Addiction, disease, and life among the swine (Mark 5)

Heroin has a new face, and it’s a profoundly ordinary one.  While heroin abuse has been on the rise, nationally, the crisis becomes all the more public when given a recognizable face.  In 2013, Cory Monteith—one of the stars of TV’s “Glee”—“died of mixed drug toxicity, involving intravenous heroin,” according to CNN. [1]

Indeed, as is reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association, heroin abuse has migrated out of the inner city and into suburban America. [2]  After dealing with the heroin addiction of his own son, David Scheff wrote a pair of books to help others understand addiction.  “Addicts come from broken and intact homes,” he writes.  “They are longtime losers and great successes. We often heard in lectures or Al-Anon meetings or AA meetings of the bright and charming men and women who bewilder those around them when they wind up in the gutter.”[3]

Why take drugs?  For many, drugs become a means of coping with deep, psychological pain.  “Alcohol and drugs are not the problems;” writes Chris Prentiss. “[T]hey are what people are using to help themselves cope with the problems.  Those problems always have both physical and psychological components.”[4]

For still others, heroin abuse begins with prescription painkillers.  Once hooked, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to get “clean.”  And while obtaining more prescription meds proves challenging, heroin is cheaply available—imported to our area from Baltimore.

THE DISEASE TAKES HOLD

The writers of the Bible had no real category for “addiction” as we know it today.  But they were no stranger to deep pain.  In Mark’s biography of Jesus, we see the Savior encountering pain in the context of supernatural conflict.  In Mark 5, Jesus encounters a man deeply afflicted by demon possession:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (Mark 5:1-13)

I realize that such supernatural stories strain credulity.  But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider that Jesus’ biographers endeavored to record actual history.  These weren’t the primitive ramblings of a pre-scientific age; these were men seeking to relate Jesus’ story as accurately as possible.  To say that the supernatural didn’t happen because it can’t happen is not reason; it’s prejudice.

The addicts we see today may look fine on the outside, but underneath they are experiencing turmoil not dissimilar from what this man endured.  Addiction, as we now understand it, has many markings of an actual disease.  I realize some may object to this.  After all, no one chooses cancer the way people choose drugs.  And there’s surely truth to this, it’s just that once an addict becomes hooked, his or her choices take on a life of their own.  It’s like Gollum from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, speaking of his enslaving devotion to the ring of power: “Once it takes hold of us,” he hisses, “it never lets go.”

THE REAL POWER TO CHANGE

Jesus, as we’ve seen, brings about an incredible change in this man’s life.  But others aren’t so thrilled about this man’s turnaround:

14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mark 5:14-20)

The community had grown disturbingly accustomed to this man’s condition.  They were less concerned about his wellbeing than they were the local economy.  In fact, they were so fearful of what had just happened that we learn that “they began to beg Jesus to depart” (v. 17).  Sometimes the status quo seems safer, or more natural, than trusting in the miraculous work of Jesus.

We need a miracle, really, if we’re going to see addiction truly addressed in the lives of those we care about.  Addiction is so enslaving—at both the biological as well as psychological level—that only the fresh power of God’s Spirit seems to offer any real hope for escape.

In his book Clean, David Scheff begins by pointing out the wrong-headed idea that addicts are to blame for their ongoing condition:

“The view that drug use is a moral choice is pervasive, pernicious, and wrong.  So are the corresponding beliefs about the addicted—that they’re weak, selfish, and dissolute; if they weren’t when their drug taking and drinking began to harm them, they’d stop.  The reality is far different.  Using drugs or not isn’t about willpower or character.  Most problematic drug use is related to stress, trauma, genetic predisposition, mild or series mental illness, use at an early age, or some combination of those.  Even in their relentless destruction and self-destruction, the addicted aren’t bad people.  They’re gravely ill, afflicted with a chronic, progressive, and often terminal disease.”[5]

Again, we mustn’t ignore the moral choices involved in addiction.  But we also mustn’t ignore the confining entanglements that addictions bring on.  The roots of addiction run very deep indeed; God’s love runs deeper still.

 

If there is an addict in your life—or even in your mirror—take heart.  God’s grace is sufficient to penetrate every infirmity, whether it’s the supernatural pain Jesus assuaged in Mark, or the natural enslavements of drug dependence.  The cross offers forgiveness, but it also offers a beckoning call to come to him—come to Jesus—who is the satisfaction to our every desire.

[1] Wynn Westmoreland, “‘Glee’ star Cory Monteith’s death due to heroin, alcohol ruled accidental.”  CNN.com, October 3, 2013.  Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/02/showbiz/cory-monteith-death-accidental/

[2] Theodore J. Cicero, Matthew S. Ellis, Hilary L. Surratt, and Steven P. Kurtz.  “The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years,” JAMA Psychiatry, May 2014.

[3] David Sheff, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction.  (United States: Mariner, 2009), 14

[4] Chris Prentiss, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery.  (United States: Power Press, 2005)

[5] David Sheff, Clean: Overcoming Adduction and Ending American’s Greatest Tragedy. (New York: Houghton Mfflin Harcourt, 2013), xi.

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2 thoughts on “Addiction, disease, and life among the swine (Mark 5)

  1. This was AMAZING!
    Thank you for laying it open because if the truth be told we are all enslaved and addicted to something. So there’s an addict, honestly, in every mirror, and if it wasn’t for grace couldn’t my addiction really be worse than what it is?

    I just hope those dealing with things like this make their way to somewhere safe, warm and filled to the brim with live tomorrow. You know?
    Even if it’s just for the holiday.

  2. Thank you for this!!! Praise God for his transforming power to turn us into new creations! It definitely isn’t easy and doesn’t mean there won’t be pain or temptation, but he is faithful and always provides a way out. And he definitely never gives up on or forgets about his children, no matter what we do or how far we stray.

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