The Morality of Addiction
Living in California has its benefits, namely weather. It’s also an incredible mission field. The world has come and is coming to California. This is especially true of the Bay Area, Silicon Valley. My neighborhood is quite diverse. It’s up to 40% Indian (from India). There are large numbers of people from China, Korea, and other ethnically similar countries. My is diverse neighborhood. That’s the Bay Area. That’s California. Aside from these wonderful attributes, California has its share of woes. Politically, there’s no social experiment that won’t be attempted. Experiments and programs cost money, so California is taxing itself to death on multiple and many well intended gimmicks (there’s on old saying about good intentions and where they lead). Skid Row in Los Angeles shows the wisdom of California’s social action. Needles, feces, urine, drugs, drug addicts, dead bodies, and homeless people. Most of these people on Skid Row are either mentally disturbed or drug addicted, usually both. By the way, this is “The Skid Row.” It’s been this way to one extent or the other for a long time. It serves as an illustration of the impotence of a gimmicky society to deal with its ills, which brings us to the morality of addiction.
Today, addiction is considered an ‘illness.’ There’s a great deal of disease terminology applied to addiction. We talk about it like someone’s caught the flu, or a really bad cold—or developed cancer. People are said to have made ‘poor choices.’ Poor choices. Poor choices? Addiction is a disease. A disease? How so? Let’s talk about this.
Before we do, let’s first acknowledge that when a person moves far enough into the abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, etc. they do in fact develop physical symptoms. Too much alcohol leads to liver disease (cirrhosis of the liver). Become too fond of cigarettes and you may develop lung cancer. Smoke crack cocaine or meth and eventually you’ll see your immune system suppressed and degraded (for variety of reasons), you’ll lose weight, become emaciated and start looking like the walking dead. Take hydrocodone or OxyContin for that bad back and take either one too long and you’ll become pain free but you’ll develop other problems. You’ll become sick, diseased. And, tragically, you may be among those who die through suicide, overdose, car accidents (injuring or killing others in the process), or complications associated with the destruction of your body and its vital organs (liver, lungs, brain, et al). You might also die while dealing drugs to buy drugs, by being robbed or attacked by other addicts, or by being injured or killed by law abiding citizens or law enforcement as they prevent you from robbing or harming others so that you can get drugs. Some die from sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) because they sold their bodies for drugs one time too many or picked the disease up from a shared needle or casual sex with another addict. All of these maladies involve disease, or sickness. Mental illness occurs eventually as one damages his or her brain beyond repair or recovery, which is why most of the people on Skid Row are there, in Los Angeles.
How did they ‘get sick?’ Where did their addiction-disease come from (this is where the title of this essay comes from)? Let’s have an honest talk about the morality of addiction. Let’s talk cause and effect. Let’s talk common sense. Reality. What led to this heartbreak? In a word, choices. For clarity’s sake, let’s use Methamphetamine as an example. Every Meth addict chose to break the law and buy, steal, or procure and experiment with Meth. They didn’t catch Meth addiction like a cold or the flu, they flirted with it, experimented with Meth, and chose to risk the harm. Think about it. No one ingests Meth, crack cocaine, or heroine because they skipped church last Sunday, or their devotion time that morning. They elected to do what they knew society had outlawed (for good reason) and put themselves (and others) at risk. That’s not a disease. Most people don’t decide to catch a cold, the flu, or develop cancer. However, the choice to do or experiment with drugs is just that a choice. Granted, they will develop disease like symptoms eventually. But those complications associated with addiction are like self-inflicted injuries. Think of it as something akin to cliff-diving. When someone jumps off a 90+ foot cliff in Mexico into the sea below and winds up injured we do not say they were ill. We do not talk about their disease. We might think they are stupid for taking such a risk but we do not think they are diseased through no fault of their own. They, too, made a choice.
The disease model, so popular today, pretty much fails in the realm of addiction. Why is the disease model so appealing in popular culture and pop psychology? To one degree or another the disease model is appealing because it absolves almost everyone of responsibility. It appeals to the human condition’s sense of victimhood (and entitlement). No harm… no foul… no one’s to blame. It just happened like an accident, a mistake, or a disease. I’m a victim, you’re a victim, we are all victims of circumstance. It’s nobody’s fault.
The disease model of no-fault addiction (and its abuse) is not unlike the insanity plea in a murder case. You’d have to be crazy to murder someone right? People attempt the insanity plea more frequently than they succeed in successfully invoking and applying it to their murder case. To successfully employ an insanity plea involves proving that at the time of the crime the accused had no grasp on the gravity or reality of his or her actions. They were completely unaware that they were strangling a person or stabbing a person. In essence, they mistook the activity for walking the dog or driving to the corner market for a half gallon of milk. They were totally out of touch with reality to the point they, themselves, had no knowledge of the gravity of their actions. Where the attempt to plead insanity breaks down for people is that usually the murder, the crime, involved stealth, an attempt to get away, planning, and often an attempt to dispose of evidence or conceal involvement. Choices. Decisions. Thought. There’s usually planning, execution of the plan, and an attempt to getaway or cover one’s tracks.
People buying drugs seldom stand on the street corner and shout at the top of their lungs (i.e. insanity plea) “where can I score some Meth (or crack)?” Drug dealers and drug purchasers typically try and conceal their activity, particularly from the police. What’s my point? They know what they are doing. They know what they are doing is illegal. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are not ill. They are stupid, selfish, or sinful—yes—but they are not ill. Their actions, as we observed earlier, may result in illness, physical and or mental. But they are not ill. Their brains (if not their consciences) are sufficiently functional. It may escalate to mental or physical illness (brain damage, liver damage, etc.) but it’s a choice and an immoral one and illegal one at that. You know: sin.
What if they don’t agree with the law as it is on the books? Let’s shift gears. I’m a Christian. As a Christian God and His word are my priority. God’s word says in Romans:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)
Who was the emperor at the times of Paul’s writing (Nero)? We don’t get to choose which laws we obey. Selective obedience is wrong. Peter along these same lines write this:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Who was the emperor in Peter’s day? The same emperor, Nero. This brings us to the morality of addiction. To become addicted to drugs, even alcohol, you had to choose (and willingly choose) to cross a line. You didn’t catch your addiction like a cold. You didn’t contract it like cancer or the flue. You voluntarily took steps to acquire it. Addiction doesn’t strike like lightening. The addict, regretfully, chose to ignore reality and roll the dice with their lives, the lives of those who love them, and the law. And all too frequently for most, the wages of sin, the consequences of their actions is death (Romans 6:23a). Physical death, spiritual death, eternal death, death of relationships… death in all its forms.
How do people get this way? James 1:13-16 paints a picture of the thought process:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived my beloved brothers. (James 1:13-16)
People like to blame others for their choices. They even blame God. Ultimately, they have no one to blame but themselves. Each person is enticed and lured, seduced, by his or her wrong thinking (desires). They do little ‘what if’ dress rehearsals in their heads. They slowly convince themselves that they will be able to get away with something. And after running a few mental dry runs in their head, they commit their act. They think they will be able to do what others can’t—get away with it without consequences. Verse 16 provides an apt warning and transition to the next verses: “Do not be deceived.’ Paul writing in Romans 1:18-32 confronts us with the reality that people know better. But wanting what they want (instead of what God wants) they concoct all kinds of stories and fables in order to ignore God, suppressing what they know is true. Ungrateful and unthankful for what they have they ignore God and pursue injurious behaviors to the point of their own death and along the way encourage others to do the same.
So, let’s not talk about addiction as an illness. Let’s talk about its root cause: sin. A willful choice to do what is wrong in hopes that there will be no consequences. To be gracious, there are the 5% of people who become addicted to opiates because they spend months in a burn unit or a trauma unit with horrific injuries. Call that 5%. 95% if the time people choose to elevate themselves to godhood and demote God’s will, subordinating it to their own. When you play with fire, sooner or later you get burned. And while 12 step programs and rehab centers are better than nothing, real change starts with repentance (and faith). In the Gospel of Mark we read: “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Real change begins with a saving, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit, speaking through the pen of Paul, writes: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The path to lasting change begins with Christ. The road afterwards for the addict is a long one. But apart from Christ he or she can do nothing. We all know insanity is doing the same things over and over and pretending things will be different this time. Drug abuse stems from immoral choices, that’s the morality of addiction. But there’s alway hope if we turn to Christ, surrendering our will, our rights, to Him, as God and Savior.