Real Talk and Real Questions about Substance Abuse

By: Rev. Benjamin J. Dueholm, Pastor of Worship and Education

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Christians sure do find it hard to talk frankly and unguardedly about addiction in church. This is only strange because Christians tend to confess that all humankind has been subjected to ruin through original sin, so in principle all kinds of trouble should be fair game for naming and addressing. There is still a strong impulse to keep this issue a private one. In my work I often find out quite late in a crisis, if at all, that addiction or substance abuse is involved, and even then it is often in a sidelong way, with attempts to couch a problem in vague or minimizing language.

And that’s unfortunate, because the problem of substance abuse--especially where legal substances are involved--is very much a community problem. It reflects choices we make and policies we establish together, everything from the way pain is treated to the way we tax and regulate alcohol. It’s not an accident that some ways of getting high are easier to get hold of than others.

So I’m especially grateful for ministry colleagues and lay people who have been forthcoming about their struggles with substance abuse--even, or perhaps especially, when those struggles are not fully resolved or perfectly managed. The hiddenness of addiction gives it more power. As I think about how to prepare my own children, and the children of my congregation, for the realities they will inevitably face, this is very important. There’s a lot of frustration, boredom, and excess emotion in life, even before you get to biological predispositions to addiction or overuse. Being honest about this, and about the fact that most everyone needs to find ways to cope, however good or bad, can only help.

But our obligation as a community goes further. Openness and empathy are important, but they have to be matched by a shared commitment to providing the help people need. And we can’t avoid asking ourselves what we do together to make substance abuse more or less likely. That’s a question that goes well beyond the scope of a community religious organization or a health care provider. But if we don’t ask it sincerely and urgently, we can’t expect anyone else to.