle of sin itself? First, we must determine the symptoms experienced when sin as a principle is engaged in as opposed to sin as a specific act. Other than physical symptoms, which may vary with the specific act of sin, what are the symptoms common to all sinful behaviors? Although there may be many symptoms, the essential symptoms seem to be that “God is in none of his thoughts” (Psalm 10:4, NKJV). All specific acts of sin spring from this. But in the case of a person who seeks to curtail specific episodes of sin, God-consciousness comes flooding back into his thoughts. They may be denied (repressed), but there is no excuse for this denial, for “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:19-20, NKJV).

It does seem, then, that there is some parallel between the withdrawal symptoms experienced with addiction and the symptoms experienced when an attempt is made to curtail sin.

Is self-deception a characteristic of sin?

As it pertains to addiction, self-deception occurs “where the will fights against itself in a morass of mixed motivations and contradictory desires, [using] the creative power of the brain … unconsciously to subvert each and every attempt to control the addictive behavior. These tricks of mind include denial, rationalization, displacement, and every other defense mechanism. …”

One of the best known statements revealing the self-deception connected with sin is found in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” Deceit is at the root of sin. The first sin occurred as a result of deception (I Timothy 2:14). When Satan is bound for 1,000  years, it will be so that he cannot “deceive the nations” (Revelation 20:3). Those who share Satan’s final destiny will be those who were deceived by him (Revelation 20:10).

These comments explore the ideas proposed by Gerald G. May, M.D., Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988).