Do you have a nasty habit that you just can't seem to quit? Do you overcome it for a little while only to crawl back after your willpower is exhausted? Is it a constant cycle of shame, temporary victory, defeat, and then more shame? If so, take heart! Part of the reason you are struggling so much may stem from how you have unknowingly trained your brain. And the good news is that re-training is possible!
When you are young and starting to learn about the world, your brain creates what is known as neural pathways. These pathways connect symbols, words, numbers, or other stimuli with meaning. For example, as a word is repeatedly associated with a particular concept, person, or image, the brain sets up a pathway between the two. Eventually the pathway becomes so well worn that you don't consciously think about it, you simply recognize what the word means.
This can be seen as infants begin to communicate. For example, My wife has been teaching our 14 month old son some simple sign language. He now knows the signs for "please", "more", "all done", and "thank you". When a meal time is coming up, he will vigorously rub his chest because he knows it means please. He is also starting to communicate verbally and will point at me and say "dada" when I enter the room. His brain is beginning to make the connections between words, symbols, and meanings. As he grows, these associations will become second nature and he will learn to speak without having to think about what the words mean. The neural pathways will become well worn as they have for all of us.
So how can this information help you kick a bad habit or overcome an addiction? The fact that the brain does not only construct neural pathways for information but also for emotional and physiological responses. You have experienced this phenomenon if something like a smell or a song has ever elicited an emotional memory. I dated a girl in college who always wore the same vanilla perfume, and for the longest time whenever I smelled a candle or air freshener with that scent, I would involuntarily think of her.
This is how habits become habits. We train our brain to respond to certain activities with a positive response. Whatever we repeatedly go to for pleasure or fulfillment creates a neural pathway. Before long the pathway becomes so well worn, that it is the only route we can take to experience the feeling we desire. This controls not only our emotional responses, but even our physical responses. That is what is so powerful about addiction. You create a dependence on something by always going to it for a desired outcome. In the same way that a child learns to say a certain word to express a certain concept, you train yourself to go to a certain activity to obtain a certain feeling. If you are not able to obtain what you are dependent on, you start to go through withdrawal emotionally and physically.
The big problem comes when you create a neural pathway that is inappropriate or harmful. God has created us with desires and emotions which only He can fulfill legitimately. If you replace the healthy fulfillment of a desire with an unhealthy one, you are creating a well-worn path to frustration and harm. You become addicted to something that is hurting you, but you can't stop because you have trained yourself to go there.
For me, this is not just a theoretical study, but something that I have found to be true in my own life. The habit that I have allowed myself to develop is an addiction to pornography. Now please be clear that when I say my struggle with porn is an addiction, I am not saying that I look at it every day, week, or even month. An alcoholic may be sober for an extended period of time, but if handed a beer would still be tempted to drink it and follow it with many more. In the same way, porn is something that I have struggled with over multiple years and always seems to be lurking in the background, waiting for me to have a weak moment.
During my hardest times of struggle, I have found myself repeating the cycle I mentioned earlier. I would fall to temptation and then almost immediately feel guilt and shame. This would be followed by a determination to never look at porn again, and a passionate and repentant prayer to God for the strength to overcome. Days, weeks, or months later I would give in to temptation again and the original guilt would come back with double the bite. I would pray again. Determine to be done again. And so on.
Recently I heard a sermon in which the pastor mentioned the concept of neural pathways and connected it to addiction. Understanding the well worth paths that I have set up in my mind has helped me tremendously in my struggle with this besetting sin! My battle with this habit has now changed from simply a determination to do better to an actual strategy for victory.
Here is what I am working on: Letting those pathways become overgrown and beating new pathways to legitimate and God centered activities.
For me, when I am running down the path to porn I am seeking the high that comes with looking at those images. I have trained my body and mind to go there for pleasure and fulfillment. As a Christian husband, God commands me to find my sexual fulfillment in my wife. Looking anywhere else for fulfillment of this need is inappropriate. The moment I first looked at porn, I began treading a different path to reach that goal. Now there are two paths leading to two totally different destinations. Because I have allowed this, I need to put extra effort into letting the wrong path grow over and frequenting the right path.
Here are some things I have been doing to try and let that old, well-worn path grow over:
Not allowing myself access to the old path: The internet is an amazing tool, but it also gives unprecedented access to all kinds of filth. There is just too much out there for me to trust in willpower alone to avoid it. This is why I have installed some kind of accountability software on each device I own that can access the internet. For my old kindle that will not download apps, it's new home is in the nightstand beside the bed. That way I have absolutely no access to it without tiptoeing into the bedroom and waking my wife up. Knowing that I cannot access porn easily is a great help in avoiding the path.
Following the right paths: If I am struggling with my thoughts there are several legitimate things I can do. For one thing, I have an amazing wife that I can spend intimate time with. This is part of God's wonderful plan for marriage and can strengthen our relationship, as opposed to the damage that can be inflicted by the porn path. Other times it is as simple as going to bed. I tend to struggle when I am over tired, so a legitimate path to go down is one that leads to rest. I have also found that reading scripture or listening to a sermon or Christian song can help reorient my mind. Basically I am trading a run down the sinful path for a stroll down a legitimate one.
Accountability: Having guys in my life that will ask me which pathways I have been frequenting has been an invaluable help. Some of them are struggling with the same well-worth paths in their own lives and sometimes having them drag me away from the entrance of my own path has been the only thing that saved me from falling!
I don't know what you are struggling with, but I'm fairly certain you have some well-worn paths of your own. We all do. I would challenge you not to just resolve to do better and ride the endless cycle of temporary victory and defeat. Instead, work on letting those paths grow over so that you can barely see them. Make it so much work to get to them that you give up in the process.
Frequent the neural pathways that lead to legitimate fulfillment and satisfaction. These can only be found in a growing relationship with Jesus! As you spend your effort traveling down these paths and cutting off your access to the old ones, you can retrain your brain. You will start to go to the good stuff instead of automatically defaulting to the old habits. In Biblical language, you will begin to be "transformed by the renewing of your mind". I know that is the path that I desire to be on, and by God's grace I pray that I would be found there!
If you listen to Christian radio at all, you have probably heard a lot about a man named Saeed Abedini. He is an American pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran for living out his faith in Jesus. If you have not hear about him yet, let me fill you in on a few of the details...
Saeed is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran. He Married an american citizen and they have been living in Idaho with their children for the past few years. Even though he has been living in the states, he has continued to be very active in his home country. In July of 2012, he made one of several trips back to Iran to visit family and continue working on building an orphanage. He has also been instrumental in planting over 100 house churches in 30 different Iranian cities with over 2000 members.
In September of 2012, he was imprisoned and charged with attempting to undermine the national security of Iran because of his work with the house churches. He received a very biased and unfair trial in January of this year and has now been sentenced to eight years in prison. It is obvious that he is being persecuted because his Christian beliefs differ from the beliefs of the political leaders in Iran. He has been undergoing quite a bit of abuse and mistreatment for his Christian beliefs, and has been separated from his family for since June of 2012.
As news of Saeed has spread, a lot of Christians have cried foul and a campaign to free him has popped up. It is fittingly called, "Save Saeed". Many Christian musicians and other celebrities have jumped on board, encouraging people to sign a petition. If it reaches a certain number of signatures, this petition will be presented to the United Nations urging them to take actions to free Saeed.
As I've been following this story on the radio and Facebook, one questions has continually been in my mind: "Is this the right response for followers of Jesus?"
At first the answer seems obvious. Of course we should fight for this man's freedom! He is being abused! His rights are being violated! His family is suffering! Shouldn't we as Christians be enraged and fight for his release? My heart wants to say, "Yes, of course we should! He needs to be reunited with his wife and kids! He needs to be spared any more pain!" I can't imagine being in such a place and not being allowed to see my family for an extended period of time. But I'm not so sure that my emotions line up with scripture this time around.
Disclaimer: From here on out you may not like what I have to say. Please know that my natural human emotions do not like it either. But I've got to be faithful to scripture, regardless of how I feel. I know that there are many believers (some who I look up to) that I will be disagreeing with me here. One of my favorite musicians of all time is working in support of the Save Saeed campaign. All I can say is that I'm doing my best to respond to this situation Biblically, and I welcome honest feedback because I am far from infallible!
So what does God's word have to say about situations like this? Let's take a look at a few samples:
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good." - 1 Peter 4:12-19
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." - Matthew 5:10-12
"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body." - Hebrews 13:3
"And (pray) also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak." Ephesians 6:19-20
I think scripture is clearly telling us a few things in these verses.
First of all, the Bible teaches that we should never be surprised when persecution comes. The shock and outrage that I've seen expressed by Christians about Pastor Abedini is a little bit baffling to me. Jesus was very clear. The world hated Him, and if you choose to follow Him they will hate you too. We should see what is happening to Pastor Abedini as a natural result of following Jesus, and we should expect persecution to come our way as well!
Secondly, the Bible teaches that suffering for Jesus is actually a positive thing! We don't like to hear that in America because we are all about comfort. We see all pain and suffering as inherently bad. Christians have bought into this mindset as well. If you don't believe me, go to a prayer meeting in most rural Maine churches. Every sickness, ailment, and inconvenience is brought before the Lord so that he can fix it. After all, God can't actually want us to suffer can he? Doesn't he want us to be comfortable and happy?
But scripture clearly teaches that there is a place for suffering in the Christian life. And when it comes to persecution for our faith, Jesus says we are blessed when we suffer for His name. It's a privilege to suffer for Jesus! It means the world is identifying you with Him, and as a Christian that is the whole goal of your life!
Thirdly, the Bible teaches that we should pray for those who are being persecuted, but not necessarily for the persecution to stop. We should identify with them as if we are the ones undergoing the suffering and we should pray that they will have strength to endure it. More importantly, we should pray that those being persecuted have opportunities to share their faith in the midst of their suffering. When the apostle Paul was imprisoned for his faith he asked for the prayer of the church. He didn't want prayers for his release, but for opportunities to tell people about Jesus! He knew that a Christian who is suffering for his faith and enduring it is a powerful witness, and he wanted to continue to be that witness!
In light of what scripture has to say, should we be signing petitions and trying to rescue a Christian from something that Jesus says is a privilege and a blessing? As hard as it is for me to say it, I think the answer is no! I'm not minimizing what Pastor Abedini and his family are going through and my heart aches for them. But at the same time, he is experiencing something that Jesus promised would happen and told us to embrace. He is in a unique situation that many of us as North American Christians will never be in. He has the privilege of suffering for Jesus and using that suffering as a powerful witness.
As a matter of fact, Pastor Abedini has already expressed his thankfulness for the opportunities he has had for ministry in his situation. Below is the text of a letter that he recently wrote his wife. As you read it, you can sense how God is using him and that he is faithfully serving his Lord in this tough time.
So should we be supporting Pastor Abedini and those like him? Absolutely! But we should be praying that God would give them grace in the midst of suffering, not that he would take all their suffering away. We should also be aware that if we are disciples of Jesus, the day will come when we will have to suffer for His name to some degree. Will we try to escape this suffering or accept it as a privilege and a blessing? My hope and prayer is that I will be a faithful witness in my time of testing.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" When you're a kid that question seems theoretical. It doesn't feel like it's actually going to happen. Summer vacations last forever. A year is an eternity. Adults are there, but you never really consider how they got there. The idea that your parents were once kids seems ludicrous!
Then of course reality catches up with you. You look in the mirror one day and the reflection changes. There stands a young adult where a child so recently stood. Life becomes harder, busier, and more complicated. Those same segments of 24 hours seem to pick up speed and blur together into weeks, months, and years. Growing up no longer seems like a theory but an inescapable reality that happens to you whether you are ready or not.
Becoming a father has made me think about this process in a whole new light! I find myself living vicariously through my son as he experiences everything for the first time. He is so full of wonder and amazement at the simplest of things and it makes me look at the world with new eyes. Watching him also brings back long forgotten memories of my own childhood. In my mind I'm transported back to my parents house when me and my brother were young. I remember blanket forts in the living room, tickle fights with dad, and exploring the neighborhood on my bike. Memories that are usually on the back burner come rising to the forefront. It makes me wonder where all that time went!
Watching my son is also reminding me of just how fast life goes by. We will be celebrating our little guy's first birthday next week and I am not emotionally or mentally prepared for it! How is it possible that a year has passed since I was frantically driving behind an ambulance that was transporting my wife to Portland? That 12 months has gone by since we met the little boy that has now stolen our hearts? It just does not seem possible, but it is true.
I normally despise overused cliches, but if there is one that rings true it is definitely the idea that time speeds up as life goes on. This is something people tell you when you are young. You might even acknowledge it. But until you get a little older and start to experience "adult life", you don't get it. It really does feel like the older you get, the more time picks up speed! Before you know it, you start to look back and wonder how the heck you got to where you are now! I mean, wasn't I just 10 the other day? How did I become a husband and father? When did that happen?
I'm not sure why this is true. Maybe it's because when you are an adult, your life becomes a little more predictable. Days can start to mingle together because you are doing the same activities and seeing the same people. Or maybe it's just because you become more busy and more of your time is filled. I don't know. All I know is that the last 10 years of my life feel like they should only have lasted 5 or 6 years tops!
So why am getting so contemplative about this subject(besides maybe a bit of self catharsis)? The main reason is that I'm being reminded to stop and pay attention to what is going on around me! We can get so busy and distracted in life and end up missing the most important pieces of it! Spending time with my son has been a constant reminder of this. I want to enjoy and savor every minute that I get with him, because one day that time will be gone.
I want to make sure that I'm really living and experiencing life, not just existing. I only have a finite number of days on this planet, and I want to make sure I am a good steward of them. There are so many options for how to spend my time. I want to do things that matter. As I see how fast it's slipping by, I want to make sure I am investing it and not squandering it!
As I look back over the past year I can say that I am happy about how much of that time was spent. God gave me some great opportunities for ministry. There has been a lot of precious time with my family. I've been able to develop deeper friendships. But unfortunately, there are also a lot of examples of time that I wasted. I can never get those moments back. They are gone and will never come again. Opportunities have been missed.
Every single moment, including this one, is slipping by. Will we choose to use it to it's fullest advantage or let it fade away with untapped potential? I know I've already wasted too much time in my life and I don't want to waste any more!
Last week I was once again able to travel to the Dominican Republic with a group from Bean's Corner. This year marked my fourth trip. It doesn't seem possible that I've participated that many times, but that's how life goes. For any of you who may not be familiar with what we are doing down there, we are helping to build a hospital in the city of La Romana. It's been a project that has been going on for over 15 years. The hospital is still under construction but is fully operational nonetheless. The first 2 floors are completed and in use. The bulk of the work we did this year was on the third floor. The hospital also sends out medical teams into the sugar cane plantations (or Batays, as I will refer to them from here on out). These teams dispense medications to the workers and their families and help diagnose medical conditions. It's really the only medical care that these folks can count on receiving.
Now that I have been home for a couple of days, I have had some time to begin processing what my heart and mind have soaked up in the past week. This blog post is really more of a therapeutic exercise than anything else. Putting down into words what I am feeling has always been a good way for me to process. So here are some impressions I'm left with from the trip this year.
1. I complain too much It seems like this is highlighted for me every year, but this time I came back with an even stronger sense of my own shallowness and selfishness. This probably has something to do with the fact that I spent more time in the Batays than would normally be the case.
Usually I spend the week with the construction team at the hospital. The medical team goes out into the willywacks and does their work with the Hatian population in the midst of the sugarcane fields. This year however, I was asked to go with some new team members who were tagging along with the medical team on Monday. Also, on Thursday I had the opportunity to go out to another Batay and help set up water filters for several different families. This meant that I spent the bulk of two days in Batays when I might normally not even get out to one.
The poverty did not shock me like it did my first year, but being out in the countryside for so long forced me to consider it in a deeper way than I had before. As I spent time with the kids, then set up the water filters and saw the gratitude on the faces of those receiving them, I could feel the Lord gently rebuking me.
These people don't even have access to clean water and back home I complain when the town water is shut off for repairs. I complain when I'm tired. I complain when I'm hungry. I complain when I can't find my cell phone. I am so consumed with my own little world that I rarely give a passing thought to those who are really in need. As I spent time with those humble people in the Dominican, I became more and more ashamed of myself.
What real problems do I actually deal with here in the United States? If I lose my job, I can always find another one flipping hamburgers for minimum wage, which is significantly more than anyone in the Dominican makes (the translators that work for the hospital make a few dollars a day, and only work when there are teams that need them. And they are extremely thankful to have these jobs!). I have never experienced hunger like someone living in the Batays. If I am sick, I can go to the emergency room and get treated. For those in the small area of the D.R. that the hospital reaches they are lucky to get treated once a month. Thinking back on the care my son received when he was born early, I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to watch your kids suffer and have to wait weeks for them to be treated!
So lesson one is that I need to stop complaining about what I don't have and start giving out of the abundance that I do have. Most of the world would be happy to live how I live and would even consider it to be a wealthy lifestyle!
2. I'm thankful for the body of Christ throughout the world. It's so cool to be part of a team in which so many members return each year. Over my four years as part of the trip, I have gotten to know some amazing brothers and sisters in Christ. I so look forward to spending the week serving with them and having fellowship together. Conversations pick up where we left off the year before and friendships grow stronger. It's an amazing thing that though we are from different parts of Maine and other states, we share the bond of belonging to Jesus. There were many new faces this year (at least to me) but it didn't take long at all for us to truly work together as one family.
It's also a huge blessing to be able to develop these friendships with the Dominican and Hatian workers. This year I got to spend more time talking with Alex, a hardworking and Christ loving man that Ira met on his first trip. I got to see Vladamir as well, who was the first Dominican that I worked with four years ago. There are also several others that I look forward to seeing each year and there are always new folks to meet! The bond we share in the body of Christ transcends culture and even language!
3. I'm thankful for ministry opportunities. Each year I am amazed at the way God gives me opportunities to serve Him. I don't understand why He chooses to use me, but in His grace there are always some amazing things that He has me do. None of these things has anything to do with me or my talent and abilities, but everything to do with God's power and glory.
This year I was able to preach in a Batay church. What an experience to proclaim God's word to brothers and sisters in another culture. My interpreter did a great job and judging from his enthusiasm and that of the congregation, I'm pretty sure he embellished my words! I was also able to have some neat spiritual conversations with other members of the team throughout the week and hopefully be of some encouragement in their spiritual journey. Ira and I had a lot of fun leading some worship songs and for the first half of the week I led the morning devotional. I find that wherever I am and whatever I am doing that if I pay attention, God has things He wants me to do. This is incredibly humbling but amazing at the same time! We serve such a gracious God!
Well, this post has become extremely long and if you are still with me you are probably wondering if I will ever shut up. I could type pages upon pages about the things God has taught me this past week, but I will save the rest for future posts, conversations, or sermons. I am just so thankful that God has allowed me to be a part of what He is doing in the Dominican Republic and around the world. I am blessed beyond measure by His grace and His desire to use me for His purposes. Please pray that I keep these lessons in mind as I re-enter "normal" life once again. I don't want to lose the passion and perspective that God has impressed on my heart.