The Heart of Addiction
A Biblical Perspective

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 02/24/2010 by Bob Kellemen.

Recommended. An increasingly rare book—one that addresses a specific life issue in a biblical, deep, practical, wise way. Shaw combines the sufficiency of Scripture (theology for life) with the relevancy of Scripture (principles of progressive sanctification) in a way that offers hope and help to those experiencing habitual sin problems.

Dr. Mark Shaw brings an impressive resume uniquely suited for a biblical approach to addictions. He holds biblical counseling certification with the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), is a certified Master's Level Addiction Professional (MLAP), as well as being a Senior Pastor.

A Theology of Habitual Sin

Shaw eschews the terminology of "addiction" and seeks to get at the "heart of addiction" by conceptualizing it as a "life-dominating and life-devastating sin problem." He sees addiction ultimately as a "worship disorder." Further, Shaw takes issue with the common medical model approach that links addictions to the "disease model."

That being said, Shaw is not simplistic in his approach. He recognizes that the body can respond to a sin problem so that over time actions associated with addiction become habitual and extremely difficult to overcome. This is a very useful balance missed by some.

In fact, he's more than balanced. Shaw is comprehensive. He acknowledges that even after people have initially overcome the physical portion of addiction:

  • Physically, they may still experience real cravings.
  • Mentally, they may always battle to take their thoughts captive to Christ.
  • Emotionally, they may struggle with feelings that will tempt them to want to return to the addiction for an escape.
  • Spiritually, they may experience days when they wonder if God has forgotten them.

Rejecting the world’s definitions of addiction, Shaw then develops a concise biblical description. "Physical addiction occurs when you repeatedly satisfy a natural appetite and desire with a temporary pleasure until you become the servant of the temporary object of pleasure rather than its master" (p. 27). Addictions are not "compulsions" for Shaw, but rather "persistent habitual choices."

Shaw wisely addresses habitual sin from the threefold biblical plotline of Creation, Fall, Redemption. Thus he embeds his theology of habitual sin in the context of God’s original design for the soul, sin's depravity, and Christ's final solution for and victory over all sin--including "addictive sins."

Perhaps the most insightful and needful chapter is where Shaw addresses the physical components of addiction (Chapter 9). Unfortunately, many biblical counselors seem to skip or minimize this important area. Shaw not only tackles it, he nails it. He carefully traces what I might call a "theology of desire" (he calls it a theology of appetite). He assists readers to see the purpose for God-given desires, appetites, and affections, while also mapping where they can go sinfully wrong and how they can become habitually sinful.

There is much to appreciate in Shaw's theological development. There were two areas, though, where Shaw could have engaged the theological issues a bit deeper. First, Shaw assumes that the "old nature" or "old man" still resides in the believer, which is a common enough belief. However, it would have been good in a book of this depth to address or acknowledge, at least briefly, the competing view. Namely, while the believer is not perfect this side of heaven, and while the believer does battle the world, the flesh, and the devil, the old nature or old man has truly been crucified with Christ. There are implicational differences that derive out of these two theological positions.

Second, while Shaw does develop a nuanced perspective on addiction, it might have been helpful for him to grapple with concepts such as "enslavement" and "mastery" (2 Peter 2:19). And the powerful imagery where Peter speaks of one who knows the Lord as Savior (2 Peter 2:20) as "a dog returns to its vomit" (2 Peter 2:22). Peter (and at times Paul) seems to use terms like these to indicate a depth of entanglement of sin akin to, but different from, addiction. I expected to read Shaw engaging passages like these, but did not. To his credit, he did address other complex issues such as lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the pride of life, and a seared conscience.

A Methodology of Victory Over Habitual Sin

Of course, great theology is truly great because it leads to relevant principles and practices for spiritual growth. Shaw so seamlessly blends theology and methodology that you can't find where one ends and the other begins (which is very good). For instance, in Chapter 10, he discusses idolatry using the practical and pictorial imagery of the "go button" and the "stop button." "Go button pushers" excessively satisfy their natural appetites, so they must guard their hearts when doing anything pleasurable. This is not radical abstention, but wise moderation always with the ultimate goal of glorifying God rather than loving pleasure.

A large part of Shaw’s methodology rightly focuses on renewed thinking leading to renewed emotions. Fortunately, in his skillful hands this is not some Christianized version of rational-emotive therapy. Rather, Shaw focuses his readers on renewing their thinking in the context of biblical reality as portrayed in Scripture.

He makes this very practical by addressing the common "motivating factor" for many addictive behaviors: escaping emotional pain. We don't deny our emotional pain. Rather, for Shaw we take that emotional pain to Christ and to His Word. We find joy even when we can't find relief.

This become even more practical in Chapter 12 where Shaw dissects specific emotions and prescribes biblical principles for addressing them in spiritually healthy ways. He describes how we can respond to bitterness, guilt, discontentment, loneliness, depression, and despair in ways that lead us toward God rather than toward god-substitutes.

The actual "methodology" portion of the book begins with Chapter 13 (but obviously starts sooner in Shaw's skillful application of theology). Shaw uses the biblical motif of put off and put on. With some writers, this becomes rather "behavioralistic." Not with Shaw. He talks about putting off the depths of sin, including sin's denial and self-deception.

He then talks about putting on, again in a heart-centric way. Here (Chapter 17) Shaw again highlights renewing the mind. He avoids generic language, instead focusing on idiosyncratic renewal, the battle for the mind, how to fight cravings, and how to resist the devil's temptation. He then moves toward putting on right actions-based upon renewed beliefs.

Thus Shaw includes specific chapters on putting off and putting on beliefs, actions, and emotions. He writes specifically about putting off sinful idols of the heart. However, this excellent work could have benefited from specific sections about putting on a renewed, grace-oriented, love relationship with God in Christ. It certainly was implied. And it certainly is contained in the various "heart prayers" at the end of each chapter. However, specific chapters on returning to God, "the Spring of Living Water" would seem central in a book on putting off sinful addictions and putting on ongoing spiritual affections. Since addiction is a "worship disorder," I would have liked to have seen more on moving from the idolatry of addiction to the worship of God through putting on renewed relational/spiritual affections, passions, and desires. It's just could have been highlighted more.

Shaw concludes with Appendixes A to K which each provide very practical tools. Taken together, these seventeen chapters and eleven appendixes provide a wealth of authoritative, relevant wisdom. The Heart of Addiction: A Biblical Perspectivewill prove extremely helpful for pastors, counselors, and spiritual friends, and for the individual seeking ongoing victory over habituated sin.

Editor's note: an accompanying workbook is also available from or from Focus Publishing itself.