Dealing with Temptation 1: Avoidance

In this life we are going to be tempted to do things that are physically, emotionally and spiritually harmful for us.  And in our contemporary American culture we are going to be tempted a lot.  How do we handle it?  This post is one of three planned to address this question.

If you’re like me you continually face temptations, large and small.  I often feel tempted to eat poorly, to drink too much, or to sleep in when I want to get up and exercise.  These may not be the most serious temptations I face, but they do affect my physical health, which is important to me.  For the purpose of these essays, I will stick to those involving eating and drinking because I believe many people struggle in these areas too.  However, the principles are general and can be applied to other temptations.

Fast food, rich foods, cookies, candy, desserts, big portions, soda, energy drinks, and alcohol surround us in America today.  It’s very hard to escape from the pervasive attempts to sell us foods and beverages that are harmful for us.  And it can be very hard to resist making poor choices, especially when we’re stressed and short on time (as many of us are).  Often times our resistance proves futile as we fail over and over again.

Personally, I find avoidance to be the most powerful method of dealing with those temptations where I am at my weakest.  That is, if I can avoid being tempted in the first place, there is zero chance I will succumb to it.  No temptation = no failure.  So avoidance is my #1 strategy for temptations about which I have major concerns.  Why risk failure if there is a better way to accomplish my goal?

My avoidance strategy calls for me to eliminate either the environmental cues of temptation, or the opportunity to actually fall into it, or both.  I do this two ways.  One is to stay away from environments where I will be tempted.  For example, I try not to even go into one of the fast food burger chains when I’m hungry, because it is quite likely I will order a burger and fries, even if I had intended to get a salad.  Yes they have some healthy options, but if I walk in, I’m probably going to take the unhealthy stuff.  The environmental cues, especially the smells, are too strong.  (And the staff is trained to supply their own cues: Want fries with that?  Can I supersize that for you?)

I’m sure you can think of places that you may wish to avoid for your own health.  Don’t sit down in a bar if you’re trying to quit drinking.  Don’t walk down the cookie aisle in the supermarket if you’re trying not to buy sweets.

But what about when you’re in your own living space?  You can’t just avoid your workplace or home, and these may be where most of your temptations lie.  True, but you can alter or restructure your “micro-environment” or “personal territory” at work and at home, which is my second way of practicing avoidance.

For me, this is simply keeping cookies, candy and ice cream out of the house except for special occasions.  I have a big sweet tooth.  If I see a treat, I’m going to have a hard time not eating it.  When candy or other sweet treats are in the cupboard, I often have just “one more” until I’ve had way too many.  However, if there is no ice cream in the freezer, I won’t be eating ice cream.  My wife doesn’t have this issue, but she helps me in my weakness.  If she buys chocolate for herself, she just keeps it to herself (and hides it somewhere), which is fine with me.

At work, my assistant likes to keep a full candy dish around.  Since she sits right outside of my office there is no avoiding it.  But, at my request, she has put it out of sight.  Yes I do know it’s there (in a drawer), but reducing the visual cue has helped me avoid a lot of candy that I otherwise would have consumed.

This is a pretty simple but pretty powerful concept, and these are just a couple of examples of a potentially big personal strategy – don’t put yourself at risk if you don’t have to.  Most of us could make many positive changes in our personal territories, which would be of great help to us in living the lives we desire.  Sometimes, however, individuals don’t like this approach.  I think because it requires they admit their weaknesses.  Perhaps they feel like they should be stronger, better able to resist.  Don’t be like that.  Admitting our weakness is the secret to overcoming it.  Knowing Jesus enables us, and prompts us, to admit our weakness.  It’s okay; we are all weak.

Now, over time, I have found that I am less subject to some of these temptations and better able to resist as needed.  So avoidance does not necessarily have to be a long-term strategy, but when you are really struggling, it’s a good approach.  Pray and ask God to show you where you are still to weak to effectively resist temptation and rather should focus on avoiding it.

Getting Healthy with the Holy Spirit

Most people aren’t getting any healthier. Some just aren’t motivated to do anything in that regard. They may be in denial about their problems or simply accept their poor health as normal. Don’t let that be you. Being a good steward of your body, mind and spirit requires that you take a good look at your health and your lifestyle. Perhaps some changes are indicated.

Others may be frustrated. Some motivated individuals have “learned” that positive change is impossible for them. Repeatedly trying and failing can sometimes result in this idea. After trying twenty (or a hundred) times to lose weight or to begin an exercise program, only to “fall off the wagon” each and every time, it’s easy to conclude, “I just can’t do it.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the wrong conclusion to make. It’s not helpful, except to help them stay stuck. A more accurate statement might be, “Everything I have tried so far hasn’t worked.” Much better. Because there will be ways they haven’t tried yet. (Usually a lot of ways, in my experience.)

In fact, many have really only tried one way over and over, relying on their own willpower or determination to help them change, repeatedly failing and then “trying harder” the next time. It just doesn’t work. The fundamental problem is our sinful nature, and what’s missing here is the Holy Spirit. So the best conclusion might be, “I can’t do it by myself.” Very true. But we can do all things through Jesus.

Now, describing how Christians get better from sin is a tricky issue. I’m not a theologian, but here’s how I explain it: The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside and that results in a change in our behavior on the outside. Here’s what Paul has to say:

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.     Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

Yes we do have to exercise our wills and make good choices, but God has given us the Holy Spirit for guidance and power. I need to remember this too. God gave me more than the average amount of willpower and determination, but I am still not able to change myself by myself. Yet gradually, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, I am growing some “fruits;” one of which is self-control (Gal 5:22-23).  And who doesn’t need more self-control?

If you’re stuck in your change effort and failing at your own self control, perhaps you’re working alone. Or maybe you’re simply ahead of the Spirit. Relax. Pray. Ask God to guide you, change you from the inside and give you strength to be different. He will.

Overweight? Lifestyle Disease? Sin is the Problem

Yes, I know it’s a provocative title that may bring up strong emotions. Take a deep breath and stick with me for the whole post. Sin is the problem; however, your personal sin may or may not be the cause of your problem. Let’s think through the problem of lifestyle illnesses using our common Christian worldview as the base from which to begin.

God made the world and it was very good. Then came the fall. Sin was introduced into humanity and into all of creation. As Christians, we hold that this introduction of sin into creation has corrupted God’s order of things and is the underlying issue that explains our worldly problems and suffering. It follows that all illness, including the so-called lifestyle diseases, is ultimately derived from this corruption.

Now “lifestyle disease” is a broad term. What are we talking about? Most common chronic diseases or conditions in Americans are related to our lifestyles, some more and some less. The majority of our (very high and growing) U.S. healthcare expenditures are for the treatment of these lifestyle-induced conditions. Obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, degenerative arthritis, heart disease, high cholesterol, and even the majority of cancers are all related to our typical American lifestyle.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes, for example, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels occur in individuals that are “doing everything right.” Certain genetic mutations affect cholesterol metabolism and result in very high blood cholesterol causing affected individuals to experience heart attacks at a young age (in their 20’s and 30’s). No matter how much these patients improve their health habits they are not able to compensate for their “bad” genetics. Similarly high blood pressure may run in families and lifestyle modification may not be that helpful.

This is not too surprising. In this world, bad things do happen to us regardless of our behavior. That’s a major theme of the Book of Job, and as you recall, Job had some pretty severe medical problems through no fault of his own. Jesus also corrects our notion that our personal sin is the cause of all of our medical problems in the story of the man blind since birth (John 9:1-3).

However more often, in my experience, we do cause our own problems. We live lifestyles that do cause our diseases, and we know it. The vast majority of people who are overweight with lifestyle diseases do not have an underlying uncorrectable genetic problem. They simply have harmful habits. They (and me too) are chronically engaged in behaviors that are harmful to us. Why would we do that? Sin.

Consider Paul’s statement:

The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.     Romans 7:14-22

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Haven’t you asked yourself something like that when trying to live differently? Questions like “Why can’t I stop eating junk food?” “Why can’t I stick to an exercise program?” “Why can’t I lay off the beer?” are a few examples. I believe most of us have had this experience. I know I have.

Now this sounds like bad news. My personal sinfulness is causing or contributing to my problems? Yep. Bummer. But wait; there is some good news here. Think about it. You’ve likely had these problems or struggles for a long time and haven’t been able to overcome them or to “cure” yourself. This is why. Man cannot overcome sin by himself. The good news is we are not by ourselves.

Jesus is with us. Jesus provides the salvation from sin that we can’t achieve on our own. He frees us from the power of sin, and we are no longer to be enslaved by it. But we still have to do the work of resisting. As Paul describes, our sinful nature is still present within us, and we must be willing to turn from this old nature to Jesus and our new nature in the Holy Spirit. As we turn to Jesus over and over again, and the Holy Spirit works in us, gradually we do get better. Sin loses its grip. That’s discipleship and sanctification in action, and it applies to your health too.

Unfortunately, we don’t always do the work of discipleship. A Christian counselor once told me that a (presumably Christian) client was not willing to give up an unhealthy food addiction because in her words, “it’s the only emotional support I have.” My first thought was “how sad.” Despite her faith, this person has an ongoing spiritual problem. Jesus did not come and die for us so that we could get our emotional support from chocolate ice cream.

Too many of us have this problem. Myself included. I am not immune to comfort foods and the siren song of modern lifestyles. I also sometimes struggle to live in the manner that I know is good for me. More and more, I am able to call on God to help me. I’m following Jesus the best I can. I’m not catching up to him but I am changing for the better. You can too.

Material vs. Spiritual Wellbeing

Life can be a struggle.  Sometimes it’s a material struggle.  You might be short of money and food, or not have a decent place to live. In my life, more often it’s been an emotional and spiritual struggle with stress and other negative emotions. Why am I worried so much? Why am I not fulfilled? Why am I not happier? Maybe you’ve experienced this as well. In our culture, it’s easy for these issues to merge, and we may seek fulfillment or happiness through our material circumstances. But it just doesn’t work.

Occasionally, I reflect on how much easier my physical life is compared with that of people in other times – perhaps the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, or frontier Americans in the 1700’s. I have so much more that they did. My house is clean, comfortable and air conditioned. It even has a swimming pool in the backyard. I have electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. My job is not heavy labor and it pays well. I could go on and on. Living in America in my particular circumstances, I am sure that I am materially better off than the vast majority of individuals living in the rest of the world. In fact, it seems likely to me that I have a better deal than 99% of people who have ever lived.

Despite this abundance, my life is not all smooth sailing.  Inside I struggle.  How can I be truly at ease with life and its ups and downs?  What do I need to help me feel fulfilled and at peace?  Clearly it’s not material things. Otherwise I’d have it by now. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes that nothing we can do or have here on earth will fulfill us.  We know as Christians that only God can give us the peace we seek.

As I continue to follow Jesus, I am getting some of that peace. The internal struggle goes on, but it’s less intense, and I have someone to help me. Material things seem less important. At the same time, I am more grateful for what I do have. It been a slow process, but it’s nice to realize I’m better than I was and still improving.  I plan to keep walking.

Let’s go together.

Discernment: What is Helpful? What is Harmful?

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.  1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV

“Not all things are helpful.” Now that’s an understatement! As I have grown in spiritual and emotional maturity, I have come to see more and more ordinary aspects of American daily life as harmful for my health. Many common foods are harmful to my physical health. Consumerism and materialism are harmful to my spiritual health. Television and the media are, on balance, harmful to my emotional health.

I’ll write more about some of the specifics on these issues in future posts. For now, my point is simply that our American culture and environment are filled with things that aren’t good for me. Now you and I may not have the same weaknesses, but I guarantee that you have some, and many things out there aren’t good for you either. It’s your job to figure out, or discern, what is helpful for you and what is harmful.

Discernment can be a hard job. The world will try to convince you that bad is good, or at least that bad is “not bad.” Cigarettes were once marketed as good for your health until it was clear they weren’t. The tobacco companies’ fallback position was then to simply deny the harm of their products. It was all lies, but it was also remarkably effective. This example represents only the “tip of the iceberg” of the world’s practice to deceive.

Discernment can also be frightening. Perhaps you have glimpsed that a great deal of your behavior is harmful, but the thought of too much or too rapid change is intimidating. If so, the good news is that you’re normal.   I have been scared that God was calling (or would call) me to radical change. As it turns out, I have changed a lot over the last ten years or so, perhaps even radically, but it was a slow, step-by-step process. I think that’s how God does it for most of us.

So, how to start? Always start with prayer. Ask God to help you discern healthy from unhealthy behaviors. Ask him to help you overcome any fear you may have, and remember that Jesus has set us free. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That’s us!

Second, recognize that the world will lead you astray. Be on guard against advertising, “common knowledge,” and don’t equate “normal” with “good.” Research the issues for yourself. Talk with friends and relatives who seem especially physically, emotionally and/or spiritually healthy. Ask them what they do that’s helpful and what they avoid because they find it harmful. You’ll learn a lot and probably find some supporters too!

Now relax having sure knowledge of God’s immeasurable love for you and infinite power.

You can do it!

Following Jesus and Changing My Lifestyle

“Jesus came to save us.”  All Christians would agree with that statement, but too often it stops there.  A Christian might say, “I’m saved,” meaning that through their faith in Jesus they expect to go to heaven, but what about their problems here on earth? What about their sinful desires and actions, their bad habits?  Jesus also came to change us here and now.  He came to give us a rich, rewarding and meaningful life – now!

Dallas Willard has described the change we are to make in following Jesus as “regeneration.”  The idea is that we should be changing for the better, here and now, in all aspects of our lives.  Here’s how Dr. Willard expressed it, “Faith in the living Christ raises us above merely being delivered from the consequences of sin. We need a doctrine not only of justification but of regeneration.  We need a picture of our life in God that does not leave most of our life untouched.”

The point is that Jesus wants us to change.  The love of God makes it okay to admit our problems, faults and sins, but we are not to just stay stuck with them.  I believe we are supposed to get better – not perfect, but better. We do that by becoming “disciples” of Jesus or “following” Him.  Obviously “following” someone is not a passive process.

Again, here’s how Dr. Willard explains discipleship, “A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus.”

I have found that, as I follow Jesus, I have developed an increasing love and respect for myself – not pride, but acceptance and gratitude mixed with a desire to be a better person.  Along with this has come an urge to be a better steward over my own physical and emotional health, and I’ve come to realize how much of “the world” is antithetical to Jesus, God and my own personal health and wellness.

A desire to live differently has been building inside of me, and I have received the inner strength to make positive changes. Be assured that the world pulls at me too, but I am learning to separate myself from people and things that will drag me down.  I am becoming a different person, a healthier person, in mind, body and spirit.

What about you?  Are you getting healthier?  Personally, I don’t think God wants people to have lifestyle diseases. And I am sure that God will help you change your lifestyle for the better.  That’s what Health Discipleship is all about.