Should Christians think of addiction and other forms of destructive behavior as “sin,” or “disease”?
Destructive behavior includes elements of both sin and “disease.” Some people are especially susceptible to particular kinds of destructive behavior. For example, men who abuse women are often reared in families where women were abused. Imbued with contempt for women, they are predisposed to use women as scapegoats for frustration. There is clearly a sense in which this predisposition (or heightened temptation) to debase and abuse women can be called a “sickness,” since it was largely instilled by external influences.
Does this mean that an abuser’s “sickness”—the fact that he has been damaged by sin and is consequently more prone to abuse women than men who haven’t been so damaged—justifies his abusive behavior? Absolutely not! His “sickness” helps us understand his behavior, but doesn’t excuse it. He isn’t merely a victim of outside circumstances, like someone with meningitis or malaria. In spite of the tendencies he inherited, an element of conscious, willful sin is present in every abusive act. Regardless of his background, he is capable of resisting his impulses. No one is so isolated from the laws of society and the influence of conscience that they are completely unaware of the wrongfulness of spouse abuse. Our legal system acknowledges this with the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Abusers are accountable to society for any violation of laws against spouse abuse. Further, to the extent that an abuser knows his behavior is wrong, he is responsible before God to change.
Some people object to making a distinction between sick internal impulses and sinful actions (willful sin). They say that the impulses and emotions of the abuser are just as sinful as his decision to abuse.
It is true that the evil emotions and impulses of an abuser are not merely sick. They are the results both of original and personal sin and are repulsive and evil in themselves. However, they aren’t sinful in the same sense and to the same degree as a conscious personal decision to act sinfully. (See the ATQ article, Are Christians Held Responsible for Unpremeditated and Unconscious Sins?)
If we condemn sick predispositions as much as sinful decisions and actions, we leave no room for compassion.
Jesus had compassion on sinners (Matthew 9:12-13). He stressed the importance of having compassion on the failures of others:
You wicked servant, he said, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? (Matthew 18:32-33)
The reason Jesus had compassion was due to His awareness that while people are sinners, they are not entirely given over to premeditated evil. There is a sense in which they are also sin’s victims.
And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd. (Mt. 10:35-36)
If we are to be like our Master, we must be able to have compassion upon lost, sinful people, at the same time as we hold them responsible for their premeditated sin.