A High Calling: A Philosophy of Addiction Ministry

Addictions are exceedingly complex. Addictions are complicated by heart idolatries, biological dependency, habitual coping responses, and diverse life impact. When I first started working with an addicted individual many years ago I was overwhelmed with all the layers of difficulty he was facing. Not only had he developed a serious dependency to hard narcotics, and not only was he using them to run from God, but he was using them to avoid layers of emotional trauma, relational conflict, and personal shame. I felt in over my head. At that time I began to wrestle with how to best approach these issues. What has resulted nearly eleven years later is an approach to church-based addiction ministry that I believe has great potential to provide a framework for helping others. The Four R’s provide a simple guide to help people begin to overcome an addictive habit.

No philosophy or model can every be completely comprehensive, and while this approach is broken down into components, it should not be viewed as a strict step-by-step process. Life is far more complicated that formulas and so even as I recommend this approach I know it has limitations and needs tailoring to individuals and their unique complications. That being said, counseling must be somewhat simple. That’s not the same as saying it should be simplistic. It must take into consideration the totally of the person and the complexity of change, but it must be simple in order for it to be repeatable and sustainable. So, this model will offer a simple, but not simplistic, approach to helping those with addictive habits.

The Four R’s walk a person through the core elements of recovery and transformation. So, this model includes a focus on Responsibility, Relationship, Restructuring, and Remaining. A brief overview of each point will serve to introduce readers to this approach. My book will give a more full picture of these components, so be on the look out for that in the future.

Responsibility – A lifestyle of addiction requires a great deal of deception and particularly self-deception. Denial of the problem or of the depth and breadth of the problem will mean staying stuck in sin. So, any addiction ministry must help individuals own their responsibility in the addictive habit. There may be a number of contextual, relational, biological, etc. factors that influence a person’s substance abuse, but such issues are not determinative of their actions. Ultimately they must own what is theirs to own; repentance cannot happen until I believe I have something specific of which to repent. The Trans-theoretical model of intentional behavior change has convincingly demonstrated that without an internal desire to change no external pressures will ultimately motivate a person. They must see the problem and want to change!

A ministry to addicted individuals, then, is going to do all we can to help people see their sin and encourage their ownership of and repentance from it. We can’t repent for people, but we can do our part to help expose them to their sinful choices, desires, attitudes, and actions. We can do this by setting boundaries and expectations of individuals, by refusing to minimize personal consequences, by pleading with them, and by inviting their confession – this requires creating a culture of confession where sinners are welcome.

God is the one who ultimately changes us, but that doesn’t leave us to sit on our hands. In fact, Paul acknowledges that God’s sovereignty over transformation is the invitation to work hard. He writes:

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)

Who works out salvation? God or us? According to Paul the answer is, “yes.” We work because He works, which means we do not work in vain! That starts with a willingness to take responsibility and work hard, then.

Relationship – Speaking of God, it is our relationship to Him that makes the biggest difference in change. Addiction is fundamentally a worship disorder. We worship our way into substance abuse, and so we must worship our way out. Psychologist and Biblical Counselor Ed Welch notes:

If the root problem of addiction is false worship, the answer is knowing the Lord, the One who deserves our worship. This is true theology, the study of God himself. In the history of AA, you get the sense that this was the original intent. If alcoholics were to change, they had to worship something other than the bottle. For example, Step 7 of The Twelve Steps is “Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.” Yet the original wording of this step, which was changed right before the publication of the Big Book, read, “On our knees humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.” In other words, there was at least the acknowledgment that the God who delivered us was a personal God, not an abstraction that could accommodate non-Christians and agnostics. (Addictions, 141)

It is through a growing relationship with God through Jesus that we come to find new life and altered desires. Relationship, then, is key to growth. Addicted individuals need good theology! The church is in the best place to offer that kind of help.

In addition, relationships with others is vital to overcome struggle. Not only do addicted individuals need to give up harmful relationships, those that would tempt them to return to sin, but they must replace them with godly relationships. AA has long recognized the importance of community for recovery. The church ought to be the best community to be part of. We believe in bearing one another’s burdens, and loving one another well (Gal. 6:1-2). So, including people into the community – not just making the projects – is part of their recovery.

Restructuring – Lasting change is about more than will power and information. There must be, of course, an internal desire and commitment to change and there must also be good information. But change requires reworking our lives to make temptation more infrequent, and sin more difficulty. When Barry invited two addicts to move in with him, I knew he was going to relapse. When Jesse refused to give up his smart phone, I knew he’d keep looking at porn. When Tom wouldn’t change his phone number, I knew drug dealers would be calling. Addiction impacts our whole lives. To obtain lasting change we must be willing to restructure our lives to avoid sin, and cultivate new healthy habits.

Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians encourages them to no longer “live like the Gentiles.” And this requires both putting off sinful habits and putting on godly ones (Eph. 4:17-24). This means evaluating my relationships, my routines, my hobbies, and the places I frequent. It means examining my problem solving skills, my diet, my sleep, and countless other areas of life. I encourage people to examine five areas of life and to develop strategies to help them. We talk about avoidance strategies, a plan to avoid certain types of cues and triggers that lead to temptation (stimulus control strategies). We discuss adaptation strategies, a plan on how to adjust and handle unanticipated temptation. I urge an augmentation strategy, which is a plan to increase your overall well-being and personal development. Amusements strategies focus on a plan for healthy outlets of enjoyment – saying yes to good things, not simply saying no to bad things. Finally, I want people to develop an Awe Strategy, which seeks to increase one’s knowledge and love for God.

Remaining – Finally, I know that change requires a plan for transitioning into the future. Remaining vigilante against an addictive habit requires planning and resolve. At this stage we are making sure that a person is plugged into healthy and involved community, that they have people in their lives who will talk to them about more than just addictions. We want people who care about their whole world and will walk with them for the long haul. We also, want individuals to commit to honesty. Confession is a regular part of the Christian life, and it is good for us (James 5:16). So, we want individuals to share struggles, temptations, weaknesses, and plan to regularly hare such things. Finally, we want individuals to commit to joy. A white-knuckle resistance to substance abuse won’t get you very far. A pursuit of greater joy in the Lord, in His people, in ministry to others, and in healthy outlets will be a massive help to staying sober and clean. So, we help people move from recovery into life and normal discipleship. That’s the key to remaining vigilante in the long run.

These Four R’s are not a perfect plan, and I have here only introduced them. This model has proven helpful, however, to both me as a counselor and to those I help. And while the Four R’s are tailored for addiction ministry, we find that this framework can be useful in any myriad of problems. I pray it will help many others too, both those who counsel and those who struggle.

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