I’ve heard some interesting things said in church about those who are compulsively stuck in behaviors or addicted to something and/or their problems. For those who would like to do a better job of addressing addiction and addicts that are in their churches I thought I would write this basic primer.
What not to say!
- Addiction is sinful.
An alternative to this I hear is, “Addiction is sin.” When I hear this or its many variations I think so many things. The biggest is, “Do you know that every person has an addiction?” Even the most pious churchgoer is addicted to something, and a skilled addiction specialist might take just a few minutes to figure out what it is. Examples of hidden addictions are; gossip, judgmentalism, perfectionism and religion. How many of us think that because we don’t do cocaine we are not addicts? This elevates this kind of declaration to a statement of condemnation; and the speaker of it is usually unaware that they condemning others.
Consider a person with colon cancer. How many of us would tell them they have cancer because of their sin of eating too much red meat? No, we wouldn’t do this. Then why tell an addict their trouble is because of their sin? Addiction is recognized by most experts as a disease. If we assume this is true then just as we wouldn’t tell a person their cancer is due to their sin, why tell a food addict their disease is due to their sin?
I am not saying that sin is not involved is the development of addictions, I am saying be thoughtful about believing that sin and addiction are synonymous. I am also saying to heed Jesus words about judging others and thereby being hypocritical. (Mt 7:1-5)
- Addiction is from the devil.
Alternatives are, “Addiction is demon possession” and “Addicts are demon-possessed” or the more sophisticated, “Addiction is a disease stimulated through the influence of unseen powers.” How about those? As if addiction isn’t enough of a problem for those who struggle, now they have to add the burden of being accused of being demon-possessed or under the control of demons.
Addicts struggle with the problem of their (normally) unwanted compulsions and now some well-meaning Christian tells them that they have both the pressure of the addiction and that an unseen powerful force is controlling them. Is it any wonder that addicts reject conventional churches? This demon-possessed message introduces an extra layer of hopelessness to an addict’s life, the exact opposite of what Jesus did when he met addicts in his holy land wanderings.
On top of this foolish statement to the addict, what are their family members supposed to think? What does it do to their hopes for recovery for the child, parent or cousin?
Having said that, I do want to acknowledge that some addicts may have indeed been influenced by negative supernatural forces. BUT, this is rare! When qualified people look at the details of most of the addict’s stories common and normal psychological factors are present such as childhood issues, major losses, medical trauma or unhealthy human influence.
- Addiction is God’s judgment.
Maybe you’ve heard the variant, “Addiction is God’s punishment.” This is so wrong and when I hear it I cringe. It reminds me of public statements visible Christian leaders made about AIDS being God’s judgment on homosexuals or the 9/11 attacks being God’s punishment on America because of its moral lapses.
Start with this:
Rom 8:1 – There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Heb 12:6 – For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.
Here we see that God does not condemn His people and He does discipline them. This is not semantics. Punishment is meted out by one person or entity on its own behalf, for its own reasons or benefit. For example, we punish criminals on behalf of society. Discipline is exercised for the purpose of edification, training or correction of a person for their benefit; it may even hurt or possibly harm the disciplining individual. An example here is that a parent may ground their child for not doing their homework; the parent gets no joy out of it, it is solely for their child.
Addiction strikes believers and non-believers alike. As God’s word says, “It rains on the just and the unjust.” (Mt 5:45) Therefore, speaking about addicts in terms of “God giving them what they deserve” is bad theology. It impugns God’s character and says more about the speaker than the addict.
God is not interested in striking addicts down through their struggles. God says this:
Lam 3:22-23 – The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
James 2:13 – Mercy triumphs over judgment.
God’s mercies never end and they are new each morning – mercy triumphs over judgment.
If we accept that we are challenged in scripture to be more Christlike then we will never speak words of judgment, and hopefully not think them. Instead we are to continually offer mercy and compassion to the addict; both outwardly and inwardly. The inclination of our hearts on this subject is under our own control, and does not have to be determined by the actions of the addict.
- Addiction doesn’t happen to real Christians.
Church people don’t get addicted! Or, how about this, “How can this happen, don’t you have the Holy Spirit inside you?” These kinds of statements seem ludicrous, but they are said. Much like we discussed above there is judgment at the core of these words and a theological misunderstanding. I won’t cover the judgment hidden in these words; instead I’ll focus only on the misunderstanding.
At the moment of salvation the Holy Spirit comes into our heart, we then are assured of eternal life with Christ and the supernatural (or spiritual if you wish) unavoidable and final consequence of sin is prevented. However we are not protected from the problem of our past sins, the power of sin in the world in the present, the still fallen nature we have or the lure of worldly pleasures. We are instructed to continue to work, with God’s help on cleaning up our lives:
Phil 2:12-13 – Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Addicts fall into their troubles for many reasons, and it really doesn’t matter why in the context of this discussion of addicts in church. Some people become Christians while they are addicts, and others become addicts after they have been saved. Being saved or not doesn’t change this. There are many example of addicts in scripture who believe in God and do their best to follow Him. David is the primary example in my mind – he was clearly a sex addict. (Solomon, his son who took over the kingdom might have been too.)
The reality is that the church is full of addicts, some we know about, most we don’t. Our attitude could be to hide our head in the sand, or we could accept reality and work together to help addicts. And, maybe we ought to hang a sign up outside the church saying “Addicts are welcome here.” Whatever we choose to think about addiction in the church, let’s be sure to not be naïve and be in denial that church people can’t be or become addicted.
One big variation of this “real Christian” statement is this, and I suspect that God is not happy when we do it:
- If you accept Christ, He will take away your addiction.
In our evangelistic fervor we can make promises like that. As I’m sure is obvious, when a person is born-again as a result of a choice they make, believing that Christ will supernaturally take away their problem, and He doesn’t, their faith can fade to zero in no time.
- Addiction can be dealt with by prayer.
And its cousins, the equally damaging, “If you would pray harder………..” or, “Let’s look in the Word of God for answers.” There are actually many variations of these kinds of statements made by well-meaning church members.
It is hard to argue in a church that prayer and bible study aren’t good recovery tools, and indeed they are. But, most church going addicts have prayed for their problem to go away, and they have studied God’s word for answers and inspiration, and yet the issue persists. So, has God failed them, or have they not prayed and studied hard enough? Our statements about prayer and study can end up unintentionally hurting the addict’s faith.
If it was as simple to remove an addiction as praying and studying, then groups like AA (which incidentally had to be born outside the mainstream church) would not exist. Also, addiction inside the church would be eradicated, which it has not. On top of that, what about the consistent poll result that over 30% of US pastors view pornography on an almost daily basis?
Dealing with addiction is hard work, and there are many spiritual components to it, including prayer and study. Let’s not discourage or hurt addicts by trivializing their situations and condensing solutions to cliché style statements, because they do not help the addict and they dishonor God.
Having discussed the big five faux pas statements above; let me list a few things that can be said. Before they are listed though, a core mindset for church people to deal with addicts is to actually be like Jesus in the attributes of unconditional love, regard and acceptance. We literally have to love the addict exactly where they are; drunk, full of shame, exposed as an adulterer, smelling like garbage are examples. Every addict we meet is just as much made in the image of God as any clean and sober church member.
What we can say!
- Our addictions teach us lies; God has so much more for us than misery.
Irenaeus (130-202 AD) said ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.” Irenaeus captured the meaning behind Jer 29:11 (I know the plans………) in saying this. So if we choose to speak to addicts this way we are joining them by identifying with them in their addiction and stating that God has more for all of us.
- We want you here.
Say this only if it is sincerely true! This kind of sincerely spoken statement made of out the belief that God wants all people to come to him in all situations can be a great boost to an addict. Their family may not accept them, their co-workers have possibly rejected them, they have no friends (common for addicts), but the church wants them. They can feel the love and acceptance of God through our warm and encouraging words.
- Tell me your story.
Again, say this only if you want to hear it. Invite those weird addicts to share their story and listen to understand and learn, not to comment or offer spiritual platitudes. For an addict who is seeking redemption, being able to tell their story in a safe place can become part of their healing experience. If we listen, while suspending all judgment, the addict is helped. This is part of a counseling technique called “narrative therapy” and most people can do this with a little practice. Also, when an addict can tell their story and be received with unconditional love and acceptance, the story is given positive meaning, and this translates to the addict feeling better about themselves in the present moment and hopeful about the future.
- God’s love is yours.
This can be tricky, because we can’t be sure that an addict hasn’t been hurt by church members, God’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), somewhere else. We can say we believe that God loves us all, with no conditions or qualifications. If we can paraphrase this scripture it might be useful:
Rom 5:8 – God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Something like, “Before any of us got into our struggles, Christ came and died, that’s how I know God loves us all”, could be useful. Follow this up with something like this, “How could I believe this and not share it?” (If it seems to fit the conversation.)
We have to be careful because one problem that addicts have often encountered before we meet them is the well-meaning church person that might try to encourage them by quoting scriptures. To addicts this sometimes feels like an insincere pious lecture and they are “turned off” church and sometimes God by it.
If in doubt as to the situation, instead of telling the addict about God’s unconditional love, demonstrate it by actions such as befriending and getting to know the addict.
- You are dealing with something chronic.
An alternative could be, “Addiction is a chronic disease.” Addicts in general know and understand that their problems are long-term and have deep roots; that they are chronic. In saying something like this a church member would be acknowledging this, the addict would know the member has at least some level of understanding and that there is no condemnation present. Addiction is chronic, that is a simple statement of truth.
Once this has been spoken in some form. The next part of the conversation must be initiated by the member and center around the idea that because we know the disease is chronic; we also know that we must be there for them over time and in both good and bad situations. If the addict is new to the church, we must offer to share information about our resources or the local parachurch resources we have available. Whenever possible, we must connect the addict with a person in our congregation that can offer real and tangible help. What we cannot know in the early part of a conversation with an addict is their internal condition or personal circumstances. It is important to get them to help if they need it, or to at least get them connected with a caring person. For example, if possible the addict shouldn’t leave that day without the phone number of someone at the church they could call to talk with.
Living with a chronic problem is often a life of chaos, confusion and craziness. For this reason there is wisdom in trying to create a deliberate atmosphere of stability that the addict can tap into as an introduction to a better way of life. Churches can plan to do this, if they choose to be a church that welcomes troubled people.
In summary – we in the church must be careful with how we think about addicts and very careful about what we say. The biggest difference between churches that do well with this, or not, is their attitude toward addiction and addicts. If members are open and teachable, they can become educated on the subject of compulsive behaviors and addictions. This will lead to the church being able to help one of the marginalized groups in our church culture; addicts.
Suggested resource: Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.