Over the last several months, whether by phone, email, or coffeeshop banter, I’ve fielded this question: how do I breakthrough to my addicted [husband, wife, daughter, cousin, fill-in-the-blank]? It’s an honest, unnerving question. The truth is, I’ve no answer for ushering the divine providence of God into the life of an addict. I’m no guru.
Yesterday I spoke with a friend who’s walking out his own path of recovery. He’s one of the rare wise ones, proof that sometimes sage souls really do walk the Ozark highlands. We sat across the table, and he told me he’d been sober for more than 90 days. (Opiates were his bag.) We discussed the tiny ways in which the providence of God intervened, the ways in which God brought the craggy bottom of life up to our falling.
We chatted for a bit, and I decided I’d throw him the knuckleball question.
“When folks ask you what they can say to their addict friend or family member, what do you tell them?”
He smiled, shook his head. “Tell them? It doesn’t work that way. You know that.”
I nodded, smiled. “Yeah. Too bad, isn’t it?”
Call it addiction; call it dependency; call it a minor problem. Call it whatever you want, but an addicted soul can’t change what an addicted soul doesn’t have the power to change. (Stop and reread that sentence?) More to the point, perhaps, a sober soul can’t change what a sober soul doesn’t have the power to change.* You cannot browbeat an addict clean.
It can be a disheartening thought. After all, don’t we all want to see our people walk into freedom? I’ve been considering this what-can-we-do? question over the last few weeks, and I think I’ve formulated an initial five-step action plan of sorts. It won’t be easy. It will take commitment, dedication, and the practice of slow speech. But I think you’ll find it might just work.
The 5 Step Action Plan to Reach the Addict in Your Life
In the 1960s, French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote extensively about the place of the Christian in the political arena. He reminded the French evangelicals of the day, that, the exclusive province of the Christian is prayer. Ellul’s thesis was simple: while the world thrashes about seeking political solutions, the faith-bearers are the only ones with the power to pray the great Kingdom Come into earth as it is in heaven.
Political commentary aside (the good Lord knows I’m not aiming to delve into politics on this blog), Ellul’s point is applicable in a great many spheres. We thrash, and we thrash, and we thrash about in hopes of changing our friends. We scheme and scheme, conjure ways to bring others to their quickening moment of sobriety. We plan interventions, ask our recovering friends to speak to our addict friends. And yet, how many of us pray—knees to the floor, face to the ground, hands on the carpet? How many of us retreat to our rooms, shut the door, and whisper secret, uncontrived, non-public prayers? (Matt. 6:6)
Are you ready for my confession? I pray far less often than I speak. Perhaps I have an addiction to pride, to thinking I can be the change someone else needs. Simply put? It doesn’t work that way.
In an article entitled “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and it is Not What You Think” (that title could have used an editor’s touch, eh?), Johann Hari demystified the notion of addictive chemical hooks. Walking through the science of addiction—the more modern, quantifiable science—he writes, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
Hari’s point—and it’s experientially true—is this: a breakthrough to the heart of the addict is possible when you love unconditionally and incorporate him into your community. Hari’s assertion has basis in the biblical narrative, too. In Ephesians 5, Paul gives his antidote for the sins of isolation and addiction, encouraging the addict to be involved in a loving, encouraging community of faith. (Eph. 5:18-19)
Pray again? Don’t worry. It’s not what you think.
It’s an easy thing to do—spend all your prayers on the addictions of your friends without turning inward. Let’s try a different tact, though. Find some space; sit in the quiet. Ask God, “show me my addictions, even if they’re socially acceptable.” Make a list.
Shopping? Working? Eating? Exercising? Escaping into entertainment?
Ask why you’re engaging in your own obsessive, addictive behaviors. Confess them. Pray that through exposing your own addictions, God might give you empathy for your struggling friends and family members. After all, without empathy for our neighbors, is breakthrough possible?
We’re all drunk on something. What’s your bag?
Love again? Yes. Always love.
If and when the addict comes clean, there is a great temptation—the temptation toward I-told-you-so. How does it work itself out in conversation?
I tried to warn you six months ago, but you just wouldn’t listen.
Didn’t I ask you whether you had a drinking problem? Why did you lie?
I knew you had a problem; how could you not see it?
My bible-study group has really been praying for you. We just knew you had a problem.
In the course of my life, I’ve found that when folks don’t know what to say, they often say the wrong thing. (I’m not immune to this syndrome. I’m the chief of blabbermouths.) So often, when a closeted addict comes out, friends and family members don’t know where to start. I’ll give you a hint–it all starts with a hug.
Don’t say anything, unless it’s “I’m sorry,” or “I love you.” Give a hug. Ask if they need anything. Then? Love, love, love, love.
Love is all you need.
When all else fails, pray, pray, pray. Pray without ceasing. The prayer of a righteous man accomplishes more than any intervention ever could.
A Final Word on Interventions and Tough Love
This isn’t to say there won’t be times when intervention is necessary, or when tough love is needed. There will be. But loving well and praying hard come first.
Pray, love, pray, love, pray. Repeat it as a mantra. Internalize it. Then? Go in peace to love and serve.
*Word of disclaimer: I’m no therapist or addiction counselor. I’m just a fella who’s walked the road of denial, which as they say, ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Coming Clean: A Story of Faith, is available. You can order online wherever good books are sold, or visit your local Barnes & Noble and pick up your copy! While you’re there, check out this month’s Relevant Magazine, which features and interview with me about Coming Clean.
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