John MacArthur attacked the problem of incorrectly classifying addictions and compulsive behaviors as diseases over twenty years ago in his book The Vanishing Conscience:

Perhaps the most prevalent means of escaping blame is by classifying every human failing as some kind of disease. Drunkards and drug addicts can check into clinics for treatment of their “chemical dependencies.” Children who habitually defy authority can escape condemnation by being labeled “hyperactive”or having ADD (attention deficiency disorder). Gluttons are no longer blameworthy; they suffer from an “eating disorder.” Even the man who throws away his family’s livelihood to pay for prostitutes is supposed to be an object of compassionate understanding; he is “addicted to sex.”

These days everything wrong with humanity is likely to be explained as an illness. What we used to call sin is more easily diagnosed as a whole array of disabilities. All kinds of immorality and evil conduct are now identified as symptoms of this or that psychological illness. Criminal behavior, various perverse passions, and every imaginable addiction have all been made excusable by the crusade to label them medical afflictions. Even commonplace problems, such as emotional weakness, depression, and anxiety are also almost universally defined as quasi-medical, rather than spiritual, afflictions. MacArthur, J., F. Jr. (1994). The Vanishing Conscience (Electronic ed., pp. 23–24). Dallas: Word Pub.

Slavery

Slavery

As I noted in my blog post titled, “Are Addictions Diseases” it should not surprise us that the world uses medical sounding language for addictions and bad habits. The world starts with the theories and ideas of men and arrives at the forgone conclusion that addictions must be diseases. Recovery programs of varying sorts then become the abuser’s best hope.

It should surprise us that the church often starts with the same presuppositions as the world does rather than to look at addictions and life dominating sin through the lens of Scripture.

Mark Shaw in his book, “The Heart of Addiction” gives us the biblical names for chemical addiction and substance abuse:

Chemical addiction problems and excessive substance abuse really have two biblical names: one is a general name and the other is more specific. In general, “idolatry” is the proper biblical name for substance abuse problems whether you consider yourself a drunkard, binge drinker, drug addict, substance abuser, or whatever name you wish to call it. The problem is biblically labeled as the sin of idolatry and it is a heart problem from within one’s sinful nature. Webster’s Dictionary defines “idol” as “a person or thing too much loved, admired or honored.” The substance abuser seeks to please himself with his “god of choice” above pleasing God… Shaw, Mark E., (2008), The Heart of Addiction-A Biblical Perspective (pp. viii-ix) Bemidji: FOCUS Publishing

Shaw writes from the perspective of a biblical counselor with a great deal of expertise in the field of drug and alcohol abuse. Yet, in the Scriptures the definition of idolatry is anything a person is enslaved by; not just drugs or alcohol. Idolatry may feel like a disease beyond a person’s control but in reality it’s slavery; it is slavery to a person’s god of choice whether it be pleasure, comfort, control, affirmation or anything else craved and worshipped other than the one true God.

The person is so enslaved they believe they can control the idol because they get something they want from the idol (pleasure, control, affirmation, and power, to name a few) but in reality the idol controls them in a vicious cycle.

There are four examples of the word “idolatry” in the ESV version of the Bible in the New Testament:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Corinthians 10:14 ESV)

Much could be said about verses 1-13 as to why Paul concludes this particular line of thought as to why the Corinthians should flee from idols but perhaps verse 11 offers the best reason.

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV)

In verses 1-13 Paul makes reference to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness and despite the fact that Christ was with them in spiritual form (vs 4) their cravings were their undoing and God was not pleased with them and all but a few perished in the wilderness. The idols were not the ones made of stone or wood but rather the idols that reside in the heart.

Breaking free from that which enslaves.

Breaking free from that which enslaves.

Paul’s warning to flee from the gods that can enslave us via our own cravings (James 1:13-15) is hard-hitting. Paul is telling New Testament Christians to not follow the example of the people who perished in the wilderness. Calling an addiction disease or any other life-dominating sin a disease does not serve the person because it creates a victim mentality that says, “I can’t help it.”

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [21] envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

In Galatians 5:19-21 Paul lists idolatry as a “catch all” for the types of things that enslave us. He makes it clear in verse 21 that a person who is enslaved to these things he lists will not inherit the kingdom of God. It’s a significant warning and it does not serve a person to classify their idolatry as a disease simply because it may feel like a disease and thus believe they cannot control their cravings whatever they might be. Paul is clear that if we are controlled by idols via our own desires (see James 1:13-15) we will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. [6] On account of these the wrath of God is coming (Colossians 3:5-6 ESV)

Each one of the sins listed takes place in the heart before they become behaviors. A good example is Matt. 5:27-28 in Jesus’ warning against adultery. He identifies the issue primarily as a heart issue rather than “a change the behavior” issue. The person who refuses to repent of their controlling idols has more in common with the unbelievers who do not know the true God and whom will experience God’s wrath.

In each of the three verses cited above the use of the word idolatry conveys a significant warning. By calling controlling idols “diseases” and giving life dominating sin a medical sounding label gives the person a false sense of security that simply is not biblical. That Christian churches often take the psychology route and use the world’s terminology to soften sin and turn it into a disease should concern anyone who belongs to such a church. Do not soft pedal that which God condemns.

The last use of the word “idolatry” is found in 1 Peter 4:3:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, [2] so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. [3] For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.(1 Peter 4:1-3 ESV)

It’s interesting that in two of the Scripture examples the word “passion” or “passions” is used. In Scripture the word always means something bad as opposed to how we use the word “passion” or “passionate” as in, “he or she is passionate about his or her work.”

We use the word usually in a positive sense while Scripture equates the term with evil desires, cravings of the heart or otherwise in a negative sense.

All desires are not evil. They become evil when they become demands.

For example, the person who is passionate about their work may be craving affirmation and if they don’t get it they may act out angrily or vindictively. By the same token a person who is passionate about the work may be perfectionistic and may hold others to an unreasonable standard if they are in a position of authority over them.

In the passage Peter simply calls the little gods that can control our hearts examples of “lawless idolatry.”

Lawless obviously means “without law” or lack of restraint. A biblical writer never equates life dominating sin with kid gloves and infers some kind of mental illness or sickness.

Instead the Bible calls for repentance and victory over life dominating idols:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, [10] nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [11] And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)

Verse 11 gives genuine hope from that which can enslave us while the disease model can only offer coping devices. The consequences of ignoring what the Bible says about idolatry and issues of the heart are too terrible to contemplate. A person should know where their church stands on these issues for it reveals what the leadership really thinks about the Bible and the sufficiency of Scripture to deal with idolatry and the issues of the heart.

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