A Cruel Slavery and a Potent Opportunity
Anyone working in the field of addictions will recognise the situation: someone is so enslaved that they cannot recognise freedom.
Paul (not his real name) was like that. He had come from a background of neglect and had no self-esteem. He tried to fit in with others, and the others that he found took advantage of him. He ended up drinking and on the streets. He clawed his way back into a flat. His drinking became better. He started to attend some church services and made some friends. Yet still there was this sense of fear. There was an absence of purpose, of motivation or imagination to see anything differently. He was a Christian, baptised, in his local church, doing well…yet still lacking freedom.
In Exodus the Israelites, although crying out under their oppression and slavery, are unable to recognise the freedom on offer. There is something so broken and perverse about their situation that they have lost the capacity to recognise freedom. They would not listen to Moses because of ‘their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.’ (Exodus 6.9).
This is the situation that Paul faced. This cruel slavery, the inability to recognise the freedom on offer, is a situation that many people with addictions will face. It offers both a challenge and a unique opportunity for God’s people to respond with the liberation that only Jesus can bring.
Looking beneath the surface
It’s important to glimpse what lies behind this slavery. When we are oppressed, whether by external or internal forces, our worlds begin to shrink. When that oppression has continued for years, often through the demeaning cycles of addictive behaviour that inexorably strip people of their humanity, we lose sight of anything else. Many people have never tasted freedom. They do not know what it is like to be loved, to be in a family, to have their unique gifts valued or to engage in a meaningful purpose. Others have had some of these things and lost them, and lost hope. Life can never be anything other than what it is now. No matter how ‘well’ Paul did there was something in his heart that told him that things weren’t really different.
Diagnosis or Liberation
We live in an age of specialisation. Every conceivable aspect of our lives can be sorted into a specialist discipline with professional training. This brings many benefits, but it can mean that we can miss something that is blindingly obvious. Addiction services can get mired into focussing on treatment or relapse prevention to the exclusion of the deeper slavery. People are patched up and sent on their way a little better but not free. And anything less than complete liberation is not what God intends.
Too professional to love?
What are the barriers to both recognising and overcoming this slavery? A narrow focus on one or two aspects of addiction is one. Another is the barrier thrown up by professionalised relationships. Again, the wisdom of boundaries and clearly defined roles is needed, but what people in the midst of slavery need is not so much a key-worker as a friend. Not so much a counsellor as someone who will invite them into their homes and their lives. Not so much someone who will point them to the path of freedom as one who will model that freedom with them and walk along the narrow path together. Relationships of liberation and meaning are not characterised by professional language so much as love.
A potent opportunity
Christian addiction agencies have a unique opportunity to address this deeper slavery. We know something of the radical transformation that Jesus brings into our lives and our world. The challenge of loving and journeying with addicts beyond sobriety and treatment is a great one. It is safer to keep people, be they addicts or not, in boxes with labels; it is safer to patrol professional boundaries with ever greater vigilance. It is risky and difficult and messy and compromised to truly begin to love someone, to love to the point of allowing them to share in and shape our lives. Yet it is precisely this costly capacity to love – a capacity founded on Jesus and the gift of the Spirit rather than our own efforts – that can be the hallmark of a Christian response to addiction.
Reimagining a Christian response
The resources we need to face this task are with us but may need to be reimagined. We need more than ever rooted, strong relationships in local churches where discipleship is more a matter of behaviour than belief. We need to foster a culture of shared lives within our Christian community so that it is a body of people loving the addict and not just a few individuals who will get burned out and overwhelmed. The spare rooms in our homes need to be filled, our private lives opened to the invitation to love and the food on our tables shared with those hungry for family. We need a vision of recovery that goes beyond sobriety and abstinence and instead glimpses what it might look like for this precious human life to be a healthy, flourishing one in all its aspects. We need to take seriously the depth of the slavery and the cost of love that it takes to bring someone into freedom, from a place of loneliness and despair into a family of love and hope.
Jesus knows intimately the cost of love: it led him to the cross. It continues to lead us there. Yet the cross is not the end, for the breathtaking glory of the empty tomb awaits us, and the joyous hope of a creation and all people made new, and a liberation that goes right into the depths of our beings.
Michael Manning is a co-ordinator with Graih, a charity serving the homeless in the Isle of Man
(www.graih.org.im). He is the author of No King but God: walking as Jesus walked (Resource Publications: 2015).