By Peter Law

As a Christian ministry that works with people on the margins, we see many people with addiction problems. This begs the question, “what should be a Christian response to addiction”? The church has often struggled with how to respond to people with addictions. Our way of addressing them has often been one that simply tells the person to stop doing what they’re doing. The results have often been disappointing with people falling off the wagon with alarming frequency.

But perhaps our approach has been wrong all along. Psychological research suggests it’s not the chemicals themselves that cause the problems, but that relational deficits push people towards addictive behaviour. This isn’t always welcome news, since it’s easy to tell a person to get off drugs. But it’s much harder to open yourself up to relationship with a person, but that’s probably what they most need.

This isn’t just a pious sounding theory. Secular psychologists have also identified healthy bonding as the cure of addiction. This YouTube video by In a good conversation starter about the nature of addiction and relationships. Give it a watch.

Of course, not all bonds are created equal. Some relationships enable or encourage addictive behaviour. I’m reminded of a high school friend who was trying to quit smoking. His father, also a smoker, used to badger him into smoking with him. Those sorts of toxic relationships are often more likely to reinforce addiction than to break it. It’s as we build healthy relationships with people whose overriding concern is to see us flourish, that those relationships begin can help us bring freedom from issues that hold us captive.

So what does that mean for us? It means that our response to addicts—and not just drug addicts and alcoholics, but porn, video game and gambling addicts, materialists, people with eating disorders, workaholics and every other person whose addictive behaviour is keeping them from being truly free—is not to distance ourselves from them, but to seek meaningful engagement with them. As we become friends with them in a non-condescending way that their need for their addiction may grow less. Of course there will be set backs along the way. It will be a far more costly process than simply telling them to stop would be. But Christ comes to us in relationship, offering reconciliation through God’s grace. Rather than simply telling us to do better, he offers himself. Our job is the same, becoming an embodiment of Christ’s grace to others in relationship. It’s in that place that we can truly be the embodiment of Christ in their lives.