How Do We Talk About Addiction Faithfully?

We help nothing when we ignore the epidemic of substance abuse in our churches.

people collaborating around a table

As I consider the topic of how to talk about addiction faithfully, my first thought is, “We do not talk about addiction faithfully. This is part of why addiction is such a problem.” 

Accidental overdose now kills more than 100,000 people per year. This is about the seating capacity of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; and yet, we do not talk about it in the church. 

So many dying are young people with bright futures who were not trying to kill themselves. Like so many kids before them, they experiment with drugs; but drugs today are illicitly laced with fentanyl which overwhelms the system and snuffs life out quickly. These unintended and unnecessary deaths leave families and communities devastated with grief to last a lifetime. 

But we do not talk about it in the church.

In addition to these innocents, more than 500,000 others a year die from alcohol, tobacco, and miscellaneous drug misuse. That is well over a half a million people each year unintentionally and unnecessarily deceased. This is an astounding statistic

And we do not talk about it in the church.

Addiction is an astounding phenomenon. Part of its cunning lies in how we ignore it, also known as denial. A television commercial about addiction once featured an elephant sitting in the middle of a family room, with no one aware. When someone comes in and asks about the elephant, the family members say, “What elephant?”

A problem of biblical proportions

Ignoring substance abuse is nothing new! There is a fascinating story in scripture that illustrates this dynamic, a story they do not usually teach in Sunday School or preach from the pulpit. It is a short story, only seven verses long and easy to gloss over, but it is full of fascinating insight. It is the story of Noah and his family after they come out of the ark in Genesis chapter 9:

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
    lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem,
    and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
    and let him live in the tents of Shem,
    and let Canaan be his slave.” (Genesis 9:20-27 NRSV)

What is the lesson here? Two out of three involved do not want to look at the issue. The one who does point it out gets into massive trouble. This is consistent with how it also works in the 21st century. In one congregation I served, a small group of parishioners began telling lies about me and did all they could to run me out of the church because I wanted to talk about addiction. It is dangerous work pointing out the truth. 

Here I am, send me! 

The church is uniquely positioned to address addiction for several reasons. One, we Christians believe that God sent his only son, himself scorned, beaten, his life snuffed out too soon; to redeem the sins of the world. The cross is about new life. 

After 36 years of personal recovery and 20 years as director of the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy, I have heard countless stories of those who in their struggles looked to the church for help along the way but walked away disappointed. The church is one of the first places people turn to for help when they are hurting. The church has a big hole in the net and the fish are getting away. So many lives would be saved if the church took on this issue and began offering some help.

Studies show that addiction recovery is most successful when a spiritual component is present. Because of our human nature, we seek substances, relationships, and activities outside ourselves to change the feelings we have inside ourselves. The only way we can change our insides is with God’s help. 

Other reasons that faith communities are in a strong position to help with the addiction crisis are practical. We understand spirituality and grace. We understand the accompaniment of one another on the journey. Most congregations already have a handful of silent recovering people who would gladly help the church spread the message of hope and be there for those addicted. What if we began to empower and deploy them as ambassadors of hope?

How do we do it? Step 1

So how do we talk about addiction faithfully? Like our friends in 12-Step recovery, we begin with the first step and that is to admit we all suffer from it, in one way or another, and we are all powerless to make it go away by ourselves. We need God’s help to be set free from what binds us in shame. 

Isn’t this what we say when we confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves? We are telling God—and each other—that the things we say, think, and do, are wrong, and yet we cannot seem to stop, but need God’s help. 

You do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to suffer from addiction. Addiction takes many forms. What are you “addicted” to? What do you rely on to change the way you feel? Most clergy are addicted to work. Relationships? Often clergy have trouble with codependency. Is it food that we turn to for healing or caffeine to keep going? So many clergy have this problem. Or maybe it’s exercise, or shopping, or the internet, or gambling, or pornography, or, or, or … What is it you keep doing, saying, or thinking that you just cannot seem to stop?

The issue of addiction goes deeply to the core of who we are as human beings and our relationship with God. It goes to the core of sin and redemption. Until we understand this and learn to talk about it from the perspective of understanding our own part in the problem, we will never be able to help those who suffer dangerously. 

Your turn

Next, become willing to learn more about addiction, how it works, what it does. Society today is permeated with myths and stigma surrounding addiction. Only the truth sets us free. The following suggestions may help you get honest: 

  • Attend the annual Addiction & Faith Conference coming up at the Hilton Airport in Bloomington, Minnesota October 6-8, 2022:
  • Visit for inspiration, information, and tools for how to do addiction ministry. 
  • Read Addiction Nation by Timothy McMahon King; lead a book group with the accompanying study guide, and you can even invite the author to join you by Zoom!

The elephant in the room

We clergy in recovery from addiction find it astonishing that our seminaries do not seem to understand addiction better and teach about it more. We are saddened that our colleagues are not better informed,  but we understand. Ignoring the elephant in the room is biblical. Elephants and addiction can be frightening. Most want to “avert their eyes, walk backwards and cover it up.” 

A popular hymn comes to mind, and so I invite you: Be not afraid. I go before you, always. Come, follow me. And I will give you rest. 

  • Ed Treat

    Rev. Dr. Ed Treat has served four parishes in 25 years and now works to develop the Center of Addiction & Faith. He is the director of the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy and is the author of the book, The Pastor, a work of fiction about a recovering pastor who solves a murder in his congregation. He lives in Minnetrista, Minnesota, with his pastor wife, Karen, and new Woodle puppy, Lena. They have four adult children, all graduates of Lutheran colleges, a new granddaughter, and a grandson on the way.

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