On Addiction and Idolatry (Commentary)

Phyllis Nissila

The words of the early morning radio show host shocked me:

Addiction is idolatry.

I had been listening to his guest pour her heart out in a story of childhood physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse perpetrated by her father and other adult men in her family. But her topic was really the resultant bulimia—her addiction—that had in a strange way became a source of small comfort for her, the control over food the only thing she could control in her young life.

She referenced how the eating helped her derive a modicum of short-lived relief in her traumatizing world and then how getting rid of the food helped her hide this secret, hide the secrets. Unfortunately while it helped her deal with the abuse from father and others, it also became her addiction. She eventually turned to God for healing and has been on a successful path of recovery from bulimia—and the abuse—for years, now.

Then the radio show host began a short infomercial for a program to help people recover from addictions that includes a book and a group program for your church and I’m sure a website and a workbook to go along with the book and maybe even a CD and DVD and a “Daily Addiction Recovery” journal or some such companion product (a real bargain!) because addiction, he said, is really idolatry…

He referenced the addictions (anger, sex, pedophilia, alcohol) that fueled the crimes of the men in his guest’s young life, and that fuel many such crimes against children, but he implied that his guest was also in the same camp. She had also, in her addiction to binging and purging, been committing idolatry all along, too.

“Let’s just add guilt to this woman’s pain,” I thought. Or let’s increase the trauma of thousands listening who relate to her story.  To the physical, mental, and psychological pain of abuse let’s now add spiritual angst because the addiction—the coping mechanism, such as his guest’s behavior was for her for many years–is really a sin against the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

I was concerned also at the implication that this woman somehow in some way shared some guilt in the abuse tragedy because she responded with self-harm through addiction. Read: when this woman as a child was raped and abused in other ways by the very people who were supposed to nurture her throughout her childhood, when she sought a moment’s comfort in the only way available to her, or so she thought, by binging—and then later purging, food—she was committing idolatry like the criminals who preyed upon her.

Why don’t we just tear open the scars again, I thought, and ask her to bleed for yet another crime—this one, supposedly, hers?

Perhaps the radio talk show host doesn’t understand the powerful triggering effect of guilt on a victim of abuse.


Many years ago, a friend of mine told me this story. It was late at night. She had pulled up to a stop light and put on the brakes. She glanced over at the car next to her and saw a man, the driver, hitting a woman passenger. My friend opened her door, yanked opened the passenger’s side door of the car next to her, told the woman she would help her escape, then pulled her into the back seat of her own car. The batterer was shocked silent. Then my friend took off, driving around until she lost the perpetrator, who followed her for a while, while the young woman, now bleeding from his fists to her head, sobbed in the back seat. Eventually the guy lost interest and drove off. My friend drove to a nearby twenty-four-hour grocery store, called the police, and stayed with the victim until help arrived.

My friend has a lot of courage. I don’t know that I could do what she did, but the need for people to speak out or act in some way when evil is in progress—or seems inevitable—stayed with me. As Christians, especially, we are told to “(rescue) those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11).  Though few, like my friend, participate in actual physical rescues, there is always something one can do to offset abuse or potential abuse:

Donate to shelters or start one in your church,

Become a foster parent,

Support pro-life causes for all stages of the life continuum,

Work for legislative changes in laws to protect victims, especially children,


But at the very, very least:

Listen and believe the victims in your home, workplace, or school,

Avoid blaming the victim, and

Avoid judging the victim.

I’ve never engaged in a rescue as dramatic as my friend’s, but for one, I am determined that ignoring or denying some abuse or potential abuse will not happen on my watch.

Particularly, violence against women and children. The statistics are shocking:

Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten, and around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family. [1]

And, of course, boys and men can be victims.

And sometimes, people who should know better but who are confused or short-sighted because of some belief or lack of information, exacerbate the pain, contribute to the trauma present or to post traumatic stress resulting from the trauma.

This is the case, I believe, when it is overtly or covertly implied that addictions are, across the board, idolatry. Specifically the case when the addict began the behavior as a child in pain, terror, and/or despair. And that teaching, I fear, only hurts the victim again. Guilt has a powerful triggering effect on a victim of abuse.

Some addictions might be a form of idolatry, I suppose, if the definition of idolatry can be stretched to include foolishness, youth, boredom, and availability. For example, it took me several years in my twenties to overcome a smoking addiction that began because I was young, foolish, bored, and I had several packs of cigarettes handy which were a gift to me on my eighteenth birthday. For others, the motivation for an addiction might include access to porn on the Internet, too much free time, peer pressure, etc.

But it is extremely important, I believe, to make sure to identify the difference between an addiction that results from a person’s “idolization”, as it were (adulation, deification, worship, deference to, glorification of, fondness for, fancy, esteem of, etc., [2]) for the object favored and, on the other hand, an addiction to a behavior that stems from the shock and horror of some crime unspeakable perpetrated on a child of four or six or ten or twelve who has been coerced into silence or for whom there is no one to help and for whom food or some other addictive response provides a small bit of comfort.

There is a great and critical difference between the two motivations.

Another way to combat violence against victims, young victims and female victims in particular, is to write about it: letters to the editor, the legislature, pastors, blog readers–and to those potentially re-traumatized by yet another person who has judged them, blamed them, or doubted them—and who has now added to the victim’s pain by suggesting that how they coped, though harmful also to them, was somehow a sin against God. Here’s my contribution, I hope, today.


I hear you.

I believe you

I understand that the addictive behavior (binging and purging, drinking, drug consumption, cutting, sex, or whatever it is) though you knew it harmed or harms you, may have been or may be your cry for help. The cry of a four year-old yearning for love in a loveless family whose psyche became permanently altered because of the rapes committed against her by a family member and that continued for five years (“and you better not tell, or else…”). The cry of an eight-year-old yearning for acceptance and guidance but instead was continuously told he was a stupid brat. The cry of a twelve-year-old whose step-father gave her affection and attention and alcohol when her mother was away and then coerced her into sex. The cry of one in the workplace preyed upon by another one with all the power, or the sorrow of a woman trying to deal with a physically and/or verbally abusive mate.

I will not tell you that your form of addiction is just some form of idolatry against God. I will not intensify your pain.

And I have nothing to sell.

I will, on the other hand, offer you these words of comfort and, I hope, if you have not started your recovery, words that can perhaps help you to understand that God also hears you and believes you. And instead of keeping some score card of sin on you for your response to your abuse thereby adding to the suggestion that you share some blame and shame for the crimes and their aftermath, He offers you a way to step off of the abuse merry-go-round of hurt, pain, and fear. Consider His intent regarding all who come to Him for help in trouble:

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Jesus, Matthew 11:29).

And consider also His availability here, and now, to all who call on Him.

All it took for Peter of New Testament fame to get Jesus’ help when he was literally sinking in the storm were these simple words: “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:29).

May God bless you, gentle reader, who may have come here fresh from the fray, and may He guide you forward to full recovery in His tender care.

See also some practical helps, below.


For immediate help for abuse and addiction recovery, contact your local women’s crisis center, Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, or drug addiction recovery centers.

Here is another helpful website for US residents: a national crisis hotline list of phone numbers listed by topic:


[1] http://domesticviolencestatistics.org/domestic-violence-statistics/

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idolatry


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4 Responses to On Addiction and Idolatry (Commentary)

  1. pnissila says:

    Hi, Cathy 🙂

    Yes, we do have One we can count on…Who is not counting coins! I pray that the radio host will re-think his position on some forms of addiction and grow some compassion as well.


    • Cathy says:

      God, in the Book of Micah wants us to do 3 things:
      Have Compassion
      Have Mercy
      Walk in Humbleness
      Thanks for your reply! When I saw your comment about throwing in some Compassion in…..this Scripture came to mind!


  2. clementinegoesusa says:

    Unfortunately, the host of the show obviously had no clue what it’s like to be the addict/victim. Glad you’re setting it straight.


  3. Cathy says:

    I learned much from your Post! Why keep on punishing the Victim?…By making them feel Guiltier, by something, that was Out Of Their Control!
    Every night, I say : I cast all my Cares, on to Him…For He Cares for me!
    Why not, cast your cares to the omnipotent One, who Loves You, from the Foundation of the World? He is the Propitiation of God (Lamb) who has suffered for Humanity, our suffering profits, to no avail!
    Call on the Lord! Do not call on False Prophets, who want to debase you for $….saying your victimhood is Idolatry!!!
    Many Blessings


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