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Hope for those Imprisoned by Addictions

I often hear people refer to themselves or others as having “an addictive personality.” Some people do seem to have a stronger propensity than others for getting “hooked” on certain behaviors. That propensity exists in everyone to some degree due to the presence of “the flesh.” The term “flesh” in the New Testament refers to our sinful tendencies. It is the unredeemed part of our inner man that desires sin and deceives us into living life independent from God and His Law (see Romans 7:14-24). Anyone who has ever had a sinful habit has “an addictive personality” to some degree (hint: that is everyone).

While the Christian has the power to overcome sinful habits, they are sadly part of the human condition.

Not everyone struggles with the same temptations or sins though. One person might be prone to anger and be easily provoked (a “hothead” we might say). Another person may desire to be well liked and have a tendency to embellish facts (“stretching the truth,” which is really a form of lying). This could be in person or on your favorite social media platform—a real hotbed for embellishing. Others might be “lovers of pleasure” and battle temptation with substance abuse or pornography use.

"This 'training' nature of sin is why giving in to even small temptations to indulge the desires of the flesh can be so dangerous."

But the fact is, each person engages in unique battles against sin rooted in one’s own particular passions and desires. Those unique lusts (strong desires) are shaped by many things. James teaches “each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his “own” lust (James 1:14). That term for one’s “own” lust is the Greek term idios, from which we get our term idiosyncrasy. We all have idiosyncratic desires that tempt us. For some it is anger, for others lust, for others it may be fear. Any desire of the heart can become the one that may control you, whether it is worry, deceit, pleasure, comfort, greed, envy, or any other desire of the heart.

We often have a hard time understanding how some people battle sins that we do not find tempting. This difficulty understanding others is magnified when the choices of others seem irrational and harmful. In many ways, the irrational choices and harmful consequences of some sins give rise to the term “addiction” itself. The word addiction has taken on the implication of being the “cause” of sinful habits. When it does not seem rational that people make destructive and harmful choices, the logic of the world insists that there must be some underlying “cause” beyond just the choices we make.

But the term “addiction” does not explain the root cause of sin. Our sinful habits are rooted in the nature of our sinful flesh that can actually “train us” in patterns of sin. Peter speaks of some people being “trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:14). When discussing our sinful flesh the Apostle Paul refers to it as a “law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind … making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23). Paul roots the development of sinful patterns—the ones that make us feel “imprisoned” to them—as being tied to a process that happens in “the members of my body.”

We typically call those sinful habits. When Paul calls this dynamic of sin “a law in the members” he is suggesting that it is a force that rules and compels him to obey it (that is the nature of a “law”). Those who struggle with what our world calls “addiction” will tell you that is exactly what it feels like—a compelling, controlling, ruling drive that demands allegiance like a law. When you add the biological factors of drugs this compulsion can seem even stronger.

While the Apostle Paul was not a neurologist, he understood that there were factors at work in “the members of his body” that actually seemed to make him do “the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Doesn’t that describe well your experience with every besetting sin and habit you have battled in your Christian walk?

This “training” nature of sin is why giving in to even small temptations to indulge the desires of the flesh can be so dangerous. It actually “trains” your heart to desire and pursue things you do not truly want—even things you might say you hate!1 This is true even though you have a redeemed heart that at its core is soft, tender, and truly loves God. It is that spiritual tenderness that makes you “hate” the sin in the first place.

The Scripture doesn’t use the term “sinful habit.” But Paul does refer to the old “manner of life,” which is a very similar phrase. The old sinful ways belong to our “former manner of life” and should be “put off.” Instead, we are to have our minds renewed by the knowledge of Christ and His word, and put on the “new self,” resulting in a new “manner of life” (can we say “righteous habits”?).

But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:20–24

Even in giving this exhortation, Paul acknowledges there still exists something of our “old self.” It is not eradicated even though we have the spiritual power that can put it off. Not only is the “old self” (the “flesh”) still present, he says that through deceitful desires it can actually continue to corrupt us. This again highlights why it is so important to be constantly fighting sin, resisting temptation, and pursuing righteousness and holiness as our new “manner of life.”

The gospel is indeed the good news. First Corinthians 6:9-11 speaks of many behaviors commonly associated with modern “addictions” – sex addictions (including pornography), stealing (kleptomania), covetous (gambling), and drunkards (alcoholism). But the gospel can transform even those ensnared and imprisoned by such sins. Verse eleven says, “Such were some of you [past tense]; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

These benefits all belong to the one who has true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But those benefits must be constantly relied on, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, through obeying the call to “put off your old self … to be renewed in the spirit of your minds … and to put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Habits don’t just “go away.” The flesh usually puts up a nasty fight with the Spirit (Galatians 5:17). You need to fight, to “put to death” the sinful deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). Let’s pray this fight is our daily, dependent, heart-changing, Spirit-empowered, and “habit-forming” pursuit of true holiness.

1. For more on this important topic I suggest reading Your Brain on Porn