Addiction is a problem – what does the church need to know about recovery?
By Rich Thompson
Addiction is beyond frustrating- it is maddening. It has stolen the lives of many of our brothers and sisters. We all have lost family, friends, and neighbors to addiction. In 2021, Franklin County reported that 825 individuals died due to overdose. These numbers are so large we begin to wonder, as the church community of Columbus, what can be done? We pray, counsel, and provide all the support we can – but to what end? Caring well for those in addiction means getting uncomfortable and being let down for glimpses of success. At no time did Jesus promise comfort to accomplish our mission to reach, help, and aid the lost. In Matthew 25, the differentiation between the sheep and goats was their acts of service to those who could not repay. Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, attend to the sick, and visit the prisoner.
Within the struggle, trial, and destruction of addiction, the individual gives all they have for the promise of a brief escape with diminishing returns. And so, more and more of the substance or behavior is required to achieve the same result. This requirement begins to force the individual into impossible circumstances, sacrificing relationships, employment, and transportation to maintain their source of relief. Working with those in addiction recovery can be incredibly frustrating.
There is no replacement for individual readiness in recovery, even when all other recovery factors are favorable. But what does individual readiness look like? Though it differs from person to person, certain interpersonal behaviors can manifest in those not yet ready for recovery. Blaming, excuses, and denial are signs that the individual may not be ready for recovery. The contrasting positive behaviors of ownership, accountability, and responsibility are the elements to look for as an individual grows in recovery.
When individuals seek recovery, they actively put what has become their primary coping mechanism behind them. This addiction had informed their life and decision-making possibly for years. Yes, it is critical to abstain from the behavior, but simply abstaining is not the entirety of recovery. Replacement behaviors and coping mechanisms must be identified and encouraged. The separation from this destructive path is, for them, a significant loss that must have grief support. We, as pastors, would never turn away individuals who were abused. No, we would surround them with community, provide resources, and even aid in relocating them if necessary. Similarly, many individuals in recovery need to build upon their resources. Addiction holistically affects the individual, including their social connections, robbing many of friends, family, and employment.
Shockingly, around 50% of individuals pursuing addiction recovery will fail in their recovery attempts. These numbers are staggering and frustrating for those who are trying with limited resources to support the success of individuals in recovery. Most people will relapse five times before addiction recovery is established. Lasting recovery is promoted by secure housing, employment, transportation, and social connections through sober friendships and accountable fellowships. The reverse is also, unfortunately, true. Relapse occurs more often when these elements are absent or unreliable.
As the church, we must be aware that relapse is common and support our brothers and sisters when they endure hardship in their recovery. As we construct and navigate recovery care, we want to be helpful, wise, and discerning in our approaches. Though practical support will vary, it is essential to include clear and empathetic communication, support for the person and their family, and grace-filled but wise boundaries. It would be sensible for each church to outline its approach to addiction recovery before providing support. Depending on the individual, medication, treatment, therapy, or mutual aid groups like AA or Celebrate Recovery could all be effective recovery aids.
Interestingly, spirituality has been repeatedly identified as a recovery resource, even for those not religiously affiliated. According to Pew Research, about 30% of the population of the United States is now religiously unaffiliated. This number grows to almost 50% for those born after 1995. But what do we mean by spirituality? What do they mean? As the church, we can teach spiritual truths, but we must do so in practical ways that make sense to those the church has harmed. Be curious about their story, and let’s share ours. You don’t have to know anything about addiction to listen well.
Through these grace-filled relationships, the individual gradually moves from identity as an addict to one who is in recovery. Sober and accountable social supports encourage this process. It is essential, however, to underscore that this is a gradual process and requires time, resources, and patience. Romans 12:2 implores the believer to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, no longer conforming to the patterns of the world. This renewal accompanies a perspective shift, where one sees the world as hopeful and abounding in grace. Hope is essential for addiction recovery. The previous life was transactional, without mercy, and unsafe. This perspective shift results in transformed relationships, and eventually, healing occurs.
Jesus waits with open arms for the hurting, deceived, and broken. Let’s do our part.
Below are some Christian Addiction Recovery Ministries that may help support those in addiction recovery. These are not an exhaustive list of resources available, however. The pursuit of addiction recovery should be done carefully and with support. It may require a partnership with medical professionals. Recovery can be physically dangerous, depending on the substance used.
About the author
Rich Thompson, Ph.D. ABD, MDiv, MPS, RPC is a board-certified hospital chaplain working with and
studying addiction recovery. With the College of Social Work at the Ohio State University, he is exploring
how spirituality functions within addiction recovery. Additionally for the last 7 years, he has volunteered
his time with the Refuge, an addiction recovery ministry.