Αlmost all Christians struggle with addiction at some level. This statement may surprise you. We usually think of addiction in terms of Proverbs 23:29-30: “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine.”[1] However, if you have a smartphone, you are probably addicted to it. If you work more hours than you really should, you are probably addicted to your work. If abstaining from coffee or tea for a day or two leaves you headachy and irritable, you are an addict. If you call shopping “retail therapy,” you likely have a problem!

Now that we’ve established our common struggle, hopefully we’ve created some compassion for those believers we encounter who are struggling with more severe addictions. Addictions are serious when they have moral, spiritual, social, and/or financial consequences, and when the behavior is out of control, escalating, preoccupying and/or unmanageable (Pro 23:32-35). How do we help a believer caught in addiction?

Compassion and Accountability

Shame cannot cure addiction any more than shame can sanctify a believer. On the other hand, skirting the problem and just loving someone more is equally ineffective. We must think of helping addicts in terms of the gospel: the application of both love and truth is necessary. Simply put, the message for addicts is this: “I love you, and this behavior needs to stop.” This mirrors our experience of God’s love and echoes His call to repentance and deeper faith in Him.

Similarly, the loving acceptance of a struggling believer by another believer when the sin of addiction is confessed (Jas 5:16) can be a tangible, powerful experience of how God has loved us while we were yet sinners (Rom 5:8). Yet you must pair compassion with accountability; confession and verbal repentance are not enough. The addict must be compelled to take full responsibility for their sin, its impact on themselves (and likely on others as well), and for their pursuit of deliverance from the addiction.

Breaking Through Denial

It is not uncommon for addiction to be a well-fortified problem in a person’s life. They may cover it with lies and deceit, and certainly will obscure it with secrecy. For this problem to be resolved, it must be brought into the light (Joh 3:20) with at least one other believer, and certainly before the Lord as well.

Unfortunately, excuses are often made, and we who love the Lord and His people are sometimes too quick to receive them: “It just happened once,” or “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” or “I’ve confessed it and dealt with it.” Denial is a symptom of addiction, not a signal that it has ended. When you become aware of a pattern of addictive behavior accompanied by denial, Matthew 18:15-17 sets the groundwork for escalating intervention until the addicted person is ready to fully confess their sin and own their responsibility to pursue sanctification.

The Roots of Addiction

Well-established addictions have deep and complex roots in the body, soul and spirit of the believer. Even though the behavioral evidence of addiction may be sinful (e.g., drunkenness from alcoholism), the addiction is much more than a repetitive sin. An addicted believer has probably already obeyed the instruction in 1 John 1:9 to confess many times before reaching out for help. Consequently, a more in-depth solution than just confession is required.

Think of addiction as a carnal coping mechanism for the wounds of sin. These may be self-inflicted wounds from their own poor or sinful choices or wounds derived from others’ sin. Addiction is an attempt to numb or distract themselves from the pain they feel due to these wounds. But it is Satan’s painkiller, not God’s, so it deceitfully promises analgesia and may even provide a fleeting panacea, but it only leads to more and more dependence on self and the addiction. This is how the addict yields their members to the service of sin until it so reigns in their body that they obey all its desires (Rom 6:12). Of course, it does not work; any carnal attempt to deal with sin will only lead to more carnality and sin (Rom 8:8). And the law (our attempts to do good) is insufficient; the addict knows that “the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom 7:19-20). Like Paul, as he comes to the nadir of his struggle at the end of Romans 7, the addict cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v24).

Levels of Care

If an addicted believer is to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4) and be “set free from sin” (v7), he or she must very carefully learn to “present [their] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v19). Where we often struggle in our supporting roles is in understanding how complex and challenging a task it is to make that presentation of our members to righteousness.

In many cases, an addict who brings their problem into the light through the simple act of sharing with another believer may find themselves delivered from the bondage of addiction. Having another believer come alongside with compassion and accountability is sufficient to help them become sober-minded and find deliverance through Jesus Christ, and specifically, through His love shed abroad in the heart of this other believer.

However, in other cases, confession and brotherly love are not enough. The general rule of thumb in helping addicts is that if they are not achieving sobriety, we must increase the level of care until they are.

Most will find that weekly or regular sessions for some time with a Christian addiction counselor is sufficient (Pro 20:5; 1Ch 27:32). If not, in many areas there are biblically solid intensive, or even inpatient, programs available. These more immersive experiences can help when the roots of addiction are profound and other attempts to break the bonds of addiction have failed.

Regardless of the level of intervention required, our ultimate hope is found only in Jesus Christ. He is the One who came to “heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and … to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luk 4:18 NKJV). Effective helpers will always point sinning saints back to Christ as they support, encourage and exhort them.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.