Words have power; they can carry freedom or they can carry weight.
We often forget that power also resides in names.
Our names are what we closely identify with in places of comfort and places of estrangement. Knowing someone’s name can allow them to feel safe and cared for, just like forgetting someone’s name can make someone feel shame and embarrassment.
The adjectives or labels that we ascribe to someone also carry weight. When talking to or about someone who is in a vulnerable state, the words used are particularly important.
For example, there is a common tendency to call individuals who are on the journey out of addiction and in recovery as “addicts” or “alcoholics.” The intentions might be pure, but the verbiage is haunting.
“Hi, my name is Lacey, and I am a new creation in Christ Jesus.” This statement was a hopeful reminder of a new identity I received when accepting the gift of salvation.
This language seemed to be firm, even when my feelings and behavior fluctuated. In the beginning of my new life in recovery, I found it powerfully healing to identify as a new creation in Christ among other believers.
I took that part of my identity as personally as I take my own name. I was able to focus on a hopeful future without dwelling on a past I was so shameful of.
However, there have been times when someone would refer to individuals, including myself, as an “addict.” I would always laugh or shrug it off, but I questioned and quarreled inside over how others perceived me and even how I perceived myself.
I contemplated whether I was in denial, remaining silent about the new identity of “recovery” that I strongly identified with. However, I have fought this internal war long enough that I was finally confident in believing I had a new name; I was a new creation.
Researchers say that there is a rich nerve connection to the brain. The brain is neuroplastic and adapts to changes in behavior, environment, thinking and emotions.
The Center for Collaborative Awareness explains that when we use words filled with positivity, we alter how our brain functions by increasing cognitive reasoning and strengthening our frontal lobe.
This means that our use of words is a learning tool that quite literally shapes our brain.
Words have a significant impact on what we believe to be true about ourselves and others.
The goal is not to change an individual’s approach to how they identify themselves in their healing process.
Rather, it is to be more intentional with the way we use first person language that does not identify a person with their struggles or past problems. In this way, we reduce the stigma that is so easily attached to one’s addiction or reoccurrence of drug and/or alcohol use.
A Harvard Medical School study found that when people were referred to as “individuals with a substance use disorder” rather than a “substance abuser,” they were viewed as one who needed treatment rather than punishment.
James 3:4 says that like ships, our bodies are driven by our thoughts, emotions and actions, which result in how we use our tongue. James even goes on to say in verse 6 that the tongue sets on fire the entire course of life.
Our approach to reducing stigma cannot change if we are consistently referring to individuals as addicts or alcoholics.
Can you imagine the shift that would take place for individuals if they heard faith leaders using language that identified them as whole, healed, saved, loved, purposed, forgiven and restored regardless of where they are in their recovery?
This not only removes the stigma and barriers that get in the way of us loving each other well, but also invites us to see God’s redemption, producing restoration and reconciliation with our fellow brothers and sisters.
Most importantly, it is a revelation for individuals to know that they truly are a new creation in Christ.
Neither addiction nor recovery is merely an identity to attach to; it is part of a story.
Addiction is not a person’s whole identity; it does not define them. Identifying individuals by their struggles is never an approach we should take.
As Philippians 1:6 says, God’s work in us will continue until it is brought “to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
We should not deny existing problems, but we also should practice speaking God’s word of blessing over one another, as it brings hope and encouragement to move beyond our old names.
Once I began my journey of recovery, the Bible was a reminder and compass for me to explore what I believed about, and how I viewed, myself.
Let’s view those in recovery with a new name, calling out their God-given identity and not the identity that society has placed upon them!
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Master of Social Work candidate at Garland School of Social Work and an intern at The Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I). She is in long-term recovery and passionate about giving back to the recovery community as they navigate their faith.