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Helping People Who Struggle With Addictions

By Larry E. Hazelbaker

Do We Manage a Sin or Overcome a Stronghold?

Jim, 27, was single, and in the prime of his life, but his addiction to cocaine had a vice-like grip on him. Counselors had convinced Jim that he had a disease, not a stronghold. The best he could ever hope for was the willpower to manage his illness, not eradicate it. Jim felt helpless and shackled by his addiction, with little hope of getting well. His condition worsened. By the time he stumbled into my office — a gesture, he confided, to satisfy his mother — he was selling cocaine to support his habit. Not long after our conversation I received a call from his mother: Jim was in prison. Desperate for more drugs and short on cash, he robbed a convenience store and shot a police officer — a decision that ultimately yielded a life sentence without parole.

On a Wednesday, 21 years ago, I had seen more than my usual number of clients. I was on my way to the evening service when a young woman approached me. Because I was tired, I asked her to come back the next day. She began sobbing, “My name is Grace. If you don’t see me now, I won’t make it through the night.”

She drew back the sleeves of her blouse and exposed raw and swollen track marks up and down her arms. With slurred speech and barely able to stand, she told me she had just come off a 3-day heroin binge. She had spent $1,500, was broke, scared, and without hope.

I told her I would give her a few minutes. She cried, babbled words, writhed, squirmed, and fell off her chair several times. During her sobs and my prayers, I had a vision. I saw the hand of a technician and the sleeve of a lab coat. The hand was reaching down, grabbing cobras, and milking their venom. As I watched, the hand turned the venom into a serum — antivenin.

At first, I did not understand. Then I watched as the narrow picture panned into full view. I saw that the hand in the vision belonged to Grace. She was wearing the lab coat and making the antivenin.

I spoke to her about what I had seen. I told her God wanted to use her as a deliverer as she shared the love and power of God (antivenin) that would save people addicted to heroin and cocaine.

In the hour that followed, God delivered her from her heroin addiction (stronghold). Today, she is in the ministry helping people affected by drugs. She has remained drug free for 21 years.

Statistics

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2006 drug misuse or abuse (cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine) accounted for nearly 1.4 million emergency room visits nationwide. Excessive use of alcohol attributed to more than 100,000 deaths. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that youth who drink are 50 times more likely to use cocaine. Furthermore, 14 million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorders. Drugs, alcohol, and tobacco use among youth has risen dramatically since 1985. It is estimated that one-third of all 12th graders consume alcohol weekly. Substance abuse is on the rise, especially among youth.

The Cycle of Addiction

For an explanation of the cycle of an addiction, visit http://www.DrugRehab.net.

First, most addicts are intelligent people and have plans for their futures.

Second, addicts find it difficult to deal with the problems that come with life and begin using the substance as a coping mechanism.

Third, using drugs helps addicts compensate for some deficiency in their lives. Depression, pain, relationships, job troubles, or not being able to overcome an unrelated issue (such as obesity) are common excuses for substance abuse.

Fourth, the substance becomes a painkiller. It lessens the emotional and physical pain and gives addicts a way to escape their problems. New problems emerge once the addiction takes hold. Addicts begin to do whatever is necessary to get high.

Fifth, behavior associated with drug dependency — difficulty communicating, poor job performance, and poor physical health — becomes the norm. The addiction drives the addict’s life and controls and dominates his thoughts. At this point, the substance is a stronghold that slowly strangles him.

Sixth, the substance controls addicts, and they are obsessed with obtaining and using it. It degrades them and gives them a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Seventh, addicts attempt to quit. Failure at program after program, therapist after therapist, and relapse after relapse leaves addicts with a sense of loneliness, despair, and defeat. They are slaves to the substance.

How It Happens

Addictive behavior is common. A person’s nature is to abuse. Anything can become a stronghold (addiction). Once a behavior becomes an addiction, it controls a person’s life, thoughts, and actions. It happens when, for whatever reason, a person begins to take a substance that makes him feel good. The behavior begins to form a neural pathway across a cluster of neurons in the brain. The more the behavior is reinforced by the stimulus, the deeper the pathway, thereby forming a behavior or a habit — an addiction.

An addiction is a reoccurring compulsion that controls a person’s thoughts and actions, a stronghold that is nearly impossible to overcome. Because of this fact, most treatment programs focus on managing the addiction rather than on overcoming a stronghold.

Medical Model on Addictions

If ministers believe the medical model for explaining addictions, then No. 7 in the above cycle is true. There is little help for addicts. The best a pastor can do is to provide tools to help an addict manage his addiction while the addict spends the rest of his life engaging in the intense struggle to control his addiction.

Many clinical professionals believe that colleges do not train ministers how to treat people who have addictions. If the general belief were that an addiction is a disease, I would agree. Doctors — not pastors — treat diseases. If pastors choose to accept the medical model, they will need to create a referral list of the clinics and agencies in their area that treat addictions as diseases and refer parishioners to them. Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatment centers can intervene and, at the least, provide addicts with the education needed to manage their addiction.

Biblical Perspective on Addictions

If ministers take the Bible literally, addictions are strongholds that stem from works of the flesh. They are spiritual problems that manifest themselves in the flesh. In alcoholism, current medical definitions claim the etiology (origin) of alcohol addiction is a genetic predisposition. Thus, alcoholics are victims of their own DNA. If pastors choose to agree, they accept that alcoholism is a terminal disease — the person is and always will be an alcoholic.

The Word takes a different position. Drunkenness is a sin and a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:21). Pastors need to embrace the biblical definition of an addiction and create ministries in the church to assist in the transformation of addicts.

To receive cleansing, one must ask for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). If pastors accept the medical model, then they must embrace the management of sin. An addiction is not like diabetes. It does not make sense to accept the medical model of an addiction and disregard the biblical definition of sin. We must believe we can be more than overcomers.

Think About It

A victim-based mentality tends to drive Americans. We try to discover reasons to excuse maladaptive or unacceptable conduct. If we can convince ourselves that our addictions come from our genetic make-up, we have found a reason to excuse sin. If a person is from a family in which high blood pressure or diabetes is prevalent, it is not as surprising when a doctor gives him the same diagnosis. His genes provide an explanation for the diagnosis.

Strongholds, however, are not diseases; they are works of the flesh, and pastors must deal with them accordingly.

People are genetically predisposed to fornicate. But when a fornicator stands before God, he will not be able to call on human nature to excuse his sin. Likewise, an addict will not be able to stand before God and blame his addiction on a litany of excuses society has offered him. God will say, “Depart from me, ye worker of iniquity.”

What Can a Pastor Do?

Pastors must embrace the biblical model of dealing with strongholds and add a Christ-centered program to the ministry of the church. One program, Turning Point, not only helps those with strongholds but also trains laypersons to be group facilitators.

If a pastor cannot afford the Turning Point program and desires to implement his own ministry, the following model might be a good place to begin to help addicts. Several years ago, I crafted the following seven-step biblical model out of several 12-step programs. The church can effectively use this model. It will require the pastor or his designee to take a leading role.

Step One: Confession. The addict must admit that he is powerless over the stronghold. By doing this, the addict is taking ownership of his addiction. Second Corinthians 12:10 says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Confession is the first step toward healing in the redemptive cycle. God cannot intervene unless we invoke 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Step Two: Recognize helplessness. Pastors must help the addict understand and believe that God alone is able to reroute neural pathways. God, however, requires our confession of helplessness. He is able to restore the addict to wholeness, but the addict must declare himself incapable. God delivered Grace in my office, but not before she recognized that deliverance required His intervention. Faith in Him and His ability is imperative. Deliverance may be instantaneous or a process.

Step Three: Surrender and forgiveness. We must help the addict understand that he must surrender to God. Breaking the bondage requires the release of one’s own will. God alone can help an addict overcome completely. Ask Him to forgive and help you. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28; see also 1 John 1:9).

Step Four: Be truthful. An addict will never get what he needs until he does what he should. If we confess sin, God will forgive it. Ask the Holy Spirit to take an inventory of your wrong behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions, and then begin to conform to what God has to say about these things. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Wayne W. Dyer has written a series entitled, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. This is a biblical principle, but addicts must know what to change.

Step Five: Ask God for His help. “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives.” (James 4:2,3). God’s will is for people to live in good health — physically, mentally, and spiritually. We do not ask amiss when we ask God for His help in overcoming sin. Remember, Christians believe that substance abuse and addiction is sin, not a disease. An addict needs to ask Him daily, by the minute, for help in overcoming these strongholds.

Step Six: Read God’s Word and pray without ceasing. If we believe what God’s Word says, why do we not embrace it like it was our life support? “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). We must believe that the Word reveals the power of God, reveals what we need to know and pray for, and reveals how to live our lives accordingly so we can cast down strongholds.

Step Seven: Testify. Be grateful and carry the gospel to others. “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). Testifying brings accountability. A testimony service gives overcomers opportunity to tell of the life-changing power of God and His Word. Solomon stated, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). Speak life.

Conclusion

God wants us to be overcomers and victors — not managers — over sin and strongholds. Most pastors have encountered people who have life-controlling issues. Our role is to give them spiritual guidance and counsel on how God can use their experience to help others overcome. Let us not lay aside the Word of God to consult Freud or Dr. Phil. Rather, we must read His Word and allow God to minister and perform His work through us as we use our knowledge of what previously separated us from Him. He will use our history, often a tragic one, riddled with sin and strongholds, to bring others into the protection of His power and love. All for His glory and purpose.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

Larry E. Hazelbaker, Ph.D., an Assemblies of God minister, is professor of psychology and chairperson of the behavioral and social sciences department at Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida. He is also founder and president of Harbor Institute, Inc., a nonprofit organization that ministers to ministers and their families.

Endnotes

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Drug Abuse Warning Network (2007).

2. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2001).

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