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 came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
During my preaching and teaching career I’ve covered the Apostle Paul’s household codes several times. There are few topics that produce quite as much arguing, anger, and accusation. I have heard men denounce women for not submitting, women denouncing men for the suggestion of submission, I’ve encountered authors and speakers who have twisted this passage every which way imaginable to assert that the verse is advocating anything from total equality, to a slave master relationship, to a 49/51 voting split, to discussions of whether or not getting your man sandwiches during football games is a spiritual discipline. This excess of commentary on the topic can tempt me to throw up my hands and pass altogether. The problem with this is that Paul included this bit of instruction on purpose and marriage is important. If the scriptures have something to teach us on the matter, we need to learn it.
There is more than a little material to cover in Paul’s 11 verses on husbands and wives. I don’t intend to cover every interpretation, but rather in the three articles I will post on this topic, I will cover:
Approaching the Text While Wearing the Wrong Glasses
Matthew records an incident in which the mother of his disciples, James and John, approached Jesus and asked that her sons be his right and left hand men in eternity. Later, the other disciples are angered when they hear about the request, which prompts Jesus to call the 12 together and tell them that they are looking at the world all wrong. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Simply put, the disciples jockeying for authority was a result of them looking at the world from the same perspective as the pagans around them. They are seeing the world as pagans see it. Greatness means being served. Followers of Jesus assume the status of servant. Jesus demonstrates this very graphically when he washed his disciples feet at the last supper, taking on the job of the lowest servant in the household. The message seems pretty clear: followers of Jesus are called to serve. We aren’t called to be served or to lord position over others. Believers are nowhere instructed to fight with each other over rights to subjugate each other. Our primary concern in life ought to be our focus on Jesus and commitment to grow in our faith and obedience.
Perhaps the biggest problem with how many folks approach the roles in marriage as they are discussed in Ephesians 5, is that they are approaching the text in terms of who owes who what degree of service and submission. They are wearing their pagan perspective glasses. When believers find themselves enmeshed in discussions about why “you have to” or “I don’t have to” instead of discussing what makes us more like Jesus, it’s a sign that there is something wrong. Believers ought to find themselves in a place of working to out-serve each other long before they even consider arguing about subjecting each other to our own wills.
Perhaps one of the cultural components that gets in the way of a proper perspective on the matter is the sense of entitlement that our culture has developed. We are consumers who should get proper service, not servants of the world following our master’s example. We no longer see ourselves as servants to all. The attitude has even pervaded the church, where all sorts of preachers who talk as though God himself ought to be at our beck and call, making our lives as comfortable as possible and fulfilling our wildest dreams. Churches are too often seen as existing to cater to our desires, rather than equipping us to serve Jesus.
Interestingly, discussion of whose desires get served in the marital relationship so often dominates the discussion of this passage that the vast majority of what Paul says winds up totally ignored. The passage itself spends more time discussing the relationship between Christ and the church than it does husbands and wives. Really, the key to the whole passage is verse 32, when Paul tells us that the institution of marriage, in which a husband leaves his parents to be joined to his wife as one, points to the union between Jesus and the church. As such, the passage is primarily about Jesus. The bit that we can garner regarding marital relationships is primarily in relation to the larger eternal truth of Jesus as His bride, the church. Really, if there is a unifying direction to take in relation to this passage it’s that we are to imitate Christ in EVERY aspect of our lives, including marriage.
The next post on this passage will deal with what Paul says regarding husbands.
I love my wife dearly. I believe that she is a gift from God, who has made me a better man during the 17 years we have been married. I will confess that those 17 years have not always been a fairy tale where the young lovers live happily ever after. There have been more than a few frustrating days and fights. It’s strange how easy it is to be angry with someone who you care for so deeply. I often hear people say that they are far meaner and find it easier to be angry toward their loved ones than they would be toward strangers or acquaintances. Anger is powerful and can be dangerous to relationships. It is important to deal with it appropriately and effectively, lest it take root and grow into bitterness that poisons the whole relationship. The following are simple, Biblical steps to take in dealing with anger.