The Sin Stigma of Substance Use Disorder

How do we make sense of the language of “sin” as it relates to addiction? If Substance Use Disorder can be compared to diabetes, where does the concept of “sin” fit in? Elbert Hubbard (not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard) wrote, “We are punished by our sins not for them.” Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean-born psychiatrist, was known for integrating psychotherapy and the spiritual traditions in his work. He talks about sin as it relates to ignorance, difficulties, distresses and embarrassments as “a disorder of awareness and an interference with action.”

Think about the scriptures we have considered in this material thus far - recovery that heals is rooted in love, in particular - God’s love. God chases us down, not to berate us but to restore us, in love. Recovery is an opportunity to increase our capacity for honesty. Substance Use Disorder is disorienting; we lose our way; we lose the essence of who we were created to be - beloved children, made in the image of God. Do these concepts sound like God is more concerned with our “sin” or our restoration?

The “s” word - sin - can leave us feeling defensive and judged. Personally, I often feel a lot shame when I think of my behaviors as “sinful”. This shame-filled reaction stymied my recovery until I was able to understand that “sin” can be understood as “living independently of God” or “missing the mark”. Sin means losing touch with my spirituality, my true purpose for living, and my capacity to live reasonably comfortably in community with others. This is a by-product of my condition, not a condemnation of my personhood.

This is not to diminish the role of “sin” in our lives; thinking of sin in the way that the above authors suggest can actually deepen our capacity to reckon with it through the lens of compassion. It invites each of us to nonjudgmentally observe ourselves and get honest about our issues.

... whatever overpowers you, enslaves you. 2 Peter 2:19 (b) CEB

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 a sin problem?

Living independently of God

I’m not a big fan of the word “sin” - maybe it is my weak spiritual stomach or perhaps it is because I have seen so many instances when someone is willing to use the word as a weapon but utterly incapable of applying it personally.  Somewhere along the line I was encouraged to think of sin as “living independently of God” and this simple way of seeing has helped me stomach the “s” word.  One of the things I love about this definition is that it frees us from unhealthy arguments over things Christian people have argued about - quite unattractively - for centuries.  Pair that with the work of the 12 steps, which is all about focusing on our side of the street and “doing” things in response to what we find clogging up our gutters and we have a combination that I think really helps us make progress in terms of meaningful change.  



This doesn’t make sin irrelevant.  This too is reflective in mutual aid societies like AA, where we learn that our “ism” may be a disease but that doesn’t let us off the hook.  Disease is not an excuse, merely part of the story.


A part of any transformational story requires us to think about sin.  I thought I’d list some words that pop up in conversations about living independently of God - infidelity in all its forms, arrogance, pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, laziness, selfishness, disrespect towards self and others, hate, stealing, cheating, and perhaps overarching all of this suffering - failure to live, truly live, our one precious, wild life (paraphrasing Mary Oliver).  


I go to all sorts of lengths to NOT deal with my ways of living independently of God in thought, word and deed.  It shows up in defensiveness, justifications, blaming others, and more.  One way I avoid seeing “sin” is by dodging my own emotions.  So if you’re digging around in the foundation of your soul, maybe you could set aside time to consider how you do - or do not - handle your own emotions.  I tend to set mine aside, but I have friends who go the opposite direction with almost identical results.  They marinate in their emotions, and some tell me that it has been helpful to them to realize that just because they feel something intensely, it doesn’t mean that the intense feeling is the only data point in choosing what comes next.  Things to look for?  Self-pity, anger, negativity, resentment, depression, controlling behaviors.  


Also, look for fear.  In our community we often refer to that as operating by the law of scarcity.  What we mean by that is living independently of the core beliefs that include:  God wants to bless us, there is enough to go around.  In AA they say “self-centered fear of not getting what we want or of losing what we have.”  


All these possibilities are tricky to recognize in ourselves, which is why we suggest that transformation is a journey not a destination.  This work will be something we commit to even as we eventually realize that how we do the work my shift and morph over time.  What might be part of your transformational work?  Who or what do you need to help you make progress?