I knelt in the opening of a car door beside my friend who slumped in the passenger seat. Someone had dropped her off in the church parking lot during Sunday morning service. Fresh skin pops lined her right arm. A bloody needle balanced on her leg.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “I want to stop using, but …” Her voice trailed off.
I put my hand on her stooped shoulder–the same shoulder I’d supported when I baptized her a few months earlier. I remembered how the church laughed together in joy, trying to figure out how to fully immerse her while protecting the ankle monitor she wore on her leg. The ankle monitor was gone now, but so was the transcendent emotion of her baptism.
“I’m not going to sit here and watch you kill yourself,” I said. “I have to call somebody.”
I closed the car door and walked away. I didn’t make it 10 steps before I turned around and went back to open the door.
“I’ll bet people have been walking away from you your whole life. We’re not going to let you go through this alone.” I left the door open this time as I went inside to call for help.
I heard my friend say, “I knew I would be safe here.”
My friend–who gave me permission to tell this story–wasn’t the first Christian to admit a substance abuse addiction to me. The first time I was far more harmful than helpful–more judgmental than hopeful. Feelings of betrayal and anger, hopelessness and grief came in waves. Confessed lies tore apart shared memories, and I distanced myself.
How is someone supposed to react when a brother or sister in Christ brings an addiction to light? There isn’t a flow chart to follow, and few resources exist, especially in the midst of a pandemic. From my experience, I’ve come to believe the answer is Christian friendship. I mean friendships based in a shared hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, marked by faithful encouragement and mutual trust.
In my community in rural Appalachia, 65 percent of people say substance abuse is the top issue affecting their quality of life. In our three-year-old church plant, more than half of the congregation has been impacted by substance addiction. As my husband and I have ministered here, we’ve seen people in varying scenarios of substance misuse and every stage of recovery.
Recent reports say that misuse of opioids and overdoses have increased in more than 40 states during the pandemic. This isn’t surprising. Addiction is too often a lonely and isolating condition.
For people of the faith who battle against substance dependence, isolation from the Christian community can exacerbate feelings of despair, shame, and worthlessness. Yet many also avoid connection because they fear condemnation. They worry about being judged if they use again or if, during recovery, they use the legal, proven medications that can help with opioid addiction, like buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. These are frowned on by some faith communities.
The messiness of addiction is too much for many churches to handle. Recovery is not a straight road or an easy fix. I know, for me, it wasn’t hard to recite the 12 steps in solidarity at a Celebrate Recovery meeting. It was harder to interact with people from “those” meetings in other parts of my life. I was willing to serve. I found it much more difficult to share my life.
And yet my understanding of the gospel is that Jesus risked friendship with me (John 6:70-71) when I was untrustworthy (John 2:24) to reveal God’s love and complete God’s plan to reconcile all creation to himself. I am called to follow him.
That calling doesn’t give me an exact strategy when dealing with people in my church and my community struggling with addiction. There’s no foolproof process for Christian friendship, especially when you’re dealing with addiction and a pandemic.
In these times, I have found the term heart posture to be more useful than a strategy. I can orient my heart to prepare for ongoing engagement with others. Circumstances may call for different responses in different situations, but the intention remains the same. This is what I’ve found that helps.
Only God knows the depth and type of change required of any one of us, but Scripture is clear that regardless of the current condition of any heart, every life has value (Ps. 139:13-14). A person in the throes of addiction is as valuable as the queen of England. It’s normal to value one person more than another. The good news is God doesn’t.
We can ask God to adjust our hearts to allow us to value one another as God does. When we see others whose bodies and lives display the effects of addiction, we don’t have to condemn them or ignore them. We can take our own thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, who values each soul.
As God began to reorient my heart posture, I started to see the risk people are taking to even admit any issues with substance abuse. It is an act of bravery and courage that leaves a person completely vulnerable to all my possible responses.
Now, when a friend shares in full honesty of her struggles, my first response is to thank her for trusting me. I admit my own fears and ask to pray with her so we may both seek wisdom and know how to love each other well.
We will never be able to know or prepare for all the scenarios a friendship could bring, especially in a time when friendships have been strained by social distancing. But there are no exit strategies in real friendship. Christian friendship requires openness.
We prepare our hearts for friendship with each other through the simple and necessary acts of private and shared prayer, Scripture reading, Communion (yes, even by video conference), worship, generosity, and obedience. In this way, God prepares us together for whatever may come.
An authentic community also creates space for conversations about contingencies. People in recovery need to be able to offer insight about the best ways to respond to potential issues if they return to use. We can discuss medical options and legal concerns and agree on a path to walk together (Amos 3:3), with guardrails that can keep everyone safe.
3. Ongoing Engagement
Stigma is an enemy of hope in the eternal life we share together as Christian friends. I’ve had several friends in recovery say sometimes Christians make them feel like projects.
As one friend said, “I feel trapped by the stigma of addiction because it’s all anyone wants to talk to me about. Ask me about my kids, my job, what I want to be in life too. That’s what I want to be about.” It wasn’t that she wanted to hide from her past. She wanted to be seen as a whole person. Recovery programs are great, but people also need to be welcomed in the whole life of a Christian community.
Recovery for one person may look very different from another, and friendship informed by the gospel is the perfect relationship in which to pursue restoration together, as we have all fallen short of the glory of God. That’s the goal of Christian friendship: not harsh condemnation but deep connection, not restriction but mutual strengthening.
It is within the church where we are provided the remedy and freedom to practice repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. We weren’t made to live the Christian life alone but in a community of faith–empathetic yet resolved to spur each other on to whatever good works God has planned. This will mean inconveniencing ourselves, creating safe spaces for responsible engagement, and enduring for and with others. These are some things Jesus knows a lot about.
I have learned through ministering and being ministered to that there is no moral high ground at the foot of the cross. “Getting clean” for any of us begins with Jesus, and he tells us to follow him together. What better place to connect in friendship than in the gospel-shaped community of the church where recovery and restoration are available to everyone? “Strive for full restoration,” Paul wrote to the church in 2 Corinthians 13:11, “encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Naomi DeBord Bivins is a pastor at The Foundation Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. She has a master’s from Asbury Theological Seminary and is also a certified recovery coach.
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