“Because, in spite of suffering, you have guarded My word, I in turn will guard you from that hour of trial which is soon coming upon the whole world, to put to the test the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 3:10, Weymouth translation).
Owen and Beth Kindig
A World Awash in Pleasure
In spite of the horrors of the 20th century, the world has gotten richer. Many have gained access to leisure time and a cornucopia of pleasures — on a scale never before imagined. A world awash in addictive pleasures is not only melting the “elements” or first principles of human society1 — but it also presents an altogether new challenge and temptation to the “feet” members of the Church. The challenge of pleasures of every kind has arguably taken a much greater toll on Christian fidelity than did centuries of persecution.
Pleasure Itself is Not the Problem
One of the lies that Satan has long used is that God is opposed to pleasure (see 1 Timothy 4:1-4). Food and marital bliss are pleasures created by God. They were intended to be gratefully received by “them which believe and know the truth.” In 1 Timothy 6:17 (NIV) Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” When describing the necessary suffering of his followers, Jesus used the Greek word makarios to describe their attitude (Matthew 5:12).
Most translators have settled on “blessed” to convey the idea of fortunate in an eternal sense, even if there is pain being felt in the present. Some lexicographers prefer the expression, “O, the happiness of” to convey the level of present feelings that Jesus meant in the Aramaic original.2 As Jesus’ followers, we sometimes need to understand what Jesus meant when he urged us to become like “little children.” Then, unquestioning trust, quick forgiveness, and feelings of happiness should be frequent guests in the house of our pilgrimage. As we contemplate our heavenly Father, we see a warmer emotional side of His nature than our fallen nature might incline us toward. Joy is the ability faith gives us to feel happy because of (1) the many Divine promises that have already been fulfilled in our lives, and (2) the promises from God that are as yet unfulfilled. We bless ourselves and glorify God when we are able to be happy in the present and enjoy the good pleasures of the Good News of grace. In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand there will be pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Addiction takes away our ability to make a conscious choice as to what we want to do next. Even when we find we are causing pain to others around us, we cannot simply stop. We are stuck in our own bodies, unable to do what we know is right, because a habit has gained control of our will.
Science of Addiction
Scientists now know that feelings of pleasure are the result of chemical signals produced within the human brain — and identical to those in reptiles and mammals. Dopamine is the chemical of desire or “wanting” — a “go” signal. Endorphins are the chemicals of “liking” — a pleasure signal.
Scientific research also confirms a human distinction from animals. We have a “no” circuit that exists in the prefrontal cortex of our brains (not fully developed until the age of 21 to 25). This is our moral sense — a volitional check on the passionate impulses of our minds.
Scientists in the early 20th century experimented with rats. They found that, given a choice between pure water and water laced with opioid drugs, the rats would become “addicted” to the heroin — even though it eventually killed them. This famous experiment led to the popular perception that most adults today have grown up with, the idea that something intrinsic in the addictive substance gains control and creates a physiological dependency, as well as a psychological habit.
During the Vietnam War the Chinese discovered a very inexpensive way of processing pure heroin from opium … and flooded Thailand and Vietnam with this addictive substance. American soldiers began using heroin, and military planners, as well as the medical establishment, became alarmed that a flood of discharged addicted soldiers would overwhelm our society with hundreds of thousands of junkies.
But what actually happened was that 90% of the soldiers immediately dropped heroin use upon their return. The addictive power of even that most powerful of narcotics was not enough to hold the vast majority of the victims in its sway. In fact, a detailed study by the U.S. Army revealed that even in Vietnam, addicted soldiers were able to decide when to take the narcotic: in camp, between battles, they indulged — but when on patrol, they abstained. And when they returned to their families and friends in the States, they dropped the addiction immediately.
(1) See 2 Peter 3:12. “Elements” is the Greek word stoicheion, which is consistently used in all its other scriptural appearances to refer to “first principles” of society or the church. In the past, most individuals learned these first principles as children — obedience to authority, respect for others’ property, self-discipline, acceptance of the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood, etc. The “melting” of these principles is what is causing the breakdown of the sinews of society that we see going on around us. See Galatians 4:3,9, Colossians 2:8,20, Hebrews 5:12. (2) Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich [BDAG], citing Zahn, Wlh., J. Wellhausen, E. Klostermann, J. Weiss, K. Bornhauser, et. al., which states, “ ‘O the happiness of’ appears to be exactly right for the Aramaic original” of makarios. The general Greek-Roman usage of the time was “blessed, fortunate, and happy.”
An Opposite of Addiction is Connection
This led psychologists to revisit the original rat experiment that had been done 40 years before. This time researchers provided the heroin and the water, but they also provided plenty of food choices, areas to play and exercise, and other rats for social connection. Now the rats drank water when they were thirsty, and almost never touched the drugs.
So a new consensus is emerging among scientists who study addictive behavior. Addiction is a set of bad habits that any human might develop when disconnected from close relationships, and when destructive choices are available, and restraints are reduced.
And the brain’s own pleasure circuitry can lead us astray when even the legitimate pleasures that naturally come from substances that God has provided, such as food, beverages, and marital relations, are allowed to govern us instead of the higher purposes which God asks us to pursue.
In today’s world, marred by broken connections and saturated by millions of substitute “fixes,” addiction has become a common lifestyle and a prevalent personality disorder, which threatens and tries to seduce everyone — even sincere Christians.
Good and Bad “Addictions”
In one sense we might define a category of “good addictions,” habits that are under the constant regulation of the prefrontal cortex or “conscience.” Good addictions might include a quest for knowledge by reading; the enjoyment of a good meal with friends; regular fellowship with the saints; quickness in serving others spontaneously; daily joyful speech to others; the romantic love of a husband and wife; regular exercise that is healthy and sustainable; or the Biblical example of “the House of Stephanus.”3 Each involves conscious choices that morph into habits, are repetitive, and produce pleasures — “against such there is no law.”4 And loving connection to others is a common thread in all these “good addictions.”
(3) See 1 Corinthians 16:15 “who addicted themselves to the service of the saints.” Note that this translation is not correct. A better translation might be “made it a life practice to serve the saints.” Still, their good behavior becomes habitual.
10 Common Addictions we may not know we have
Work, The Internet, Caffeine, Television, Negativity, Foods, Purging food, Sports, Shopping, Being right
Bad addictions in that sense are habits that short-circuit the conscious approval of our will, leading to moral or health degradation. Bad addictions tend to focus on the pleasure itself. According to Craig Nakken in his book The Addictive Personality, “the crucial feature of addiction is the progressive replacement of people by things.” We tend to put the pleasure we are seeking ahead of our friends or family, ahead of our realistic money priorities, and ahead of our own health.5 The result is disconnection, which leads to self-absorption and depression.
(4) The fruits of the spirit can scarcely ever be accused of being in excess. Galatians 5:22-23.
(5) For the remainder of this article we will use the term “addiction” only to refer to such sinful manifestations of our will (or sometimes we think, lack of will).
(6) See The Fix, by Damian Thompson, for an excellent book on the many flavors of addiction.
The addictive process can be recognized by four common features: (1) Tolerance: natural systems in the brain reduce the response to repeated stimuli. Addicts take more of “whatever” to get the same “high”. This cycle repeats. (2) Craving: feelings of pleasure drive us to seek a repeat of the “fix.” (3) Withdrawal: if the craving is not met, hunger, anger, loneliness, or tiredness result.6 (4) The brain redefines a “new normal” as the presence of the addicting condition. Addiction Can Hide From Us As Christians we often pity or disdain those who “use” drugs or who battle sexual addiction, pornography, or other sins of the flesh. To be “overcomers” we must realize that today, hardly a person can be found who does NOT occasionally binge in a disconnected pleasure-seeking loop. If the actions are habitual, damaging, and beyond our conscious control, they are addictions — whether the behavior seems “acceptable” or not.
Coffee, for example, has many of us in its grip. Sugar is now regarded as even more damaging than caffeine and nicotine. Shopping, smart-phones, movies, TV, romance novels, video games, snacks, fast food, and sports can become addictions. Our jobs, home improvement projects, or pets can also be addictive. Who among us is not “addicted” to one or more of these?
We fall into addiction when the promise of pleasure elsewhere is stronger than the pleasure we feel we have in the present. But addiction is only a mirage, a sensation of pleasure without the ethical qualities that produce true happiness.
Even the group behavior of Christians, which is important for our spiritual health, can be addictive in a negative sense. Otherwise our Lord would not have so roundly critiqued our generation of his followers. We should see that criticism of “others” is evil-speaking. Criticism can become a form of addiction. Congratulatory comments that might be intended as encouragement can actually be an addictive habit of flattery.7 The desire of always being “right” with comments in a meeting can motivate some simply because of the pleasure it brings — and can curtail more exploratory, searching questions. In each case “uniformity” becomes a thing that is sought as a mechanistic substitute for the healthy expressions of spiritual unity8 — authentic spiritual connection which brings different kinds of brethren together. As Solomon asks: “Who can say, I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?” (Proverbs 20:9, NASB).
(7) Compare flattery vs. encouragement: Flatterers seek praise; usually speak in generalities; often imply a rebuke to others not present. Encouragers are specific in their praise; have no motivation for personal advancement; often confess their own sins; do not aim barbs at those not present, and avoid exaggeration which might undercut the credibility of their words.
(8) In the Ephesians 4 account, Paul tells us that the unity of the Body already exists. We cannot create it, but we are asked to be diligent about preserving it — because we certainly have the ability to tear it asunder.
Asceticism is Not an Answer
One appealing approach to the battle with our fleshly weaknesses is asceticism — originally just an athletic or military style of life that focused on attainment of goals through single-minded self-discipline. What Paul saw in the Essene communities near him, and prophesied of in 1 Timothy 4 as a future feature of Christianity, was an evolution of religious ardor that became unhealthy — leading not merely to liberating discipline and humble restraint, but to the notion that pain equals virtue. From such soil springs pride in one’s own sacrifices, and resentment of another’s blessings. Perhaps this is why Paul observed in Colossians 2:23 and following that self-abnegation is “of little value” in curtailing the flesh.
The fallen human will is like water flowing underground. It will seep into the basements of our being. We might try to paint over it, but the damage is still being done.
The flesh is at war with the spirit, and even apparent victories in controlling the flesh can be accompanied by deep-seated spiritual sins residing in our “righteous” personalities. When pain is necessary and deprivation is useful for achieving spiritual goals, it can help us attain authentic virtue. But like Paul, it is just as necessary to learn how to grow ethically and morally in the absence of physical pain as well. Jesus fasted at times, but was accused of being a glutton and winebibber at other times (though we are confident he never ate or drank to excess). Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4 seems to be that we need to learn to manage ourselves within reasonable, healthful limits, while being grateful for the many joys God sends us almost daily.
Worldly Rehab Principles
● Curtail access
● Substitute new life skills
● Connect with good friends
● Replace sedentary lifestyle with physical exercise
Jesus warned us that the besetting sins of our generation would be pride and lukewarmness. This may flow from believing that what we know is a substitute for what we must do to serve our Lord and our brethren (Revelation 3:14-22). The Christian life exists in the upper floors of the mind and heart, no matter what we do. We gain more control of it by turning knowledge of the proper Christian character into practice. Let this high level of loving zeal be the gold standard we aspire to — rather than an outward appearance of righteousness, or conformity to correctness in outward forms or beliefs.
Paul called the path to true growth “walking in the spirit.” The paradox we face daily is that by pursuing a life of loving service to others, without a fixation on the shortcomings of ourselves and our brethren, we will actually accomplish more in the way of true righteousness than if we focused on the flesh and what Paul called the deeds of law. The principles of righteousness can better be fulfilled in us if we live with others graciously, abundantly, and joyfully.9
The Principle of Substitution
So how should we live in this hour of temptation? By far the best way to overcome the many captivating pleasures that beset us all and either distract us or damage our health is to focus on replacement. Ephesians 4 lays down the principle of exchanging a positive behavior for each negative one. In this way we can progressively bend the arc of our thinking and action into a direction that is better able to break free.
(9) If we walk in the spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. See Galatians 5:14-26 for the deeds of the flesh and the spiritual antidotes to them. See also Romans 8:1-11.
While human efforts of “rehab” have had only limited success, we can learn from recent scientific research into addiction. When we see God working in us, to will and do His good pleasure,10 it will be in ways that harmonize with things written in the book of nature:
(1) Take steps to reduce access to the addictive trigger. “Make straight paths for your feet” (Hebrews 12:13), and “judge ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:31).
(2) Substitute negative behavior patterns with entirely new routines (Ephesians 4). See Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Baumeister and Tierney, for scientific insights. Build new virtues, rather than trying only to tear down old sin patterns without replacing them.
(3) Fellowship: Connect with encouraging friends who will set a good example, and exhort us when we need it.
(4) A healthy body is the temple of our minds, so good nutrition and physical exercise can often be the harbinger of major spiritual attitude improvements.
(5) De-vilify11 addictive behavior — use the principles of Hebrews 9 and 1012 to allow the grace of Christ to “purge our conscience,” — that is, accept our justified state and gain help in time of need. This allows connection with stronger brethren and true growth in will power. It also allows merciful elders the opportunity to use prayer, intervention, and humane advocacy, instead of shunning, to build the weak and nurture their growth. “If he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-16).
(10) Both requirements for victory over addiction are contained in Philippians 2:13 — having a strong will, and productive work or deed to match. God will help us.
(11) See http://j.mp/Portugal_addiction. Portugal is an example of decriminalization (not legalization) as a strategy for turning opponents into allies and allowing the strong to help the weak. This model works in Christian circles too.
(12) The blood of bulls and goats cannot cleanse the conscience; but the blood of Jesus can, if we recognize that God accepts Jesus’ sacrifice as payment for OUR sins (Galatians 1:3-4), that faith can clear our conscience — allow us to have restored fellowship with God. Additional failures cause new separations from our Father. In each case, we can return to God with appreciation for the blood of Christ, and deeper commitment to obedience. The alternative is to attempt bootstrap “do-it-yourself” efforts toward divine fellowship, an impossible task and a recipe for discouragement and failure.
(13) A great deal of scientific research is showing that obesity is not simply caused by defective choices, but is often a result of damaging ingredients incorporated into popular American diets, and also complex biochemical and genetic factors. Feel free to contact the authors for a list of interesting books and articles that may help.
(14) Those of us who have difficulty building close relational connections — which is a root of addictive behaviors — often confuse outward action as a substitute for agape love. Such folks may work hard, pay the bills, etc., but never really become victorious in their love output toward their family. Leaders of the church may exhibit this same ethical defect when they perform service for the class without actually connecting in an emotional way with their brethren.
Victory is Attainable
Whether we feel like the addicted people or their companions, we should work toward conciliation between brethren and connections with those whose disconnection makes them most vulnerable to these besetting sins. The work of cultivating connections — and thus helping ourselves and others battle the addictive behaviors that surround us — could be the work that buys for us the fire-refined gold characters to which we all aspire.
“It is more blessed to give than receive” could be rephrased to say that “It is a more satisfying feeling of happiness to sense you have made others happy than to feel you have just made yourself happy.”
We are all in need of correction. One is suffering unnecessary health problems because of eating habits.13 Someone else is feeling persecuted because of the habit of trying to be right in every detail of their beliefs. Others are stealing glances at porn, perhaps not admitting even to themselves that they have a problem, while others are compensating for loneliness with Netflix or romance novels. A man is angry at his wife for not appreciating how hard he has to work, while the wife is frustrated that in his mind work is a substitute for the connection between them.14 All of these situations might exist in the same ecclesia. And yet, all are brethren who want to walk in the spirit and grow toward each other. This is the church in the flesh that Jesus gave his life for, and that each of us can serve. May we all help each other keep the Word of Patience, and overcome in this hour of trial.