To bring the alcoholic out of denial and to subsequently help them
to victory, intervention is required. In the same way, God intervened
in our hopeless lives to bring us to Himself. The cross is likened
to God tearing open the skies and coming down. Yet that radical
intervention in the life of the alcoholic often has to be in terms
of detachment from them. Yet in doing this we are manifesting the
love of God showed to us in the cross. He didn’t give His Son in
anger or irritation or because He was plain fed up with us. He did
it in a calculated, supremely self-sacrificing way. And this is
the model for the Christian family who have to detach from an alcoholic
member. Choosing the option of detachment from the alcoholic needs
to be made prayerfully and carefully.
Alcoholism is a sin. Let’s get that straight. The world around
has sought to lessen this simple fact over the past 100 years. Alcoholism
has progressed from being a sin to being a psychological problem,
a disease, and now [to some] merely a mental health disorder. It
may be all those things, but it is a sin, no matter what psychological
disorders may have been created by it. Perceiving that will help
the Christian alcoholic see the matter in a perspective which the
unbeliever cannot share. But how does God deal with habitual sin?
He had plenty of experience of this in His relationship with Israel
His wayward, adulterous people. And tragically, He has plenty more
experience of it with us, too. When Israel blindly sold themselves
to sin, they were likened to alcoholics- drunk and numb to their
responsibilities before their God. So what did God do in response?
He didn’t say ‘Well Israel that’s the end of you and me, I want
nothing more to do with you, go away and never see me again’. Did
God cast away His people? By no means (Rom. 11:1,2). He felt like
destroying the lot of them and starting over (Ex. 33,34)- but He
never did. According to Hosea, He felt like a jilted lover, a man
who had married a woman who liked being a prostitute. And so He
grieved over what they were doing. He loved them, so deeply. He
sent His servants and then His Son to call them back to Him (Mt.
21:33-38), knowing they would do His beloved Son to death. Manifesting
the Father, Jesus wept over Jerusalem, earnestly wishing for them
to return to the Father: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem...” (Mt. 22:37).
The parable of the prodigal son speaks in the first instance of
the Father waiting earnestly for wayward Israel to return to Him
from their dispersion in the Gentile world.
Yet other Biblical evidence speaks of how God distanced Himself
from Israel, detaching Himself from them. He did this not so that
they would not contaminate Him, nor because He was irritated with
them or embarrassed by them. They continued to embarrass God by
bringing His Name into dishonour amongst the Gentiles. Yet His love
for them takes Him beyond that. He sticks out the shame for the
sake of His love for them. And He will never ever finish with Israel.
So why, then, has He so detached Himself from them? Only, therefore,
for their benefit. Look at the Biblical evidence:
- God left Israel in order to purge them; it was part of the
fire which would purify them of their dross (Ez. 22:20-22). There
was a clear purpose and aim in His detachment.
- God left them so that the nakedness of their sin would be revealed-
He would no longer cover up for them in the eyes of the Gentile
world (Ez. 23:29).
- Isaiah uses the fact God has forsaken Israel as the very basis
of his appeal for them to return to Him (Is. 2:5,6). He left so
that they might return to Him with their whole heart. But He was
of course ever eager to have them back.
- God tells Israel that because He has forsaken them, therefore
they should seek Him (Am. 5:2,4).
- God would forsake His people until they realized that
their problems were because He was not with them (Dt. 31:17).
- In 2 Chron. 12:5,6 we read of how God forsook Israel, leaving
them in the hand of Shishak; but because of this they humbled
themselves and He returned to them.
- He forsook Hezekiah, to reveal perhaps to Hezekiah himself
what was in his heart- for God already knew, surely, without
any experimentation (2 Chron. 32:31).
- Neh. 9:28,31 use the same Hebrew word for forsake / abandon
in two senses. “You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies...but
in your great mercy you did not abandon them” (N.I.V.). God forsook
Israel, but heard them when they cried and came back to them;
but in the ultimate sense He did not forsake them because of His
grace and mercy. Thus Zion feels forsaken by God, but ultimately
realizes this was never the case (Is. 49:14). It will then seem
as just for a small moment that God forsook her (Is. 54:6,7).
All this perhaps is a pattern for us. It’s frightfully difficult
to make detachment from an alcoholic with the same purity of motives
which God has. For you have been hurt, abused, used... but here
is where love and true God-likeness is tested to the extreme. We
may be forced to abandon (separate), but we must take care to NEVER
remove hope for recovery as a possibility; for God likewise never
gives up. The lost sheep is searched for until it is found. We cannot
totally forsake a family member lost in alcoholism. But we can detach
/ forsake to some extent. There was plan and purpose in His detachment;
it wasn’t mere wrath, irritation and tiredness with human weakness.
If God had continued an active relationship with Israel, going through
the endless cycle of sin, judgment, vague repentance, promises to
do better, forgiveness, sin, judgment... then the real issues aren’t
tackled. His detachment from them leaves them alone enough to face
themselves and come to the real repentance which He seeks. But it’s
terribly and tragically hard for God to make this detachment.
Hosea has some descriptions of God’s anguish of heart in doing
this which are, I find, some of the Bible’s most gripping words:
“How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I cast thee
off, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I
set thee as Zeboiim? my heart is turned within me, my compassions
are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine
anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not
man; the Holy One in the midst of thee; and I will not come in wrath”
(Hos. 11:8,9 ASV). Here God Almighty struggles with Himself. He
has promised to execute His fierce anger against them, to destroy
them with Sodom’s judgment because they had behaved even worse.
But He would not let Himself totally do this. Because He loved them.
Or again: “I have forsaken mine house, I have left mine heritage;
I have given the dearly beloved of my soul into the hand of her
enemies” (Jer. 12:7; 2 Kings 21:14; Ps. 78:60). Note that God had
earlier promised [using the same Hebrew word] never to leave / forsake
His people (1 Sam. 12:22; Ps. 94:14). Yet He was driven to it by
the needs of Israel. So don’t feel trapped by earlier promises,
made at an earlier stage of the alcoholism, to always support and
stick with the sin. But of course, detachment must only be as a
total last resort.
You need to detach from the alcoholic, perhaps even by physically
leaving them. But it will be heart wrenching, no matter how angry
you feel with the person. Yet God knows your pain, and He will be
close to you. For He goes through it all the time with His wayward
children. This detachment is necessary for your own well-being as
well as their repentance. Otherwise you will become co-dependent,
with a personality wrapped up in the weakness of another, rather
than an independent child of God, growing upright as a palm tree,
planted by the rivers of waters of God’s word (Ps. 1:3). How to
show this detachment is going to be hard, and will vary from case
to case. Physical separation is not automatically nor necessarily
the answer, unless the alcoholic is abusive towards you. Seek to
show love and yet not the sympathy which confirms the alcoholic
in their wrong way. Never ever make your detachment from motives
of anger, but rather of love. Explain what you are doing and why.
Explain that you will no longer cover up for the alcoholic in making
excuses to others. You will not aid the drinking by giving money,
buying alcohol, altering arrangements to cover up for his or her
likely drunkenness. Explain that you are pursuing your service to
God in other ways than simply being totally enmeshed in the alcoholic’s
life. But comfort them that detachment doesn’t mean abandonment.
You love them. God loves us and our sins never affect our standing
before Him in Christ, but rather they affect our practical fellowship
with Him. Explain to the alcoholic that you are trying to act sincerely
on the Biblical basis of how God treated Israel. Assure them that
your detachment from them is not a statement of judgment upon them
by you. We must not confuse in our own minds forgiveness with tolerance.
Point out that you too are a habitual sinner in other ways, and
be careful to not feel you are more righteous than them, or of better
standing before God than them, just because your sins aren’t so
open. Remind them of the verse that says that some men’s sins are
open beforehand, going before them to judgment [and that applies
to the alcoholic], whereas others have sins which will only be apparent
then (1 Tim. 5:24). And this latter category, you can truly say
from the heart, applies to you. And you’re worried about it.
Let Go And Let God
In the end, it has to be a case of “Let go and let God”. But this
of course is not the same as merely walking away from the problem.
I appreciate the very real fear of the loved alcoholic coming to
harm if one lets go and does not stay to 'protect' them from themselves.
It is hard turning away during a drinking binge knowing they may
inadvertently kill themselves. To quote again from a sister with
much experience in this area: “It takes a lot of prayer and faith
that all things are in God's hands to keep to those boundaries”.
We cannot ultimately change nor control others- even though we all
have something of the ‘Christ complex’, the playing of God, whereby
we think that it is [or ought to be] solely within our power to
change someone else. And we tend to feel bad about ourselves when
we can’t achieve this. True love does not “seek its own” (1 Cor.
13:5); our love for the alcoholic must be pure and not part of our
own self-love. The self-confidence of Jesus was not affected by
how few really responded to His work. He had an agenda, but He never
once imposed it. Our boundaries need to be established firmly, so
that we don’t become co-dependent on the addicted person, obsessed
with them to an extent that it harms our own person and relationship
with God. The large turnover among counsellors of alcoholics shows
how easy it is even for professionals to fail in this. We can in
the end only manage ourselves and our response to situations. Try
to set a regular routine for things in the home. This is good not
only for any children involved but it sets you up as the controller
of an otherwise chaotic domestic situation. There will be regular
meal times. There will be regular Bible readings. Bed time is regular.
Those things will not be interfered with, so far as you are physically
able, by the alcoholic. Read and re-read Psalm 37, underlining how
many times we are told to “fret not” in any circumstance- because
of our own personal relationship with the Lord and our personal
hope of the life eternal in the Kingdom. Fretting is one of the
defining characteristics of many families with alcoholics amongst
Yet once the alcoholic has been brought out of denial, there are
a range of realistic options open to you. There are expert counsellors
available, both Christian and secular, and Alcoholics Anonymous
has many branches throughout the world. My advice would definitely
be to try to get a qualified Christian, Bible-based counsellor involved
as soon as the alcoholic is willing. The ‘disease’ really is
curable, with God’s help! Only 15% of American alcoholics go into
treatment of their own free will. The majority are gotten there
by others who care for them.
Welcoming The Prodigal
One major factor in many peoples’ alcoholism is the company which
they keep. Alcoholics somehow seem to seek each other out and empower
each other to continue in their self-destruction. The usual pattern
is that the alcoholic desperately wants to quit, acknowledges the
problem, but can’t seem to stay sober because others are jealous
of their progress and tempt them with more drink. Albeit unconsciously,
it becomes vital to alcoholics to keep their friends drinking. At
this stage, the recovering alcoholic needs a new set of friends.
And it is here that the set of family and friends who have previously
detached from her or him can be vital. It’s also where the recovering
brother or sister needs desperately to have good friends within
the ecclesia. The parable of the good Samaritan features Jesus,
the Samaritan, taking the wounded man [each of us] to an inn, where
He enables him to be cared for until He returns. The inn is surely
the ecclesia. The body of Jesus, made up of us its many parts, “makes
increase of itself”, it builds itself up in love. One source
of our strength and spiritual dynamism is undoubtedly from others
within the ecclesia. This is why open, supportive contact with each
other is so vital.