Tag Archives: Judge

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI 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.

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Who Obeys Who In Marriage? Part 3 of 3 Understanding the Wife’s Role

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

Mariage19_300-F_ws52793512For many folks, the great stumbling block of the Ephesians household code is the first 3 verses. For this reason, I have saved it for last in the discussion. Not because I am avoiding controversy. Rather, because it is so often understood in terms of our own desires and demands rather than in the context of scripture. This results in all sorts of bad behavior in relation to the text, including willful ignoring of the passage, wielding it like a bat, interpretive gymnastics to make it more palatable, attempts to turn the passage into a prooftext for all sorts of marital arm-twisting, etc. This legacy of Bible believers behaving badly prompted my careful handling and intentional approach to the text. If you haven’t read the preceding posts, I suggest checking them out in advance of reading this one.

The major idea to bear in mind in terms of the larger thrust of the passage is that Paul is speaking of marriage in two senses. First and foremost, Paul is talking about the relationship between Jesus and the church. He emphasizes Christ’s unconditional, sacrificial love that cleanses the church and prepares her as a bride for himself, spotless and pure. This is the model for the man’s job in marriage. He is to love unconditionally, serve, give of himself, and aid his wife in her spiritual growth and maturing, in preparation for facing God on the day of judgement. This is the second sense in which Paul is focusing on the marital relationship: What is expected of men as they stand in the place of Christ in relationship to their wives, the church. Husbands are to pastor their families and lead as Christ leads the church. This concept is central to understanding the wife’s role.

The other bit of contextual information that is important to take into account in reference to the passage is the preceding verses. Paul did not write the household code in a vacuum, as a standalone text. It stands as a piece of a larger letter. The preceding passages deal with moral behavior. The closing clause of the last sentence tees up the discussion in the following verses: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This is not an unusual concept in scripture. The idea that believers are to submit to each other, love each other, give grace to each other, and behave with deference to the needs and wants of other believers is no small matter. It is the guiding principle for much of a Christian’s behaviors. We are to put on our towel and wash each other’s feet with our lives. The least in the church will be the greatest.

part 1Paul writes a line about mutual submission, then launches into an instructions about how the marital relationship is a mirror of Christ and the church. Specifically, beginning with wives submitting to husbands as unto Christ. There is a degree to which the direction to wives is a restatement of the preceding. Mutual submission needs to be a part of our understanding of this text based on the context. The problem is that the text is a little more complex than that. Simply calling it a pure mutual submission would be to ignore the rest of the passage, in the same manner as those who call for wives to live as slaves to their husbands, though perhaps less egregiously.

part 2As Paul continues, he includes a modifier to the “as unto the Lord” direction. In the previous article, we looked at the Lordship of Christ as a model for husbands that involves unconditional love and a servant’s attitude. There is a different dimension to this relationship presented in the direction for women. Christ is described as the head of His body, the church. This analogy could potentially carry two meanings. The first is that Jesus is the leader, while the church follows. In the modern context, this is the meaning we would tend to gravitate toward. The second meaning involves the head being the source for the body, which was not an unusual analogy for the ancient world. This understanding fits well based on the mention that Christ is the Savior of the church, which would mean that He is the source of life and salvation. Further, this understanding of the analogy suggests that the church is intended to emulate Him. Since the husband is charged with leading his wife spiritually and preparing her for eternity through his example and spiritual guidance, the direction for wives to learn from their husband’s spiritual direction works well with the head/source understanding. Simply put, Paul’s direction is for wives to come under their husband’s spiritual direction, learning from him in the same way that the church would in relation to Christ. In a larger sense, Paul’s major concern for believers, time and again, is that they grow in knowledge and relationship with Jesus. Paul’s marriage analogy proves no different. Though he acknowledges a hierarchy in the familial relationship, it is seen as purely a component of growing in Christlikeness. Though husbands are given a degree of authority, it is only understood properly in the relation to the   enormous responsibility of serving and preparing the family to be presented to God in eternity. This will always coincide with the mutual submission and service that should characterize the relationship between all believers.

This basically begs the question, How are wives to submit to their husbands? In the ideal world, husbands lead their families spiritually. Wives are to recognize, encourage, and participate in that process of spiritual preparation and growth.
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Understanding Pornography Addiction

Cycle_of_AbuseIt’s easy to understand how alcohol or cocaine are addictive substances, but when it comes to pornography addiction understanding the issues involved can be more difficult for a variety of reasons. For starters, discovering a hidden pornography habit can result in significant feelings of betrayal for a wife and can make understanding the addiction component very difficult. In addition, pornography use carries some stigma, which clouds perspective and makes understanding the addiction more difficult. However, pornography addiction is a real illness, it’s diagnosable, and it’s treatable. Looking at pornography produces similar brain functions that take place with using cocaine. It is highly addictive for the same reasons as any other drug. This is not to excuse the betrayal of a spouse or anything of the sort. Rather, it is to say that an individual can develop an illness, which prevents them from quitting the behavior. Let there be no mistake, addicts cannot stop a behavior on their own. Denial, thinking errors, shame, and an out-of-control reward response system in their brains literally result in the addictive patterns becoming compulsive.

A behavior is an addiction, rather than just being a set of sinful decisions, if it features certain common qualities:
  1. Increased tolerance– Increased tolerance as it relates to pornography use involves getting into increasingly harder-core porn or much more of it in order to achieve the same results that were achieved with less before. Increased frequency of use can also be associated with increased tolerance.
  2. Withdrawal- Withdrawal from pornography use can involve cravings, restlessness, anxiety, depression, etc. Withdrawal doesn’t necessarily happen instantly. It can take as much as a week or more to fire up.
  3. Continued use despite harm- When an addict recognizes that their addiction is hurting them, they continue to use. They may get caught, feel shame, or other negative effects, but they do not stop, largely because they cannot.
  4. Using more or for longer periods than intended- This is essentially a loss of control. A pornography addict will struggle with limiting their use. They may intend to look for only a few minutes, but then spend hours using porn. Addicts often comment that they are never really sure how long their using episodes may last.
  5. Attempts to control use- Pornography addicts may swear over and over again that they will never use again, but they will inevitably find themselves using again. They may try to come up with ways to prevent themselves from looking at porn, but they will inevitably find ways around these measures.
  6. Excessive time spent acquiring pornography or thinking about using– People who become addicted to pornography find themselves spending more and more time thinking about using it or hunting for new and different porn. This is especially the case for those who are hiding their addiction from family members, which then requires them to spend enormous amounts of time protecting their addiction by hiding it.
  7. Reduced involvement in work, social, or family obligations- Pornography addiction becomes increasingly time consuming as the addiction advances in severity,  withdrawing from obligations as they get in the way of using.

In order to be diagnosed as an addiction, the individual must exhibit three or more of these criteria.

Dealing with the problem is uniquely difficult for pornography addiction for several reasons. For starters, hiding pornography use from a spouse is much easier than hiding substance abuse. As a result, treating the addiction can involve revealing some huge and hurtful secrets. In addition, pornography addiction is far less recognized and exists more in the shadows of our culture. Consequently, there are far fewer support group and treatment options. This is not to say that pornography addiction is a hopeless situation. Dealing with it begins with acknowledging that the problem has gotten out of control and turning control of your life over to God. Seeking help from an addictions counselor, a pastor, or a support group is a good next step. There are several terrific resources available as well. I highly recommend the book: Sampson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood by Nate Larkin. It is the best book I have read on the subject that is written for the average man.

Pornography addiction is treatable and there is hope. Further, as long as the addiction is out of control and untreated, the addict will live with a significant degree of fear and shame. There is also a constant danger of discovery, particularly by any children who live in the home. Early exposure to pornography by a parent is very common among addicts, largely because kids find their way into all sorts of things that you never intend for them to get into. Taking the first difficult steps toward dealing with addiction are difficult, but worthwhile once the painful early stages have been worked through.

For its part, the church needs to learn to look past the inclination to judge, protect the privacy of those seeking help, and learn to offer help to addicts who are seeking help. This may require specialized training and some uncomfortable topics being addressed from the pulpit at times, but its part of our calling to be salt and light to the world.
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What You See When You Look in the Mirror

A friend of mine, who will likely be a regular contributor, emailed me this essay. I was pretty impressed by it and it relates well to the current sermon series (and this week’s sermon in particular), so I decided to add it. He has asked to remain anonymous. I am planning on respecting that request.– Erik

Through Alcoholics Anonymous, God has taught me some difficult lessons that I desperately needed to learn. One of the most important happemirror.image_ned without me realizing it. I started out as a balled up fist of anger, bitterness, and pain. In the name of my addiction, I had hurt those around me and acted despicably. Over time, I got healthier. Then one day I was sitting in a meeting listening to another person talk. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but I remember hearing them say words that I had said to myself on many occasions. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was as if I was listening to myself talk about my own addiction. Over the years, I have listened to others in recovery talk about the destruction they brought to those around them, stealing, degrading themselves, and almost every other conceivable sin. I don’t feel sickened by their sins. I feel empathy and I see myself. I hear my own thoughts. I see my own loneliness. I hear the lies I tell myself. Sometimes that’s in the past and other times its today. It is difficult to look at sometimes, but seeing my own sickness in the mirror that is others who are struggling for freedom from the slavery of addiction reminds me of what I am capable of. Remembering where I came from helps keep me free. A friend of mine often tells me that the darker the darkness of the world, the brighter the light of the cross of Jesus. 

The 12th step is spending the rest of your life helping others get out of the living hell of addiction. One of the best reasons I’ve found for doing this, beyond helping other addicts and serving God, is that the more time I spend with addicts the more I am able to see the junk I don’t want to go back to. I need to remember my powerlessness and flee to His strength. This is not to say that I am judging them. Rather, all I ever see is myself, like in a mirror. Perhaps the biggest blessings that came from finding “the bottom”, and I don’t say this lightly because it wasn’t pleasant, is that it becomes difficult to judge others for their sins. It’s hard to be the pharisee bragging before God and pointing to the tax collector for contrast, when you were the guy the tax collector probably looked down on. Looking in the mirror reminds me that I can always go back if I stop leaning on God to keep me out of sin. Any believer that is blessed enough to come to grips with the depth of their own crumminess has a treasure beyond words. I see it in Paul when he talks about himself being the least of apostles, literally referring to himself as a spiritual abortion. This is a blessing that allows you to brag about God’s greatness because you know how wicked you are. Every time you encounter those who don’t know Christ and are still mired in their sin, you get a chance to see your own sin and reflect on the marvel that is grace. 

The other bit of good news that comes to bear after realizing that your fellow man acts as a mirror to help keep you clean, is that God provides an even better mirror to gaze into. In the book of James, we are told that believers are to look into The Word, like gazing into a mirror. Afterward, we are to change based on the reflection we see. For the sinner who recognizes the amazingness of grace, The Word provides an image of what we ought to look like. In the person of Christ, we see perfect sacrificial love, obedience unto death, holiness in the midst of terrible challenges, and our model for all attitudes and behaviors. We are directed by Paul to imitate Christ in our pursuit of holiness. The mirror that The Word provides shows us what we can be as the Spirit sanctifies us. The danger in this is seen when we gaze into the mirror without stark and painful awareness of our sin. We can be tempted to see ourselves in the good parts and our neighbor in the bad. It is easy to become the pharisee proclaiming the goodness of our work and judging the tax collector. Usually, we have such a large plank in our eye at this point that we cannot see any different. None is so blind as those who refuse to see. I have lived there. It is awful believing that your own goodness will carry you, needing to rage at anyone who defies this opinion. In Christ, I was freed. 

When we look at the lost and feel only contempt, failing to see our own fallen selves and refusing to see the amazing depth of the well that is God’s grace for sinners, we stand in the temple and boast that we are better than sinners. The scripture is our mirror. It is never our club to beat others with. 

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