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.
A few years ago, while taking a seminary class on Marriage Counseling, I realized that my performance as a husband left much to be desired. I wasn’t the worst husband in the world and, in fact, had become a better husband than I was early in our marriage. Instead of being terrible, I was just ok. That was not ok by me. I love my wife and want my life to be a blessing to her. I want her to make her life better through everything I do. This began my concerted effort to become the man my wife deserves and that God calls me to be. I approached this task in the same manner I approach every challenge and task in life. I’ve read everything I could find and experimented with implementing what I read. The following books are by no means exhaustive, but they are the ones that have influenced me more than any others. I’ve read most of them multiple times.
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.
I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.
“As the man of the house, God put me in charge, so my wife has to obey my direction… or else she is sinning against God.” This silly line has been used time and again to justify all manner of sinful behavior, mistreatment of women, tyrannical rule in the home, and in itself has the potential to be a blasphemous statement. In fact, much of the anger that is raised the idea of men leading in the home or church is rooted in the wicked mistreatment of families using this idea as an excuse. I’ve spent the last 4 years trying to figure out how to be a Godly husband. (This is not a humble brag because I’ve actually been married for almost 18 years. Better late than never.) The biggest struggle I’ve encountered in the process has been related to the matter of headship in the home. I suspect that the struggle I am experiencing is a good thing. Not struggling with it could rise from an overly simple or self-serving understanding of the concept. It is far better to wrestle with this idea and approach the matter with fear and trembling. The understanding I have reached thus far is far from the “Woman! Get me a sandwich!” mentality that’s often the default perspective.
The most important part of understanding authority in the Scriptures is that it is exemplified in Jesus’ example and His relationship with the Father. Jesus is our Lord. Lord is a bit of a culturally foreign idea for us. The ancient world “lord” meant “boss” or “master”. Paul takes this idea a step further and refers to himself as a slave to Christ. As such, we do well to observe Jesus’ example of how authority is properly exercised if we desire to exercise it as well. This is particularly important because Jesus explains the source of his authority over us. He does so in John 5. To paraphrase, he says that he has authority because God gives it to him. That authority is linked to the requirement that it be exercised in harmony with the Father’s will. So, the Father has authority and will. Jesus wields the Father’s authority, but he must do it in harmony with the Father’s will. Otherwise, he ceases to have authority. This arrangement of submission and bestowing is made possible by the fact that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Son submits to the Father because he loves Him. The Father gives the Son authority because he loves him.
Now, if a man has authority in his home, it is either Jesus’ authority or it is in rebellion against God. To use authority for his own interests and agenda would be sin. So it is with men. If we are given headship in our home, it is only the case that we have authority as long as we are operating in harmony with Jesus’ will and teachings. If we fail to do so, our authority dissolves. Jesus said that he can do nothing on his own. The same is true of husbands and, incidentally, the same is also true with pastors. They have authority to preach, teach, and lead as long as they are doing so in harmony with Jesus’ teachings. Pastors cannot preach their own opinions, mistreat their flock, or live the high life while their people are hungry. To do so is rebellion against God. If a pastor fails to lead folks to Jesus, God’s people are to follow Christ instead of the pastor. They only follow the pastor when he looks like Jesus, wielding his authority by operating in his teachings and will. For husbands, breaking from God’s teaching and will leaves them standing on their own. Further, because such a man’s wife is called to follow Jesus, following Jesus takes precedent over all. She is only called to follow her husband when he is acting like Jesus. Period. The husband, like the pastor, carries the responsibility to follow, obey, and point to Jesus.
The implications of Jesus’ authority go further still. Jesus told his disciples that they were to lead, but not as the Gentile rulers do. Their leadership was to be marked by selfless service and self-sacrifice. They could not demand that the church wait on them hand and foot. Rather, they were responsible to serve their people. The greatest in the kingdom of Heaven will be the servant to all. Jesus offered the best example of this when he washed his disciples feet at the last supper. In ancient cultures, foot washing was a task reserved for the lowest man in the house. Foot washers were often ridiculed in popular literature of the era and Jews debated in court over whether or not a person could willingly wash their loved one’s feet as a show of devotion, with most Jews considering to to be too humiliating an act to be legal. Jesus demonstrated leadership by humiliating himself and washing his disciples’ feet, even Judas’! Greatness and leadership in the kingdom of God is exercised through humble, loving service. This example of leadership is to be emulated by a man if he wishes to operate in the headship that Paul mentions in Ephesians. Loving, humble, selfless service are what is demanded. It is a mark of the pollution of the world in the church’s understanding of authority that we default to the idea that husbands being head in their marriage means that the family serves and submits to him. The family follows Jesus. The husband is to point to Jesus and imitate Him. NOT doing so is a sin of being passive after being commanded to be active in leadership of the home, which was Adam’s first sin: Standing by passively and allowing the serpent to deceive Eve. Sadly, this is the archetype for many mens’ sins today.
There is a final component to the service and headship of Jesus. Jesus’ ultimate act of service was to die for his people. So it is for men in headship of the home. They are to die for their family. This may not mean a physical death. It may entail giving up on their desires, free time, rest, comfort, and interests in the name of loving their family the best way possible. That’s the heart of the matter: loving your family the best way possible. Love your wife the way Jesus loved the church. Show her Jesus in your actions and attitudes. You point to Him every day as the object of our worship. Do all of this whether your family deserves it or not.
Some folks might read my words and ask: then what is the point of having authority, if it doesn’t do you any good? This is a question that demonstrates thinking outside of the mindset of the Christian faith. We do not serve for our own benefit in this life. We serve because we are motivated to do so by our love for God and our family. Further, we do so because serving our family makes us more like Jesus. Becoming like and growing close to Jesus is the ultimate aim of the Christian faith. It is the purpose for which we’re saved. A man’s headship in the home should not be to his worldly advantage or for his own comfort. We serve in this way because it is our duty as servants of Jesus.
In the end, I do not have a lot to say about a wife’s part in the whole equation, apart from the fact that she is not obligated to put up with evil, abuse, or foolishness. I have mainly focused on my job. I figure that if I do my job right, everything else will naturally fall into place. Beyond that, I’m far too busy trying to understand the requirements of my role and live up to being like Jesus to worry about my wife’s job. The mistake husbands often make in relation to their wives in this area is that they become so focused on what she should do that they ignore their own responsibilities and role. In a way, it reminds me of my kids. They get so overly focused on their siblings failure to do their chores that they neglect their own chores. They accuse each other without doing their job. Men, worry about the log in your own eye before pointing to the sawdust speck in your wife’s.
A final thought, Peter warns men to be careful to treat their wives right so that their prayers won’t be hindered. Years ago a friend told me that this can be boiled down to the hard truth that if you’re not right with your wife, God doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. That’s something to take very seriously. It’s enough to demand humility, fear, and trembling in our handling of our role as husband.
In the bottom drawer of my toolbox, there is a 4 foot long piece of steel pipe. It is exactly the right size to fit over the handle of my socket wrench. Though it is not a proper tool, I have used it more times than I can explain. It has been used to add leverage to my wrench and break a stubborn bolt free. I have used it to pry down the control arm of a Honda while installing a ball joint. I once used it to lift an engine off its lower mount. I even used it to pry a tire off of a car after the rim had rusted in place. Though it’s not a tool, my “cheater bar”, as they are usually called, is by far one of the most versatile and useful items in my toolbox. In a similar way, one of the most useful marital tools I have discovered isn’t exactly a tool or a technique. It is a strategy. The strategy is simple, though counterintuitive: Don’t win.
I have noticed that many married couples, myself included, take the opposite strategy. When an argument begins, they set out to win. This is a pretty natural response to conflict. We try to win. When we argue, we employ strategies that help us prove our point, gain the moral high ground, undercut our spouse’s position, and often times we try to hurt each other. Both participants cease, for a time, to look at each other as partners, instead seeing each other as opponents. The problem that arises with one spouse winning a fight is that the other one loses. Though, more often, rather than producing a winner or loser, fights end in a draw. This leaves both sides wounded and entrenched. The resulting hurt and damage to the relationship may not be major, but it is present. Marriages don’t end after a single fight, instead dying deaths of a thousand cuts. The “win the fight” strategy is a losing proposition in the long term, resulting only in two individuals who are convinced that they are right in the relationship issues, and both of them alone.
The strategy that solves this problem is simply working toward not winning. Couples who learn to see each other’s point of view and compromise. This requires a constant and intentional remembering that you love each other and are on the same side. Every problem, issue, or disagreement that arises is either a battle to be fought together or an opportunity to grow stronger in the relationship through communication and mutual submission. This works best when both partners agree on the strategy, but can be effective with only one partner approaching the marriage with this strategy.
Last year, I read Theodore Rex, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Amongst the many things that stood out to me in the life of that great man was that he took his children camping almost every night while staying at his vacation home. This was a man who was the leader of the free world, a world class intellectual, and a war hero. He was not too busy or too important to sleep under the stars with his children. I am willing to wager that for all the great things that Teddy was, his kids valued that time spent with him more than anything else. As dads, we often get distracted by our work, our hobbies, and our comforts; all to the detriment of the time we spend with our kids. Putting forth the effort to create special times with them is important. It is when the real impact of our parenting will blossom. Camping is a unique way to do this, because it takes us out of our comfort zone and away from our distraction, forcing us to pay attention to each other. For a child, camping with dad is a great adventure and a privilege. Here are a few of the things I have learned from camping with my kids.