Tag Archives: mental health

Quote: Reward in Good Character

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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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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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God Made Men For More Than Work


men at workLess than a week before my wedding day, I lost my job. It was a terrible fit for me and in retrospect, it was a good thing. However, at the time it was a crushing blow. Going to work and providing for my family was pretty much the most important thing in the world. I had no idea how or when this happened, but I am quite certain that my pride and identity were magically tied to my ability to bring home a pay check, put a roof over my wife’s head, and food on the table. The experience shaped my attitude toward employment to this day. I don’t think my experience is particularly unique to me. Men derive much of their identity and sense of worth from their work. It lies at the core of the masculine identity, which is part of God’s design for men. We see this truth in the book of Genesis. The first thing Adam did after he was created was go to work. God put him in the garden and set him to work. It wasn’t miserable work and it wasn’t all that Adam did. He didn’t live to work. Adam tended to the garden, but he also named the animals. In addition, God recognized that Adam shouldn’t be alone, so he created a wife for him. In short, from the beginning man’s work was pretty important to him. In fact, I’d argue that Adam was designed to set his hand to tasks. If Adam was made in God’s image and God engaged in both creation and work, then it follows that work and creation would be important to Adam. One of the things I love about the creation account is that it gives us hints about the nature of men and women. The intended design is seen clearly without the haze of sin obscuring and distorting the foundational truths. In this case, the foundational truth is obvious: Men were made to work, but that’s not all they were made to do. 

 

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A study was done  with elementary age kids. A group of boys and a group of girls were placed in a room with chairs, told to sit, and then they were observed. The girls put their chairs in a circle and began talking to each other, facing one another. In contrast, the boys sat in a line, next to each other, and talked about what they could do in the room. Their focus wasn’t on relating to each other, it was on what they could do together. This trend continues throughout their lives. Men dream of building things, succeeding, and achieving great things through their work. This drive has roots that go right to the heart of a man. He takes pride, derives meaning, finds purpose, and holds his worth in his work. When this element of a man’s identity is healthy and holds the appropriate place in his life, contentment isn’t far. That appropriate place is in a proportional relationship to his family, his relationship with God, and the other spheres of his life. When a man’s work overshadows his family or stands over God in importance, a spark is cast on the rest of his life. It may not happen immediately, but eventually that spark will light a fire that will consume everything, leaving him empty. No amount of success in life can replace the relationship a man has with his wife and children. In regards to his relationship with God, Jesus put it best when he asked what it profits a man to gain the world, but lose his soul. 

 

Work is a big deal to men. Providing for his family and achieving great things are foundational to a man’s identity. However, they are only part of the foundation. The book of Ecclesiastes says: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God…(Ecclesiastes 2:24) Enjoy life and enjoy work. My younger brother works for a large international bank. He has told me all sorts of stories about executives who throw away their marriages and families in the name of climbing the corporate ladder. It’s a terrible trade. 

 

The key to managing the proper balance in life is setting the big important things in life under the larger umbrella of a man’s God-given responsibilities. He is called to lead his family spiritually, to love his wife, point those around him to Jesus, to serve God faithfully, to take Sabbath rests and enjoy intimacy with God, to raise his children right, etc. Failing to serve Jesus first and foremost is no small matter. Such failure removes the very thing that keeps everything else in its proper place and proportion. 
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Who Obeys Who in Marriage? Part 2 of 3: Ephesians 5 and the Husband’s Position in Marriage.

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 nouris hes 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
husband wife fightIn the garden, at the time of the temptation and the fall, the text depicts Eve talking with the snake, who makes all sorts of promises. They talk back and forth regarding God’s rule and whether or not it was wise to follow it. When Eve succumbs to temptation, the text reveals something interesting:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 

Adam was right there. He listened to the conversation and he didn’t say a thing. He was a passive spectator as his wife listened to lies and fell. He did not lead. He didn’t speak out. Nothing. Adam’s sin was that he was passive and neglected his responsibility to his wife. This passivity extended beyond simply watching silently as his wife was tempted, when Adam faced God his first response was to blame everyone else: The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Adam blamed the woman and God, but took no responsibility himself. He was passive in the face of accusation. Adam’s failure was passivity. Unfortunately, this is a sin that can be traced throughout the history of mankind. It is Adam’s sad legacy.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul compares Adam and Jesus. Jesus shows up and is the opposite reflection of Adam. Where Adam brought death into the world, Jesus gives life to those who believe. It’s a terrific chapter and worth a read. The reason I bring it up is because it presents that idea that Jesus is sort of the anti-Adam. Jesus is active in response to temptation and sin. He redeems the world through his atoning sacrifice. He loves selflessly. This is important to understand because, as I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, this passage is more about Jesus than it is husbands. What we can learn about the husband’s role is based on our understanding of Jesus.

divorce_testEphesians 5 to 6 is what is called a “household code.” In ancient Greece household codes were pretty common, generally memorized by members of the household, and were used for outlining everybody’s job in the home. This genre of writing would have been very recognizable to the readers. When Paul digs into roles in marriage, he starts with the wife, but spends more time on the husband, which is why we will consider the husband first. Beyond spending more time on the husband, Paul outlines a great deal more responsibility and an active role for the husband. He begins by directing husbands to love their wives. The word he uses for love is agape, which is the word used to describe selfless, unconditional, divine love. Paul’s direction for husbands to love their wives is unique to Greek household codes in the ancient world. There was no expectation amongst ancient cultures that husbands love their wives. Christian men are given a MUCH higher standard than the world: selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love for their wives. This is reinforced by Paul telling husbands that they are to use Christ’s example as their guide. They are to act toward their wives as Christ acted toward the church, sacrificing himself for her sake.

Paul goes on to explain: …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. Literally, Christ’s selfless sacrifice is for the purpose of preparing her for eternity. For husbands, the job is the same: help your wife be holy and grow spiritually. Rather than taking the passive role of Adam, watching their wives fend for themselves spiritually, husbands are to take the active role of working to prepare their wives spiritually for eternity. This is why Paul tells Timothy that an elder’s family must be in order. Before an elder can shepherd a church, he must shepherd his family. Spiritual leadership begins at home by fulfilling this directive.

The next job husbands are given is loving their wives as their own bodies, basically loving their wives as themselves. Imitating Christ in this manner involves recognizing that your wife is a part of you in roughly the same way the church is the body of Christ. After the wedding, you are part of each other. You don’t get to be separate or fight over dominance. In fact, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, we have to take the job of servant and foot washer. Jesus directs his followers to be servants to the world, emulating His example. If this is true of the world, certainly it is also true of his wife.

It’s important to recognize that the text is pointing to Christ’s example, which is one of grace. Jesus does everything for our salvation. His work is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t earn it. We cannot add to it and we do not deserve it. He loves us unconditionally and forgives us when we are still his enemies. If Christ is the standard and agape love is the rule, then husbands have a tall order to fill. It’s actually downright impossible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to do so.
Perhaps the best guide for determining whether or not a husband is acting in harmony with Paul’s direction in this passage is the simple question: “Would Jesus speak or act this way in relation to His body, the church?”
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7 Steps to Deal With Anger Toward Your Spouse

yellingI 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.

  1. Pray for your spouse. It seems like Christian advice all too often begins with: “Have you prayed about it?” Which, I’ll confess, simply produced eye rolls in me for many years. For many years my attitude was: “I don’t want to pray, I want to do something productive.” Though I would never have vocalized it, because Christians are supposed to be serious about prayer. It’s easy to give prayer lip service, but to not take it all that seriously. My attitude toward prayer has since changed. Interestingly, I began to value prayer primarily in response to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:44, directing believers to pray for enemies. During a time of frustration with coworkers, I found myself praying for them. I carried a great deal of anger toward these individuals, but as I prayed for them over the course of weeks, it became easier to simply let go of offenses and forgive. Prayer changed my heart and my attitude. If praying for my enemies and those who offend me alters my attitude toward them, the same principle should apply to my family. If I find myself frustrated with my spouse, praying for her ought to be the first response. Further, the more I pray for her the harder it will be to get angry. Prayer alters our hearts to reflect Jesus’, creating a different attitude to direct our response.
  2. Deal with it quickly before your anger becomes resentment. A while back I cut my hand, not badly. Just a small cut. Because I am a guy, I simply ignored it. However, instead of getting better it got infected. The little cut grew red, swollen, and painful. The only solution was to lance it and drain the infection, which was unpleasant. The same thing happens with anger. Anger that we ignore and just swallow can grow into resentment. Resentment is old anger that shades our perspective on people and situations. Resentment can slowly grow into a constant state of low grade hostility. The surest way to tell if you have a resentment is if you frequently revisit old offenses and stew in them.
  3. Serve your spouse. You could probably make the case that you ought to be serving your spouse anyway, but when you are angry it is particularly important to do this. I recently heard someone say that prayer is good, but prayer accompanied by changes in our actions is really powerful. If you are praying for your spouse during a time of anger, serving them should follow close behind. In Romans, Paul directs us to serve our enemies: To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink;…” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. It may be an overstatement to call your spouse evil, though I am sure the word could have been applied to me more than once during my marriage. The general principle applies well. Serving others when they don’t deserve it is the ultimate in imitating Christ. It is a discipline that can provide opportunity for our hearts to change. In the past when I have served those I disliked and was praying for, everything changed.
  4. Evaluate your expectations. Often, anger toward a husband or wife begins with unrealistic expectations. It’s easy to develop unrealistic expectations for those around you. Your spouse doesn’t read minds, no matter how loud you think things at them. They won’t have the energy they did when you were in your 20s. Your husband won’t wake up tomorrow speaking poetry and looking like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel. Your wife won’t suddenly become hyper-sexual. The house won’t be always be perfectly clean. The honey-do list won’t be done before you even make it. They aren’t necessarily going to be excited about the same things you are excited about. Nobody is going to want to volunteer to get up at 2 AM and feed the baby. Expecting your spouse to suddenly be someone they aren’t, particularly if they don’t know you expect it, is unrealistic and will only lead to frustration and anger.
  5. Talk it through. I didn’t start with this one for a very good reason. It’s one of the most important things to do when dealing with anger, but it only works when you come into the conversation with your heart in the right place. It’s entirely too easy to devolve into a fight when you discuss things you are angry over. It is especially the case when you are still a little hot under the collar. Anger makes communication impossible. The previous steps are helpful because they tend to shape our attitude going into the conversation. It is important to eventually reach a point where conversation can take place. Some marriages have issues that prevent any discussion or dealing with the problems at hand without them devolving into shouting matches. In these cases, it’s best to back up and work toward an environment where communication can take place. It may require counseling or intentionally working to improve communication skills. Communicating needs to be a major objective in every area of marriage, particularly conflict. Without it, the relationship will whither and die.
  6. Recognize your role in relation to Jesus. The description of duties for husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 is often subject to confusion. Paul spends half the chapter comparing the relationship between a husband and wife to that which exists between Christ and the Church. Instead of focusing on this dynamic, discussions on the passage focus on “who is in charge”, “what are MY rights in this relationship”, or “what am I owed by my spouse.” The problem with these discussions is that they shift away from the truth that marriage is to reflect Jesus and the church. Husbands are to love their wives sacrificially and selflessly. Wives are to respect their husbands as with someone who has given up everything for them. Fighting over rights and what they owe me is foreign to this model. When we grow angry, it’s vital to remember our role. Husbands represent Jesus. That’s no small thing. Wives are to love their spouse like the church loves Jesus. What if he/she doesn’t deserve that? You and I don’t deserve the grace that Jesus offers us on the cross. Remember, these our our roles, not what we demand of them.
  7. Forgive. At the foundation of it all is forgiveness. The solution to anger is forgiveness, which is hard. It requires the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts to the point that we can let go of resentment and anger. It is modeled in Christ and the church and ought to be what we strive for in our marriages.
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6 Things You Can Do To Support Your Pastor

6 thingsI haven’t posted to this blog in 3 months. The reason for this leave of absence is simple: I am a small church pastor in a rural community of 700. I love my job and the people I serve. Between early October and December 26th, the busy season for church work, I didn’t have a single day when I didn’t field a work-related phone call, head over to the office to take care of a few tasks, visit with someone from the church, run into town for a hospital visit, spend time working on a sermon, sat down for counseling, attended a meeting, or spend time working. I often joke that I work every day, which is true. As the excess or work ramps up, the productivity of writing goes down. That having been said, I’m not bragging or complaining about this. I don’t consider burnout to be a sign of spiritual health. I actually really like my job and most days I don’t think I work to excess. In the past, I’ve worked at similar levels of busyness and not felt as good about it. Most ministers have experienced days when they didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and when they felt like there was no escaping the crush of expectations.

Strangely, after nearly three years of this sort of schedule, I have yet to reach that point. I certainly have bad days and times when I grit my teeth when the phone won’t stop ringing. The difference between past times of ministry work and now seems to be the attitude of the community of believers I am serving, as well as a few things they do consistently. This is a huge deal considering how often pastors walk away from church work in a state of burnout. Here are a few of the big things I have observed that have made a big difference to me.
  1. Pray for your pastor. Praying for your pastor means more than simply telling them you will pray for them. Praying for your pastor involves asking them what they need prayer for. It’s offering prayer for them in church during community prayers. It involves praying with them before events. Pastoring is spiritual leadership. There is an inherently spiritual component to the endeavor. As such, it is important to pray for pastors and let them know you are praying for them.
  2. Let your pastor be human. I am not perfect. In fact, even on my best days, I am not anywhere close. I still sin. I get tired, frustrated, and angry. Sometimes I am thoughtless, careless, and insensitive. I’m not saying I don’t strive for holiness or that I’ve given up on trying to be a better man. What I’m saying is that Jesus is perfect and I am a work in progress. The congregation I am serving has been great about letting me be human. When I struggle, there are church members who listen and offer advice. I talk about struggling with sin when I preach and no one is lining up to fire me for it. Nothing is more tiring for a minister than putting on their “holy man” mask every morning for work. There is a great deal of peace and comfort that accompanies knowing that you can talk about your struggles. It’s crushing to constantly live in fear of minor slip-ups. It’s even worse to carry secret sin, knowing you cannot confess it to anyone lest you lose your livelihood.
  3. Offer to help. There are several people in my church who routinely offer to help with aspects of my workload. They typically do a great job of following through when I take them up on the offer. These are the same people who show up at church events, bring food to sick members of the community, and stay late to visit with other members and clean up after an event. One of the biggest frustrations that can set in as a pastor stays longer with a small congregation, is the sense that they are doing everything. To be honest, even the offer of help is heartening. The sense that others are willing to help out is huge. Very little is more frustrating than investing time, energy, and enthusiasm, only to be met with indifference. Offering to help demonstrates investment.
  4. Be concerned about your pastor’s marriage. My first pastor appreciation month in Montana, the members pitched in and got my wife and I a 3-day stay at a hot spring resort. With this gift, we were given free childcare at the ranch of one of the members. This has been the norm since. Every year, we are given our own marriage retreat. This really isn’t a once-a-year thing. There are several members who routinely take our kids so we can go on dates or just get some alone time. On top of that, I am regularly approached by members who ask about my marriage and ask for ways to support us. The single best mechanism for maintaining pastoral morale is their family. The demands of ministry work can be significant and can significantly strain a marriage. Supporting a pastor’s family and helping maintain familial health essentially protects the most important mechanism for pastoral contentedness.
  5. Offer your pastor honest accountability and meaningful praise. This doesn’t mean offering empty praise. I often joke that no one ever tells you that you preached a bad sermon. There are a handful of people in my regular contact who will tell me when a sermon wasn’t good or will hold me accountable when I am wrong. Mind you, I am not talking about nit-picking. Feedback is most effective when it deals with larger block matters. Several years ago, I encountered an individual who would make suggestions based on phrasing errors I made while preaching. I don’t preach from a manuscript. It’s nearly impossible to preach extemporaneously without phrasing a few sentences poorly. In addition to accountability, praise is important. Pastors appreciate hearing when they do well. Positive feedback lets them know that what they are doing is appreciated. This should not be empty, puffing up praise. Rather, they should be genuine positive observations. There are a few people in my church whose praise various efforts, but aren’t shy to let me know when I miss the mark. Their opinions are valuable to me. This is not an instant thing. It is a product of relationship.
  6. Develop a relationship with your pastor and his family. My family has eaten meals with most of the members of our church. When I encounter church members at the store, they converse with us. We love the folks we are serving, not just because we are supposed to. We love them because they have made it a point to be our friends. I once had a pastor tell me that it was best not to invite people from the church into your lives. He told me about folks who had personally hurt him and his family. In time, we encountered people who confirmed this as a decent suggestion. For many years, my wife and I were standoffish in church communities. During our time in Montana, we have discovered that this was not the right course. There has been little that has meant more to us than the close relationships our church has set out to form with us.
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5 Reasons Secrecy Hinders Recovery from Pornography Addiction

2014-09-24-canstockphoto13219245copyThere’s a saying that originated in AA: You are only as sick as your secrets. The more an addict hides their sickness, the worse it will become. Without outside assistance, recovery is nearly impossible. This is particularly the case with pornography addiction. Recovery from pornography addiction comes with some significant hurdles to beginning and sustaining recovery. Perhaps the biggest challenge in beginning the pr ocess of recovery is overcoming the shame associated with the addiction. This is particularly the case because of the social stigma accompanying sexual problems. This stigma and its bedfellow, shame, keep pornography addicts hiding in the darkness, often knowing that they need help, but unwilling to seek it out of fear of the judgement of others. This is particularly the case for married addicts, who risk losing their spouse by coming clean about their problem. The secretiveness makes recovery nearly impossible because of the nature of addiction. Simply put, addiction is a disease in which the stimulus reward process in the brain begins to dominate the addict’s behavior. The process reaches a point where the addict simply cannot stop using. In fact, one of the diagnostic criteria for addiction is repeated, failed attempts to control using. Pornography addicts may do this by deciding to quit using altogether, only to start again later. They may also try to come up with artificial ways of limiting their pornography consumption or the time spent searching for or looking at porn. These efforts inevitably fail. Secrecy eliminates the support essential to the recovery process for the following reasons:

Addicts need accountability: The inability of the addict to control their using through their own efforts means that they cannot effect change without outside help. They need other people to confess their failings and struggles, too. Further, they need outside perspectives regarding the best way to deal with their temptations and struggles. This is particularly important for pornography addiction, where using can be so easily hidden.inadequacy-447731_640

Addicts need help working through thinking errors: Another major complication that secrecy brings to recovery is related to thinking problems. Addicts develop sophisticated thinking mechanisms to protect their using. Thinking errors can be very difficult to identify without outside input and discussion. Further, addicts can easily become overwhelmed by their faulty thinking, which can be extraordinarily difficult to untangle. This requires the addict to talk through their thinking on different issues with other addicts.

Addicts need someone to talk to for stress relief: The stimulus reward cycle gets out of control when using becomes the primary mode for dealing with stressors, or more accurately, avoiding dealing with stressors. The accumulated negative feelings and memories put constant pressure on the addict and perpetuate the cycle of addiction. Recovery requires that the addict have access to individuals who can listen as the addict talks out their stressors. They need an outlet to let off emotional steam. Without it, the addict will simply go back to using.

Addicts need perspective: Talking with those who have successfully gone through recovery is helpful to the addict because it makes it clear that the journey has a destination that is reachable. Further, addicts tend to blow things out of proportion. They need outside input to keep the scale of situations clear in their minds. Without this scale, the addict can easily get overwhelmed by circumstances.

Addicts need help focusing: It’s easy for addicts to get distracted or to come up short regarding what they need to do next. Input from an outside perspective can help the addict to keep focused and take the steps necessary for recovery. It’s very easy to become distracted and to drift away from working toward recovery. Addicts need outside support to prevent them from losing focus.

keyboard-114439_640One of the major difficulties with opening up about pornography addiction is finding appropriate people to begin talking with. Ministers or counselors are a decent place to start. Both are common in most communities. I also recommend Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin or through the associated website: http://www.samsonsociety.com. The Samson Society website is a good resource for finding recovery meetings and materials.

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A Boy Named Sue and A Different Point of View on Pain

A Boy Named Sue is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. Most people are familiar with the tune, but for those who have never encountered Cash’s humorous song, it tells the story of a man whose father was a worthless drunk who abandoned his family. Just before leaving, the drunk cruelly named his son “Sue.” The monicker brought teasing and mockery from an early age, which forced Sue to get tough, fighting anyone who picked on him. Intent on revenge for his unfortunate name, Sue hunts down his father with murder in his heart. Eventually, Sue finds and attempts to kill his father. Before he dies, Sue’s dad explains that the name was intended to toughen his son up, because he knew he wouldn’t stick around to help him learn to be a man. Sue realizes that as much as he hates the terrible name, it has made him into the man he is. The song ends with Sue walking away with a different point of view, thankful that he learned to fight and win through his difficulty.
I relate the content of the song because, though humorous, it makes an interesting point. Over the years, I have counseled with many people who curse bad parents, lament difficult circumstances they went through at different points of their lives, or rage against God for past hurts. Often, these hard circumstances in their lives resulted in them growing resentful or carrying a grudge. In such cases, I usually point to Johnny Cash’s song. I have never met a person who went through difficulty without growing strong, learning important skills, developing a deep sense of empathy, encountering God in a meaningful way, or developing a deep and abiding spirituality. Often, these qualities remain unnoticed in the individual because they simply accept them as a part of surviving hardship. In reality, some of the best qualities in people develop from going through difficulty. Diamonds are formed with intense heat and pressure and gold is refined with intense heat that burns away impurities. Further, God often uses our areas of brokenness to minister to the needs of others with similar issues. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective. It’s because God is able to us alcoholics’ past brokenness to help deliver other alcoholics from their addictions. I have spoken to all sorts of believers who have effectively ministered from their own broken past, regardless of what the brokenness in their past is.
imagesThere is an important principal in this. Comfort, a sense of meaning, and purpose for difficulty in relation to hard circumstances in our past can be discovered by recognizing God’s refining us through the pain we experienced, reflecting on the good it produced in us, and reflecting on how our experiences have shaped us into the person that we are. Doing so requires that we learn to take a different point of view in relation to our past. This can be terribly difficult, because hardship often creates bitterness, which tends to blind us to anything positive that may come of unfortunate incidents. It can also be hard because it’s easy to confuse finding positive outcomes with being glad a bad thing happened. We don’t have to be happy that tragedy has been present in our lives in order to recognize how hardship has shaped us. We can be thankful for what we have become without having joy at what made us the way we are. Learning to shift our perspective in relation to past pain can bring great comfort and release. As difficult as it is, it becomes easier to shift our perspective the further displaced we are from the events. This is often the first step toward healing.
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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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