Unless you’re a psychopath, nobody likes to see others suffer. This is especially true when the “other” is someone we love dearly. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a counselor over the years is watch people I love suffer, fail, screw up their lives, and get themselves into trouble. Whether you’re a parent, spouse, child, or friend watching a loved one suffer the consequences of their lifestyle is heartbreaking. As helpers, it is natural to want to intervene, but it is not always wise. It is important that helpers do not consistently minimize the consequences of the addict’s choices and lifestyle.
Drug/alcohol addiction has serious consequences. It certainly has physiological consequences as the drug changes our body and brain chemistry. It also has emotional/psychological, social, financial, legal, and spiritual consequences. It’s obvious that helpers can’t do much to change some of these consequences, but there are times where our intervention might protect our loved one. The temptation to intervene and alleviate the arising problems is palpable. Not only do we not want to see our friend or family member suffer, but we also recognize that rising stress and discouragement can lead a person deeper into drug and alcohol abuse. Yet, this is a short-term benefit with even more long-term negative impact.
Minimizing the consequences of drug addiction has long-term negative impact because it does not confront the addict with the need to change. Enabling, as it is sometimes called, refers to any effort to remove the natural consequences of their behavior. It seeks to protect or shield the addict from the reality of the sinfulness and seriousness of their behavior. It leaves them in the deluded state of thinking that: (1) they are in control of their addiction; (2) what they are doing is not that bad; (3) that they can sustain this way of living indefinitely. In the long-term your efforts to minimize the consequences of their addictive lifestyle will lead to several serious negative results.
First, it will lead to rising bitterness in your own heart. Since you can’t control the addict, can’t make them change, and can’t sustain this level of care-taking forever, you will, eventually, become exhausted and frustrated to the point of breaking. You will lose the compassion necessary to sustain this kind of care and attention. Eventually you will give up on the addict, which is the last thing they need and you want.
Second, it will encourage the addict to simply continue what they are doing. God has designed negative consequences to motivate us to change. The Biblical principle of reaping and sowing teaches us this. Paul writes to the Galatians a word that has universal application:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. (Gal. 6:7)
To seek to mitigate that reaping is to taking away a key motivation to change. It is also an attempt to undermine God’s design. We want the addict to change, not simply to avoid trouble. We want our loved one to see how seriously dangerous and damaging this lifestyle is so that they will get help and seek out true and lasting recovery. Minimizing their consequences will only enable them to continue this destructive lifestyle.
Third, minimizing consequences may lead to more serious consequences. There is a progressive nature to effects. One consequences ignored now grows in size, or becomes two separate consequences. So, a small scratch, unaddressed, may become infected. If it remains unaddressed it may spread and contaminate the whole limb, and eventually the whole body. An unpaid bill this month can be paid next month. If left unattended it can’t mount into more serious problems, even legal ones. So, with the addict, you may spare him some drama or some harm now, but in the long run his problems will only get worse. Furthermore, the longer an addict abuses drugs and alcohol the more serious the physical consequences – these are consequences you cannot change. Sparing the addict some embarrassment or legal trouble now, will not make a difference in the long-term.
We may minimize consequences in all sorts of ways. We may make excuses for the addict, justifying their behavior to others. We may try to cover up for them: calling in sick for them, lying about their activity to other family or friends. We may try to absorb financial burdens. We may assume responsibility for their bills, housekeeping, homework, or other tasks. We may even bail them out of jail or pay legal fines. The examples are numerous, but they are all attempts to minimize consequences and enable the continued addiction. There are some scenarios that are tricky to navigate, no doubt. We obviously don’t want to see the addict die, nor do we want their children to suffer for their sins. Yet if we refuse to minimize early on we may spare them and ourselves these more serious consequences later on.
Those who love addicts know that they must eventually face up to the seriousness of what they are doing. They must not be allowed to continue down this path unaffected by their choices and sins. Those who care for addicts must let them feel the weight of their sinful choices, behaviors, and lifestyle. Consequences are God’s means of waking us up to repentance. Paul says as much when he urges the church to enact discipline on unrepentant members. He writes:
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4-5)
Paul expects that the “destruction of the flesh,” the earthly consequences experienced by this man may be a means to bring him to repentance and see his spirit saved. That’s the ultimate goal. We are not seeking vengeance, or simply attempting to be vindictive. We realize that the consequences of addictions can be very painful, and it can have a multi-layered effect. Truly caring for our loved one, however, will mean not minimizing the impact of their consequences, but allowing God to use them for their good.