Perhaps you remember the TV doctor “House,” who was depicted as being a Vicodin addict. While the show was fiction, it mirrors in many different ways the current crisis we face in America.
Substance abuse is now the number one public health problem in the United States. Alcohol is still the leading drug of choice, but a new epidemic is sweeping our country: opioid abuse. Painkillers have been overprescribed for so long that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has directed physicians to reduce the amount of opioids they have been prescribing.
Eighty percent of heroin users began their drug dependency by using prescription opioids. In fact, people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to become heroin addicts. This wave of opioid abuse covers our nation and does not stop at the doors of our churches. It is a serious problem with accompanying issues that affect many lives beyond the single addict. Families are often broken apart by this tragedy, and young lives too often are caught up in this destructive habit, creating multiple societal and personal tragedies.
Can anything be done about this? There are approximately 14,000 treatment facilities and around 100,000 self-help groups, but only about 10 percent of substance abusers seek help each year. Twenty percent of prisoners in America are there because of drug or drug-related crimes.
Further complicating the situation is the damage to people, the economy and relationships that, in too many cases, will never be repaired. Prolonged substance abuse leads to damage in the brain, especially the neural circuits of reward, memory, motivation, impulse control and judgment. If, however, an addict can live a life of abstinence, the brain can repair itself for the most part, even though some neurocognitive capacity is lost. But there is hope for a good life if that person can find a new life through abstinence living.
I believe a new life is possible, especially if it is the result of the new birth. It can take an alcoholic or drug addict as long as two years to regain good thinking and decision-making abilities, but it does happen. I am convinced this is where the mission of the church in making disciples can be so vital. Former addicts need ongoing support, and genuine disciples of Jesus never stop learning or growing spiritually. Discipleship and recovery are not mutually exclusive, but may be strategically invaluable in helping people recover from an addiction and grow into the person God promises they can be in Christ Jesus.
Some addicts may need specialized medical attention. All will need group support and counseling. Those in the church can lovingly and sacrificially be a powerful force in the change process as disciples of Jesus who disciple others.
I agree with the adage that if you never take the first drug or first drink, you will never become an addict or alcoholic. However, the epidemic in our country proves that we have too many people who are already there. Will we help them?
For the past 19 years I have served as a volunteer counselor and teacher at a residential campus for addicted men. A couple of years ago at the Pastors’ Conference of our state convention, I heard someone call my name. He was one of the men who had completed the eight-week course where I volunteer. He was excited to tell me, and I was overjoyed to hear, that he was serving as a pastor in our state! He is making a difference, and he is one whose life was turned completely around by the grace of God. There are many more who can be helped, discipled and equipped. Will the church help? How can we help?
You can contact Celebrate Recovery and look into opening a ministry in your church or in conjunction with other churches. You could connect with a Christian rehab ministry and start a discipleship group for those coming out of rehab. There are so many possibilities.
The epidemic is real, but so is the freedom that people are finding through faith in Jesus Christ. In John 8:32, Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The word addiction comes from the Latin word ad dicere, which means to be enslaved. We cannot make people free, but we can help show them the way to freedom.