A High Calling: What I’ve Learned from Pastoring Addictcs

When I entered into Seminary I had plans for my ministry career. I was going to preach lots of exciting sermons and pastor a growing church. Admittedly they weren’t very detailed and they were simplistic and naive, but nowhere in my mind was the idea of working largely with addicted individuals. Over the last ten years, however, God has given me increasing opportunity to work directly with those who are struggling with some kind of life-dominating addiction. As much as I believe God has used me to be helpful, working with addicts has also taught me much. In working with addicts I have learned nuances about the power of confession, the significance of community, and healing of the gospel.

It’s not, of course, that I didn’t already know about these three things. I’ve read my Bible and been part of church life for many years. I knew that confession and community are both important; and I certainly knew about the healing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, in working with addicted individuals I began to see these truths in new light. I began to experience them afresh. As I watched lives both changed and lives ruined, I began to appreciate in deeper ways the significance of these three elements.

Confession, for example, is one of the key ways that we find help and hope in the midst of our struggles. James tells us that healing and confession of sin go hand in hand. So, he writes:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)

The apostle draws a line from confession to healing through the prayers of others. As we confess our sins we expose the sin in our lives, we rob it of some of its power, and we amass a team of people to come to our aid. We invite others to help carry our burdens (Gal. 6:2), and we especially elicit their prayers on our behalf. Healing can come, then, as people pray with and for us.

I saw this principle at play in life after life as individuals began to own the reality of their sin and ask for help in fighting their addictive habit. Confession is not something that the church does super well. We tend to play at righteousness Sunday after Sunday. If everyone wears their metaphorical “Sunday Bests” then we will too, and so sin continues to live in the dark where it grows and spreads. Often, however, the addict can’t really hide his woes. You can only live with an addiction for so long before it starts to eat at your whole life, and then people begin to notice. So, many are learning to simply shoot straight. I hate it that Caleb (not his real name) tells me frequently of his relapses. But I love that he doesn’t run and hide when he falls. I love that he just tells me the truth: “I used heroin again last week.” He doesn’t pretend like everything is fine. He doesn’t deny it. He doesn’t even offer up excuses. He just tells me the truth and asks for help. Of course not everyone is like Caleb, but I am witnessing the power of confession as guys give up the pretense, stop playing at holiness, and truly seek help that can lead to lasting change.

There is immense power in confession. If we can be honest with one another we too can change. If I can admit my own sin, my own selfishness, my own sinful habits that keep me stuck, then I can grow just like my brothers in our recovery program. If more members of the congregation will share their struggles with one another we will be healthier. We can be a more holy church, in fact, if we stop pretending that we already are one.

I’ve learned a lot about the importance of community too. “Community” is such a buzzword these days. Everybody wants it, wants to talk about it, wants to write about it, wants to promote it. Committing to it, investing in it, and working for it, however, are not as exciting. We all like the idea of community, but the moment it isn’t convenient for us we quit on it. So, people love to join small groups, but when the kids have extra-curricular activities, or when you’re just too tired, or when you want to watch the football game, then we don’t go to meetings. We want friends, until friends ask us for help in ways that we are reluctant to provide. Addicts, however, don’t have the luxury of shunning community. If they really want to change they have to stay connected, and they have to invite others into the nitty-gritty details of their lives.

It is a sad truth that in AA one can sometimes find better community than you can in the church. With recovery programs you often get connected to a sponsor who is available 24/7, who invests in your well-being, who counsels you constantly, and who holds you accountable. In church, we are often left to fend for ourselves. But change is a community project. We need each other if we are going to grow, it’s not optional, and it must be a priority. Plenty of addicted individuals pull away from community and run from accountability, but those that change know that it happens because they have connected with others and invited them to speak into their lives. It’s a compelling example and a strong rebuke to the independent lifestyles that so many Christians insist on maintaining.

Finally, through working with addicts I’ve seen the healing power of the gospel in fresh light. The gospel is always the hope of change, and yet in working with addicts I’ve seen the gospel truly change lives ruled by destructive habits. Most of the men and women I work with have tried to get clean and sober. In fact, they’ve often tried many times and many different things to help them overcome their addiction. Yet, they rarely achieve victory. Research shows, however, that religious belief adds an element to recovery that may be key to success. So, three authors, writing in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, said this:

Nonetheless, a growing body of empirical research supports the notion that religiousness and spirituality may enhance the likelihood of attaining and maintaining recovery from addictions, and recovering persons often report that religion and/or spirituality are critical factors in the recovery process. (Alexandre Laudet, Keith Morgen, and William White. “The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems.” Alcohol Treatment Quarterly. 24:1-2. 33-73. 2006.)

The gospel in particular is the power to change. I have seen men who for decades were in bondage to addiction finally break free as they encounter the living God and the hope of the gospel through Jesus Christ. It’s not a simple formula, and they still had much work to do in the process. Yet, knowing that Christ offered them forgiveness, healing, and help made a huge difference in their lives. A man enslaved to alcohol for forty years is now rejoicing in Christ that sobriety is reality. The gospel changes people! I’ve not only experienced it personally, but I’ve seen it in the lives of men and women who thought they could never attain it.

I’ve learned a lot from working with addicted individuals. I’ve been reminded of great truths and seen them deepen in their implications and applications. Working with addicts is indeed a “high calling.” But as much as I believe God has used me to be helpful, I’ve also benefited greatly from this ministry myself. They too have been my teachers. Which reminds me of Galatians 6:6. Here Paul instructs that the one who is taught is also to share with the one who teaches. I feel many of brothers and sisters struggling with addictions have, in fact, shared with me. It wasn’t part of my plan, but I am grateful to be involved in this type of ministry.

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