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Addiction, recovery, and the church
Pastor Ben Sadler
by Pastor Ben Sadler
November 13, 2019

A few months ago, my coworker Pastor Bill met with our city’s mayor. Pastor Bill asked him what the most critical issues in the community were and how we, as a church, might begin to help. The mayor responded, “The most critical concern is drug addiction.”

I know drugs are a problem all over our country. But I guess I was naïve as to how many people in our community are struggling to find freedom. I also feel at a loss as to how we could begin to help. I mean, aren’t drug treatment facilities and professional counselors the only ones equipped to really help the hurting?

Not necessarily.

Last week, I happened to come across the book Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel. In her book, Grisel explains that, at one time, her life was controlled by addictive drugs. One day, as she was sniffing cocaine, her friend said, “You know, there is never going to be enough cocaine for us.” That profound observation struck a deep chord, and Grisel started to take a path of recovery.

After she sobered up, she decided to become a neuroscientist. Quite a transformation, don’t you think? She wanted to find the neurological on/off switch for addiction. She saw the overwhelming affects drugs had on the brain, so she believed the answer to her drug use must also be found in her brain.

The book continues to give a deep dive into all the different types of drugs and their neurological affects. She explains how addictive drugs change our brains, and how our brains try to compensate. When we take addictive drugs, our brains set a new baseline. For example, if I drink alcohol repeatedly to feel less anxious, then my brain will adapt to that new normal. And when I’m not drinking, my brain will force me to feel much more anxious until I have another drink to return my emotional state to my new baseline. Because our brains continue to adapt (also known as tolerance), it will take more and more drugs to keep us at our new status quo.

The science of addiction and our brain’s capacity to adapt is fascinating. But what intrigued me most was Grisel’s final analysis. She set out on this journey because she thought the answer to our addictions is in the brain, or at least our genes. But after many years of brain research, the results were inconclusive. Although drugs have a huge affect on the brain, the brain doesn’t seem to have the on/off switch she was looking for.

Instead, she looked at her own journey. She saw that her path to recovery came when she realized the endless and empty nature of drugs: there would never be enough drugs to stop all her pain. Next came a powerful conversation with her father. During most of her binges, her father abandoned her. But one day he took her out for a meal and said, “I just want you to be happy.” She discovered in that moment that her dad really loved her unconditionally and dearly wanted the best for her. They both knew that drugs were not giving her the happiness that they promised. As a dearly loved daughter, she began to search for true happiness through the love of an accepting community.

Her research, experience, and the experience of countless others show that addiction is not just a brain problem. It’s a community problem. Grisel says that we run to substances because we don’t experience the love and acceptance from others that we so desperately need. We might reject the love that others offer. Or we never experienced that love to begin with. Regardless, the real problem and the real solution seem to have much more to do with isolation and relationships than anything else in the brain.

In the end of her book, she writes, “One source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion. . . . To be living on earth today is like being in a lifeboat with every other person on the planet; it’s both inhumane and impractical to turn our backs.”

This leads me back to my original question: “What can we, as a church, do to help the drug epidemic?” Based on Grisel’s research and experience, we need to be The Church. We need to be a community of love that sees those who are suffering and have the courage to enter into those difficult places. This means we’ll need to make sacrifices. But we’re a people who follow the One who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

We need to realize that this broken world is hard. Everyone is suffering at some level. And if we don’t have a loving community to turn to, we’ll settle for cheap, addictive substitutes that don’t ultimately deliver the peace that they promise.

Instead, let us follow the opening words of Paul’s second letter to his church in the city of Corinth: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (verses 3,4).

God has comforted us in Jesus Christ SO THAT we can comfort those who struggle. That includes those who are isolated and feel lost. That includes comforting those who have turned to drugs for relief. God help us!

Interested in learning more about how to help someone who is battling addiction? Get your copy of “Why Can’t They Just Stop?”