Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager
Relapse is an unfortunate reality of recovery ministry. When a loved one relapses it crushes us. We wonder if they will have the willingness to seek help and sometimes even doubt they will ever be free. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen so many people relapse that I’ve lost count. Like any sin, falling back into addiction is rooted in the heart and there are often noticeable patterns of behavior. The following are some of the external patterns I’ve noticed leading up to a relapse. While not an exhaustive list, my prayer in providing these is that we would notice the warning signs in our loved ones before they return to their addiction so that we would move toward them in love and wisdom.
1. Drifting away from community
There are over 50 “one another” passages in the Bible describing how the body of Christ is meant to treat one another. This indicates that the Christian life is intended to be relational. Nowhere does Scripture call us to live independent lives. It’s just the opposite. In fact, when God saves us, he doesn’t just save us from sin, he also saves us into Christ who is the head of the body, the church (Col. 1:18). We are saved into the body of Christ and we are meant to live in community with other believers in the body. The primary way we enjoy community is through the local church. When those in recovery begin to drift away from the church and isolate, they are pushing against God’s design for their Christian life and any time we push against God’s design, sin is crouching at the door. Being in community is a means of grace in which God encourages, corrects, and helps us walk out our life in Christ. Pulling away from supportive community will either lead to isolation or a return to old friends, both of which are almost certain signs a relapse may be coming.
2. Spiritual disciplines fade
Biblically, addiction is a worship disorder rooted in the heart. Redemption for the addict therefore is reordered worship centered on God that is grounded in gratitude for what He has done for us in the gospel. This reordered worship results in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matthew 22:37). One of the ways we cultivate love for God is by spending time with him through reading the Bible, prayer, fasting, and serving. These disciplines are part of the renewed worship God desires to produce in us. When the spiritual disciplines fade, we are forsaking means of grace by which we know God better. And as human beings created to worship God, we are always worshiping something. We are either worshiping God or someone/something else. Not spending disciplined time with God by means of spiritual disciplines can be an indication that something else has crept into the heart.
3. Dishonesty (Keeping Secrets)
One of the more noticeable effects of the fall is our natural inclination to hide. Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves in an attempt to cover their shame and they tried to hide from God. Addicts who find freedom through Christ, like any Christian, experience the joy of being fully known and fully loved by God because God saves them while they are still sinners (Rom. 5:8). Walking in the light, the addict, now redeemed in Christ can be completely honest about his past addiction and current struggles. When Christians with a history of addiction revert back to patterns of dishonesty or keeping secrets they are hiding something. By the time others notice, it could very well be the shame of another relapse that they are hiding. Regardless, if you catch a brother or sister in a lie, sit down with them and have the difficult conversation. Try to create a loving space where they feel comfortable to let you in and tell you the truth about what is going on in their life. For recovering addicts, walking in truth must be a commitment they make and are held accountable to.
4. Not following their recovery plan
Most treatment centers require residents to develop a plan upon completion of the program. Whether it be a relapse prevention plan or just a basic recovery plan of non-negotiable commitments, continuing care is important. It’s one of the ways we hold people accountable as they transition out of treatment. We should be encouraging Christians to develop plans with wise counsel and to commit them to the LORD (Proverbs 16:3). In our experience, when people are willing to take direction and follow their plan, they stay out of trouble. But what happens when people stop doing what they committed to? Obviously, life is hard to anticipate and sometimes God himself wants to change our plans. When someone fails to follow through it doesn’t necessarily mean that relapse is near but it can be a red flag and should be addressed. Addicts can be very manipulative so when plans change don’t be afraid to question their motives and hold them accountable.
As I mentioned, these are just a few of the external warning signs I’ve noticed over the years. There are also things to look for on a heart level such as irritability, discontentment, resentment and a lack of gratitude. Perhaps that is another blog. May this list better prepare you as you walk alongside your loved ones.