Addicts: Cross Addiction is Your Only Hope

Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager

In the recovery world, cross addiction is typically considered a negative term as it describes addicts exchanging one addiction for another. For example, a heroin addict may think smoking pot is okay and begin to use it, only to find himself quickly addicted to it, needing treatment again. Other examples are less problematic from a cultural perspective, such as exchanging the comfort one finds in drugs for the comfort of food, thereby developing a food addiction. In either circumstance, the sinful desires of the heart don’t change, though the object the heart finds satisfaction in changes.

What Do the Scriptures Say About Cross Addiction?

Let’s begin by trying to define addiction from a biblical perspective. Addiction itself, like cross addiction, is about an exchange. But it’s not a positive exchange. In fact, it’s a terrible exchange, and it’s one we are all guilty of. As humans created in the image of God, we were created to worship him and find our satisfaction in him. Yet, Romans 1:25 describes an exchange of worship from Creator to created: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Put simply, rather than live out our purpose of worshiping the one who created us, we look for something else to satisfy us, making our sinful desires the driving factor that determines the object we worship. For addicts, the actual substance used varies, but the common trait is the sinful desires that drive them. To borrow a term from Ed Welch, addiction can thus be described as a worship disorder. Welch summarizes it in this way,

“Life is about God. It is about worshipping him, trusting him, knowing him, and loving him. The deepest problem for addicts is that they are not worshipping, trusting, knowing, or loving the true God. Instead, they are running and hiding from God or rebelling against him…the deeper problem is the addict’s relationship with God himself.”

This rebellion against God’s creative purpose for our life becomes an idolatrous affair against the one whom we are called to relationship with, the one whom we are called to love with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). The addict is a slave to sin, worshipping anything or anyone that promises to satisfy their sinful cravings, much like the picture of idolatry in the Bible.

But if this is the grim reality of addiction, rooted in a heart with disordered worship, how does one change from a sinful desire driven self-worshipper to a godly desire driven Christ-worshipper?

The Gospel Redeems Worship

We must first begin by pointing out that it is possible to turn from idolatry to the Lord. Paul affirms the church in Thessalonica, “…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).  Somehow, this church’s worship was completely transformed which resulted in a turning from dead idols to serve the living God. They didn’t merely exchange one form of idolatry for another, their worship was completely transformed.

When it comes to cross addiction, the recovery world is right to condemn cross addiction where only the idol changes. God is certainly not pleased with exchanging golden calf worship for Baal worship. But the church in Thessalonica did not turn from one idol to another, they turned from death to life. And in this way, the gospel goes much deeper. The gospel goes down to our dead hearts and brings life, resulting in transformed worship. 

Think about one more verse with me. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come.” I cannot count the number of times I’ve share this verse with addicts. It’s probably one of the more common favorite verses among addicts because of the hope it brings to them, that the core of who they are can change in Christ. Jesus Christ reaches down to our deepest, darkest sinful desires and redeems us from the core. When our eyes are opened to the reality of where our disordered worship leads us and sees what Christ has done, the result is a reoriented life of worship centered on the One who redeems us. Praise, gratitude, love, and devotion follow. Those are worship terms. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new worshiper, the old idols are gone and new affections have come!

The Cross and Cross Addiction

If addiction is essentially a worship disorder, then cross addiction is not only right, it is the addict’s only hope of overcoming addiction. Not the kind of cross addiction where the sinful desires don’t change, but the cross addiction that’s possible through the cross.

On the cross, Christ dies for sin so that in Him, addicts can consider themselves dead to their sinful addictions. Christ’s resurrection promises new life to those who will trust in Him. New life brings about new spiritual life and new desires. Those who failed to love God with all their heart can trust that in Christ, God will begin to change their desires and produce a love for God rooted in who He is and what He has done. In this way, the Christian message is fundamentally different than the world’s message when it comes to addiction:  We believe that our desires can, by God’s grace, change. As David Powlison rightly notes, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to transform what we want, so that we want different things.”

Addicts can change. The sickness of addiction is not beyond the reach of Christ’s loving arm. And the change that God aims is not to merely stop us from worshiping our idols, but redeem and reorient our worship around Him, the One who can and will truly and eternally satisfy us.

4 Things I've learned Counseling Addicts

By Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager

I’ve been working with addicts for the past 8 years in a full-time capacity.  As a former heroin addict, I understand them.  I love them.  But they can be very challenging.  There have been many long, tear-filled, seemingly hopeless days.  I’ve sometimes said the wrong thing, judged unfairly and worst of all, failed to act in a way that honors the Lord. And yet, God has been faithful to teach me through it all. There is nothing more encouraging than watching someone that’s completely enslaved gain freedom through the gospel. Addicts intuitively understand that life is about dependence and once they begin to experience grace, they can develop an incredible zeal for the Lord.  It is super encouraging and glorious to see! 

Here are a four things I’ve learned.

Addicts are complex

In Psalm 139, David asks the Lord to search his heart for him (Ps. 139:23-24). Think about that.   David needs help understanding his own heart. Now, consider what Jeremiah says: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can know it?” The implication is clear:  No one can know their heart!  So how much more do we need help in understanding the heart of an addict?

I can say with confidence: addicts have conflicting desires. They want to be sober but they also want to get high. They say they are committed to recovery and then use the next day. They can exhibit elements of worldly sorrow yet God is working in them patiently bringing about godly sorrow that leads to true repentance. What then, is going on in the heart? Don’t assume you know right away. Spend time with them. Listen to their story. Ask a lot of questions. And then ask more questions. Due to the complexity of the heart, they often don’t even know who they are. Help them discover the beauty of their complexity but also to discover the clarity of the One who intricately formed them and knows and cares about all the complexities and details of their lives.

Addicts need to be loved where they are  

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I just need to forgive myself.” Now if you understand Scripture, that’s poor theology. Sin is primarily against God therefore He is the offended party. Of course, the good news is that God has chosen to deal with sin by sending His Son. The issue is not whether or not we forgive ourselves, the issue is one of faith. Do we believe how God offers forgiveness or not? If we believe that God has forgiven us and removed our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), why do we need to forgive ourselves?

All that notwithstanding, I’ve learned to be slow to correct people’s theology. Yes, theology matters. But loving others where they are, bad theology and all, is important too.  I need to patiently develop relational capital before correcting someone.  

Recently I worked with a young man who was struggling with “self-forgiveness”. The first time we met he told me “I just needed to forgive myself.” I made a note and continued to hear his story. A few weeks later, he made the comment again. By now we had a good rapport and an established relationship so I pressed him.  I began by asking what was the specific sin is that he needed to forgive.   I then asked if that sin was against himself or God. He knew sin was against God and knew God offered forgiveness through Christ but had placed himself in a higher category than God. After looking at Psalms 51 & 103, this man began to see that forgiving himself was not the issue but pride and unbelief were.  He repented of not accepting God’s forgiveness and put his trust in what God said about his sin.  It was a powerful moment and almost immediately the Lord began to produce an incredible joy in him! He saw how God had forgiven him through Christ and for the first time, he believed it. I’ll never know for certain, but if I had tried to correct his theology too soon, it may not have gone so well.

Be patient in correcting an addict’s theology. Love them where they are at first, so that when you challenge their theology, they know you are doing so because you care.

Addicts need to hear the truth the Gospel demands  

I have to follow the previous point with this because we are prone to over emphasize either love or truth at the expense of the other. We meet addicts where they are but truth transforms and is what they desperately need to hear.

Consider the story of the rich young ruler.  He approaches Jesus asking how he can have eternal life. But deep within his heart is a love for money over God. Of course Jesus knows this. But Jesus responds in two incredible ways.  First, Mark tells us that Jesus, “looking at him, loved him…” (Mark 10:21). Despite the fact that the rich young ruler loved money more than Him, Jesus loves him right where he was.  But the next thing Jesus does is just as important. Jesus tells him the harsh truth of what the gospel demands.  He says, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The gospel demands all of us. We can’t love God with all our heart if we are in love with something else. As difficult as this truth is, the rich young ruler needed to hear it and so do we, addicts included.

It’s not only what Jesus says and does that’s important, pay attention to what he doesn’t do. When the rich young ruler goes away Jesus doesn’t run after him and say, “I’m sorry, if this is too difficult, I have a Gospel Plan B for you. Why don’t you start by giving away half of your money?” Jesus doesn’t change the demands of the gospel and those of us who work with addicts must follow suit. We must be direct with them when it comes to the truth. They can handle it. We can tell them the truth of their sin and the need for repentance. If they walk away sad because they think the needle is more satisfying than God, don’t change the gospel. Pray for them like crazy.  Don’t offer them an alternative, easier gospel that won’t save them. 

Addicts crave experience

I can still remember the first time I tried heroin. I snorted a line which was followed by an immediate rush and a seemingly blissful escape from life’s hardships.  The experience I had with heroin was real and it was powerful. It then became cyclical: getting high, withdrawal, searching for drugs, and getting high again.  When I came to treatment and heard people talking about God, I remember longing in my heart to intimately experience this God.  I had tried for years to be free from addiction and knew that mere knowledge of the bible or religious formality wouldn’t work. I needed to experience the Jesus that I was reading about in the gospels. I think many addicts feel the same way.  Addicts have experienced sin so profoundly they long to experience grace in the same way. The good news is, they can.

Throughout time, God has continually intervened in the lives of his people in significant ways. From Genesis to Revelation fallen people continue to experience a merciful God who didn’t leave them alone in their sin, but moved toward them despite their sin and rebellion. This divine intervention is all over Scripture. The ultimate demonstration was seen in the life of Jesus who took on humanity’s flesh, died on a cross, and rose again to save those who would believe in Him. Romans 5:8 reminds us that God intervened and demonstrated his love by sending Christ to die while we were sinners. Rather than leaving us to die in our sin, God moved toward us and continues to move toward his people today. And while an entire blog could be written on how to help addicts experience the God who moves toward them, here is one way we can help: His Word.

God’s Word is a message about himself and is the primary means by which we can know Him. In Christ, God entered into our world as the living Word. And by His Holy Spirit he left us with His written word which still speaks to us today. Think about that. God, creator of all things, has not only decided to speak to us, he left his Word with us to be digested and meditated on! Help addicts see the wondrous things in God’s Word (Ps. 1119:18). His Word is relevant to them and will be the bright light they need to find their way through the dark path of addiction.

Redemption Sings!

by - Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!  Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” – Psalm 107:1-3

Psalm 107 is one of my favorite Psalms because of how it magnifies redemption, deliverance, and the steadfast love of the Lord. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” is a call to sing in response to who God is and what He has done.

Recently, I had the opportunity to preach on this Psalm and as I prepared and studied this text, God was faithful to remind me of my own song of redemption and how glorious our redeemer is. I pray this message encourages the redeemed of the Lord to “say so” and declare what he has done.

A Story of Rebellion and Redemption

by John Leonard, Founder

This was given to Redeemer Bible Church as part of a sermon series on addiction.  We pray you find it helpful.

You probably already know my story.  It’s one we’re all familiar with.  It’s a story of rebellion…self-centered rebellion.  You see, I have a problem and it’s the same problem we all have… a worship problem.  I worshiped the counterfeit gods of my own desires rather than the one true God. 

When I was a young boy, my father was a real estate developer and got in over his head.  The Lord used the adversity of bankruptcy to bring him to Christ.  He took me to church where I was exposed to the gospel.  The Holy Spirit began to work on my heart.  I remember singing songs of praise with tears rolling down my cheeks.  One night we were praying together and I was overwhelmed by the need to be rescued.  I asked the Lord to come in to my heart and he gave me the gift of repentance.  I was overcome with joy and began to fight the sin in my life. 

I remember going to grade school and telling all the other kids about my newfound treasure.   But I failed to nurture my faith, and like the parable of the sower, my seed was sown on rocky ground where it had no soil.  It sprang up instantly, but it had no root and fell away.  Now I was a very troubled soul.  I knew the truth but refused to yield.  I started getting into lots of trouble.  I discovered alcohol and eventually drugs.  I loved the sense of ease and comfort that I got from taking a drink or a drug.  I liked it so much that I did it all the time.  It enabled me to hide from the truth…or so I thought.  Eventually I became dependent.  I had to have it or I would get terribly sick. 

This went on for over twenty years.  I ended up at a methadone clinic.  I spent four years going to a clinic every day to get my fix.  I was a slave.  One day I woke up in jail.  I was really sick and needed $150 to get out on bail.  I called all my friends and family and they thought I was right where I needed to be.  I was all alone.  There was no one to enable me anymore.  I made a decision right then and there that I was going to get sober.  The jail was overcrowded and they let me out the next morning.  With nowhere to go, I walked to the Salvation Army. 

I remember standing on a street corner in the rain talking to my dad on a payphone.  He said “son, your mother has been so worried about you that she’s neglecting me. I’ve had this infection in my nose for over a year.  It was misdiagnosed by my doctor and I just found out that its cancer.  He said… son, you’re killing me.”  That was a moment of clarity.  I began to cry.  I was 31 years old and for the first time in my life, I realized that my behavior was affecting other people.  That was it.  I had to get sober but I still refused to repent.  I was going to do it my way.  The drugs were the problem, and if I could just stop using, it would all be ok. 

It took me two years but I eventually got sober.  I went to treatment at Hazelden and moved to MN.  I worked the 12 steps and became very active in the recovery community in St Paul.  There’s power in community and it was enough to keep me sober…for a while.  But like all idols, it left me wanting.  I sponsored a lot of guys and got a job at The Retreat.  The allure of a better life and the novelty of sobriety was my motivation, but it was shallow, and after a few years I lost interest.  The spirituality of change wasn’t working anymore.  I eventually had surgery and relapsed on the pain meds.  I got really strung out and had to go back to treatment. 

By now I had a beautiful wife, a three month old son and a wonderful career.  My identity was wrapped up in my recovery and it had been shattered.  I was about to lose everything.  I was back in treatment but there was really nothing there for me.  I needed to be rescued and there was only one who had the power to do it.  I had fought the Lord long enough.  I had turned my back on Him and tried to suppress the truth with chemicals, but he was faithful and never let me go.  He pursued me and showered me with grace in spite of my rebellion.  I began to examine my life.  What was my purpose?  Why was I here?  Deep down I knew it was to glorify God, and anything short of that was going to bring me right back where I was. 

I began to focus on the cross.  I saw beauty there…the perfect act of love and mercy, and the only way I could really respond was to reciprocate with love and repentance.   It’s been over six years since my relapse.  Today, I realize that my life is all about dependence.  I’m still a slave but now I’m a slave to righteousness.  Not free from sin, but free to fight sin.  I’ve been given a gift…the gift of desperation.   I have a new motivation for change and it’s based on attraction.  Not the attraction of a better life, but attraction to the love of Christ and a desire to be with him…to please Him and to share in His righteousness. 

I’m not running away from my past, but running toward something bigger and more powerful than I am…something beautiful.  I still struggle but I’ve learned to celebrate the small but cumulative victories over my own desires.  My natural state is to drift away from God.  At any given time, I’m either headed toward relapse or growing in my faith.   There is no neutral territory.   I’m still a mess…but I worshiped my way into addiction and today, I’m worshipping my way out.  I pray that you are too.  Thanks for reading.  Praise God!