Helping My Addict: Don’t Attempt to Force Repentance

how-to-help-an-addictIf it were possible to repent on behalf of others life would be so much easier. But helping people come to an understanding of their sin, hate that sin, and turn away from it towards God is a seemingly impossible challenge. We cannot make people repent, but we can encourage it. Recognizing the difference between forcing and encouraging repentance will go a long way in our care for those addicts whom we love.

The Trans-theoretical model of intentional behavioral change has categorized change as a series of stages that an addict moves through: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. In the precontemplation stage and addict is not considering the possibility of changing their behavior, they are either content in it or simply disbelieving in the potential for change. Much research has been done to show that external factors alone do not move a person from precontemplation to contemplation. Often, people use intervention, confrontation, manipulation, control, and consequences to try to force an individual into recovery. These factors often have a short-term impact, but they do not produce the lasting fruit of change. Carlo DiClemente notes:

There are many examples of how external pressures or control (even positive incentives like money or privileges) often produce short-term but not lasting addictive behavior change unless the individual is ready to cooperate…Individuals jailed for drug-use offenses, even for significant periods of time, often return to use upon release. Mandated treatments produce mixed results…Curtailing supplies often creates greater demand and vigorous black markets. Clearly, external pressure is not the magic that necessarily or automatically motivates consideration of change or moves the Precontemplator forward in the process of change (Addiction & Change, 122).

This is hard to hear because it leaves many caretakers feeling powerless to help. It also makes many loved ones feel as though they have no recourse for the kind of abuse, manipulation, and disappointment that they experience in their relationship with the addict. The point, however, is not to suggest that we do nothing. We must intervene, and there are real strategies we ought to utilize in seeking to protect ourselves and love our friends and family struggling with addiction. The point to grasp, however, is that external pressure alone will not drive a person to change.

In fact, attempting to force repentance without a change of heart will likely result in increased resistance and distance. Nagging, constant confrontation, and attempts to control the addict will not draw them closer. This is especially true for younger men and women who have turned to addiction in a stage of rebellion. In such scenarios the efforts to control the addict result in greater distrust, hostility, and resentment. In light of all of this we must recognize the distinct role caretakers have in promoting, but not forcing, repentance.

Repentance is an internal work of the Spirit of God on the heart and mind of a sinner. As a person willingly puts themselves in the means of God’s grace they will begin to experience that transformation. We are to work, and yet it is the Spirit of God who ultimately transforms and sanctifies His people. As the apostle Paul says to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)

We work, but God produces the real fruit of change. As caretakers, we must wonder, then, how do we promote repentance among those who are seemingly not interested in seeking God.What steps can we take? We have already looked at some as we considered the importance of not minimizing consequences. Again, DiClemente notes:

Family members do have control over many important reinforcers and many important elements in a Precontemplator’s life. parents often complain about their lack of control over their teenage son or daughter. However, they continue to let these teens use the family car, give money for gas, provide food, clothing, and shelter without setting any limits or providing any contingencies on their behavior in order to gain these privileges. Although even “tough love” will not guarantee success, its advocates do have an important point. In their efforts to make sure that the Precontemplator does not make terrible mistakes (stealing, turning to companions that would be supportive of the addictive behaviors, starving themselves to death), families often give enough financial and personal support for the precontemplator to avoid the harshest of consequences of their addiction. In effect, these families neutralize the educational effects of negative consequences. They are short-circuiting any consciousness raising and self-evaluation that could occur. (123)

Allowing some consequences and setting some conditions can be an important aspect of promoting repentance. It’s not forcing them to change, but it is refusing to indulge their addictive behavior.

Secondly, we may communicate our desire and God’s desire for them to change. We want to see them quit, and even more significantly God desires to see them change. Make a point to engage with your loved one and regularly communicate, with grace and love, how much you care for them and hate to see what they are doing to themselves. Communicate God’s great love for them and how He years to see them repent. Jesus speaks of this himself when he looks out over Israel and says:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matt. 23:37)

Remind them that while their behavior is wrong, they are so deeply loved. Remind them that, like the Prodigal Son, they will be welcomed back but that they must turn from theirs sins.

Thirdly, pray. Do not underestimate the power of prayer. God delights to answer the prayers of His people. God loves it when we cry out to Him and ask Him to intervene where we can do nothing else. What is impossible with man is possible with God, and finding ourselves in the place where we are forced to depend upon His Spirit is a good place to be. The prophet Zechariah has declared this bold truth: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts (Zech. 4:6b). Lean heavy on the Lord, friends.

We can’t force repentance. It would surely save us all much heartbreak if we could, but the Lord does not allow us this power. Instead we want to cultivate repentance by allowing consequences to take their natural course, speaking of love and forgiveness, and praying diligently. We must let God do His work, the addict do theirs, and we must do our part. Knowing the difference between forcing and promoting allow us to actively work without attempting a control we do not have.

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