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.