I want you to know that my experience is that the church as an establishment struggles to understand, care for, and love the addict; but God doesn’t.
As a teen I sat in church and I heard that getting drunk was a bad sin, that taking drugs was abhorrent, and that sex outside marriage was simply unthinkable. I listened to whispered rumors about how so-and-so had ‘gone off the rails’ because they had drunk too much one Friday night and I saw pregnant teens being ousted from the church. I myself was asked not to attend bible study anymore when I was found smoking at age 16. I kept my addictions a secret for 11 years as I struggled with my actions and how they fit with God. Wondering if I was really ‘saved’ or not. Wondering if God’s forgiveness ever ran out, and knowing if it did then surely I had exhausted it.
I have had two distinct experiences of church, two very different approaches to me and my addiction.
In my first experience I was told to repent if I want a relationship with God, told to simply break free of my addiction if I want to continue being an active member of the church. I was rejected by many of my Christian friends. All this did was reinforce my need for substances of my choice, it drove me into deeper despair and I turned to my drink and my drugs for the comfort and relief I needed from that despair.
The church that treated me this way looked good, it looked nice, you could leave your handbag unattended, let your kids play in the other room. It had a well equipped building, smiles on every face, no cussing, and quiet during the sermon.
I was welcomed with open arms, in my other experience, loved when I felt unlovable. Told of forgiveness, shown mercy, and accepted as part of the church before I acted like it. These people fought for my freedom, helped me access professional help, and took each step towards recovery along side me. They helped me hold on to a slither of hope that life might turn around, they gave me the desire to break free of addiction.
The church that loved and accepted me looked messy, children riding in on bikes, questions called out during the sermon, people wandering in and out for a smoke, or maybe even a hit. If you left your handbag unattended it might get stolen, if your teenager asked someone for a cigarette they may get given it. There was no building, just the renting of a small community hall. The church looked dangerous but it saved lives.
Somehow the church, in my experience, has made a hierarchy of sin and has decided that the worst sin should not be found within its doors, and that the worst sinners should not be found within its membership. They have forgotten the Jesus that saved a prostitute from being stoned by reminding her accusers that all sin is equal and we should not judge. They do not know how to reflect the Jesus that sat and ate with the hated by society, who healed the rejected, who forgave his own murderers.
They have become comfortable with their bubble of good behavior and grown fearful of anyone who threatens to burst it. Their instruction is simply to repent and change if you are to have any hope of a relationship with God, or a place within the church. For the addict that is an impossibility, they can’t just stop, they can repent all they want but changing the behavior needs love and professional help.
I wonder why if the church is the body of Christ how they can be so judging and rejecting of the very people Christ came to save? I want to challenge the church as individuals to care for the neighbor they would normally ignore, to love the down and out, to try and understand the prostitute, the drunk, the drug addict; because if you as an individual member of the Church reflect what God is really about then maybe the church as an institution will change too.
Maybe we will see these people flood our congregations and find hope and healing, maybe we can change society, maybe we can show that one person that there is something worth living for, and that they are loved, clean and sober, or drunk and high, they are accepted, and maybe that acceptance will bring them a better life. That is my message, a message I feel so strongly about.
I plead with you, do not be afraid of the addict, their sin is no worse than yours. Please do not judge them, or try and change them – it will only drive them deeper into their addiction. Love them as Christ would love them, sacrifice your comfort for them, share meals with them, speak love and truth into their lives.
Be Christ to the addicts in your communities, because if you can be Christ to them maybe they will feel welcomed in the church, and they will have the chance to find freedom. Give them hope when they can’t imagine any for themselves. Change society by loving and including the rejects of that very society.