Addiction and Idolatry

This article engages with the concept of addiction in light of theological and psychological discussion. Initially a definition of the term is sought. The pinpointing of such is found to be elusive and uncovers an array of conclusions. Behavioural addiction and chemical dependency both emerge as intertwining theories. The article narrows its focus toward a preliminary theological definition, in this sense it seeks to ground the term’s origins within the Old and New Testaments. The results uncover a unified opinion amongst theologians and Christian psychologists. Addiction is best categorised as a form of idolatry. The article briefly tackles the problematic issue of addiction as sin or disease. From this dialogue surfaces diametrically opposed ideologies.   


Despite simple working definitions of addiction, the essence of the term remains elusive (Coombs, 2004, p.4). The subject itself is vast and seemingly incorporates psychological, biological and theological discussion. May (1988) proposes “the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being” (p.3). Addiction has been categorised and re-categorised. Indeed the delineation between behavioural addictions (shopping, career, sport, etc) and chemical dependency is no longer clear. The brain’s reward system and the production of dopamine have prompted such conclusions (Coombs, 2004, p.10).

Welch advocates “Addiction is bondage to the rule of a substance, activity, or state of mind, which then becomes the center of life, defending itself from the truth so that even bad consequences don’t bring repentance, and leading to further estrangement from God (2001, p. 35). Interjecting desire and attachment, May suggests addiction is any compulsive, habitual behaviour that limits the freedom of human desire. It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects. The word behaviour is especially important in this definition, for it indicates that action is essential to addiction. Attachment is the underlying process that results in addictive behaviour (1988, p.25).

Addiction is a concern of the medical fraternity and secular science, it is therefore of no surprise to find a multitude of definitions within each. It is not the intent of this paper to debate the addiction therapy industry. However, the research contributed by both disciplines to this complex issue is extensive and undoubtedly of value. Definitions holding solely to theological frameworks fail to recognise the neurological and biological aspects of addiction. Comparatively, secular definitions fail to recognise any spiritual element to the condition and thus treat the mind and body to the exclusion of spirit.

All Encompassing

Drug addiction is a process that affects all aspects of a person’s life – body, mind and spirit. First Thessalonians 5:23 identifies these aspects of man’s nature. It affects the body through physical addiction, damage to health, and ultimately death. It affects the mind or soul through guilt, anxiety, fear and depression. And it affects the spirit because when one is addicted to a drug he or she cannot have a close, vital relationship with God or with neighbour (Van Cleave, 1987, p.33).In the great spiritual traditions of the world, addictive attachments are seen as any concerns that usurp our desire for love, anything that becomes more important to us than God. Paul Tillich said that whatever we are ultimately concerned with is God for us. At any given moment, that which we are most concerned is most likely to be something other than the true God. No matter how religious we may think we are, our addictions are always capable of usurping our concern for God (May, 1988, p.28).

Scripture emphasizes sex, food, and alcohol (a category which would include modern mind-altering drugs) as the most common addictions, and these appetites remain the most prevalent (Welch, 2001, p. 12). In some sense, however, all people are addicts, addictions to alcohol and other drugs are simply more obvious and tragic addictions than others have. To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace (May, 1988, p.11).

We must also recognise there are addictions other than drugs. These addictions, which are uncontrollable, compulsive behaviours, are just as damaging to the body, mind and spirit as are drugs (Van Cleave, 1987, p.33). May affirms for all people, addictions are not limited to substances. Addictions can take the form of work, performance, responsibility, intimacy, being liked, helping others, and an almost endless list of other behaviours (1988, p.9).

These all encompassing characteristics of addiction seemingly have an individual and corporate aspect. If addiction impacts mind, body and spirit and to some extent all humanity is affected; what basis does such a conclusion have within Scripture?

Theological Definition

One of the most common portrayals of the human condition, and one which highlights both the in-control and out-of-control experiences of addictions, is the concept of idolatry. From this perspective, the true character of all addictions is that we have chosen to go outside the boundaries of the kingdom of God and look for blessing in the land of idols. In turning to idols, we are saying that we crave something in creation more than we desire the Creator (Welch, 2001, p. 47). Idolatry emerges as a major Biblical theme which traverses both the Old and New Testaments. It is synonymous with the giving of one’s heart to that which is not God. Beale (2008) tenders “Whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security is an idol” (p. 17).

Central to the sin of idolatry is the first and second Commandments, “You shall have no other gods beside me,” and, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath” (Ex 20:3-4; Deut 5:7-8). Committing idolatry, therefore, was to contravene these commands and turn away from God. The necessity to give one’s heart to the Commandments is seen in Deut 5:29, “Oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!”

Scripture, however, permits us to broaden the definition of idolatry so that it includes anything on which we set our affections and indulge as an excessive and sinful attachment. Therefore the idols that we can see such as a bottle are certainly not the complete issue. Idolatry includes anything we worship: the lust for pleasure, respect, love, power, control, or freedom from pain (Welch, 2001, p. 49). Oates (1994) agrees “The compulsive addictions such as gambling for money, alcohol, illegal drugs, ecclesiastical power, or persons such as sex partners are treated as the central meaning of life — these are a few of the addictions that take the place of the Christ in addictive behaviours of life” (p.74). The prohibition against idolatry is ultimately about “idols of the heart” (Ezek 14:3) (Welch, 2001, p. 48).

Whether we are conscious of it or not, for however long a particular addiction controls our attention, it has become a god for us. We are called to mature toward that point at which nothing other than God will be our god. However short-lived or trivial our affection for something other than God may be, when we give it more priority that we give our concern for God and God’s will, we commit idolatry. Thus we all commit idolatry countless times every day (May, 1988, p.30).

Throughout Scripture the idolatrous heart inherits sinful vices (Rom 1:20-28).The Apostle Paul’s vice lists always include drunkenness in association with idolatry (1 Cor 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21). John also was clearly concerned about idolatry. Yet his letter does not even mention observable, physical idols. Instead, in keeping with the theme of idols of the heart, it speaks of “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does” (2:16). John is concerned about the pernicious, unseen Baals that are constructed more by the heart than the hands (Welch, 2001, p. 49).

Christian psychologists have long discovered a link to addiction may also be drawn to the desire and affection for non ‘gods’. Psychologically, addiction uses up desire. It is like a psychic malignancy, sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits. Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire (May,1988, p.13).

Nelson infers “Whilst the psychological concept of attachment comes close, I find it important to name this idolatry. It is the worship of a false god. It is placing one’s trust in some golden calf that is not absolute…Common religious knowledge knows that idolatry is not only sinful; it is the number one sin, the state-fair, grand-prize sin” (2004, p.72). It is addiction that keeps our love for God and neighbour incomplete. It is addiction that creates other gods for us. Because of our addictions, we will always be storing up treasures somewhere other than heaven, and these treasures will entrap our hearts and souls and strength (May, 1988, p.16). Addicts feel as if they are trapped and out of control. They feel like abject worshippers, devoted to something that can be very dangerous (Welch, 2001, p. 12).

We have briefly discussed some of the complexities in defining addiction. The term encompasses behavioural and chemical dependency. It lends itself to the entrapment of one’s will and desire to a behaviour, substance or ideology. More often it is discussed as an issue of the heart and thus theologically its closest companion is idolatry. Yet within the dialogue of the rehabilitation industry; two ideologies emerge – addiction is disease or addiction is sin. 

Sin and Disease

There is much dispute over what drug addiction is. Often in the medical profession it is considered strictly a disease. The premise being it has a cause (the drug), produces physical signs and symptoms, has a clinical path (the user experience), and is detrimental to the wellbeing of the addict. Without treatment, the “disease” is universally fatal; it is just a matter of time. The addict can be treated for the disease by medical therapy and recover from the chemical addiction. The difficulty with the medical-disease concept, however, is that it seems to excuse the addict from any responsibility for the behaviour. Indeed, didn’t the addict choose to try the substance in the first place? If we were to look strictly at the addict’s conduct, we could conclude that the problem is really one of erroneous choices – a moral or spiritual problem (Van Cleave, 1987, p.32).

The disease model itself refers to the principle that alcoholism and other drug addictions are biologically based illnesses. In the USA the organisation Alcoholics Anonymous became synonymous with the disease model, and by the 1950s medical professionals started to describe alcoholism as a disease. The history of the disease model, however, is marked by considerable disagreement about the meaning of terms like “disease”, “alcoholism” and “addiction” (Levin, 2001, p. 98). As Welsh suggests; in popular use, addiction has become a very flexible and ambiguous term that contains everything from the frivolous (addicted to the six o’clock news) to the grave (addicted to alcohol). It also includes the unequally yoked categories of disease and sin (2001, p. 11).

Needless to say, disease based definitions abound.

Addiction is a disease, in and of itself that is characterized by compulsive use, loss of control over use, and continued use of one or more psychoactive drugs in spite of adverse consequences. The disease is chronic, subject to relapse into active use, and thought to be a progressive and potentially fatal if not treated. The disease is also thought to be incurable, but it may be brought into a state of remission through abstinence from all psychoactive substances and a rigorous program of supported recovery (Smith, 2001, p.18).

Christian physicians likewise often support the disease model. Dr Anthony Lightfoot suggests an addiction is a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health, mental state or social life. The term is often reserved for drug addictions but it is sometimes applied to other compulsions, such as problem gambling, and compulsive overeating. Factors that have been suggested as causes of addiction include genetic, biological/pharmacological and other social factors (Lightfoot, 2010, p.46).

When the word genetic or biological is superimposed onto addiction, the subsequent diagnosis becomes transferable with disease. Yet no one can demonstrate that a gene causes alcoholism, just as no one can demonstrate that a gene causes adultery, lying, thievery, or any other such compulsive behaviour (Playfair, 2004, p.48). Herbert Fingarette’s significant work regarding the diseasing of alcoholism as ‘myth’ provides clarity to the model’s definition.

According to the disease concept, alcoholism progresses stage by stage in a regular, fairly standard course that does not respect a person’s individual characteristics: “Background, environment, race, sex, social status – these make no appreciable difference once the disease takes hold of the individual. For all intents and purposes he might just as well then be labelled with a number: he has become just another victim of the disease of alcoholism. Inevitably, the alcoholic “hits bottom.” From there, physical or emotional breakdown and premature death is the final step unless, with luck, or God’s grace, or the help of AA or some sort of treatment, the drinker manages a radical conversion to total abstention. Abstention is the only hope, because the disease is incurable. At best, an alcoholic learns to abstain from the fatal first drink that invariably triggers a new descent into drunken oblivion (Fingarette, 1989, p.3)

Antithesis to the disease model comes from both psychological and theological disciplines. Theologically the main opponent is…sin.


Playfair cites the works of Fingarette, Peele, and Katz each considering the notion that alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases requiring medical treatment to be unscientific and counterproductive. Their combined view being the disease concept is at best spurious (2004, p.23). Comparatively, the biblical view of drunkenness-the prototype of all addictions-is that it is always sin, never sickness. Drunkenness is against God and his law. Scripture is unwavering in this teaching and relentless in its illustrations. Noah (Gen 9:18-27), Lot (Gen 19:30-38), Elah (1 Kings 16:9), and Nabal (1 Sam 25:36) all portray the moral foolishness of being mastered by alcohol (Welch, 2001, p. 22).

Indeed, if addiction is the result of sin, the alcoholic or drug addict is morally culpable. If chemical dependency is the consequence of sickness, he is no more responsible for his condition than a diabetic. Or rather, we should say he is responsible in the same way. In this view there is no real guilt (Playfair, 2004, p. 27).

If we postulate a disease model which has the direct capacity to force people to steal, to lift up glasses, or to stick needles in their arms when they are actually trying not to, and furthermore to execute long strings of appetitive goal-directed behaviour as precursors to these actions, we have to accept the possibility that any integrated chain of goal directed behaviour in any realm might be nothing more than a disease symptom. The fact that short and longer-term disruptions of behaviour which sometimes result from taking drugs can become the occasion for postulating drug taking as a disease manifestation shows a familiar confusion; namely the confusion of intensions with outcomes (Davies, 1992, p.48)

The Bible speaks clearly to the issue of alcohol abuse. It calls those addicted to alcohol drunkards (Deut 21:20; Prov 23:21, 26:9; Isaiah 24:20; 1 Cor 5:11). Certainly, the alcoholic or drug addict is a person controlled by his or her habit. Yet the Christian is to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. There is no escaping this basic fact – the Bible considers addictive behaviours to be the result of wilful acts of iniquity. Paul states: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious”…drunkenness makes the list (Galatians 5:19) (Playfair, 2004, p.29).

Scripture, indeed, emphasizes that sin has many things in common with a disease. For example, it affects our entire being, it is painful, it leads to death, and it is absolutely tragic. Yet there are also ways in which sin is not like a disease. It is something we do rather than catch, we confess it rather than treat it, the disease is in our hearts rather than our bodies (Welch, 2001, p. 61).  From a Scriptural point of view, calling the sin of alcoholism or drug addiction a sickness can never be acceptable (Playfair, 2004, p.58). Welsh affirms, “According to the New Testament, a pattern of drunkenness is no different than sexual immorality, thievery, greed, or selfish ambition (1 Cor 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21). Like these other sins, it is called immoral or an act of the sinful nature” (2001, p. 23).

Nelson succinctly concludes “In a very different sense, addiction is a complex reality…I find both the language of disease and the language of sin useful and necessary. At times the distinction between these terms and modes of discourse get fuzzy, but they are not finally the same. Disease is based on a medical model; sin on a religious one. Disease cries out for healing while sin cries out for grace” (2004, p.77). 


Although in one sense addiction is the enemy of grace, it can also be a powerful channel for the flow of grace. Addiction can be, and often is, the thing that brings us to our knees (May, 1988, p.20). As a result of spiritual oppression, drug worshippers may be very intelligent, but they can be oblivious to the destruction and slavery associated with drug abuse. They need the power of God (1 Cor 1:18), the message of Christ crucified and risen. Other therapies can offer sobriety, but only this good news is powerful enough to liberate the soul (Welch, 2001, p. 55). Grace is our only hope for dealing with addiction, the only power that can truly vanquish its destructiveness. Grace is the invincible advocate of freedom and the absolute expression of perfect love…Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow (May, 1988, p.16-17).