What does Christian Love Mean in the Context of Addiction
Boundaries are Good
Do you have an addict in your family? They may be a shell of their former selves as the alcoholism, drug dependence or other addiction takes its toll. I understand and feel your pain. I am from a long line of alcoholics. All sides of my family have been destroyed by addiction for generations. They are still picking up the pieces today. I was far along the same path with my wife and kids when Jesus saved me. My Story – Kind of 1 and How I Stopped Drinking and 5 Powerful Spouse Evangelizing Tools . I have been the loving family member and the addict. I know how hard it is to deal with the addiction of the ones we love. It is a terrible position to be in with the one you would give anything for. It can also be terribly confusing.
How do you as a Christian love your addicted family members when they even use our best intentions to destroy themselves? How can I love someone who uses my love to hurt themselves? Can a Christian have boundaries? These are the questions that are posed often by those grappling with addiction in the family.
Sometimes the worst thing we can do for the addict in the family is to say “yes” to them. Loving an alcoholic or drug addict can look different than your expectations. It should most often be drastically unlike their demands. Loving someone with an addiction often involves doing the opposite of what they want. It may involve doing the hardest things with the hope that they open the door of salvation for the addict. It is impossible to see God while they are an addict. Their addiction is their god and they will do anything to serve that idol. Pain is one of the great teachers in life. Shielding a son, sister, daughter or spouse from experiencing it may be getting in the way of God’s work on them. I say this with a certainty that only comes with experience. Giving a person with an addiction what they want is often the furthest thing from loving. It can be the worst thing for them. God doesn’t always give us what we want. He gives us what we need.
Love Doesn’t Enable
The idea of loving selflessly is at the heart of the Christian life. Jesus came and died for you out of love. He gave everything He had so that you could be saved. His love is what set you free. So it often seems like a Christian’s response to everyone, including a loved one with an addiction, should be to give more. Give more money, more time, more food, more bail money, and more patience and things will get better. While these may seem to be loving things, they may not be. They may simply be enabling the person’s sin. Enabling is giving someone the ability or authority to do something according to the definition. Enabling addicts simply means making life easy for them so that they don’t have to choose between comfort and sin. They can choose to serve their addictions and allow those around them to feel the consequences of their sin. This never helps the addict. People need to suffer the pain their sins inflict in order to give them any hope of being saved. Enabling just helps people along the road to physical and spiritual destruction. It makes the path to perdition smoother. This doesn’t mean that refusing to enable will not be met with a strong response.
Christian Love Says No
“How could you do this to me? Aren’t you a Christian?”
“Don’t you love me, how could you not allow me to stay”
“Christians should not have any boundaries, Jesus didn’t”
These are all real quotes from people struggling with the demons of addiction in life. If you have never dealt with a loved one hooked on drugs or booze, you can miss the tremendous amounts of pain that are involved in these pleas. They are tearfully made by children to parents, by husbands to wives, and by sisters and brothers. They are expressed with pain and sorrow overflowing. The motivation of the addict may be wrong, but the emotions involved are usually very real. The person you love desperately is in a huge amount of pain and you want to do anything to stop it. It can tear your heart out. It is hard to maintain any sort of perspective when the choice seems to be hurting your loved one or “loving” them. Unfortunately, addicts in the grips of their dependency know this and use this pain to their advantage. You are standing between them and their addiction. They will use anything available to them to get you out of the way and on their side…including your faith. This is why you hear the appeals:
“A Christian would never deny me shelter while I am doing heroin, a Christian would never not lend me money that I will use for crack — how are you being loving not giving me what I want?”
God is Love and God has Boundaries
God is love and God has boundaries with us. The example for really helping and loving – for saving people – still is God. When faced with the choice of a call to love, as defined by a lost person, and refusing to enable we must look to God’s example to determine what is loving and what is hurting. We must look to God’s direction as set out in His Word. If we want to know how to love, we should look to God – He is love after all.
God has boundaries with people in both the Old and New Testaments. When it is good for them, God says no. He then often leaves people alone with their false god, their idol, to allow them room to feel the pain of it. He gives them the full truth to the extent that they understand it, allows them a choice and when they reject God’s mercy, He allows them time to experience the pain of their choice. The goal is not punishment. It is to allow their own sin and the damage it causes to change the heart that chose sin in the first place. God allows the persistent child to feel the pain of a hot stove with the hope they run away from the danger.
God Gives a Sin Addict a Choice
Saul was the first King of Israel. He starts off his time as King with much hope and promise. He is physically gifted and spiritually blessed by God. He fights battles for the Lord with great success early on. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and proudly represents God and His people to the world. He is handsome, blessed by God, and has unlimited potential to do great things in the world…until sin takes hold. Saul is not physically addicted to alcohol or drugs, but his descent into madness in the Old Testament shares many of the characteristics of addiction. Saul chooses to sin, to hold onto the sin and to choose that sin over turning back to God. Put simply, despite terrible consequences, Saul does not want to give in to God and let go of the sin that is killing him. This eventually destroys Saul completely. In an intentional irony of God, Saul goes from the mighty King of God’s people to eventually meeting his demise by falling on his own sword to kill himself. Saul’s death literally and symbolically came from his own choices.
It never had to end this way. God sends Saul wave upon waves of mercy and grace before he ever reaches this point. God wants Saul to return to Him and fulfill his unlimited potential. Like the addicts we love, God’s heart is that no man perish but have eternal life. He loves the Sauls and the sex addicts, the drunks and the users no matter what they have done. So God sends His messenger, Samuel, to tell Saul to turn around. Samuel is the prophet of God put in place to help lead the King along God’s path. He is much like a Godly parent, sibling or spouse. He is there to provide God’s guidance, love and even correction to Saul. He is like the safety bars keeping us inside the ride at the carnival. He is there to keep Saul safe. If a person is determined enough, though, those bars can be avoided and become worthless. It is impossible to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. They need to want to be healed. Pain can be the greatest teacher in this regard. I personally had to experience my own choices in my own misery to a great degree before forsaking my own addiction.
How comforting must it have been for Saul to know that he could always go back to Samuel if he needed help? Yet, God does not always provide this safety blanket for Saul. There comes a point where giving to Saul would stop being loving. The very nature of the relationship changed from helping and loving Saul and the Nation to enabling Saul in his sin. God despises sin and has no desire to help it along. He, therefore, cuts off contact with Saul and leaves him to deal with the consequences of his sin with the hopes that it will bring him to his senses.
Samuel Leaves Saul to His Choice
In 1 Samuel 15, Saul wins a great victory for God. He defeats the Amalekites in battles but as is his way, he loses himself in the process. He defeats God’s enemies but doesn’t follow God’s directions while doing so. When Samuel comes and calls him on it, Saul initially refuses to back down and acknowledge his sin. This was Saul’s destructive pattern. He sins against God and then makes excuses, justifies and gives half-hearted apologies when confronted. Saul clearly knows what he needs to do and where he has gone astray, he just does not want to do it. He loves his sin more than he loves God. He chooses his idol over God. This time it appears like this is the last straw.
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul. 35 And Samuel went no more to see Saul until the day of his death.
God withdraws Samuel from the situation. He takes away His voice and in the process removes Saul’s security blanket. This is not meant as punishment. It is not done out of cruelty. Remember, God has been speaking through Samuel to him for years. He has been showing Saul abundant mercy. God has been loving Saul from the day that he became King. Saul is simply refusing to listen to God no matter what Samuel says. There is an impasse that will only be resolved when Saul makes the right decision…to stop serving his idol. Until then, there is nothing that Samuel can do or say to change the situation. Samuel’s presence was only providing Saul and excuse for his sin and a cushion against the consequences. It was making sin easy for Saul.
It wasn’t helping. It never would. If Saul is ready to give up his sin, all he would have to do was talk to God. If he was really ready to stop, he could easily humble himself and travel to see Samuel. This would be a great barometer for his heart as well. Samuel’s departure provided Saul with a clear choice to make…idol or healing.
So God leaves Saul alone to make his decision. Just him, his sin and the consequences – this is the sort of simple clarity that makes choices for addicts easier…if they are willing. It may be painful. Saul is driven mad by the repeated choice to sin and refusing the Holy Spirit. But it is also the best and only chance Saul has to be saved. He must experience the consequences of his sin for the offer of real mercy to mean anything.
Saul doesn’t want to feel pain but he also does not want to repent. He does not want to give up what is killing him and will do anything to avoid doing so while also trying to not hurt. This is a familiar place to be for many of the addicts in your lives. They have been told they have a problem. They are experiencing painful consequences. They are experiencing some loss but don’t want to lose everything…yet they are unwilling to leave their addiction. So they choose their addiction and try to make everyone around them accommodate this choice. They desperately want the pain to stop. They truly want things to be as they once were but are unwilling to give up their idol in their addiction.
Saul takes this to an absurd degree. He enlists the sorcerer, the Witch of Endor, to raise Samuel from the dead. He does so to find a way out of his madness that allows him to keep on sinning and not give in to God. His sin became his god and he would serve it until the end. He would not give it up no matter the cost.
There are no guarantees when it comes to those struggling with addiction. It is a burden that destroys thousands every day in the world. There is also no requirement to always say no to the addict in your family. Love can also mean saying yes and putting yourself out in extraordinary ways for them. God does that for the world in Jesus. Yet, loving an addict well can mean not giving them an inch when doing so means hurting their chances of actually changing. It can mean stepping out of the way of the temporary hurts that are coming at them so they can avoid the eternal punishment that is coming. If they have been told they have a problem, have been given a clear way out, know the Gospel, and have refused to change, you can respect their choice and let them live the life they choose…pain and all. Like Saul, it is then left up to them to make a choice. Until they do, you may just be making sin easy for them. You never want to do that.
God says no when saying yes results in sin. God says no when it is good for us. God has boundaries for the good of His people. We should always follow God’s example…even when it hurts and God certainly knows how much it hurts to lose a family member.
For further reading on boundaries, I highly recommend this book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. It was life changing for me. If you are dealing with addiction, you should read this book.
Love to all,
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