I am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.
There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.
A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.
I love my wife more than I can say. Unfortunately, I often neglect to say or show it. I may just be in the remedial class of romantic husbands, but a few years ago, I realized that I didn’t do nearly a good enough job telling/showing my wife what she means to me. Saying “I love you” is a good start, but I have discovered that actions speak much louder than words when it comes to making her feel loved. In fact, I’d argue that love is best shown through actio, rather than words. Jesus demonstrates this principle through his service and sacrifice for those he loved. Certainly words are necessary, but actions are vital. My biggest problem in showing my wife how much I love her is conjuring up clever ideas for showing it. Knowing what to do is a real challenge.
This week’s news has been dominated by the story of the Ashley Madison data dump. Hackers, who had stolen the account information of users of the Ashley Madison adultery dating service, released the information of hundreds of thousands of men and women who had signed up to find someone to cheat on their spouse with. The first name to pop up in the headlines was that of recently scandalized Christian marriage/morality crusader and former reality TV star, Josh Duggar. Social media, news outlets, and tabloid websites jumped at the opportunity to denounce the hypocritical actions of Duggar. In the last week, I’ve seen folks claim that all Christians are hypocrites, that Christians are the source of most social ills, that this is further proof that Christianity is a scam, folks have dismiss Duggar as a pervert, and all sorts of other vitriol. Folks who’d previously defended Duggar are conspicuously silent, many not knowing what to say after defending the man in past months. I believe that many Christians reach a point where they expect men to be sinless, instead of knowing that men can easily fall. We need to remember that Jesus is Jesus and we are not. No one is-except Jesus. I’m not trying to excuse the guy’s sins or dismiss him. Frankly, it’s not my job to deal with him. I’m neither his pastor nor his family. It’s unlikely he’ll ever read this. I will say that we need to acknowledge the seriousness of sin and judge ourselves by a higher standard than the world. We can’t wag a moralizing finger at the lost while whitewashing and excusing our own sins. It’s not right. Instead, we should take the opportunity to properly explain repentance and grace. More on that in a future post.
Personally, I’ve been watching the whole thing and feeling sorry for the man’s wife and kids, who will bear the public shame and humiliation of Josh’s actions. In addition, I’ve found myself thinking about how this happens. Whether or not ministers are statistically more likely to get caught cheating, it’s certainly news when it happens. As a guy who works in ministry, I pay attention whenever I hear about it because I’m genuinely bothered by it. For starters, it reflects badly on Jesus and His church. It also raises the specter of potential in my mind. Men that I like and respect have had these sorts of moral failings, so it follows that it could happen to me as well. I’ll admit that I’m very aware of the potential. I don’t think any of these guys planned to cheat on their wives or that they lived their whole lives as con artists, faking their faith in order to trap a wife and get a low paying pastor job. (Though, oddly enough I had a stranger accuse me of that once.) Rather, through observation, I’ve collected some common traits that make it easier for Christian men to fail morally.
Through my work as a chaplain and as an addiction counselor, I’ve learned a great deal about and from Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s often said that AA is simple: Go to meetings, find a sponsor, and work the 12 Steps. The challenge that many folks face when they start going to AA meetings is that they don’t want to get a sponsor or work the steps. Alcoholics often struggle with interpersonal relationships and authority, which makes finding someone to have an honest relationship of accountability with daunting. It’s not uncommon for alcoholics to try to go it alone for long periods of time without ever reading the AA Big Book or working the steps before finally breaking down and finding a sponsor. The most common reason alcoholics eventually enter a relationship with a sponsor and work the steps is that they recognize that their drinking and destructive patterns will destroy everything in their lives if they don’t overcome it. Desperation to escape slow death at their own hands drives them to reach out to another recovering alcoholic to get help in achieving lasting sobriety. Working with someone else, who has overcome similar struggles, works. They understand each other based on shared experience and are able to point each other toward spiritual growth, which is the most important component of the AA approach to recovery.
As a pastor, I’ve long been aware of the Biblical roots of the AA approach to recovery. The alcoholic acknowledges that they can no longer control their lives, turn control of their lives over to God (who is more powerful and able to control their lives), they then confess their past moral failings and seek to make amends with those they’ve wronged. This is essentially the Biblical path to salvation: acknowledge that we are sinners, turn our lives over to Jesus, confess our sins after a fearless moral inventory, then do our best to make it right, while continually striving to overcome our sins. Sponsorship is discipleship. Discipleship is when a believer finds someone- a more mature believer to help them train, grow spiritually, and overcome sin in their efforts to be imitate Jesus. The unfortunate reality is that despite the fact that AA sponsorship is an imitation of Christian discipleship, it is far more common in AA groups that discipleship is in churches. Christians just don’t look for relationships of accountability and spiritual training in an effort to grow in Christ and overcome sin. The desire to overcome moral failings isn’t present in churches in the same way that it is present in AA. This is despite the fact that discipleship is the basic method of spiritual growth and training presented in the Bible. It is how Jesus grew believers and how the church grew disciples for centuries.
I’d suggest that the reason for the lack of discipleship in the modern western church is simple: we aren’t overly concerned with overcoming sin, growing in holiness, or imitating Christ. It’s important to enough to many believers that they might read a few books a year and attend church to listen to sermons, but this is often seen as “good enough.” Serious training to grow spiritually just isn’t often yearned after amongst believers. This is the same reason that there are around 4.4 Bibles for every household in the U.S., but only around 26% of the folks who own Bibles and identify them as important, read them. The folks working the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous see their addiction as a death sentence, so they find folks to disciple them in their spiritual growth as a means of escape. It is far too common for Christians to see overcoming their sins as an optional add-on to the faith or something they ought to do in the same sense as they ought to floss and lose weight. They do not see sin as a road to death or as utterly offensive to God. This general disinterest with overcoming sin is reflected in the literature the church consumes en masse, which tends to focus on how to be happier or more wealthy. Books dealing with imitating Jesus and obeying his commands are far less common and seldom approach the Christian best sellers list. It is often the case that when we preach/write about sin, it is focused on “wicked” groups outside of the body of Christ, rather than on our own failings. The church is content to point to the sawdust in the eyes of others, while ignoring the log obscuring our vision. We are pleased with Jesus as Savior, but uninterested in Him as Lord. Until following Jesus becomes the burning desire and priority in our lives, the church will continue to neglect discipleship. We must learn to detest our own sins and see overcoming them as escaping from death.
This week’s sermon on Nehemiah 10, dealing with the Jewish people’s community commitment to obey and submit to God’s law after returning from exile and restoring the walls of Jerusalem. The message looks at the Hebrews’ repentance, compares it to repentance in modern believers, and talks about how God provides restoration through faith in Jesus.
Preached by Erik Sietsema at Big Sandy Community Church of God in Montana On 8/16/15.