A man I know refuses to ask himself, “Why?” When sexual temptations entice, he grits his teeth and orders himself, “Resist!” When other people irritate him, he furrows his brow and wills himself, “Be nice.” When anxious feelings rear their heads, he decapitates them with a hearty, “Be gone!”
But the thing is—and I’m not sure how to phrase this—he seems a bit arrogant. He handles life so very well; what’s wrong with the rest of us? His advice to sufferers is, “Don’t do it,” “Be happy,” “Suck it up,” or “Just stop!”
If I’m ever hurting … well … his number is not on my speed-dial.
Another man I know came to me a year ago because someone told him he complains too much. He asked me what I thought.
The truth was he did complain a lot. Grumbling seemed the bass-drum beat of his conversational style: “My wife is a slob,” “My boss it too demanding,” “My colleagues are unappreciative,” and “No one wants to talk with me.”
Yikes! I wasn’t sure how to answer him, but I uneasily admitted that he might grumble more than most. I asked him “Why?” He left in a huff, determined never to complain again (though I’ve wondered since if he complained to his wife about me).
A few months later he was no longer complaining. He was angry; livid with his wife for her housekeeping; angry at his boss for an assignment, and furious with co-workers for their ingratitude. He had exchanged self-pitying complaints for an other-blaming fury.
It was not an improvement.
We need to recognize a spiritual principle
External “sins” arise from inner forces. There is a stimulus beneath the sin. Our constant complaining (anxiety or frustration) is the result of inner pressures on the heart. Willful cessation of external sin does nothing to relieve that inner pressure.
Until we deal with that inner pressure, it will find an escape in other forms. Whining yields to rage, lust gives birth to lethargy, and gluttony nourishes greed. Treating the symptoms instead of the cause is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm.
Besides, will-power runs out
Each of us is born with a natural reservoir of resolve. Our self-control takes various forms. Some endure crying babies for hours while others control tempers for years; some have physical stamina while others have seemingly limitless people-patience.
But our will-power is only seemingly limitless. My tank may hold ten gallons and your tank may hold twenty gallons, but empty is empty for everyone.
What do we do when our supposed inexhaustible self-discipline is exhausted?
We explode. Oh, we explode in different ways. Some actually implode and sulk in self-pity; some literally explode in rage and resentment; some freeze up with paralyzing anxiety; some cheat on their spouse, drink themselves blind, or swindle their partners.
Habits of the heart and Sinvitation
Repetition is a tool that creates instinctive behavior. Musicians practice scales and tennis players practice serves. Over time muscle memory causes them to act instinctively, and that’s good. Usually.
Long-term appeal to will-power also creates instinctive behavior; it creates self-reliance on personal resolve. No matter how good the short-term behavior is, our long-term instinct has become to rely on ourselves. The habit of our heart is personal will.
What happens when that resolve runs out? The rains fall, the rivers rise, the winds blow, and the house built on sand falls. Because will-power is an exhaustible resource.
There is another way. We can let our sin drive us to God.
Contrary to all we think or feel (or have been taught), sin can be an invitation to intimacy with Christ. We may think or feel (or been taught) that we need to clean up our act to come to God, but we can’t actually clean up our act until we come to God.
Each of us employs various prayer triggers: morning-time devotions, mealtime prayer, or stress-time intercession. Let’s create another trigger: temptation-time Why?
It may seem upside down, but our sin is an invitation to intimacy with God.
A new habit of the heart
Scriptures insist that “unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer’s work is useless” (Psalm 127:1), but our hearts habitually act on our own. We say to God, “Just give me the blueprints,” and we grit our teeth, furrow our brow, and start laying brick.
God didn’t come to earth to give us more moral blueprints or doctrinal design plans. He shed his blood to make us friends, co-laborers in the construction. God wants friends, not independent contractors.
Going to God with the why’s of our lives builds moment-by-moment conversation.
This is not navel-gazing; it is God-gazing. This is not self-focus; it is conversation with the creator. This is not psycho-babble; it is a visit with the world’s greatest healer.
Let’s choose Door Number Three
Self-reliance on will-power has only two results: misery when we fail or smugness when we succeed. Despair drags others down with us; pride drives others down under us.
There is a third door. When tempted to ridicule a friend or rob a bank, resist! But let’s not rest in our weak resistance. Let’s pound on the doors of heaven and ask “Why? What deep pressure on my heart makes this temptation so attractive?”