Gospel Hope for an Epidemic
Image by Emilian Danaila from Pixabay
by: Mark Shaw
An incredible number of 64,000 accidental overdose deaths occurred in 2016 in the United States of America. To put that number of souls in perspective, more American people accidentally died in one year due to addictive behavior than died in the entire Vietnam War. Another startling statistic is that the estimated cost since 2001 of the opioid epidemic alone (not including other drugs) is one trillion dollars and it is estimated to cost $500 billion in the next 3 years. What many view as a hopeless problem draining society should be viewed by the Church body across the world as an enormous opportunity to point people to the hope of the gospel and Jesus Christ.
One so-called solution that is gaining popularity is called “medication-assisted treatment” (MAT). Methadone is the most common drug utilized as an opiate/opioid replacement and is usually provided through a treatment clinic and prescribed by a physician. Methadone is a schedule II narcotic with a high abuse potential due to its long-acting pain relief properties. There is also a high physical dependence liability and very painful, long-standing withdrawal effects when one decides to detox from the medication. Communities like Lafayette, Indiana are starting methadone clinics to battle the opioid epidemic, arguing that methadone as a replacement for heroin and prescription opioids is a viable solution to reduce the accidental overdose rate.
My Firsthand Experience
Many years ago, I worked as the director of a methadone clinic and saw firsthand how inept that so-called solution truly is because it lacks heart change. During my tenure there, I counseled only two persons out of several hundred (less than 1%) who successfully detoxed off of the drug and maintained sobriety for at least six months afterward. I also know these clients did not hear an eternal, gospel-centered message in this program. They weren’t taught about the idolatry of addiction, so they were never led to confess their sin, cry out for forgiveness, repent, and place their faith in Christ for eternal life (Prov. 28:13).
The positives were that methadone intake was controlled by the clinic (though they could buy it from the friends they met waiting in line at the clinic). Drug tests were a deterrent to some extent, keeping a few clients motivated not to use illicit drugs, though that was not the norm. As a medication, methadone covered up opioid highs. If an addict tried to use heroin, he would not feel it. Counseling was offered, though it was not biblical.
The negatives were that methadone did not prevent the client from experiencing highs from marijuana, benzodiazepines, cocaine, amphetamines, and the like. Because the usual high from an opioid drug could not be experienced while on methadone, most addicts used other non-opioid drugs to feel a high since using opioids was a waste of money, time, and energy. It was not uncommon to have clients overdose and die while on the program because their physical hearts could not withstand the power of cocaine and marijuana mixed with methadone.
Detoxing off of methadone is extremely painful due to the longer half-life of the drug, resulting in effects that last much longer than withdrawing from an opioid. The plan of the majority of methadone clinics is to keep the addicted person on the drug for the remainder of his or her lifetime. Detox is not really encouraged, which makes sense because that is consistent with the beliefs of the addiction counseling world at-large. If addiction is a life-long, progressive, and fatal disease that is never overcome, then here is the thinking: “You are an addict; you will be an addict; methadone is your solution; why detox?” However, when counseling many addicts at the methadone clinic, I used a heaven – hell – purgatory analogy to encourage detox. Their treatment at the methadone clinic was likened to the concept of “purgatory.” Being on methadone was better than the “hell” of living on the streets shooting heroin, but it was worse than the freedom of “heaven” which I likened to being drug-free (which pales in comparison to the real heaven, please understand). My point was that methadone did not offer true freedom, so I would encourage them to detox. Few did.
With that background experience and with very few viable secular solutions on the horizon, I have become much more passionate about training and mobilizing the local church for the work of ministry through biblical addiction counseling. I have seen many deaths due to addiction. I have observed incorrect theology taught dogmatically in most treatment and rehabilitation programs where participants are pointed away from the local church, away from the true gospel, and away from Christ (Col. 2:8). These things grieve me. Secular treatment programs are not neutral since 93% of them embrace by “faith” (not by science) the disease concept of addiction and its self-help ideas. At the end of the day, this is an issue of belief, not an issue of fact (though they present their beliefs as factual and scientific).
Two Spiritual Approaches
Behavioral change (which is the only goal of secular rehabilitation programs) might prolong physical life temporarily, but it usually is short-lived as many revert back to their drug of choice. Christians should be concerned with more than just sobriety as a goal! There will be plenty of clean and sober souls in hell. I’m sure my readers already know this, but Jesus Christ is the only answer, the gospel is the only true message, and the local church is the only community who has what the addict is longing for – enduring hope, eternal purpose, and genuine relationships! I would much rather send an addicted person to a local church with solid biblical counseling than to a secular rehabilitation program. Both programs will teach the addict that addiction is a spiritual problem! One will teach that any god will do and label that god of personal choice a “Higher Power.”
The other will teach that only Jesus Christ the Lord will do (John 14:6) and that He is sufficient for transformation in this life (Rom. 12:1-2) and promises everlasting life to all who believe (John 3:16). These are significant distinctions in the two spiritual approaches! Church, we have an urgent and incredible opportunity here to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to hurting souls struggling with sins of an addictive nature.
Local Church Training
Thankfully, there are some very good gospel-centered, biblically-based programs that exist. I have been systematically networking with faith-based addictions outreach programs across the country for many years, and I am eager to share with you what I am seeing. We have re-launched a 10-year-old ministry called Truth in Love Ministries so that I can be available to train local churches to creatively reach out to addicts and their families. Visit our website at www.histruthinlove.org to see upcoming training dates in your area or to contact us about providing training in your church. With the world crying out for help and believing that addiction is a hopeless, lifelong disease, the Church has an opportunity to glorify the God of the universe, who is still on His throne and transforming lives by His amazing grace.
Questions for Reflection
What is your church doing to reach the addicted community? How is a biblical approach to addiction different than a worldly one? Why does it matter?
 Greg Allen, “Cost of U.S. Opioid Epidemic Since 2001 is $1 Trillion and Climbing,” last modified February 13, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/02/13/585199746/cost-of-u-s-opioid-epidemic
 This is NOT an endorsement of belief in purgatory but an analogy. I do not believe purgatory is a real place because I do not find it ANYWHERE in the pages of the Scriptures!
TAC Staff Note: This article was originally published at BiblicalCounselingCoalition.org on March 26, 2018. View the original post here.
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About Mark Shaw
Mark E. Shaw (D. Min.) is President and Founder of Truth in Love Ministries and The Addiction Connection. He resides in Florence, KY, with his wife and children. The author of 20 publications including The Heart of Addiction, Addiction-Proof Parenting, and Divine Intervention: Hope and Help for Families of Addicts, Mark enjoys speaking, training, and traveling for the purpose of encouraging and edifying local churches in their outreach to hurting souls.
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