The young man across from me rose as the subway slowed to a stop. Tattoos covered his forearms; I admired the crisp lines and careful shading, and I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to finally get some long-planned ink of my own.
As he passed before me, I saw several tell-tale needle scars, through which a graceful script swirled:
Only God can judge me.
The youth hurried to the platform and melted into the crowd. We were at a station in the city’s Kensington section, where heroin dealers routinely hawked their lethal wares like street vendors selling pretzels. One dealer had even been arrested for handing out free samples to undercover officers.
I said a silent prayer for the young man, and for all those caught in the grip of addiction, from the corner to the cartel. Anger and sorrow mingled in my unspoken plea, along with the words of that tattoo.
According to the United Nations, some 30 million people are enslaved by substance abuse. Part of what keeps them trapped is shame — they know that what they’re doing to themselves and to others is wrong, and yet they’re all too aware that without help, they’re unable to stop. In despair, they repeatedly revert to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain, only to feel even worse.
“I don’t want my son to see me like this,” a friend whispered, bowing his head as he clutched a tattered picture of his child. Seventeen years of heroin and cocaine addiction had eroded almost every relationship in his life. He would have given anything to be walking his boy to school instead of walking the streets, hoping he could stay sober for an hour, perhaps two.
St. Paul could well sympathize with those who battle addiction. “What I do, I do not understand,” he wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Paul knew that his only hope lay in Christ: “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25).
Christ cleanses us of sin and shame: “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote. “For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
Through his cross, Jesus has made us a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and like St. Paul, we are to be “ambassadors for Christ,” imploring all we encounter to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
When it comes to those struggling with addiction, though, we often fail to establish diplomatic relations.
That’s because addiction is such a destructive and devastating disorder, one that is still not well understood. For centuries, it was considered strictly a moral failing. With advanced neurological imaging, addiction has more recently been seen as a corruption of the brain’s circuitry — a disease, rather than a vice. The truth is somewhere in between, and beyond.
Clinical studies and moral theology aside, addiction leaves all of us heartbroken, confused and angry. None of us remains unscathed, whether you or a loved one grapple directly with substance abuse, or whether you suffer from its far-reaching fallout in our society. Frustrated, we can find ourselves abandoning those who battle chemical dependency, throwing up our hands and saying, “Call me when you get clean; until then, stay away.”
If we’re to accept our mission as disciples, we must set aside our scorn, and seek out the shunned — just like Jesus, who dined with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13), healed lepers (Mark 1:40-45) and forgave an adulteress (John 8:1-11).
And if we’re tempted to judge those chained to the needle, the bottle or the medicine cabinet, we need to remember that all of us are vulnerable to that most addictive of substances: sin. Only through the saving power of Christ can we hope to attain true sobriety of heart and soul.
There’s no quick fix for the scourge of addiction; its causes and effects are far too complex and systemic. The journey to healing at the individual, community and societal levels is a long and hard one, and winds through the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the human experience.
But the starting point is finding Christ in those who suffer — and seeing, among the sores of the user’s arm, the flesh that is like ours, and the part that cries out, “Only God can judge me, but I need you to love me.”
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