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How Can Christians Help Those Struggling with Addiction?

Editor’s Note: After hearing Dr. Sumey’s presentation at our District Delegate Conference, we invited him to share a condensed version with our readers. We thank him for doing so. We would encourage (as Dr. Sumey does below) any who are suffering from an addiction to be in contact with their local pastor for further scriptural guidance and counseling. The first installment appeared last month.

Chris Sumey, MD, member of St. Paul Lutheran Church (CLC),
Denver (Lakewood), Colorado

The first installment of this commentary characterized addiction and its detrimental effects on a person, both body and soul. But what can we do to help when those close to us have an addiction?First, we need to make sure our own sinful pride is in check. The temptation is strong to consider ourselves somehow above this problem of addiction. One may think, “This would never happen to me,” “I would never allow things to get this bad,” or even, “That person must not have very strong faith if he/she is in this situation.”If we are to openly discuss another Christian’s addiction with them, we need to make clear we are doing so with the utmost humility. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5).Similarly, if someone is returning to the church after a notable absence for help with a vice such as substance abuse, we will not want to react with disdain or an “I told you so” attitude. Rather we should heed the parables of Jesus in Luke chapter 15. I envision that the prodigal son did not deliberately squander his wealth but rather was ensnared by evils such as alcohol abuse, gambling, and the like. Not until he hit rock bottom did he humbly return to his father for help. Likewise, our first reaction when confronting someone with an addiction should be to rejoice that the Lord has guided a lost sheep back to the fold.

If someone approaches us seeking help with his addiction, we do not need to carry this burden alone. Encourage the person to reach out to the pastor, as well as to be open with family and friends. This will not only widen the safety net but it will add accountability. It is advisable to seek help from a counselor and/or physician who is well-equipped to identify underlying mental health disorders and to deal with issues of substance withdrawal. They may also be able to offer substitution therapy, which aims to replace the harmful substance with a safer medication.

With a few specific exceptions, quitting a drug “cold turkey” is usually the way to go. Too often I see patients who want to taper off tobacco or alcohol very gradually, but because they don’t have a clear stopping point in mind, they inevitably lose sight of their goal. The substances that may be unsafe to quit immediately are alcohol and sedative medications (benzodiazepines and barbiturates). Those with heavier use are more at risk of withdrawal, which can include tremor, agitation, hallucinations, seizures, and death. If someone is ready to quit drinking alcohol but has a substantial daily intake (or if they have had withdrawal symptoms before), the aid of a physician should be sought.

One of the most important aspects to successful drug cessation is the person’s environment. A smoker whose spouse continues to smoke in the home will have a difficult time quitting. An alcoholic man whose entire social life revolves around the bar will soon be back drinking again. The substance or behavior needs to be as inaccessible as possible, and this usually requires a complete change, even including moving away from the alcoholic roommate or finding all new friends. “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).

As powerless as one can feel to overcome an addiction, it is vitally important to emphasize the wonderful works that God has already done for us. He guides us through our daily Christian walk. Our redemption has already been accomplished by Jesus’ suffering and death. The Holy Spirit continues to work saving faith in our hearts. When Christians are toiling against the Old Adam to overcome these temptations, let them recall: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” 
(1 Corinthians 10:13).

Here we are reminded that we are never alone in fighting a particular temptation; many others have struggled with the same problems. Also, we should not despair and give in to the habit because the addiction is just too powerful, genetic, or “hard-wired,” but rather approach each new temptation looking for the way of escape through prayer, studying God’s Word, and reaching out to fellow Christians.

The most powerful tool to combat addiction is God’s Word. Those who are abusing or dependent upon substances or addictive behaviors need to be reminded first of their sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Lest someone be led into despair, we also want to provide the blessed gospel message, as the apostle does in the very next verse (1 Corinthians 6:11).

How to balance the law and the gospel is best based on the individual case. Are we dealing with a contrite, active member of the church with a heavy burden of guilt or with someone who is not well acquainted with his Savior and sees no real harm in his substance abuse? Ultimately, we know that no one can say it better than the Holy Spirit Himself. Therefore we will want to sit down with the individual and pore over the Scriptures for guidance, praying for deliverance from such a hardship.

“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him”  (James 1:12).