Stair Steps, Faith, & Recovery

Christina DentBy Christina Dent12 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Curious: A Foster Mom’s Discovery of an Unexpected Solution to Drugs and Addiction by Christina Dent

Chapter 21
Stair Steps, Faith & Recovery

Dr. Branden Henry grew up in a straight-laced Christian home in Arkansas and experienced a lot of trauma throughout his childhood. He first used food to numb the pain, and when he found pornography and later alcohol, his addictions multiplied. His theory was that if his addictions were bad, his good works had to be better. So after he got married, he taught school in the Mississippi Delta, led a youth ministry and went to seminary to become a therapist. But healing doesn’t work that way. “You just can’t perform your way out of pain,” Branden says with a sad smile.

During seminary, while Branden and his family sat a few rows ahead of our family in church every week, he stumbled on a men’s group in Jackson that offered unconditional love and acceptance. No performance needed. The healing he began to experience in their company led him to see a therapist who helped him begin to heal the root causes of his addictions. Even with a supportive community and therapy, it was 2 more years before he was able to stop drinking. Healing takes time. Branden has spent the last decade as a therapist, helping other people on their slow journeys too.

One afternoon as we were talking through the complexities of trauma, addiction, recovery, and faith, Branden mentioned how Jesus responds to hurting people whose lives are visibly broken. In Scripture, Jesus tends to follow a pattern of looking for humility, extending mercy, and then calling to action. When he meets someone who has already been humbled, like the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he extends mercy and then calls her to a changed life. When he engages with people who haven’t yet been humbled, he calls them first to humility, like the rich man in Mark When they embrace humility and recognize their need, he extends mercy. A changed life follows. This is the opposite of our approach to many people struggling with all manner of brokenness. We want action first, offering mercy only when we see a changed life. We don’t want them to think their bad behavior is no big deal, so we save our mercy until we’re satisfied that change has happened.

Jesus does not relate to people this way. He doesn’t withhold his love and mercy until He’s satisfied that enough action has been taken. Jesus calls us to come to Him with our nothing and receive His everything. Only then do we begin the process of change and transformation by the Holy Spirit living in us. The good news of the Gospel—the thing that makes Christianity different from every other major religion—is that Jesus doesn’t meet me in my brokenness with a yardstick to measure my performance. He doesn’t sit on his throne and withhold his grace until I can work my way to his feet. He meets me at my lowest point with a cascading waterfall of love, grace, and mercy. I’m staking my own eternal life on the spiritual truth that mercy precedes transformation, not the other way around. After working with addicted people for years, Branden is also convinced that this Gospel lesson applies to addiction. We often want changed behavior before we’re willing to offer connection, love, belonging, and purpose. As uncomfortable and complicated as it is, people often need those first.

This is a hard tension, one Branden is the first to admit. Every day in his practice he sees the onslaught of destruction that addiction can cause in families. It can destroy the relationships and connections that provide the very things needed for healing. And yet, those needs are still there, often deeper than ever.

Maybe this is where the broader community and the faith community can play a key role. Could we be a stepping-stone on the journey to recovery for people whose closest relationships are strained to the point of breaking? Joanne’s life was changed through the power of many people being a stepping-stone. The NICU nurses who treated her with kindness and the social worker who valued her role as a mother were early ones, giving her family time to restore relationships. Sometimes the broader community is better positioned than family to provide stepping-stones, especially during those first steps. We don’t have to be the whole path, just one stepping-stone.

Along those lines, one of the things faith communities may need to reconsider is what spiritual transformation looks like and how it occurs. A lot of people, especially here in the South, believe addiction can only be overcome through a personal relationship with Jesus.

Addiction certainly can have deep spiritual components, but following Jesus doesn’t make the brokenness of the world or the wounds we carry disappear. Struggles and wounds of many kinds linger, sometimes until heaven. A Christian who still struggles with addiction is no less of a Christian than someone who doesn’t. They’re on a journey of transformation like every other child of God.

Telling addicted people that the only way they can overcome a complex health crisis is by embracing a particular approach to faith creates a two-fold problem. First, it’s simply not true. Many people move past addictions every day without becoming Christians or even believing in a higher power. Second, people can become Christians and still struggle with addiction.

Recovery isn’t a transaction with God where I put my faith in him and he stops my addiction. There are some people who have a Damascus road experience of spiritual transformation and they find their addiction suddenly in the rearview mirror. That’s incredible! But for many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, the journey out of addiction is a lot slower, with fits and starts and failures and successes. Jesus gives us incredible new life in an instant when we repent of our sins and follow him as our Savior and King, but that doesn’t make the wounds that drive addiction disappear. Faith can be a powerful part of someone’s recovery journey, but it isn’t required, and it’s no guarantee. Coercing people to follow Jesus by holding their recovery hostage to conversion is not biblical and can destroy people spiritually when their allegiance doesn’t solve their addiction. Such a view is toxic for healthy recovery and for healthy faith.

In the same way that law enforcement officers tend to have significant Investment Aversion to rethinking our drug laws, there can be Investment Aversion in the faith and treatment communities to rethinking the centrality of spiritual transformation in addiction recovery. Many people and many programs have fused faith and recovery together, but if we want to help more people find a path out of addiction, acknowledging that recovery is possible no matter what people believe seems very important. It may also be a key piece in removing the stigma of medication for addiction, which is crucial since it helps more people recover than any other mode of treatment to date. All of us are susceptible to Investment Aversion when a new idea encroaches on an existing one, but remaining open-minded is crucial if we want to help more people find a path to recovery that works for them.

We could make a shift and start meeting each person where they are instead of where we wish they were, and offer them as many options as possible to move out of the darkness and toward the light.

Approaching recovery as a step-by-step journey toward a thriving life instead of a quantum leap to the goal reminds me a little of my own faith journey. Even though I’ve been a Christian for 30 years, I’m continually frustrated at how agonizingly slow my spiritual growth has been. Seasons of daily Scripture reading are followed by droughts of my Bible gathering dust on the shelf. Times of growth are followed by long stretches of apathy. The process of being made more like Jesus feels a lot like the imperceptible growth of an oak tree. I can only see it when I measure year to year or decade to decade, not day to day. Most change in life is slow like that. If Jesus can walk with me one step at a time on the winding road to spiritual growth, I think it honors His image in another person to offer them one step at a time on the winding road to personal growth. It’s not easy, but it just might work.

Shifting to a step-by-step approach to recovery is no easy path. There are none of those where addiction is present. But what’s the alternative? Put more people in the pressure cooker and turn up the heat? If that worked well, addiction would’ve been solved decades ago. Maybe we can try something different. If we did, it would also open the door for more people to access the most effective form of treatment for opioid addiction that we know of right now.

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