simple actions

In this post, I want to contrast two huge differences between the lifestyle of addiction, and that of recovery and sobriety.

Complexity v. Simplicity

First, the addictive way of being is riddled with excessive complexity.  Sometimes, this complexity has to do with how we handle our memories of our behaviour; how we talk about it, either to others or within ourselves. Whether we gently minimize, tell half-truths, or outright lies, we expend ungodly amounts of energy with complex ‘bookkeeping’.  “It was only that once, so it’s OK.”  “I only do [x] sometimes.”  or “I was feeling an unusual amount of pressure at work that day, so that explains why I did [y].”  In the light of sobriety, we are finally able to cut through these dishonest, inaccurate, self-protecting and complex ways of remembering our behaviour, and we are able to view our behaviour with (often painful!) simplicity and accuracy.  “Whatever may have been part of why I felt like doing that, I still chose to do it, and I could have chose not to.”  “This is not just an isolated occurrence, it’s part of a pattern, that I’m powerless to stop.  I need to ask for help.”

Other times, the complexity has to do with the seemingly infinite and complex variety of ‘solutions’ we tried in order to stop.  “I’ll put a picture of [loved one] in my wallet to remind me.”  “If my new sobriety date is memorable, that will keep me from acting out again.”  “If I read up on how addiction ‘works’ in terms of brain chemistry and neural activity, I’ll be able to out-smart my addiction.”  Sobriety, on the other hand, is incredibly simple.  “I just can’t go there.”  “Other people may be able to [x], but not me, and I’m ‘OK’ with that.”  “What’s the ‘next right thing’ I need to do instead of [y]?”

Thought v. Action

Secondly, addiction can be accompanied by a lot of thought, which almost never stops us (or even hinders us) from acting out.  Whether it is ‘stinking thinking’ or coldly logical observations, we can distract ourselves with an endless stream of excessive rationality (or irrationality).  “Oh my goodness, I am so crazy right now, I can feel the neural pathways buzzing with energy.”  “Whatever I end up doing, I am sure that God still loves me.”  “I really have to stop this eventually… I’m taking advantage of God’s love… this is the last time… I really mean it this time…”  However much such thinking may reflect truth (or not), we are not going to think our way to being sober.  Recovery is a ‘programme of action‘.  “Right, time to stop and pray.”  “OK, time to get up off this couch and make myself a cup of coffee.”  “I’m going to journal these thoughts and feelings so I can ‘right size’ them.”  “Time to ring somebody… anybody!”

In summary, then, in addiction we were like caged rats, flailing about trying to get somewhere on our spinning wheels.  No matter how fast the wheel spun or what our technique was, we got nowhere, and only were more exhausted from the effort.  In recovery, we stop talking about getting sober and simply do the things necessary for us to get there.

truth & freedom

The familiar words of Jesus promise that “the truth shall set you free.”  We addicts know a thing or two about this principle.  Having hidden the truth from others (and ourselves), we are amazed by the freedom that comes when it is finally disclosed in the right way, to the right people.

I suppose martyrs also know a thing or two about it as well.  We addicts may think that our truth-telling had a cost to it, as we risked job, marriages, friendships and the like.  But martyrs have not only risked, but suffered, the loss of their very earthly lives.

This perspective helps me stay honest with my spouse.  I really hope I do not ever have a relapse.  But I know that honesty is the only way from here out.  Marriage or no marriage, admitting the truth is the only way to live in freedom, and avoid the slavery of hiding.

about this blog’s title

Grace is the language of gift.

More than just being something given freely rather than earned, gifts evoke gratitude.  The title of this site suggests that addiction itself can be seen as a kind of gift.  Can one be grateful for addiction?  Let me tell you why I am.

I am immensely grateful, not for any of the addictive behaviour, or any of the pain it caused me and others, but for the way that addiction has forced me – eventually – to come to my senses, fall to my knees, give up the con, and get real.

I now enjoy a quality of life that I had almost entirely given up on hoping for.  My relationships with my wife, our child, and with God are all on very healthy trajectories.  I can’t know what quality of life I’d have now, if I hadn’t faced the struggle, pain and consequences that I had to face because of addiction.  But I feel compelled to gratitude anyway, for the life I now have.

As Paul writes in Romans, Sin was able to ‘use’ the Law to grow even more powerful.  By contrast, Grace was able to ‘use’ Sin to abound even more powerfully.  Whatever we understand the Evil One to be, it meant for addiction to destroy me.  But the God of Grace, who obviously never ‘wants’ anyone to sin or struggle with addiction, nonetheless planned or ‘meant’ it for my good.

All is grace.

addiction and sin

Both addiction and sin are understood in vastly different ways, which can sometimes be conflicting and confusing.  Are they the same thing?  Is identifying as an ‘addict’ a dangerous or unfitting thing to do for a child of God through Christ?  Is the notion of addiction as a ‘disease’ a way of shifting blame?  How should the two terms be understood in relation to one another?


Theologians that write about sin (hamartiology) have a hard job.  Not only is it a negative topic, but there are important theological errors to avoid.  At one extreme, our human sinfulness can be portrayed as being rooted in a human nature that is purely and completely devoid of any goodness.  Human nature, so this extreme view says, is so evil, we can’t help but sin.  This has the unfortunate result of letting us off the hook for our actions, actually.  “God, the devil, the world, my parents, my genetic inheritance, etc…  They made me this way.  So that’s why I act this way…”

The other extreme is equally dis-empowering.  Human nature, deep down, is pure, good and spotless.   Our human nature is so good, all we really need to do is throw off all unnatural, ‘religious’ or external influences and just ‘be’ the naturally good wonderful people we are.  This has the unfortunate result of buffering us from the reality of our own actions.  Any ‘sins’ we commit are ultimately accidental, or can be blamed on some outside influence, such as ‘the culture’, or this or that tempting situation or person.  “After all, since I’m so good ‘deep down’, the reason for my bad behaviour must lie outside me, right?”

Only when we take a balanced biblical view that incorporates both our God-given human dignity and our God-allowed vulnerability to evil, are we truly able to recognize and realize the power we really have to choose good over evil, to choose to confess our wrongdoings and sins, to choose to do the mental and emotional work of discipleship.  We are crowned with glory and honour, says Psalm 8.  We were created ‘very good’, says Genesis 1.  But we are ‘sinful at birth’ says Psalm 51.  None of us seeks the good, and we all fall short says Romans 3.  Somewhere in the middle of these two truths is our limited, but real power to seek change and get the help we need.  To respond to God’s good and grace-filled initiative and invitation.

The origin of evil has been debated for centuries, and a nice tidy and popular answer will continue to elude us.  The best treatments seem to understand it as a necessary yet tragic reality that eventuated (note: not willed or ‘created’ alongside good in the beginning) as the Creator granted a very real and very risky freedom to the Creation.  The garden we found ourselves in was always going to have a snake in it, waiting around, lurking to tempt us.


Rather than explore a clinical, or psychological definition of addiction, we are thinking about addiction in relation to the Christian doctrine of sin.

First of all, we need to say that in a very simple sense, addiction is understood by the Christian as sin that has become ingrained, obsessive, compulsive, bold, scary, and (it feels) unstoppable.  It is what happens when sin is ‘given’ a foothold in our lives, through the stubborn and foolish refusal to confess and deal with sin in our lives when it happens.

Second, we need to say that we need not be overly afraid of the notion of addiction as a ‘disease’.  Paul speaks of ‘sin’ as a powerful agent that feeds and grows and tugs at the strings of our lives, hearts and minds.  Sin ‘abounds’ and does stuff to and through us.  If we can be rightly said to be ‘afflicted’ by sin, we can just as easily confess to addiction being carried by us much like we carry a virus or disease.  It does not need to be taken to mean that “because it’s a disease it’s not my fault”.

Sin is both something that invades our life from outside us and from beyond and before us, and something that we harbour, hide, give life to, develop and feed ourselves.  At a critical point, when we’ve given enough leg-room and money and time and momentum to sin, it morphs into addiction.  And we feel the terror of hearing the door slam behind us, as we turn around and see the deadbolt being latched.  This may be the first glimpse of powerlessness for some.


Well… yes.  In a sense, all Christians remain vulnerable to both sin and various forms and levels of addiction.  That is the reality.  As Luther is thought to have said, “Old Adam is drowned in the waters of baptism… but he’s a mighty good swimmer!”  Yes, faith in Christ gives us security and assurance of being loved extravagantly and immensely more than we deserve.  But this security actually is what makes it possible to face reality about ourselves.  Precisely because we are safe in Christ, we can admit we are sinners and addicts.  Precisely because we are strong in Christ, we can admit we are weak in ourselves.

Paul did not say he ‘used to’ be the chief of sinners, but rather that he ‘was’.  Let’s not be too quick to rob him of his awareness of his frailty.  Luther got this as well, saying that we were ‘simil iustice et peccator’ – both justified and sinful.


What’s the point here?  As long as we con ourselves into being mere sinners ‘in theory’, or we are comfortable in our ‘positional righteousness’, we will not feel any real need to do anything but continue in our addiction and sin until Jesus comes back.  However, if this is true, that we have real power to admit we need help and that we still struggle as Christians, then a) we can face the real diagnosis about our condition, and b) we can better receive the real medicine and healing we so desperately need.

two biblical addicts

From the temptation in the garden to eat the fruit that could ‘make one wise’, and thus powerful – god-like – through to the depiction of the unholy triune temptation of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’, we see that humans have always been vulnerable to sin… and when sin becomes habitual, compulsive and obsessive, it morphs into addiction.

David sounds like he knew the experience of the ‘pit’ and ‘miry clay’ of addiction in Psalm 40.  Look especially at verse 12…

For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.

His ‘troubles’ are not merely of a large number, but they cannot be numbered… ‘more than the hairs of [his] head’…
His ‘sins’ have not just challenged him, they have ‘overtaken’ him…
They have not just impaired his vision, but blinded him…
His heart is not just troubled, but it ‘fails’…
That sounds like the experience of someone despairing in the trap of addiction.

Paul also uses language that sounds remarkably like addiction.  Listen to the conflict and torment of Romans 7, especially verses 14-15, 18-19…

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Commentators on the book of Romans have said that Paul is writing here both about his prior experience before meeting Christ, and also the experience as a believer struggling against the unholy sinful desires he still carries.  This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also have a firm and unshakable identity as a new creation in Christ, but it does mean that he has ‘not yet attained’ the perfection he is striving toward (Philippians 3)…

At least at the level of temptation and feeling, he relates to the idea of being a ‘slave to sin’.  He understands what it’s like to despise himself for doing – and keeping on doing –  the very things – evil things – he intends not to do…

So then… what is the point of noting that David and Paul sounded at times like an addict?

It certainly is not to justify any addictive behaviour.

The point is to underline the reality that sin, temptation, and yes addiction, afflicts everyone – at least at some level.  When we can recognize that such characters as King David and the Apostle Paul could relate to addiction, we are less prone to the worst kind of despair; namely the kind that flows from deep shame.

Whatever you have done… whatever you are doing… whatever you keep on doing…
You are not the only one…
You are not alone…
There was a Way out for them…
There is a Way out for you also.