Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
The standard definition of a loophole is an ambiguity or inadequacy in a system, such as a law or a set of rules, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the purpose, implied or explicitly stated, of the system. It is basically a small mistake which allows people to do something that would otherwise be illegal. Generally, the cause of a loophole is a divergence between the text of the law (how it is written) and the meaning of the law (its intended effect).
PHARISEES AND THEIR THEOLOGICAL LOOPHOLES
It’s no secret that the Pharisees of Jesus’ days were typically angry over infractions of the Sabaath. This was a huge issue between them and the Lord. Interestingly, the Pharisees created a loophole that allowed them to break their own rules regarding the Sabbath whenever convenient. According to Rabbinic teaching, a Jew could take no more than 3,000 steps on the Sabbath, nor carry more weight than half a dried fig. To circumvent this law, the Rabbis designed a small wearable tent. The tent had poles that rested upon their shoulders, lifting it from the ground. A chair was fastened to their rump Accordingly, they were not technically carrying anything. They would walk 3,000 steps, sit on the stool, then stand and walk 3,000 more steps, repeating the process over and over until they arrived at their intended destination. They declared the tent to be their home each time they sat down. Their “theology” gave them a loophole for travel and manual labor on the Sabbath if they found it necessary. Technically, they were in the clear. That’s what loopholes do for us—permit us to be “technically” right while breaking the rules.
CHRISTIANS AND THEIR LOOPHOLES
When Christians look for loopholes, they change Scripture to fit their circumstances. A believer with this mindset is not concerned with what Scripture dictates; rather, they are concerned about making Scripture say what they need it to say. Individuals who are Christian “in name only” look for loopholes. True followers of Christ don’t look for an out. Unfortunately, many believers today claim certain doctrines, proscriptions, or edicts in Scripture for “back in ancient times” rather than the modern church. This is basically a form of “progressive” Christianity, which flies in the face of God’s unchanging Word. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (NIV). Ecclesiastes 3:14 says, “I know that whatever God does, It shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, And nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him” (NKJV).
Romans 7:19-21 says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (NIV). It is important to note that Paul was not speaking about a non-believer, nor was he describing a carnal Christian. He was talking about a victorious disciple still at risk for sinful behavior. Admittedly, Paul is not speaking of the practice of sin by a believer—willfully sinning despite knowing the consequences.
Paul was leading a crucified life, putting on the righteousness of Christ (see verse 25). He delighted in the Law of God in the inward man (see verse 22). That means he was gratified by love, goodness, righteousness, and mercy. The part of his mind that was focused on serving God no longer practiced sin. His thoughts were on Jesus. He told the Christians at Corinth, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
There were several aspects of Paul’s life where he had not yet received light. In such instances, he was taken captive by the law of sin in his flesh, causing him to do things he hated (see verse 23). Someone who is willfully committing sin is not doing what he hates. His mind approves of it. When desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin. We actually consent to the desire in our mind and sin is born. James 1:14-15 says, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (NIV). Such Christians are serving the law of sin with his or her mind.
THE LOOPHOLES OF ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR
Addicts frequently use denial, rationalization, and loopholes to hide or downplay their abuse of drugs or alcohol. Heavy or chronic alcohol use leads to psychological and physical dependence and possible addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) says substance abuse related disorders encompass separate classes of drugs: alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; opioids; sedatives; hypnotics; and stimulants.
Here are four common loopholes used by alcoholics and addicts:
- I’ve already ruined everything. Addicts try to avoid or not acknowledge the consequences of their actions—at least until these consequences are severely compounded. Whether it’s losing a job, legal trouble, homelessness, dysfunction in the household, or all of the above, addiction progressively destroys lives. Although hitting “rock bottom” causes some to seek treatment, others justify continued addiction because they focus on the perceived irreparable damage they’ve caused.
- I don’t deserve a happy, healthy life. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly half of all individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder are also affected by substance abuse. Although this is a co-occurring diagnosis (often referred to in 12-step parlance as “double trouble”), it is not a loophole for addiction. Admittedly, feeling undeserving of a happy, healthy life due to mental health symptoms can be a trap. This often leads to drinking or drugging to self-medicate for chronic anxiety or depression. Accordingly, a loophole is created for continued use.
- Now I can finally handle it. This justification is a loophole for relapse, as well as active addiction. When someone feels that their life is now more manageable—perhaps, due to a period of sobriety or fixing certain problems while in active addiction—they may justify drinking or taking drugs again or continuing to use. Unfortunately, the progressive nature of addiction quickly disproves this rationale. This loophole often rears its ugly head following inpatient treatment at a rehab. The individual feels he or she is “armed with” enough information to finally use safely.
- For me, it’s just normal life. For some, addiction is a solitary issue. For others, however, addiction may be shared with friends, family members, or partners. These individuals tend to justify their actions because they feel their behavior is part of the fabric of a relationship or social agenda. Even if someone believes their own addiction may be a problem, they can justify their dependency by referring to getting drunk or high as part of the “norms” of social life.
MY FAVORITE LOOPHOLE
Unfortunately, I have often looked at certain habitual sins in the light of Paul’s own struggle, saying to myself, If the apostle Paul failed to resist the flesh and do what’s right, then how can I ever hope to do so? I am sure you see the hypocrisy of this conclusion. Basically, I have allowed this part of Paul’s teaching to serve as an excuse for what amounts to the “practice” of sin. Worse, the type of habitual sin that has been prevalent in my life involved deception, lying, and stealing narcotic painkillers from family members.
THE ADDICTED CHRISTIAN
Morgan Lee edited and published a provocative article in Christianity Today, called “Why a Drug Addict Wrote a Christianity Today Cover Story.” The article was written by Timothy King, a Christian who contracted very painful acute necrotizing pancreatitis. He was discharged on IV medication and given opiates for pain. Eventually, King’s doctor realized King’s reliance on narcotic painkillers was impeding his ability to eat and to recover from pancreatitis. Despite being a believer, King had become addicted to opiates.
Here is an excerpt from King’s article:
I use the term addicted. There are some medical professionals who use the word dependent because I didn’t go out and engage in behaviors typically associated with addiction. I chose to use the word addicted because it accurately describes my situation. It is a term I hope other people feel less stigma about in the future to describe their own situation. When we give the right name to something that is going on in our life, it kills its power over us. Naming something is incredibly important. Opioid addict is now tied to my name. I’ve had to think through that, but once again I have had a great community of support to encourage me about this story.
Whether deserved or not, believers struggling with an addiction are often shamed by the church rather than being provided an atmosphere for healing. Believers and non-believers alike are dying every day because of drug overdose. This should be cause for concern and a great opportunity for the church to be the church (the Body of Christ). After all, Christians are called to be a loving community of grace and healing. The church should not choose to see active addiction as a moral issue, ignoring the physical and psychological elements of the disorder. This only serves to ignore or sidestep this crisis, evidenced by believers (and some church leaders) who choose to sit on the sidelines, judging and ostracizing those who are suffering.
THE MINDSET OF A DISCIPLE
Paul answers his own question regarding his—indeed, our—struggle with sin that dwells within us. In Romans 7:25, Paul writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (NASB). Before Jesus overcame the power of sin and darkness, leaving us with an example to follow, it was impossible to completely overcome all sin in the flesh. But Jesus sent the Holy Spirit Who can show us our sin (convict us) and teach us the way through it. Like Paul, when we repent and begin to serve God, we have a new mindset—it is no longer our conscious, daily choice to serve sin. What comes from our flesh is not necessarily done willfully.
When we are in Christ Jesus and choose to serve God with our mind and our spirit, there is no condemnation if we absentmindedly do the things we hate (see Romans 8:1). We aren’t condemned for being tempted (thoughts or feelings that entice us to sin), nor for actions we do which haven’t passed our conscious mind first, allowing us to make a conscious choice. But in order to accomplish this, we need to walk in the Spirit, which means acting according to the light that we receive. This comes only from allowing that light to illuminate our habitual sins. We will then be able to recognize the desires of the flesh—the body of sin that is to be crucified daily through Christ. How do we accomplish this? We count ourselves dead to sin. We can then be disciples of Jesus, denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23-24).
Disciple is another word for a follower of Christ; one who is learning to be like his Master. originally meant pupil or apprentice. Too many Christians believe they became disciples of Jesus when they accepted His death, burial, and resurrection for forgiveness of their sins. We were certainly dead in our trespasses. Thankfully, we are forgiven through Christ. He made us alive together with Him (see Colossians 2:13). However, forgiveness of sin is not discipleship. Once we have received atonement for our sins and are reconciled with God through the crucifixion of Christ, we come to the beginning of a new us. We are now instructed to start following Jesus. Emulating the examples He provided to us during His life and ministry.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, closing the loopholes of active addiction may be imperative before seeking treatment. In reality, we can rebuild our lives. But this involves realizing that addiction is progressively destructive. Further, it is important to believe we deserved to be happy and healthy, and that active addiction is not a normal, fulfilling human existence. Jesus said, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, NKJV). Eugene Peterson translates this verse as follows: “A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Living life in bondage to addiction is certainly not an abundant life.
Second Corinthians 5:17 talks about new life in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (NIV). When we recognize that old things have passed away, we stand a better chance of living life without resorting to loopholes. Frankly, making decisions based upon loopholes is the hallmark of an unrepentant carnal Christian. When we are truly “in Christ,” we are a new creation. Old things have passed away. This is the “abundant” life we read about in John 10:10. We cannot hope to have an abundant and glorious new life in Christ if we excuse our occasion to sin as something not even the apostle Paul could avoid.