This may be a startling fact: there are over 23 million Americans (and more than half of those women) who identify as being a person in recovery from addiction. That’s a lot of people. Though in the world around us, people don’t celebrate recovery; addiction is rarely associated with something positive like that.
If you are around my age (not telling), you might remember the stories upon stories about Lindsey Lohan and her wild red-maned shenanigans and less than glamorous bar-time photos or Charlie Sheen’s interview (I needn’t say more). Addiction in the news is focused on the cringe-worthy, shocking, and keeps us on the edges of our seats type of stories like the latest trending Netflix series on Britney Spears.
In the news, we hear about the problem of substance use and dependence, ugly statistics about the opioid epidemic or about how drug dealers are destroying our cookie-cutter communities and stealing the futures of our brightest youth or from the offering plates. We are sometimes led to believe that addiction is only concentrated in poor urban centers, not in our own backyards, not in our church sanctuaries, not in our living rooms.
We don’t hear the real-life stories of success and hope: people in recovery starting families and raising children, graduating from college, buying homes, volunteering in their neighborhoods and faith communities, being great friends, spouses, siblings, daughters and sons. We don’t hear about these everyday miracles, so an important message is lost. We hear about Tanya’s many failed attempts and convictions, but we don’t learn about her transformation and the incredible work she now does to help support those struggling in her community.
What about recovery? What about the millions of Americans and the hundreds of millions globally who have found a solution and now live transformed lives? What about the millions of resources there to help someone like me or like my family find the help that they need: medication-assisted treatments, community and faith-based supports, non-profit organizations and small businesses, and countless other avenues that bring light into the darkness for those who struggle with addiction? What about the faith that God shakes through the “secular” circles of recovery spaces?
There have been strides forward (national advocacy movements and people like me who ask God for the courage to be vocal about recovery), but sadly, stigma still exists. Sometimes especially in the faith community.
What Does Stigma Mean?
The word stigma in Greek refers originally to a mark or brand on Greek slaves that separated them from free men or women. Slaves were branded so that they were clearly distinguished from those who were in upper classes. When they walked down the road, there was no mistaking. The dictionary definition now says that stigma is “a mark of disgrace or infamy.” Those with substance use disorders are often seen as unpredictable or dangerous, and as a result, they suffer greater social rejection and isolation.¹ Stigma towards addiction is further perpetuated by attitudes that characterize the individual as at fault for their condition or immoral.²
Jesus was familiar with this concept. Those with conditions like leprosy were similarly shunned by society, as were women who were seen to have committed sexual sins like adultery. Greeks, Gentiles, anyone who wasn’t Jewish, gluttons, sinners. You know, Jesus’ crew—all of these folks had scarlet letters of one kind or another that caused them to be outsiders, misfits, ragamuffins.
Removing Stigma Has the Power to Change Lives
In John 8:2-11, the story of a woman caught in adultery is told. Jesus had been once again in the temple courts, a place where he frequently sat down to teach the people and the Pharisees and other teachers of the law; and the people listened on, often trying to trap him in what he said.
Today, the Pharisees and these teachers would most definitely be called “internet trolls” and probably hide behind their Twitter accounts or message boards to say some pretty vile and judgmental things. But I digress.
A woman was brought in who had been caught in adultery. These teachers shamed the woman by making her stand before the group. I imagine that she stood there with eyes looking towards the dirty ground, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, brushing away the mud and blood-caked strands of hair from her sweaty face.
The crowd looked towards Jesus and questioned:
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Of course, Jesus knew that they were trying to trap him so that they could finally catch him doing something “wrong”—according to them. Of course, Jesus also evaded them by being super wise, as is his way (aka meta-woke). He bent down and began writing on the ground with his finger.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus very effectively in one sentence not only crashed their hopes of trapping him but also humbled them all. How could they accuse this woman if they had also sinned—and likely many of them with the same sin of adultery that she was being accused?
Instead of addressing the crowd anymore, he turned away and continued to write on the ground. I like to imagine that he did a nonchalant hair toss before he snubbed them. Now, there is some speculation about what exactly Jesus was writing on the ground. No one knows for sure, but I like to envision that it was the lyrics to Amazing Grace, the lines that would later inspire the slave trader-transformed-abolitionist, John Newton.
Jesus also did not condemn the woman as they stood there while everyone left the temple courts one by one, like dogs who just stole the buttermilk biscuits off the counter, tails between their legs and ears back. He turned to her when everyone was gone—and this is important, this intimate moment between the two of them—and asks if anyone has condemned her (knowing full well the answer). After she answers no, he says:
“Then neither do I condemn you […] Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus gave the woman a taste, perhaps for the first time, of grace.
Now, we don’t hear any more from this woman in Scripture, but we can assume that this encounter with a loving God changes her. We can assume that this grace juice tastes pretty darn good like that super expensive ultra-organic grape juice at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. We can assume that she does leave the life she had been living—whatever that looked like—and started again.
Grace Gives the Opportunity for Recovery
Stigma is very concerning for many reasons. It can prevent those with addiction issues from reaching out for help. It can also negatively impact the way they see themselves. It’s like grace in reverse, a taking away of what God has promised us sinners. I’m sure this woman caught in adultery was not feeling too great about herself—whether or not she was actually guilty as the mob of people suggested (though it does seem like it as the text suggests she was caught). Either way—guilty or not, sexual immorality was highly stigmatized because women were forced to endure the public consequences and humiliation, whereas men were not.
Before I saw myself through God’s eyes and truly felt grace, I was not willing to reach out for help or let that help really sink into my soul and change it. That sweet sound was so far away. Now, if the angry mob had condemned her instead of walking away as they did one-by-one, would the woman have had the courage to stand with Jesus and answer his call to repentance? If they forced her to wear her scarlet letter and shut her out (even unknowingly) from accessing the grace she so desperately needed, would she have turned towards a new road and new life at all?
Now imagine if you turned on the evening news and heard a story of how love has greeted us on the way, before we deserved it; or a story about how we had met someone in addiction and said, “Yes, I see you and hear you and love you no matter what,” and then loved them to change?
Recovery is breaking news, a shining story. Recovery is hope and resiliency. Transformation and progress. Let’s celebrate recovery this month. With Jesus.
¹ Schomerus, G., Lucht, M., Holzinger, A., Matschinger, H., Carta, M. G., & Angermeyer, M. C. (2011). The stigma of alcohol dependence compared with other mental disorders: a review of population studies. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 46(2), 105-112.
² Crisp, A. H., Gelder, M. G., Rix, S., Meltzer, H. I., & Rowlands, O. J. (2000). Stigmatization of people with mental illnesses. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 177(1), 4-7.
If God loves messy people, so should we! Watch this video to hear more about the amazing grace God offers us no matter what rough roads we’ve traversed…