Mark Shaw

Pastoral Responses to Addicts’ Needs

September 19, 2016

Mark Shaw

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Mark Shaw

BCC Note: Dr. Mark Shaw, an ordained minister, certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor, and certified biblical counselor, shared valuable insights in a recent interview to help pastors who are caring for people with drug addictions.1

1. What initial issues should pastors be aware of when they first hear a person in the church is struggling with a drug addiction?

The first thought I have is it’s probably worse than what the pastor knows. In other words, they’re probably telling the pastor a little piece of a much bigger iceberg. So they’ll tell you, “Yeah, I smoke a little weed.” But later you find out they’re smoking weed all the time. In fact, they’re dealing weed.

They do that because they’re giving pastors just a little bit to “test the waters.” They’re trying to see, “How is this pastor going to react to me when I tell him that I smoke a little weed?” It’s almost always worse than what the pastor is being told. I’m not trying to be catastrophic here, and obviously this wouldn’t necessarily apply to every situation. But I think it’s likely to be the case. That’s what makes it frustrating when you work with this particular population, because they’re just immersed in a reckless abandon for their idolatrous pleasure, protected by a lot of deception.

I also think pastors should try to find out what this person is taking. Are we talking about alcohol? Are we talking about marijuana? Are we talking about maybe a harder core drug like cocaine or heroin? What about crystal meth or benzodiazepines and stuff like that? When you know the drug, it helps determine what level of need you’re dealing with. The heroin user I’m going to handle a little differently than I would the alcohol abuser. It’s not that the heart is any different between them.2 The heart of addiction is the same. But I need to get the heroin person some medical attention right away. I need to refer him or her to detox somewhere. The alcohol abusers might not need to go there right away. However, I would say it’s always a good idea to refer them to a medical doctor to get medical care, at some point, while you are talking to them about the spiritual dimension of their addiction.

2. How common are lapses for those struggling with drug addiction? And how should pastors deal with addicts’ lapses?

The lapses for addicts are very common. In fact, two research articles—studies done on Alcoholics Anonymous participants—said over a 180-day period, complete sobriety was less than 6 percent for those who are attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Only 5 out of 100 people were clean for 180 days continuously. We’re not saying that using the Bible results in 100 percent success against addictions. No. What the Bible’s teaching about sin and idolatry really shows is that any one of us can be tempted. We’re so weak. We so need Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to tear down the lies that we believe when we’re tempted to sin. We’re all one sinful choice away from ruining our lives and going down a path of destruction. I think pastors need to be gracious—but still firm. It’s really tough sometimes. I just try to balance out my response with truth and grace, being like Jesus in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

3. After the initial shock of hearing about the addiction, what are the ongoing needs of drug abusers that pastors should be aware of?

I think Proverbs 23:29 (ESV) asks some questions that give us insight about what to address first. The first question in the verse is, “Who has woe?” Having woe means they are headed for impending doom; they’re living a reckless lifestyle. With that, you want to make sure you instill hope. You want to give them something to live for, because their usual pattern of behavior is wild and out of control. You want to get them on a schedule and put a structure of accountability in place, right off the bat. It’s not rocket science: for example, “I want you waking up at this time. I want you going to bed at this time. I want you at work. And so on.” You just kind of have to map out their whole week for them and give them the discipline they lack, because they’re living in a reckless way.

The second question is, “Who has sorrow?” You want to ask them questions that probe the heart such as, “What are they sad about? In what ways do they hurt? What kind of bitterness is in their hearts? Are they angry?” All of those things kind of connect with depression and sorrow, that is, the deep sadness that they can have.

The next question in Proverbs 23:29 is, “Who has strife?” Are there relational problems—not getting along with parents or spouse or children or coworkers? Those close relationships usually are problematic. So we need to probe into whom they need to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation with.

The fourth question in Proverbs 23:29 is, “Who has complaining?” When I’m counseling people and they have been clean and sober for a few months, as soon as I hear them start to complain about something, I think, “Uh-oh, they’re heading back to their old patterns and maybe heading for a relapse.” If they are lacking gratefulness, then I know there’s a problem—especially if they’ve been clean and sober for a while. So the pastor can teach them how to be thankful by helping them see God’s hand in everything.3 Addicts need to understand this: If all you see is yourself and what you want, then you miss all the blessings that God is giving you. That’s a big part of what trips you up.


  1. Mark Shaw is executive director of Vision of Hope, a ministry of Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette, IN, ( He has more than two decades of experience working with addicts in both secular and Christian programs.
  2. Here Dr. Shaw is referring to the biblical concept of the heart, referring to the moral and motivational control center of the person.
  3. Shaw recommends using passages that stress the importance of gratitude: for example, Romans 1:18–21; Ephesians 5:4, 18–20; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:18.