What to Say to Recovering Addicts
This chapter has addressed the popular myths that, for many recovering addicts, pose a stumbling block to receiving God’s love in and from the church:
- “Addiction is a sin.”
- "Addiction is God’s punishment or a sign of God’s judgment.”
- “Addiction is demon possession.”
- “Addiction doesn’t happen to church people.”
- “Once an addict is born again, she won’t relapse.”
- “Prayer, Bible study and right belief are enough to cure addiction.”
If ever in doubt about what not to say to recovering addicts in your midst, a quick review of this list may help. “But what should you say to addicts in your midst?” one pastor in our focus group asked. To help me answer that question, I asked Mary what message she would have liked to receive from the church (in contrast to what she did receive). She said, “Unconditional love and acceptance.”
Aside from [my church] not doing what they did do, I would’ve liked to have been unconditionally loved and accepted. I didn’t want to be an experiment on the power of prayer or a candidate for a miracle. If church had been a more peaceful place, less intrusive and domineering; if I could’ve just sat there quietly, hearing how God loved me and accepted me too; if I had felt safe, if I had not felt I had to “be” or “act” in certain ways in order to gain acceptance—well, I don’t know if I would have recovered any sooner, but I would have come back.
On this note, here are some suggestions for what we can and should say to addicts looking (like the rest of us) for unconditional love and acceptance:
You have been made for so much more life and love than what your addiction has taught you to expect for yourself. Remind addicts that their identity and belonging come from Jesus, not drugs, sex or any other unhealthy attachment—and that because this is true, they were made for so much more than putting needles in their veins or dialing hookers. When God has created you and called you “good,” when the kingdom of God—a small piece of heaven itself—is within you, why shoot up? Life itself is waiting to be enjoyed and shared for the glory of God, who has your very best in mind. As the ancient church father Irenaeus remarked in the second century, “The glory of God is man truly alive.”
God loves you just as you are, regardless of what you’ve done, are doing or will do. Let addicts know that God loves them unconditionally just as they are—and mean it. Lest you have any doubt about this reality or feel the least bit disingenuous declaring it to be true, remember that Christ died for you while you were still a sinner (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not wait for the human race to get its act together before demonstrating his love for us. The church need not wait either, in loving people with the disease of addiction.
God forgives you—and where you can make amends to the people you have wronged without causing further harm to them or yourself, do so. Leave the rest to God. Tomorrow is a new day. Addicts in recovery may express guilt or regret about decisions they have made when acting out of their place of addiction. Give addicts permission to confess these things confidentially to you—or in a pastoral setting where they feel safe. Assure them of God’s mercy and forgiveness, which are new every morning. Encourage them, in the spirit of the twelve steps, to make an honest assessment of their shortcomings and of where they can make amends to those they have wronged.
Welcome! We want you here. Invite addicts to get involved in your congregation and to spend time with God in prayer, Bible study and other forms of spiritual community. Encourage them to see these things as an important part of the solution to their problem but not the only resource available to them. Let them know you are there to support them in finding additional resources for recovery.
Tell me your story. Has God been real to you in it? Invite addicts to share their story with you. Then take a learning posture as you listen, asking them what God has been teaching them in their journey (wherever they are on the recovery spectrum). You may be surprised by what you hear and learn.
You have a chronic disease, and we believe God wants you to find recovery—and so do we. We will walk with you every step of the way, not just on the good days. Because relapse is so common in the recovery process, let addicts know you are in this process with them for the long haul and are aware of how arduous the road ahead will be. Let them know that they will have hard days and may even relapse. And let them know that you want to be in relationship with them no matter what sort of day they are having—and when they are in trouble, you are only a phone call away.
These are just a few of the things one can and should say to people with addiction, rather than the old myths that do more harm than good. Loving addicts really beginshere, with a commitment to shelving unhelpful misconceptions so we can better relate to people with addictions as human beings like the rest of us. The truth is that the church needs addicts as much as they need us. Their struggles, like ours, belong to the cosmic recovery story that our prodigal God wants to tell. By listening to and learning from one another’s stories, and offering expressions of compassion and understanding and affirmations of God’s mercy, we also will journey homeward, both to our prodigal God and to one another.
[Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Recovery-Minded Church by Jonathan Benz with Kristina Robb-Dover. Copyright (c) 2016 by Elements Behavioral Health, Inc. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.www.ivpress.com.]
Jonathan Benz is a clinician, public speaker, ordained minister and certified addictions professional who serves the recovery community nationally. He resides in South Florida.
Kristina Robb-Dover is a writer, speaker, minister and the author of Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, Paul, and their two sons.
Publication date: January 21, 2016