Dealing with Temptation 2: Resistance

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 the second of three posts planned to address this question. See Part 1 here.

Avoidance is my number one strategy for managing temptation, but it’s not always practical. Even if I could manage it, as a Christian, I shouldn’t be trying to completely remove myself from the world at large. My task is rather to learn how to live in society while honoring God and, hopefully, being a little light in the darkness. This calls for me to resist many of the temptations the world holds out.  I tend to use four key methods for resisting temptation – prayer, distraction, thinking beyond the moment, and enlisting aid. Here’s how they work for me.

Let’s imagine that I am arriving at a dinner party. It’s a festive occasion – there are 20 guests mingling, an open bar, trays full of appetizers, a dinner buffet to come, and multiple rich desserts after that. Sounds fun, but I’m trying to stay healthy so I don’t really want to drink much, perhaps a single glass of wine, and I don’t want to eat too much either. This can be tough to handle because everyone else is eating and drinking freely, and I’m going to be here for several hours. Time for my four strategies.

First comes prayer. I try to pray when facing temptations, even “small ones” like eating too much. Here I might pray, God please let me have a good time while eating what I want to eat and not what I don’t want. Help me not to overindulge. Because this will be a long party, I may pray something similar over and over again throughout the evening. Suppose I’ve done well all night but dessert is being served; I might pray God, I really don’t want to eat the cake. Please help me to live in a way that’s healthy for me.

Typically I feel internally stronger and less desire for the “forbidden fruit” immediately upon praying. (Not always though.) In other situations I might specifically identify the undesired behavior as sin. God please keep me from falling into sin. Protect me. Perhaps eating sweets doesn’t sound like “sin” to you, but I think it can be. (How many people, including Christians, seem “enslaved” to their appetites?)  I find naming it as sin more powerful than not.

Once I’ve prayed, then it’s time to think about something else. If I can just distract my attention, get my mind elsewhere, the temptation fades. At the party this may mean moving away from the food and beverage stations and striking up an interesting conversation. Out of sight, out of mind. This really works. With luck (or God) the tempting opportunity might even be gone when and if my mind returns to the subject. For example, the cake is so popular that there is none left after my conversation ends. Problem solved.

But what about when temptation’s staring me in the face and it’s not going anywhere? I may have prayed, but I’m still struggling internally to control my actions. This is when I try to think beyond the moment. How will I feel after giving in to the temptation? What will it get me? Yes there will be some very transient pleasure from giving in, but then what?  Feelings of guilt, disappointment, perhaps shame. Less health, or at least a step backwards on my health improvement plan.  I find that linking the behavior with these ultimate negative outcomes in this way is a very powerful way of motivating me to stick to my plan.

Lastly, there’s enlisting aid. Even just telling someone else I’m trying not to eat desserts seems to help. It’s not my secret struggle any more. Maybe they’re trying to do the same, and we can help each other through the moment. Or I might be explicit, Can you help me stay away from the dessert table? I don’t want to eat any of them tonight. I don’t expect them to tackle me if I head that way, but they can remind me of my true desire and engage me in a distraction maneuver. You said you didn’t want any dessert; let’s go sit out on the porch.

Overall, these four techniques are working for me. As in Part 1, I’ve used overeating as my example because: a) this is a pretty common struggle, b) this blog is about a living a healthy lifestyle, and c) I don’t want to discuss my other weaknesses on the internet. But I find that these methods work on my more serious temptations too.

What techniques have you found helpful?

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.

5 Reasons I Eat. How About You?

How and what you eat plays a major role in your health. Yet how much thought have you ever given to the reasons that you eat? What makes you munch? Here are my five major reasons.

#1 – Hunger. Hunger is an excellent reason to eat! We need food to live and our bodies are designed to let us know when we could use a little more. Now perhaps we eat too much (or the wrong things) when we get hungry, but hunger itself is an important signal to help keep us healthy. I try to eat when I’m hungry. Verdict: Helpful.

#2 – Emotions. When you’re feeling upset, eating can help you feel better. Certain foods are often emotionally comforting, from which we get the term “comfort foods.” I find myself most likely to eat for comfort when I’m stressed, lonely or bored. Unfortunately, eating is not actually a good way of managing stress, loneliness or boredom. It’s a temporary relief at best and overeating causes its own problems. Verdict: Not Helpful

#3 – Habit. Like many of us, I’m used to three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hungry or not, I sit down to eat by habit. This is not necessarily bad assuming that I am, in general, eating foods that are healthy for me (which is usually the case). I’m just dining before I otherwise would be hungry. However, it is possible to gain a lot of weight eating (overeating) by habit. Verdict: Mixed. 

#4 – Eating with Others. Eating together can be a nice way to meet someone. Humans are social creatures and it’s enjoyable to share a meal and spend time with others. Gathering for the evening dinner is an important way to keep family members feeling connected and close to one another. But it is pretty common to serve more food than is really needed, and prolonged dining increases the tendency to overeat. Verdict: Mixed. Good for relationships, but possibly bad for the waistline.

#5 – Because it’s There/For Pleasure. For me, this mostly represents snacking.  Or perhaps an “all you can eat” buffet. If the food is present and tasty, I’m going to want to eat it for pleasure. The food simply tempts me and I eat it. I think this is pretty common. Most of us aren’t all that good at resisting temptation. When snacks, cookies, candy or other treats are in view, they are going to be hard to resist. Verdict: Not Helpful

How about you? Why do you eat? If you’re interested in changing your eating habits, take a week or two to identify the reasons you eat. Get a small notebook (or use your smart phone) and every time you eat a meal or snack ask yourself “Why am I eating this?” Be honest.  Record the answer. After a couple of weeks review and analyze your answers.

In future posts I’ll write about how I handle some of the situations above. Please let me know if you have a particular issue you’d like me to cover.

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.