All addictions are idols and all idols are addictive.
The term “idolatry” is an old-fashioned word we seldom think about in our modern, fast-paced, secularized, technologically-oriented society. When we think of an idol, we generally envision an artistically carved, perhaps somewhat chubby little guy fashioned out of stone or wood whose head someone may rub for good luck as they walk by.
But our idols are usually much more subtle, sophisticated, substantive, and serious than that. What is an idol? Simply put, an idol is anything or anyone we depend or rely upon instead of God or comes in between us and God. Ergo, most of our idols are functional, not literal.
As Christians, we typically have many idols…and many potential addictions. Most people are busy, stressed, isolated, and personally unaccountable to no one. In short, these vulnerabilities potentiate most of us to be an addictive accident waiting to happen.
Idols and addictions are what we use to temporarily medicate distress or pain, or what we turn to other than God when we’re hurting. Consequently, they can become something or someone we implicitly worship (consciously or otherwise) in the place of God. The object(s) of our idolatry can be something which isn’t inherently bad or sinful, but something or someone we prioritize above our relationship with God. Yet the first of the Ten Commandments warns us clearly: “No other gods, only me” (Exodus 20:3, MSG).
As humans, we are frequently tempted to “worship” people, places, or things (i.e, the creation) instead of the Creator. But nothing and no one deserves that level of prominence or priority in our lives. We tend to live for and serve whoever or whatever we worship, and only God is worthy of our highest devotion and our deepest love.
You may be thinking, “What does all this abstract stuff have to do with me?” Ask yourself this question: “What are the idols I worship?” To what, where, or whom do you turn when you’re hurting, lonely, frustrated, bored, sad, and/or stressed?
Many people become classically addicted to mood-altering chemicals, substances, or prescription medication in an effort to soothe or escape from their pain. Other peoples’ “drugs of choice” include the relentless accumulation of materialistic possessions, gambling, sex/pornography, thrill-seeking activities, overeating, co-dependent relationships, sports, entertainment, hobbies, and shopping. In addition, many people are also prone to workaholism, along with greed-driven pursuits of fame and fortune, power and prestige, stature and status, and clout and control.
When we cave in to temptation and rely on a substitute or counterfeit for God in order to cope with our pain and/or distress, we inadvertently begin our precipitous slide down the proverbial slippery slope of addiction. Because all idols are artificial and illegitimate–not satisfying our needs while deceptively promising more than they deliver—they leave us subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Thus, in addictions parlance, idols become habit forming because they create tolerance or habituation— requiring progressively more stimuli for the brain to derive the same physiological and/or emotional response. Over time, we become desensitized such that what used to medicate the pain no longer does the trick. As a result, our idolatrous “gods” insidiously and viciously grab us by the throat, insatiably demanding more and more until we end up being hooked. The idol which used to serve us now ironically demands that we serve it!
Unfortunately, we have learned from recovery work that most addicts will not acknowledge the painful reality of their enslavement until they hit rock bottom. These humbling dynamics are encapsulated in the first three of the 12 Steps. We are powerless over our sin to the point that our lives become out of control and unmanageable. As the Apostle Paul explained in Romans 7:15:
[indent] … I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I [indent] hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer [indent] I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in [indent] my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not [indent] do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not [indent] want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (ESV).
We must believe that God is greater than we are. Greater than our addiction is. And as we decide to turn our will and our life over to him, we exercise faith that he can and will deliver us from our bondage.
Steps 4-6 describe the realities of our sinfulness. From 1 John 1:8-9, we understand that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness “(NKJV). When we make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves, admit our wrongs to God, ourselves, and others, and humble ourselves to ask God to change our defective character, we begin to be transformed.
The process of this transformation is outlined specifically in Steps 7-9. The internal changes necessary for lasting change and growth are profoundly articulated in 2 Corinthians 7:10. “For [godly] sorrow that is in accord with the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but worldly sorrow [the hopeless sorrow of those who do not believe] produces death” (AMP). By asking God to remove our shortcomings, and by listing persons we have offended and making amends, our idols topple and we are never the same.
Finally, the nature of our ongoing recovery process is emphasized in Steps 10-12. A relatively obscure yet absolutely profound passage in Titus 2:11-14 offers positive, power-packed principles for our struggles with addictive idols. Paul explains:
[indent] …the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say
[indent] “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in [indent] this present age, as we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God [indent] and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify [indent] for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (NIV).
Through the powerful indwelling Spirit of Christ, we can say no to our idols and yes to God and worshipping him only. We thereby exercise self-control over our controlling habits, hurts, and hang-ups. Humbly admitting our brokenness, communicating with God and others about our wrongful attitudes and actions, and then living in such a transparent and transformative way leads to freedom from our addictive idols. Consequently we can love, mentor, and disciple others with this great news with power, passion, and purpose!
*adapted from Be Strong and Surrender: A 30 Day Recovery Guide (2016) by Philip Dvorak, Paul Meier and Jared Pingleton.