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How to Spot—and Help—an Addict in Church

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Addiction has wrongly been “super-sized” out of the local church’s realm of care.

The rising wave of it—especially opioid addiction—is widely considered a “brain disease” that requires special medicine, training, and expertise. Many mistakenly believe there is little a church member can do to help.

To be clear, using drugs does alter the brain. Medical intervention is crucial. But it’s also true that stigma, self-loathing, guilt, and other issues common to addicts are within the arena of Christian counseling.

You and I have been called to care for the sick, the imprisoned, the suffering, and the sinners (Matt. 28:18–20; Matt. 25:36; James 5:13–15). As Jesus’s hands and feet, we must not ignore those in the throes of addiction.

The tricky part is—how?

1. How do I know if a someone is addicted to opioids? Do they have to tell me, or are there signs I can look for?

I often watch for isolation (Prov. 18:1). Family and friends can listen for language that reflects an “entitlement mentality” rooted in pride. The addict may also be inconsistent, lie when he doesn’t have to, seek pleasure in every area, and be prone to doing things his way. Look for idolatrous behavior that appears irrational, since it’s caused by extreme devotion to self.

You may be concerned about “missing” an addicted person in your congregation. But warning signals like missing work, school, or church activities aren’t always obviously tied to addiction and may appear innocuous. So sometimes it’s easy for a leader, a friend, or even a close family member to miss the signs and then feel guilty later.

The “what ifs” can be crushing. What if I could have noticed something? What if I had reached out? What if I’d caught it before it got to this stage? Did I say something to drive them away from church or from God?

While we are responsible to God for sins of omission—failing to love, or failing to speak truth in love, or failing to speak truth at all—we have to be careful not to feel all the weight of someone else’s choices.

While we are responsible to God for our sins of omission, we have to be careful not to feel all the weight of someone else’s choices.

More often than not, a family member comes to me for help regarding an addicted loved one. There is great value in creating an approachable culture among your church family. As often as you can, communicate, “Yes, please reach out to us when your loved one is struggling! We want to help you, help them, and glorify God in the process. Yes, come to us.”

2. How do I approach someone I think is addicted to opioids or other prescription drugs? Should I say something, or wait for them to reach out to me?

You might try saying something such as, “You have been a little erratic lately. Have you been using or maybe tempted to use? What’s going on?” The person may deflect, deny, or disagree, which makes it hard to know what is true. In gentleness, ask clarifying and probing follow-up questions, though you still may not receive a straight answer (Gal. 6:1). Since love believes all things (1 Cor. 13:7), you may have to err on the side of grace.

Typically, family members and concerned friends reach out and ask you to intervene. Since often the family has already spoken to the person about his addiction, you can think of your participation as the second step in the Matthew 18:15–20 restoration process.

It’s important to approach this intervention motivated by a desire to glorify God, not surprise and humiliate. A biblical intervention involves loving concern, careful planning, constant prayer, and multiple meetings with the family ahead of time. The goal is to discern—gently and kindly—whether the addicted person is willing to repent. And the family should be prepared for possible responses, which may include defensiveness and rejection.

We often want to talk the addict into changing, but that can lead to frustration. Instead, focus on communicating God’s love and glorifying Christ. It is always loving to call someone to repentance, but we must be careful we aren’t making it all about repenting and reconciling with us, before with God.

3. What do I do if someone tells me they’re addicted to prescription drugs? To whom do I refer them? How do I keep track of them? What’s the best way to support and love them?

An addict doesn’t often ask for help, due to shame, guilt, and pride. So this is a rare opportunity and cause for rejoicing!

First, ask about his spiritual condition. If he is an unbeliever, you want him to know the living God. If he is a believer, you want him to become a committed, obedient follower of Christ. Both strategies rely solely on the sufficient Word of God and power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, gather a small team of people from your church who are committed to the long process of relational disciple-making. Each person on the team could play a different role—encourager, prayer partner, accountability partner, church leader, counselor, and/or trusted Christian friend. Don’t do this alone. You need the body of Christ—especially since the addict should meet with someone from that team daily for the first 30 days.

It is always loving to call someone to repentance, but we must be careful we aren’t making it all about repenting and reconciling with us, before with God.

Third, insist on the addicted person receiving medical attention. Consider having someone you trust—one of his relatives, or yourself if necessary—participate in the initial medical encounters. The doctor needs to know the truth in order to help, and left alone, the person might be tempted to deceive, minimize, or ignore his addiction issue. Remember that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).

Fourth, find help at a biblical program designed to disciple the person. A secular addiction program is likely address his issues from a “spiritual” perspective and help him find sobriety, but will be unlikely to point him to Christ. You want more for this struggling person than just achieving sobriety. You want him to discover newness of life in Christ alone, not a “higher power” of his own invention. (You can find resources—such as recommended residential and non-residential programs, training for family and friends, and articles—at www.TheAddictionConnection.org.)

In the end, if the person abandons the process, allow him to go but continue to pray. You can extend grace by offering multiple chances. But remember that grace may entail enforcing consequences or even ceasing to work with him if he persists in his addictive choices. Indeed, God may use such consequences to get his full attention.

4. How can I think biblically about addiction? Isn’t it sinful? I want to show compassion, but I’m not sure which verses to stand on.

We shouldn’t categorize people by their drug or pleasure of choice—that’s merely the outward tool they’re using (Isa. 44:9–20) or broken cistern they’re drinking from (Jer. 2:13). Far more helpful is getting to the heart of addiction. Why we sin stems from desires in the heart—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16; Gen. 3:6).

But you have a sovereign God who redeems for his glory. As this once-addicted person learns more about Christ through biblical disciple-making, he has the opportunity to find everlasting hope, true victory, and a new identity.

So, yes, addiction stems from sin. But it comes from the same root that anybody else’s sin comes from—including yours. And the good news is that Jesus Christ overcomes it all (Heb. 2:17–18; 4:14–16).

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