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Codependency: Misguided Control Problems

By Don Umphrey

(with scriptural citations from the NIV)

 I am frequently approached by Christians who have loved ones stuck in addiction who either can’t or won’t change for the better.  These loved ones often suffer in silence because they are too ashamed or embarrassed to share their burdens with other people.

 Their stories are always accompanied by tears.  And even though they may be at wit’s end, they often reject the solution. This is because they are in denial about their own problem with codependency.

 I have come to believe that codependency is an epidemic among Christians. 

Codependency Defined

 According to best-selling author, Melody Beattie, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”

 Beattie writes, “The other person might be a child, an adult, a lover, a spouse, a brother, a sister, a grandparent, a parent, a client or a best friend. He or she could be an alcoholic, a drug addict, a mentally or physically ill person, a normal person who occasionally has sad feelings.”1

 My long-time associate, Steve Steele, has written the best description I’ve ever seen of codependency from a Christian perspective. He is the long-time executive director of James Group Ministries in a Dallas, Texas suburb.   

 Steve’s perspective appeared in the book I published, Overcome by Addiction: How to Help the Hurting in Your Church and Neighborhood.  Parts of his chapter are reproduced below, but you also may purchase this book that is available on this website. 

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Referring to codependency, Steve writes:

“The problem is not with the other person.  The problem is the codependent’s reaction to the other person through obsessive thoughts and attempts to control and manipulate.  This form of ‘playing God’ becomes a type of addiction in and of itself.  It causes people to grow increasingly miserable on a road toward self-destruction, the same as a drug addict or drunkard. 

 “Programs like Alanon and Families Anonymous deal with codependency and use the same 12 steps that were developed by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s.  The steps are based on biblical principles. 

 “It has been said that worrying is the illusion that we are in control when in fact we really aren’t. I don’t know who first said that, but this person was probably a codependent individual worrying about how to control another person’s life so he or she could sleep at night. 

 “Two old jokes: 1) To see how he or she feels, a codependent takes someone else’s temperature; 2) When codependents die, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes. 

Christians Susceptible

 “I have come to believe that Christians have the hardest time with codependency.  There are lots of reasons, including a perceived sense of duty to save the world.  Not that we aren’t supposed to participate, because we are.  It’s just that we are supposed to partner with God in the process—not try to replace Him.

 “Christians also have been taught that love is the answer.  Indeed, love is the answer when properly administered.  Let me show you through the words and the actions or perhaps more accurately, the inactions, of Jesus. 

 Biblical Examples

 “In the Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son, ‘The younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living’ (Luke 15:13).  

 “Did the young man’s father love his son?  We know from the rest of the story that he did.  But there is no indication in the story that the father attempted to follow the son toward the far country in an attempt to change his mind or drag him home. 

No, the father stayed home. 

 “A similar phenomenon occurs in the story of the Rich Young Ruler.  Jesus had an offer for this man who was addicted to his wealth.  ‘Come, follow me.’ But preceding that, Jesus told the man what was separating him from God: ‘Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’ (Mark 10:21).  

“‘At this the man’s face fell.  He went away sad, because he had great wealth’ (Mark 10:22).  So Jesus ran after him and tried to convince him to change his mind.  Right? 

 Wrong! That would be codependent behavior.

 “Why?  Jesus knew what was number one in this man’s heart.  The only reason for Jesus to run after the rich man, then, would be because Jesus’ self-esteem or ego demanded that the rich man obey him.  This wasn’t the case, though.  Jesus didn’t need this man’s approval.  He sought only God’s approval. 

 “Did Jesus love the rich man?  Absolutely.  Mark tells us so.  But Jesus let him walk away and used it as a teaching experience for his followers, including us.

 Taking Advantage of Love

 “Many Christian families have had one or more family members go astray.  It might have been drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, prescription pills, the list goes on.  Parents and loved ones often spend countless time and money trying to ‘get them back,’ only to have them repeatedly take advantage of the love the rest of the family has for them. 

 “What a frustrating and anxious situation for a Christian.  Love as the answer is now working against them.  At least the way it’s being administered isn’t working.  Let’s look at a real life example of how it might look to administer love properly.

 “Just about anyone who’s had a newborn child has been to the pediatrician to get shots for things like chicken pox, polio, and measles.  This requires parental participation.  Usually, the nurse will ask the parent to help hold the child while he or she administers the injection.  All the while the child looks at the parent with an expression that communicates, ‘How could you let this happen to me?’

“This is one of those moments when a parent must choose to love the child in the right way for the child’s own good.  Or to say it differently, parents must love them enough to watch them suffer for their own good.  

 “Does our heavenly Father do this?  Yes, the Bible tells us He disciplines those He loves.  (See Proverbs 3:12; 1 Corinthians 11:32, Hebrews 12:6; Revelation 3:19.)

 “The wrong or codependent way would be to not take children to get their shots so that the parent would not have to feel uncomfortable.  The motive of such a parent would be self-centered or fear-based.

 Why God Has No Grandchildren

 “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained to Christian parents that God has no grandchildren.  To avoid codependent behavior, Christians must give their children back to God because only He knows what they really need.  I wouldn’t want to be the one standing between God and His children when He chooses to administer discipline so the child might turn around and go the right way. 

 “We all know the best teacher is God and consequences.  We learned this because we’ve all experienced those hard-earned lessons and paid a price for the information.  No amount of lecturing, attempting to produce guilt, shaming, criticizing, bribing or forcing can outdo God when it comes to producing desire for change in humans. 

 “How could we knowingly deny our own children such a powerful tool?

 “I remember driving the family car as a teen and when I was alone, ‘peeling out’ and spinning the rear tires on the pavement.  Pretty soon, I was presented with a bill for two new tires from my father.  

 No more showing off for me.  It took two weeks to earn the money to buy just one tire!  

 “Expensive lesson?  Nope.  The price was just right.”

 * * *

 Thanks, Steve Steele, for a great job of explaining both the problem and the solution.  

 After repeatedly seeing codependency surface among Christians, I felt a need to do something about it.   That’s when Janet Barnes of Sheffield, Alabama contacted me with her desire to write such a book, and I was anxious to publish it.

 Janet worked tirelessly for over a year writing the story of her son, a one-time high school basketball star who turned to drugs.  She drove herself crazy trying to “fix” him and finally found her spiritual solution.   

 Codependency Workbook 

 The title of Janet’s book is My Son: An Addict—Finding Hope for Him and Peace for Me.  It includes both her first-person story and a other material that guides codependents toward the solution. You may find Janet's workbook and other addition-recovery titles by clicking on "Search by Category" or "All Product Listing" 

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 Footnote: 1) Melody Beattie Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, Hazelden, Center City, MN, 1982, p. 36. 

 “New International Version” and “NIV” are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Used by permission.

© 2022 by Don Umphrey