Sunday Meditations: Habitual Sins

I was reminded recently of a talk about habitual sins I gave at a men’s retreat last year, and it got me thinking about the subject, again.  At some level, I really never stop thinking about this subject, to be honest.  I don’t know if this will be helpful to the Internet, but I’ve been thinking about it and want to get down a few thoughts about dealing with these struggles.

First, we have to own up to the fact that it’s habitual.

We can call this whatever we want.  Some people don’t like to think of them as addictions.  Some don’t even like to think of them as compulsive behaviors.  I won’t press the case, but I will say that if there’s something that you’re doing that you desperately want to stop doing and have repeatedly failed to do so even in the face of consequences, then the line between “addiction” or “compulsive behavior” and whatever you think you’re dealing with is a very thin one, indeed.

I have probably had this conversation a dozen times with other guys:

OTHER GUY: “I really struggle with Issue X.  It’s not an addiction, but it’s a big struggle for me.”

ME: “So you could stop anytime just by wanting to, right?”

OTHER GUY: “Well, no.”

Ok, well, whatever you want to call that, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t stop, and any solution that relies on your ability to stop yourself will only work for the short term at best.

Perhaps you have even earnestly prayed for God to help you stop or to take it away from you.  Years, maybe?  Decades?  Maybe you’ve even offered desperate pleas like asking God to take away your free will in this area or throw the switch that would make you stop sinning.  But it isn’t stopping, is it?

This is where we get crushed, because we assume that every struggle with sin is just a matter of overcoming it with our Holy Spirit-infused willpower.  So, if we cannot, then we are actually terrible Christians, or perhaps not even Christians to begin with.  Praying and trying harder are the only tools in our tool belt, and if those fail us, even that becomes our fault and just compounds the shame of the whole thing.  Believe me, I know.

But let me let you in on a little secret.  I have never, ever met a Christian who did not have something like this.

It’s not always the same thing.  In fact, sometimes it can be kind of abstract.  In further fact, sometimes it’s even something that is relatively socially acceptable in the world and even in the Church.  There are a lot of gluttonous pastors out there, and congregations just think it’s funny, for example.

It may be a substance.  It may be a practice.  It may be something that only happens in your head or heart.  But all those people at church around you who you think would never relate to having a sin you can’t stop – all of them have one.  Usually, more than one.

Now, they don’t all react to that the same way.  For some people, it makes them very compassionate toward themselves and others.  For others, it has the exact opposite effect, making them relentless judges.  For many, it seems to have a sort of polarizing effect where everyone else is perceived to be basically righteous with a few understandable failings, but one’s self is seen to be the worst mass of depravity ever spawned.  And, honestly, a lot of our church experience sort of engineers that perception.

But I’m all over the place, here.  My point is this: if you ever want to stop, you must first come to accept the grim, difficult reality that you actually cannot stop no matter how much you want to, and your life is the proof.

It doesn’t make you not responsible.  These are your choices.  It doesn’t make it someone else’s fault or a product of your life circumstances.  Other things may aggravate the conditions that cause you to choose to sin, but ultimately it is your choice.  You could get a new job, new friends, a new spouse, a new whatever tomorrow, and you would still find yourself turning to this pattern because you can’t outrun you.

Second, there are reasons that this is a pattern for you beyond a “sinful nature” or whatever.

We are responsible for what we do and the choices we make.  However, there are events that have shaped us, many of which we could not control.

You may think you had an idyllic childhood, but every last one of us adopted ways of behaving and taking on interpretations of the world around us that helped us navigate and prosper in our environment.  This way of dealing with life didn’t stop in childhood; it’s just that’s where some of the most formative, well-entrenched things happen that become so much a fundamental part of our matrix that we can’t even see it as adults.

(NOTE: Whether you remember them or not, your parents also had issues.)

For instance, a large number of guys in my generation had fathers who were not home very much.  Their fathers may not have been abusive.  They may not have been enraged and unpredictable (although that’s not uncommon, either).  They were probably just doing the best they could to handle their obligations and deal with their pressures even with their own failings.  But, let’s say your dad was barely home or didn’t really spend time with you on a regular basis.

Well, kids are great observers and terrible interpreters.

To navigate this world, you might develop a rich imagination and internal thought life, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s so you could keep yourself company.  You might decide that real life is something that holds very little for you.  You might think that people don’t want to spend time with you.  You might think that, unless you did something spectacular, you weren’t worth noticing.  You might think that you just weren’t unconditionally lovable.  You might even think there was something actually wrong with you, fundamentally, that made people stay away.

If these things or something like them begin to worm their way into the way you think about yourself and the world, can you see the kinds of holes this creates?  Can you imagine, as you got older, what sorts of things you might do in response to this?  Can you imagine what sorts of people you would draw into your life and why?

And this is just one example of something someone might think because of one circumstance.  There are almost limitless variables in someone’s childhood and adolescence that begin to lodge various faulty interpretations deeply into our conceptual grid.  They go deep, we don’t even have conscious awareness of them as we get older, but they are there and, out of a sheer need for survival, they push us toward certain behaviors and steer us away from others.

There are reasons you have chosen your habitual sin, and you probably have no idea what they are.  But I can tell you that those reasons are there, they most likely were not things you chose but were sort of thrust upon you, and they helped you get through your world in some way, just as they are trying to “help” you get through your world, now, but they are actually destructive.

Like, I wish I could tell my body that food was plentiful and it really did not need to store up fat reserves to the extent that it does, but that fat storage is “helping” me survive, and when my choices are in line with keeping the fat storage mechanism up and running at full gait, it makes it a destructive force.

This is a reason why someone struggling with habitual sins needs to have compassion on themselves.  There is a constellation of false beliefs, possibly even trauma, about yourself, the world, your relationships, and God, that makes your behaviors not just attractive, but seemingly necessary.  You feel them in your core.  And you did not have any control over how this constellation got there.

But you are responsible for what you do, and you cannot stay here.  God does not want you to stay here.  You can’t throw up your hands like so many do and say, “This is just how I am.  I have to live with it and so does everyone else.”  It isn’t, you don’t, and they shouldn’t.

I put it to you that the reason God does not supernaturally take away your behavior is because that behavior is the tip of an iceberg of unhealthy spiritual junk you need to get rid of to heal and move forward, and if God took away that behavior, you’d never deal with what was lurking under it, and something even worse would take its place.  Or maybe it wouldn’t, and you’d think you were “sanctified” while all this gunk was still rolling around in your heart just because it didn’t manifest itself in a highly visible bad behavior.

Third, at the very least, start by getting someone else in this with you.

The very bad news I have for you is that you absolutely cannot stop your habitual behavior by yourself.  Read all the books you want.  Have a consistent Quiet Time.  Journal.  Meditate.  Whatever.  Those are all good things, you should do them, they will not enable you to stop.

Probably the best thing you could possibly do is find a group of people who have your struggle who are trying to work through it together.  Another great idea is to find a therapist or counselor who can ask you questions about your past and help you ferret out these core issues that have shaped you into the person you are, today.

But you might not be there.  Those may sound like the kinds of things addicts do, and you’re not comfortable with that right now.  That’s fine.

But at the very least, think about someone you can share your struggle with who will meet you with compassion, love, acceptance, and the caring impetus to help you move forward.  You don’t need someone who will just condone your behavior, but you don’t need a cop, either.

Because if you can share your story with someone, and what you get back is not condemnation, or shame, or lengthy explanations about why your behavior is a sin – but compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, and a desire to help you out of it – those are all things God has for you.  You are experiencing Him through that other person, and that is what you want, because that is what it’s going to take to start untying those dark knots that live under your surface.