Jesus and Addiction: Is He Really Enough?
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning…”
-1 John 3:8a
Growing up in the church is probably exactly like growing up in a five-story mansion on the side of a snow-laden mountain overlooking a rainbow valley where you daily see flocks of unicorns grazing: it’s a beautiful thing, but you run the risk of over-exposure. For a while you appreciate it, then one day you wake up finding yourself unable to be moved by what’s before you. Even though my official “rebellion years” ended when I got to college, since then I’ve continued to run the risk of being overly exposed (and therefore hardened) by the beautiful truths that are constantly before me. Thanks be to God though, because I’m slowly relearning the beautiful truths behind Bible verses and Christian jargon that for a long time had been cold to my soul. In that relearning process though, I’ve found myself particularly cautious about Christian phrases that get thrown around as often as the plot to Zookeeper. This entry is about one such phrase:
“Christ is Enough”
This phrase (or the trinitarianly-appropriate equivalent “God is enough”) was my banner for a long time through college. Chris Tomlin’s “More than Enough” was my theme song. I started reading books like John Piper’s Desiring God and Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God to fuel my growing conviction that finding everything I needed in Jesus would increase my joy and destroy my sin addictions. It wasn’t quite that simple though.
Here’s the problem with phrases like “Christ is enough” and other Christian jargon: it’s very much a summary of something that’s true. To be sure, this is a true phrase. But as a summary phrase, it skims over the process of how you get from point A to point B. Saying “Christ is enough” is often used in books and sermons to curb idolatry and addictions. Struggle with materialism? Christ is enough. Can’t stop looking at porn? He satisfies. Have a problem with overeating? God is all you need. Again, I believe that finding satisfaction in Christ is the answer for our addictions. But simply telling someone that God is all they need without showing them how to find that satisfaction can be (at least in my own personal experience) very unhelpful. Why? An example:
I’ve often seen the whole “God is enough” thing illustrated in sermons by setting up two tables. On one table is a burger, fries, and drink from McDonalds. The other table has a literal feast on it. The puny McDonalds combo is that sin you keep turning back to. The sumptuous feast is what Christ offers. It would be ridiculous to run to the McDonalds table for something that is far less in comparison. Similarly, it is ridiculous for you to indulge in your addiction when Christ is so much better. So leave your addiction in order to gain something that will truly satisfy you.
I last saw this example in the midst of a huge struggle I was having with pornography. As time passed I developed a growing dislike for that illustration, and it’s only been recently that I discovered why I think that it is an incomplete picture of the truth it aims to display. See, whichever table you choose, whether it’s the dinky McDonalds meal or the super-satisfying feast, you’re still satisfying the same basic urge: hunger. But that correlation doesn’t always make a visible translation from Feast/McDonalds to Christ/Addiction when you personalize it. For example, the “McDonalds” bag for me at the time was porn, with Jesus at the feast table. The application was that I should stop turning to porn and go to Jesus. But here’s the problem with the illustration: if I’m hungry (desire), either table will give me what I want, which is food (satisfaction). The difference is only in the degree to which I satisfy my desire. In the real world, if I really want to look at naked people (desire), I can go to the “fast food” table of porn in order to meet that desire (satisfaction), or I can go to the “feast” table of Jesus in order to…what exactly? Jesus doesn’t sexually satisfy anyone. In the illustration, the difference between the tables was one of varying degrees. In the real world example, the tables don’t even appear to address the same longing. If what you’re really wanting is to see nakedness, Jesus isn’t anywhere close to being enough for you. He doesn’t even appear to be in the same category. To the addict, his choice isn’t the difference between okay food and amazing food. It’s between getting what he craves or not, making the illustration about as effective as pointing to his addiction and saying “Stop it.”
The only strength in the illustration is the truth it’s trying to present. Jesus is better than porn and far more satisfying than it. The illustration just doesn’t do a good job of teaching people why. The common denominator between the tables was food. But until you can establish a common denominator between porn and Jesus (that is, finding what it is that both porn and Jesus are trying to satisfy in you), the illustration won’t make sense nor will it free you from your addiction. On the surface (and in the eyes of the addict), porn appears to be about satisfying basic bodily needs, whereas Jesus appears to be about wanting to save your soul so that you can spend eternity with him. So how is the cross of Christ possibly relevant to our sinful struggles and addictions? How do we make the connection between the tables?
The connection between our addictions and Jesus is so much harder to see in real life than it is in the food illustration. To find it requires that we look deep into our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 informs us that it’s from the heart that the springs of life flow, and that’s where the connection needs to be made. To overcome any addiction with the truth that “Christ satisfies” or that “God is enough”, you must learn that he provides what you’ve turned to X,Y, or Z to get, only to a far greater degree. For example, I have a friend who struggles with smoking. What does “Christ is enough” look like for him? Can Jesus satisfy him in such a way as to curb his appetite for cigarettes? Certainly, but not because Jesus transubstantiates into the smoke which fills his lungs and becomes the equivalent of the most intense cigarette ever. Rather, my friend struggles a lot with smoking when he feels bad about himself. When negative thoughts start plaguing him, the temptation to smoke rises. And there’s the connection. His real urge isn’t to have a smoke. It’s to know that he has worth, that he’s valuable. Jesus is enough because he can remind him that he’s been chosen for salvation from before creation (Ephesians 1:4), that he’s blessed (Psalm 32:1-2), and that he is part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10). Another friend of mine (whose insight I can echo) said that porn for him provides a sense of acceptance, because none of the women in porn reject him. Porn for him then isn’t about looking at naked women. It’s about gaining a sense of acceptance that he feels he lacks. Christ is enough for him, not because he provides an orgasmic experience beyond anything porn could offer, but because Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross for him gives him all the acceptance one could ever hope to achieve: acceptance before the one person in this universe whose opinion really matters. (See Romans 5:1, 8:1)
What drives our addictions are misplaced needs, and oftentimes those needs aren’t obvious to us. It’s easy to see the problem as porn or over-eating or smoking or alcohol. But underneath all these are some very basic heart needs which aren’t being met, causing us to look to something, anything, to meet them. To say it another way, we’re searching for ways to meet needs that only God can meet. When we do this we commit idolatry, first in the heart and then in our actions. Things like alcohol and porn are only the surface idols that are fueled by the idols of the heart. In his book Redemption: Freed By Jesus From the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, author and pastor Mike Wilkerson recounts the story of three people: Philip, who struggled with pornography; Lisa, who struggled with an eating disorder; and Christine, who struggled with drug addiction and a promiscuous lifestyle. What these three different people with their three different addictions had in common was the urge which led them to pursue their respective sins: “they craved the love, acceptance, and attention of people in their lives.” He continues: “The variety of surface idols that expressed this single deep idol is surprisingly broad: pornography, food, cutting, drugs, prostitution, theft, social striving, weight loss, and religion. An idol always lives in the heart before it is made visible by the hands.” In other words, one simple idol like craving the acceptance of others can lead to a myriad of different struggles. That heart idol is what Jesus is more than enough for.
You won’t understand why Jesus is a better alternative until you understand what’s really feeding your addictions. So what’s your addiction? What’s your struggle? What’s your version of the fast-food on the table? Trace it back to the heart, for it’s only there that it can be cut off. That’s where addictions start and where Christ comes in. Jesus is better than the idols of your heart. When you turn to Jesus to satisfy the longings of your heart that you’ve turned to [name it] to satisfy, the healing process will start. I know this because I’ve experienced it. By God’s grace I can call porn a “former” addiction, and it has very little to do with external measures like setting up accountability software (things which control behavior but not the heart). It has everything to do with undermining the lies I was believing in my heart with the truth of my identity in Christ. When all is said and done, Christ really is enough.
“…The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
-1 John 3:8b