Smoker? Shopaholic? Compulsive Candy Crusher? Pull up a chair as Pastor Mike talks about bad habits, addiction, and finding freedom.
Is it wrong to find comfort in things outside of God?
I actually don’t think it’s wrong to be comforted by something like food, for example. We live in a physical, material universe. I don’t think God’s like, “I just want you to be an embodied spirit, and I’m the only comfort in your life.” The Bible says He blesses us richly with all things to enjoy (I Timothy 6:17). So if you look forward to eating a couple Oreos before bed – if that comforts you – that’s fine. That in itself can be a grace to you from God, and ultimately you find comfort in Him if you thank Him for this grace.
What’s the difference between a bad habit and an addiction?
The line is when I can no longer give this up willingly, and it becomes destructive to my life. It’s a matter of degree. So if you’re enjoying a couple Oreos before bed, and one day you realize you’re eating ten each night and gaining unhealthy weight, that’s a bad habit. You need to exercise self-control. If you find that you can’t stop, and your eating has become destructive to the rest of your life, then I would call it an addiction.
How do you break bad habits and addictions?
There’s a pastor who lived centuries ago named Thomas Chalmers, and he preached on this concept called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Essentially what he taught is that you can’t make a change in your life until you love something more than the thing you’re trying to stop.
For example, when you tell somebody to stop smoking, that’s not helpful. Why? Because smoking makes a person feel better. It actually calms their nerves. It allows them to steady themselves. So despite the many messages about the damaging effects of smoking, many people will continue smoking because it makes them feel good. The only way to stop smoking is to come to a place where you want something else more than you want a cigarette – whether that “something” is better health, endurance, or to set an example for your kids. This “new affection” expels the bad habit.
How do you develop new affections?
In order for a new affection to take hold, there has to be pain in a person’s life that rises to the level where they’re willing to make a change. I remember sitting with an alcoholic in a counseling appointment, and I looked him straight in the face and said, “Hey man, you’re gonna lose your wife over this.” He said, “I know and I want to stop, but I can’t.” I said to him, “You don’t want to stop. You need to come to the realization that you want the next drink more than you want your wife or kids.” He goes, “That’s terrible. That’s not who I am.” And I’m like, “that’s exactly who you are, and it is terrible, but you don’t truly believe that yet.” And it took him a long time. He didn’t change for several more years.
That’s what’s weird about the expulsive power of a new affection. Some people can hear a statement like that and immediately make a change – they’ve just never made the connection before. Other people will get DUI’s, lose their job, their family, and eventually some doctor will walk in the room and say, “Hey, if you drink any more, you’ll die,” and they still won’t change. But one thing everybody facing addiction has in common is that they choose to love something more than everything else in their life.
So is the answer to just “love Jesus more”? That seems simplistic.
No, it’s not as simple as “I wake up one day; I choose Jesus over alcohol.” Although it is, in the sense that ultimately that will be the conclusion. There’s just a lot of steps in between. You have to realize that the problem you have is not really the problem. Your problem isn’t your addiction, or your drinking, or your sexuality. Your problem is something behind the problem.
I counseled a woman once who couldn’t stop eating because she was sexually abused as a child, and in her mind she never wanted to be attractive to men ever again. Eating was a way of protecting herself. Then she became so out of control she couldn’t stop. So we didn’t really talk about eating a whole lot. We talked about her heart and what it felt like to be sexually abused – to feel powerless, afraid, and ashamed.
These are the kinds of questions you have to face: Why did I pick up this habit in the first place? What am I trying to cover up? What am I afraid of? You can be just as addicted to exercise as you can to overeating. One is just socially acceptable, but both are spiritually damaging. If I can’t stop exercising because I’m afraid that if my physical self becomes diminished, then I’m of no value, that’s damaging to my life. So in counseling, we’re going to look at those issues – Why do you feel you’re of no value if you’re not super thin? Does God love you less if your waist is 36 inches instead of 22?
You see, to be enslaved to something is the natural condition of mankind because we’re supposed to be bondservants of Christ. Romans 16:16 says, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey.” This is Paul’s language of the “doula” – the bondservant. So when I’m enslaved, it better be to a good master. Because if it’s not, I’m not going to be free. I’m going to be torn apart. The problem with the woman I counseled wasn’t extra weight. It was that she offered herself as a slave to food as a way of solving her problem. And that solution hurt her.
Did she ever change?
She did! It wasn’t easy, but she eventually became much healthier physically and emotionally. The bottom line is, if you don’t fill yourself with something better than the addiction you have, then you’re never going to get rid of it. Romans 16 talks about this transference of slavery. Paul says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness” (Romans 16:19). The question is, what am I offering myself to? And is it a good master?