Excerpts from: “Moroni’s War on Addiction: A Scripture Hero’s Strategy to Win Today’s Battle for Souls“
Lust. Distraction. Shopping. Attention. Work. Possession. Cosmetic surgeries. Games. Food. Heroin.
What do all these have in common?
I think most of us miss the main point of the Word of Wisdom. While the incident that initiated the revelation may have involved sacred meetings held on spit-stained floors in choking clouds of smoke, the revelation itself doesn’t list warnings about unhealthy substances as the Lord’s primary purpose. He doesn’t immediately dive into the evils of alcohol, hot drinks, or tobacco. Instead, He warns that: “In consequence… of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I… forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom…”
The warning is about conspiracy not physiology. The Lord is warning that in the last days men will conspire in various ways to seduce us into surrendering the one thing Satan craves most: our agency. Substances were to be just one of the vehicles of the conspiracy.
If we define addictions too narrowly, we replace “wisdom” with smugness. We reason that our “little” habits are nothing like those dirty drug addicts or disgusting porn users. I’ve come to believe that while our various addictions may differ in degree, they exact precisely the same kind of costs.
Let’s define addiction as: any habit that reduces agency by trading impulses for blessings. With that definition in mind, what are some of your addictions? What highly impulsive habits do you have? And what price are they exacting in foregone blessings? Are they keeping you from feeling greater peace? From connecting deeper with others? Are they putting what matters most at the mercy of things that don’t matter at all? Are they stoking feelings of shame and disconnecting you from your divine identity?
We get the full benefit of the Word of Wisdom when we open our eyes to the myriad ways in which those who seek power and gain invite us into bondage. Chemical addictions are just a small sampling of the pleasing options for servitude available in our day. We deceive ourselves when we limit our definition to things you inject, smoke, drink or swallow.
For example, few of us would equate our relationship to technology with an addict’s connection to opium. And yet, modern neuroscience shows they are precisely the same. When we open a social media app and see 30 likes on the vacation photo we just posted, our brain releases a surge of dopamine-the body’s pleasure chemical. This is precisely the same thing that happens when a drug addict snorts cocaine. Over time our brains learn that this meaningless behavior creates a temporary sense of well-being, so we repeat it. Over and over and over. And an addiction is born. Your brain begins to think of behaviors like checking email or responding compulsively to a text as a need not a choice. If that last sentence rings embarrassingly true, you’re an addict.
I don’t want to turn this into a campaign against technology-but I want to underscore the point that all of us are under addictive attacks in various forms. None is exempt. So, permit me to elaborate a bit more on this example.
When you awaken in the morning, do you check your phone before you greet your family? Does the arrival of a text or the receipt of a “like” create an inexplicable surge of pleasure in you? If you leave your phone at home, do you feel a sense of dread or anxiety? Do you never leave home without your phone? Do you use technology to relieve feelings of boredom, anxiety or loneliness? Do quiet moments inevitably lead to technology use? When is the last time you went through an entire church meeting block without touching a device? Is it your go-to comfort tactic when you’re avoiding a difficult task? Do you rationalize your use during inappropriate times (at dinner with friends, during the Sacrament, when in nature)? Do you sometimes sneak to have a peek at something? Would you resent it if someone told you you’re an addict?
If so, then you’re an addict.
Our relationship with food, appearance, shopping, exercise, work, money, hobbies, possessions, popularity, power, gaming and many other behaviors can produce the same kind of bondage. Addiction has become an industry. Captains of industry hire battalions of social scientists to develop product features that incite impulsive repetitive use. And the result is the same: we gain short term pleasure at increasing cost of alienation from ourselves, the Spirit and others. Spiritually speaking, shopping and gaming may be less damaging than pornography and heroin-but the author of the addiction, and the evil intent are precisely the same.
Heroin in Happy Valley
I’ll never forget the sick, helpless feeling I had when it became undeniably clear my son was using heroin.
We live in a nice Utah Valley neighborhood and are surrounded by families whose children serve missions, go to college, and marry in the temple. We expected that all of our children would do the same. My wife and I were married in the temple. We love our Savior, Jesus Christ. We built our family around His gospel and work hard to repent of our own sins and live as well as we know how.
The problems began small. In middle school Seth was caught with marijuana in his locker and suspended from school. At first it felt like a punch to the gut. But realizing we had both made dumb mistakes in our lives my wife and I reconciled ourselves to our children’s opportunity to choose their own dumb mistakes. We committed ourselves to facing whatever twists and turns their lives presented us—even if their sins were different from what ours had been.
Then things got worse. Over the next few years Seth began to lie and steal more frequently. We considered the misbehavior to be garden variety adolescent stuff and dealt with it as best we could. Then he began complaining of chronic headaches. We took him to doctor after doctor. Even powerful migraine prescriptions seemed to give him no relief from the symptoms he claimed to have. He began sleeping longer and longer—which at first, we attributed to his attempt to get relief from the headaches. We didn’t see any of the usual signs of addiction, so we continued to take him at his word about his problems and behavior.
Then one cool, fall night, when my wife and I were at a soccer game for one of our other children, our daughter called in a panic. She had surprised Seth in his room in the act of using heroin. He was strung out and incoherent. She yelled at him. The scene was awful for her—he screamed in woozy and slurred language, pleading with her not to tell us, promising he would never use again. She didn’t want him to run away so she pretended to comply—agreeing to keep it a secret. Even years later, I can still hear her sobbing, whispering voice telling me what she had just seen.
As I drove from the soccer field to our house my arms felt limp. My insides felt like molten lead and my mind raced from one confused, helpless, and panicked thought to another. How could this be true? Why would he do this? Is his life ruined forever? How can I make him stop?
It has now been many years since that awful evening. In that time, we have gone through an exhausting marathon of emotions—ups and downs, hopes and despairs. Seth was in and out of different recovery programs, and in and out of jail so often that the thought no longer horrified us. He went through long periods with no family contact. We had warm and wonderful reunions—scarce moments of hope which set us up for the crushing pain of disappointment. I remember holding him one day in his bedroom as he sobbed in my arms after an interview with his stake president. After weeks of counseling with his priesthood leaders this fine man had told him under the inspiration of the Spirit that he was forgiven. He wept and wept, and I knew in that moment what Nephi meant when he said of Laman and Lemuel, “I had joy and great hopes of them, that they would walk in the paths of righteousness.” Within two weeks he had relapsed and left home.
We approached this challenge the way most parents do. We prayed and counseled with everyone we could find. We devoured books, articles and web resources. We studied like a life depended on it—because it did.
In our pursuit of wisdom, I had a few advantages because of the work I do. I was able to talk to renowned scholars on addiction recovery. I read some of the most respected scholarly books on the topic. I visited with the founder of one of the most effective recovery programs in the world. While I learned a great deal about the science of recovery from these good people, I remained convinced that the problem was fundamentally a spiritual one. I became more and more convinced that chemical addictions are, in principle, no different from any habitual sin. So, while studying the works of scholars, I began an additional study of the work of prophets. I scoured the scriptures to learn all I could about spiritual principles for assisting others in the grip of awful sin.
That’s how I struck gold. I began reading The Book of Mormon with this purpose in mind. I enjoyed the familiar chapters of 1 Nephi. I hunkered down to digest the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. And when I got to the action-packed book of Alma, I noticed how much I was looking forward to the Captain Moroni chapters.
Like many people, I’ve always wondered why Mormon—who had to condense 1,000+ years of history into 500 pages—dedicated seventeen precious chapters to a bunch of battles. Don’t get me wrong—I love those chapters. But I guess I never quite got their spiritual significance in proportion to the textual real estate they require. I secretly suspected they might have been Mormon’s marketing ploy to help sell the book to twelve-year-old boys. The rest of the book of Alma made complete sense: numerous chapters on missionary work demonstrating the power of the word in changing the world; poignant doctrinal advice to Alma’s sons—rich, wonderful illustrations in chapter after chapter of the transformational power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. But immediately following all of these profound chapters on repentance and personal change come all of these battle summaries.
Then the revelation came.