What is Addiction?


I was surprised, a decade ago, when for the first time a student sat down in my office and told me that he was a sex addict. Of course I already knew that you can’t tell by looking at a person what may be going on in his or her life. But while I had heard of sex addiction, I was skeptical as to whether any such thing really existed. Isn’t addiction about substances, like drugs and alcohol? How could an activity be addictive, particularly such a ubiquitous, ordinary, everyday activity as sex?

Ten years later, I’ve learned a lot. In particular, I’ve learned that addictiveness is not a kind of magnetic quality that resides in things like alcohol or drugs or sugar and that reels people in who come too close to them, like a tractor beam. Addiction is a psychological mechanism that resides in people, that begins not as a problem but as a solution, as a way of managing otherwise intolerable feeling states.


An addictive target can be anything that is used in this way. Chemicals like alcohol and other drugs, which affect how people feel by exerting physiological effects on the brain, make particularly effective addictive targets. But activities that evoke chemical changes in the brain do just as well. People manage their otherwise intolerable feelings—of shame, dependence, helplessness, rage—with work, with shopping, gambling, eating, exercising, and, yes, with pornography and other forms of sexual activity.

The problem comes when what started as a solution becomes itself a problem.

The problem, of course, comes when what started as a solution becomes itself a problem—not just a habit or an intentional means of stress reduction, but a compulsive behavior that the person cannot stop, even in the face of terrible negative consequences: trouble with the law, disruption of relationships, damage to physical health, interference with responsibilities at work and at home. This is what we call addiction.

I’ve been teaching a class on addiction at Eastern University for a couple of years now, and we talk in class about a range of subjects related to addiction—some that are more applicable to substance-focused addictions (like the pharmacology of substances of abuse and the so-called war on drugs) and some that are applicable to process addictions as well: risk factors like childhood trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, harm reduction and access to treatment, and treatment strategies themselves, like 12-step programs, psychological therapies, and community and family support and education.


In this class we ask a broad range of questions: Is addiction a brain disease or a sin, a problem of will or a problem of knowledge? Does addiction have primarily to do with individuals, or is it constituted and maintained in intimate relationships or on a societal level? Who is susceptible to addiction, and why? If a person stops engaging in addictive behavior, is he or she still an addict?

We explore Christian theological voices and biblical and historical resources for understanding how Christians have understood addiction in the past and more recently. We also read current books treating aspects of addiction that are often neglected in Christian theological treatment of addiction. In addition, we read personal accounts of addiction and recovery, and consider how a Christian response to addiction might incarnate the prophetic values of justice, mercy and humility. You can find a partial reading list here to assist those interested in learning more about this ubiquitous and persistent challenge to human flourishing. 

So, how should a Christian respond to addiction? Whether you or a loved one are facing addiction, or perhaps you just feel a need to learn more or become more actively involved, here are a few steps you can consider taking this week:

  • Check out one of the books listed above. There is so much to be learned about the topic of addiction and often learning leads to understanding and understanding leads to a more empathetic & helpful approach towards those facing addiction.
  • Explore your local resources. Often there are organizations right in your community offering treatment for those facing addiction, as well as support for those with addicted loved ones. This is not a battle to fight alone. If you live locally, check out the upcoming classes offered at Saint Luke for adults and teens
  • Prayer. Addiction is not just a bad habit to break. As people of faith, we recognize that not only can others support those facing addiction, but we can also call on God for strength and support. 


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

-The Serenity Prayer


Special thanks to guest blogger, Margaret Kim Peterson, Ph.D., Professor of Theology and Psychology at Eastern University and member of Saint Luke.