One Damaging Myth about Addiction That Churches Can Change
Just the other day in church, I was talking with someone who has bipolar II disorder. (The condition can often co-occur with substance abuse problems, as the result of efforts to self-medicate the debilitating mood fluctuations that characterize the disorder.) The woman said something that made an impression on me: “I wish more people could understand that I am not bipolar— I have bipolar disorder.”
Addiction and Mental Illness vs. Other Health Conditions – The Double Standard
What she was getting at was a double standard by which we as a society and as churches can often operate in our approach to mental versus physical health conditions. While on a rare occasion we might say that someone with diabetes “is diabetic,” the more usual mode of reference would be that “they have diabetes”; and, in just about any other case where someone has a physical ailment or condition, we would say “he has high blood pressure,” or “she has epilepsy.” To say “he is high blood pressure” or “she is epileptic” would sound nonsensical in the first case and insensitive and somewhat offensive in the second.
On the other hand, with addiction and other serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, the stigma is such that many of us—including many of us who have these diseases—can say without batting an eye that “she is bipolar,” or “he is schizophrenic,” or “I am an addict.”
The Myth That Addiction Is Who You Are
In the realm of addiction, where the negative stigma is reportedly greater than it is for mental illness more generally, our society seems to find it especially easy to erase the distinction between a person’s disease and their identity, so that, for example:
- someone with an alcohol problem is an “alcoholic” or (if they’re in recovery) a “recovering alcoholic,” rather than someone with an “alcohol use disorder”;
- someone with a sex addiction is a “sex addict,” as opposed to a person who struggles with lust and sexual temptation;
- and a person struggling with prescription opiates—in an epidemic that has often been dubbed the deadliest public health crisis in U.S. history—is “an opiate addict,” not simply a person with opiate addiction.
While these distinctions may seem subtle, they can mean a world of difference to those who suffer from an addiction. They need to know that their disease does not define them, that they are so much more than their illness, and that they are loved unconditionally and more than they could ever comprehend. This message is an incarnation of grace in a world that so often defines people by what they do and their behaviors.
How Churches Are Uniquely Positioned to Change This Myth and Care for Those Hurt by It
Here is where the Church can meet a critical need that, I suspect, often goes unmet. Like all of us, people with addiction need to be reminded that they are God’s image bearers and loved and called by their Savior Jesus Christ into a communion of fellowship with Him—and that within this eternal fellowship of the saints, which we celebrate in the partaking of the bread and the wine, is where all of our true identities lie.
This reassurance of God’s defining love can be the very thing that frees a person from addiction’s power—by allowing them to be real about their struggles without shame and find support and accountability within their church family, and by serving as incentive to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), which necessarily includes recovery and the breaking of addiction’s chains.
Churches that tell people with addictions that their abiding identity lies in God’s love for them in Jesus Christ will therefore be extending God’s love and grace in transformational ways to people who need it.
Of course, the notion that addiction defines who you are is only one damaging myth that churches must contend with. (In our book The Recovery-Minded Church, addiction specialist Jonathan Benz and I describe five more such myths that any church seeking to love and care for people with addiction should know about.) Still, the message that we are more than our actions because God, having overturned the harmful notion that we are “justified by works,” says so, is central to the Good News. I suspect it’s also what people with addiction need to hear more than anything.