Not Knowing Better, But Learning Better

“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly” (Proverbs 26:11, NIV).

short coated brindle puppy lying on floor

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Unappetizing as it sounds, many animals do eat their own vomit—or, as with rabbits, their own droppings. They do so for the same reason a cow “chews her cud” (which is really partly digested and regurgitated food): it lets them reclaim nutrients that would otherwise be lost. For prey species or dogs alone in another pack’s territory, it also gets rid of evidence that another (possibly sick and vulnerable) animal is nearby.

Humans have no such excuse for scraping up the messes made by foolish habits, only to internalize those habits still further. How many people have you known who have promised a hundred times “never to do it again”? Or have said they’d change “someday” if circumstances ever decided to make it easy?

How Habits Start

Doing the same old thing is easier than learning to do things differently. Repeated actions and thoughts create “neurochannels” in the brain that automatically direct us back into those behaviors. It’s intended to help us master important skills; but, sin-inclined creatures that we are, the process is just as effective at establishing toxic habits. When we try to change, our own brains fight us to maintain the status quo, and we find ourselves chronically fatigued, anxious, and hypersensitive to the presence of temptation. And often, as with chemical addictions, physically ill.

Obviously, the best way to prevent a bad habit from doing harm is to avoid developing that habit in the first place. Where a problem already exists, the best time to stop it is immediately, before it becomes even more ingrained.

Which brings us back to the question: Yes, but what if you try and try to break a habit, and get nowhere?

Willpower Has Its Limits

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of changing your approach. Many people are stuck in the vicious circle of:

  • have a miserable experience due to the habit
  • swear they’ll quit and never go through that again
  • encounter the same old pressures and remember the relief the habit brought
  • do it again, often “just this once” or “being careful this time”
  • have a miserable experience due to the habit
  • swear they’ll quit …
  • etc.

The only way to get out of the circle is to break it: change the pressures, or the response to them, or both. Where most people fall down is that they make no definite plans, just ambiguous resolutions to be stronger next time. Then they forget about it until the pressures strike again–at which point they’re in poor condition to do anything but repeat, “No, I won’t” until it wears down into, “Well, maybe just a little.”

Planning in advance to avoid the triggering situation, or to handle it more effectively, is far better. Better yet is to approach your planning as the Alcoholics Anonymous people do: start by admitting the problem is more than you can handle on your own, and you need God’s help to overcome it. Then pray regularly for His guidance.

Accept That Change Takes Time

Even with strong determination, careful planning, and ongoing prayer support, don’t expect to be instantly healed from susceptibility to the habit’s siren call. God normally strengthens our souls via the slow and steady approach.

How long it takes you to change–a month, two months, six months, six years–will depend on a variety of factors:

  • how long you’ve had the habit
  • how frequently and/or intensely you practiced the habit
  • your age (most people under 25 have more “changeable” minds, but also poorer judgment, than their elders)
  • whether literal addiction is involved (in which case you should get professional medical help)

The only sure thing is, this isn’t a matter of “giving quitting a chance.” It’s a fight that has to be kept up until it’s won.

Thorn in the Flesh

Sometimes, the fight isn’t won until we enter eternity. “Thorns in the flesh“–chronic troubles on which God answers our prayers for healing with, “Bear with it, and believe it’s for My glory”–can come in other forms than material. Not that we should use that as an excuse to avoid working on troublesome habits; but neither should we conclude that we’re failures, or that God has forgotten us, if we do everything right and still can’t break a habit completely. Even incremental changes (even positive changes not obviously related to breaking the habit) are reasons to be encouraged.

Eventually, God will make all things new and bad habits will trouble us no longer. Until then, stand firm and keep growing: you’re never too old to learn.

Especially when the Lord is your Teacher.

Secrets of Making Time to Live

“Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:15-16a, NIV).

photo of person holding mobile phone

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Have you ever heard it said after someone’s funeral, “He never really lived, he just existed,” or, “For all practical purposes, he died thirty years ago”? Heart-wrenching epitaphs, no question. Yet many of us are barreling in the same direction as we make daily life all about chasing the urgent, with the occasional quick stop for a muttered prayer or an uneasy “I’ve always wanted to” thought.

“There’s so much that needs doing” isn’t a legitimate excuse. Jesus Himself took regular prayer retreats, urged bustling Martha to emulate attentive Mary, and stated confidently at the end of His earthly ministry that He had completed everything the Father gave Him to do (notwithstanding that the world remained in a far-from-perfected state). Therein lies the first secret of making time to really live:

Understand that “what needs doing” isn’t always what God wants you to do.

Many of us decide what we “need” to do on the basis of what everyone except God tells us needs doing.

  • A neighbor asks for help cleaning the garage, and we agree even though it means cancelling a scheduled-and-long-overdue private time with family.
  • Our church announces a desperate need for Sunday school teachers, and we volunteer irrespective of whether we have time or talent for the job, because “what will happen if no one steps up?”
  • The daily news serves up reports of crises from Afghanistan to Ushuaia, and we take on the job of personally praying for every one, even though it exhausts us and leaves us little fit for anything else–including continued effective prayer.

While it may seem heartless to “ignore” a need, it’s ludicrous to jump on every problem without ever asking God what He wants us to do. If the Savior of the World didn’t feel personally responsible for correcting 100 percent of the world’s struggles on the spot, why should we?

Secret #2 of making time to live:

Know your own passions, talents, and gifts.

God makes everyone a unique individual (see 1 Corinthians 12 on diversity in the Body of Christ), and basing your to-do list on the most obvious concerns may only mean you’re neglecting tasks you could perform far more effectively.  If you aren’t sure what you’re made for or what you should focus on:

  • Make a written list of dreams, most enjoyable moments, what people say you’re good at, and what needs stir your heart. Look for common themes and see what relevant opportunities are available.
  • Consider a professionally designed personality or aptitude test. Your results should be delivered complete with new insights and suggestions.
  • If you’re still stuck, pretend that your current schedule has just been wiped clean and you’re free to refill it with whatever you choose. This should help you see what you’re really passionate about–and what can be eliminated from your real-life schedule.

Third and final “life secret” for today:

Remember that God, human relationships, and personal care always belong among your top priorities.

Not just in theory but in action. Start making some changes if any of the following are regularly slipping into your “it can wait” folder:

  • Regular church/worship attendance
  • Bible reading
  • Personal prayer time
  • Dates with your spouse
  • Playing with your kids
  • Seeing your friends
  • Getting a full night’s sleep
  • Sitting down to eat nutritious meals/snacks
  • Getting physical exercise

The more it seems you never have time for it, the more you need it. Get advice from a therapist or trusted friend if you feel desperately trapped. And trust that the Lord of Time will show you a way out, if you determine to listen to Him.

Jesus said that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The idea that you have “no time” for real life is the devil’s lie. The God of Time is the God of Life, and He offers us a full supply of both.

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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