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Addiction is not an abstract concept to me. I have counseled many people in my ministry who have been beset by addiction. The costliest encounter I have had with this problem was with my mother, who was addicted to alcohol. I have very few memories of my mother sober before I turned thirteen. Because I grew up surrounded by addiction and responding to its consequences, this issue is one that is profoundly personal to me.
Our English word addiction comes from a Latin term that means to give oneself over or to surrender. Indeed, addictions are things to which we give ourselves over. Addicts surrender themselves in obedience to some object. The word addiction is not one that we see in the Scriptures, but the concept to which it refers is eminently biblical. The most profound reality that the Bible uses to describe this problem is slavery.
In Romans 6:15–23, the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of slavery to describe the mastery of sin over every human being who exists apart from Christ. He says, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Rom. 6:16). Sin enslaves us. It summons us to obedience, and we dutifully surrender, giving ourselves over to its whims. This is the exact way addictions work. Addicts are wooed by the object of their enslavement and surrender in obedience to the commands of their master. But addictions are cruel masters. When we follow the dictates of our addictions, we end up hurting with the kind of pain that comes with following the dictates of a malevolent ruler. In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul spells out at least three consequences that flood the lives of people who are trapped in the kind of slavery represented by addictions.
First, the kind of enslavement we see in addiction is sinful and leads to more sin. Paul addresses Christians who “once presented [their] members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” (Rom. 6:19). Addictions are wrong because it is sinful to be given over to anything that is not God Himself. Paul says that even though Christians are free to enjoy all of God’s good gifts (1 Cor. 6:12), believers should not be mastered by anything other than Christ. The slavery of addiction is sinful in its own right, and it leads to more sin.
My mom’s addiction to alcohol led to many other sins. She drank in order to get drunk because she wanted to forget all the darkness in her life that caused her so much pain. She came to depend on this boozy forgetfulness in spite of all the other wickedness she had to accomplish to receive it. Mom’s enslavement to alcohol led to laziness, rage, stealing, child abuse, lying, promiscuity, and manipulation, all in ways that were intrinsically connected to her continual summons to obey her master, vodka. As is the case with all addicts, her sinful slavery of addiction led to more and more sin.
Second, the enslavement of addiction leads to shame. In Romans 6:21, Paul asks, “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” Shame is the painful remorse we feel when, in our right minds, we reflect on the miserable things we did in our foolish obedience to the harsh mastery of our addictions. The ridiculous and self-destructive behavior of addicts in their enslavement to the objects of their devotion is obvious to everyone except the addicts themselves. When clear thinking sheds light on their folly, it leads to the kind of shame that Paul addresses.
Years after she quit drinking, I sat with my mom as she reflected on the sinful folly her enslavement to alcohol produced. As she thought of the years of violence she had heaped on my brother and me, the dozens of men with whom she had shared her body, and the once-precious relationships that had been destroyed, she could hardly bring herself to speak. The pain of such consequences drove her to the floor in a puddle of tears and shame.
Finally, the kind of slavery manifested in addictions leads to death. After asking his question about shame, Paul immediately adds, “For the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:21). The slavery of addiction leads to more sin, to shame, and to death. In the Bible, of course, death is expressive of the physical experience that points to a more profound spiritual experience. The death of our physical bodies points to the spiritual separation from God that renders us dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). Each of these biblical meanings of death is highlighted in the experience of addiction.
When I was eleven years old, a judge finally gave full custody of my brother and me to my dad. When he arrived with a police officer to pick us up, the last glimpse I had of my mother was of her passed out in her own vomit. I would not see her again for two years, and I later learned that she had nearly died that day. Her enslavement to alcohol brought her to the point of death. But she had much worse problems than that.
Her sinful addiction to alcohol was but one manifestation of a sinful heart that refused to express dependence on the resurrected Christ. She did things that led to death because she was an object of wrath and death was her destiny. My mom’s biggest problem was not that her physical body was dying—it was that she had already died in her spirit. Addictions lead to physical death because they are manifestations of spiritual death. Death is the payment you receive for your slavery to sin as a person who is dead in trespasses and sins (Rom. 6:23).
This truth gets at a reality in Romans 6 about addiction that is perhaps more profound than Paul’s honesty about the consequences of those addictions. In addressing slavery to sin, Romans 6 does not single out addiction. The metaphor of slavery is inclusive of addiction, but is not limited to it. Slavery is not just a powerful illustration for those with an obvious addiction. Every one of us knows what it is to be enslaved. That means, in one way or another, we are all addicts.
You do not have to struggle with the obvious addictions of sex, gambling, drugs, or alcohol to be a slave. The metaphor of slavery demonstrates that all of us are prone to a sinful mastery by things that are not Christ. All of us are hooked on something. It might be heroin, but it is more likely to be praise, television, new clothes, Facebook, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, or dozens of other masters who compete with the risen Christ in our hearts. Enslavement to the subtle addictions leads to sin, shame, and death as surely as the more extravagant ones. They just do it more delicately and slowly. The difference is one of degree.
My mom was addicted to liquor. Her sinful slavery led to bold sins, heartbreaking shame, and obvious death that was splashed across the headlines of her life. I do not struggle with her addiction. The master that I am prone to follow looks more like an ice cream cone than a bottle of booze. But my sinful heart can latch on to that acceptable treat with a lack of trust in God as profound as that demonstrated by my mom anytime she was on a bender. My sinful enslavements do not show up in headlines but in the small print of my life, adding additional sins that are more subtle and consequences that are more socially acceptable than my mom’s drunkenness. My enslavements will kill me more slowly than my mom’s sin was killing her. But my ability to sin with greater finesse than my mother does not separate me in any ultimate way from her. In all the important ways, we are all addicts because we are all slaves. And all of us will, in our own way, experience the consequences that come from living an enslaved life.
But that is where the good news comes in. Romans 6 emphasizes that believers are no longer slaves to sin. We are not bound to the sinful addictions that hold sway over us.
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:17–18)
The Bible promises that all who follow Jesus have a new master and will ultimately know freedom from every sinful master.
This is good news for addicts. My mother ultimately got sick of the consequences of her addiction to alcohol and got serious about sobering up. Thanks to the work of some very devoted people, she was ultimately able to kick her drinking habit. But she was still an addict. She smoked incessantly, went broke on binge purchases, and slept around. It was not until my mom met Jesus that she truly changed. Her new Master, Christ, ultimately shattered her enslavement to all sin, not just to drinking.
How Jesus breaks addiction’s hold on us slowly and over time is the subject of another, much larger article. But the point of Romans 6:15–23 is that addicts are slaves who will experience the bitter consequences of that enslavement. And, more gloriously, the point is that God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better Master who brings freedom from slavery by making us followers of Him. That is good news for all of us addicts: my mom, me, and even you.