What about those who say, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic? Doesn’t that deny God’s ability to change a person?” I have been asked this question often as I have conducted workshops with rescue mission workers and people from other Christian groups. Usually, though, it prompted by a failure to distinguish between the spiritual issue called “drunkenness” and the therapeutic/medical condition called “alcoholism.” Anyone working to bring real healing and lasing change to addicts and alcoholics, must have this issue clearly resolved in their own minds.
Here are a few issues to consider:
A. Release from compulsion is a reality – Those who react negatively to this phrase usually interpret it to mean that an addicted individual is condemned to live under the constant danger of slipping into drunkenness against his own will. This, of course, would be a definite denial of God’s power to change the addict and empower him to live a victorious life. The truth is that many believers do testify of an experience where the power of the Spirit of God actually lifted the compulsive desire to use alcohol and drugs from them. Some others, though, do struggle with re-occurring bouts of intense temptation to use again. In some cases, this actually has a physiological basis which has been called “post-acute withdrawal syndrome.” If we are mindful of this, it can actually comfort someone struggling and help them through these times, instead of making them feel guilty. Additionally, after an experience of salvation, the newly reborn addict still needs special support to assist him to contend with all the lingering consequences of a life of bondage to addictive substances.
B. The physical dimension of addiction – When God delivers an addict from the compulsion to drink, he is no longer a “drunkard” in the spiritual sense. Yet, he is still a recovering alcoholic or addict in the therapeutic sense. What separates the “heavy drinker” from the addict is the lack of ability to stop using alcohol once drinking has started. I often tell people, “It’s not how much you drink, or how often you drink; it’s what happens to you once you start – you just can’t stop, even when you want to!” On a physiological level, anyone who has become an addict will always be “sensitized” to alcohol and/or drugs. Even very limited use of the “drug of choice” can “activate” the chemical mechanisms of addiction leading to compulsive use and behavior. Total abstinence, therefore, is a must. This physical aspect of addiction will remain with the recovering person until he is glorified by the Lord and receives his new body. With the acknowledgment of this fact, the recovering person will be all the more diligent to abstain from drinking or casual drug use. He or she recognizes the dire consequences of even “moderate” alcohol or drug use. If the recovering addict remains abstinent, this physical consequence of addiction will not otherwise effect his life and Christian walk.
C. Overcoming the “fall-out” of addiction – A life of addiction results in destructive attitudes, distorted emotions, and warped patterns of thinking. These do not simply disappear when an addict experiences spiritual rebirth. Calling a person a “recovering” addict or alcoholic also implies that he or she is actively overcoming the lingering problems of an addicted lifestyle through involvement in a definite program of personal growth. Some of the deep-seated attitudes that keep an addict locked in his addiction include; pride and grandiosity, rebellion against authority, dishonesty, manipulation, blame-shifting, resentments, procrastination, etc. While these “character defects” are common problems with practically all addicts, unless they are “hit head-on” they will lead to defeat.
— Michael Liimatta is the former Director of Education for Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, where he served for 17 years. For more of his writing and audio workshops online go to the Guideto Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs.