Jim Quigley had been sober for four years and was one semester away from graduating from Bible college when his stopped car was rear-ended by someone going 50 mph.
He ended up with two artificial discs in his spine and a prescription for opiate painkillers.
“I was allowed to have eight pills a day if I took them like the label instructed,” he said. “But in my mind, if I took all eight at one time, but no more, I wasn’t really abusing them.”
A month after surgery, his prescription ran out, and he quit using. But he fell back into alcohol and drug abuse and, three years later, came back to prescription opiates.
“My last year down in Florida, I was in the hospital three different times for pneumonia related to my substance abuse,” Quigley said. “I was an IV drug user. I had used dirty needles and had cellulitis [skin] infections. I almost lost my hand. I was in three crisis stabilization units for suicide attempts. One time I took so much medication that I was in a coma for four days.”
Quigley’s cousin found him a long-term rehab place in North Carolina. His first night at Freedom Farm Ministries, a local pastor told the room, “A lot of you guys have had at one time a relationship with the Lord. You think, I’ve gotten so far away from God, I don’t know how I could ever get back to Him. I need to tell you—God hasn’t gone anywhere. You just need to repent.”
“I said the first honest prayer I’ve said in years,” Quigley said. He would go on to graduate from the program, then work his way up to executive director. Today, Quigley works with about 100 addicts a year.
“Ultimately, I can’t change anybody,” Quigley said. “I just continue to present the truth to them and see God grab hold of their lives.”
Freedom Farm is just one way that Christians are tackling the opioid crisis, which killed 33,000 Americans in 2015 and almost 2,500 Canadians in 2016. In 2010, Americans—who make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population—consumed 80 percent of the world’s opioids and 99 percent of its hydrocodones (semi-synthetic opiates like Vicodin or Lortab). Canadians are the second highest opioid users after Americans.
This summer, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, in response to a commission report that said the country was “enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11th every three weeks.” Thanks to opioids, overdosing on drugs is now the most common cause of death for people younger than 50.
Opiates—which include heroin, codeine and morphine—are drugs made from the opium poppy. When ingested, the chemicals attach to receptors in the brain, blocking any signals of pain and replacing them with euphoria.
Using opiates to replace pain with pleasure has been around as long as the poppy—ancient Sumerians called it the “joy plant.” It’s been causing trouble almost as long, including two major wars between England and China, the morphine addiction of injured Civil War soldiers, and the invention of a German dilution that was supposed to be less addictive but turned out to be heroin.
Today’s epidemic was fueled by the development and aggressive marketing of OxyContin in the late 1990s. Opiate manufacturers such as Perdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, assured doctors that modern opiate pills weren’t addictive and could be safely used for long periods of time. And from 1999 to 2015, pain prescriptions quadrupled.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, most of those prescriptions have been filled in towns and small cities inhabited largely by poor white residents, many of whom are unemployed or uninsured.
“Rural Appalachia has less opportunity for economic or social mobility,” explained Covenant College psychology professor Kevin Eames. Coal mining “is a dangerous, tedious, and labor-intensive job. Poverty tends to produce family dysfunction, which is passed down from generation to generation. A combination of hopelessness, emotional wounds and physical pain make substance abuse highly likely.”
“Last summer, we had 26 overdoses in four hours in Huntington, [West Virginia],” said Chris Priestley, who pastors a church about three hours away. “They ran out of ambulances.”
One family member of North Carolina pastor Donnie Griggs became addicted through prescribed medication for pain; another began with marijuana and gradually amped up.
It guts him. “We are drowning in this,” he said. “Everywhere I go, small towns are being eaten up with this stuff.”
The Church’s Response
Not every church can whip up a recovery center, especially those small churches in rural areas where opioid abuse is most rampant.
“We have to recognize what we can and cannot do,” Priestley said. He aims for preventative care by providing Gospel-centered preaching, Biblical counseling and solid pastoral care. His Crossroads Church partners with other organizations and the medical community.
“We want to connect people to care that is comprehensive, while also being present and welcoming them to a new Gospel community, so they can hope and heal alongside those who love Jesus,” he said. “We’ve truly seen transformation in those scenarios.”
Communities like the one Priestley is offering are a tremendously effective support for an addict’s recovery, Eames said. Churches can also play a key role in relieving the underlying stressors—financial, relational, spiritual, physical—that may send a person to opiates in the first place.
Griggs calls out opiates from the pulpit, saying: “When we talk about our town’s brokenness, we put a name on it. We talk about the pill addiction.”
That seems to encourage people to ask for help, he said, though the shame is deep and extra complex for those whose addictions grew out of legitimate doctor’s prescriptions.
“‘My doctor said I needed this’—I hear that so much,” Griggs said. “For a soccer mom to go to the hospital and say, ‘I’m addicted to OxyContin or heroin’—there’s a stigma in our town. … People really feel trapped.”
Opioid addiction is both simply sin and also very messy. Its claws are especially long and sharp, and they often sink in through the innocence of a doctor’s prescription.
“I’ve seen a lot of good people who love Jesus get hooked on this stuff,” Griggs said. In addition, “a lot of people are taking their hopelessness to this instead of the cross. This has been prescribed as a way to deal with pain and sadness, because I don’t think the church has done a great job of explaining how the Gospel encounters us in suffering and mourning. The church has almost made it sound like if you aren’t smiling all the time, something is wrong with your Christianity.”
But the church also has the right answer. Along with providing presence and support, it can point addicts to the only solution for sin.
“Addicts are not immune from the hope of the Gospel,” Priestley said. “That’s pretty important to remember, to stay grounded instead of getting overwhelmed. I’m called to preach the Gospel—that’s not irrelevant to my city’s crisis. That actually applies. … We have every reason—because of the cross and the resurrection—to have hope for the future.” ©2017 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
Abridged from an article that originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website. The full version is available at thegospelcoalition.org.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition and a contributing editor at Christianity Today.