What does sin have to do with Substance Use Disorder?

Is Substance Use Disorder a moral failure? Some treat it as such. Is becoming a diabetic a moral failure? What about cancer? What about strep throat?

“God has turned his back on me,” says a young man lying on a gurney in the Emergency Room.

“Tell me more about that,” I inquire with curiosity.

“Man, you know it’s true.” His raised voice attracts the attention of the on-duty nurse and she peeks around the curtain with eyebrows raised but I wave her off. This young man has something to say and I am here to listen. “I’m a loser. Even my own grandmother won’t let me visit anymore. I’m a drug addict. I’m weak. I’m a disappointment to everyone who ever loved me.” He turns his head away from me and stares blankly at the wall, slipping off into an exhausted slumber. He’s been on the street for months; he’s feeling ashamed and embarrassed. He’s without hope and expects no help. He and his family believe that he is spiritually and morally bankrupt. This would not be the case if he had been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, or strep throat. I look at him and believe that he has a disease that has had physical, relational, emotional and spiritual consequences. Obviously, a by-product of compulsions that turn into addictions involves the inevitable self-destructive behaviors that result in desperate choices that are hurtful - even sinful. But this is not the whole story.

If we try to understand our Substance Use Disorder (SUD) only as SIN, as if that explains everything and points to the obvious and only solution of REPENTANCE, we are speaking out of ignorance. Doing this reflects an inadequate understanding of the nature of the disease (which completely hijacks the brain, the capacity to experience love and connection with God, ourselves and others). Despite what many believe, Substance Use Disordered-folks are not people who just need to know Jesus and pray with more fervor. Many have had profound spiritual experiences, believe in God, and have even served him in various capacities before this affliction robbed them of their sense of self-respect (among other things). Not all folks who struggle with SUD have spiritual backgrounds, but many do and IT DID NOT PROTECT THEM FROM THIS AFFLICTION ANY MORE THAN IT PROTECTS US FROM CANCER.

You can’t whitewash your sins and get by with it; you find mercy by admitting and leaving them. Proverbs 28:13 The Message

Sin is a problem - like when we stereotype and judge others. The disease of SUD often causes a breakdown in a person’s ability to live by their core values. But sin does NOT explain everything. What have you called sin that is more complicated than that label? What have you NOT called sin that maybe...is a sin problem?