The Greatest "Addiction" of All


Most people know about common addictions to drugs and alcohol. These are difficult enough to face and manage. But the one addiction that is greater than all others is unrecognized by most people. Thankfully, it can be overcome.

"I can't get in trouble. I'm a celebrity," boasted Lindsay Lohan on the night she was arrested for driving under the influence with a suspended license and carrying cocaine (Los Angeles Daily News, Aug. 5, 2007, p. 1).

The newspaper article cited here is a sad commentary on the imperious actions of some famous personalities who sometimes do what they want simply because they can.

Interestingly, the article's headline asks, "Have We Lost Our Way?" It assumes that we once knew the right way to live and have merely strayed from it. But it assumes wrong. Drugs and alcohol impair good judgment. Yet a greater addiction, more widespread than any other, distorts true values—and most don't realize that they have it.

Research into addiction

In the introduction to their book Addiction (2007), John Hoffman and Susan Froemke write of their first encounter with various addictions and attitudes toward them. As laypersons, they were researching and preparing to produce a series on addictions for a major cable TV channel. "Neither of us had an in-depth knowledge of the subject," they say (p. 14).

"Addiction, as it turns out, is a problem that is messy—riddled with misconceptions, profoundly lacking in nationally recognized treatment standards, and highly stigmatized. Conversely, we also came to realize that although the science of addiction is relatively new, tremendous shifts in attitudes are occurring," they write.

The authors note that addiction is a chronic (ongoing) brain disease. "A vivid contributor to this change in attitude is the fact that science now gives us the ability to see inside the brains of addicted people. We can see that the addicted brain is different; that it is altered. With brain research has come great advances in the medical treatment of addiction and the promise of even more effective treatments on the horizon."

Hoffman and Froemke attended the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New York City in 2004, which included a comprehensive seminar on addiction. They learned how medications can help control the cravings of alcoholic addiction.

"But the turning point in our education occurred at the standing-room-only lecture of Nora Volkow, MD, on 'The Addicted Brain.' We learned how drugs erode the voluntary acts of an individual. Volkow's vivid explanation of how the brain's ancient reward pathways are hijacked due to the spikes of the brain chemical dopamine through repeated drug use was eye-opening" (p. 15).

The "Go!" system

In chapter 2 of Hoffman and Froemke's book they address how addiction is a brain disease. One fact is clear: "Drugs and alcohol change the brain—they change its structure and how it works" (p. 55).

The authors show how the brain works emotionally and logically through the dopamine pleasure pathway, the go system, and the prefrontal cortex, the stop system, respectively.

Under the subheading, "'Go!': The Dopamine Pleasure Pathway," they write: "Research has shown that all drugs of abuse directly or indirectly activate the brain's pleasure pathway, the intricate network that controls and regulates our ability to feel pleasure.

"When we experience something good—lovemaking, a good meal, a beautiful sunset—our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel warm, calm, and happy. After awhile, dopamine returns to a baseline level, and we go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience.

"We look forward to the next time because the experience is logged into the brain's limbic system, which, in addition to being the center for pleasure and emotion, houses key memory and motivation circuits. This is what the brain's dopamine pathway does; it records both the actual experience of pleasure and ensures that the behaviors that led to it are remembered and repeated. In between pleasurable events, there is a quiet period when the neurotransmitters return to their baseline levels" (pp. 58-59).

The "Stop!" system

Hoffman and Froemke then address the "Stop" system. Under the subheading "'Stop!': The Brain's Brakes," they write: "In addition to the 'Go!' system, the brain also has a built-in 'Stop!' system: the prefrontal cortex sometimes referred to as the seat of sober second thought.

"With this system, we pull all the information together, weigh it, examine the risks and consequences, and strategize the next move. Is this a good idea? Is this illegal or immoral, or will it make me sick? Will I be able to drive safely, will I be too hung over to get to my job in the morning?

"'When things are working right, the "Go!" circuitry and the "Stop!" circuitry really are interconnected and are talking to each other to help you weigh the consequences of a decision and decide when to go or not to go,' says Childress [Anna Rose Childress, a research associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine]. 'It's not that they're separable. They're interactive. They're interlinked at all times.'

"With addicts, however, 'it is as though [the systems] have become functionally disconnected. It is as though the "Go!" system is sort of running off on its own, is a rogue system now and is not interacting in a regular, seamless, integrated way with the "Stop!" system,' Childress says.

"Drugs of abuse directly activate the pleasure pathway, but recent research shows that addiction also involves the same pathways that manage memory and learning; that is, the addictive process moves in, undoes or weakens what the brain knew before, and then teaches it something else entirely" (pp. 60-62).

It certainly appears that there's more to common addictions than we once assumed and that the discoveries of how thinking pathways can be altered might also correlate with the greatest addiction of all.

The Bible on the greatest addiction

Human willpower is weak of itself, but it's made much weaker because of human nature. God says that even at our best we human beings are "altogether vanity"—empty (without fulfillment) or transitory (Psalm:39:5, King James Version).

Human nature is simply our tendency to do what comes naturally, what we think is best. In practice this usually means "looking out for number one," following the path of least resistance and doing whatever feels good.

What most people don't know is that this can be the greatest addiction of all, as well as the most dangerous. It is most dangerous because at the end of human life, with an unchanged, unrepentant attitude toward human nature, there is nothing left but death (Romans:6:23; Hebrews:6:4-8).

Human nature is at the root of humanity's problems—from jealousy, to lying, to deception, to hatred, to violence, to seeking power over others and to war, just to name a few of our ignoble traits. Human nature, being selfish and self-serving, often blindly repeats itself in evil acts that are harmful to self and others.

Notice how your Bible describes human nature: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah:17:9, New International Version). God uses the term heart for the motivation, attitude, logic and emotion of the human mind. And as He says here, the heart is incurable of itself; it cannot be cured or set right of itself.

God knew the limitations of human beings. He lamented in Deuteronomy:5:29, "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" They didn't have the right heart, and neither do we without His help.

The apostle James, half-brother of Jesus Christ, elaborated on the motivations of the human heart and the results: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James:4:1-5).

War comes from human nature, not God's nature. The Bible tells us that Cain was the first human murderer; he killed his brother Abel (Genesis:4:8). Since then, human beings have been killing one another by the thousands and millions.

Like other common addictions, the selfish way of human beings that is a part of our nature is highly and dangerously addictive.

How does human nature work in us?

Human nature, because it is highly motivated to please the self, often leads us to sin. Human nature first surfaced in Adam and Eve, both of whom sinned in the Garden of Eden—Eve through Satan's deception and Adam without deception (Genesis:3:6; 2 Corinthians:11:3; 1 Timothy:2:14).

Human beings have been sinning ever since. "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans:5:12). The impulses and drives of our human nature are a powerful, underlying and pervasive force. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans:3:23).

Sin can become an addictive, destructive force. Paul told Christians of their former way of life: "Because of your human weakness, I am speaking as a man: You once gave the members of your body to be slaves to moral impurity, and to more and more sin . . ." (Romans:6:19; Simple English Translation).

Those who function by way of their human nature alone cannot understand or obey God. Often deceived by their own nature and by sin, they ignorantly assume there is no other way to act.

As Paul explains: "For those whose lives are according to the flesh [human nature] think about the things of the flesh, but those whose lives are according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God's law, for it is unable to do so" (Romans:8:5-7, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Influences on human nature

The biggest influence on human nature comes from Satan, the great enemy of God and all of humanity. He is "the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient" (Ephesians:2:2, NIV), the one who presents himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians:11:14) while in reality he is the source of spiritual darkness and blindness.

Another powerful influence on our nature is the world around us. That, too, is largely shaped according to Satan's influence. He is "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians:4:4), a powerful being who "deceives the whole world" (Revelation:12:9).

Certainly Jesus knew the root of human nature, saying: "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it" (John:8:44).

God wants us to change

The big question that most people would want answered is, If God knows how bad human nature is, why would He allow us to have it?

As the Creator, God is ultimately responsible for all things, good and bad, though He does no evil and did not create evil. Satan is the instigator of the evil that dominates human nature, not God, and he will ultimately be held accountable for deceiving human beings and holding humanity captive to his corruption and confusion (2 Corinthians:4:4; Revelation:20:1-3; Isaiah:14:12-15).

As mentioned, human willpower is weak and human nature weakens us even more. Jesus knew this, saying, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew:26:41).

God wants us to overcome our human nature by Christ living in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot reach our ultimate destiny of being part of the family of God without this process.

This process includes believing faith as demonstrated by godly works (James:2:17-26). God gives eternal life to those who are forgiven of sin through Christ and, with His help, overcome their sinful nature (John:3:16-17; Revelation:2:26).

God is transforming imperfect human beings who have human nature into His perfect immortal sons and daughters (1 Corinthians:15:42-53). Human beings who repent and submit to this change from the addictiveness of their human nature prove to God that they want His way of life forever.

They overcome their selfish nature through the power of God's Spirit enabling them to live by His Word. Having done this throughout the remainder of their physical lives, these human beings are changed into spirit beings, actual divine children of God (Hebrews:2:10).

God knows that when people come to fully understand the wicked depths of their human nature and its terrible effects, they can choose to turn to Him for His help to overcome the unceasing downward pulls of human nature. God is pleased to give to such people His gift of eternal life. For when we honor Him in our weakened human condition, He knows that we will remain faithful later in a divine condition.

Overcoming with God's help

The first thing we can do to overcome this greatest addiction of all—being led by our self-centered human nature—is to recognize and admit that we have this nature and that we cannot save ourselves from what it leads to—death (1 John:1:5-10).

However, we cannot fully overcome our human nature until God the Father draws or calls us (John:6:44) and gives us His help. When we respond to the Father's call, we have an opportunity to repent of our sins, be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts:2:38).

Beyond this initial change, we must always seek help from above. God has provided the necessary help for us to overcome our sins, this world and Satan the devil. If we remain faithful and endure to the end, we can live in God's world to come as part of His everlasting Kingdom (Mark:1:14-15).

We can win against the greatest addiction

Humankind is readily susceptible to all kinds of addictions, such as those to drugs and alcohol, because of the weaknesses of the flesh and rebellious human nature. God gave us freedom of choice (Deuteronomy:30:19). But we must prove to Him that we want His way above our way so He can give us eternal life, all made possible through Jesus Christ's death and resurrected life (Romans:5:10).

Reading and studying God's Word, with His Holy Spirit, helps to wash our minds from wrong and sinful habits (Ephesians:5:26). Additionally, the knowledge and acceptance of Christ's shed blood covering our sins help cleanse our consciences from past dead works (Hebrews:9:14).

The greatest addiction can indeed be overcome—in fact, it must be. The apostle Paul strove to control his entire mind and body for fear that, after he preached to others, he could lose the battle against his own human nature (1 Corinthians:9:27).

The headline mentioned at the beginning of this article asked, "Have We Lost Our Way?" As pointed out, this assumes that we once knew our way, that our way was right and that we have now strayed from it. God would not agree.

The greatest addiction affects all humanity. Sin is the pleasurable root of it (Hebrews:11:25). Human nature can be overcome. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans:8:1).

Take great courage. You can overcome the pulls of your human nature, the greatest addiction of all, with the help of Almighty God in Christ (Hebrews:4:15-16; Romans:8:28, 31, 37-39).

(This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2007 Good News magazine.)

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