The unthinkable happened. I, the good little church girl who grew up in the stereotypical Christian bubble with scarcely a non-religious friend, suddenly found myself enraptured by the compelling story of a young woman slightly older than myself sharing her testimony. It was indeed a harrowing story of both triumph and defeat, the highs and lows of drug use and rehab, and the devastating effects not addressing issues sooner can have on one’s life. The most intriguing thing of all being that I was completely spellbound, all the while taking mental notes, not only of this young woman’s maturity and resilience, but also of how much she indeed was teaching me.
Every day we come across such individuals. It may be through a church service or a young adult’s group. It might be on testimony night or while casually eating tacos. It may be in the sanctuary or in the side hall. These moments might take place while on the bus or bustling tables. While driving with a passenger in your car or passively listening to the radio. But whenever they happen, they cause us to pause, take note, and listen.
There is something beautifully freeing in the power of a story. Stories capture our heart and engage our emotions in a way factual information never can. I can tell you the physical repercussions of eating fast food daily, or I can let you watch “Supersize Me” and hear one man’s story for yourself. I can tell you about the blackouts drinking can cause, or I can let a former drunk explain those moments for himself. I can proof text Bible passages or I can tell you about the ways God has transformed my life, bringing me out of darkness and into light and joy beyond measure. Our stories disclose in a general (and sometimes a more specific way) who we were, who we are now, and all we hope to become. They encourage and inspire others that no matter how far down they have gone, there is a hand bringing them back up. They remind us that our imperfections are exactly what makes each one of us so perfect. And nothing is more profound that a story firmly rooted in Christ – a mess God has redeemed, a triumph He has reclaimed for Himself.
I think the power of a story is the exact reason that I highly encourage every Christian leader to attend at least one AA meeting in their life. You don’t need to be a recovering alcoholic to understand the power of a good story and in fact, I believe everyone would benefit not just because of the compassion you gain for someone struggling with this disease, but also because it truly would make our church stronger. To be individually welcomed by so many people, numbers given with a proviso to call anytime, books bought for complete strangers, and a certain rigorous candour, these are all the things that many churches miss out on. Not to mention this knack for storytelling. I had two professors at my seminary teach me two very different things. The first one encouraged each of his students to go to an AA meeting and write a paper – an experience I will never forget. The second mentioned that as a church becomes more vulnerable and intimate, the less welcoming to newcomers they become. Why then, do you see newcomers at AA every single meeting, sharing their heart and soul with people they have scarcely made eye-contact with once? What is it that AA is doing that many churches are not? Why do blatant atheists become ardent believers in God (and at the very least agnostics) and yet daily we see so many people walking away from organized religion? Once again, the answer lies in an atmosphere of honesty, transparency, vulnerability, and an attitude which suspends all judgement.
I have also become convinced over the past few months that everyone struggles with an addiction of some kind. We often view the addict as the “town-drunk” or the “homeless pill-pusher” yet these stereotypes not only avail us nothing, but are detrimental to the well-being and recovery of anyone who truly suffers. It can be difficult to get into the mind of an addict, and yet, each one of us struggles with something – an insane desire to be liked by everyone, a need to control the lives of others, a need to indulge in sugary sweet and fabulous fatty desserts on the whim, a penchant for binge watching a certain tv show, and (as anyone born after 1989 will attest) an unhealthy and unholy preoccupation with our phones and all things technological. Think about it. The average Canadian spends over 7 years using social media and other forms of electronics (not associated to their professional job life). Many compulsively check Facebook or Twitter accounts several times a day. Many are not able to unplug from their work emails even on their days off. Marriages, families, and friendships suffer from a preoccupation which distracts the person from all that is present. People have reported “feeling naked” when the phone’s been accidently left in the car. Leaving cell phones on overnight has often resulted in several cases of sleep deprivation, sometimes with devastating effects. Many have felt “phantom vibrations” in their pocket because their mind has trained them to think they will be receiving a text message every other moment. And a few years back when many people took a challenge to delete Facebook for a 40 day fast, certain individuals began having shakes akin to someone coming off of hard drugs, and a few even sought professional help. What I am getting at is that I don’t care if you’re addiction is shopping or smoking, these addictions can hit anyone. Anything that is taking over your life and that has an unhealthy place or detracts from your real life relationships with your spouse, your children, and your friends is something that needs to be addressed. We are not “holier than thou” just because we struggle with food and Facebook over narcotics or weed.
Yet even so, we all know that people will experience their addictions in various ways. This may be for a variety of reasons: family upbringing, personal baggage, or even different personalities. Whereas one person may be able to seemingly move through the recovery process quickly, others may be stuck in the same state for years. Not everyone has to lose their home, their job, their marriage, or their finances, to be an addict. Not everyone needs to start from ground zero, but everyone needs to realize that thing in their life that has become their God. That has become their only comfort. That thing which is perhaps not bad in and of itself, but has become a burden rather than a blessing. That thing which drives others to notice them or that takes the edge off the pain of their past.
Once we are able to recognize our own shortcomings and failures, it is then that we are able to begin ministering to the person in our congregation or in our family who we see going down a bad path and whose addiction we see having potential to destroy their life and career (if it has not already done so). Here are the steps I would highly recommend you take:
#1: Never Judge. So many people assume that a person can just stop using, drinking, or accessing porn. However, if someone truly has an addiction, they must make this call for themselves. It is not enough for a spouse, parent, child, or friend to point out a flaw. If the person cannot own this stronghold, there will be no healing present. The best thing you can do in the process is not to helplessly watch your loved one deteriorate, but to speak truth and life into the person’s situation.
#2: Love Unconditionally. Sometimes the most loving thing you can say to your congregant or family member is simply this: “I love you, and it is because of my love for you that I am creating and putting up these boundaries until you can get help. I will still stand by you and support you through it all. I’m not going anywhere. But I need you to do this, not for me, but for yourself.” The number one way to recover from any addiction is to have mentorship and accountability. Without that, you’re as good as dead. But with resolve and a cheerleading squad behind you, the past can be put in the past. Each day is a new one forward. Don’t bring up the addict’s past. Embrace their future and all the possibilities that holds. Take it one day at a time. Any improvement (however small) is still an improvement. It is important to note those little victories.
#3: Dismember the Trite Pleasantries. We’ve all heard those infamous sayings: “just pull up your bootstraps”, “just try harder,” “if you really want to quit, you’d just find the will power and resolve to do it.” The truth is that someone who is seriously struggling with an addiction often cannot find solace in these phrases. What’s important here is to allow a story to be told, and to hold it gently. Get into the mindset yourself. Think about the most difficult thing you find motivation to do even if you know you should. I know that I should exercise more and eat healthier. I’ve seen a doctor and a dietician and both told me the same thing. But I don’t always feel that way. I sometimes crave that double hamburger or that delectable double chip ice cream. I give in even though I’ve been told that if I keep it up, I’ll continue to gain weight and get acne. Again, this is an extreme example, but I think you can see where I’m going with this. I can’t expect my congregant to go a week without a drink, when I’m knocking back a bag of potato chips every day.
The most important thing I have learned as I’ve begun opening myself up to the possibility of having friends who have addictions or mental health issues is this: people are people. It can be so easy in our society to label someone or to make assumptions because of someone’s lack or poor judgement. However, each one of us makes bad decisions on a daily basis. We choose that Frappuccino over that piece of fruit or we buy that extra dress we really don’t need rather than giving the money as a donation. We all act compulsively from time to time, get angry, make accusations against others or ourselves, and find forgiveness hard. And yet, when it really comes down to it, we aren’t all that different after all. As I’ve interacted with former rough sleepers, I’ve learned that deep down we all have that innate desire for friendship and love. We all like to be wanted, needed, cherished, and accepted. Some of us have had it easier than others. Some of us had stable families and the support system we needed early on which enabled us to stay away from a lifetime of hardship (and if so, thank God for that!). But others of us have had to struggle to find a way and blaze a path and God has used those stories and redeemed them for the benefit and saving of many people. In the end of the day, one is not better or worse. As long as we recognize the need for our own resilience and walk in the freedom and power of righteousness, we will blaze a path that others will dare to follow. We will share a story that others will desire to step into. And we will transform our trials from tests into testimonies.