By / Apr 18

Prior to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the opioid epidemic was the healthcare crisis that grabbed and held our attention. In the State of Tennessee, where I live, deaths related to drug overdoses increased by 18% from 2018 to 2019.12021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30 

In Wilson County, local law enforcement was speed-tracking resources and training to curb overdoses induced by Fentanyl-laced opioids. African American pastors, particularly, were conducting more funerals of congregants who lost their battle with addiction. And initiated by the county mayor’s office, a task force was established in 2018 to bring addiction awareness, education, and prevention practices to our affluent, upper-middle class community.

The COVID pandemic, however, did not curb opioid use and abuse. It merely moved it out of plain view, but only temporarily. Substance abuse and overdoses continue at alarming rates along with other mental health challenges affecting neighbors of all ages. In our community, for example, local middle school administrators are forced to call an ambulance almost daily due to suicidal or homicidal ideations from middle school students. Social-emotional challenges not only hinder a student’s ability to learn, but create a difficult environment for both students and faculty in our public schools. 

The opioid crisis is a devastating symptom of a profound spiritual, emotional, and relational  brokenness that affects far too many of our closest neighbors. Loving our neighbors, then, calls the church to move into this brokenness to both restore those already trapped by addiction and to build a robust, comprehensive disciple-making model that prevents the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction from ever beginning.

3 steps your church can take 

Consider these three steps your church can take to break your community free from the opioid crisis:

1. View substance abuse and addiction as a Great Commission issue.

Spiritual lostness produces brokenness, and too often that brokenness is called addiction. Pastor Robby Gallaty said that many pastors view people with addiction as “those drug heads.” The implication is that those who battle drug addiction exist in a separate category of humanity — perhaps a category Jesus cannot or will not redeem.

Many religious people during Jesus’ ministry viewed the lame, blind, and demon-possessed in a similar way. But Jesus made the most marginalized people in the community central to his ministry offering them both spiritual life and physical healing. 

Our Great Commission mandate means the marginalized are not marginalized in our church or in our ministry. It means we remove the stigma of addiction, and invite those who are suffering to come near. 

It means pastors preach on the subject and that our evangelism training, small group ministry, and disciple making strategy include practical help and lasting hope for every neighbor carrying all kinds of sin and brokenness, including that of substance abuse, addiction, and other mental health challenges. 

2. Respond to substance abuse and addiction in collaboration with community partners.

Local churches should be a place of healing for those who struggle with addiction, but no one church alone can provide all the resources necessary. Some churches offer a recovery program, but not all can. Some churches provide counseling, but not all can. Sometimes the need is acute, and a church is simply not prepared to provide the assistance needed.

But when churches collaborate with other church and community partners, including healthcare providers and social services, they have access to more resources that can help them help their neighbors in crisis.

Through the State of Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, for example, churches can join the network of Recovery Congregations. As a Recovery Congregation, a church agrees to be a place of help and healing. Few churches can do everything, but every church can do something, and in turn connect to other churches and local agencies that offer more specialized assistance. 

In our community, the organization called DrugFree Wilco provides awareness, education, and opportunities for churches and other community groups to serve our vulnerable friends and neighbors well. There could be similar organizations near you. 

As churches walk with people who are struggling with addiction, community partnerships allow us to serve our neighbors more effectively than we ever could alone.

3. Prevent substance abuse and addiction through an incarnational disciple-making strategy.

Much of our efforts related to the opioid epidemic are reactionary. We meet someone struggling with addiction, and we respond by giving practical help and sharing the gospel. That is the correct response, and there will always be a need for us to minister to human needs in this way.

But for long-term progress, perhaps churches can evaluate how we take on the task of disciple making. In addition to teaching the next generation already in our student ministries, perhaps we can consider efforts that prepare, encourage, and send out believers to live as missionaries among people who have not yet attended our church or the programs we offer.

As we root believers in the riches of God’s Word equipping them to make disciples, we can also incentivize them to build significant relationships with neighbors outside of our church.  

I’m honored to lead a coalition of churches working together for the transformation of our community. As we give believers the opportunity to serve in the public schools, in addiction recovery programs, in poverty alleviation initiatives, and in foster care programs, we move God’s people into the public square. These are not programs the church must manage or can always measure, but they help believers live present with people in their brokenness in order to serve, teach, and influence them to follow Jesus with us. 

This incarnational approach to disciple making is less programmatic, and more personal. It’s also less measurable in the short term, but perhaps creates long-term, sustainable transformation for our closest neighbors and in the social structures of our community. 

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    2021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30
By / Mar 18

In this episode, Jill Waggoner and Lindsay discuss the number of Ukrainian refugees increasing to 3.1 million and President Zelenskyy’s address to Congress. They also talk about substance abuse within the church, the call to foster care, and why cohabitation is a bad idea. In addition, Lindsay interviews Jill, a pastor’s wife, about church, COVID, and the importance of pregnancy resource centers. 

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  1. Axios: UN: Over 3.1 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian invasion began
  2. CNN: President Zelensky addressed U.S. Congress on Wed.

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By / Mar 18

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every family in America. Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the disease. But the problem of substance abuse exacerbated by the pandemic might be a problem that lasts longer than the coronavirus.

The pandemic — as well as related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus — aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse. For example, many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment and an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress. The result, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, is that researchers have observed increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. 

Increased abuse of alcohol

The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states and compared sales in 2020 or 2021 compared to the 2017–2019 3-year average. They found that the percentage change in sales for all alcoholic beverages peaked with a 15% increase, and sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. 

This increase in sales is reflected in the surveys on consumption. A survey sponsored by RTI International conducted in May 2020 showed overall increases in alcohol consumption, with women, people with minor children in the home, and Black Americans disproportionately increasing their drinking in the short term after COVID-19 started. Compared with February 2020, average monthly consumption in April and November 2020 increased by 36% and 39%, respectively. Corresponding increases for the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines were 27% and 39%, and increases for binge drinking were 26% and 30%.

Using the estimated 166,052,940 people aged 21 or older nationally who drank in 2019, this translates to an increase from February to November 2020 of 1 billion more drinks per month, with 14.6 million more people exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking in November 2020 compared with February 2020. 

According to the survey, the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines between February and November 2020 increased by 54% for women and by 32% for men, with more women than men exceeding recommended drinking guidelines between April and November 2020. The proportion of binge drinking between February and November 2020 also increased by 42% for women and by 32% for men. The largest increases in consumption during this period were for Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively), Black men (173%), men of other races (209%), and women with children younger than age 5 (323%). 

The percentage of respondents with mental health issues who reported drinking to cope increased from 5% in February to 15% in November, and the percentage of those who drank for enhancement increased from 6% in February to 16.5% in November. 

Increase in drug overdoses

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a reporting system called ODMAP found that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality. 

In an interview with the APA, Mandy Owens, a researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says she’s observed a spike in substance use that includes an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use during the pandemic. There also appears to be a substitution effect, as the quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions made access to certain substances such as heroin more difficult. For example, Owens says Washington state has seen an uptick in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly produced illicitly, due to a shift in drug supply availability. 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the “nation’s drug overdose epidemic continues to change and become worse.” That AMA finds that one prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.

A survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 47% of respondents indicated their substance use had increased during COVID-19, and 38% said they believed they were at higher risk of overdose due to supply disruptions that made drugs more expensive, harder to get, and of unknown origin. Seven percent of survey respondents also indicated they had relapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to find help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and provides treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), via text message at 435748 (HELP4U), or TTY at 1-800-487-4889. 

As Christians, we should be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem. We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety. Let’s pray that those who are struggling would get the help they need, find community in the body of Christ, and find freedom in the Savior. 

By / Mar 16

The turning point for me occurred at a funeral. I was holding a 4-year-old child I did not know. His mother had passed away after overdosing on a dangerous mix of fentanyl and cocaine. The family reached out to our church and asked for a pastor to officiate the funeral. I’ll never forget the young boy’s words.

“Are you going to help bring my mommy back?”

I didn’t have words for him. Only tears. 

He was placed in a foster home. Thankfully, it was one full of love and support. At about the same time as the funeral, a local newspaper headline caught my attention: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.”

Every year, hundreds of children are removed from their homes in our county. Over half of them are directly attributed to the substance abuse of parents and guardians. Most of the children removed are under the age of 5. I did not have the right words for the 4-year-old, but his question prompted me to act. I could not bring his mom back, but my wife and I could be foster parents for children in situations like his. So we got our license and began our foster journey. 

The foster system in our area is stretched thin. When licensed as a foster parent, you receive a child placement immediately. My wife and I recently cared for an infant struggling with the effects of cocaine addiction. Every drug a pregnant mother consumes passes in her bloodstream through the placenta and to the child. Babies are born addicted, and it can be a horrible experience for them as the central nervous system tries to recover.

Church members and foster care 

Foster children are one of the most overlooked and underserved groups of people in our nation. Most communities struggle to find placements for these children. Local churches in the United States have more than enough homes to solve the problem, but few Christian families are pursuing fostering. But what happens when people in your congregation start fostering children?

Your church is woven into the fabric of the community. In my role at Church Answers (a resource site for ministry leaders), I’m often asked, “How can my church better serve and reach the community?” There are many ways to answer the question, but one answer is obvious: start a fostering movement in your congregation. Caring for foster children forces you to be an active part of your community. You interact with social workers, struggling parents, judges, and police officers. Fostering weaves you tightly into the community and allows your church to be a thread pulling everyone together.  

Your church is recognized as a solution to community problems. The issues producing foster children are often the core sins plaguing a community. When people in your church foster, the neighborhood tends to view you as helpful. Foster children are the result of the worst problems in the community. Inviting them into your church homes makes you one of the best solutions for your neighbors. 

Your church is pushed outward with God’s mission. The church is not designed to be a shield protecting the Christian bubble of safety. Rather, the church is a vehicle engineered by God to send people into the darkest corners of the neighborhood. Fill your church with foster children, and your people will be filled with a desire to do gospel work. 

Your church is compelled into a posture of selflessness. I hear the excuse all the time, “I couldn’t foster because it would be hard to give the child back.” I understand the sentiment. Indeed, my wife and I live this paradox. The purpose of fostering is more than raising a child. It’s about reuniting a family. You care for children and encourage moms and dads. Fostering is a weighty burden that will bend you hard in the direction of selflessness. Is it painful? Yes, sometimes. Is it worth the stretch? Always. 

Taking a risk and doing what’s right

We see the risk and reward of caring for a child in need in the book of Exodus. When Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket floating on the Nile, she saw a baby and said, “This must be one of the Hebrew children” (Exodus 2:6, NLT). This must be one. One child saved. Imagine the desperation of Moses’ mom, placing him in the papyrus basket and letting him drift away from the safety of her arms. 

Imagine the courage of Moses’ sister, Miriam. At significant risk, she keeps watching over the basket. She is an advocate. She stays close to the crisis to help. She risks everything when she reaches out to Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine the audacity of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is part of the family committing genocide, but she becomes a person of power who uses her position to do what is right. The child in the basket moves her. A child in need should move us all to action.

There was a tremendous risk to all the women in this story, but it did not stop them from doing the right thing. What if the church looked at the foster system as a floating papyrus basket? What if the people of the church opened the basket and had the same response as Pharaoh’s daughter? Let’s not let these children continue to drift. Your home might be a promised land of sorts for them. A movement of God within your community and your church could start with just one child. How is he calling your church to step out in faith and care for the most vulnerable ones in your community? 

By / Mar 14

The stress of pandemic living seemed to exacerbate and bring to light several struggles common in our society — and even within the church. While some like loneliness were to be expected, the issue of substance abuse may have been a bit more surprising to some, especially because it’s happening among church leaders. Josh Vaughan, senior pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, has come face to face with this reality. A fellow pastor on staff confessed to an alcohol addiction, and Vaughan shepherded him and the congregation through the process of seeking help and restoration. Below, Vaughan answers questions about what Scripture teaches and how Christians can begin to respond to substance abuse issues. 

It’s important to note that the information, counsel, and path for restoration laid out below is for substance abuse and addiction and does not apply to other ways pastors might sin that may be disqualifying from ministry. In particular, this path of being restored to ministry should not be applied to sexual abuse.

Elizabeth Bristow: The issue of substance abuse is prevalent in our culture and is present in every church congregation. How do we reconcile this reality? How does the Bible inform how we should think about it?

Josh Vaughan: Addressing substance abuse in the church is something we all want to do. We know it’s there and needs to be taken care of, but very few want to start doing the work. At some point, facing the problem requires taking one step at a time. 

While the Bible does not use terms such as “addiction” or “substance abuse,” the issue that these terms describe is evident within its pages. Whether described as “folly” in Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 or as “slavery to sin” in Romans 6:12-20, the controlling power that a human can find him or herself subjected to is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the destructive pattern of addiction a new phenomenon either. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the sadly familiar progression of appeal, irrational choices, seemingly irresistible craving, and failure to change despite negative consequences. The prevalence of substance abuse in our culture and congregations should really be no surprise because it has plagued humanity across time and culture. Folly continues to cry out, and even Christians are prone to answering (Prov. 9:13-18).

In our cultural context, the Bible does provide a hopeful perspective that is desperately needed. The most common way our culture views substance abuse is through the lens of “sickness.” This view emphasizes physiological or psychological dependence as the main problem and turns to deal with these issues solely on a medical and/or therapeutic basis. Moral culpability can be minimized  or removed altogether, and consequently, confession, repentance, and the accompanying opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation can also be removed. A view of substance abuse informed by the Bible does not reject the physiological or psychological factors at play since it affirms that we are embodied beings. The Bible insists that human behavior is complex and these issues must also be viewed in light of our brokenness as moral creatures before God.

The will can be bent toward selfishness and foolishness, and when a human acts accordingly, the Bible describes this as “sin.” The Psalmist prays, “keep your servant from willful sins; do not let them rule over me” (Psa. 19:13). While it is not popular to retain the category of “sin” in describing substance abuse, it must be a central aspect of a biblical approach to these issues.. Accounting for “substance abuse” as an expression of sin provides a basis for hope. If sin is the problem and not just sickness, then there is both the responsibility to confess and repent and the possibility for forgiveness, proper help, and restoration. Both the substance abuser and the myriad of people harmed by that substance abuse have the chance to make sense of what is happening and find a way forward.

EB: Why is it hard for Christians to be open about and repentant of substance abuse and addiction?

JV: At the most fundamental level, I don’t believe that openness about substance abuse and addiction is more difficult for Christians than non-Christians. I think it is difficult for all humans to be open. The natural inclination is to hide the truth about our sin from God (see Genesis 3:8), from one another (Proverbs 9:17), and even from ourselves (Ephesians 4:17-19). Christians are not exempt from this natural inclination, yet the only hope for repentance is to first bring the problem into the open.

I do believe that pastors, ministers, and ministry leaders do find it very difficult to be open for fear of losing influence and/or even their employment. To some degree, the fear is justified in that leaders are rightly held to a higher standard by virtue of their increased influence. However, the danger of that “high standard” is that ministry leaders will not confess the early steps toward addiction such as appeal and/or experimentation and take steps to protect themselves from temptation. By the time experimentation has hardened into addiction, many other compromises have been made eroding or destroying the trust that confession is designed to preserve.

EB: When Christians confess their addiction and bring it into the light, what is the path to hope and restoration?

JV: While confession is the necessary first step toward restoration, it is only the first step. The next steps are determined by the severity and duration of the addictive behavior but could include accountability mechanisms, addiction recovery and/or support groups, and professional intervention in a rehabilitation context. Since substance abuse is often used to cover up and/or escape from other mental health concerns, professional counseling and medical help is often an appropriate step to take as well. In all of this, the most important source of hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Self-condemnation hampers all efforts at restoration for both the substance abuser and their families, friends, and church. Returning to the hope affirmed in Romans 8:1 that “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” is one of the most important practices on the road to restoration.

EB: In your tenure of pastoring your church in Waco, Texas, you’ve walked through a situation with a fellow pastor on staff who came forward with an alcohol addiction. How did you navigate this season as the leader of your congregation, and what important lessons did you learn?

JV: Years before this particular occurrence, my father-in-law gave me some leadership advice that I have returned to often in difficult management moments when appropriate. He said, “If you are going to err, err on the side of grace.” His words rung in my ears as I interacted with the pastor, his wife and children, our church leadership, and our congregation. While guided by a basic disposition toward grace, I was also keenly aware that grace requires truth telling. Before I could extend grace to the pastor, he had to decide to tell the truth about what was going on. Before the church could extend grace, we had to truthfully account for the damage done. This was a painful and uncertain process, but guided by grace and truth, we were able to navigate even the mistakes we made as we helped him.

I learned very quickly that lurking behind the substance abuse were other significant issues in the pastor’s life. This makes recovery a complicated, slow process with many ups and downs along the way. When my church was made aware of what had happened, it provided opportunity for many others experiencing varying degrees of addiction to share openly and get help. In addition, many who had been quietly carrying the weight of a family member struggling with addiction were also able to share their experience, connect with others, and know that they were not alone.

EB: What is the path to restoration for a pastor or church leader who struggles with substance abuse that your church has followed?

JV: Though it will be different for each instance, the path that we established and have used in a variety of situations includes the following four steps:

Step 1: Accountability will be provided as necessary to protect the gospel ministry, the church, and the minister involved. Accusations against a minister must be substantiated (1 Timothy 5:19), and appropriate accountability provided impartially (1 Timothy 5:21).

Step 2: Confession will be the responsibility of the minister committing the offense. The appropriate setting will be determined based on the nature of the offense and the scope of the minister’s work (1 Timothy 5:20).

Step 3: Forgiveness will be the responsibility of the church to express and to enact both verbally and relationally. The aim of the steps to restoration is both to maintain holiness in the church and a relational context for restoration. Forgiveness does not mean that consequences such as employment termination, license revocation, etc., are removed. Forgiveness allows the church and minister to begin healing and rebuilding trust.

Step 4: Restoration will require the commitment and follow–through of both minister and church. A “Restoration Plan” will be agreed upon as outlined below. Each plan will be shaped by the willingness, needs, and opportunities presented by both the church and minister.

The elements of a restoration plan may include any or all of the following:

  • Professional counseling. The minister and family (if applicable) will need focused help in addressing the presenting issue as well as secondary issues — for example, anger and bitterness — that surface related to the presenting issue.
  • Mentor pastor. A pastor not affiliated with the current church will serve as accountability and discipleship supervisor. Quarterly reports from counselor, therapist, and/or psychologist will be delivered to the mentor pastor during duration of restoration.
  • Job support. Assistance in securing secular employment for the minister will aim to provide stability for the family. Childcare and affordable housing may also be considered as part of a plan.
  • Church family. Prayer, encouragement, and a supportive Christian community will be provided by the congregation and/or a small group during the restoration period.
  • Regular review. At six-month intervals, the minister’s progress will be checked by sponsoring church leaders. At the end of two years, the sponsoring church leaders in consultation with the mentor pastor and applicable counselors will either recommend readiness for leadership service (relicensing) or further restoration steps.

The duration of a restoration plan depends on the severity of the harm done and issues related to that harm. If the circumstances involve potentially addictive substances or behaviors, the Personnel Committee (or leadership team) reviewing the specific circumstances will seek to identify one of five stages of involvement with a corresponding duration of restoration recommended.

  1. Curiosity: recommend three months professional counseling.
  2. Experimental: recommend six months professional counseling
  3. Regular: recommend one year professional counseling and a three-month suspension of credentials.
  4. Habitual: recommend one year professional counseling and an 18-month suspension of credentials
  5. Addictive: recommend two years of professional counseling and two-year suspension of credentials

EB: What is the role of the church in walking through this journey when its leaders struggle with addictions?

JV: The first responsibility of the church is to faithfully and consistently pray for their leaders whether or not there is a struggle with substance abuse present. The propensity to stumble and the attacks of the enemy are ever-present dangers, and prayer is the church’s chief resource. When an addiction becomes known, the church and its leaders have the responsibility to protect the integrity of the gospel both by providing appropriate accountability and by extending grace to the leader. This will require an exercise of prayerful wisdom to discern what response a particular circumstance will warrant. If the leader is willing to submit to accountability and repent, then the church is responsible to forgive and provide an open door for restoration. That may or may not mean restoration to a position of leadership, but it should include restoration to relationship with the church.

EB: On a personal level, what encouragement would you give to someone walking through an addiction with a close friend or family member?

JV: I would strongly encourage them to find a support group with others who are walking the same road. Al-Anon groups are available in most cities and provide a specialized support that goes beyond what caring Christian friendships can provide. The unique cycle that accompanies addiction relapse is particularly devastating to families and close friends. Without appropriate support, care can quietly turn into resentment causing even further damage spiritually and relationally.

Church members may find themselves in one of two extremes when a leader they respect has a public failing related to substance abuse: They may feel angry and betrayed, wanting to punish the leader personally (i.e., “if I did that, I would be fired”; “I’ve endured hard times, but I didn’t turn to a bottle/pills”; “he needs to feel the pain of what he’s done to this church”, etc.). Or they may rush quickly to grace to forgive and work toward restoration for the leader while skipping over a period of grieving the seriousness of the sin and its consequences (i.e., “what’s the big deal, we all sin?”; “God’s just gonna do great things [while those close are still hurting]”, etc.) What wisdom would serve these two groups well as they seek to respond biblically?

Both responses are legitimate but incomplete by themselves. The failure and harm are real, and it is right to be angry. The need for forgiveness and restoration is real, and it is right to be gracious. Only God himself is able to perfectly experience both justice and grace at the same time, and he did it at the cross of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God against sin met the grace of God toward sinners in the death of Jesus. Knowing this truth frees us from trying to do what only God can. 

Practically, this means that church members must avoid demonizing others who are responding in a way differently than they are. Our understanding about the nature of God is displayed when those who are feeling the need for justice partner with those who are feeling the need for grace to decide how to express both toward a particular person. Church members should resist only interacting with others in their camp and/or retreating from the church altogether. Both responses temporarily relieve the tension but also remove the possibility for everyone to encounter God’s presence in a transformative way through the crisis the church is facing.

I am deeply grateful for the leaders and people of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church because they remained together in the tension of both seeking justice and extending grace. Consequently, we have grown as a family of faith through a public leadership failure. What was intended for evil, the Lord intended for good (Genesis 50:20).

EB: What does lived repentance look like during the process of restoration for a church leader or member who has struggled with substance abuse?

JV: I can only answer this in a limited manner since I have not experienced this particular struggle. However, all sin has the possibility of becoming controlling. Living repentance looks like daily returning to the gospel truth that there is no condemnation for the one in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). It looks like walking in regular confession with a trusted group of Christians (1 John 1:7). It looks like replacing the old habit and response to stress with a new one (Col. 3:5,12). Ultimately, it looks like death — and initially feels like death as well (Rom. 6:6-7). Finally, it looks like a new life of joyful worship and service as the Holy Spirit accomplishes transformation (Rom. 12:1-2).

By / Nov 19

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss drug overdose deaths in the U.S., “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to prison, and religious freedom concerns with the Build Back Better Act. They also talk about National Adoption Month, showing hospitality, and preparing for Advent. 

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Culture

  1. Drug overdose deaths in the United States surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period for the first time; President Biden’s statement
  2. “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to 41 months in prison
  3. Churches’ financial status after pandemic 
  4. Religious freedom concerns for faith-based childcare and Build Back Better Act; ERLC article

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  • The Dawn of Redeeming Grace // This episode was sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Dawn of Redeeming Grace .Join Sinclair Ferguson as he opens up the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in these daily devotions for Advent. Each day’s reflection is full of insight and application and will help you to arrive at Christmas Day awed by God’s redeeming grace and refreshed by the hope of God’s promised King. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.
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By / Jul 16

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the record number of drug overdose deaths in 2020, Oliva Rodrigo visiting the White House, anti-government protests in Cuba, two religious freedom wins, and the winner of the 2021 All-Star Game. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Andrew Bertodatti with “What is life like in the U.S. for an immigrant: One man’s journey from religious persecution in Pakistan,” Lieryn Barnett with “3 ways to be intentional with your singleness,” and Heather Rice Minus with “A new documentary sheds light on reentry after prison: A New Day 1 covers the hopes and hardships of formerly incarcerated individuals.”

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  1. CDC says drug overdose deaths hit record 93,300 in 2020
  2. Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts
  3. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo visits White House to urge young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19
  4. One reported dead in anti-government protests in Cuba
  5. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, D.C. settle religious liberty suit
  6. Appeals court protects church freedom in employment decisions
  7. American League wins 2021 All-Star Game

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By / Mar 19

Honesty may be more difficult than sobriety.” I love that insightful quote from Brad Hambrick. Addictions require deception. In order to maintain an addiction, you have to become skilled at lying, representing yourself and your life in a different way. You have to become adept at hiding so that others don’t interfere, life can still be managed, and addictions still enjoyed. Of all the struggles that addicts have to overcome, learning to tell the truth is at the top of the list. Practicing truth-telling, then, becomes an important part of recovery.

The role of deception

Deception allows an addicted individual to maintain their habit. Exposure will require those who love them to intervene, take steps to help, confront, and issue consequence. But, secrecy, hiding, manipulation, and outright lying become necessary if an addict hopes to keep up the habit.

Tommy, for example, was an alcoholic. Pretty much everyone knew it, but he had developed a series of lies that kept people from being able to confront him. He missed his son’s ballgame because he had to “work late.” He said hurtful things to his wife because he was “tired from working late.” He drank a “little bit,” but that was just to take the edge off of the long day. If his wife had any compassion, then she wouldn’t have picked that fight with him when he got home. These were the sort of distractions that Tommy could throw around to keep people from talking about his alcohol consumption. He was just good enough at it that others, despite knowing he had a problem, could never find the avenue to confront him.

Self-deception is, of course, the biggest form of lying in which the addict participates. He convinces himself that he is in control. “This isn’t that big of a deal. Other people are being dramatic and blowing things out of proportion. I can stop whenever I want.” Wendy regularly used the excuse that her doctor had prescribed her pills, so they were medically necessary. She was taking more than she was prescribed, but that was a non-issue since she had a script that proved her need. 

Self-deception is a common and necessary preservation tactic for developing and maintaining an addiction. It’s not that the addict doesn’t know that there is some level of a problem, but the deception is a form of denial that allows them to keep engaging in the habit without guilt or recognizing the responsibility to change.

Deception, while common enough, will always keep people stuck in sin. Until an addicted individual is ready to take personal responsibility for their desires, attitudes, and actions, they will remain stuck. Honesty must occur, but it is hard to cultivate

The hardship of honesty

Honesty is hard for several reasons. Deception often arises from a place of fear. We don’t tell the truth because we are afraid of the consequences, we are afraid of change, and we are afraid of letting go of something that brings us comfort. Learning to tell the truth, therefore, requires confronting our fears.

Addicted individuals have often turned to substance abuse because they do not have good life management skills. When you don’t know how to manage your emotions, resolve conflict, develop relationships, or work hard, then drugs and alcohol provide an escape. They become the means by which a person “resolves” problems. Using substances to avoid addressing problems, however, simply compounds them. The consequences begin to mount up. If Bill drank to avoid dealing with his wife, his drinking often meant that he dealt with his wife in destructive ways. If Sarah used drugs to escape her failures, using only prompted more failures. The consequences are real, and honesty requires us to deal with them.

At other times, deception prevents us from facing disappointment. Change is hard, and overcoming a substance abuse problem is notoriously difficult. Many addicted individuals have tried, in small or sometimes great ways, to break the habit. Yet, every time they have relapsed. There is something unbelievably discouraging about trying and yet not actually changing. Sometimes the fear of disappointment is so great and we fear that it means we simply can’t change—we are just too broken to ever quit drugs and alcohol. So, rather than be disappointed yet again or face the supposed reality of brokenness, some individuals simply don’t try. Deception allows them to avoid hopelessness.

Finally, honesty is hard because addiction is pleasurable. The longer you indulge in a substance abuse pattern, the more your addiction dominates your life. Addicts have let go of many other healthy outlets of fun, pleasure, and joy, whether friends, hobbies, or social outings, in order to engage in drug use or alcohol consumption. Furthermore, substance abuse changes their experience of the more commonplace fun in which they used to engage. The “high” they get from using makes all other pleasure seem mundane. Being honest about an addiction means letting go of the only thing that makes them feel good. That’s how Derek felt when I first began meeting with him: “If I give this up, I am giving up the only good thing I have left.” He was scared.

Practicing honesty

Understanding these dynamics about honesty and deception allows us to begin to point beyond addictive habits to hope. God gives grace to help us face our consequences (2 Cor. 4:8-10); he gives us promises to guarantee our eventual change (Phil. 1:6); and he ensures that joy is possible as we grow in his Spirit (Gal. 5:22). But honesty is still hard and is going to require cultivation. Just as addictions formulate over time, so too can honesty become a habit as we practice it over time.

Lying can become its own “addictive” habit. Addicted individuals may find that they are so used to lying that they do it even when it serves no immediate advantage to them or their addiction. It becomes part of their routine. Likewise, honesty is going to have to be practiced. They will need to learn to tell the truth with regularity.

Jesus is the truth who sets us free from being enslaved to our sin (John 8:31-32). He call us to walk in the truth. And the Bible is clear that God hates a lying tongue (Prov. 6:17). Cultivating honesty means that we must begin to evaluate what we say and how we live according to biblical standards. The following three questions can help to serve as a grid for evaluating our statements:

  1. Is it true? In other words, is it factual?
  2. Is it the whole truth? Are you trying to leave anything out, or are you declaring the full reality?
  3. Is it nothing but the truth? Are you embellishing or adding to the facts?

We can use these questions and begin evaluating general statements we make about events. Practice it. Pick one thing that happened to you in the last 24 to 48 hours (it can be anything). Share what happened and how it made you feel, filtering the event through these three questions.

If you’re an addict, practice, this and then discuss this exercise with a friend. How did this exercise make you feel? Was any part of it challenging? Did you struggle to answer any of the three questions? Were you tempted to be deceitful in any of the three questions? How will practicing this exercise help you to be more truthful?

Do this again and again. Start with the more routine aspects of your life, describing them honestly. Cultivate the habit of truth-telling. Eventually, however, (and sooner rather than later) you want to increase the gravity of the events you describe. Progressively select events that are more important, that you would be more likely to lie about, and those with consequences. Keep practicing.

Addiction and deception go hand in hand, but you can learn to tell the truth about yourself and your problems with the Spirit’s help. By practicing truth-telling, you are already beginning to change. By continuing to do it, you are growing. Truth telling won’t solve all your problems, in fact, it may mean that you have to deal with more problems initially. Eventually, however, the truth will empower you to fight against sin and to get the help you need. Those who lie and deceive will stay stuck, but the truth will set you free.

By / Mar 18

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit sbc.net/calendar.

By / Dec 9

One of the well-known reasons people smoke marijuana is to get high and experience the reportedly pleasurable intoxication and euphoria initiated by THC. The hallucinogenic effects are even said to have positive benefits for one’s development as a person, as Motley Crüe sang in their 1994 ode to pot titled Smoke the Sky, “But through time we’ve smoked the sky . . . Compliments the senses, opens up the mind.” But is smoking marijuana a harmless way to expand the mind? Hardly. Marijuana doesn’t open the mind: Evidence indicates marijuana use can damage the brain. 

Why does marijuana affect the brain, and why does it get people high? Marijuana interacts with the reward circuit, a group of structures in the brain that are activated by rewarding or reinforcing stimuli. The reward pathway of the brain is connected to areas of the brain that control behavior and memory. The active component in marijuana that gets someone high is THC, and the brain responds to THC by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine which causes feelings of pleasure.  Smoking pot to trigger the reward circuit can be devastating to one’s life and walk with the Lord and, over time, an addiction can develop. 

All thoughts and pleasures have a biological component. God has created the reward circuit for a purpose. Because we enjoy pleasurable experiences, we are more likely to repeat actions that activate our reward system.1Matthew S. Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Feeling Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: Biblica Books, InterVarsity Press, 2010), 86.  But Christians are called to live holy lives and exercise wise management of life’s pleasures; just because an experience is pleasurable does not necessarily mean it is good. In our fallen condition, we can abuse God’s good gifts—like the reward circuit—for immoral and unholy purposes. 

Marijuana’s effects on the brain

Regular marijuana use has very detrimental effects on the brains of young people, and much of the damage is not reversible. Keep in mind that the human brain continues to develop into the mid-20s. In 2017, 6.5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 were current users of marijuana. This means that approximately 1.6 million adolescents used marijuana in the past month.2Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 18-5068, NSDUH Series H-53),” https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHFFR2017/NSDUHFFR2017.htm#illicit1. This is concerning because multiple studies using neuroimaging suggest that regular cannabis use during adolescence may lead to structural changes such as altered cortical gray matter development and reduced white matter mylenation.3Robert L. Page, II, et al, “Medical Marijuana, Recreational Cannabis, and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 142 (August 5, 2020): e14. And the effects of cannabis on the teenage brain continue after a period of abstinence; adolescent cannabis users still showed subtle neuropsychological deficits compared to nonuser after one month’s abstinence. Furthermore, earlier onset of cannabis use was also associated with decreased processing speed and executive function three years later.4A.D. Meruelo, N. Castro, C.I. Cota, and S.F. Tapert, “Cannabis and Alcohol Use, and the Developing Brain,” Behavioral Brain Research 325 (May 15, 2017): 4.  In 2017, the Canadian Psychiatric Association noted that regular cannabis use in youth “can affect aspects of cognition, including attention, memory, processing speed, visuospatial functioning, and overall intelligence.”5Phil Tibbo, Candice Crocker, et al, “Implications of Cannabis Legalization on Youth and Young Adults: A Position Statement Developed by the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s Research Committee and Approved by the CPA’s Board of Directors on February 17, 2017,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 63.1 (2018): 66.  What this means is that young people who smoke pot are damaging their ability to think clearly and make good decisions. 

Marijuana negatively affects the adult brain too, but the person who starts smoking pot at age 30 doesn’t appear to do as much damage to his brain as someone who starts smoking pot at age 15. This doesn’t mean there are no detrimental consequences for adults who smoke marijuana. One European study from 2019 found that people who used cannabis daily had an increased odds of psychotic disorder compared with never users, and the risk rose to nearly five-times increased odds for daily use of high-potency cannabis.6Marta Di Forti, et al, “The Contribution of Cannabis use to Variation in the Incidence of Psychotic Disorder Across Europe (EU-GEI): A Multicentre Case-Control Study,” Lancet Psychiatry 6 (2019): 427 – 436. The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use, potency of the marijuana product, and as the age at first use decreases.

The path to addiction

Related to marijuana’s negative effects on the brain is the possibility of addiction. One piece of urban legend about marijuana is that it doesn’t affect the brain in the same way as harder drugs, so you shouldn’t be as worried about addiction to marijuana as to alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or other illicit drugs. To be clear, the effects of cocaine and heroin addiction are more severe than marijuana. But marijuana affects the reward circuit similarly to other common drugs of abuse. It is very likely that repeated exposures to marijuana results in neuroadaptations, not only to the reward circuit, but also to downstream targets that are critically involved in the development of drug addiction.7Erik B. Oleson and Joseph F. Cheer, “A Brain on Cannabinoids: The Role of Dopamine Release in Reward-Seeking,” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Medicine 2.8 (August 2012): 10. This means the effects of marijuana on the brain are more complex and far-reaching than most people think. 

Approximately 9% of those who experiment with marijuana will become addicted. But the percentage of those who become addicted is much higher for those who start using during adolescence, with one in six teenagers who use pot eventually becoming addicted. Additionally, 25% – 50% of those who smoke marijuana daily will reach clinical criteria for addiction.8Nora D. Volkow, Ruben D. Baier, Wilson M. Compton, and Susan R.B. Weiss, “Adverse Effects of Marijuana Use,” New England Journal of Medicine 370.23 (June 5, 2014): 1, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4827335/pdf/nihms762992.pdf It should also be emphasized that the DSM V lists Cannabis Use Disorder as one of its diagnoses. 

A Christian should be a good steward of the brain God has given each of us, and a Christian’s life should be consumed by doing the Lord’s will, not being obsessed with the next high. 

Romans 13:12 says, “The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” One way we lay aside the deeds of darkness is by not smoking pot. Marijuana negatively affects the brain, and the damage done to adolescent brains is often irreversible. People do become addicted to marijuana, and Christians should not place ourselves in the position of becoming drug addicts. No one who experiments with drugs or alcohol believes he or she will experience the destructive effects of addiction. 

That’s because addiction doesn’t happen overnight, but experimentation and recreational use slowly increase until addiction becomes an all-encompassing way of life. A Christian should be a good steward of the brain God has given each of us, and a Christian’s life should be consumed by doing the Lord’s will, not being obsessed with the next high. 

  • 1
    Matthew S. Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Feeling Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: Biblica Books, InterVarsity Press, 2010), 86. 
  • 2
    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 18-5068, NSDUH Series H-53),” https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHFFR2017/NSDUHFFR2017.htm#illicit1.
  • 3
    Robert L. Page, II, et al, “Medical Marijuana, Recreational Cannabis, and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 142 (August 5, 2020): e14.
  • 4
    A.D. Meruelo, N. Castro, C.I. Cota, and S.F. Tapert, “Cannabis and Alcohol Use, and the Developing Brain,” Behavioral Brain Research 325 (May 15, 2017): 4. 
  • 5
    Phil Tibbo, Candice Crocker, et al, “Implications of Cannabis Legalization on Youth and Young Adults: A Position Statement Developed by the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s Research Committee and Approved by the CPA’s Board of Directors on February 17, 2017,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 63.1 (2018): 66. 
  • 6
    Marta Di Forti, et al, “The Contribution of Cannabis use to Variation in the Incidence of Psychotic Disorder Across Europe (EU-GEI): A Multicentre Case-Control Study,” Lancet Psychiatry 6 (2019): 427 – 436. The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use, potency of the marijuana product, and as the age at first use decreases.
  • 7
    Erik B. Oleson and Joseph F. Cheer, “A Brain on Cannabinoids: The Role of Dopamine Release in Reward-Seeking,” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Medicine 2.8 (August 2012): 10.
  • 8
    Nora D. Volkow, Ruben D. Baier, Wilson M. Compton, and Susan R.B. Weiss, “Adverse Effects of Marijuana Use,” New England Journal of Medicine 370.23 (June 5, 2014): 1, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4827335/pdf/nihms762992.pdf