When Mercy Trumps Judgment

Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy

Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy

In early May, I’m speaking at an annual fundraiser for a large women’s center in Texas. Their mission is to provide housing and services to homeless and addicted women who are trying to rebuild their lives.

As I plan what to say, I realize I’ll be speaking to a rare kind of audience: People glad to show up where they know they’ll be asked to give money to help addicts and alcoholics.

Typically, you see, we’re not a group that easily evokes sympathy. Our cause doesn’t tug at the heart—or purse—strings the same way child hunger or breast cancer does.

And I get why. To the casual observer, addiction looks more like selfishness at full throttle than a progressive disease. We addicts tend to be stubborn, manipulative, and in many cases, criminal. Some of us are known for squandering what help we do receive.

No wonder we evoke disdain or distancing more quickly than generosity. Why would anyone want to throw good money after the likes of us?

Actually, I can think of several good reasons. More than two-thirds of American families are touched by addiction. It plays an enormous role in poverty, unemployment, crime, child abuse, and accidental death. The collateral damage is just huge.

On the positive side, many of us do recover. An estimated 20 million people today are enjoying long-term recovery.

Yet, despite these numbers, we don’t seem to have the collective will as a society to galvanize around this issue. It’s as if the stigma attached to addiction extends even to our willingness to invest in recovery. And I don’t see that changing until our compassion for the addict outweighs our aversion.

One of the biggest obstacles to such a shift is the erroneous belief that addiction is mainly a moral issue. Even though addiction is classified as a disease, many good people, including many Christians, can’t get past the idea that addicts choose their sickness.

I get this. And it’s true that addiction usually begins with bad choices and risky behaviors. But trust me, no one sets out to become addicted. We set out to escape pain or feel better, unable—until it’s too late—to conceive of a force so great it could hijack our brain and steamroll our will power.

And who among us hasn’t felt desperate to change the way we feel? Who of us can be certain we wouldn’t have become addicts ourselves had we been born in another place or time?

My plea for empathy raises another important point. Like a lot of folks, I used to assume that addicts were perfectly happy getting high or wasted or what have you. I had no idea they actually suffered.

When I spiraled into my own alcoholism, I learned the awful truth. Few people are more miserable than an addict who desperately wants to quit, but can’t find a way to stop. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine what this kind of powerlessness feels like.

It feels like being stuck in a nightmare where you open your mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.

It feels like watching in disbelief as you begin to betray your conscience and your values, even as you pray to do the right thing.

It feels like knowing you’re hurting the people you love the most—and knowing you’ll do it again tomorrow.

It feels like losing your job, your driver’s license, your home, your family and marriage—and still not being able to quit.

It feels like coming to believe you must have been born for nothing, since that is what you are accomplishing with your life.

Imagine feeling all of that, and I bet you’ll agree that addiction isn’t something any sane person wants. And maybe it’s time to let mercy trump judgment.


P.S. Another post that helps bring balance to this issue is this one. That’s No Excuse.

P.S.S. Several of you are asking where I’m speaking. I’m at the Downtown Women’s Center in Amarillo, TX May 6. Here’s a link. (Tickets can be bought online in a couple days).







  1. darlenerogers2013 says:

    Heather, I don’t know if you will remember me but I wrote to you about my confusion over celebrate recovery. I was used to AA meetings where people are able to share their experience, strength and hope. I felt like I had handcuffs on at the meeting. Anyway, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I have three grown children and two out of the three do not speak to me. My alcoholism took me to some pretty ugly places when they were growing up and now they can’t forgive. I’ve written amend letters ( only because they won’t speak to me) & I’m trying to stay sober a day at a time with God’s support. Some days it’s so hard because I ruminate about my behavior and neglect of my kids. I remember the worst days of my drinking and reading the vicious cycle from the Big Book! I think that chapter says it all. It’s so hard to forgive ourselves even though I know in my heart it’s a disease but it’s what that disease does to us ie. ( loose moral, breaking the law, etc). My father was an alcoholic and said some pretty guy things to me growing up but I chose to forgive. My Mother married three more alcoholics and there was one crisis after another in our home. I was sexually abused by two cousins but she was so wrapped up in her own pbs that she failed to see the forest for the trees. I was angry so when I was old enough I would drink those feelings away and not stay angry with my Mom. I worked in substance abuse & see it as a disease but the guilt & shame I would see caused so many obstacles in recovery. That’s what the steps are for, right. I have a 2 yo granddaughter living in R. I. That I have never met. It kills me. Thanks for your posts, they do give me support/hope. Sincerely, Darlene Teichman

    Sent from my iPad


  2. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died recently, I was so saddened to see so many people not only lacking compassion (and mercy!), but being downright nasty about his struggle. For the life of me, I don’t get that. To me, his journey shows how utterly difficult and overwhelming battling addiction can be. To my understanding, he was clean for a number of years and slipped back…I see that as showing what a huge demon he must have been battling. My heart goes out to those who fight that same foe. Thanks for your eloquent illustration of the struggle.

  3. There is an older, out-of-fashion way of describing addiction as bio-psycho-social disease or as a bio-psycho-social-spiritual disease. Modern discussions of addiction can be reductionistic in thinking and presenting addiction as simply a biological, genetic, brain disease. As noted in the comments, it is much more complex than that. I think we diminish our humanity by thinking that the insidiousness of addiction is merely a biological issue.

    A point of contact with Christians who see addiction as a choice governed by will power is to show them how Romans 7:15-24 applies to both addiction and sin:

    For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin (read as addiction) that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil (read as addiction) lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin (read as addiction) that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

    I used to give a lecture on addiction as disease at an inpatient rehab and would paraphrase this passage, asking the residents to raise a hand if they could NOT relate to it . . . . No one ever did.

    • Chuck, I just loved this comment. I agree that addiction is terribly complex. That scripture is one of my favorites, especially when I’m talking to Christians who can’t understand how other Xns can succumb to addiction. Thanks so much for taking time to put it here!

  4. Reblogged this on earthy monk and commented:
    Heather is a gifted writer and someone who has experienced first hand the Grace of God. As a fellow person in recovery, her words are vital to speaking truth and grace to the stigma of addiction. I encourage you to check her blog out and support her lovely and grace-filled ministry.

  5. Reblogged this on Journey Toward Shalom.

  6. Only yesterday during our chapel service one of the new men stood to testify about his ongoing struggle. I thought he might break down right there he looked so emotional. He came for prayer later and my heart just went out to him. No, no one chooses this. I am thankful for yesterday, he didn’t pick up or use. I am thankful for those who didn’t today. I am thankful you are carrying the message of recovery.

  7. Heather, I am so happy to see that you are overcoming your fear of speaking, or at least, you are managing to co-exist with it! I love this line, it rings so true to me:

    “Few people are more miserable than an addict who desperately wants to quit, but can’t find a way to stop.”

    I remember when I was gambling, I felt this. I was afraid to join any kind of group for help. I knew if I did, I would have to promise myself, a sponsor and God that I wouldn’t do it again, I knew I would. I was afraid to make that commitment to myself, much less to God! Yes, it would have been better to move away from the temptation. Living in Las Vegas is not a good place for a gambling addict. When I finally broke free, and that was after I finally told myself to take it a day at a time, not forever–I realized an important factor. It didn’t matter where I lived. If I made the commitment, I had to stop, to say no, wherever I was. Moving away is not an answer. If I truly wanted to, I could go someplace that had gambling. I had to refrain, and say no, at this time, at this place, here and now. I even prayed and told God all about it. I was afraid that I may mess up sometimes, but asked HIm to please give me the courage to forgive myself and start over. That has worked for me. I have had friends and family come to town to visit. Of course, they wanted to gamble. A few times I have gambled too. One time, I lost $100 and that really hurt. When I was working, $100 wasn’t a lot to lose. On a fixed income, that is a different story. The next time my friend came in, I gambled and won $200. I stopped and took it home. My sister and nieces came to visit, I spent a little, not enough to hurt, broke even and quit. Then I realized a second important factor: I really don’t enjoy gambling anymore. Any gambling I do now is on the computer, and it is the free games only. I even get bored with that quickly. God can get us through anything if we ask Him. Even if we aren’t sure we are ready. He will help us get ready. Thanks for such a great post! I am so glad to see you blogging again! I’ve really missed you! :)

    • Wow, thanks for sharing so honestly about your journey here, Rebecca. I can really relate to the realization that it wasn’t going to matter where you lived… Addiction is like a deep, stubborn weed we have to pull out (or let God, rather) by the roots. It took me a long time to realize I no longer wanted to drink, that I had finally surrendered the obsession and/or God had granted me an enormous reprieve. I’m just so grateful. So glad you found a way out of your gambling addiction. Amazing the similarities, or maybe not amazing at all. :)

  8. Heather, your message is right on. As the mother of a son who struggled with opiate addiction, heroin, meth and methadone, I never gave up on him – you know why? It was not just because I love him so much, but because I knew that he was battling an enemy who wanted nothing more than to steal, rob and destroy, to kill him. My son did not want this addiction, it wanted him. As his mom, I actually had many many dreams – nightmares actually, where it felt like I was stuck in a nightmare where you open your mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. I have awakened from that nightmare and now sleep peacifully as I praise the Lord who has delivered my son from the grips of addiction and set his feet on a rock. He is truly a new creation in Christ. Hallelujiah!

    • Kelly, thanks for this. I love this line: “My son didn’t want this addiction, it wanted him.” I’m so glad your son is free today. What a brave mom you were. So many are not so fortunate, especially with hard drugs like the ones you mentioned. Hugs. H

  9. Patricia says:

    I love this. It really hurts my heart when people choose NOT to help, because they’re not sure if they’re being conned or manipulated. Finally, after struggling with this myself, i decided that judgement is God’s job, not mine…better that i get conned once in a while than deny someone help who really needs it…does that make sense?

    • What a great point. People ARE afraid to help addicts for that reason. We fear being duped. But that’s why it’s so great to give to a charity like this one–because you know the money will be used for good. I love the conclusion you arrived at. Thank you!

  10. I wish so much that I could come and hear you speak in May, but I am flying to MN the following week so there is no way I can make it happen. Bummer. :( If you ever have any speaking events in Florida I will most definitely be there. :)

    This post made me think of my relationship with my Dad. I have friends and coworkers who are addicts, and for some reason I have never felt judgement towards them.
    I haven’t had contact with my father in 4 years, but I still struggle with understanding his addiction. You described him exactly. He lost his job, driver’s license, home, family, and marriage. Up until recently I have felt like he gave it all up willingly rather than him losing it. Some days I feel pity and the desire to forgive, and some days I feel pissed and terribly confused.
    It’s such a mess though. There was abuse and serious mental illnesses as well as his alcohol problem, so it’s hard to sort through it all.

    But, I want mercy to trump judgment in my life for EVERYONE….including my Dad.

    • Lyndsay, I’m so sorry about your dad! Oh man, do I understand that one. If I hadn’t become an alcoholic myself, I’m not sure I ever would have understood my dad the way I do now (he was an addict, mentally ill, and committed suicide). It was such a gift to feel mercy for him–but as you point out, it’s so complicated because we don’t stop being human and making choices because we’re addicted. And our program declares us fully responsible for all the harm we do and directs us to make amends. This is what makes addiction so difficult to deal with. It’s impossible to sort out what ugly behaviors to attribute to “the disease” and which just mean he was a limited person. It helps me to just realize that we’re all sick and any person who hurts another person or betrays people he loves is just sicker than most and so deserves just as much mercy. Does that make sense? We all hurt out of our hurt and fear. I’m rambling on. Thanks for this insightful honest reply, friend.

  11. This is so dead-on. Nobody chooses it. Here’s another way to look at it: I’ve been drinking alcohol my entire adult life, and was never given the choice of whether I’d become an addict or not. I was lucky enough that my wiring and my DNA didn’t lead me that direction. It is pure luck that having one drink didn’t make my body physically crave more and more — not any superior behavior or moral decision. I take NO credit for not being an alcoholic. Luck of the draw. In fact, anyone who drinks socially but never got addicted is incredibly lucky.

    Neither do I think you chose it.

    Funny, someone above mentioned that this post could also apply to their struggles with weight. I was thinking, likewise this post could apply to anyone who’s gay. (With the exception of the disease language.) People want to think they chose it and they can simply choose another path. But humans are much more complex than that, and I think your post highlights this.

    We all want to minimize others’ struggles. “Get over it already.” Yeah. Not so much.

    • Rachelle! So kind of you to take time to comment. Your comment is so COOL. And insightful. I’ve never in my life had someone put it that way–“I don’t take any credit for not being alcoholic.” And yes, humans are SO complicated. As I was saying to the previous commenter that when we can’t sort out what to blame what on–better to just remember we’re all sick in some sense and hurt people hurt people. We all suffer from something and that’s why mercy should be more like a blanket than a napkin. :) Hugs to you. H

  12. Heather, you are so right on the money. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the song by Imagine Dragons with a line that goes, “don’t look inside, that’s where my demons hide.” And what I can’t get over is that we all have them. We all have demons, demons that tear at us, pull at us, and hurt more than anyone else can imagine because they are our own personal demons and they are not like yours or yours or yours. And, some people, a lot of people try to end the hurt that those demons cause with alcohol, sex, food, shopping, TV, laziness, apathy, you name it, people with try it because facing those demons and the pain they cause is just too hard. It is part of the human condition to avoid pain, and we’ve got no right to judge how others try and soothe those demons.

    Smiles and blessings, me

    • Nancy, I really like the way you put all that. It’s astonishing how hard it is for us human being to not want to change how it feels to just live as were made without wanting to alter our feelings or perception of reality. I can’t wait to hear God’s explanation. :)

  13. Switch the words “alcoholic” or “addict” to “overweight” or “obese” and you describe my life.

  14. Great post! No one sets out to become an addict–right on. I wish you weren’t speaking to the choir here, and that the judgmental people in our lives would listen harder, BUT…I have faith that those who are meant to “get it” will and those who don’t…might, eventually. :)

    • Hopefully it’s not entirely the choir reading this, but I agree with your point. It’s part of why I wrote my book, hoping it might help people understand this crazy thing. Thanks for reading and commenting, friend. Need to come see what you’ve been up to!

  15. Thank you for this incredibly clear explanation of the incomprehensible demoralization that we know so well. I look forward to your words and am always grateful when I see a new blog. Thank you, Heather!

    • Oh my, you have no idea how much a writer loves to hear the words “incredibly clear explanation.” I had to work so hard on this post to make it seem like it was easy, you know? I always try to remember that when I read–the easier it is to read the harder the author worked to write it. Usually, that is. Some lighter pieces just slide out, but the ones about addiction are so complicated and nuanced and require so much careful thinking! So yes, thank you for saying that. And thanks for reading.

      • teetotaltexas says:

        I second MikeJ. Grateful for your well-written description of the struggle.
        I even get demoralized in sobriety, because when I find myself tempted or newly obsessed and scheming about how I can get away with drinking again, I STILL see it as a moral shortcoming. I don’t feel like I deserve sobriety– it doesn’t feel like an “earned” state. I still don’t want to admit that addiction is any more compulsive than just moral choices. I still want to believe I can be in control, but then it sucks me in.
        gah, what misery!
        Anyway, thank you so much for writing. If you ever make it down to Austin, I want to buy you coffee or ice cream or something!

  16. @font-face{font-family:Calibri;panose-1:2 15 5 2 2 2 4 3 2 4;}Hello, I would like to come listen to you, would you let me know where and when? My native state is a big one!

    Thanks, Mary Kaarto http://Www.Marykaarto.com

  17. Marjie Douty says:

    Yeah, no one plans the mess addiction becomes. Like that commercial where the little girl stands up and says “in eight years I’ll be an alcoholic”. Not really. She would plan to feel like her “real” self, or become the person she knows she is. But the relief is so fleeting it is never felt again like that first time. And then I/we spend years chasing it. But it CAN have a happy ending!

    • I’ve never seen the commercial you’re referencing, but it sounds amazing. And yes, the years spent chasing what used to be relief but has now turned rotten… Thanks, friend. A good day to be grateful for happy endings in recovery.

  18. DamnWeddings... says:

    It was at that damn wedding where Jesus said ‘Let them all have more wine than they’ll ever be able to drink’. Bingo! Water into Wine.
    ‘Then God had to send us Bill and Bob’s AA to fix the mess Jesus created. :lol:

  19. You have said some excellent things just now! I felt very judged by everyone during my addiction, but more so afterwards when I struggled to give up drinking. It was seen as a sin of my choosing and and that I was offending God becsuse of my actions. I never would have conciously chosen to go as low as I did, it was addiction. I dont think some people realise that alcohol is addictive! However, I am now free of this and sober today – as I have been for two years – and I make my own peace with God, not as a judgement by other mortal beings. It takes other addicts to understand, and I thank you for your thoughts ’cause its tough being judged a sinner when beating an addiction. I was re-born not as a Christian as such, but sober….now my life is my choosing………the only thing is, I have to make sober choices now and thus accept my choices as sinful or not….no where to hide in sobriety (ha….and I wouldnt have it any other way either)! Thanks H…you sure have “got it” spot on!

    • John, thanks so much for this wonderful comment. I love your idea of being reborn sober. I am so grateful to hear stories like yours. Spot on is a huge compliment and since I struggled to write this and I’m learning self-kindness, I’ll take it. :)


  1. […] her post, When Mercy Trumps Judgment, Heather Kopp at Sober Boots writes about how addiction is often judged as a moral issue, which […]

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