3 things I’ve learned from pastoring addicts

March 23, 2018

When I entered into seminary I had plans for my ministry career. I was going to preach lots of exciting sermons and pastor a growing church. Admittedly my plans weren’t very detailed and were simplistic and naive, but nowhere in my mind was the idea of working mostly with addicted individuals.

Over the last 10 years, however, God has given me more opportunities to work directly with those who are struggling with some kind of life-dominating addiction. As much as I believe God has used me to be helpful, working with addicts has also taught me much. In working with addicts I have learned nuances about the power of confession, the significance of community, and healing of the gospel.

It’s not, of course, that I didn’t already know about these three things. I’ve read my Bible and been part of church for many years. I knew that confession and community are both important, and I certainly knew about the healing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, in working with addicted individuals I began to see these truths in new light. I began to experience them afresh. As I watched lives both changed and ruined, I began to appreciate in deeper ways the significance of these three elements.

The significance of confession

Confession, for example, is one of the key ways that we find help and hope in the midst of our struggles. James tells us that healing and confession of sin go hand in hand. So, he writes:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)

The apostle draws a line from confession to healing through the prayers of others. As we confess our sins, we expose it, rob it of some of its power, and amass a team of people to come to our aid. We invite others to help carry our burdens (Gal. 6:2), and we especially elicit their prayers on our behalf. Healing can come, then, as people pray with and for us.

I saw this principle at play in life after life as individuals began to own the reality of their sin and ask for help in fighting their addictive habit. Confession is not something that the church does well. We tend to feign righteousness Sunday after Sunday. If everyone wears their metaphorical “Sunday bests,” then we will too, and so sin continues to live in the dark where it grows and spreads.

Often, however, the addict can’t really hide his woes. You can only live with an addiction for so long before it starts to eat at your whole life, and then people begin to notice. So, many are learning to simply shoot straight. I hate it that one of my friends tells me frequently of his relapses. But I love that he doesn’t run and hide when he falls. I love that he just tells me the truth: “I used heroin again last week.” He doesn’t pretend like everything is fine. He doesn’t deny it. He doesn’t even offer up excuses. He just tells me the truth and asks for help. Of course, not everyone is like my friend, but I am witnessing the power of confession as guys give up the pretense, stop playing at holiness, and truly seek help that can lead to lasting change.

We can be a holier church, in fact, if we stop pretending that we already are one.

There is immense power in confession. If we can be honest with one another, we too can change. If I can admit my own sin, my own selfishness, my own sinful habits that keep me stuck, then I can grow just like my brothers in our recovery program. If more members of the congregation will share their struggles with one another, we will be healthier. We can be a holier church, in fact, if we stop pretending that we already are one.

The importance of community

I’ve learned a lot about the importance of community, too. “Community” is such a buzzword these days. Everybody desires it, wants to talk about it, write about it, and promote it. Committing to it, investing in it, and working for it, however, are not as exciting. We all like the idea of community, but the moment it isn’t convenient for us, we quit. So, we love to join small groups, but when the kids have extra-curricular activities, or when we’re just too tired, or when we want to watch the football game, then we don’t go to meetings. We want friends, until friends ask us for help in ways that we are reluctant to provide.

Addicts, however, don’t have the luxury of shunning community. If they really want to change, they have to stay connected. And they have to invite others into the nitty-gritty details of their lives. It is a sad truth that in AA one can sometimes find better community than you can in the church. With recovery programs, you often get connected to a sponsor who is available 24/7, invests in your well-being, counsels you constantly, and holds you accountable.

In church, we are often left to fend for ourselves. But change is a community project. We need each other if we are going to grow. It’s not optional, and it must be a priority. Plenty of addicted individuals pull away from community and run from accountability, but those that change know that it happens because they have connected with others and invited them to speak into their lives. It’s a compelling example and a strong rebuke to the independent lifestyles that so many Christians insist on maintaining.

The power of the gospel

Finally, through working with addicts I’ve seen the healing power of the gospel in fresh light. The gospel is always the hope of change, and yet in working with addicts I’ve seen the gospel truly change lives ruled by destructive habits. Most of the men and women I work with have tried to get clean and sober. In fact, they’ve often tried many times and many different things to help them overcome their addiction. Yet, they rarely achieve victory. Research shows, however, that religious belief adds an element to recovery that may be a key to success. Three authors, writing in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, said this:

Nonetheless, a growing body of empirical research supports the notion that religiousness and spirituality may enhance the likelihood of attaining and maintaining recovery from addictions, and recovering persons often report that religion and/or spirituality are critical factors in the recovery process. (Alexandre Laudet, Keith Morgen, and William White. “The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems.” Alcohol Treatment Quarterly. 24:1-2. 33-73. 2006.)

The gospel, in particular, is the power to change. I have seen men who for decades were in bondage to addiction finally break free as they encounter the living God and the hope of the gospel through Jesus Christ. It’s not a simple formula, and they still had much work to do in the process. Yet, knowing that Christ offered them forgiveness, healing, and help made a huge difference in their lives. The gospel changes people! I’ve not only experienced it personally, but I’ve seen it in the lives of men and women who thought they could never attain it.

I’ve learned so much from working with addicted individuals. I’ve been reminded of great truths and seen them deepen in their implications and applications. Working with addicts is indeed a “high calling.” But as much as I believe God has used me to be helpful, I’ve also benefited greatly from this ministry myself. They, too, have been my teachers—which reminds me of Galatians 6:6. Here, Paul instructs that the one who is taught is also to share with the one who teaches. Many of my brothers and sisters struggling with addictions have, in fact, shared with me.

It wasn’t part of my plan, but I am grateful to get to be involved in this type of ministry.

This article originally appeared here.

David Dunham

David serves as pastor of Counseling and Discipleship at Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Detroit metro. He is the author Addictive Habits: Changing for Good (P&R, 2018), and co-author of Table for Two (New Growth, 2021). He earned his M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24