Tag Archives: overcoming

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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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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Responding to Folks Who Mistreat You

Perhaps the hardest bit of advice I ever received from a mentor was that I needed to pray more. Normally, being told that you need to pray shouldn’t be an overly difficult suggestion, but this was related to a couple of guys I was working with at the time, who were creating significant difficulty for me. They were making my work harder and undermining me with my supervisor. During the several months I was working with these two individuals, I spent hours every evening fuming and dreaded going to work in the morning. After several months of misery, I approached my mentor and asked him what I could do to deal prayerwith the problem. His response made me angry. He asked me how praying for them was going, also reminding me that Jesus directs his followers to pray for their enemies. I didn’t argue, because I knew I was stuck. This began a process of prayer that changed my life. It was hard to pray for the men in question, largely because I didn’t want to do it. The idea of praying for these guys who had made me miserable for months scalded me. It offended me through and through. Praying for my enemies, and as dramatic as it sounds, they were my enemies, was difficult at first. As time progressed, it became increasingly easier and I learned several important lessons. 

First, I learned that praying for folks that I disliked had a profound effect on me. I increasingly learned to love the folks who mistreated me. My resentments slowly ebbed away. I began to rejoice when God brought blessing into their lives. Ultimately, prayer accomplished something amazing in me, it changed my heart. Through prayer, I became more like Jesus, a gain that makes all of the discomfort more than worthwhile.

The second major lesson I learned happened in the months and years that followed. One of the guys I was praying for received a huge blessing in his life that resulted in his moving to another job. I celebrated an answer to prayer in the form of God blessing him and also in his departure. The other guy I was praying for changed slowly over time and eventually became a very different person. The changes God made in his heart were evident and a reason for celebration. Prayer changes things. In this case, it changed the guys I was praying for. This is important because God is capable of accomplishing great things in our world.

Sermon LinkA final lesson I learned from praying for my enemies happened years later, when I began praying for another fellow I found myself in conflict with. During my first sit down to pray for him, I was suddenly convicted of the various actions I had taken in response to the unpleasantness I was encountering. A simple question came to mind: Is he seeing Jesus in my responses? I will admit that I knew I hadn’t been turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to exact my pound of flesh. I began to employ Christ’s other teachings for dealing with my enemy and my relationship with the individual changed. In fact, within a short period I had become friends with him. The product of prayer in this case was conviction of my own sins. That conviction resulted in new action that resulted in a change in the situation. Through prayer, God brought to light my own failure to imitate Christ in my reactions to mistreatment. 

At the most basic level, the direction to pray for our enemies is one that is prominent in the teachings of Christ. This is the single best reason for doing it. I can testify as to the various benefits that have resulted from my prayer experiences, but the reason we ought to do it is because Jesus commands it. If He is Lord in our lives, we must do it. Fortunately, it is a teaching that, though counterintuitive, has some clear benefits to believers. 

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Fellowship Like a Punch in the Face

My first ministry job was as a youth pastor. When I started, the church had over 200 members and was growing. 9 years and 5 church fights later, we left a congregation of 20, swearing that we would never work in a church again. During my tenure, I had seen folks act poorly, gossip, mistreat each other (and me), and all manner of other unpleasantness. When I left the church, I took a job as a chaplain at a mental health facility for children with emotional disorders. It was volatile, frequently violent, and a breath of fresh air. I used to joke that evechurch fightn though the kids sometimes tried to punch you, at least they were attacking you out in the open and to your face. It took my wife and I years to decide to agree to take on ministry employment in a church again. There is a terrible truth about churches that has to be faced by anyone who is (or was) ever a part of one. The people who are meant to become like Jesus through their lives together in the church community, often bear little resemblance to Jesus or what He taught. Over the years, I have spoken with and visited with all sorts of folks who have shared tough stories, ones that I can relate to all too well. Folks were burned by people that were supposed to love and support them. It’s a tragedy that such experiences are so common. While talking with a friend earlier this afternoon, I realized how blessed I was to have been surrounded and supported by some awesome believers who helped my wife and I find rest and healing after a tumultuous time in our lives and relationship with God. The basic lessons and realizations we came to were powerful and important.

One of the major lessoverly_manly_manons I learned was from the Apostle Paul. While studying the second letter to Corinth, I realized that Paul had come to visit the church there and been humiliated and run out of town. A group of preachers, who were more concerned with making money than preaching the gospel, had made a fool of Paul in a debate. Paul then sent Titus to salvage his relationship with the church. He was eventually reconciled with them and the false teachers run off. The thing that’s worth observing here is that Paul was stabbed in the back, mocked, and mistreated by folks who were supposed to be his brothers in Christ. His response was stern, but loving. He did not back down off of the truth, but throughout the whole ordeal he pointed to Jesus as the truth. He did not want payback. He wanted the church to be reconciled. Ultimately, he was just following the example of Christ, who reinstated Peter after he denied even knowing Christ. The lesson to be learned here isn’t that we should jump back into the mess after walking away from those who abused us. Rather, it is a model of forgiveness and grace. It is very easy to fall into bitterness after we are hurt. It is easy to attack and judge. In the end, we need to forgive in order to heal. Nothing keeps a wound fresh more effectively than picking at it forever. I do not believe that Paul simply forget when individuals proved themselves to be untrustworthy. Rather, I’d suggest that he acted “as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” Love and grace need to rule our attitude and decisions, particularly when dealing with fellow believers. 

Another vital lesson I learned was that not every Christian is the same. In fact, not every member of any denomination, sect, or movement is the same. While one church handled us roughly, the next church we attended was supportive and loving. We watched our senior pastor being mistreated in one setting, but have experienced significant appreciation and support in our current ministry situation. It is easy to resort to this: all Christians are the same. Or to insert any of the following groups into that sentence: all pastors, all Presbyterians, all Baptists, all men, all elders, all Calvinists, etc. The truth is that it’s just not true. The people that brought hurt into your life are not the same people as all the other members of the larger group. It is easy to blame everyone for the actions of a few, and it can be quite comforting. It’s comforting to have someone to aim your anger at. It’s easy to transfer hurt feelings to everyone. However, as comforting as it is, aiming hurt at others doesn’t produce healing. It is a false comfort, like drinking salt water to quench your thirst. You can drink as much as you like, it’ll only make you thirstier. 

A final lesson I learned in the process of overcoming the hurt that I experienced was regarding the importance of moving on. For my wife and I, it was easy to get mired in remembering some of the particularly ugly behaviors we encountered. I personally spent a lot of time living in response to various actions and things that had been said to me. It’s easy to get stuck. I have met people who walked away from church for life over the actions of a few individuals. I have met those who abandoned their faith in response to un-Christlike Christians. I have met all sorts of people who have let the root of bitterness take hold in their souls and simply live to attack, bite, fight, and hurt because they have hurt that they cannot help but share. Getting stuck in a response to hurt inflicted upon you is simply allowing the people who hurt you to control your life. Whether it’s spending forever ignoring God or trying to take a pound of flesh from someone, anyone. Overcoming this sort of thing once it is entrenched in your life begins with a conscious effort to choose a different response to our past. This isn’t easy, but it is necessary in order to find healing and become whole again.

James’ epistle features a terrific line: 

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

James 1:19-20

As we evaluate our response to past ill treatment, it is important that we ask ourselves regularly if the anger we are carrying is bringing God glory. Are we loving the lost and our brothers in Christ? Are we acting in a way that draws others closer to Christ? Is our anger a product of resentment and bitterness? Do we love the least lovable people we encounter? If we find ourselves answering any of these questions in a way that indicates we are not glorifying God, even in the most painful parts of our lives, then we must heal and overcome. James offers an interesting bit of advice for accomplishing this. He calls us to pray for wisdom, which is applied knowledge. This is a difficult act of submission, but is necessary for spiritual growth to take place in the lives of those who have been broken by the careless acts of misguided believers. 

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