Addiction and Grace

Addiction brings the entire family down, so the focus of an intervention is not solely the addict. The family needs to heal, and each member of the family can make the decision to no longer be tormented by the disease.

The human personality is composed of many different facets: mental, emotional, social, physical, volitional, and spiritual. We’ve talked about the brain in addiction and how this disease disables our will or volition. The physical effects of addiction are clear to anyone. The mental, emotional, and social impacts are also evident. But what about the spirit?

This is a slippery and controversial topic. Hard to pin down. But most of us know, deep down, that there’s something eternal about every human being. We don’t take that out and look at it seriously very often, but it’s there. In this section I want to take it out and look at it.

People of faith, and that is most everyone to some degree, often encounter a special challenge in dealing with addiction. Namely, how could he become an addict? She goes to services every week, so how could she have a problem?

The idea that faith should protect you from all harm is, frankly, silly if it were not so dangerous. People of faith get sick. They have accidents. They lose relationships. They die. Faith is not insurance policy protecting us from life.

When a person of faith becomes an addict they often face a unique obstacle to getting well. In the very place and among the very people where they should find the deepest grace they often find the most vicious stigma. But this stigma is not always from the outside. Many time people of faith face a special shame from within, wrongly believing that if they had just been faithful enough they would not have a drinking or drug problem.

Alcohol and drugs drain the spirit, and leave us dry as dust and deaf to the joys of the world. Addiction silences the eternal music of the spheres.

What I want you to consider in this section is that recovery is the way to hear again the music of the spheres. The clamors in the head of an alcoholic do not come from a good and loving God. Recovery quiets the mind and reengages the soul. The spirit in your loved one longs again to be free. An intervention is the way to help that happen.

We’re All Broken

Again, my goal in this section is not to convince anyone of a particular notion of faith. I am simply trying to explore the spiritual challenges most people encounter when coming face to face with addiction in their families.

One temptation is to look down on the addict. Again, this is a very sensitive topic, for the addict has undoubtedly engaged in behavior that is disappointing, offensive, dangerous, criminal, and even unspeakably evil. I am not for a moment suggesting that the behavior should be excused and they should avoid consequences. I am interested in the role of grace in the process of recovery, and specifically the role of grace in the intervention.

The fact is, we are all debtors beyond our ability to repay. All of us, addict or no, are broken, limping, flawed, and feeble. Addiction is usually very loud, public, and often obscene. It’s obvious, and for that reason it’s easy for other people to point at. So we desperately try to keep it a secret, and that is classic denial.

For many years, before I became an alcoholic I was able to keep most of my flaws in a discreet shadow. Most of us do. I could easily point to the outrageous and incomprehensible behavior of an alcoholic and assume they are weak in willpower and think myself superior. Most of us do that kind of thing too. Ironically, through my alcoholism I learned of a deeper grace and found a life far better than I could have imagined.

The point is, our usual reluctance to be transparent with our struggles prevents us from getting the help we need. To admit that addiction is in our lives or in the life of a family member seems like a shaming failure on some level. Why not view it as it is? A treatable disease through which a gracious and loving God can lead us all to healing? In fact, simply accepting the fact of our shared brokenness, expressed in countless ways, opens the way to a genuine miracle of grace.

How Did This Happen?

The sooner we rid ourselves of the notion that faith should have been an insurance policy against addiction the better. Faithful people get sick, have accidents, and die. Faith does not make anyone perfect and immune from the world’s ravages. And yes, faithful people can get addicted.

Both the addict and the family and friends will likely throw up their hands more than once and ask, “how did this happen?” In The Sun Also Rises one of the characters, formerly very wealthy, has gone broke. Someone asks “how did you go bankrupt?” The answer, “Gradually. Then suddenly.”

That’s how addiction works. Most people can drink safely all of their lives, but for many of us the disease creeps up stealthily. That’s the way it was for me. Little by little and then all at once, I grew dependent on alcohol, absolutely eaten up with a gnawing compulsion to drink and an exhausting obsession to think about when I would get my next drink. It is pure misery.

I was raised in the church. Seldom missed a Sunday or Wednesday service during my growing up years. I had no real rebellion against going to church, for mostly I enjoyed my friends and felt that worshiping a loving God was both good and helpful. In seminary I learned more about grace, earned two degrees, taught while completing my doctorate, and have derived a great deal of joy from being a pastor for more than 30 years. Faith and the church have been an overwhelmingly positive influence in my life.

Alcohol drained my spirit. Gradually, then suddenly, alcohol became the king of my life edging out every other affection, commitment, and duty. It was thoroughly mystifying when I had the clarity to consider it. But the addiction was so ravaging that soon I merely accepted the daily insanity, and even sought to preserve it.

Alcohol drains the spirit, soul, and life of an addict. Things that once were of paramount importance, matters such as faith and love, lie muted under a deepening haze of addiction. You, as the caring person, are completely baffled at the radical change and feel hopeless. But no one is without hope.

There remains a sliver of the real person in every addict. Somehow, some way, we must get through to that tendril of the former life. It is possible. You have hope, and the way forward is through love and grace.

The Intervention as a “Thin Place”

Intervention may sound like an aggressive, emotionally charged event. The guilty party, the addict, sits surrounded by the prosecution (i.e. family and friends). Accusations are hurled, batted away, but eventually the addict is pummeled into submission and goes to prison (i.e. treatment).

While an intervention can be highly emotional and even occasionally volatile, a successful intervention is conceived in love, conducted in grace, and leads to hope for everyone involved. That may sound absolutely, outrageously impossible to you right now. I assure you, I have seen it happen, and it is a wonder to behold.

Celtic Christian sometimes spoke of the “thin places” in life, where the world of the spirit drew very close to the physical world. We’ve all had those experiences, though we may not have identified them as such. A quiet, star-filled night sky, holding a newborn, sitting quietly in a sanctuary, these are a few examples. The things of earth recede for a moment, and we remember that we are not alone.

That is my experience with interventions. What may begin with incredible suspicion and resentment ends with tears and hugs. How is this possible? It is the inevitable consequence when an event is bathed in grace and love. We all drop our weapons and defenses, and then the Spirit draws near. We remember together that we are not alone.

You are likely to be full of fear right now, the polar opposite of trust. Anger boils, the polar opposite of acceptance. There is a way for all of us to get well, but we must carve out a quiet place to hear the still, small voice of God. This can happen. Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.