Ed Stetzer On the The Opioid Crisis and the Church’s Response

This past year, opioids claimed 59,000 lives in the United States. This number is staggering when we consider those who avoided overdose. Add to this number the impact on families and loved ones and the number grows exponentially.

Yesterday, President Trump moved to declare this opioid crisis a “public health emergency” with the hope of aiding communities across the United States in their fight. I am thankful.

Virtually unknown a generation ago, many can point to specific people in our own communities who have been impacted by opioid addiction. We’ve seen the loss and felt the pain of these substances and know their capacity to destroy lives and families.

While I had heard of the opioid crisis, our engagement with its severity came this past September at the Rural Matters Conference in Texas. In our effort to equip pastors, elders, and ministry leaders to address their specific cultural needs, the Billy Graham Center founded the Rural Matters Institute to aid churches facing the unique challenges of rural ministry. At our inaugural conference, I was struck by the passion from several of these leaders regarding the need for help in facing this new drug epidemic.

What Is the Opioid Crisis?

An opioid is a class of drug that includes illegal substances such as heroin as well as legally prescribed medications, including oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl. These drugs are highly addictive and were used as pain management tools extensively in the 1990s, leading to rampant over-prescription.In the first decade of the twenty-first century, opioid sales and death rates have grown in near union to the point that 2010 marked a four-fold increase from 1999 levels.

In a recent testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Deputy Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Wilson Compton, noted that, “In 2015, over 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose… [and] an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain medicines.”

This has hit rural communities particularly hard. While recent efforts to curtail opioid prescriptions have seen some success, opioid use in rural communities has actually continued to grow. Many in these communities are low-income, in poor health, and have limited access to medical services and treatment centers.

In order to understand how this drug epidemic is impacting American communities, please take the time to watch this video or read this NYT piece on how it is affecting a new generation of newborns.

What Does This Mean?

So as I sat in Texas listening to story after story of ministry leaders recounting through tears how their churches were desperate for help, I realized that Christians needed to be on the frontlines in responding to this crisis. Scripture is clear that Christians need to be in the midst of suffering.

Galatians 6:2 calls us to bear one another’s burdens as a tangible demonstration of our obedience to the law of Christ to love others. Second Corinthians 1:3-5 teaches us that God even uses our own afflictions not merely as an ends but as the means of stepping into the suffering of others to bear their burden.

More to the point, bringing the gospel into these contexts of suffering and need lies at the heart of Jesus’ message. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus declares that he is the one who brings true and lasting freedom. Often times, we lose sight of the basic but profound truth that the gospel of Jesus is light in the darkness of this world. One of the darkest domains a human can inhabit, drug addiction needs the light of the gospel.

What we need is not the detached appeal for punishment and police action, but rather heartfelt compassion for those stuck in addiction and their loved ones. Unconnected from those who are suffering, advocating these tired policies is easy until you come face to face with the problem.

As I noted in my Washington Post article, this realization brought with it a much deeper and heartbreaking truth: I needed to personally repent. When I was faced with a nearly identical situation earlier in my ministry, I realized that I failed. Just like those today who ignore the opioid crisis because it is easy to ignore people not like ourselves, I ignored a community in pain because they were not like me.

In the article, I wrote,

In our rush to protect our communities, our families, and our values, we sought to put distance between “us” and “them.” We made groups, constructed labels, and tried to do everything we could to separate what we perceived as the ‘clean’ from the’ unclean’—in many cases, the white from the black….The result was predictable and, as history has proven, tragic.

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Source: Christianity Today