TGC Q&A: What Does God Say to Those Who Struggle with Addiction?

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Mark Shaw: Hi. You’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from The Gospel Coalition. And this is a biblical counseling series featuring hopeful answers to your questions on navigating fear, anxiety, ministry and marriage and everything in between. My name is Mark Shaw.

And I’m the director of counseling at Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, Kentucky and the founder of the Addiction Connection, also located in Florence, Kentucky, and the Addiction Connection is a ministry that offers training for the local church in addiction counseling, as well as a network of biblical counselors, programs, providers in the United States and around the world. And today, I’ll be answering some important questions we received from you on addiction.

Our first question we received is this one, how can I help those in my church as they seek to overcome an addiction? I just think that’s a great question. And I wish more people would ask that question in the local church. Because I think we have lots to offer as the body of Christ to those who struggle with addiction. And I think we’ve been duped a little bit in this issue. We think like the world thinks sometimes that this is a supersized issue. There are Christians who struggle with sin and then there are addicts who struggle with sin and really addiction is a sin issue of the heart.

And as I even think about how Jesus referred to this issue, he never called it a disease. The world calls it a disease. But Jesus call it a sin issue in Matthew 11 and in the book of Luke, he mentions that. And so, we have been duped sometimes to believe that this is a supersized issue, one that requires special medical expertise. And there is a physical component certainly when you’re talking about marijuana, opioids, cocaine. Those particular substances can really scare you as a church member as, well, I don’t know what to do with that.

Well, you don’t have to deal with the physical part of it. You can send them to a medical doctor. We want to get them under the care of a physician who can help them with the physical part of the addictive problem that they’re facing. But what you can be is you can be a heart doctor. And I don’t mean that in a physical sense. I mean it in the spiritual sense. That you can help people with their heart desires. What are they wanting more than they want to serve and honor God? And what is it that has enslaved them, that they seek refuge in, that they run from their pain and escape to pleasure. And so, that’s what you can help do in the church body.

And I would encourage you to not do it alone. I like to counsel in teams of two. Personally, that’s my approach. And that’s how I encourage people at our church to do counseling is to have a partner. I think with addiction, especially because of the deception, because of some of the tricky parts of working with someone who might not be ready to be all in and transparent, you want to have somebody there who can help you to ask hard questions if you have trouble with that. I think of truth teller, with grace givers, you need both of those types of people working together.

So, that’s kind of how we pair people up. We pair them up with the hard truth teller with a softer grace giver. Because really, real truth is always gracious, real grace is always truthful. So, we want to pair those people up to care for the addicted person well, to ask tough questions, but to also help them to feel comfortable and accepted and loved, and provide the best kind of care possible.

So, with the problem of addiction, I think the local church is the answer and that we don’t have to do it alone. So, I would encourage you not only have a counseling partner, but assign other people in the church. A small group is great to provide some support and some challenging questions in a small group setting.

So, what we do at our church, we have a group of people who work with the addicted and they do so in an invitation only way. So, if someone asked for help, we invite them into this group. And it’s a protected group in one sense. But we do that because we want them to be honest. We want them to feel comfortable and safe that this is a place they can talk and be honest. If you open that net too wide in a church and I think sometimes the temptation in church is to say, I want to make this as big as possible. I would invite every addicted person in my whole community to come and I love that heart.

But I also think sometimes that’s not as effective as when you select people to join that group. So, we self-select. We want people who are willing and wanting to change, wanting to be transparent because we want them to be in that small group component of our … So, we have counseling, but we have the small group. We want them to be in that so that they can be honest and talk about the real struggles and the temptations that are all around them in an effort to help them.

So, I really like the team approach in counseling. I like the small group approach. Of course, I love the worship service and that part of it. But biblical counseling to me is really all three of those, the large corporate gathering, the small group gathering, and then the one-on-one or in my case, two counselors with one person where we’re counseling and helping them to be honest and tell us what’s really going on.

And I think the reason people don’t ask for the church to help them is because they think, “Well, I’m going to be judged. I have the supersized issue. How can these people relate? How can they know me?” But I think if they can get over that and get in that small group setting, they’ll understand that we’re all sinners. We all struggle with our own heart desires, maybe not to the degree of being addicted and being in some life scary situations.

I mean, when you’re using cocaine and opioids, you’re at risk of dying. And if you sin in that way, it’s much more devastating than if you’re sinning in a, you’re not loving your kids or your wife or your husband, those are still sins, but they’re not as life threatening.

So, that’s where we try to help those who struggle with addiction is to be honest, be open and to feel loved and accepted by the church because they’ve been duped and they sometimes believe that the church just doesn’t love them, doesn’t accept them and that nothing … I just don’t think that’s the case with God’s people. I think they are loving, trying to help the addicted and just don’t know how to do it. So, I want to equip them to do it with our ministry, the Addiction Connection.

What biblical encouragement is there for someone who is battling an addiction? Well, that’s a great question. And the thing I think about for the people who are in the church and want to help, I think about the verse 1 Thessalonians 2:9 which says, so being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

And so, if somebody is asking for help, you have a lot to offer them in terms of the gospel, the hope of what Christ has done for us. And when you call addiction a sin issue of the heart rather than the theory that it’s a disease, then you have biblical words, biblical language to offer them the hope of the gospel for the heart of addiction.

I think about 1 Corinthians 2:13, which says this, and we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Holy Spirit interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. So, we have this mind of Christ, we have the word of God and the Holy Spirit to offer people who struggle with addiction when we use language that is biblical and not worldly words that would maybe point them away from Christ, or away from his body.

We want to be a people who point them to Jesus Christ and the local church to help them with any issue, including addiction, which I think has been isolated and supersized and made into an issue that’s larger than the church that the church can handle. But that’s really not the case. God has given us the great gift of being able to comfort those with the same comfort that we’ve received.

I think about 2 Corinthians 1:3 through 7, which talks about that, sharing that same comfort you’ve received. So, if you’re a church member and you’ve received comfort from the Holy Spirit, which that his job and what he does is you can use that same thing to help someone else. So, it doesn’t have to be that you’ve struggled with heroin or put a needle into your arm to be able to help someone who struggle with addiction.

When you understand the heart issues and the desires, and when I talk about that, I think about 1 John chapter 2 verses 15 through 17, particularly, verse 16, talks about the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, pride of life.

And in my addiction training, I talk about those three desires of the heart that I think drive addiction issues. And what’s great about that is when you understand lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life, and I don’t have time to get into all that here, but when you understand those desires, what happens is you understand how am I wanting something and believing a lie that God won’t provide me what I want, but this thing will, this drug will, the substance will.

And you understand the lie and the motivation of what you’re thinking, then you can tear that lie down and replace it with biblical truth and then learn to think that way on your own. So, initially, you need some help. You need the body of Christ. You need a trusted Christian friend. You need other people to come alongside a small group to help you.

But in time, you can learn to recognize those lies that are in your own flesh that are in your own heart, you’re desiring less the flesh, less the eyes, pride of life. And so, that’s the way I try to counsel and help church members to understand what’s … Trying to help them understand what they’re desiring in their heart, what lies are they believing about God.

And I know that’s a strong way to say it. But the great thing is when you understand the lie you’re believing and in your flesh, and you’re understanding too what the world is offering and how they tempt you in that system and even Satan and his lies, then you can tear that down and replace it with what God says in his word, by spirit and you could begin to live in a practical way.

And there are lots of put-ons, a lot of righteous choices and righteous behaviors that an addict can do to enjoy life, to enjoy God and not have to live enslave to drug addiction. Because that’s really the trick is they think I’m using this and I’m going to enjoy it and I’m in control of it, but in time, it takes control of them and it enslaves them. And so, I want them to be free and God wants them to be free more than I do. And God offers righteous choices, righteous ways of thinking and living.

And we need the addicted people in our churches. We need them serving God because these are the people who will be radical for Jesus and serve him in a myriad of ways that are needed in the body of Christ. So, I love doing what I do to help the addicted person.

The biblical approach to addiction is not just behavioral modification, which is part of it, but you start with the heart. And so, you help people to understand what they’re wanting, what they’re really desiring, what they’re believing, that might lead them astray and lead them to make a wrong choice and then help them to begin to desire and want what God wants. And that’s when behavior then follows that.

So, I love the type of counseling we get to do in biblical counseling, which is addressing heart issues, helping people to understand that. And it’s ugly sometimes when you look at your own heart and you go, “Oh, I can’t believe I wanted that. What is wrong with me? Why would I sell out the ocean for a little puddle of water, a temporary pleasure for something that I could enjoy for a long period of time?”

And I think about Esau in Genesis when he turned in his inheritance, his spiritual inheritance for a temporary bowl of soup. I mean, that’s kind of what an addictive choice is like. It’s settling for soup when you have your whole life ahead of you. And that’s what Esau did in that moment.

And so, we want to help people to understand what they’re wanting and not give in to those desires, but to replace those desires with desires that would please God. And then that’s when behavior changes. That’s when people want to do the right thing. But they need a little help too in doing it. It’s like going to the gym and working out. I mean, a lot of people don’t wake up and say, “Man, I can’t wait to go to the gym.”

But if they have a partner who comes and knocks on their door like in college, the dorm room, you knock on the door, “Hey, it’s time to go run. It’s time to work out.” I mean, you get up and you go, and then you love it because you are benefiting your body. You’re doing what is good and it takes some discipline. It takes some work. But when someone comes along and invite you to do that run with them, it’s much easier.

So, I think, for the church, we’ve got to help people in and be willing to sacrifice ourselves. One thing the world does very well is they offer 24/7 sponsors and care for people who struggle with addiction. And so, it’s almost like taking care of a little puppy, who’s in your home and doesn’t sleep at night or a newborn baby and you’re having to kind of work with this person in the beginning in that same mindset. But in time, they’re going to grow and mature and eventually be able to help other people.

So, it’s about addressing the heart and then behaviors will follow. That’s the hope. And not that they’ll ever have it all solved and won’t ever be tempted. But when temptation comes, they’ll be able to handle it because they know the truth and they’re able to tear down the lies and replace those lies with biblical truth.

A big issue for those who struggle with addiction is the shame. And I think when you feel overwhelming guilt and shame for what you’ve done, even when sometimes you know you’ve been forgiven, but it comes to mind and it brings back those feelings, it’s the resentment means to re-heal something.

And so, when you resent or you re-heal it, it’s like tearing off the scab on your arm that’s healing. And now it hurts again, you feel a pain and now it has to re-heal. And so, our minds, we think about things that we’ve done, we feel that shame and guilt and it can play us at times.

So, I encourage the people that I work with to get a friend. I’m not Mr. You’ve got to do it all by yourself and figure this out. I think that’s why God gave us the body of Christ, brothers and sisters, people that we can be open with. I think about Jesus, I even have my counsel lead decide who are those three people that you can tell anything to and who are the 12 that there’s a level of intimacy there that’s good, but those three are the ones you really tell everything to.

And so, they have people that they can call, they can turn to right away and say I’m really struggling with the guilt of what I’ve done, the shame of it. I’m thinking about it again. Of course, they sometimes will have them have right out Bible verses, scripture to put on their purse on a three by five card or in their purse wallet that you can pull out and begin to read truth and remind you of your identity in Christ is sure.

I mean, that’s a big issue for those who struggle with addiction. And the danger of all this too, the bitterness and the shame is that when you feel that pain again, you end up running to that drug of choice because you know it feels good, you know it provides an escape.

Proverbs 23 verse 35 says, they struck me but I was not hurt. They beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another dream. I think clearly in that verse, you see the tendency to say this is a place where I won’t hurt. I can take a beating and I won’t feel it. They can hit me. They can try to hurt me, but it won’t hurt because alcohol and drugs are the place where I feel safe.

And so, when you’re feeling guilty and ashamed, you can run to that drug of choice more quickly. But the thing to do is to help people to understand that forgiveness is secured in Christ. And so, what a gift that God’s given us. Otherwise, you struggle with the guilt and the shame of what you’ve done. And there are times where that might be reminded or brought to your remembrance. And I think can be a good thing to humble people, to keep them in a place where, “God, I need you. I need to trust you. It’s not based on feelings, but I’m going to trust you. I don’t like this. It’s humbling me. But it’s allowing me to trust you more.”

And to turn to him and to remember that he has forgiven us, past, present and future of all of our sins, which is just remarkable to think about. And so, that guilt and that shame, that feeling might be there for a moment, but I think it can be for good to make our character more like Jesus Christ, to help us to trust God more at his word rather than our feelings and our understanding.

I love Proverbs 3:5 through 8, which says, trust the Lord with all your heart. Do not lean on your own understanding. So, we’re not to lean on our own feelings, our own understanding, any of that. We have to trust in God and what he says. And so, the gospel is the reminder and the help for those who struggle with guilt and shame.

The question came in, how can I help someone who is addicted to pornography? Well, this is a very common issue in the church world, in our world today because of just the sexualized culture we live in that feeds our own hearts. But again, we can’t blame the culture. We can’t blame external things. It’s our hearts. It’s us. We are responsible for what we desire and we have to be careful about everything.

And I think many men and women that I’ve counseled can get overconfident and think, “I can do this myself.” And so, the first thing that I try to do to help someone who’s struggling with pornography is to help them to confess it, to be honest and open. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us to not to conceal our transgressions because if you do, you won’t prosper. God won’t bless that. But if you confess and forsake them, so there’s not just confessing but there’s something you have to do. The forsaking is the doing part of confession. So, you say it, you agree with God, but then you make effort to go the other way.

And they’re afraid that because they’ve struggled with this lust, the strong desire, that’s what a lust is, they think, “Well, this person won’t like me,” or “They’ll tell me never come over to our house again,” or they’ll treat them … And some people do that. I mean, that’s a reality.

But the truth is a strong mature believer, if you confess it to that kind of person, they should be able to help you and encourage you and say, “I’ve struggled with the same kind of thing. We all struggle with strong desires and whatever way.” And my lead pastor says all the time, we are all sexually broken because of this world we live in. We are just inundated with images and messaging that is sexualized in so many ways.

And so, a mature person steps into their world and helps them without judging them but understanding that they can fall too. And so, I always counseled people to not think you have to do it on your own. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps, all that’s a lie from the pit of hell really. God wants us to recognize we need each other. And we need to be humble and open.

And so, I think about 1 Corinthians 6 verses 18 to 20, which says, flee from sexual morality. And so, that part of the verse of that passage, the flee part is to run. It’s not to entertain it, not to pretend that you can control it, or you can do it. But you need to flee that. You need to treat that like it’s a room on fire in your house and you run. I mean, it’s serious in that way.

And this is why it says that why it means that in the very next part, it says every other sin a person commits is outside the body. So, when you talk about drugs and alcohol and substances, you take those. They’re outside of the body. You drink those. You put them in your body. But then it says in that verse, verse 18, of 1 Corinthians 6, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. So, where do you go to treatment for something that’s in your own body, it’s in your own mind. Your own desires are doing this to you.

So, the drugs are inside of you already, the images and the pictures and so you have to flee that. You have to replace those thoughts with biblical thoughts or even pictures where you look at a picture of something that’s godly and righteous and true. Thinking about Jesus on the cross is one thing that is a powerful image to think about. And I know that there aren’t images of the real Jesus, but people have done paintings and different things that that you can utilize to replace what’s wrong in your mind with something that is righteous and true.

And so, going back to 1 Corinthians 6, then it says in verse 19, or do you not know that your body’s a temple of the Holy Ghost Spirit. Within you whom you have from God, you’re not your own. You’re bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body. And so, you’re helping people to understand they have to flee from this. They have to treat it seriously. Because the drugs are in their own body. It’s within. And that they have been bought with a price. So, they belong to God now and are meant for good purposes, clean purposes. And God wants to use them in that way.

And so, when you’re thinking about sexual sin and lust, you’re not thinking about other people. You’re not loving other people. Unfortunately, you’re thinking about yourself and what you can get. And one of the key principles in marriage and in sex is that it’s meant to be something to bless your married partner, the person that you’re married to. Your body is meant to please them and they’re meant to please you.

And you think about any relationship, it can be a friendship, when you think about the other person and they think about you more than you think about yourselves, you’re going to have harmony. You’re going to get along really well. But the second one of you or both of you starts thinking about me and what I want from you and you better give it to me that’s when you start to have problems.

And so, the same is true in the marriage sexual relationship is God wants them to think about that other person more important and pleasing them in the act of sex or really in marriage anytime, is thinking about how can I please them? How can I serve them? How can I love them? Rather than how can I get something from them and they better please me.

And that is a driving force in all sexual sin. But those who have struggled with pornography tend to be thinking about getting and it’s a mindset that’s learned. But it can be unlearned, it can be forgiven. It can be something that can be renewed by God’s grace. There’s great hope for those who struggle with this. But it all starts with being honest, transparent, opening up, not trying to hide it, not trying to pretend that you never struggle, but that you own it with this other person.

Again, those three people that are very intimate that you have in your life, I always teach people 3, 12 and 70. You have the 70 group, the large worship gathering. The 12 is kind of a small group that you can share things and be honest and open with. But those three people in your life and three is just a number. It could be five, it could be one, I’m just using the example because that’s what Jesus had with the 12 disciples.

So, the three people in your life are those three that you’re very open and transparent with and they know everything. That’s what you want to start with. Because when you confess and forsake your sin, you’ll find mercy.

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