The word addiction is now a regular part of our vocabulary. But what does it mean? How might we define it biblically? Most simply, addiction may be defined as voluntary enslavement (Romans 6:12-13). Our voluntary surrender to fleshly desires becomes more important than glorifying God and, when repeated enough, results in enslavement. When enslavement becomes so habitual that the particular behavior begins to dominate a person’s life, it may appear to be a disease which cannot be controlled. This is not to say that the body does not become “addicted” to substances (E.g. reliant upon pain killers). It certainly does! But that is not where it begins. Every addiction begins with a choice to surrender to a desire of the heart.
For example, consider how our society has replaced the original word drunkenness with the disease-sounding word alcoholism. By doing so, the secular models of counseling have stolen hope from those who need it. By changing a sin into a disease, the hope of deliverance in Jesus Christ is removed from the equation and people are left in their self-made prison.
Drunkenness, Not Alcoholism
The Bible always puts drunkenness in the category of sin and provides multiple illustrations of the consequences of its selfishness. For example, Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood brought shame to his family, as did Lot’s, when his daughters used wine to induce him to sleep with them to carry on the family name (Gen. 9:21; 19:32–35). Alcohol dulls one’s spiritual senses as well. Jesus warns, “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). Strong drink also destroys relationships: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). Finally, drunkenness depletes one’s resources: “For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty” (Prov. 23:21). Biblical counselors must hold steadfastly to the conclusion that “alcoholism” (an unhelpful label) is a sinful lifestyle rather than a disease. Ed Welch writes, “Instead of explaining the overpowering urge for alcohol as a disease, the Bible talks about our motivations and desires, forces so powerful that they can take over our lives. The Bible says that we first choose our addictions, and only then do our addictions choose us” (Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave).
Unfortunately, this view is not the reigning mindset among those in the self-help industry. Instead, an ever-growing list of “isms” is used to explain every imaginable sin-struggle in man. The “disease model” is everywhere, but is nowhere more present than in the area of alcohol abuse. This is due in great part to the influence of Alcoholics Anonymous and its founder, Bill Wilson. Welch summarizes,
The disease model was first popularized by Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), in the 1930’s. A devoted pragmatist, Wilson did not use the disease approach because it was well supported by research; he used it because he thought it helped men and women to be more open about their drinking problem. In other words, he was using a metaphor: drinking is like a disease. Over the past fifty years, however, the disease model has lost its metaphorical quality and it has been shortened to “drinking is a disease.” The disappearance of this little word ‘like’ has made all the difference.
Thinking biblically requires us to reject the disease model as inferior to the sin model, and most unhelpful, because it implies that the root problem in the drunkard is biological rather than spiritual, which severs all connection to the hope of deliverance by God through the gospel. Instead of settling for the lesser hope of being a lifelong “recovering alcoholic,” the Bible enthusiastically offers the addict full deliverance from his or her sinful habit and a completely new life in Christ.
[Excerpted from Counseling One Another: A theology of inter-personal discipleship.]