Substance abuse: Conviction versus condemnation

Posted by Travis Threats on

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.  For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what readiness to see justice done!” (2 Corinthians 7: 10-11, ESV)

This blog will discuss a Christian view of substance abuse and compare it with a specific secular view of with substance abuse. I will be referencing an excellent article written by author Maia Szalavitz as a guest essay for the New York Times entitled “This is What Neuroscientist and Philosopher Understand about Addiction,” published on April 24, 2023,

Ms. Szalavitz is a well-known writer in the area of addiction and public policy. Her viewpoint is even more compelling because she herself had a period of her life where she struggled with drug addiction, a fact she addresses in this article.

She makes several excellent points. First, that for her at first drugs made her feel euphoric because it helped her escape some daily pain that she was in for the early part of her life. Here is how she described it.

“In my own experience with cocaine, this disconnect was pronounced. At first, I found it euphoric. Toward the end of my addiction, I was injecting dozens of times a day, desperately wanting coke but also knowing it would make me feel hideous. The incentive salience theory suggests that addiction is a problem of outsized “wanting” despite reduced “liking,” which becomes less amenable to cognitive control over time.”

“During addiction, people also tend to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term gains, which means that they postpone the pain associated with quitting, often indefinitely. This idea, which is known as “delay discounting” further helps explain why people with chaotic childhoods and precarious incomes are at higher risk: When a better future seems unlikely, it is rational to get whatever joy you can in the present.”

“During addiction, he contends, despairing thoughts about oneself and the future — not just thoughts about how good the drug is — predominate. At the same time, thoughts about negative consequences of use are minimized, as are those about alternative ways of coping. Drugs are overvalued as a way to mitigate distress; everything else is undervalued. The result is an unstable balance, which, more often than not, tips toward getting high.”

In the above passages, we see the work of evil preying on people. Before I continue, it is crucial that I state that people with drug addiction problems are not “weaker” than other people, not more “sinful” than other people. For one, people are addicted to different things, some to pornography, some to fame, some to video games, some to sports, some to the number of Instagram followers and clicks, some to work, some to power, some to their own perceived attractiveness. We judge people more harshly for some addictions than others. In fact, if it is work or sports, they may even be judged positively. Others have hidden addictions that their co-workers or even many family members may not know. Sin is Sin, whether addiction or anything else, with Satan only feeding on humankind’s inherent sinfulness. Satan targets different people with different temptations, for as each of us has inherent strengths, we also all have inherent weaknesses. We do not get to make a hierarchy where some sins are “worse” than others, only God can ultimately judge.

In the first paragraph above, she discusses feeling “euphoric.” This short-term pleasure is a specialty of Satan. Now, God wants us to be happy, in union and fellowship with Him. But the drug pleasure is not one that can be sustained. It ultimately leads to misery. She describes herself as wanting something more than actually liking it.

The most profound line of the second paragraph is “When a better future seems unlikely, it is rational to get whatever joy you can in the present.” I hit on this concept in my blog entitled “God and Executive Functioning.” This is despair, that there is no better tomorrow, nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth fighting to change. There is joy in knowing Jesus, which can sustain you doing times when it is indeed bad, when you have a reason to be depressed, such as the death of a loved one. Thus, not saying that we will always be happy, but that joy keeps you from feeling that there is no future reason to continue. Here the author expresses what many feel, not just those with addiction experience, that there is no positive future, so might as well grab immediate earthly pleasure. As Christians we believe the ultimate future is being forever with God in heaven, and you cannot get any better belief in the future than that!!!

The third paragraph tells of valuing the things of this earth, in this case drugs, over all other more worthy aspects of life. In fact, as the author states that the drugs are overvalued while all other things in life are undervalued. An important theme running throughout these paragraphs is the overwhelming negative view of oneself.

The next section quoted is about whether can hold those with substance addictions accountable for their behavior, and not simply victims of their uncontrollable biology and negative life experiences.

“But if addicted people are making choices that are harmful to themselves or others, shouldn’t they be held responsible for their behavior? Hanna Pickard, distinguished professor of philosophy and bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, calls for a framework she labels “responsibility without blame.” In this view, addicted people do have some control over their decisions. However, that doesn’t mean they deserve blame or that shaming and punishing them will improve matters. Instead, providing people with both the skills and the resources they need to change, and compassionately holding them accountable as they learn to make different choices, can promote recovery. Research finds that framing addictive behavior as an involuntary brain disease reduces the tendency to blame people for it. But this perspective does not necessarily alleviate stigma or the desire to punish. This is probably because viewing individuals as having no autonomy dehumanizes them and makes others want to lock them up in an attempt to protect society. To recover, people with addiction need both new skills and an environment that provides better alternatives. This doesn’t mean rewarding people for bad behavior. Instead, we must recognize that compulsive drug use is far more often a response to a life where meaning and comfort appear out of reach than it is a selfish quest for excess pleasure.”

About substance abuse or any other destructive behavior, we are not helpless. It is true that some people have more of a genetic disposition toward addictive behaviors. It is also true that some people have had more traumatic and tragic experiences in their lives. This is not to negate the real struggles that some people find themselves in such as childhood abuse. However, as it states above, we can still hold people accountable for their actions without blaming them, or as the article says, “responsibility without blame.” We should not shame and punish them for their difficulties, but we should also not excuse them, not try to assist them to change. The last paragraph shows the author’s acknowledgement that one must have meaning in life, that these persons primarily suffer from that and not simply pleasure-seeking behavior. Note that says more than life not having meaning, but that those with addictions believe it is not possible to attain meaning in life. Thus, not just unhappy with situation but see no way to get out of the situation. This is the type of despair that Satan wants for us, which is the opposite of what God wants for us.

Now let’s look at the same issues discussed above in the broader Christian view. The difference demonstrated is between conviction versus condemnation. This is the article “Conviction versus Condemnation” written by Olan Stubbs, who is the Director of Campus Outreach Birmingham campus This was published in Campus Ministry Today in 2020 at

It talks about the difference between feeling condemned, with the hopelessness that addiction can bring, versus conviction with acknowledges wrong behavior but has a path to a better self and life.

“Condemnation is usually hazy, hateful and hopeless. Usually when Satan brings feelings of condemnation to a Christian they are vague. There is a general thought that “Something is wrong with me!” It often has to do with shame. Some say shame means feeling bad about who I am. Guilt means feeling bad about what I did. I wouldn’t die on a hill for that definition, but it can be a helpful distinction. Condemnation often traffics in hazy, vague shame. Condemnation is always hateful for a Christian. Satan hates you and your students as he hated Job. He can’t steal salvation, but he can steal joy and assurance of salvation if we let him. He wants to hurt, not help; burden, not bless. It is like spiritual waterboarding where Satan is trying to smoother any glimpse of God’s goodness and love. He tries to drown people in their sins. Lastly condemnation is hopeless. It brings the sense that you are a lost cause. You are chained to your sins forever. You will never change. God doesn’t care for you. He has cast you off eternally. Condemnation is always a lie for anyone in Christ."

"Conviction in most ways is the opposite of condemnation. Conviction is high-definition clarity, helpful and hopeful. Condemnation can feel like a cloud of shame hanging over your whole being that you can’t even explain. Conviction is usually very specific . . . Conviction is clear enough to give you a path to truly move forward in repentance. Conviction is rooted in love not hate. . . God loves you and wants the best for you. He brings conviction in your life to convince you of a better way. . . Lastly, conviction is hopeful. It does not leave people in the doldrums. It brings with it an atmosphere that seems to say “Why will you persevere in sin and shame? God has a better way. Repent now and run to the wide-open arms of a loving and merciful Savior.” Godly grief over sin is the waiting room that leads to repentance. It’s a great thing to be rejoiced in!”

In the first secular article, it talks about what “neuroscientists and philosophers” know from both research and from introspective thought. The great truths are the great truths. Many think that this is only found in science and non-Christian fields. Does science come across great truths? Of course it does because God is real and created the world that we know. Unfortunately for too many people, they do not consider Christianity as the path to these great truths. I use “unfortunate” because God is the ultimate truth and living a Christian life would address so many problems that perplex social scientists.

But as with many things, the fault lies partially in those who call themselves Christians. Christians have condemned people, have been unsympathetic to those with substance abuse challenges. Thus, those people with substance abuse problems have not always felt welcome in churches or by Christians. This is not the true spirit of Christianity which maintains that without God’s love we would all be condemned. As stated before, we treat different addictions differently. We also treat sins differently. We have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit is now available for us all, if we will let the Holy Spirit in to run our lives. Will the person with substance abuse problems still sometimes feel the draw of drugs? Yes? Could they even relapse? Yes. But if people know that this is a matter of conviction and not condemnation they can fight and win. This fight with Satan over despair should not be done alone, it cannot be. These persons need Christians around them that will help them, comfort them, believe in them, show them love, show them that they believe that they have meaning to both you and God.

Then there are the Christians who do claim that they are trying to help this population. Are their motives of God, or are they just trying to demonstrate what “good Christians” they are? In other words, are they as the Pharisees that Jesus describes, just doing it to be seen? When they serve these fellow children of God, is their joy and love in their eyes, in how they say their words? I say because people can tell when you are reaching out to them with genuine love and when you are going through the motions. Even worse, perhaps they “see” condemnation on their faces, even when they are smiling. Do they “hear” condemnation when the person says, “May God bless you”? What do these Christians say about the experience and the people when they get home? That they were blessed to be able to reach out to others or do they only complain about the people they were there supposedly to help? When outside of their volunteer roles, how do they look at or treat such people, especially when they are homeless.

On the other side, Christians CAN hold them accountable for their behavior, and have consequences for these behaviors. For example, a person may have to kick a relative out of the house due to the negative consequences of their addiction such as stealing from them and destruction in the house. A boss can fire someone from their job. But in these cases, they are carrying out God’s plan to convict them, but we are never to condemn them, or make them feel condemned. They should not get from us that they are not one of God’s children, that He does not love and want them best for them. Satan wants them to be feel condemned, to feel helpless and forever lost, and we should be on the side of God and not Satan.

Those who have had substance abuse problems can later be a blessing to others from their struggles. They cannot only address drug addiction, but the factors that put people at risk for such addiction. We should all be there to be a blessing to others, as others need to be a blessing to us. It is not only people who have overt or more “severe” problems as such substance abuse who need the help of others to practice Christian lives. We do not want others to condemn us. We want people to help us with our convictions. We all need help, just with different areas of our life. Let us ALL show love to others the way Christ shows love for us. Together we are so much stronger than we are by ourselves. That is why belief in God is often not enough to be our best selves.  After all, Satan believes that God is real so it needs to be something more!  We need fellowship with others, help from others, to be able to lead our best Christian lives. 

This help involves mental health professionals, therapists, physicians, social workers, along with others to help the person adjust to life without drugs.  God put these people here to help and Christians need to use them, without hesitation or shame, and without thinking that using these sources means that their faith is not "strong enough."  The fellowship with other Christians is to help maintain their sober life.  Perhaps we can catch each other early in a challenge so that it does not even get to the point of something like drug addiction. Or when we do get severely off track, that we can recover more rapidly, or recover at all. 

I end with the last paragraph with a quote from the Bible. It is a familiar story that shows how people want to condemn, led by Satan, but that Jesus seeks for us to repent, to be convicted, yes, but not condemned. Many emphasize that Jesus does not condemn in this verse, but equally important is that He does command her to sin no more.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “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?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8: 2-11, NIV)

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