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.
IN CHRIST ‘AND’ A SINNING ADDICT?
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.