An Anthropology of Addiction

James H. Berry

New Horizons: June 2024

The Thrill of Desecration

Also in this issue

The Thrill of Desecration

Glory Lost, Glory Regained: The Image of God

The Habits of the Heart

“Every man’s inordinate affection will be his great affliction(Augustine). We are what we love.[1] Where our treasure is, there our heart is also. Love is many things, but most certainly pleasure is a necessary element. How can a man say he loves his wife yet does not take pleasure in her? “Greater love has no one” than that demonstrated by Jesus, who “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus suffered immense pain for his people. “Suffering is love!” one may argue and argue correctly in the appropriate context. However, it was “for the joy . . . set before him [that he] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Joy is not flavorless. Joy is not bland. Joy is, well, for lack of a better word—enjoyable!

The Gifts

Inherent to our being is both a capacity and drive for pleasure. This is not a bug in the system, but a design feature. We are created in such a way that we seek out experiences that are pleasurable. This was true before the fall, as evidenced by Adam’s ecstatic exclamation upon being presented the most beautiful creature he had ever seen: “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). He was filled with desire for her, and this was good.

Try this thought experiment on for size—God could have created a green Adam with chlorophyllic skin that provided all his life-sustaining energy through photosynthesis. He could have created adamic skin capable of osmosis such that all the water he required was simply perfused from the dewy air. God could have made asexual reproduction the natural way to make baby Adams. Perish the thought! Adam’s natural appetites are our appetites, and these are wondrous. As Christians, we should not let the epicures have all the fun. We should celebrate and marvel over the gift of pleasure that our gracious Father has given us. Sing songs from the rooftops in exultation. Paint masterpieces that capture a glimpse of this glorious gift. Woo your wife. Seduce your husband. Create an exceedingly flavorful dish that leaves guests longing for more. Laugh loud, hard, and often—especially at the ridiculousness in the world (particularly your own). Pity our brothers who don’t get it. Ruffle their hair and invite them to the party. Enjoy.

Do all the above, but not in the spirit of Walt Whitman who celebrated this carnality for carnality’s sake. He had no god other than himself and wrote songs of worship to his god. Rather, do so in humble recognition that pleasure is a gift from our triune God. This is a gift that proceeds from the joyful nature of God in three persons, forever experiencing the pleasure of one another. Indeed, this pleasure is so powerful and abundant that it bursts forth into the formation of creatures to share this experience with perpetual praise.

Gifts before Giver

Concupiscence is a theological word worth considering as we wrestle with the pleasure-seeking feature of our nature. The word means a state of fervent longing and is derived from the Latin: con meaning “with” and cupere, “to desire.” From the beginning, man was made with desire. But our desire-seeking compass became bent in the fall. Tragically, Eve recognized the forbidden fruit was desirable to the eye and succumbed to the temptation. She gave the prohibited portent to Adam, who also took a bite. Darkness, pain, and fear entered the world. Hell invaded paradise. Every earthly pleasure is now tainted with a touch of evil. Sex, food, and drink can kill us. Like the sons of Eli, our hedonistic hungers may drive us from God.[2] Dear God, were this not so! But it is. We must grapple with it. The Thirty-Nine Articles state that “concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.”

When our affections are rightly ordered, feeling good should be good enough. The problem lies in the fact our affections are never perfectly ordered. Our hearts are full of corrupted concupiscence. We give ourselves too freely to the dopamine-delivering experiences of this world unmoored from God. We set all manner of earthly gifts before and apart from the Gift-Giver. Like the bovine-worshiping Israelites dancing at the base of Sinai, we believe the lie that God cannot satisfy the way our idols do. 

We all fall into this trap. Some of us do so often and long enough that we develop a clinically diagnosable addictive disorder. Some of us are born with brains that makes it more likely we’ll become addicted to drugs or alcohol: the rush is greater and more tempting. Some of us experienced such horrific trauma in our developing years that when we tried marijuana at a young age, the nightmares stopped, and so we kept smoking. Some of us were prescribed a pain pill for a toothache, and all of the pain in our life melted away for a few glorious hours, so we kept popping them even after the prescription ran out. Some of us drank a beer at a high school kegger and realized that our crippling anxiety dissipated, so we kept downing them.

For some of us, the sorrow of this life was simply too much to bear, and we took solace in a bottle, like Noah after discovering his dry new world was far from paradise. Much of our longing is not only to feel good, but to feel the absence of pain. This reflects the world’s brokenness and the waiting for our Redeemer to make all things new. Addiction is a profoundly tangible expression of man’s tragic and repeated attempts to assuage this longing.

Pride: intoxicating and addictive

None of us should look down our nose at those who find themselves on the severe end of the addiction spectrum. If we are honest with ourselves, we should know the odiousness of our own nose. Pride is intoxicating, and we in Reformed circles tend to be particularly susceptible to its reinforcing properties. It feels good to be right, and it feels good to judge others who are not. It is painful to examine our own heart. Examining the heart of our neighbor is much more palatable, and if we are honest, shamefully enjoyable. The destructive nature of addiction to heroin is obvious. The destructive nature of pride is subtle, but no less destructive.

Jesus reserves his sharpest criticisms and warnings for the proud. He did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. While I cannot commend the theology found in Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous meetings, I am jealous for the humility and vulnerability found therein. There are no masks. Pretense has been purged. These folks recognize their own powerlessness and the thousand ways they could not perfect themselves. They come together as equals in the expertise of failure and a hope that something greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. Seems to me that the church can strive to be more like this. Should any institution be more humble than the church? More willing to admit fault? More eager to serve?

Should any institution be more joyful? God calls us to know a pleasure that would shame the vilest of today’s popular purveyors of pedestrian pleasure. We are invited to enjoy the intoxicating, primordial pleasure that existed prior to creation and is sustained through all eternity. One need look no further than the Song of Songs, where we peek behind the curtain of God’s most intimate bridal chamber to witness an ecstatic display of sensual delight between two lovers. Images of immense pleasure abound: tongues tasting honey, fingers dripping myrrh, noses breathing apple blossoms, eyes spying rounded thighs, ears longing for the lover’s voice. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” is the holy refrain that centers this most holy of songs. Astoundingly, God paints a picture on the palate of our five senses to describe the intimate relationship between his Son and his people.

The Joy of the Lord

God calls us to lose ourselves in the pleasure of his Son. Our chief end is to enjoy him. We were made for this. We hold forth a promise of greater pleasure than anything the world can offer. In this world, life is love, but also longing—longing for the object of our greatest affection and for the deliverance from pain. We long for our Bridegroom. The church is the only place, the only people, wherein our Creator chooses to make his earthly home. Here is found the only real and eternal hope to satisfy our longings.

While we wait, we are called to be Christ to one another as a body in mutual sacrifice, genuine vulnerability, and infectious joy. As we gather regularly for worship, our affections are properly ordered and our hearts are shaped according to God’s love. We are trained to desire rightly. Our Bridegroom speaks his words of love to us. May the doors of our churches be open wide to the sick and full of broken, yet joy-filled believers beckoning, “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!”


[1] See James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016).

[2] The sons of Eli in 1 Samuel are perfect case examples of humanity’s postlapsarian posture toward God, others, and ourselves.

The author is an OP elder and professor and chair of psychiatry at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute. New Horizons, June 2024.

New Horizons: June 2024

The Thrill of Desecration

Also in this issue

The Thrill of Desecration

Glory Lost, Glory Regained: The Image of God

The Habits of the Heart

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