The 2019 Spring Conference at Mid-America Reformed Seminary featured Dr. James Berry, who spoke on “Understanding the Insanity of Addiction.” Dr. Berry is Associate Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at West Virginia University, where he also serves as the Director of Addiction Services. He is a recognized expert on opoid and other addictions. Earlier in the year, he appeared on a NOVA program about addiction and testified before a Senate Subcommittee regarding the opoid epidemic in America. He is also an elder at Reformation OPC in Morgantown, WV.
The Conference was on March 12, 2019. Over 60 people attended on campus, with others livestreaming the event. Dr. Berry runs inpatient and outpatient clinics for people suffering from addictions. He said this was his first opportunity to address a specifically Christian audience. He read Psalm 84, saying, “This psalm resonates with me when I think about treating somebody with addiction.”
Dr. Berry described the current epidemic, introduced the disease model of addiction, delineated the spectrum of care, offered Christian considerations, and concluded by answering questions.
Drug-related deaths are the leading cause of accidental death in the US, which Dr. Berry said is due in large part to “overprescribing pain pills.” Although measures are being implemented to cut down on prescription abuses, deaths are not decreasing because heroin is “dirt cheap” and more potent drugs are becoming more prevalent. The number of deaths caused by substance misuse from 2019 through 2025 is projected to total more than half a million.
Dr. Berry described the Biological-Psychological-Social model of treatment that addresses all those aspects of a disease, and then explained how medical professionals understand the disease model of addiction. The brain and its neuroplasticity are important factors in addiction, which is defined as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” It is characterized by one or more of the following (known as ABCDE):
– Inability to consistently ABSTAIN,
– Impairment in BEHAVIORAL control,
– DIMINISHED recognition of problems, and
– Dysfunctional EMOTIONAL response.
Dr. Berry noted that addiction is not “an intelligence problem,” as some of “the most brilliant people” suffer with it. It is “not an acute disease,” but rather a “chronic” one. Like other chronic health problems, the effort should be to try to “contain” or “manage” it rather than “cure” it. The two main goals for health care professionals are to “keep alive” the patient and “increase [that person’s] quality of life.”
The most important factors in transforming lives are HOPE, MEANING, and CONNECTION. “Here is where the church comes in,” Dr. Berry said. He quoted Psalm 37:4 about the desires of the heart, and noted that ever since sin entered the world, man is “trying to get back to God.” Four historical events bring us closer to God: Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Peace. In the Incarnation, “God came to us in human form” with a body and brain like ours to be truly WITH us. On the Cross, Christ suffered and satisfied all penalties and is FOR us as our Redeemer. Through the resurrection, God “transforms our suffering” and brings “joy and meaning” to our lives. We have Peace with God now and will have eternal peace in eternity with redeemed bodies and brains. In this awareness, we can rest.
Dr. Berry encouraged people of God to work together in the church to “continue to build each other up” and “draw others into the church,” where the “cadence and liturgy” of worship shapes us as we encounter God.
He stressed the prevalence of shame and guilt for an addict who feels like a failure, and urged Christians not to overlook or minimize the sin but to be honest, which includes the acknowledgement: “We’re all failures.” He also encouraged believers to create “space for confessing to one another” in appropriate ways, and spoke of the value of hearing a confession as a “reminder” of personal sin and the need to “rely on God’s grace.” The person requiring help is “not only sick, but also a sinner,” who needs “not only therapy, but also forgiveness [and] grace.” He noted that in the biblical account of the ten lepers, “nine were healed [but] one made well by grace.”
Dr. Berry offered several specific suggestions to Christians who desire to minister to those struggling with addiction, beginning with the injunction to “Keep the Sabbath.” He also recommended visiting a 12-step meeting open to the public to learn more about the problem or offering the use of a building one owns for such a meeting. A person can come alongside a struggler by providing a phone number and being willing to receive calls or texts at critical moments or by spending time with the person in activities to help distract from desires. Some Christians might serve as chaplains at a hospitals or treatments facility. He urged, “Be with your brother or sister without feeling like you have to fix or solve their problems,” and reminded listeners that true “compassion is to suffer with” the other person.
“Dr. Berry’s speeches were peppered with anecdotes and application of this important subject,” says Rev. Steve Swets, pastor of Rehoboth URC in Ancaster, ON. “I plan to encourage my whole consistory to listen to these two speeches. There is an opoid epidemic today and this will continue to have to be addressed in local congregations.”
The first part of Dr. Berry’s presentation is available here and the second part can be watched here.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6 & 13 of the April 19, 2019, issues of Christian Renewal.