Friday, January 15, 2010

We're All a Bunch of Junkies

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? - The idea that humanity in its present state is nothing more than a collection of addicts, how depressing. But those who have been acquainted with God for a while, and begin to see the wisdom of choosing right for their lives, are invariably puzzled by some of their own behavior. In short, we know that choosing good is what we should do in a given circumstance, but this knowledge does not prevent us from making the wrong choice. What’s wrong with us? And why do we keep on doing it?

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to closely examine the behavior of an addict. Nobody starts out in life addicted to anything in particular. When you are born, you have a relatively clean slate (crack babies notwithstanding). Over time, and as you grow, you begin to establish patterns of behavior, both in the choices you make, and in the actions you take. These patterns somewhat define who you are, because every time you do them again, an electrical impulse travels through your brain along a predefined route. Each time the process repeats, another electrical impulse travels the ‘same road’ if you will, and reinforces the ease of traveling this pathway. Over time the pathway builds, and the inclination to repeat the behavior becomes greater. All of this occurs without the use of foreign chemicals or substances. It is the natural function of our brains, as we understand them today. These pathways never really go away, but it is possible to build alternate routes in the brain, and make alternate behavior even more popular than the habits you formerly followed.

Given that normal brain function is affected by repeated patterns of behavior, when you introduce an external chemical into the pattern, it can act like an accelerant, altering the very chemistry of the brain to require repeating the act. Chemical addiction is far less likely to be simply undone by alternate choices. It becomes much harder to go ‘cold turkey’ off foreign chemicals, than as an example, to simply choose to eat your vegetables first in a given meal (i.e. changing a normal behavior to something new or different). And not all brain altering chemicals are external, some of them your body produces naturally, like endorphins. When you exercise vigorously your body produces internal chemical endorphins that make you feel like to could ‘run for miles’. They make you feel good. And they are natural. It is said, when a woman eats chocolate for example, the same chemical response occurs in her brain, as when she engages in sex. These internal ‘feel-good’ chemical reactions can also prove to be quite addictive, accounting for behavior we don’t always understand – gambling addictions, romance addictions, sex addictions, exercise addictions, etc..

This means that when we choose poorly, we begin to ‘teach’ our brains to repeat the choice. The more we engage in a behavior, the more we feel like it is natural to do so. Heredity also plays a role in this, as the habits our parents develop will both influence how we think, and likely pre-incline our chemical responses. How do we break this cycle? Let’s continue our analogy of a drug-addict as an example. Drugs are highly addictive as they alter brain chemistry. For the common drug addict to quit – they need to recognize they are addicted (step 1), and begin to seek outside help (step 2). Someone who is an addict, but refuses to see it, will not soon change his behavior. After all they are not even trying to change. But realizing the need is not enough to break the cycle either. We must seek help, outside of ourselves. The odds are stacked against the common drug addict for him to solve his problem on his own without help. Depending on the length of the addiction, the severity of the chemical alteration, the genetic predispositions he faces, and the ease in which his environment facilitates his access to the drug – he faces a nearly impossible challenge to quit. Every addict knows the behavior they engage in, is destructive to themselves and others. They realize this, but are quite literally powerless to change it.

Often we blame an addict for the conditions they find themselves in. After all, if the drug addict never took that first hit of cocaine, or smoked that first joint, they would not be so messed up now. And yes, the drug addict is solely responsible for that initial wrong choice. But once having made a wrong choice, the propensity to repeat it grows greater at an exponential rate. Within a very short period of time, the addict is out-of-control, and powerless to resist what they have begun. Not every Christian can identify with a drug addict’s rational or behavior. They think themselves too pious to be caught in this trap of addiction. Yet every Christian knows in their hearts, a certain sin (or choice of evil) that they repeat, despite their guilt over doing it. Yes we are forgiven for the poor choices and misdeeds we commit. But we want much more than simple forgiveness, what we crave is reform. We wish not to engage in wrong choices ever again. But this desire is not enough to prevent us from screwing up again. The reason, we are all a bunch of junkies, addicted to our sinful behavior. If you find yourself looking-down on a street walker who is plainly addicted to drugs, realize when you get home, the mirror can show you that sight once again. It may not be drugs you are addicted to, but a pattern of wrong choices is every bit as hard to break with.

Confrontation is rarely effective in long term recovery. Smacking someone in the head with what they are doing wrong rarely helps them see the value of the alternative. Instead, focus on the power of positive reinforcement. Whether trying to show someone else the error-of-their-ways, or simply trying to get past something you don’t like in your own character – stay focused on the cure. What is our cure, who can save us from the fate of every addict? Why our Creator God of course. Jesus not only is our master physician, who healed every variety of sickness while here on our world. He created us. He knows our owners-manual very well, as He wrote it himself. The advice He gives us in the Bible of how to stay healthy is from the perspective of the one who made us. He does not want us to suffer; this is why He saved us. And Salvation after all, is not about waiting to escape pain, it is about escaping it right here, and right now; even the pain of addiction.

When confronted by a desire to choose the wrong path again, try to focus your mind on Christ, and ask Him to take control of your circumstance, your desires, your actions, and lead you away from your pain. This is why it is so important to be able to trust our God, or else how could we learn to give up our control to Him. We need to allow Him to change the very desires of our hearts, if we are to affect real positive change in our lives. Our desires are suspect, after all. We have been trained to want what is harmful for us. We have abused our brains and built large pathways of destructive behavior patterns. Only God can take these away from us. Now that we recognize our condition, we must learn to release our will to Him. This is how to affect healing. And like the addictive behavior we have talked about so far, it is not a one-day effort. It is a continual struggle. Do not be fooled into thinking you only have to beat the bad decision once to gain the victory. No, you have to trust God to save you, every time you face it. You have to yield your will to Him perpetually, as the minute you seek to take back your control from God, you find yourself falling once again.

The good news about our God is that His forgiveness He offers us, is unconditional, and unlimited. But the better news about our God is that we do not have to resign ourselves to a life of pain from bad choices. He can remove these hurtful things from our lives. He is able. He is strong enough. You do not need to make yourself stronger, to fight the urges of evil – you need to recognize your own weakness, and allow God to win the battle for you. Take no glory in your own strength, but give glory to God, for what He will do on your behalf. Herein we learn that God interacts with each of us on a very personal, a very intimate level. He knows about us, what we hide from our families, and our friends. He knows what needs to be changed in order for us to escape pain, and it is different for each one of us. Through this process of reconciling with God, He will begin to reveal to us, where we need some help. Keep in mind Christians, it is HIS job to DO the work, it is only up to you to ALLOW Him to do it.

It therefore requires great trust in God, for us to allow Him the chance to change us, and to change those we love. But He alone is qualified to do it. This is the beauty of our God, that he loves us, even while we are junkies, and He treats us with acceptance, love, and hope. I love the hope our God gives us all, even to one such as me …

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