“If it feels good, do it.” Such is the philosophy of our culture. Pleasure is king and we are ruled by our desire for comfort and good feelings. The inverse is, of course, true too: if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. This cultural conviction sets some of us up for addiction, and once settled into that habit it invites continued indulgence. The pursuit of pleasure drives addiction, and addiction, in turn, perverts our experience of pleasure.
Researchers have seen the power of pleasure in relation to addiction. Tests on lab rats have found both that an isolated rat will ingest drug laced water until it dies, and that when given the choice for other forms of healthy recreation, particularly within community, the rat will barely touch the drugs. The same has been found in research and practice with actual human addicts. Pleasure is a driving motivation and healthy recreation a helpful tool in fighting relapse. But in order to be truly helpful in the transformative process, we need to understand pleasure Biblically.
God is interested in our joy. He is not against fun, pleasure, and recreation. He longs for Israel to be able to enjoy the “labor of their hands,” he says in Isaiah 65:22; and He wants for them to enjoy the “fruit of the land” in Jeremiah 31:5. God is not anti-joy, but He is concerned that our joy be moving us towards ultimate joy in Him, and not away. Ultimately, He says, joy is found in Him (Ps. 16:11; 21:6; 43:4), and He offers us Himself and invites us to drink from His river of delights (Ps. 36:8). But the pursuit of selfish joys, indulgent pleasures, sinful delights will lead us not just away from God but tempts us down the path of addiction.
Addictions always have a reason. They start with a real purpose. Dan Johnson writes:
Addictive habits begin for a reason. Even if it’s not obvious at first, most everyone caught in an addiction got started because of a desire to escape some sort of pain, or an exaggerated desire for pleasure or excitement. (“Understanding and Ministering to Those Affected by Addiction,” 4).
The pursuit of pleasure, the desire to escape the banality of existence, is a key motivation to experiment with drugs. But this pursuit is more than just a desire for fun. Johnson’s language of an “exaggerated desire” is helpful. Kent Dunnington connects this pursuit even more pointedly to the existential. In his book Addiction and Virtue, he suggests that the addict has become keenly aware of the emptiness of the American dream, of earthly delights. He is seeking for something more substantial: real joy, meaning, and connection.
Three elements of modernity have contributed to the rise of addiction in our culture, according to Dunnington. These are: (1) fragmentation – the disconnectedness and arbitrary nature of our choices; (2) loneliness; and (3) boredom. In response to these elements, then, addiction rises to focus energies and decisions, and give addicts significance. Dunnington notes, then:
Addiction is in fact a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet. (123)
The failure of our culture to provide meaning, purpose, significance, and relationship (elements of true joy) lead some to pursue them by other means. If the American dream fails to deliver then you look for existential meaning in drugs and alcohol. The “exaggerated desire for pleasure or excitement” drives the addict, but it drives him away from God.
There is a kind of existential joy that can be found, but it is found only in relation to God. The pursuit of joy apart from Him leads to sin and brokenness. This is why so many (religions and non-religious) researchers assert that addiction is a worship problem. It is existential in nature and related to God in some sense. It is why addicts need to be pointed to the fulfillment and modification of their desires in Jesus Christ. This, however, is not a simple process, since addiction perverts an individual’s understanding and experience of pleasure.
Addiction does change our experience of pleasure. Chemically speaking – substance abuse replaces our bodies natural ability to produce feel-good chemicals (endorphins and dopamine). The foreign substances artificially stimulate the chemical release and complicate our natural ability to produce these chemicals. Interference in the neurotransmitters in our brains, and the resulting damage done to connections within our brain, can reduce a person’s ability to experience pleasure. Both duration and type of substances abused can make for a long and complicated recovery of these abilities.
Psychologically, addiction also suggests that only the epic experiences of pleasure are real. The addict has lost, if he ever possessed, the ability to take pleasure in the simple things. Addiction lives always on the mountain tops of life. The addict lives from one peak to the next, always seeking a fix to achieve ultimate pleasure – which of course never comes, because nothing compares to that very first high. Training ourselves to find joy in the simple things will become a vital component of fighting sin and temptation. The gospel retrains us to see God’s goodness even in the simple, small things. He compares, after all, His Kingdom to a “mustard seed” (Matt. 13:31), and He comes to us not always in the earthquake and fire, but sometimes in the whisper (1 Kings 19:9-13).
Pleasure is a God-given emotion, and a good desire. But to be ruled by the pursuit of pleasure is to be tempted towards addictive pursuits. Such pursuits will always betray us because they can never achieve the level of true joy that we are ultimately seeking. Real joy, “everlasting joy,” as the Psalmist calls it, is only found in God. We must pursue Him. We must pursue Him in simple things too, like “eating and drinking” (1 Cor. 10:31), the banal aspects of life. The addict needs help reformulating his expectations of joy, and finding it truly in God. God is not anti-joy, but He wants us to ultimately find joy in Him. The addict needs to see and experience this if they are to find true and lasting change.