The issue of addiction hits home for many, even those in the church. Christians can both struggle with addiction and love those who struggle. So what do we do when someone we love is ensnared by addiction? Or what do we do when someone we are caring for is unwilling to change?
First, we must recognize addiction for what it is: a sin. Jesus did not come, die a brutal death and be resurrected three days later for sickness or disease. He died for sin. All sin, including addiction. Our culture has taken responsibility away from people by identifying addiction as a disease and most recently as a “disorder.” This idea leaves people without hope for real change or the option to have a completely new life. When you take away a person’s responsibility for their choices, you take away their motivation and their hope for change.
At the core of every sin is the idol of self and addiction is no different. Jesus’ death and resurrection is good news for people caught in a life of addiction. His shed blood is enough to set them free of even the vilest addiction. Taking away our responsibility for sin leaves us lost. Scripture tells us that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Only confession of sin and repentance before the Lord brings forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:8-10). It is so hard to do, yet so simple. This does not, however, dismiss the very real physical effects on the body and mind. In order for someone to even begin to heal and change, they must have sobriety. Time is needed, and in many cases, in-patient treatment or detox is necessary and helpful.
Now that we have established the biblical view of addiction, how do we help someone trapped in the sin of addiction? Our hearts break and we can’t imagine allowing them to be in a bad situation. They indicate a desire to change, but over and over there is no real effort toward that end. We do everything we can to “make things better,” to help them and hope that “this time will be different.” The world tells us we should have “tough love.” Tough love is not love. Tough love is usually an angry response to bad behavior that says I am done with you. The Lord in His mercy does not do this to us. Psalm 86 tells us that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 86:15). This does not mean that we are free to continue in sin or allow someone else to continue in sin. So where is the balance? How do we love appropriately?
You all know the parable of the Prodigal Son. We are going to use it as our model as it relates to addiction. There are many things we can learn from this parable, so lets unpack this passage and take cues on how to relate with, care for and love those in our lives who struggle in active addiction.
What are the characteristics of the son? Like all of us, the son was entitled. Verse 12, he tells the father, “give me the share of property that is coming to me.” He was selfish, not considering that everything he had belonged to his father. The father in his wisdom allowed the son to leave, to pursue his way.
Why was this wisdom? Because sin is only pleasurable for a season. When we try and fill the emptiness in our souls with the things of this world, we will be empty and unfilled.
Let’s see what happened. Verse 13 tells us that the son squandered his property in reckless living. This is an accurate picture of those pursuing a life of addiction; they are selfish, reckless and irresponsible.
In verse 14, we learn that when the son had spent everything, a famine arose and he began to be in need. Grave circumstances caused him to see that he had a need. He got to the end of his resources. He was in a pig pen, hungry, alone and empty. This is an important part of the process. If people are continually cushioned from the consequences of their choices, they can not get to the point of need. We look at where people are and there is no way we can understand how they don’t want change. And many times they DO want change, but they want their mess also. Until we all get to the end of ourselves, we will not submit to God’s plan and purpose. Isn’t this all of us? Every person has their own journey. Buffering this process for people will only prolong them coming to this place of need. The struggle here is that there is a very real possibility that someone we love will die. This is the hardest step of faith and trust. We must literally trust God with the life of those we love or are caring for. We can identify with the father as he watched the son he deeply loved go headlong into a life of destruction. But he did it. He knew this process was necessary for his son to be saved.
After a time of reckless living, verse 17 tells us that the son “came to himself.” He saw his need. He was hungry and alone and in this moment of despair realized what love the father had for him and that the life he had once enjoyed had led to a bankrupt end. As caregivers, we must allow people to see their need. They have to hate their life of sin enough to do the hard work to change. There must be motivation to change.
Verse 18 shows us the action taken toward change, humility and repentance. “I will arise and go to my father and say ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you.’” He shows humility by being willing to return as a servant. This process of realizing our sin against a holy God, repentance and humility is necessary. It is necessary for all of us, and it is necessary for those in addiction. The path to freedom always begins with humility, a recognition of need and repentance.
The beautiful picture of restoration comes in verse 20 when the prodigal returns to his father. The father saw him from a long way off and had compassion. Then he ran and embraced his son and kissed him. The son was received with love, not an attitude of “I told you so.”
The heart of humility and repentance continues in verse 21 with the confession of sin again toward God and toward the father and a willingness to submit as a servant. There is no entitlement, or conditions on his return. He is willing to do whatever he needs to do. For those we are caring for, they too, must get to this place of submission. An attitude of humility to do whatever is necessary. The biggest barrier to freedom for people is their pride, their strength, their plans, their goals and their agenda. Until they become completely aware that their way of doing things has not worked and be willing to listen to and submit to the wisdom of another, they are not ready. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Proverbs 12:15
Complete reconciliation is seen in verse 22 when the father responds to his son’s humility with undeserved mercy. The Gospel Transformation Bible Commentary says, “God is a patient and compassionate father who welcomes our repentance with great rejoicing.”
If we are to model our loving God to those who are active in their addiction, our response must be the same. Welcoming a repentant heart with compassion, celebration, love and reconciliation. In our sinfulness we tend to respond with pride or self-righteousness rather than compassion and mercy. This is NOT God’s heart toward us!
How can we model this loving God when someone is living in full rebellion to God?
1) Recognize that we, too, are prodigals. Our path of rebellion may not be as outwardly extreme or destructive, but it is the same heart issue.
2) Loving those we are caring for does not mean we embrace or condone their sinful behavior. They know their choices are wrong – we don’t have to constantly remind them. Conviction is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Only God can bring change. Romans 2:4 tells us that God’s kindness leads us to repentance. How can we be a part of this in someone’s life? We are to model Christ’s long suffering with people. There is a point where people must choose. Err on the side of grace. After attempts have been made to walk with them, if a continued pattern persists, a loving conversation that leads to a decision is appropriate. We will be there for them, love them, etc but we must also allow them to get to a place of need. They must get to that place of humble willingness. This will look different in each person.
How? What does this look like?
1) Pray! Ask God to help you see where He is working, what your role is and what next steps need to be taken. While there are guidelines, we always want to be guided by the Holy Spirit as we participate in God’s work in people.
2) Keep an eternal view: The goal is for their souls to be saved not for them to act the way we want them to act. God knows just what needs to happen in order to see their need for rescue. Let them get there. Paul addresses an issue of sexual immorality in the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5.
He instructs for the person to be handed over to Satan to be sifted so his soul may be saved. John
Piper explains this concept of Satan being an instrument of God’s work,
What seems to be in view is something like what happened in the book of Job. The only other place in the Bible outside Paul’s letters where “handing someone over to Satan” with these very words occurs is Job 2:6, which says, literally, “And the Lord said to the Devil, ‘Behold I hand him [Job] over to you. Only spare his life.’”
So Satan became the means under God’s sovereign control of purifying Job’s heart and bringing him closer than ever to God. This is not the only place where God uses Satan to do that. In2 Corinthians 12 Paul describes his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan which God appoints for Paul’s humility and Christ’s glory. Verse 7: “To keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself!”
When Paul prayed that Jesus would take it away, the answer he got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Notice that the one who is in control of whether the “messenger of Satan” stays or goes is Christ. This is why it is so significant in our text (v. 4) when Paul says that handing someone over to Satan is “with the power of the Lord Jesus.” We don’t have the power or the authority in ourselves to do this.
Jesus is Satan’s ruler. And he uses Satan, our archenemy, to save and sanctify his people. He brought Job to penitence and prosperity. He brought Paul to the point where he could exult in tribulation and make the power of Christ manifest.
And Paul hopes that the result of handing over this man to Satan will be the salvation of his spirit at the day of Christ. In other words, Paul’s aim—our aim—in handing someone over to Satan is that some striking misery will come in such a way that the person will say with Job, “My eyes have seen the Lord, and I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
I asked the question earlier, how do we love appropriately? This is the delicate balance of love. Allowing them to experience misery so that they can ultimately be saved. We will have times when we will need to draw a line and ask people to choose. They cannot have a different life (kids, home, etc) and their old way of life. It does not work. Revelation 3 speaks to being lukewarm, preferring hot or cold. And while we may have conversations that lead a person to choose their path, we never walk away from someone. Just as the father watched the prodigal son walk away, we can lead someone to choose and by choosing they may walk away. God does not walk away from us, neither should we walk away.
So what do we do when someone walks away? We will be tempted (in our sinfulness, speaking from my own sinful responses) to stop reaching out. While it is right to allow them to do what is necessary, we still love them. A continuing pursuit of them as God brings them to mind or loving them when you see them, reminding them that you are here and would love to get together, etc. Keeping open dialog allows them to know you love them and make it safe for them to come to you when they are ready.
Our job is to help people see their need for rescue. Not rescue by us, but by their loving Savior. We need to walk with them on their journey. We want to be there when “they come to themselves” and recognize their need. We have to let them figure it out. We also cannot be the ones to rescue them. They must feel the FULL weight of their decisions. Consequences are God’s way of helping us see our need for rescue. Don’t take that away from them.
We must go to Lord for wisdom on the particulars. This is a biblical model but the application is different for each person. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fire. God did not take them out of the fire. He was in the fire with them.
The questions to ask yourself:
1) How do I walk WITH them but not FOR them?
2) What is the most loving thing I can do for them?
3) Is this thing I’m doing helping them stay in their mess or helping them get out?
Walking with people with messy lives brings much heartache, much sorrow, reveals sin (theirs and ours) and displays God’s steadfast love.
Ed Welch, “when you spend time with people who have struggled with addictions, they all change you in some way. The men and women I have known have often caused me to grieve, but they have also reminded me that the triune God loves all addicts and delights in setting them free.”
Liz Beck, President, Redeemed2Repeat, Inc.