The idea of ministering to people with addictions is probably intimidating for most Christians. Addictions oftentimes give rise to other attendant sins such as lying or stealing that make it unpleasant or even dangerous to be around someone in the grip of an addiction. By the time their problem comes to light, many addicts’ lives are spinning out of control, and it’s hard to imagine mustering the kind of resources and energy necessary to really help someone with an addiction. This kind of ministry might seem like the sort of thing that requires special training or expertise. Surely, it’s not the kind of thing that your “average” church member would think about undertaking, and so many congregations are paralyzed when it comes to working with people who struggle with addiction.
Two biblical categories can help us understand what is going on in someone’s life when they are in the grip of an addiction:
First, addicts are idolaters. Addiction is fundamentally about worship. The Bible tells us that whatever people flee to for solace, comfort, and hope, that thing is functionally playing the role of God in their lives. An addict is someone who is looking to something destructive, something other than the one, true God to take away the boredom, pain, loneliness, or anxiety of life. The joy of addicts when in the presence of the thing they crave—whether that thing is gambling or alcohol or narcotics or pornography—has all the hallmarks of worship.
Second, addicts are slaves. This is perhaps what we most think of when we think of addiction. The difference between someone who merely indulges in a vice and someone we would consider an addict is that the latter is unable to stop himself, even when he thinks that he wants to. The addicted person is enslaved by a master that seemingly must be obeyed whenever it beckons.
Those two categories represent a very different way of understanding addiction from that commonly held in the wider world. In most of the medical and psychiatric communities, it is taken as gospel truth that addicts are suffering from a disease and thus are less than fully responsible for their behaviors. But while there is often a very real physical component to addiction, a Christian understanding of sin requires us to insist that God holds addicts responsible for their behaviors and choices.
This understanding also helps to bridge the gap that we may feel between ourselves and the addicts to whom we minister, because when we look at the Bible, we see that the same things that are true of addicts are true of all sinners. By nature and without Christ, every man, woman, and child is guilty of false worship (Rom. 1:21–23). We all exalt ourselves and look to the creation rather than the Creator for meaning and help; we are all idolaters. In addition, apart from Christ, we are all slaves to sin (John 8:34). We cannot help but sin, and on our own we can do nothing to change the situation (Rom. 1:28–31; Eph. 2:1–3).
If we look at things in that light, we see that we have a basic commonality with someone who is struggling with an addiction. Their destructive behaviors may make them seem very different from us, but in reality we have the most important things in common. In Adam, we are all idol-worshiping slaves to sin; in fact, you might say that we are all addicted to sin. We might be tempted to look at someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs or pornography or gambling and think, “This person is too different from me; I cannot help him.” But instead, we should think: “This person is fundamentally the same as I am. Apart from Christ, we are all slaves to sin and idolatry.”
Once we see that the problem of addiction is really the problem of sin, we see that the solution to addiction is the same as the solution to sin: the gospel message. Addicts need to have the love of their hearts reordered by the grace of God. They both need to take responsibility for their sin in repentance and also to relocate their hope in Christ. That is ultimately the only hope for addicts, and it is hope enough. As churches seek to minister to addicts, we do not need anything more than we already have in the gospel and in the church that the gospel creates.
With all of that said, however, we must admit that ministering to people trapped in the pit of addictions does present some special challenges. To that end, here are four practical things to keep in mind as you try to help people in these circumstances:
1. Don’t neglect the families. Oftentimes, the spouses and children of an addict experience great emotional and nancial stress. Addiction programs sometimes put the addicted person at the center of the universe, but their families are often innocent victims who deserve support and compassion.
2. Beware of false solutions. Many of the popular treatment programs fail to address a core issue for addicts: their own idolatry, selfishness, lack of self-control, and poor choices. Instead, addicts are sometimes encouraged to switch their unhealthy addictions for less dangerous or more socially acceptable obsessions.
3. Count the cost. For a church to come alongside an addict will be costly in terms of time and energy. Oftentimes, an addict’s only friends are other addicts. The church needs to provide an alternative community where addicts can be around spiritually healthy people and learn to live for something other than themselves.
4. Have reasonable expectations. Not many people change completely and immediately. If you and I change slowly, why should we expect that addicts wouldn’t? Don’t give up when setbacks arise, but persevere in bringing the gospel to bear on their lives.