Redefining Sin as Suffering

If you ask Sonia Waters, addiction isn’t a moral failing to be punished. It’s an expression of suffering to which ministers must respond.
News Sonia E Waters

According to Associate Professor Sonia Waters, PhD ‘13, The Gerasene Demoniac in the Gospel of Mark reveals a valuable lesson about addiction. In this particular scripture, Jesus encounters a man who is possessed by a demon. His condition is “Legion,” the result of various sources of suffering, and the consequences are both personal and social: he harms himself and is rejected by others. But Jesus knows the difference between the voice of the man and the voice of the Legion. “I use this scripture to emphasize the difference between the person and their addiction,” says Waters. “The person is not evil; they’ve been invaded by a disease that causes spiritual pain.”

In her first book, Addiction and Pastoral Care, Waters posits that addiction is an expression of suffering. “People turn to substances to help them cope with inner or outer problems,” explains Waters. “That benefit eventually turns against them, and becomes something akin to a possession when the addiction takes over.” Through this lens, the blame is not on the individual, but on the structures of racism, poverty, and abuse that make substances appealing in the first place. Addicts, then, are not sinners. They are suffering, first from the pain that drives them to substance abuse, and then by the ravages of addiction itself.

Pastors and congregations have an opportunity to resist the stigma of addiction, and respond with love and support. Waters says they also have a wider responsibility in the public realm. “We need to stop the War on Drugs, which inordinately affects African American and Latinx communities,” she says. “We also need to reckon with how the Christian faith links sin and punishment, which allows us to punish the people we see as sinful.”

Waters’ current research expands on her prior work to explore how subclinical behaviors that are considered “bad habits” — substances, gambling, excessive internet use, disordered eating, gaming — can affect one’s ability to flourish. Among other questions, her work asks what it means spiritually and theologically to need to escape our bodies, and how being present throughout the passing of time is connected to our relationship with God.

Waters hopes that her students find a universal lesson here. “Churches need to create a culture that’s not surprised by the existence of suffering,” she says. “We as clergy have the privilege of being a solid and stable presence in people’s lives, welcoming the fullness of their experience, even if that experience includes addiction or trauma.”

Waters was promoted to associate professor of pastoral theology in October 2020. Jacqueline Lapsley, dean and vice president of academic affairs and professor of Old Testament, says “Princeton Seminary is truly blessed and proud to have Prof. Waters on our faculty and her promotion to associate professor with tenure rightly acknowledges the excellence of her teaching and scholarship. Her work on addiction breaks new and important ground in the field of pastoral theology from which both church and society will benefit enormously.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Special Advisor & Founding Director, IJM Institute

Bethany Hoang, Class of 2004

“The rooting of justice in our spiritual formation in Christ requires careful thought and teaching. I was equipped to lead in this way through my time at PTS.”