A Space to Heal: The Church’s Greatest Need?

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

Hi, my name’s Lindsey, and I’m a Christian, and I’m also an addict. Currently, I’m addicted to caffeine, criticism, sugar, and negative thinking. In the past I was suicidal, bulimic, and (before marriage) addicted to guys. I know, I know. Being addicted to these things is not “Christian” behavior. So what gives? Why do I, and perhaps you, fellow Christian, keep turning to sugar, TV, or yes, even drugs or alcohol, instead of the Bible, Jesus, or prayer?

Could it be because life is painful, pain drives addiction, and few of us were really shown how to do “Christian pain management”? Perhaps we heard about the “Christian coping mechanisms” of prayer, Bible study, and Christian community from the pulpit all our lives, but perhaps few of us were invited to sit down with a fellow Christian and put our brokenness on the table. Perhaps fewer still were taught how to pray through that mess of pain and connect with Jesus in our brokenness*—because all we heard about was repenting of (and receiving forgiveness for) our sins—not receiving help for our pain.

“Sanctification is the work of a lifetime,” says Ellen White. So we may not kick all our addictions, every day, in this life. But in this article, I argue that having a space to heal is where addiction recovery starts; it is also something our church desperately needs to learn how to provide.

A Dire Need in the Church

I was sharing my recovery-from-depression story at a women’s retreat last September, emphasizing how being part of a small, supportive prayer group had helped me tremendously. Sadly, when I asked the audience “How many of you feel your church provides a safe place for people to deal with their pain, their addictions?” only one hand went up. One hand, out of more than 100 women.

While I wanted to believe this poll from a Midwestern group of Adventist women was not indicative of most Adventist churches, I regularly get emails and messages from Adventist readers all over who say the same thing: our church could do more to help those struggling with addiction, mental illness, and emotional distress. And that’s putting it mildly. A number of responders, like Earl, are flat-out angry with a church that, in Earl’s words, “blatantly disregards people who struggle with addiction.” Earl, a 3ABN viewer who emailed me after watching my 3ABN Today testimony, is frustrated by a church that shares recovery-from-alcohol (or drugs) stories, but that rarely broaches “people trying to recover who sometimes fall off the wagon along their journey.” According to Earl, “The best method to help some of us out here who still struggle [with alcohol] is to tell us the truth about it and not sweep it all under the rug.”

In short, he wants the church to provide a space to talk about the issues without condemnation. He wants the church to provide a space to heal.

Creating Space

While I would not say our church “blatantly disregards” the problem of addiction—I think we are slowly gaining awareness of and growing our resources on mental health topics—I do think we have been slow to respond to our members who struggle with addiction, mental health, and emotional problems. When it comes to heart matters (of the emotional kind), we have good intentions, but we generally lack a script, and we lack a model, for how to help. So we give our best advice: Read Scripture. Pray. Rub elbows with good, Christian role models. And we leave it at that.

May I suggest taking a cue from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and getting together on a regular basis, not to learn how to minister to others, but to simply sit together in our pain and (gasp) talk about it?

While I don’t struggle with alcohol addiction, I had the privilege of sitting in on an AA meeting this last year with a dear friend, and the recurring thought I had was: “Church should be more like this.”

The setup wasn’t complicated. It was a bunch of sincere alcoholics sitting around a table, drinking coffee, reciting the twelve steps, reading from the AA Bible, and then, an open floor to just talk. “Hi, I’m Bob and I’m an alcoholic,” each speaker began. “Hi Bob,” the rest of the group would chorus, turning their full attention to him. And then Bob, or whoever, would open his heart about his struggles, his victories, and then others would, in turn, encourage the speaker and share similar stories or personal insights. There were no “you should” appeals, only “me, too” stories. The group concluded by circling up and saying a prayer, one hour on the dot after start time. It was simple and straightforward, and, in my opinion, when it comes to “pain
management,” much more helpful than church.

Addressing the Pain Beneath the Addiction

One recurring talking point from the AA meeting I visited was feelings. The painful feelings that started flooding back after these people gave up drinking.

You see, it’s not enough to tell people to “Just stop drinking” [or insert your addiction]. Because wherever there is addiction, there is not just a substance, a bad habit, or a negative pattern. There is also pain. If we as a church want to demand our members give up their addictions, we should also provide a place to deal with their pain. We should provide a space to heal.

Hi, I’m Lindsey, and I’m an addict. And I’m also a sincere Christian who wants to heal, and who wants to help others heal. Good Christian, are you willing to admit you have addictions, too? Or, at least admit that good Christians can also be addicts? Then let’s take a lesson from AA, and create some uncomplicated spaces to feel, deal with, and heal from our pain. Please, on behalf of Adventists like Earl around the globe, let’s make honest sharing and safe, healing spaces a more “normal” experience at church. Let’s truly Celebrate Recovery; first, by sharing our pain.

*For more on connecting your suffering with the suffering of Jesus, please refer to Paul Coneff’s book The Hidden Half of the Gospel: How His Suffering Can Heal Yours (co-written by Lindsey). Excerpts of the book are available at www.straight2theheart.com.

Lindsey Gendke is a happy writer, wife, and mom who doesn’t mind sharing that she used to be depressed—and sometimes struggles with anxiety. Once afraid to share her story with family and friends, now she gladly shares wherever she can, including on TV, in magazines, and in her memoir Ending the Pain: A True Story of Overcoming Depression. You can follow Lindsey’s ongoing story at www.LindseyGendke.com.

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