Ten years ago, few of us would have considered chemical dependency, sexual addiction, or eating disorders suitable topics for polite conversation within the church community. These were among the "silent issues" in the church. Today, however, addiction, compulsive behavior and abuse are widely recognized as problems of enormous personal and social significance. Consider these statistics (Washton, Bundy, Willpowers Not Enough, Harper Perenial, 1998).
- At least six million Americans are addicted to cocaine.
- Between five million and ten million are addicted to prescription drugs.
- Ten million Americans are alcoholics.
- More than 50 million Americans are addicted to nicotine.
- Countless more are addicted to television, shopping, exercise, sports, and even cosmetic surgery.
- It is estimated that every addict directly affects at least ten other people.
- Divorce impacts Christian families as often as secular couples.
- Abortion is the choice in 1 in 5 pregnancies, since 1973 Roe vs.Wade over 25 million performed.
The Christian community is not immune to these difficulties. Many life-long Christians struggle with addiction. In addition, many people come to Christ hoping to find freedom from the bondage of addiction. Often these new Christians expect their problems will immediately disappear as a result of their conversions. Eventually, however, many discover that true healing requires a lengthy process of righting the wrongs of their past. Some of these people who suffer from addiction, compulsive behavior, or abuse find it difficult to be part of a church community. They may find that within their church, self-defeating behavior is denied, ignored, or minimized by those who use religion to shield themselves from life’s realities.
Pastors and church leaders are becoming aware that there are hurting individuals within their congregation, but they sometimes lack the appropriate tools or training to cope with the problem effectively. Fortunately, more and more church leaders are developing practical programs for people who struggle with abuse, addiction and compulsive behavior. These ministries provide a safe place where individuals can begin to confront their personal difficulties.
In contemporary life, virtually anything or anyone can become an object of addiction or overattachment. Whenever people focus obsessively on an object or compulsively search for something, they are exhibiting a strong attachment beyond the point of enthusiasm or ardent feelings. They are addicted. Looking to this self-defeating behavior for comfort and satisfaction, these individuals ultimately become separated from God, thus diminishing their spirits and impeding their freedom.
Gerald May, in his book Addiction and Grace, defines addiction as "any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire." May goes on to list five essential characteristics that mark true addiction. They are:
Tolerancethe phenomenon of always wanting or needing more to feel satisfied. Tolerance can be experienced either physically, as when the body adapts to increasing doses of chemical substances, or psychologically, as when people continually adjust their standard of living upward in response to increased income.
Withdrawal symptoms reactions to the removal of the addictive behavior.
Self-deception mental defense mechanisms such as denial and rationalization invented to counter attempts to control the addiction.
Loss of willpower an inability to conquer the addiction despite the illusion of control.
Distortion of attention a preoccupation with the addiction that usurps our concern for the true priorities of life, especially God. For this reason, addiction can be viewed as idolatry.
As pastors and other church leaders become aware of hurting and fragmented Christian families in their midst, they are realizing the importance of reaching out to these people. They recognize that most individuals can deny their problems for only a limited period of time. Confronting their negative behavior requires support and understanding. Through compassion and love, these hurting people can find a solution for the contradictory feelings and behaviors that accompany the pretense of always seeming "fine."
Some of these wounded Christians may fear harsh judgment for not relying on their faith in dealing with their problems. As a result, they might feel inferior and assume something is wrong with them. Someone may even admonish them within the church community to pray and read more scripture, or to trust God more fully. As long as these people avoid their actual problems, however, the outcome can be a graceless pretense of religious life.
As more recovery programs are started in churches, a growing network of committed people are learning to build congregations that are both safe and helpful for those in recovery. Designed to assist this network of individuals, the Living Free Program includes practical materials that have been developed and field-tested within established Christ-centered recovery ministries. The program provides a wide range of useful resources to help organize recovery programs within churches and presents various approaches to establishing these ministries. Details of the Living Free Program are explained in Chapter Five.
The Bible contains several examples of dysfunction and self-defeating behavior in individuals and families, beginning with Cain slaying Abel in Genesis, Chapter Four. Cain’s behavior illustrates how anger, jealousy and dishonesty can affect one’s reason. When confronted with his crime and its resulting curse, Cain responded with self-pity instead of remorse. In the end, Cain became alienated from God and the land that was his livelihood.
In Genesis, Chapters 25-27, stories about Jacob and Esau remind us of the power of control and manipulation. Rebekah used her son Jacob as a pawn to deceive her husband, Isaac. In doing so, she taught Jacob to lie and deceive in order to get his father’s blessing.
Many families today continue similar legacies of compulsive behavior, abuse and addiction. Adults who experienced trauma during childhood as a result of inappropriate behavior by their primary caregivers often become offenders themselves. Recent books point out the damaging effect a chaotic and unpredictable environment has on a child’s development. Whether the damage was physical, psychological, or emotional, an abusive environment fosters a continuous cycle of addictive, compulsive behavior.
During his brief but powerful ministry on earth, Jesus Christ exemplified the ministry of bringing hurting people together and showing them how to love and care for one another. Later, his disciples taught these same lessons. The following scriptural passages demonstrate how Christ and his disciples conveyed these messages.
"Love one another." (JOHN 13:34)
"Have equal concern for each other." 1 CORINTHIANS 12:24-25)
"Confess your sins to each other." (JAMES 5:16)
"Carry each other’s burdens." (GALATIANS 6:2)
"Pray for each other." (JAMES 5:16)
"Encourage one another and build each other up." (1 THESSALONIANS 5:11)
"Submit to one another." (EPHESIANS 5:21)
"Teach and admonish one another." (COLOSSIANS 3:16)
"Spur one another toward love and good deeds." (HEBREWS 10:24)
The Holy Spirit encourages us to love, serve and care for one another. How we manifest this behavior is unique to each of us, but clear to others. As Jesus said, "…all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (JOHN 13:35) Through the Holy Spirit’s presence, Christ-centered recovery support groups become a place where God’s grace can work miracles.
Christ-Centered Recovery Support Groups
Christ-centered recovery groups enable hurting Christians to honestly share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with others from similar backgrounds. They provide a safe place for wounded people to tell the truth, talk through a crisis, openly express feelings, identify options and make decisions. They create a forum where individuals can support and encourage one another toward healing and wholeness. They also offer a safe arena in which to challenge the concept that "believing is a quick fix" for life’s problems. As people give up this illusion, they become more honest and aware of the denial that has protected them from the reality of their wounds.
It is natural for people to feel comfortable and less afraid of rejection when discussing their problems and admitting their fears with others who identify with them. The process of conquering self-defeating behavior is strengthened through positive affirmation, love and support from those around them. Through this process, people can receive the comfort of God while sharing their experience, strength and hope with others.
When recovery support groups are part of a Christian community, individuals can integrate their faith in Christ with their journey toward healing. In particular, Christ-centered recovery support groups provide a safe place to:
- replace denial with honesty by being encouraged to identify destructive behavior patterns and to discover alternatives.
- comfortably share spiritual experiences with others as God leads the way through painful memories toward healthier lifestyles.
- experience the mercy and wisdom of God and the healing power of prayer by sharing personal concerns and praying for one another.
- look at hurtful experiences and unmet expectations without being ridiculed.
- learn the value of being accountable to one’s self and others.
- be reminded of one’s intention to stop self-defeating behavior.
Identifying the Need
After accepting the reality that woundedness exists within the church community, the next step toward addressing the problem is identifying specific needs for healing within the membership. Something as simple as an anonymous survey can reveal where to begin by identifying self-defeating behaviors, such as:
- excessive use of drugs, alcohol, or food.
- over-indulgence in sex, gambling, spending, or work.
- compulsive behavior expressed through constant volunteering, care-taking, perfectionism, or self-improvement.
- obsessive thinking about sin, weight, pornography, status, or relationships.
- unreasonable aversions to crowds, evil spirits, rejection, sex, public speaking, or disapproval.
- excessive attention and focus placed on others as a means of establishing identity and self-worth.
Based on survey results and other available information, church leaders can form Christ-centered recovery groups to address the specific needs of their community. Resources can include many individuals who have already been actively involved in recovery support groups.
Recovery Support Groups
There is an important distinction between congregational care groups and Christ-centered recovery support groups. Congregational care groups are short term and are designed for people dealing with special personal problems such as grief, divorce, cancer, abortion, or single parenting. Christ-centered recovery groups, are long term and focus on abstaining from self-defeating behaviors, often within a twelve-step context. This process involves developing a working understanding of the Twelve Steps as a spiritual discipline, as well as deepening one’s faith and trust in God’s will an endeavor that can ultimately become a way of life. Christ-centered recovery groups combine these objectives by introducing the Twelve Steps as a tool to help participants rely on Jesus Christ for guidance in resolving troublesome personal issues.
Rooted in Christian theology, the Twelve Steps were developed in 1935 by Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the years since, these principles have been adapted to many programs which have assisted millions of people in breaking free from obsessive, compulsive behavior within the context of a renewed relationship with God. Practicing the spiritual discipline of the Twelve Steps has proven to be one of the most effective means of recovery for individuals struggling with some form of self-defeating behavior. To Christians adopting this discipline as part of their recovery program, the compatibility between the Twelve Steps and scripture is readily apparent.
Benefits of Church-Based Recovery Ministries
A number of special benefits make recovery support groups unique, including the following:
- Personal change is supported and encouraged, not demanded.
- Wounded people are able to relate to each other because of their shared life experiences.
- Scripture is used, not as a springboard for study, but to share personal lessons and experiences in light of God’s word.
- Participants learn to take risks and develop trusting relationships.
Individuals suffering from the destructive effects of obsessive, compulsive behavior need to find relief. When they enter a recovery program based on the Twelve Steps, they begin a journey of Christian growth, serenity and joy. With their emphasis on spiritual renewal, the Twelve Steps provide a discipline for discovering God’s healing power and are a tool to help maintain peace and serenity in an ever-changing world.
By developing a Christ-centered recovery ministry within the church, pastors and other church leaders can reach out with hope and healing to congregational members tormented by the lingering effects of an addictive or dysfunctional family environment. Christ-centered recovery support groups offer these Christians an opportunity to find peace in the fellowship of other recovering believers. In addition, these groups provide a means for congregations to join the growing recovery network within the body of Christ. In this way, the church can become a safe place for recovery.