Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah 55:2
Jesus is Higher than our Addictions
One of the most striking portrayals of addiction can be seen in J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. In it, a poor hobbit named Sméagol, accidentally comes across the most wonderful treasure he has ever seen, the “one ring”. At first, he was simply impressed by its beauty and power. But, as time moved along, he became so enamored and infatuated with it that it became a part of who he was.
You see, at some point, Sméagol stopped viewing the ring as just a valuable object, but as the very thing, which gave him value and worth. His identity was so deeply affected by his obsessive love for that ring, that his mind became as warped as his skin and his personality altered so deeply that he needed a new name (Gollum), which more accurately captured his broken persona.
Throughout the tale, it almost seems as if there are two parallel stories that are playing out simultaneously. On the one hand, there is Gollum who is blindly chasing after the ring, and on the other, is Frodo, the hero, who is seeking to destroy it. Yet, the most ironic feature within the story, was not the damaging effects that the ring had upon both of the outwardly. It was actually how deeply it affected both of them inwardly. For, in the story, woven amid the incredible battles and journeys, is the epic tale of what great lengths a person would go to, in order to satisfy their deepest longings.
So incredibly far, in fact, that in the end of this great tale, when Frodo is standing in front of the volcano called mount doom, just inches away from destroying the ring, it was he who lost his heart, and Gollum’s sour heart that prevailed. Yet, the irony is that when Gollum finally wrestled the ring away from poor Frodo, it was his momentum that carried him over the edge, causing him to plummet into the depths of the fiery mountain. And, with ring in hand, his bitter heart had peace as his flaming body disintegrated. Both he and his precious ring were destroyed. That is addiction!
Now, whether we look and act as ridiculous as Gollum is not the point. What is more important than that is that we realize all of us are basically addicted to something. And, it will be my argument, that all of us are basically driven by the same two basic things.
Addictions are Complicated
There are countless angles from which we could look at addictions. For instance, addictions can be physical when the body anatomically becomes dependent upon a substance for normal functioning. This often happens as a result of prolonged use of illicit or prescribed drugs, chemicals we ingest, or even from the types of food we habitually eat.
What makes an addiction physical is not that the body is craving an item or even using physical means of getting it, but that it feels incomplete without it and tries getting it through intense means. For instance, every human body craves food and every stomach growls when it is hungry; that is entirely normal. What is abnormal is when the body craves more food than is needed for healthy human functioning and uses more intense methods of trying to get it.
A good example of this comes in the practice of juicing. Often, when a person decides to fast with juice, it is to lose weight and reorient their bodies back to a normal and healthy balance. Yet, because the body is so used to living with excess, when it is deprived, it reacts rebelliously by producing fatigue, irritability, and mental fog. Here, the body is amping up its cravings because it feels out of balance without the excessive amount of food. It is going to greater lengths than simple hunger pains to compel that person to satisfy it. And, often, it may take a few days, or even weeks, for the persons body to reorient itself back to a proper balance.
In the same way, the normal body chemistry, for the person who is addicted, has been deeply altered. Instead of functioning at the previous “normal”, a new normal is defined that now includes the outside substance. So that, if you take it away, regardless of what it is, the body feels out of balance. If the body feels out of balance for long enough, it will send the person into a state of withdrawal, inciting physical, emotional, and mental symptoms in hopes that person will give in to its demands. These symptoms usually range from mild disturbances all the way to intense physical dysfunctions, that can even require hospitalization.
Mental and Emotional Addictions
Addictions can also occur in the mind and in the emotions. Often these are the hardest ones to break. For instance, two weeks after a person has quit smoking, the physical and biological effects of the addiction have been all but broken. The body has returned back to a state of normalcy, and is no longer functioning as if it were biologically dependent. This means, that if a person desires to quit smoking, then what they must do, is suffer through a couple of weeks of physical cravings before their body will return to normalcy and balance.
Yet, it is absolutely incredible how many people go back to smoking after that two-week period has passed. Why? Because something greater than the physical addiction is still controlling them.
This should tell us, that even while the body has achieved homeostasis (i.e. chemical and biological balance), that the mind and emotions still believe that the cigarette is necessary for a balanced life. Notice, that more people return to smoking during stressful and agitated circumstances than at any other time. Why? It is certainly not because their bodies are biologically craving the cigarette while under duress, but more likely because their minds have been thrown into a moment of mental and emotional instability from that stress. They want to run from pain and anxiety, and the cigarette becomes their mental and emotional vehicle for escape.
The Common Theme In All Addictions
Addictions are highly nuanced and quite complicated. For this reason, I do not want to offer any pithy or clever definitions that try to capture everything in one fell swoop. Instead, I want to challenge all of us to consider two great tensions, that are common in all addictive behaviors and are common to each of us.
First, each of us understands that we are incomplete. We instinctively and intuitively get that we are not whole, that the world is broken, and that something absolutely vital is missing from our lives. This leaves all of us feeling deeply out of balance (physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually) and incapable of experiencing the deep and lasting rest that our hearts were designed to experience. To say this a different way, all human beings function as if their hearts were incomplete and needing to be filled. This causes us all to feel incomplete and out of emotional, mental, and psychological balance.
Second, none of us are content to remain in that chaotic state. We all have a God given desire to seek for something that will fulfill us, something that can fix us, and for that “one thing” that will finally make us all complete! This innate desire is not an evolutionary by-product of random chance, nor something that happens just in fantasy trilogies, but a clanging universal gong that is constantly ringing inside our ears, sounding forth the call, for each of us to run back into the loving arms of an infinite God! Yet, instead of turning back to Him, we have all scoured the earth, looking under every rock and stone, attempting to find that one thing outside of ourselves, that would fix everything within us.
Now, I believe that it is important for me to note a couple things. First, having longings is not a bad thing. God created us to have emotions and desires which find their ultimate satisfaction in Him. He also created us to have desires and affections for other people which lead to peace, unity, and joy with others in our community (i.e. love God love others – Mk. 12:30, 31). With that the problem is not our desires, but the powers behind them that motivate them.
Second, knowing that we are functionally broken and wholly incomplete is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Why? Because it is an honest assessment of the human condition, which should lead us away from our own limitations and towards the infinite God! With that, now let us turn away from normal and healthy emotions, to see what makes something addictive.
The Gollum Effect
If we can agree that all human beings are searching for fulfillment and balance, because all human being understand that they are fundamentally incomplete, then addiction occurs, when a person habitually and obsessively seeks after the wrong things to satisfy their deepest longings. But more than just seeking things wrongly, addictions are rooted in the false belief that if we seek them long enough and hard enough, we will find what we are looking for. Coupled with that belief is a deep rooted pride that we know best and an even deeper rooted fear that we will never find it. These two flawed emotions were the locus of what fueled Gollum and what fuels us today.
How? Because, it is both the pride and the fear that keeps us constantly seeking limited things. Pride says that I will find what I am looking for; that I know better than God; that I am right; etc. Fear says I cannot let go of it; I cannot face life without it; I do not want to feel incomplete. Both keep us in this damaging cycle, which ends in an addiction.
This leads a person, like Sméagol, to, eventually become preoccupied and enamored with the limited object, so much so, that they will seek after it, in increasing measure, until it utterly changes them, and finally destroys them. And, while indulging an addiction does provide a temporary relief from the anxiety it produces, it never gives a person lasting peace. It keeps them sober enough to seek its help, but sick enough to miss the cure.
And that is the great problem for all humanity. That our spirit, mind, and will have been so disoriented by sin and the pursuit of limited things, that we have all been dragged into a never ending cycle of pride, fear, and addictive dependence. How? Because all of us, at some point or another, have believed the lie that an infinite hole can be filled with a finite thing. Yet, instead of realizing that this is a lie, we fearfully pour ourselves into these things, expecting a different outcome upon the horizon.
Now, the most ironic part about all of this, is that while addictions can come in many shapes and sizes, at the core of them all, they are basically the same. To say it a different way, it is not the objects we are chasing that are similar, but the fact that all of us are chasing something. This means, that there is an even greater force behind the things we are pursuing, which is causing all of us to keep on doing it. For instance, Joe may be chasing after sex as a means of satisfying his human longings, whereas John may need and be craving food. Yet, under the surface of both of these is the same basic craving, which I now want to look at.
What Are All Human Beings Basically After?
Behind all of the “sins” we participate in, all human beings are basically trying to find the same thing, which is a sense of balance and peace in the midst of a chaotic and broken world. All of our hearts are yearning after the hope that one day they will be made whole. Each of us are desiring physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual security, because everything around us seems so utterly broken. And, because each of us instinctively fears how broken and shaky we really are, we are pridefully compelled to do whatever it might take to fix it. Yet, incredibly, the things we have tried fixing ourselves with have not really fixed the problem! This is the common thread of sinful humanity and the two-part pattern for all addictive behavior. What’s the pattern?
- Pride causes us to seek wrong things to fix us.
- Fear keeps us seeking it when we know its wrong.
It is a never-ending cycle of dependency. Let me demonstrate this with a few examples.
Eating is a perfectly normal human activity, which promotes a healthy life and flourishing existence. But, food can also become unhealthy and addictive when we allow false beliefs about it to guide our false pursuits towards it. This often leads to physical addictions, which have been described above. Yet, beneath the surface of the physical addictions, there are often deeper and greater emotional addictions that needs to be dealt with. Let me explain.
Picture a child, who desperately wanted to feel loved and accepted, but was often overlooked and ignored by those around him. He craved to be noticed, and often acted out in negative ways to get attention, even if it got him in trouble. Yet, when all of the family settled in for the evening, and gathered around the dinner table, the child began to notice that he could gain affirmation by eating all of the food on his plate. In his mind, it was the eating that caused his parents to notice him, whereas in reality, they were simply more attentive to him at dinner; having finished their work for the day.
Eventually, this child began asking for seconds, and thirds, not because he was still hungry, but because it was in those moments that the parents would notice and compliment him best. It was in these times, that he felt most loved and appreciated, which eventually led to him seeking acceptance through food.
As an adult, he began justifying gluttonous behaviors, anytime that he felt unloved or unaccepted. Again, this was not because he was hungry, but because his broken heart was looking for love and acceptance through food. Food was the outer addiction, but it was acceptance that really fueled him. And, it should come as no surprise that this man did not gain the love and acceptance he was truly looking for. What he gained, instead, were only pounds and pounds of excess weight, which held him down.
Just like food, sex is a perfectly normal and healthy human desire and activity. It is a gift that God has given to humanity for reproduction and populating the earth. It is also a mode for expressing the deepest and most intimate loving fellowship that two human beings can have with one another. Yet, as outwardly physical as sex is, the most damaging addictions that result from it occur from within. Again, an example will be used to illustrate.
Imagine that there is another man, who was a devout Christian, and for years he has struggled with feelings of rejection and abandonment, which led him to pornography. Like all Christians, he knew this behavior was wrong, and usually walked away from it feeling dirty, ashamed, and disgusting. But, time and time again, he threw himself into it to satisfy his sinful and addictive behavior, which was rooted in a craving heart. Yet, it was not the sex that he was addicted to, or even the pornography, it was the emotional comfort that he gained from being naked and unashamed in front of a person who could not judge him.
You see, when a person, like this man, grows up feeling constantly rejected and unloved, the scariest thing you could ever ask him to do, is to be emotionally vulnerable in front of another human being. Why? Because, when a person is stripped down like that, what often matters more to them than being naked is the fact that they are completely emotionally opened and laid bare. They are unprotected. They have no defenses and are completely vulnerable. Thus, it is an act of infinite trust, for this man, to let anyone in that close to him. Why? Because he is constantly terrified of being rejected.
Yet, pornography offers him the pleasure and intimacy he desires, without a fear of being rejected. It offers him the allure of an attractive woman, who is always smiling, and who is always ready to make him feel significant. But, it is an illusion that is making promises it cannot deliver on. Again, it was not the physical need for sex that drove this man, so much as it was the emotional need for love and acceptance.
Yet, in both of these examples, the core of what they were really after was balance and peace. Each of them knew they needed something to fix the brokenness that was inside of them, but both chose pride and fear as a way of getting it. Pride says that I alone know what I need (attention, love, acceptance, etc.), fear says I cannot live without it!
What Is It For You?
From the most strident atheist to the most devout Christian, all of us fundamentally know that the world is out of balance. That human beings are flawed, and nature is a scary place. And, in the fear that we will lose control, all of us have pridefully tried finding ways that we can fix the unfixable problem! We do it by adding outward activities, inward thoughts, people, and various other things on top of the problem, but none of it fixes the problem! And, as a result, all of us have become addicted to things, which will not ultimately fix us! (see the chart below for a few more examples).
What’s The Solution?
First, instead of thinking that we can fix the problem, we must be humble enough to recognize that there is nothing we can do to fix it. The problem is too great and we are too weak to satisfy it. We must be different from Adam, who saw that the tree was good, and chose for himself to turn away from God. He chose pride, but we must kill it.
Second, we must not be like Adam who hid from God, because the inevitable result of pride is a life crippled by fear. Instead, we must have confidence and boldness that God alone can fix us. How you might ask? Because the God who made us, did not intend for us to remain broken. He did not intend for us to pridefully look towards broken things to fix our brokenness, any more than he intended us to fearfully hide from Him when He draws near. God designed us for relationship with Him, and, even as far back as the garden, where pride and fear first took root, we see God making an incredible promise, to one day break the destructive cycle that the serpent introduced, and to be once again be in relationship with human beings.
In Genesis 3:15, God speaks these words to the wicked serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Do you see what God is saying here? That one day, a child of Eve will come and crush the serpent’s head (his power over us), but in so doing, he will also lose his life? This is incredible! Because it shows us that thousands of years before Jesus Christ came to this earth, God had already promised that a man was coming who would set everything right again.
But this was not just any man. This was God’s own son, who entered into human history to rescue us and deliver us from the power of sin and death! And, in order to do that, this man Jesus lived a life that completely and utterly triumphed over pride and fear. How so?
In Philippian 2:5-8, it tells us that Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
If there was ever a human being who had a right to be prideful it was Jesus. He was with God when the foundations of the world were spoken into existence, but more than that He was God in human flesh. But yet, we see Him humbling himself to the point of dying a shameful death on the cross. Jesus refused to take on the pride of Adam, and instead was perfectly humble in every way.
Likewise, in Hebrews 12:2, it tells us that Jesus was the pioneer for our faith. That He came and He modeled for us how to live. And in so doing it says:
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Again, if there was ever a person who had a reason to fear it was Jesus. Why? Because there had never been a single moment, in all of His existence, where He did not have perfect fellowship and union with God. But yet, unlike Adam who cowered in fear in the Garden of Eden, Jesus was courageous in His garden (Gethsemane). He stood up, and with joy, faced the cross that poured the wrath of God upon His head.
He had an infinite existence throughout all eternity, and yet He limited Himself and became humble for us. He had infinite security and peace in relationship with God, but yet He became cursed for us. And, this is the solution. Not that we would try harder to be humble and courageous, not that we would spend our lives attacking our addictions, pride, and fear, but that we would recognize that Jesus has already done those things for us.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21 it says: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The vicious cycle of sin (pride and fear) leads all of us into addictions. But, by acknowledging that Jesus is higher than all of my addictions, and that His life was given in exchange for mine, then we can finally begin experiencing the freedom that God has for us. If we would rest in Him, instead of everything else, then in Him we would find the peace and security that our hearts have all be looking for. Sex, food, money, power, nor anything else will do it. Will you rest in Jesus?
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