Updated: May 10
“Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version
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The issue of addiction hits home for many, even for those in the church. Even if a Christian doesn’t personally struggle with addiction, he probably knows someone who does. So what do we do when someone we love is ensnared by addiction? Or what do we do when someone we care for is unwilling to change?
First, we must recognize addiction for what it is: a sin. “Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against God and what he has disclosed of himself in words. ...to think clearly about sin helps you to think clearly about salvation and the Savior” (D.A. Carson). In our rebellion against God, we live for the pleasure and comfort of ourselves; all of us do. Recognizing addiction as a sin is actually good news for struggling addicts. It gives them a path to freedom. D.A. Carson again explains, “But if the supreme problem [of humankind] is sin, then what we need is a salvation that addresses sin, not only the concrete acts of rebellion, but all of its effects including alienation and suffering and sickness and war and hate and finally death itself and hell. The notion of sin in Scripture is the notion of what is wrong with the universe and, therefore, constitutes what it is that God is sending his Son to address.” An addict suffers from the effects from sin and a desire to find refuge in a substance rather than finding refuge in the Lord. Due to the cravings that occur when someone is physically dependent on a substance, it feels as though he truly “needs” the substance to survive. The transition from finding refuge in drugs or alcohol to finding this in the Lord is not easy. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit, a willingness to die to self, and humility to ask for help. The answer is easy; the process is not.
Our culture, however, has taken personal responsibility away by identifying addiction as a disease, and most recently as a “disorder.” It is something that happens to people, that lives within them. As you can see, this lie takes away the component of personal responsibility intrinsically tied with choices associated with addiction. And when you take away this fundamental factor, you take away the truth that people can make different choices. Along with that, you steal any motivation to change, and therefore any hope for a different, completely new life - a life free from addiction.
Jesus’ death and resurrection is good news for people caught in a life of addiction, for his shed blood is enough to set addicts free from even the strongest, most vile addiction. We find this promise in Romans 10:13, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Galatians 5:1 states, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Now that we have established the biblical view of addiction, how do we help people trapped in the sin of addiction? 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.” Our hearts break and we want to protect them from the painful consequences their choices will bring. Do we simply try to hold them accountable? While this may be part of the solution, this does not lead to lasting change. Do we have “tough love?” The world says yes, but it is not always loving. Tough love can be an angry response to bad behavior that says, “I am done with you. Do we “Let go and let God?” The Bible tells us we are active participants in his work, so, how would God have us respond? How do we love biblically? How do we lovingly confront?
We are going to use the parable of the prodigal son as our model and discuss how it relates to addiction. There are many things we can learn from this parable, so let’s unpack this passage and take cues on how to relate with, care for, and love those in our lives who struggle in active addiction.
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put za ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
First, let’s examine the son. What are the attributes of the son in this story? He has many of the same characteristics of those in addiction: entitled, selfish, demanding money, forfeiting his future for “now,” not valuing the generosity of others, taking advantage of family. In verse 12, he makes this demand, “‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’” Recognize this attitude? Do you have any experience with this type of behavior in an addict you know? How many times have you heard something similar? Things like: “Why don’t you trust me?” “If you really loved me, you would do _____ to help me!” “I can’t believe you would say/think that about me!” “This is MY life, why are you butting in?”
Now let’s consider the father in this parable. How does he respond? We see that in his wisdom, the father allows the son to leave, to pursue his own foolish, rebellious way.
The pleasures of sin and sinful living are fleeting (Hebrews 11:25). When we try to fill the emptiness in our souls with the things of this world instead of with God himself, we will remain empty and unfulfilled. An addict may need to enjoy the fulfillment of her need with addictive pleasure before she is able to see the vanity of this path.
Let’s see what happens to the son. Verse 13 tells us “he squandered his property in reckless living.” Sound Familiar? This accurately depicts those pursuing a life of addiction; they are selfish, foolish, unwise, and irresponsible.
In verse 14, we learn that “...when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose… and he began to be in need.” Grave circumstances caused the son to see that he had a need. He got to the end of his resources, finding himself in a pig pen, hungry, alone and empty. Experiencing the consequences of foolish choices and feeling the reality of life is necessary for the son to see his need. This is an important part of the process. If addicts are continually cushioned from the consequences of their choices, they can not get to the point of need. We on the outside can see the destruction that an addict’s choices are causing, and we can’t understand why he doesn’t want change. Many times addicts DO want change, but they also want the comfort and refuge their addiction provides.
What is true for all of us, is of course also true for the addict: Until we get to the end of ourselves, we will not submit to God’s plan and purpose for our lives. Every person has his own journey and timeline, but buffering this process for addicts will only prolong their getting to this place of need. And that is the opposite of what we want for them!
An unfortunate, but very legitimate struggle with this principle is the reality that addicts left to face the consequences don’t always choose to turn their lives around. Sometimes those we love continue to flounder in their lifestyle. And sometimes they even die. As someone wanting to help an addict, this is the hardest step of faith and trust. We must literally trust God with the life of the person we love or care about. We can identify with the parable’s broken-hearted father as he allows the son he deeply loves to go headlong into an indulgent life that could ultimately lead to destruction.
A time of reckless living led the son to experience the fallout of his choices. He saw his need, and verse 17 tells us the son “came to himself.” He was hungry and alone, realizing that even pigs had more to eat than he did. And in this moment of despair this young man sees that the lifestyle he had once so recklessly enjoyed had only led to a bankrupt end.
Verses 18 and 19 show us the action toward change the son determines to take, “ ‘I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son...” ‘ “ The son expresses humility by being willing to return to his father’s home, not as a son, but as a servant. He does not plan to arrive making demands, dictating the terms of his return. His posture is that of humility, a turning away from his old life, a willingness to start at the bottom and do what is asked of him as a servant. He admits that he has sinned in opposition to his father and no longer deserves his sonship. We should pay attention to this example. Recognition of sin is, of course, necessary for all of us, but it is an imperative step 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. “...But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The son was received with love born from humility, not a haughty, indifferent attitude of “I told you so.” In turn, the prodigal’s true humility is seen through genuine repentance.
The heart of humility and repentance continues in verse 21 with the son’s confession again of sin toward God (Psalm 51) and toward the father, and a willingness to submit as a servant. He carries no attitude of entitlement, puts forth no conditions on his return. Whatever he needs to do, the son is willing to do. Those we are caring for must also exhibit willing submission and a posture of humility to do whatever is necessary to forsake their sin and leave their old life behind. The biggest barrier to freedom for struggling addicts is their pride, their strength, their plans, their goals, and their agenda. Until addicts become completely aware that their way of doing things has not worked, and they are willing to listen to and submit to the wisdom of another who will lead them to live rightly, they are not ready to change. When an addict refuses to see any other way but his own, the Bible says he is a fool.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
Identifying true readiness for change can be challenging, as we want so badly for the addict to come back to us and to the Lord. We will sometimes interpret things the way we wish to see them. We are eager to see genuine repentance, humility and readiness for change, when the reality is that an addict may simply be manipulating to get what he/she wants. In order for us to be wise ourselves, we must pray for discernment and engage others to help us respond in wisdom. We, as family members and friends, cannot desire change more than the addict does.
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.” (page 1384)
If we are to model our loving God to those who are active in their addiction, our response must be the same as this father: welcoming a repentant heart with compassion, celebration, love, and reconciliation. In our sinfulness, we can tend to respond with pride and self-righteousness, rather than humility, compassion, and mercy. This is NOT God’s heart toward us when we turn back to him! Welcoming a repentant prodigal does not mean he is instantly granted trust; wisdom must prevail. Restoration of trust is a process, and trust must be earned.
We may find that the addict we love is not yet ready to turn from her sinful life. What if we have done all we know to do and things are still grim? What is our response to be? First, we must humbly recognize that we, too, are prodigals. Our path of rebellion may not have been as outwardly extreme or destructive, but at the root it is the same heart issue of rebellion against God and living for self. We must also wisely discern what is truly loving. Loving those we care for does not mean we embrace or condone their sinful behavior, nor do we have to constantly remind them of their guilt. Conviction is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and 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? Just as the prodigal “came to himself” and chose to return to the father, the addict must also choose to leave the old life behind. When she does, we are to model Christ’s long-suffering. Err on the side of grace. After attempts have been made to support the addict in a new way of living, if a continued pattern persists of lying, making excuses, not following through, manipulation, shifting blame, deflecting, or using substances (even those that are not the “drug of choice”), then a loving conversation is appropriate. Though this will look different for each of us, we must take time to prepare a plan that creates the scenario in which the addict has to choose either to leave the old life behind or to truly make the effort toward change. (For more help in this area, read this article.) We must allow him to get to a place of need. Just as the Prodigal Son did, the struggling addict must get to that place of humble willingness.
As Christians, how do we live with hope and respond to an addict who won’t change?
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. James 1:5 tells us to ask God for wisdom and that he will give it generously. Romans 14:23b encourages us to make decisions in faith. Don’t make hasty or emotionally driven decisions. Rather, take time to prayerfully discern wise steps to take that will lovingly encourage those who are struggling toward seeing their need for Christ.
We do have a role in the life of the struggling addict, but we must remember that true, lasting change is the work of the Holy Spirit in a regenerated heart.
2) Keep an eternal view. God is doing more than we can see. Our ultimate goal is not for addicts to act the way we want them to act or even for them to simply get sober. The goal is for them to know and love Christ, and to live a life that glorifies God. The path to this may be more rugged than we are comfortable with, but God knows just what needs to happen in their lives in order for them 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. In verse 5 he instructs that the person in sin be delivered to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit 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. In 2 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 my 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.”
Sometimes this is messy work, but we can rest in the sovereign work of the Lord to accomplish his purposes in both the addict and in us.
3) Love appropriately. When an addict chooses to walk away rather than make choices that lead to freedom, it is loving to allow her to experience misery so that she can ultimately be saved. This is the delicate balance of love and this is excruciating.
When someone walks away, we will be tempted to harden our hearts. While it is right to allow her to make her destructive choices, it is not right to stop loving her. Keep yourself available and open for relationship. This openness allows her to know you love her and makes it safe for her to come to you when she is ready.
Our job is to help people see their need for rescue. This is 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 cannot be the ones to rescue them. As friends or family, we can be tempted to relieve or lessen the burden of consequences. The father lovingly allowed the full weight of his son’s choices to bring him to repentance. Consequences are God’s way of helping us see our need for rescue from our sin. Don’t rob them of this.
4) Look to God for strength. We must go to the Lord for wisdom on the particulars and strength to obey. This is a biblical model, but the practical application will look 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. And he is in the fire with us. We cannot do this on our own. The battle cannot be fought in our own strength. “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” (Isaiah 40:29).
This article is meant to help with a biblical way of thinking. Walking with a struggling addict, especially one we deeply love, is heart-wrenching. Standing aside and allowing him to pursue the destruction of his choices is the hardest thing to do. It is a possibility that even after you fully trust the Lord, wrestle with your faith and follow God, you may still experience heartbreak. Even if we face the worst possible outcome, God is good and loving and he will be with us. (see video testimony of our founder)
Walking with people who have messy lives brings us much heartache and sorrow, and it tends to reveal both their sin and ours. The beauty of this journey with them, however, is the opportunity it gives for God’s steadfast love to be displayed. Ed Welch reminds us that we are always impacted by our love for addicts: “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.” (Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave)
Thinking of the addict in your life, ask yourself these questions:
1) How do I walk WITH this addict, but not do the hard work FOR him or her?
2) In light of what I’ve learned from the father’s love in the parable of the Prodigal Son, what is the most loving thing I can do for him or her?
3) Are the things I am currently doing helping him or her stay in or get out of his or her mess?
Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls by Paul Gilbert and Dave Harvey
Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave by Edward T. Welch
Ephesians 5 article for more help in evaluating what is helpful in our care for those who are struggling (add link when done)