October 1, 2023 | Doug Ellis
There is a shadowy closet that most of us have in our lives. Few know about our closet, because we would feel shame if people discovered it – though it may not be something super embarrassing, it is just embarrassing enough to keep it hidden. We participate in it over and over and over. In the behavioral health community, this is called a behavioral addiction to separate it from substance addictions.
What are these? Examples include gambling, sex addiction, pornography, workaholism, over-eating or binge eating, shopping, overspending, procrastination, social-media, television, gaming, etc. No one seems to be visibly hurt when we do these, but there are impacts. Behavioral addictions often erode essential relationships and sometimes create financial distress, but they are spiritually dangerous pursuits that reject God’s truth and frustrate our progress.
Could a person just “stop”? Of course, this isn’t a hard addiction or a chemical dependency that has its hooks embedded deeply in our physiology. But, they are like well-worn paths or ruts of behavior that can feel as if we have no other options. When tempted, it is within a Christian’s ability to resist, for God is not only protecting you against overwhelming temptation, but He can reveal to you a strategy for enduring the temptation and getting out of the rut.
You just have to want to change.
Over the last 30-40 years, mental health professionals began to articulate and define behavioral addiction (gambling was the first one that was recognized, back in the early 1980’s). Of course, these have been around in one form or another for eons. But, as our society has grown more wealthy, less moral, and more stressed, our social barriers to these destructive behaviors has become negligible.
Consider gambling. Sixty years ago, if you wanted to gamble then you would have to find an illegal gambling operation, a group of friends playing poker, a race track, or travel to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. In just one generation, state lotteries spread from the East Coast in all directions, and now 90% of states have both legalized lotteries and some form of casino gaming. Sports gambling is both legal and easily accessed through an app, and it is so accessible that there are likely people in pews on Sunday mornings placing bets on the afternoon football games.
Pornography is so widespread that you will encounter it even if you aren’t trying. Food is plentiful and infused with sweeteners to increase its attractiveness. Amazon is like crack for compulsive shoppers.
Behavioral addiction typically follows an addiction cycle. Researchers have helped us visualize the pattern of behavioral addiction. If you look at the graphic above, you will notice a simplified way to understand this. People cycle through stress, then release, then shame, back to stress, and the cycle repeats.
Stress/Tension – Our world is full of stress, and when we have stress, we are looking for a way to release that stress. Stress is always looking for movement, or a path to get resolved.
Release – This is the way that we learn to release that stress. These are learned habits, or learned ways that we have experienced in the past to deal with the stress.
Shame – This is an important part of the addiction cycle, and it contributes to sustaining the cycle. We feel so bad about slipping up that our guilt becomes fuel for the growing stress that builds up.
There is a passage from 1 Corinthians 10:6-13 that I believe adds a lot of wisdom to this situation. Here is the entire passage, but then I will break out the three points that this passage makes in dealing with behavioral addiction.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 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. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:6-13)
What God is saying here about release. Whether you have a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction, you must desire change. You must recognize the behavior is problematic (physically, relationally, financially, spiritually), and that there is an alternative. This is the point that Paul is making in verse 6 when he points out that God has been clear about behaviors that are evil, and that our hearts must ultimately not desire evil in our lives.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
I can tell you that pornography is evil, or that playing the lottery is evil, or that over-drinking alcohol is evil, or that going crazy on Black Friday is evil … but you have to embrace it as evil and desire change.
If you see it your behavior as justified or OK, such as “I deserve this little vice in my life”, then you are blinded and not ready for change.
What God is saying here about shame. You need to be unburdened from the shame, for God does not want Christians wallowing in shame. In three words out of verse 13, he articulates a central attribute of God.
God is faithful.
At the heart of shame is loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of rejection of others. You hide your behavior because you believe that others will reject you if they discover you suffer from the behavior. This phrase, “God is faithful”, means that God knows what you’ve done in the past, he’s still here for you, and he wants you to have a better future.
This is the essence of faithfulness. It is like the vows we take in a marriage, when we say for better or worse or richer or poorer - those are statements of faithfulness. We will stick with a person even when they hit bottom. Shame fears rejection, but God does not reject you.
I think it is also a key attribute of the church of God. If someone confesses something, or if you discover something, or you suspect something, then love demands that you continue in the relationship with the person. Sometimes the relationship may change to better help a person, but abandoning a person because you personally have an objection with them, is the opposite of faithfulness and inconsistent with the Spirit of Our Lord.
What God is saying here about stress. We all know that stress happens in our lives, but God has strength for his people to deal with the stress. Look at these words from verse 13:
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
God has another way for you to relieve stress, and it is endurance. This is critical to discover, and it should be done well in advance of the stress needing to find relief. Mostly this involves two things: (1) boundaries to protect you from the temptation while you discover new ways to handle stress, and (2) a healthy, God-centered approach to finding stress relief or endurance.
This is self-control that you see described as a Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. With God’s power, you will have strength to eventually break the habits of addiction.
I think it is important to note that this scripture is not necessarily telling you that God will give you an alternative behavior (such as going on a walk instead of over-shopping). Though that may be the case, the main point here is that you will be empowered to endure the temptation to relieve stress through the sinful behavior.
How? What is the formula?
I’ve come to realize that people are unique and complex. One size, or one program, doesn’t fit with everyone. And, each person will need to understand / develop a custom approach that works for them.
I’ve found the following to be helpful, general guidance, that can help a person develop the custom solution to escaping their hidden addiction.
Be humble before God. Seek God, and desire to know God’s definition of sin – not your definition, nor what the world around you considers to be permissible. (1 John 1:8)
Deal with shame (Part 1). Lean into your relationship with God. He is here to help you with power, not condemn you. He is faithful. As you recognize that you are failing God’s definitions, then confess regularly to God for grace and forgiveness (1 John 1:9)
Deal with shame (Part 2). Confess to others who exhibit love, which includes mercy and faithfulness (James 5:16). You are not confessing merely to get advice, but to work on shame and to receive support and encouragement (for the Holy Spirit uses others to deliver critical healing). (Galatians 6:1-2)
Come up with vision for endurance, and mature it. You know you have a regular sin, so seek wisdom before the temptation. Have at the ready a scripture to meditate on, or a prayer focus with God, or a vision statement of what God wants for your life, or a friend to call for encouragement, or a healthy and effective alternative, etc.
If the plan isn’t working well and you find yourself continuing to fail, mature it by trying something fresh, getting some advice, etc. But, don’t give up and assume it is hopeless, for God’s wisdom as communicated in 1 Corinthians 10:13 may not yet be fully revealed to you.