John and Becky are 50-year-olds who attend church every Sunday and on Wednesday evenings. To look at them on Sunday morning, it would seem they are a happy Christian couple; however, the police know their address very well. During the last two years, they have become regular visitors to this home.

There are two life-controlling problems in this home. John has uncontrolled anger, and Becky, though frequently physically and verbally abused, covers for his violent behavior because she believes it is the Christian thing to do. This violent behavior and unhealthy cover-up have gradually worsened over the years. John, who was abused by his father when he was a child, has been abusing his wife for years, but it has escalated to the point where her wounds can no longer be covered up.

These mastering problems have not only trapped John and Becky, but because they have been covered up and not dealt with, their children have also been caught in this web of pain. A life-controlling problem is anything that masters (or controls) a person's life. Many terms have been used to describe life-controlling problems. Someone may speak of a dependency, a compulsive behavior, or an addiction. In 2 Corinthians 10:4, the Apostle Paul uses the word stronghold to describe an area of sin that has become a part of our lifestyle when he writes that there is divine power to demolish strongholds. The easiest life-controlling problems to identify are harmful habits like drug or alcohol use, eating disorders, sexual addictions, gambling, tobacco use, and the like. Life-controlling problems can also include harmful feelings like anger and fear. The word addiction or dependency can refer to the use of a substance (like food, alcohol, legal and/or illegal drugs, etc.,), or it can refer to the practice of a behavior (like shoplifting, gambling, use of pornography, compulsive spending, TV watching, etc.). It can also involve a relationship with another person. We call those relationships co-dependencies. The Apostle Paul talks about life-controlling problems in terms of our being slaves to this behavior or dependency that masters us. He writes in Romans 6:14, Sin shall not be your master. In 1 Corinthians 6:12b, he says, Everything is permissible for me ' but I will not be mastered by anything [or anyone]. According to 2 Peter 2:19b, A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. Anything that becomes the center of a person's life if allowed to continue will become master of that life. Because we live in a world today that can be described as an addictive society, most people are affected in some way by a life-controlling problem their own or someone else's. Everyone has the potential of being mastered by a life-controlling problem. No one plans for it to happen, but without warning an individual (and those who care about him) can be pulled into the downward spiral of a stronghold.

Addictions and Idols
Idolatry leads to addiction. When we follow idols, a choice has been made to look to a substance, behavior, or relationship for solutions that can be provided only by God. We have a felt need to serve a supreme being; if we choose not to serve God, we will choose an idol to which we will become enslaved. Jeffrey VanVonderen says:

Anything besides God to which we turn, positive or negative, in order to find life, value, and meaning is idolatry: money, property, jewels, sex, clothes, church buildings, educational degrees, anything! Because of Christ's performance on the cross, life, value, and purpose are available to us in gift form only. Anything we do, positive or negative, to earn that which is life by our own performance is idolatrous: robbing a bank, cheating on our spouse, people-pleasing, swindling our employer, attending church, giving 10 percent, playing the organ for twenty years, anything!

Following idols, which leads to addictions, prevents us from serving and loving God freely. All kinds of substance and behavioral dependencies lead to enslavement because everyone who makes sinful choices is a candidate for slavery to sin (see John 8:34). Jesus states in John 8:32 that the truth will set you free. God spoke to Moses in Exodus 20:3, You shall have no other gods before me. Sin, when unconfessed, strains the relationship with God that is meant to be enjoyed by the believer (see Proverbs 28:13; Jonah 2:8).

A very controversial question arises: Is an addiction a sin or a disease? Those who believe addictions are sin point to the acts of the sinful nature which include a substance (drunkenness) and behavioral (sexual immorality) problem in Galatians 5:19-21. Another reference to the sinfulness of addictions is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which shows that a definite change occurred in the lives of the Corinthian Christians: And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. Those who believe addictions (particularly alcoholism and other chemical dependencies) are a disease state the characteristics are progressive, primary, chronic, and fatal. In the latter stages, the victims are incapable of helping themselves because there is a loss of control and choice. In the 1950s the American Medical Association voted approval of the disease concept of alcohol dependence. The term disease means deviation from a state of health (Minirth, 57).

When sin and addiction are compared, they show similar characteristics. Both are self-centered versus God-centered and cause people to live in a state of deception. Sin and addiction lead people to irresponsible behavior, including the use of various defenses to cover up their ungodly actions. Sin and addiction are progressive; people get worse if there is not an intervention. Jesus healed the man at the pool of Bethesda and later saw him at the temple. Jesus warned him about the progressiveness of sin: See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you (John 5:14). Sin is primary in that it is the root cause of evil. Sin produces sinners as alcohol causes alcoholism. Sin is also chronic if not dealt with effectively. Finally, sin is fatal with death being the end result.

Although addictions do have the characteristics of a disease, I must stand with the authority of God's Word as it pronounces various addictions as being a part of the sinful nature (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21). They are sinful because God has been voided as the source of the solution to life's needs, and these choices often develop into a disease. A noted Christian psychiatrist says:

Physiologically, of course, some people are more prone to alcoholism than others, even after one drink. And often guilt drives them to more and more drinking. But then some people also have more of a struggle with greed, lust, smoking, anger, or overeating than others. Failure to contend with all of these is still sin (Minirth, 57-58).

Anything that becomes the center of one's life, if allowed to continue, will become the master of life. If God is not the center of a person's life, that person will probably turn to a substance, behavior, or another person for focus and meaning. David describes his enemy in Psalm 52 as one who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others (v7).

The young, rich ruler described in the gospels (see Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30) came to Jesus asking how to receive eternal life. When Jesus told him he would have to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow him, the young man went away sad. This rich man's stronghold was the love of money. Everybody, not only the rich, must guard against this greater love of the rich young man. Paul writes: People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

This stronghold, the love of money, is the root cause of most addictions that plague our society. Although alcohol is a major cause of deaths, sicknesses, broken families, and relationships, it continues to be advertised with marketing strategies which appeal even to America's high school and elementary-aged children. The demand for cocaine and other substances would soon cease if there were no profits to be made. Sexual addictions are fed by an $8 billion industry of pornographic materials, appealing television commercials, and provocative movies. Compulsive gambling is fed by state-run lotteries. I wonder how much the love of money contributes to eating disorders. Many young women starve themselves to sickness and even death because of a greedy society that promotes an unhealthy thinness as beauty through media appeal and modeling agencies.

As the creation of God, each of us has a need to be dependent. There is a vacuum in the heart of every human since the fall of Adam and Eve that can be filled only by Christ. After our first parents disobeyed God, they immediately recognized their nakedness. Without God's covering, they hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8). They soon learned they could not escape from God.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there (Psalm 139:7-8).

It is interesting that Adam and Eve hid among the trees. They hid there because of guilt. Idols, which are false gods, can also become hiding places. Isaiah writes: for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood [or false gods] our hiding place (28:15).

In a life where Christ is not the focus, a person is likely to center attention on a substance, behavior, or another person which will eventually become a god to them. David recognized the need to have God as his tower of strength.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior from violent men you save me (2 Samuel 22:2-3).

The disease concept of addictions should be approached with caution. Assigning addictive substances and behaviors to the disease model tends to overlook the sinful nature of mankind. Although it is popular to label every stronghold as a disease, the Church must warmly care for those caught in the web of deception with ongoing support. It takes more than a pat on the back to cure them of their stronghold. Sinful choices develop into lifestyles that are self-centered and destructive. The fall of man puts us all in need of recovery.

How the Trap Works
Addictions and dependencies generally fall into three categories: substance addictions, behavior addictions, and relationship (interaction) addictions.

1. Substance addictions (the use of substances taking control of our lives)

  • Drugs/chemicals
  • Food (eating disorders)
  • Alcohol Other addictive substances

2. Behavior addictions (the practice of behaviors taking control of our lives)

  • Gambling
  • Compulsive spending
  • Use of pornography/other sexual addiction
  • Love of money
  • Sports
  • Other addictive behavior

3. Relationship (interaction) addictions (You may have heard a relationship problem like this referred to as co-dependency. )

Everyone has the potential of experiencing one or more of these life-controlling problems at some time. Maybe you find yourself already involved in an addiction or another problem behavior that has taken over your life. Sometimes it is hard to identify a life-controlling problem. Here are some questions that may help in that process:

Is my behavior practiced in secret?
Can it meet the test of openness or do I hide it from family and friends?
Does this behavior pull me away from my commitment to Christ?
Does it express Christian love?
Is this behavior used to escape feelings?
Does this behavior have a negative effect on myself or others?

These questions help us identify problems that have reached (or are in danger of reaching) the point of becoming life-controlling problems.

The next step is to look at the ways these behaviors and dependencies tend to progress in a person's life. Researchers have identified a pattern that follows some very predictable steps. Most people get involved with an addiction to receive a feeling of euphoria. Alcohol or other drugs, sex, pornographic literature, gambling, and so forth, produce a temporary high or euphoria.

Vernon E. Johnson, the founder and president emeritus of the Johnson Institute in Minneapolis, has observed (without trying to prove any theory) literally thousands of alcoholics, their families, and other people surrounding them . . . we came up with the discovery that alcoholics showed certain specific conditions with a remarkable consistency. Dr. Johnson uses a feeling chart to illustrate how alcoholism follows an emotional pattern. He identifies four phases:(1) learns mood swing, (2) seeks mood swing, (3) harmful dependency, (4) using to feel normal. Many of the observations made by Dr. Johnson and others, including myself, can also be related to other types of dependencies although the terminology may differ.

We call it the "Trap" because it often snares its victims before they realize what is really happening. Every person has the potential of experiencing a life-controlling problem. No one is automatically exempt. Even though no one plans to be trapped by such a problem, it can happen without a person's even being aware.

Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
All Rights Reserved

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