Sin as an Addiction: Lesson 3

This post is the third in a series discussing the possibility that sin is a form of addiction. I first began to think of this in 2002 while taking a course titled “Wrestling with Sin and Temptation” taught by adjunct professor Gary Thomas. Thomas has appeared multiple times on Focus on the Family and Family Life Today and has written more than fourteen books.

This course was among those that led to the completion of the Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree offered by Western Seminary, located in Portland, Oregon. When I took “Wrestling with Sin and Temptation,” I had already completed the Master of Arts in Exegetical Theology (M.A.E.T.) in 1990 with Western Seminary. The M.A.E.T. included a study of sin in a theology course. It was valuable in that it approached the study from the standpoint of the historical hypotheses, the use of the Hebrew and Greek languages in Scripture, and a systematic formulation of these findings.

Today I reviewed a paper I wrote on the subject of sin for the M.A.E.T. course. The various English words and phrases translated from the original languages to describe sin include “ignorance,” “error,” “inattention,” “missing the mark,” “irreligious,” “transgression,” “iniquity or lack of integrity,” “rebellion,” “treachery,” “perversion,” “abomination,” “agitation or restlessness,” “evil or badness,” “guilt,” and “trouble.”

However, the word “addiction” does not appear in my paper.

I was intrigued by the new idea that addiction might be another way to view sin or another aspect of sin that we should explore. During the years since I took the course taught by Thomas, I’ve noticed that the preaching and teaching I hear from our pulpits and even the songs we sing in the United Pentecostal Church International give increasing recognition to the problem of addiction and its consequences. Here, therefore, I offer my third post on the idea that it may be possible to think of sin biblically as an addiction, a sin Scripture recognizes and for which it provides specific guidance leading to victory.

Sin as an Addiction: Lesson 3

Daniel L. Segraves

We will continue to examine the characteristics of addiction from Lesson 2 identified by Gerald G. May, M.D. in his book Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1988). Our study involves the final two items included in May’s list.

According to May, the first three essential characteristics of sin are these:

(1) tolerance; (2) withdrawal symptoms, (3) self-deception.

As we pointed out in our first lesson on viewing sin as addiction, 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. We have attempted to do that related to the first three items; now, we will move to the final two.

Is sin connected with a loss of willpower?

As it relates to addiction, the loss of willpower involves the fact that by making any attempt to control “truly addictive behavior by making autonomous intentional resolutions, one begins to defeat oneself.” This “defeat is due to mixed motivations. One part of the will sincerely wants to be free. Another part wants to continue in the addictive behavior” (Mays, 28).

As Mays points out, “a fundamental mind trick of addiction is focusing attention on willpower” (Mays, 28), which seems to be the problem described by Paul.

“For what I will to do, that I do not practice…. I do what I will not to do…. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. … 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. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:15-20, NKJV).

As long as Paul focused on his will, he remained frustrated and thwarted in his desire to resist temptation. It was not until he refocused on Jesus Christ that he found freedom (Romans 7:25).

Does sin cause a distortion of attention?

As it pertains to addiction, this characteristic could also be described as “the distortion of ultimate concern” or “idolatry” (Mays, 30). This is fundamental to the nature of sin. People who exchange “the truth of God for the lie … worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25, NKJV). Since the first of all the commands is to love God with all within us (Mark 12:29), sin is anything short of this. Sin is to be concerned ultimately with anything other than loving God.

May’s views of addiction’s definition, cause, and characteristics fit with the biblical understanding of sin without attempting to force the issue.