The Tragedy of Opioid Abuse, Part 1 January 20 2017
(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")
The U.S. has a drug problem, and has had one for a long time. But the situation has worsened in recent years with the report of over 52,000 fatalities by drug overdose in 2015, as reported by the Center for Disease Control. This is a 10 percent spike from the previous year and is more than traffic fatalities (37,000 annually) and suicides (43,000 annually).
About 63 percent of the overdoses involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Opioids include drugs derived from opium, including morphine, as well as semi-synthetic and synthetic drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone (e.g. Oxycontin), and fentanyl. The CDC reports that more than 300,000 Americans have lost their lives to an opioid overdose since 2000.
This is staggering and heartbreaking, and is receiving increasing attention in the media, in politics, and the medical community. The agency in the Los Angeles area for which I work has had several presentations about the surge in opioid abuse. Most families in our area have been impacted in some way by a relative or friend going down the devastating spiral of drug abuse.
Prescription opioids are increasingly a path to prolonged substance abuse, as they are physically addictive. They are commonly prescribed for dealing with pain after surgeries, during cancer treatments, and for other ailments. What starts as a way to deal with pain can easily lead to tragedy, if someone lets that happen. We know of those who have been through the medically supervised detoxification process as well as those who have chosen to get off drugs “cold turkey.” But these things deal only with the symptoms of a much deeper problem, the solution to which can be found only in the Scriptures.
It was said of Jesus in Matthew 9:36 that:
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.”
This seems to characterize the times in which we live as well. So many people are either without hope or they turn to the so-called hope or temporary fix that drugs, alcohol, money, or _______ (fill in the blank) provide. While drug “recovery programs” abound, this has not stemmed the tide of drug use. Things have only become worse.
But what is to be the response of the church to these difficult situations and individual tragedies? What do the Scriptures tell us? It turns out that the Scriptures provide very practical hope, but in a way that is different from what the world typically says or expects. It is difficult to summarize it all in a single blog, but here is a start, to be continued in two weeks.
First, one of the great sources of hope is to recognize that when we put ourselves under the control of another substance, it is making a choice to sin. Ephesians 5:18 states:
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.”
We are commanded not to allow ourselves to be controlled by alcohol, and by extension, other substances. In the Bible, failure to obey a command is very directly called “sin” - no dancing around it, no political correctness, just simply sin. Many people might question how this biblical truth could instill hope, and it may even seem paradoxical. Won’t this make them feel bad? How can it be hope to label a drug-abuser’s activities as sin? On the contrary this is powerful hope and an incredibly powerful and fundamental truth from God’s word. It is tremendous hope, because we then understand that God enables us to also choose to get out from under a sin that has us in bondage.
The world has subtle ways of persuading us that we should view ourselves to be victims of drugs and other life-dominating practices of sin. We want to somehow believe that “it’s not our fault.” But seeing ourselves as victims leaves us without hope and dependent on some other human or some circumstance to rescue us. It is when we realize that God gives us a choice, and the power of the Holy Spirit to go with it, that we can realize true hope.
People make their own choices even when it comes to addictive drugs. For example, a person would never go into a large crowd and make a spectacle of himself shooting up drugs. He chooses when and where to do this and even who is around to observe him. This tells us that choosing where we go, when we go there, who we associate with, what we keep in our house, etc. are matters of choice. And these choices will make a big difference in whether we fall again into the same sin.
With this freedom to make choices, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, comes the hope that we can escape bondage to any particular sin. And it is true compassion when we remind others that they can make moment-by-moment choices that will lead to freedom from this bondage. They may need a lot of help and encouragement, but ultimately they must make a personal, individual choice.
For unbelievers, the first and most important choice is to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, as only then will they have the power to escape their slavery to sin. This liberation is described in Romans 6:17-18:
But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
This is true liberty, when we are no longer in bondage to sin but have a new power to choose righteousness. This is why, back in Matthew 9:37 (right after the statement about Jesus’ compassion for the multitude) Jesus addresses those who have already been freed to be involved in the harvest:
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
Sometimes the Lord uses the depths of despair to help people recognize their sin and need for help. If someone is at the bottom the downward spiral, and their world is falling apart, this may be the time they are most open to the gospel, ready to reach for God’s hand, and most open to change. It is at this time that we, the compassionate workers in the harvest, can come along side and help them find the only permanent way out.
Second, we should recognize that any of us, even as believers, are vulnerable to temptation and sin. 1 Corinthians 10:12 says
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
This is a warning for us not to think that we can withstand the forces of this world or even the “innocent lure” of pain medications, absent the grace and help of God. We need to recognize that temptations are out there, and we need to take biblical precautions. This warning occurs right before one of the most encouraging and hopeful verses in the Bible, verse 13:
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.”
The point is that God provides hope and a way through temptation, but there are choices we need to make and steps that we need to take. We will talk about those steps, and the biblical principles behind them, in the next blog.
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