I was addicted to drugs at 18 years old. I started developing an addiction at 14 and had a daily habit by 15. When I was 18, I began working for a guy at a mall kiosk who was a Christian. Through many conversations, he would seek to convince me why Christianity was true. For a year, I was very hostile to the conversations. At a time when I was very depressed and wanted some kind of relief, I finally, readily agreed to read the Bible. He suggested that I read Matthew because it was the first book of the New Testament. So I read it, God opened my eyes to his saving grace, and I became a Christian.
Very soon after this, I met my neighbor on less than ideal circumstances. I was still battling drug dependence. I was at a very low point when, under the influence one night I decided to leave my house to get food. I bumped into a neighbor's car while backing out of the driveway and left significant scratches and a large dent. The next day he came to the house and said something like, "I believe a car from your house has hit my vehicle. I am going to hold it over your head until you either come to eat dinner with my family or until you come to church with us." Of course, I quickly agreed to go to church!
What could have been the start of a bumpy relationship, through God's grace—and my neighbor's—was the beginning of a great friendship. He soon became my pastor and the one I sought for help during my addiction and he counseled me in four important ways that eventually led to my freedom from drug dependence. I hope you find them as helpful as I did.
4 ways my pastor counseled me
1. A gospel hope
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
My pastor was gripped by this truth. He knew that faith in Christ brings a new power—the power of salvation—and with it the power of eventual recovery. While I knew Christ at this point, I still needed to "lay aside the old self." My pastor often counseled me toward this end. He taught assiduously what it meant to be a new man in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), often reminding me that because Christ went to the cross for me, I can come to him at the cross for relief and freedom (Col. 1:13-14). Over time, I found a new desire in the gospel.
For some, the fight against temptation may last a long time, perhaps a lifetime. Christ brings a daily hope when this is the case for us, whatever the temptation may be. We possess his righteousness by faith (2 Cor. 5:21) and have the promise of forgiveness when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9). Furthermore, there’s a day fixed in history that we will see Christ and all our sin and temptations removed from us. We will be free to enjoy him uninterrupted by our sin (1 John 3:2).
2. A gospel response
How do we respond when we fall?
This is one of the most important things I was counseled on. I knew how to fall back into sin, but my pastor taught me how to fall into the gracious, restorative arms of a loving Father. He would often quote Tim Keller: "The gospel is this: you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, but more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope."
I learned to not to be surprised or feel the need to seclude myself when I sinned. Once I recognized that I am "more sinful and flawed" than I ever dared believe, this brought a readiness for repentance. I also realized that since he fully paid for my sin and now fully accepted me based on his merits, I could freely confess and repent without fear of him rejecting me. Thankfully, I always found this same acceptance from my pastor, which led me to believe his counsel and seek his help without hesitation.
3. Avoid triggers
Before I became a believer, I had built my life around drugs.
I would work jobs that likely wouldn't require a drug test, made friends that I could do drugs with, and established hangout spots for doing drugs with others. My pastor started asking me, "What are triggers for you? What tempts you to want to use drugs again?" He would also help me strategically think through ways to avoid them. Obviously, this meant an entire lifestyle change for me. As much as I wanted to stay in touch, it meant I had to dissociate with my old friends for a long time. I had to move out of the house I was in because I associated it with drugs. It involved a new job, new sleep patterns, and even new music.
I was grateful, however, to begin a new pattern of life. I got a new job with higher standards and a new house with no reminders of my old habits. Most importantly, I was amazed at how growing satisfaction with the love of Jesus caused my old temptations to lose their power.
4. A gospel community
Similarly, he taught me to live in the context of community.
He would say, "You can expect failure if you're cutting yourself off from the means God uses to produce real life change." Of course, as Christians, the church is that means. We find this exhortation in Hebrews 3:13, "But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." God used this in more ways than I could have imagined. He graciously built mutual accountability within a believing community. My pastor taught me the value of humility and honesty and the necessity to confess my sins to fellow believers (James 5:16). The wisdom and power of God to heal us from our sin through confession is astonishing! On the contrary, to remain in our sin while silent is a dangerous thing: sin grows in silence like mold grows in moisture.
There were also many times I felt particularly allured to drugs but had fellow Christian brothers I could run to instead. God was gracious to me; he gave me many brothers who made themselves available to me no matter the time of day (or night). Often, redirecting my temporary desire for drugs toward spending time with believers gave me enough grace and strength to get through the temptation for the day. Compiled over multiple days, weeks, and months, this meant eventual freedom from the desire altogether.
When freedom comes slowly
Recovery often happens more slowly than one would wish and in fits and starts. Many people might even say that it never comes entirely. As Christians, we should take this very seriously. God has not created us as disembodied spirits; we are physical beings, just as much as we are spiritual. It’s vital that we find ways to address both.
Some drug addictions, from a physical standpoint, can have such harmful effects that medical treatment may be required. They can also permanently alter the way someone's brain functions. For example, people naturally have dopamine in their brain that controls the mood, emotions, and levels of pleasure experienced. Most drugs increase dopamine levels artificially, creating the euphoric effect. The brain then naturally recognizes a high level of dopamine and lowers the amount it produces to compensate. Sometimes this can be a permanent effect. Thus, the result can be an inability to find natural things and everyday life pleasurable anymore. Drugabuse.org reports, "This is why a person who abuses drugs eventually feels flat, lifeless, and depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable." When individuals experience this, it makes relapse more likely. When we seek to counsel someone through drug addiction, therefore, we must remember this crucial physical component.
When a person has struggled with drug addiction for a long time, it can feel like an uphill battle—one that feels impossible to climb. Yet, this is precisely the one whom Christ has come to save. He has endless compassion for this person, and we need to remind them of that repeatedly. A constant craving for drugs may be a "thorn" in a believer's flesh, but God's grace is sufficient, "for [his] power is perfected in weakness." As a believer struggles through this, it can be easy for him to be filled with guilt and shame, but Christ offers the same powerful hope to him and all believers—the hope of his righteousness given through faith. It is important, likewise, to remind one another that "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 8:1).
God has provided multiple means for our flourishing, whether it be spiritual or physical. For the spiritual, he's provided his Word, prayer, and the church. For our physical flourishing, he has provided medicine, medical professionals, including psychiatrists and psychologists. It is essential to utilize all the means of grace God has provided us with, especially when it comes to drug addiction.
All of us, regardless of what we struggle with, can take comfort in the fact that Christ sets us free from "the domain of darkness” and removes us from sin's power (Col. 1:13-14). I hope my story reminds you that "[God's] divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence" (2 Pet. 1:3). May we encourage and counsel one another toward that end in whatever battles we face.
Though we may not experience full and final recovery or victory in this life, Christ’s resurrection and coming return promise sanctification to us in full. We will have our fallen bodies and minds made new and morally pure. As 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” At the sight of Christ, our previous desire for sin will be instantly obliterated and replaced with fulfillment in the fullness of pleasure he gives us (Psalm 16:4). Our longing for this promised future offers us the joy we may revel in now.