Key terms to identify for this article, according to the American Psychological Association:
Neuroscience The scientific study of the brain and of the links between brain activity and behavior.
Neuron A cell in the nervous system specialized to receive, process, and/or transmit information to other cells.
Neurotransmitters Chemical messengers released from neurons that cross the synapse from one neuron to another, stimulating the postsynaptic neuron.
by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall live for ever. Psalm 26:22 (KJV)
“Have you ever wondered why people stumble into pornography? Perhaps you even struggle in that area. It’s because they are not feeding on Jesus. They are seeking satisfaction in the evil pleasures of this world, rather than the eternal promises of eternity.
Suppose you just finished a wonderful meal and somebody knocks on your front door. You answer it, and they hold forth a plate full of stale crumbs saying, “Take this. Eat.” You would say, “No thank you, I don’t need that. I’m already satisfied.”” —Adrian Rogers
At the center of all addiction and addictive thinking and behavior is what Jesus and the Apostle Paul referred to as slavery to sin. Jesus said that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Paul spoke of another power that is at war with our minds. He spoke of this power as a kind master that casts us under its spell and reduces us to slaves owned by sin, rendered helpless under its power until Christ intervenes into our daily circumstances as we attempt to challenge the reality of what ties us up in its web of influence and control.
There are all kinds of references to addiction in the Bible when viewed in the light of what sin really is. FREEdom from MEdom is chalked full of these scriptural references. In this article, I will highlight some of what the Bible has to say about addiction, and how it fits with clinical descriptions of what addiction is.
Getting specific about addictive thinking and behavior, it is necessary to examine how addiction hijacks the brain and mind under the control of the selfish sin nature. The GO system of the brain, with hedonistic impulsive intentions, is on a daily mission to satisfy whatever it craves. It is not overly bold to refer to the impulsive intentions of the GO systems within our brain chemistry as hedonistic. Some of the most respected, moral, and honorable men and women of godly integrity have fallen spell to the hedonistic passions of their sin nature and given in to addictive urges that have led to gross immorality. How many times have we heard about preachers, priests, pastors, musicians, government leaders, ministry leaders, husbands, and wives, who have forsaken everything of value to engage in sexually immoral behavior. How many marriages and families have been broken up? How many churches have been split apart? How many election campaigns have disintegrated? How many lives have been destroyed by moral depravity?
The article “Addicted to Me” points out the similarities between what is said in the clinical field of addiction and recovery and what Scripture says plainly on the subject.
At the core of our obsession with self is a belief of entitlement. I want something, then perceive that I need the thing that I want, then proceed to do what I have to do to get it… and continue to do what I have to do to keep it, and to do what I have to do to get more of it. If I want to feel something (i.e., pleasure, happy) I will do what I have to do. It is the same for eliminating the thing from my life that I do not want. I will do what I have to do. If I don’t want to feel something (i.e., pain, sad) I will do what I have to do. It’s what we do. We can’t help ourselves.
When we understand how the brain works—that there is a relationship between the ‘go’ centers of the brain and the cautionary, judgment centers of the brain, and that the ‘go’ systems are way more powerful than the judgment centers, which by the way are also governed by obsession with self—we can recognize the sensibility—the reality—of selfish sin. This relationship between these functions of the brain shape our values and direct our moral compass, the so-called inner voice.
Our inner voice, what you might say is the inner spirit or conscience of a person, is guided by the matter of selfish sin until we choose to surrender our desires, intentions, ambitions, and motivations over to the care of God. Until then, we are usually deceived by our own inner voice. It’s often said that on one shoulder is an angel and on the other is a devil, and there is this conflict inside of our heads between right and wrong, good and bad (evil). It’s said that we need to listen real closely to the angel so that we can make the good and right choices. The problem we have is that the “angel” inside of our head is also selfish. The other problem is that there is a real devil directing evil that the Bible says, “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). So you look to the right and there sits your trusty angel inner voice, and you in your selfishness inquires as to what it might be saying. Then you look to the left and… “WHAT?” Another angel? Which is which? How do you know which inner voice to listen to?
Oprah Winfrey talks a great deal on her show about your inner voice; that listening to your inner voice (“the voice—by which I mean the voice of God within me, and within all of us”) is a kin to listening to the “whisper” of God from inside of you. Below is not one quote, but a series of quotes from Oprah that humanizes what she professes is God in the universe speaking to her:
“I am where I am today because I have allowed myself to listen to my feelings… I truly believe that thoughts are the greatest vehicle to change power and success in the world… Honesty comes from your natural instinct telling you when you are doing something, whether or not this feels right… I mean, I do every show in prayer, not down on my knees praying, but I do it before every show—a mental meditation in order to get the correct message across… I call it my inner voice. It doesn’t matter what you call it—nature, instinct, higher power. It’s the ability to understand the difference between what your heart is saying and what your head is saying… I now always go with the heart. Even when my head is saying, ‘Oh, but this is the rational thing; this is really what you should do.’ I always go with that little… feeling… So, that is my final lesson from the universe–you just do what you need to do, and stay on track.”
For the record, while Oprah listens for her inner voice that is at its core selfish and drowning in a belief of entitlement, she has said a thing or two that are right on the money and most appropriate for this article: “If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough… What God intended for you goes far beyond anything you can imagine.” The problem for Oprah is the problem that I have and that you have. We are selfish and therefore confuse our naturally selfish instincts, thoughts, and feelings with what is best for us in the moment. Because our inner voice is so loud, we become unable to hear the authentic “whisper” that is really God. So much of what Oprah is saying is that being self-reliant is sufficient. The Apostle Paul stated that only God’s grace is sufficient.
To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NLT)
One other thing Oprah Winfrey is quoted is saying is, “Because the truth of the matter is, we are all the same. And I know that. I really know that. And I think people sense that.” When you consider all of the evil in the world, it all emanates from the same place: a core belief of entitlement. I am, and you are, fundamentally selfish; self-interested; self-absorbed; self-motivated… you get the idea. Even Barack Obama stated while running for President of the United States, “I was so obsessed with me and the reasons that I might be dissatisfied that I couldn’t focus on other people… I trace this back to a certain selfishness on my part.”
My brain betrays me. It drives me to go when I need to stop. It drives me to go faster when I need to slow down. It also aims to protect me at the time when I should take a risk. It will stifle me into being lazy when I need to get up and go. My thoughts, my feelings, even my natural instincts will fail me when I trust solely in me. My sense of morality and core values are easily compromised when presented with circumstances that on the surface do not appear dangerous. A drink or two is not necessarily a bad thing. Jesus drank wine with his friends and family, likely even with sinners when he miraculously turned water into very good wine at a wedding reception, or perhaps when he spent time in the home of a notorious sinner named Zacchaeus. The problem is that between the inner workings of my brain and my selfish sin nature, I am driven to excess with what might appear to be a good thing in moderation. I will at some point lose control since I was not really in control in the first place. I am simply not aware of that since I am in denial until I hurt bad enough from the outcome of excessive actions.
Addiction is most obvious when it is alcoholism and drug addiction; when the alcohol or drug dependent person is neglecting and/or abusing a spouse and/or children; or is sacrificing marriage and family, professional life, physical and mental health for the sake of gratification through that addiction. Other forms of addiction may be equally dangerous. An addiction worthy of concentration is sexual addiction, which can be brutally obvious or incredibly subtle at its onset. Sexual addiction is as dangerous to polluting values and moral sabotage as any other cycle of addictive thinking and behavior since it is used to gratify one’s core belief of entitlement.
Sexual addiction is destructive on so many levels in part because it is often misunderstood. The tendency is to consider sexual addiction as a matter of sexually deviant behavior that is only occurring in a smaller select portion of society. Sexual addiction is confined to the pedaphile, the rapist, and the rest of the sexually abusive molesters lurking in the shadows. So false! Once sexual addiction is understood, it brings to light the sexually addictive tendencies in most adults; in particular, adult males. Perhaps even more than alcohol and drug addiction, sexual addictions are responsible for the deterioration of a person’s value system and moral judgment. Like all addictions, once a person ventures into the rituals, behavioral practices, and the culture of sexual addiction in its various types and forms, it becomes extremely difficult to turn back to life before the addiction. When you go there, you typically stay there, and go deeper and deeper into its clutches until you’re over your head in depravity and moral deviance; from the internet to the private room somewhere.
The problem with attraction, lust, and romantic ‘love’ is that it revolves around brain chemistry. Thoughts of lust will cause the release of a very powerful chemical in your brain chemistry known as phenylethlamine. Once this chemical is released it leads to the sense of compulsion and drive toward sexual activity. When a person aroused is not allowed to follow through sexually, we have what we know to be sexual frustration. Whenever there is brain activity of a manic nature—a natural high, so to speak—coming down from the high can be quite difficult to the system to the point of feeling painful. Lust and sexual activity bring on that sort of euphoric high. There is another kind of sexual addiction at work in the minds and lives of God-fearing people. It is what some experts refer to as ‘love’ addiction.
“Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA)—a chemical in the brain involved in the euphoria that comes with falling in love—rise with feelings of infatuation, boosting euphoria and excitement. Love and sex addicts may simply be dependent upon the physical and psychological arousal triggered by PEA and other stress-related chemicals, such as adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Simply stated, sex and love addicts are essentially changing their brain chemistry through sexual behaviors and relationships.” —Foundry Clinical Group
Attraction can have a similar effect, biochemically speaking, as lust. There is an increase in adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that work to activate the natural stress response to the feelings of attraction for someone. Elevated heart rate, the anxious heat that comes on, combined with dopamine and serotonin activity sends one off to the races during attraction. Adrenaline and cortisol are the same stress hormones that build when triggered by anger, jealousy, and rage; that if left in an elevated state can cause so much anxiety and stress it can lead to health problems. So when someone’s sexual advances are rejected, or when someone gets their heart broke, or when someone is simply dangling in anticipation of seeing their love/sex interest, stress levels can be such that the person can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t focus on tasks, etc. In the absence of their “drug”, the love/sex addict can experience biochemical withdrawal contributing to their stress.
Researchers agree that at the onset of attraction is high levels of dopamine, the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that triggers the sensation of pleasure and reward. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has stated, “couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship”. It turns out serotonin levels are lowered during attraction, which apparently allows for the obsessive thinking about the object of attraction. Dr Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa (Italy), discovered through the blood samples of twenty couples in a research study, that serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder patients. When partners sharing their intense attraction express themselves sexually to one another, there are even more hormones at work. Oxytocin is the powerful hormone released during orgasm between two people that evokes the powerful bonding experience. The hormone vasopressin is released in couples that evoke the feeling of commitment between partners.
What is the point of all this brain chemistry stuff?
The point is that once “we go there” it becomes increasingly, seemingly impossible to end the thing once it’s started. People go from attraction to attachment, even when they are married to someone else. When, biochemically speaking, we have built up tolerance for our spouse, and all that surging biochemical stuff seems to have settled down, the new attraction—forbidden love—triggers the surging neurotransmitters and hormones and one is internally off to the races again, dared to express oneself externally. The issue, of course, is that we are targeting someone other than our spouse/mate with all this biochemical attention. The scope of internal indulgence and external expression can then range from masturbation to marital infidelity to deviant psychosexual obsession and sexual depravity.
We hear that so and so left their spouse and their children, losing everything, for an affair that lasted three months until all the energy was sapped out of that forbidden relationship. “How could he do that to his wife and children?” “How could she turn her back on her kids like that?” “They seemed to have such a good thing going.” “How could that pastor do that to his family and his church?”
One can be known as a man or woman who loves God and serves God with their lives, and still yield to the addictive urges that reside in each one of us. King David of the Bible is one who lived to serve God, proclaimed by Scripture to be a man after God’s own heart. Yet he succumbed to the biochemically-driven urges when it came to sexual addiction to the point of deviant depravity. David was guilty, at the very least, of conspiracy to commit murder and “legal” forms of adultery, to be with the women he desired. Plus, he was a king with all of the power that came with being king. Imagine what that did for all of the chemical activity in his brain? This is not meant to be a shot at an Old Testament icon and ancestor Of Jesus, any more than earlier remarks were meant to bring down Oprah or the President, but rather pointing out that even the most well-intended people can and will yield to the scientific reality of the human mind and body in combination with the spiritual reality of selfish sin. This is the very essence of our MEdom condition.
Devout men and women of God, who love God, throughout time have struggled with the issue of sexual addiction and love/relationship addiction. Contrary to what some might say, this aspect of addiction is a brain problem that leads to some awfully sick choices that suggests that it is wrought with disease. However, people with the sex/love addiction disease are not exempt from responsibility and consequence. The diabetic and the heart patient not only needed intervention at one time for their disease, but if they continue in patterns of behavior that contributed to the cause and severity of their disease they will experience logical consequences that prove fatal. As sex addicts continue in patterns of behavior that perpetuate the severity of their disease, the consequences they experience could prove fatal in terms of relationships, family, career, and even their physical well-being.
Sabotaged by Addiction
The moral sabotage that occurs through the experience of every form of addiction is also encouraged by biochemical warfare. Drug addicts will do whatever they have to do to experience that high. So parents are stunned and shocked when their sons and daughters steal from them to obtain alcohol and drugs (including cigarettes since nicotine is about the most addictive drug that exists). Sons and daughters are devastated when their parents steal from them and choose a life of addiction over relationship with their children.
The sole purpose of every form of addictive behavior is to stimulate the pleasure, reward, relief center of their experience. What does every drug there is do? Drugs increase dopamine levels and people feel better. From that cigarette to that drink to that drag on a pipe to that hit of something; it is all about that dopamine rush that is the euphoria of the high. Husbands and wives will leave their spouses for that high. Mothers and fathers will neglect, abuse, and even abandon their children for that high. Students will go from academic achievement to academic failure for that high. Professionals will risk their careers for that high. Clergy and health professionals will risk their credibility, reputation, and license to practice for that high. Finally, not only will addicts steal and lie and what not, they will kill either to satisfy their need to be high.
Even men, women and teenagers who genuinely love and worship God end up compromising their faith because of their addiction; which include eating disorders, food addictions, gambling addictions, sexual addictions, technology addictions, and so on. Once you accept that the biochemical systems of a person have been hijacked by addiction, you can understand why morality is so fragile because of addiction. Why does impaired brain function always direct us down a road of destruction and dread? Well, that is the result of our selfish sin nature working in tandem with the self-minded brain to establish a culture of discontent that is unsettling and discomforting, to say the least.
“Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” James 1:14-15 (NLT)
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. Romans 7:21-25 (NLT)
Paraphrasing John 8:32-34: Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” They responded, “Set free from what? We come from good families. When were we ever slaves?” Jesus answered, “The moment you gave into your selfish thoughts and desires, you became a slave to them.”
One not need ask, “How could she let it go so far with him that two families were destroyed?” or “How could he hurt his wife like that with a prostitute?” or “Why can’t he quit drinking?” or “Why can’t she just stop popping pills?” or “When will they have enough stuff?” I suppose these are all fair questions but it certainly helps when we understand the combination of biochemical condition and process, and the selfish sin nature that are working together to erode the moral fiber of our being. Once we are enslaved by addiction we are helpless, powerless to do anything about it on our own. It is all about me. I am addicted to me. This is MEdom. This is where we live.
It is important as we consider the applicable means for recovery from our addiction that we pursue the model Jesus himself gave us for recovery. The Bible tells us (Hebrews 4:15) that we have an advocate in Jesus who sympathizes with our weakness in that he was tempted in all aspects of his human experience, yet without sin. So, was Jesus tempted sexually? All I’ll say is this: if Jesus wasn’t tempted in every aspect as a man, then he cannot relate to the sexuality of my human experience as a man of flesh.
Consider that Jesus at the height of his ministry was an icon—a hero—with throngs of people, including single women, following him from town to town, and even to remote places to be near him. My guess is that there were a number of occasions when women sought a deeper relationship with Jesus. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, he did not look at her while she was naked. He doodled in the dirt while addressing her accusers. Mary Magdalene may have indeed been in love with Jesus. She loved Jesus and worshiped him as a man of authority. Mary, it could be said, was the thirteenth disciple, considering how close she was to that group. My guess would be that Jesus, the man, was quite fond of Mary and could have easily felt deep affection for her. We will never know if Jesus prayed for help and strength as a man not to become distracted from his purpose by his human feelings and desires, also triggered by chemicals in his human brain.
How did Jesus survive temptation? He admitted that he did not on his own have the authority to do anything (John 5:30)—I’ll presume “anything” includes resisting the temptation to give in to his human desires, feelings, and urges; he believed in the authority of Father God to supply him the authority for whatever God purposed for him to do; and he committed to trusting, not in himself, but God by turning over his will for his life to live according to God’s will in His care.
Moral sabotage is the reality that I continually do those things my new nature in relationship with Jesus does not agree are healthy or productive in any way. I am merely gratifying an urge that I have allowed to grow into a compulsion by feeding into it through fantasy.
Cognitive suggestions are a powerful thing. Once preoccupied with them, these cognitive suggestions also bring to mind a sense of justification for that thing my new nature—the new creation in me; the renewed mind, having been transformed—is in complete disagreement with. Once the fantasy is joined with the cognitive suggestion that acting on the fantasy is justified, the new person God is making me into is ignored, betrayed, and rejected—abandoned, if just for a time. The subsequent behavior is hostile to the will of God and the transformative work he is doing in my life.
Moral sabotage: It’s a miserable thing to be held captive when I am a free man!
Adrian Rogers is absolutely on point when he writes that what I feed on is all the nourishment I am going to receive. Feeding on the carnal desires of the flesh is like eating the trash thrown into the dumpster outside a fast food joint. It’s disgusting. So, why do I do it… again and again and again? Am I a racoon?
I must address and challenge my ambivalence. What I ultimately want (and need) is freedom from discomfort. I want freedom from disturbance and disharmony. I want to be set free from dissatisfaction. I don’t particularly know what complete satisfaction feels like, and may not until the time of perfection—the return of Christ when we’re all gathered with him. But I do know what dissatisfaction feels like. I do know what it feels like to be discontent.
“I was so obsessed with me and the reasons that I might be dissatisfied… What I trace this to is a certain selfishness on my part.” —Barack Obama
I know what I need. I know what I want. I know what I love. What I want and need is to be free in relationship with Jesus, whom I love. I do. I really do. But, for whatever reason, I so often do not allow myself to smell what he is preparing for me. So when the meal is set at the table where placement at the table has been arranged for me, I am nowhere to be found. I’m out. I am crawling around the dumpster at the fast food joint eating the scraps.
Ambivalence is when I want this and I want that but they are in direct opposition to each other. I may believe that I can experience this while indulging in that, but it is not possible since they are hostile enemies. I have to choose. So should I feed on the garbage, it is how I am nourished and I naturally become ill; the logical consequence. I cannot live feeding on trash. I miss out on the meal that’s been prepared by my Lord. I must leave that dumpster and return home.
What is so amazing about my Father at home is that he here’s me at the front door and he calls me to the table. His Son greets me there with a basin and towel and he washes by feet and hands that stink so terribly. He knows where I’ve been… crawling around in that dumpster again. Yet my Father and his Son receive me at the table and love me as if I’d never left. I tell them that I am so sorry, yet again. They respond (yet again) with a wink and a smile, with eyes that would instantly melt a glacier and tell me, “You’re here now, where you belong. Sit, and eat until you are full.”
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10 (NIV)
All at once, my appetite has returned. I am so hungry for what they are serving. I am there with my family. It’s a lovefest. No one is interested in being anywhere else. We eat until we are full. We are nourished… satisfied.
That is what I want.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:1-3 (NIV)
Continue exploring what it takes to live by the ABC principles for recovery that works by continuing through the FREEdom from MEdom series of articles by clicking on the ADMIT, BELIEVE, and COMMIT categories along the right hand column.. Pray for the strength the way Jesus did to live out your recovery God’s way into a mindset and lifestyle that is indeed free.
“I have come that they may have life… a rich and satisfying life… and that they may have it more abundantly.” —Jesus Christ