What? Substance abuse isn’t due to a chemical hook?
You may have heard this all your life, but it isn’t true. There are four excellent reasons why it’s not and the first three of them are already known to most of us. Somehow, the facts don’t register like they should. Even the men in our yearlong recovery program typically come to us programmed (by culture) to believe that the substance itself was all-powerful. They should know better, they need to know better, but they don’t. Not surprisingly, this false belief is a cause of ever-deepening bondage.
In fairness the crack, alcohol, heroin or meth seemed all-powerful. It’s effect upon their body and their need for it could only be explained (in their minds) by the power of a physical craving. Every time they came up against the temptation, their physical desire rose with such urgency that resistance seemed futile and they caved in to it. This giant was bigger than they were and worse, their own body had turned traitor and was hooked on it.
Tragically, this kind of thinking gives the addiction even greater power. Addictions have at their core a lot of false beliefs. Every lie believed adds to the inner bondage. In this case the lie of the chemical hook reduces the struggle to a will power contest which they lose consistently. How can you fight what your own body wants so badly? The death grip of the substance was too tough to beat. This is what they came to “know” by bitter personal experience. Beware what you think you know. If it isn’t the whole truth, it will wreck you.
They all know, of course, that there was definitely a time—a very long time—in their life when they saw nothing wrong with the substance. Those were the days of chasing it like a bridal lover. They knew what they wanted and raced after it with near-naked abandonment. Typically, they only come to us when they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The chase has exhausted all their energy and resources; worse, it’s taking them down. At long last they are craving freedom from the substance, rather than the substance. They don’t want it now. Why do they still crave it? It must be the chemical hook!
Their eyes widen when I tell them their addiction was never due to a chemical hook. It goes against what they believe and all they have experienced. But once I walk them through the facts of the matter, they come around. Then, it’s truly wonderful to see the light of recognition being switched on as furrowed brows lift and eyes go back on bright. Every step into the light leads them further away from darkness and bondage, and brings them one step closer to understanding what AA calls the “cunning and baffling” mystery of addiction. Let’s take some of those same steps now and grasp these keys of freedom for ourselves and others.
A Glance at the Facts
There are four reasons why addiction isn’t due to the power of a chemical hook. Three of these reasons are observable facts, studied by science and fairly well known to the average person. The fourth is the most powerful reason of all. It provides all the clues we need to discover the real power at work.
Our bodies are our friends. They “hate” anything they can identify as toxins. Within days the chemicals from most of the addictive substances are eliminated, leaving no trace behind. For some chemicals the detox may take a few weeks. After that your body has fully recovered, but have you? Everyone with an addiction knows that you can be in sobriety for months, even years, and still feel the cravings, still cave in to the desire. The mere sight of a substance is enough to trigger the old familiar urges with all the old unwanted intensity.
Where is the chemical hook in that?
Doctors and nurses should all be arrested! They are giving out highly addictive narcotics with a frequency that rivals any drug dealer. They’re not of course, but why not? Post-surgical procedure often includes giving tremendously powerful opiates to even little children and little old ladies. These substances are medically pure and far more potent than what’s usually available on the street. Yet, precious few get hooked.
Where’s the chemical hook in that?
Note: Ironically, it is the actual physical need for pain to be relieved that allows the narcotic to work without causing addiction. Patients are carefully monitored. As the pain goes down, so does the dosage. In this way they rarely form a psychological dependence on the substance. The problem comes when some patients are sent home with prescription pain killers. They may begin abusing these by using them for the high, rather than for pain relief.
This one everyone knows. Many activities are just as addictive as substances seem to be. Just recall what you know about the epidemic of pornography that infests our nation. All manner of sexual sins, gambling, and other compulsions can easily reach the level of full-blown addictive behavior, but there is no substance involved. Nothing ingested, nothing swallowed. We could even cite anorexia as a bizarre form of denying the body those very substances it should otherwise receive. Yet, these addictions are absolute bears to defeat.
Where is the chemical hook in that?
Note: The first two of these reasons are explored in a TED talk called “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong” by Johann Hari. It’s fascinating, funny and filled with insights about the underlying root of addiction from a secular point of view (which by the way fits nicely into a Christian perspective). He also makes a sensible and impassioned plea for de-criminalizing substance abuse. Follow this link to view and enjoy it.
The Power of Choice
Just keeping to these three facts alone should be enough to free us from thinking that substance abuse is a substance issue. Body chemistry and the chemistry of the substance may play a role, but it is clearly a minor one. The main action on stage is psychological, not physical. Don’t think psychologists or psychiatrists. By psychology I simply mean everything else about us other than our body. This used to be called soul (psyche = soul), but soul sounds so esoteric or pretentious that I rarely use it. Oh, and let’s be sure to add in the spiritual side of life as part of what’s not physical about us.
Another reason I like using psychology is that I’m playing with words. Addictions are truly “psycho” logical! It seems crazy and convoluted—that’s the psycho component—but there is a reasoning process going on, nevertheless. As Paschal said, “The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.” The “logic” of addiction is springing up from deep within, often from dark places the addicted one cannot see and no longer remembers burying. Are you ready for this? Before anyone becomes addicted to a substance, they have had to become “addicted” to believing untruths.
What hooks the addict is not chemicals, but deeply “cherished” beliefs, beliefs held so tenaciously in the deep heart that there is only one thing that can produce genuine and lasting freedom: revelation. It takes the blasting power of revelation to bring freedom from our deepest beliefs. Revelation can come painfully, slowly, through repeated experiences, or like lightning in moments of stunning clarity, but it must arrive for the false beliefs to be satisfactorily displaced. Here’s why:
The Lord has gone on record that He has given to us the power to choose between good and evil, life and death, blessing and cursing. We may not think we have that power, but we do. Consider this: If you (mistakenly) think that something evil such as crack cocaine is actually going to be radically good for you, then you will do everything in your power to get it and use it.
For this reason, God pronounced the woe of Isaiah 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good.” This is what I call “the lie of the substance”: the idea that using it will somehow mend or enhance our life. If we buy into it, we are hooked! It feeds into other lies just as deeply buried, that will form the core of another article later on. (To learn more about the three lies underlying addiction, see No More Idols, a three-page PDF free at our website.)
This perspective from scripture is such a major key to understanding addiction that we will spend more time exploring Fact 4, than all the others combined. Let’s look more closely at what the Lord is telling us.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19 ESV
Why would God call “heaven and earth to witness” against us? Why are witnesses called in a court of law? To establish truth. It is well-known that defendants cannot be trusted to tell the truth. There is a long history of blame-shifting that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when Adam blamed Eve for his sin, rather than take full responsibility.
It is as if the Lord is saying, “I know one day you will try to tell Me that your wrong ways weren’t your fault. You will say that you were victims of your biology, or your upbringing, or your circumstances, or that you were addicted and couldn’t help it. So, I’m making sure that what I’m doing today is being witnessed by heaven and earth. Don’t even think about wiggling out of this one!”
The power of choice has been given to everybody. Each and every one of us has stupendous power to choose life or death, blessing or cursing. We may try to deny it, but our denials will never be vindicated by the One who has given us this privilege and power. Let us at least begin here in our attempt to sift through the smoke screen of rationalization and misinformation that surrounds the issue of addiction.
The power of choice is an excellent place to begin, not least because God is so emphatic about us having it. However, there are other excellent reasons for making sure that we believe this truth about ourselves. If we don’t have this power, then genuine freedom and real life can never be restored to us—our situation would be truly hopeless and we may as well give in to our compulsions. If we don’t believe we have this power, then we won’t put out the effort that it takes to choose life and make our choices stick. This belief places the responsibility for our life right back on our shoulders, where it needs to be, if we are ever to make any headway towards becoming that freer, better version of our selves.
As we will see, this power of choice is nothing like the simplistic slogan, “Just say no.” There are things that we need to do and things we need to pursue in order to use this power effectively. We will get to that in a moment, but first we have to take a brief, but necessary, diversion.
Which Came First?
I am well aware that there is a great divide among good-hearted, well-intentioned people who work in this field. There are many who take a materialistic approach, placing greater emphasis on the body’s chemistry, or that of the brain, or of the substance itself. In this respect the role of chemical “hooks” in substance abuse is akin to the question: “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”
These larger issues surrounding addiction influence everyone’s approach. Does biology control destiny or does the inner life of the spirit? Are we controlled by our chemicals, or are we controlled by our choices and by the deeply held beliefs that they spring from? These questions aren’t confined to the realm of addiction, but infuse the discussion about depression, mental illness and all the stress related diseases.
Many in the medical community take the side of chemical determinism. You are whatever the physical and chemical structures of your body declare you to be (and no more): Your genes rule over you. You are also controlled by your brain’s chemistry. You are fated to live bounded and driven by elements of a physical universe that cares nothing about you and about which you can do nothing. Nature triumphs over nurture every time.
On the other side is free will and a God who can lead you out of any bondage, if you let Him. Neither the physics nor the chemistry of the universe He created is of any hindrance to Him. All He needs is your freely surrendered will. I’ll go with God and freedom every time!
Let’s see how this plays out with addiction. Some propose that those who suffer with addictions have a biological destiny to fulfill. They can’t help it. It began with their genetic inheritance which now programs their brain chemistry. These chemical hooks to the substance can’t be removed from their bodies. Hence, the addict is trapped in a lifelong struggle against their own biology.
That’s not the way our God sees it or says it. His teaching in Deuteronomy 30:19 and Isaiah 5:20 clearly show that the deep root of any addictive behavior goes back to the “woe” of choosing to believe (mistakenly) that some evil thing is good. OK, but that’s religion they might counter. Oh, but it is also science!
This new thrust of science may have gotten off to a slow start, but on the other side of the medical-scientific divide are scientists studying how thoughts of the mind create structures in the brain. In this view it is the mind which creates its own brain structure. Believe something long enough and it becomes structured in your brain. Scientists are even now in the process of proving that we create new brain cells and new DNA structures as we go along—something previous scientific wisdom had declared to be impossible.
It was discovered that the brain continually changes in response to mental and sensory signals throughout the human life span. This process has now been termed ‘neuroplasticity’. It was thought that, as adults, we had the full complement of nerve cells (neurons) and that we basically lost neurons until we died. Now we know scientifically that we continue to produce neurons in certain areas of the brain constantly, a process known as neurogenesis… There is thankfully now a growing opposition to the materialist view even among mainstream scientists. “The Mind Changes the Brain,” Blog by Dr. Caroline Leaf.
Interested in seeing more? Watch “Hooked, Hacked, Hijacked – Reclaim Your Brain from Addictive Living” by Dr. Pam Peeke at TEDxWallStreet.
The interactive influence of the mind-body connection makes perfect sense. We are 100% chemical, 100% electrical and 100% spiritual. No need to deny any part of this equation. You and I cannot have a thought, conscious or unconscious, without a corresponding electrical and chemical response taking place in the body. But which one is on top? That’s the real question.
Some would say that body chemistry got there first. They have no explanation for this other than a (supposed) genetic predisposition. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Even if there were a genetic predisposition, might it have been there because earlier family members in the generational line also had a similar belief structure which restructured their body chemistry and which eventually compromised the genetic code? The Lord says that unrepented sin stalks the generations like a slinky going down stairs, colliding with our best laid plans. Is this “Biblical determinism”? No, because the whole process can be reversed through any generation that says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Fortunately, we don’t need to wait for further deciphering of the genetic code to see that the origin of the belief structure of the child has more to do with their home environment than with any body chemistry they inherited. Almost always the future addict is grown in an environment where there are addicts to begin with, or trauma, or a bad dad, or no dad—things that deeply damage the interior belief structure of any child. Why look further? (Learn more about how mal-nurture affects addiction. DOWNLOAD Addiction’s Three Lies, a free three-page PDF at our website.)
This debate is called “nature versus nurture” and it is a variation on the original chicken and egg problem I brought up. Does the predisposition come out of the home environment or derive from genetic inheritance? I stand squarely on the side of nurture, but It hardly matters in practical terms, since what is needed is freedom not determinism. Freedom is promised by God to anyone who will cling whole-heartedly to His version of the truth and go after Him ninety to nothing. The spirit of bondage is empowered by lies filling a gullible heart with untruth. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, as we will soon see in the next section.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” is a truth more everlasting than the (sometimes) inconstant pronouncements of our still embryonic science. See “The Power of Believing” at our website.
The Power of Revelation
Jesus says that if you continue with Him and learn to recognize and believe (“know”) what truth is, then anyone on earth can be set free by learning to believe truth (John 8:32). That’s the power of revelation combined with an active faith. Jesus puts our will squarely on top. Don’t think about this just in religious terms. Revelation is simply the “ah, ha” moment when truths are perceived which free us to make better choices and/or increase our motivation to persevere. The problem with calling our will a “free will”, however, is that imperfect knowledge and insufficient motivation can sidetrack or stymie our will, greatly limiting our freedom to choose wisely and persevere steadfastly in the right path. That’s why we need liberating truths to come to us “from the outside.”
As a revelation comes into the heart and mind of a person their brain structures change. This is because the spiritual life comes first—not the other way around. So what went wrong? The brain chemistry that was created around the addiction had everything to do with what the person believed before encountering the substance, and which he/she believed during the experience of initial euphoria created by contact with the substance. The addict-to-be declared on the inside, “This is great; I need it; I want it; I’ve got to have it; This will fix me.”
Such believing strong-arms everything else out of the way: Conscience is silenced; the voice of wisdom is silenced; the opinion of others is silenced; even one’s own prior beliefs are silenced. A greater truth has now supplanted everything else he or she had formerly believed. Naturally enough the body takes note and records the new truths in the chemical structure of the brain. The body is the servant of the mind and the deep heart. If you put the right believing in, the body works just fine. Put the wrong believing in and the body will be enslaved. The real problem is not the body, but the false believing. Without realizing it, we plunge full-bore into the “woe” of Isaiah 5:20.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Isaiah 5:20 ESV
Misidentifying things is deadly when the belief goes deep enough into the heart. The Lord clarified the issue for us with an earlier verse in Isaiah. We are carried into “captivity” by something that enslaves us just as surely as the Israelites were enslaved and carried into captivity as a consequence of worshiping idols. The central issue is still the same: Addiction is essentially idol worship. It is “bowing down to” and putting some ungodly thing first. This inevitably brings the consequence of being carried as a captive, enslaved to the idol.
Therefore my people are gone into captivity for lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude are parched with thirst. Isaiah 5:13 ASV
Considering the vast power of the addiction to enslave the addict, this whole discussion of “knowledge” may seem naïve. It isn’t. The Lord Himself has weighed in on this issue and He is all of the side of false “knowledge” enslaving us. After all, it was feeding on the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which led to our present disastrous condition, as “slaves of unrighteousness” needing Jesus to liberate us.
This “knowledge of good and evil” is a far deadlier thing that we have been conditioned to believe. For instance, if you fail a test in school by getting a few facts wrong, you aren’t punished for the rest of your life for a lack of knowledge. But this isn’t about facts and life isn’t a school room quiz.
Every struggling addict can say with their head that they want to be free and that the substance is killing them, but until the victory is more fully won in their deep heart, the years of conditioned, passionate belief in the wrong thing(s) will fight against them. Does this mean it’s hopeless? Not at all. But it does mean (as we all know) that they will have a battle royale on their hands—and the resistance isn’t coming from their bodies. They are fighting against their own beliefs.
Three Excellent Choices
Let’s take a closer look now at the Lord’s remedy for our problems with the power of choice He has given us. I like to say that as soon as He handed out the keys to the cars and put us in the driver’s seat, He told us what to do if we want to stay out of the ditch.
19“Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20 ESV
We would be making a terrible mistake if we ever separated verse 19 from verse 20, yet this is exactly what so many of us do. We take our powerful freedom to choose and set off with our defective wills to try to gain freedom and life under our own leadership and on our own terms. The results are in. That way never wins the race. The Lord says that for this to work, we need to a) love Him, b) obey His voice and c) hold fast to Him. These “recommendations” apply to all of us, not just those with addictions, but they do throw a sharp light on three things the addicted ones typically fail to do and desperately need to learn.
Loving the Lord means putting Him first. Not to do this is already choosing death in the most absolute and disastrous way possible for He is life. We are easily fooled by this one. Few Christians, or anyone else for that matter, would want to put Satan first, but Self is the devil in disguise. Jesus said that if we want to walk with Him we have to deny Self daily. Putting the Lord first brings Him into our daily life and leads us into eternal life. This is the ultimate qualitative choice for life and it has to be made again and again for it to remain real. The formerly addicted ones that I work with can honestly say that this is a choice they rarely or never made. They put Self and the substance into first place and kept the Lord (if they knew Him) waiting in reserve. That’s not choosing life!
The second thing the Lord mentioned is that we must “obey His voice.” Again, many of the men in our program would have come to us sooner, but they weren’t willing to obey the inner leading that was telling them to come our way. If we are in a burning building, it makes no sense to argue with the fireman who has come to lead us out. Learning to let the Lord lead us into life is the essential second step after putting Him first. We don’t “surrender all” to Jesus and then walk away from Him. We listen for the inner leadings of His Spirit in order to walk with Him each new day. This transforms the world into a place of wonder and our lives into an adventure.
Last but not least, the Lord says to hold fast or cling to Him. He knows that opposition, temptation and tough times are coming. His way of choosing life includes calling on His name and clinging to Him whenever we feel weak or wobbly. If we call and cling, He can and will help us to stand. He promised flat-out that “all who call” on His name will get the help that they need (Romans 10:13). But He didn’t say how long it would take to arrive or how desperately we might need to call at times. So, don’t give up. The very effort made in calling on Him, turns us towards Him and refocuses our attention from Self and onto Him.
These three ultra-powerful “recommendations” from the Lord are themselves, choices for life which we are free to make or reject. With these choices held firmly in place, all the rest of our deciding and doing becomes so much easier to make. These choices not only lead us out of the hard bondage of our addiction, they also guide us into whole new levels of freedom. The great thing about the Lord and His grace is that none of us has to do this perfectly. He sees our heart and knows if we are honestly trying to move in His direction.
Deeply Held Beliefs
Not being able to recognize the difference between right and wrong, between things that will bring blessing into our lives and things that will bring the curse, ensures that we are dooming ourselves to captivity. Sadly, these rules even apply to young people in the innocence and ignorance of childhood. I’ve known hundreds of addicts whose false believing began when they were extremely young as they gathered with a circle of friends to secretly try out cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana. The sense of fellowship and the pleasure of the substance seemed so good at the time that despite the warnings of adults and of conscience they declared it “good.”
Now that they are trying to get free of these things, they can’t understand why they keep reaching for them. The truth is that with addictions (and other compulsive behaviors) our current beliefs are up against our more deeply held ancient beliefs. Our “new heart” has to fight our “old heart” with all of its passions and deceits.
These former beliefs work to hold substance abusers in the vice-like grip of a desire they no longer fully want. But do they fully want to give it up? When they have crossed over to that side of the line, when nothing is left on the inside that desires the substance or believes in it, we can finally say (with them) that the lie of the substance has finally been exposed: There is nothing good it can possibly bring into their life—and they know it. Knowing that—beyond the shadow of a doubt or the twinge of a desire—is the truth which finally makes them free.
In summary where does passion for the wrong thing (the substance) spring from? Deeply held false beliefs. What restructures the brains chemistry? Deeply held right beliefs. Biology is not destiny; faith in God is. With a sufficiently activated and rightly attached faith, the Lord can free anyone and then lead them into His predestined plans for them. Now, that’s a truth well-worth believing!