When Helping is Really Hurting

How can our attempts to help a hurting person actually hurt them?

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Galatians and how it relates to those of us who are reaching out to addicts and other troubled people. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”   (Gal. 6:1 NIV)

This passage and the verses that follow have some important principles to keep in mind as we seek to be people helpers and not “enablers”.

A. “Fixing?” vs. “Empowering” — When we work with troubled people, from the very beginning of our efforts we should be “working ourselves out of a job” with them. Paul says, “Each person must bear his own load.”   In other words, we must be discerning so that we focus on our own part and not do their part for them.   Real helpers impart “tools” that assist those we help to make good decisions about their lives.   Taking up those tools and learning to live sober and godly by applying them to “real life” situations is totally their part.   People recover from addiction when they learn to take responsibility (with God’s help) for their own actions and lives. We cannot do this for them.

B.  The Principle of “Sowing & Reaping” —People persist in destructive behaviors as long as they feel the benefits outweigh the costs.   For most of us, pain is a powerful motivation to change unhealthy and unwise behaviors.   Abuse of alcohol or drugs always leads to painful consequences.   One thing we know, drugs and alcohol dull the uncomfortable emotions that signal the need to change.   This contributes to the denial of alcoholics and drug addicts. They have real difficulty in connecting their actions and decisions with the negative consequences they experience.   Instead, they intellectualize and rationalize behavior and shift blame to other people and circumstances.   That’s why Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians is a message they need too — “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal.6:7)

For addicts and alcoholics, sometimes experiencing consequences and understanding where they came from is the key to their salvation! When it comes to these sorts of consequences, I have a mental picture of God sending along a gigantic spiritual fist designed to knock them over. It’s one way He can make them stop and take a real look at their lives.   The problem is that I see people stepping in front of that fist and taking the blow themselves.   In other words, they experience the pain and grief intended for the addict.   Meanwhile, the person it was intended for experiences nothing and keeps on going down their destructive path.   Sometimes, our main job may be to get the other people in the addict’s life to stop bailing him or her out so that real change might have a chance to occur.

C.  “Give heed to yourself” —For urban mission workers, there are a few temptations embodied in Paul’s words.   On one hand there is the temptation to be sucked into taking up the responsibility that belongs to the client.   It is all too easy to over identify with him or her resulting in a failure to be objective and to confront what needs to be confronted, when it needs to be confronted.   We can easily become angry and frustrated when people we try to help keep rejecting our advice.   We too often take this personally and become hurt and offended; closing our hearts to the people God has called us to help.

Restoring gently, I think, implies approaching all counseling and confrontation in a prayerful manner.   It’s important to see beyond that individual and his or her behavior.   We need to remember that we have another adversary who is at work to keep those we seek to help bound and confused.   Here is where the notion of being “spiritual” comes in; we need to recognize that rescue mission counseling is actually spiritual warfare.

We need to be continually asking God to help us to be aware of our own attitudes and to give us the special wisdom needed to really meet the need in the other person’s life.


The Disease Concept of Alcoholism

What about the “disease concept” of alcoholism and drug addiction?

A. Rationale for using the term “disease”   – A simple definition of “disease” is any “unhealthy condition.”   Addiction has a well-established and recognizable set of “symptoms” with characteristic behaviors and similar effects upon every person who suffers from it.   Also, reliable scientific studies have established that many individuals have an inherited predisposition to alcoholism and other drug dependencies.   For secular researchers, who do not acknowledge the spiritual roots of addiction, using the terms “disease,” or “illness” is a logical approach to defining and understanding this condition.

The American Medical Association defines alcoholism as …

.. a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences,  and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be  continuous or periodic. *

B. What the Bible says While this all may be true, we must reject an extreme application of the “medical model.”   Through it, some would imply that the individual didn’t have a choice in the matter and was somehow not responsible for the choices that led to his condition of addiction.   Because real repentance is essential to re-establishing a relationship with God, it is dangerous to accept any approach that removes from an individual personal responsibility for his own actions.

The process leading to full-blown addiction starts with the sin of drunkenness — which is a moral choice even for those with a family history of alcoholism.   As Christians we must be careful not to use an extreme definition of the term “genetically predisposed.”   This concept simply refers to the condition of some individuals who, because of an inherited bio-physical make-up, have bodies that process addictive substances in a manner that causes them to progress more rapidly toward compulsive use and chronic addiction.   While there are many physical, emotional, and social contributors that lead to addiction, the Bible is quite clear about the fact that choosing habitual sin eventually results in slavery or bondage for those with a genetic predisposition.

Being “genetically predisposed” to alcoholism refers, basically, to those individuals whose biological make-up causes them to progress more rapidly in the physiological aspects of the addictive process.   The Bible is quite clear about the fact that choosing habitual sin eventually results in slavery or bondage.   Actually, the Bible says the sin of “drunkenness” prohibits those who practice it from entrance into the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21)

C. Scriptural terminology The Greek word “bondage” (douleia) is a very appropriate Biblical term that sums up the condition of addiction to alcohol and drugs.   It is used extensively in scripture portions like Romans 6, and translated “servants to” and “slaves of.”   This term carries with it the connotation of a condition that, while it may have begun through personal choices, results in a state that supersedes the free will.   Just as the slave in Bible times could not break free of his state of bondage, which may have resulted from indebtedness due to his own choices, so is the addict bound in a condition that he will not escape on his own power.

D. Don’t minimize the problem! This bondage has dramatic and lasting effects on people who suffer from it.   Life-consuming sin has an impact on the total person.   As Christian counselors, we know that God’s power is able to deliver individuals from the compulsion to drink, and to set them free from the emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, and physical consequences of an alcoholic lifestyle.   Yet, we must never forget that enslavement to drugs or alcohol goes far beyond a simple habit.

After an addict is saved and stops using mood-altering chemicals, he must work through a special set of problems that are the “fall-out” or on-going consequences of the addicted lifestyle upon the individual and his primary relationships.   Usually, without the proper help, the addict will either fall back into use of alcohol and drugs or will transfer his addiction to some other compulsive behavior.   Thoughtfully combining insights from the secular research into these dynamics with scriptural principles can equip us to effectively help addicts and their families.

*   Journal of the American Medical Association, 1992


Originally published in RESCUE Magazine, the journal of the AGRM, Fall 1995

Updated   July 17, 2012

Guide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs

This resource was originally published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions in 1993 and then updated in 2001.

While out-of-print, I continue to receive requests for the information. So, I have decided to place most of it on this web site. It was originally packaged as a set of twelve recorded workshops with nearly 200 pages of supporting materials. These audio lectures and handouts make up a large portion of the City Vision College course, Managing Residential Recovery Programs.

These talks were given to rescue mission workers at various AGRM training events. However, the principles I shared are appropriate for anyone involved with helping alcoholics and drug addicts and their family members. I share many special insights learned from working for many years with homeless addicts, especially in residential recovery program settings.

The link to the PDF file below allows you to download the printed portion of the guide. It has the handouts that were used with most of the recorded lectures plus the Supporting Information from the Table of Contents and from Section B.   The PDF file has active links to the recordings which are stored online. So, if you save it to your PC, you can simply click on title and listen to the workshops as long as you are connected to the Internet.

Guide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs (download PDF File)

Table of Contents

  1. About the Speaker
  2. Introduction
  3. Registration

Section A – The CDs

Introduction to the CDs

  1. Spiritual Foundations for Recovery
  2. Understanding Chemical Dependency
  3. Defining Goals for Rescue Mission Recovery Programs
  4. Overcoming Denial
  5. Wounded Warriors
  6. Helping Addicts to Develop the ‘Life Themes’ Essential for Recovery
  7. Three Phases of Recovery at the Rescue Mission
  8. Using Written Client Recovery Plans
Section B – Supporting Information

  1. Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Addiction and Rescue Mission Recovery Programs
  2. Effective Support Groups
  3. Michigan Alcohol Screening Test
  4. Topical Index of Bible Verses for People in Recovery
  5. Suggested Resources

Section C – 2001 Update

  1. First Things First: Foundations of Addiction Recovery for Homeless Addicts
  2. Is It Easy to Change at Your Mission?
  3. Life After the Mission
  4. What Does Success Look Like?


 ©1993, 2001 – Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. All rights reserved. Reproduction of any part of this book or the accompanying audios is limited to the users own use only. No part my be used in any commercial products without written permission from the publisher.