“They [the church] just don’t get it” – An Alcoholic in recovery for 20 years
“I’ve felt more comfort and understanding from non-Christian support groups; I wanted to get that same feeling from the church, but I just didn’t.” –The mother of child addicted to opiates.
“I felt so ashamed I couldn’t tell anyone, especially not people at church.” – A husband whose wife caught him watching pornography.
“Being around Church people just made my skin crawl. I felt their disapproval in my stomach.” – A young adult with diagnosed with anxiety and alcohol dependence.
How can it be that the body of Christ is so inept at reaching those hurting and damaged by addiction? It’s a confounding question. The followers of Christ, those who have experienced his unmerited grace, should be the front-runners when it comes to loving the sick and sinful.
Yet in my conversations with christians around the country, it is clear that the church is failing more often than not. My conversations convince me that we are failing because we are confused about addiction.
Addiction is a complex and thorny issue. The bible clearly labels drunkenness as a sin [Proverbs 23:29-35; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 5:11]. And by analogy, other addictions would also appear to be sins.
Most addicts and alcoholics admit what they are doing is wrong. They recognize they need to change. The majority of addicts aren't in denial about this. They know all too well the personal cost of their addiction
Yet this sin is also a medical issue—profound changes in the brain and body accompany addiction. Those changes weaken a person’s ability to control impulses related to using substances and can create cravings unknown to those who have not been addicted to a substance.
Brain chemistry, genetics, and stress in early childhood also seem to be implicated in substance abuse. The interplay of these factors is not clearly understood and scientists disagree to what extent each can be responsible for increasing the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. .
Social isolation is a factor in addiction, as well. A vicious cycle can ensue with addiction. As an addiction progresses, the individual is pulled away from healthy relationships and activities and devotes more time and energy into the addiction. This can lead to isolation, depression, and anxiety. Perversely, drugs offer a relief from this depression and anxiety. But the use of drugs and alcohol to relieve negative feelings simply pulls a person more deeply into isolation.
Addiction also seems to be a sociological issue. Prevention research shows that risk and protective factors for addiction exist in the individual, the family, the school, the neighborhood, and the community. Policies and laws also affect substance use. Policies and laws can provide a context in which addiction thrives or is weakened. Economics plays a factor, too. Lower prices on the street, or increased supply, can play a role in the increase of substance abuse in communities.
When the church ignores the many interdependent influences that contribute to addiction, they are failing to provide true love and compassion. They are like the doctor who prescribes the same medicine to all their patients, regardless of the symptoms. Or maybe the church is like a builder who fixes a leaky roof by giving the home owner more buckets to collect the water.
To appropriately love people affected by addiction, the church is going to have to learn to listen better. We need to learn from the sufferer how much of their addiction is a spiritual, a medical, a mental health, or a sociological disease.
Truly understanding addiction, will also change what we do to help addicts. If addiction is more than a moral failing, we need to do more than wag our finger at the addict. Instead, we need to be salt and light in every aspect of society that is involved in addiction. The implications of this are many, but could include the following:
- Creating a Christ-infused church culture where sins, weaknesses, failings, hurts, shames, and guilt are shared safely.
- Linking addicts to mentors and friends who support and care for them without judgement.
- Supporting job-training efforts
- Impacting laws and policies that affect addiction
- Providing financial support to doctors and therapists that treat addiction.
Addiction is big. It’s causes, like the roots of a pernicious tree, extend far and wide. It’s not enough to blame the individual; it’s our world that is sin-sick and broken. Knowing this should help us relate to those with addictions with more compassion and understanding.
Here are three great resources for understanding more about addiction: