FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Freedom from Addiction: It Starts Today: John Elmore

with John Elmore | April 24, 2024
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When you're stuck in a relentless loop, it's tough to see a way out. From porn and pills to food, money, alcohol, social media, body image, status, and even anxiety—addictions come in all shapes and sizes. Take John Elmore: He battled alcoholism to the point where doctors warned him he'd die if he didn't stop. Fast forward to now: 15 years sober, and he's leading the world's largest, weekly recovery gathering, guiding people toward healing through faith in Christ. If you're struggling with addiction, tune in for John's story of hope.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Caught in endless addiction loops? Follow John Elmore’s path from alcoholism to leading faith-based recovery for hope: Your freedom awaits.

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Freedom from Addiction: It Starts Today: John Elmore

With John Elmore
April 24, 2024
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John: This guy walks up to me, and he asked this question: “Hey, will you commit to staying sober for the next 24 hours?” I said, “You don’t know what’s going on in my life, bro. I’m falling apart at the seams; I’m living on a couch. Maybe you didn’t hear what I shared. I don’t need a day; I need a lifetime of help. I need something serious.”

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: Okay, so we had an interesting drive home, four hours in the car, and you decide to make a phone call, out of nowhere—

Ann: —oh, you’re talking about—

Dave: —to my sister.

Ann: Yes, you’re talking about our visit to see my dad. We started talking about your

family. Are you sharing this today?

Dave: I figured this is where we’re headed today, so go ahead and tell them. I didn’t

know this was going to happen.

Ann: Well, a lot of you know that Dave has a background where both parents were

alcoholics. There was a lot of abuse and adultery. It was pretty painful and, as a result of that, out of the four kids that are still alive, none of you really touch base with one


Dave: We talk about once a year.

Ann: You have no memories of growing up. So, I said, “Oh, we should call your sister.”

We called her and talked for two hours straight.

Dave: [Laughter] Yes, the bottom line, and the reason I’m bringing it up is, Ann asked my sister, Pam: “Tell us about growing up and the divorce.” She starts sharing things—I

don’t remember any of this; I was one to six years old—of abuse, neglect, two drunk

parents almost every night, parties. All I know is I was listening to a story of a

family I almost didn’t even know existed, but it was my family and my parents who were


Ann: And you were really quiet during the whole conversation. Why were you so quiet?

What was going on?

Dave: I think I was in trauma. I was like, “I can’t believe this was my life,” listening

to the fall-out of addiction.

Today, we get to talk about that because—not my family so much—but a lot of families

have similar stories in some way; and there’s hope, and there’s actually help, for people

that go through that. We have an author and speaker and pastor with us

today, who wrote a book sort of dealing with addictions. John Elmore, thank you for

coming to FamilyLife Today. Welcome!

John: It is all my honor. I’m so thankful to be with the two of you. I said recently, “These are like long-time friends that I’ve just met.” I’m so thankful.

Dave: Well, you’re sitting over there with a smile on your face when you’re hearing this.

What was the smile?

John: The smile is the redemption that Jesus brings. The smile is, “Thank You, Lord,

that you pulled me out of my wreckage before I had children.” The smile is that you all

are sitting here having an honest conversation, because everybody’s got something

they’re dealing with, and not everybody’s talking about it.

Ann: Yes!

John: The smile is the fact that you guys are using your platform here at FamilyLife Today, and your lives, so that others can have hope, so that others can start talking about their pain and come out into the freedom that is available there in Christ. There’s a whole lot behind that smile, and I’m so thankful.

Dave: It’s good to have you here. A lot of people don’t know that you lead—as a pastor

at Watermark Church in Dallas, you lead—one of the biggest recovery ministries in the

country, right?

Ann: In the world!

Dave: [It’s] called Re:generation. On Monday nights, over 1200 people show up.

John: Yes.

Dave: We want to talk about your story a little bit, because you wrote a book called,

Freedom Starts Today: Overcoming Struggles and Addictions One Day at a Time. This

isn’t just somebody else’s story; this is your story. So, tell us a little bit about your story.

John: I wrote the book that I needed when I was zero days sober. I had heard two

things when I was a kid. I heard that sin leads to death, and I heard that there’s freedom in Christ; and I thought they were both lies. I thought they were scare tactics and control tactics by youth pastors.

“Sin leads to death;” I thought, “No, it doesn’t. Nobody gets drunk, gets high,

sleeps with a girl and dies. They don’t drop dead. In fact, they’re having a lot

more fun than I am.” Then I heard “freedom in Christ,” and I thought, “There’s not freedom in Christ; it’s bondage. He keeps me from doing everything I want to do.”

So, I rejected all of it; I walked away. I think I was more of a Deist; I thought God existed, but He had nothing to do with me. I got the money, I got the girl, I got the job, I got the fraternity office. Whatever it was, it was my hard work that effort-ed toward it. It

was like Jacob in the Old Testament, throwing sticks in water, thinking I was the one

doing it when all along it was God sustaining me and helping me.

Dave: Now, when you say you heard these, what you thought were lies, is that because you grew up in a family that took you to church? Where did you hear these kinds of truths?

John: Yes, we went to—

Dave: —I call them truths, but at that time you thought they were lies.

John: They were. They were truths. For sure they were truths. It just took me a long  time to come face to face with them and the reality of it.

We grew up going to church, this old Presbyterian church in Springfield, Missouri. My

parents sent me off to a Christian summer sports camp every summer. They’d save up

their money to do that. I heard the gospel, and I loved me, loved my sin, loved pleasure, more than I loved God. I loved the popularity, became a chameleon, just chased after the world.

So, at the age of 30, with a loaded 12-gauge shotgun to my head, I realized sin leads to

death. It just sometimes has a really long fuse, but it absolutely led to death: relational

death, financial death, physical death. I had three doctors tell me, “If you keep drinking

like this, you’re going to die.”

Dave: I read last night, actually, as I was going through your book, I turned to Ann

and said, “Let me read to you what John wrote in the Introduction,” which you just

mentioned. At the end of this Introduction, you said, “I was drinking with two homeless

guys in Austin, Texas. I was lonely. I told them to come sit with me, and I would buy

them whatever they wanted.”

“This was a new low for me, and my family knew it. Five hundred dollars and eight hours later, my big brother was on a one-way flight to Austin to put me in my own car and bring me to Dallas for a family intervention.” So, that’s where you start the book.

Ann: But I’m just curious, so you grew up like, “No, I’m just a Deist.” What happened in

between that part where, “I’m rejecting God, and I have a gun to my head?” Like when

did this problem—? You thought, “I have a problem,” and I’m guessing it took a while.

John: Yes; the rejection of God was a slow cooker thing. I think, as an eight-year-old, I may have trusted in Christ; but what happened is, I thought He saved me eternally and then I had to follow all the rules, this side of eternity. That became this crushing weight; but I couldn’t. I failed over and over and over again. We all do.

As a kid, I was like, “I can’t keep all of Your stupid rules. I’m just a colossal failure.” Whether it was girls or obedience, I failed again and again and again. So, finally, I said, “Alright, I guess the problem is not You; it’s me. So. I’m done!” And ( just walked away. I thought that He just saved us from hell when we died. So, that became this drift of  “I can’t do this.”

The weight of the law was crushing me. It was to reveal the holiness of God and the sinfulness of me, and should have pushed me more to a daily walk with my Savior, but I didn’t know that or grasp it until I was 30.

Ann: You just gave in to all of the temptations, to all the desires, like, “I’m going for it.”

John: Yes, I quit fighting it. I decided, “I’m done fighting this and failing, so I’m just going to go for it. Maybe I won’t go to hell when I die because of some prayer I prayed when I was eight.” I’m hesitant to share this part of the story. often, because my sin is what got me to the place that I was; make no mistake about that. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

I met a girl at a party, and we got married soon thereafter. Two years into that marriage, she began having an affair with one of my friends. At that point in my life, because I built my world on money, status, my career in advertising, my things, our cars, our house, our lake property—all just the world—

Ann: —which the world would say, “Wow! You have it all!”

John: —which is why no one ever thought I had a drinking problem. They said, “You

don’t have a drinking problem. You’re doing amazing!” I was not doing well, and go figure, that someone would have an affair. I was a train wreck of an alcoholic husband, bringing weed, pills into the relationship. I even brought porn into the relationship.

Of course, I was running for the world, and she was probably running for love.

So, when I found out about that affair, I went from a functional alcoholic to a dysfunctional alcoholic. I felt like a dog chasing my tail. “Is this really all I’m going to do, just work for the next 40 years of my life? Get up, work hard, eat, drink, get drunk, try to escape the crushing anxiety, the pressure of the world, sleep, get up, go to work, get drunk? I’m just not going to do it.”

The reason why I say I’m hesitant to share is because some people might hear that and think, “Oh, my husband or wife has been unfaithful, so I’m going to go that path, too. It worked out for John, and it’ll work out for me.” I sought after her with the gospel, probably 12 times, to ask her forgiveness for being married to an alcoholic.

They ultimately got married, had kids. That door was forever shut. I would never prescribe someone to chase down that path of divorce. It was so destroying. It was what God used as the anvil to just crush me, turn me over to my sin, let everything unravel. Doctors told me I was dying of alcoholism. He got my attention. I realized sin led to death.

I also realized, when I heard there was freedom in Christ, I didn’t want freedom because I didn’t know I was a slave to sin. At the age of 30, an alcoholic, sleeping on a couch, losing everything, I was like, “I need freedom. I am desperate for freedom, and I can’t get free from this. It’s bigger than me.”

He did not treat me, as Psalm 103 says, as my sins deserved. There’s no time out;

there’s no penance. He just grabs you, wraps you up like a Father that He is, and pulls you out of the fire. It doesn’t make you better. He did not make me better. He made me

new, altogether new.

Dave: As you were telling that part of your story, I’m sitting here looking across the table thinking, “Man, that is not who you are. That’s who you were.” I can almost not even believe it, because I had lunch with you and read your book, and I’m thinking, “This is not who this guy was.” But it really was the life you were living.

Take us back to how the transformation took place, because you show up, with

your brother showing up and saying, “There’s an intervention.” You’re still wallowing in

your sin.

John: Sure.

Dave: What did that intervention look like?

John: So, those homeless guys—I still can see myself sitting there—Stephen F. Austin

Intercontinental Hotel on Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas. He found out, put me in

my car, drove me back. This isn’t like a formal intervention like the TV show. I don’t even think they knew what they were doing. This was motivated out of love. I don’t think they knew they were following Matthew 18: “If your brother sins, show him his fault. If he doesn’t listen, take two or three others.” They were widening the sphere of influence.

I get to Dallas; my parents are there, waiting. They say, “We love you too much to let

you do this. You’re hurting yourself. You’re hurting us. You’re not going back.”

Dave: What did you think when you walked in there? Did you think: “I’m fine. This is ridiculous?” Or did you think—

John: —yes, I still didn’t think I was an alcoholic.

Dave: Really?

Ann: You didn’t?!

John: It’s like, when your drinking friends tell you, “You drink too much” and you have

doctors telling you you are, but I just—no, I didn’t. Because when you’re in sin, you’re usually hanging out with people who sin. It was normal. My life was normal for the people that I was with.

Ann: But John, sitting on a street with the homeless guys, you didn’t think, “Okay, I’m

kind of at a low here?”

John: No, my buddies came and joined me eventually. They were like, “Oh, this is cool.

We’ll come hang out, too.” It was normal.

Ann: Wow!

John: Which tells you how far gone I was. I just wanted my family off my back. I was going through detox at my brother’s house. It was like horrific, demonic nightmares. I was an insomniac; I’d stopped eating; [I was] paranoid. Truly, I think God was saying, “I’m going to turn you over to it until you yield, until you surrender,” which is the story of the prodigal son, right?

Ann: Yes.

John: That’s what the father says: “Okay, you can go.”

We overlook this part. We often think, “He longed to eat the pods the pigs were eating,

and then he came to his senses.” No, he didn’t come to his senses. He came to his senses because of this line that we leave out: “No one gave him anything.” If someone would have given him something, he would have stayed in the distant land.

Dave: Yes.

John: That’s all he wanted. But it was that turning over to depravity, “I have nothing,” that moved him to return. In that nothingness, not even thinking I’m an alcoholic, I said, “Hey, I’ll go to AA.” I didn’t even know what Alcoholics Anonymous was; I just wanted them off my back.

So, I did. I walked in that first night. This guy walked up to me and asked this question: “Hey, will you commit to staying sober for the next 24 hours?” I’m thinking, “You don’t know what’s going on in my life, bro. I’m falling apart at the seams; I’m living on a couch. Maybe you didn’t hear what I shared. I don’t need a day; I need a lifetime of help. I need something serious.”

Ann: So, you did share at group.

John: Yes, I think the Holy Spirit moved me. It was my heart pounding through my chest, and all the while, I’m just looking around, thinking, “These people are idiots. This is stupid. Get me out of here. I don’t belong here.” But it was like the Holy Spirit was compelling me out of my chair: “I have to walk forward.”

And then, there was this bait-and-switch question. He said “Hey, so you want to quit

drinking?” I said, “Well, you didn’t ask that. No, I don’t want to quit drinking, but I know that if I don’t, I’m sitting on a time bomb.” The moderator said, “Oh yes, sorry. Will you commit to staying sober for 24 hours?” I said, “Sure.”

Afterwards this guy said, “Hey, so if you’re going to do this—if you’re going to commit to

staying sober for 24 hours—you’re going to need somebody to walk through it with. You’re going to need to call me tomorrow.” He was talking like The Big Lebowski, like Austin, Texas. I thought, “Of all the people that could help me, it’s you? You’ve got to be kidding me.” [Laughter]

Ann: So, you’re totally judgmental?

John: Oh, yes, yes. So, I did; I committed to staying sober for 24 hours. He said, “Alright, what time is it?” I said, “It’s six.” He said, “Great! Call me tomorrow at six.” And he said, “Oh, pray and ask God to help you stay sober.” So, I do. Next day—

Ann: —you do pray that?

John: Yes, but super flippant, like, “I don’t even know if You’re listening, or if You’ll do anything.” Next day, I call this guy. He asked, “So, did you do it?” I said, “Dude, yes. I’ve stayed sober if that’s what you mean.”

Dave: Was it hard to be sober for 24 hours?

John: Yes, and so I leave. My phone starts blowing up like it does every night, like “Hey, let’s go down to the pubs,” “Let’s go down to 4th Street,” “Let’s go downtown.” I said, “No, I’m not.” I sat at this all-night diner, and I read the first 100 pages of AA (a big

Book). I read a different book these days [the Bible].

So, the next day, I call him and he asked, “Did you stay sober?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “So you didn’t drink?” I said, “No.” He said, “By God’s strength?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, did you pray?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Great! It was by God’s strength. Do you want to go another 24 hours?”

I said, “Hey, Charlie, I know you mean well. I really think you’re trying to help me. But how long are we going to do this? 24 hours? 48 hours? I need real help!” He’s like, “Mm hmmm, yes. You done? Will you commit to staying sober for the next 24 hours?” I said [exasperated], “Fine, Charlie.”

Ann: Because you’re thinking, “I need more than 24 hours. This is long-term stuff.”

John: Well, yes. I’ve been drinking since junior high when I would make mixed drinks,

after I got home from school by myself.

Dave: And you’d gone a month, right, before?

John: Yes. When my parents would put on the pressure, or my drinking friends would

tell me I’m drinking too much, I’d dial it back and prove to everybody that I wasn’t an

alcoholic, because I don’t keep a fifth of vodka in my desk drawer. I could muster the

effort, and then every time I started drinking again, it was worse than the first.

So yes, I thought, “I’m not an alcoholic. This is stupid,” and “What good is one day going to do me? I don’t need a day; I don’t need two days; I need a lifetime.” What I didn’t know was that, in that moment, God, through this guy Charlie—who didn’t, at that point, believe; he’s now a believer—

Dave: —the big Lebowski, right?

John: Yes, the big Lebowski. [Laughter] He’s now a believer; he has since trusted in

Christ, too.

Dave: Wow.

John: It’s crazy! God’s so good. I didn’t know that He was teaching me what Paul wrote to the Galatians way back when, in Galatians 5:16: “If you walk by the Spirit,” which is an all-day, ongoing, present tense, continuous verb—you just walk with God all day every day—that’s our part, then there’s a promise: “You will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Unbeknownst to him, God was using him to teach me to have a daily, dependent walk with God that I just jettisoned from as a kid, like “He’ll save you from hell forever, but He’ll also save you from hell today,” just today. “Here’s daily bread. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Because if He gave me weekly bread or annual bread, let’s be honest, He would see me once a week, or once a year, once a lifetime, which is why I was so spiritually

starved in the first place. I thought it was: “Alright, You gave me lifetime bread to

bust me out of hell, and I guess now, I just follow your rules.” He’s like, “No, no, no! It’s

daily. I saved you; I keep you safe.”

This daily sobriety led to daily dependence on God. I knew. from my childhood, this phrase: “Jesus saves.” So, I got on my knees beside the couch that I was living on, and

I said, “I’ve squandered everything You’ve given me; but whatever I have left, it’s Yours. You get my body, my mind, my soul, my days, my time, my relationships, where I live, what I do, my computer, my phone, my money. You get it all. I’m a really bad god; be God of my life.”

It was like I finally knew what it meant to be born again. I had had enough “Christianese” and been around that world enough that I had heard that phrase. I realized, “This is what they meant!” All of life snapped into focus, and I was like, “This is it! Oh, my goodness! All of life is to know Him and make Him known! That’s it! There is nothing else! The rest is details.”

At the age of 30, I thought my life was over; I thought I had squandered it; I was so far gone. I just thought I was so done, and I had ruined it beyond repair. God said, “No, give Me it. Give Me your divorce, give Me your alcoholism, give Me the sexual abuse you experienced as a little kid; give Me it all, and I’ll take those broken parts, and I will do something amazing.”

Soon thereafter, I was going to spend the rest of my life telling everyone that Jesus is real. “You are never too far gone, and He can change everything.” [Emotion in voice] That’s what I live to do now, so thank you for giving me an opportunity today.

Ann: [Emotion in voice] We’re just all crying in the studio. That’s so inspiring. I think we

all feel it. We see your passion for Jesus. We see that He has saved you. I think we feel the same thing: but for His goodness, what He has done for us. He saved us and He set us free, all of us.

And yet, there are some people listening, who are maybe married to someone that’s really struggling, or maybe they’re feeling like, “I’m so in bondage to pornography,” “to

food,”— there are so many different things—

John: —yes, yes.

Ann: —“to drugs,” “to alcohol.” We want to talk more about how we can be set free.

Dave: Yes, and I would just say, “Thank you, John,” because I’m thinking there’s someone right now who’s where you were. They’re at the end of their rope. Maybe they don’t know it; maybe they just realized it in the last 20 minutes. This is: “I’m John. I need to surrender.” I want to say to that listener: the reason you’re listening right now is God put this program in front of you.

John: Amen.

Dave: And He’s calling you home—

John: —yes, yes.

Dave: —to Himself and to the power of Him who can set you free. Freedom starts with


John: Yes!

Dave: John, your story is a prime example. Ours are similar, but different, but the

same answer: “Jesus is your answer.”

I want to close in prayer. I’m going to invite a listener right now—and I would say, I

don’t know where you are; if you’re in a family room, wherever you are, I would do what

John did. I would say get on your knees. You don’t have to get on your knees, that’s

not the most important thing, but that posture is a posture of submission—

Ann: —and surrender.

John: I still do it every day.

Dave: Do you really?

John: Yes; it’s surrender; it’s humility. “If I’m god of my day today, I’m going to

wreck it, so it’s Yours.” There’s no other way to live once you’ve tasted that.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: Yes. Let me pray and, if this is your day, I want you to get on your knees and

pray with me right here, right now.

Father God, I give You my life. I give You every part of my life. I give You my sexuality; I give You my addictions; I give You my struggles; I give You my future; I give You my family; I give You my children. I give You everything! It’s not mine. I give You my money. I give You the title to my life and every part of my life.

I surrender to You. Lord Jesus, I cannot do this apart from You. I cannot overcome my lust and my sin. Only You can, so I’m inviting You to come in and transform me. Give me a power I don’t have, Your power, to live the life You called me to live. I surrender all, and I ask You to make me new and give me a new life starting right here, right now. In the name of Jesus—the only name that saves; in the name of Jesus—I pray. Amen.

Ann: Amen.

John: Amen.

Shelby: Addictions often aren’t something that’s down the street, or in someone else’s home, or a struggle that’s far away. In many cases, addiction is right in our living room. It’s within the walls of our own home, and sometimes we don’t even know that it’s there. I personally am someone who has wrestled with addiction in my life, specifically with prescription drugs, and it can seem absolutely impossible to overcome it when you’re in the thick of it. It can seem like it’s impossible, at least.

So, this conversation today was incredibly relevant to me, as it may have been for you, too. I’m really super grateful that we talked about it.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Elmore on FamilyLife Today. John has written a book called Freedom Starts Today: Overcoming Struggles and Addictions One Day at a Time. Often, that’s really what it takes: one small step every single day in order to overcome the addictions that we have in our lives.

This book is really a powerful message of hope and transformation, not only with John’s wrestles with addiction, but also giving hope to others who are struggling with it as well. And this book is going to be our gift to you when you partner with us today at FamilyLife. You can get your copy right now with any donation. You simply go online to and click on the “Donate Now” button at the top of the page.

Or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Or you can feel free to drop us a donation in the mail, too, if you’d like. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, Florida 32832.

Now, how do we deal with the real life that happens every day? Often, that real life isn’t pretty. Well, Pastor John Elmore is going to be back tomorrow to discuss being real as part of the answer of dealing with real life. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next

time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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