“God is faithful . . . He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape . . . ” I Corinthians 10:13
After helping his child with homework, a man said to his wife, “I wish we still had those kinds of problems— the sort where you can find the answers in the back of the book.”
Where we go to look up the answers to our problems— lust? Profanity? Temper? Poor eating habits? Talking too much? Where is the book with the answers in the back?
Frankly, I’ve always been suspicious of those self-help books with flashy titles like, “Ten Steps to Successful Child Rearing” or “Five Months to a New You” or “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” I’ve tried such steps and still failed!
So, when it comes to how to break a bad habit I want to be very careful not to promise too much, not to make you think there is a quick fix for all your problems.
Jesus promises Christians, “I will not leave you desolate. I will come to you” (John 14:18). And the way He comes to us is by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit whom we receive by faith. Christ called the Holy Spirit “the Helper.” In the Greek the word is “parakletos” meaning reinforcer, one called alongside to help. And at least one of the ways He helps is by ridding our lives of sin. The actual process is called “sanctification,” a kind of divine inner maid service that moves in to help us clean up our inner life.
I wish I could tell you sanctification of every sin is as easy as squirting a muddy car with a high pressure water hose. The dirt just dissolves and quickly falls away! And, indeed, I’ve known times deliverance from some besetting sins to be effortless, instantaneous, and permanent! Heroin addicts immediately cleansed and such.
But it’s just not so in every case. Sanctification is more often than not a process. It’s three steps forward and two steps backwards. It is a lifelong pilgrimage beset with tears, frustrations, hard work, faith, and ultimate joy. As Paul put it, “We . . . are being changed from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Note Paul’s phrase— “changed,” “from one degree . . . to another.” That’s what we may expect. A process. By degrees.
Though salvation is an event, sanctification is a process. And the Holy Spirit is here to help us with that process.
In the text we’re reminded of God’s faithfulness to His own. He’ll not let us be overwhelmed by any sin. So, He promises “a way of escape.” Let’s turn now to Scripture and see how that happens.
Worship About It
First, take your habit to the Lord in worship. Thank God for the situation you find yourself in. Thank Him for the chance to see His power at work in your life. Then claim your victory ahead of time by faith. Hebrews 11:13 talks of God’s people who saw salvation from afar and believed in it by faith. Affirm God’s deliverance in your life even if it is afar off!
Accept the Responsibility
Next, accept the responsibility for your behavior. None of this blaming your parents for rearing you so strictly or society for making you grow up on the wrong side of the tracks or even fate for your birth saying, “That’s just the way I am.”
A well-known college president recently said that a B.A. Degree should be reinterpreted as a Bachelor of Alibis Degree because students today are so adept at making excuses for their poor study habits and subsequent mediocracy. Don’t you be one of them!
Remember Adam and Eve in the Garden? They sinned and God came calling them to accountability. But both the man and the woman tried to push their problems off on someone else. They passed the buck. They rationalized. Never did they accept responsibility for their behavior. And this is our problem in beginning to deal forcefully with the sinful habits in our lives. We don’t want to own up to it. We refuse to say, “I’m doing this. It is wrong! And I am responsible.”
Third, attack your habit by confessing it to God in prayer.
And here is where we must be totally honest. Often we pray, “Oh, God! I did it again. Please forgive me! Help me to stop!” But what we should really be praying is this: “Dear God, my mind is full of lust. I realize you do not like this. But I do! I’m in bondage to it. I know I should stop. But deep down I don’t want to yet. I like it. Father God, somehow you’re going to have to do surgery on my wants and cut this craving out of me!”
During World War I Ace fighter pilots flew in aircraft made of wood frames held together with wire and canvass. And often a pilot flying patrol duty would hear a gnawing sound from the back of his plane. A rat had gotten aboard his airplane while it was on the ground, and it was now gnawing on the wood! And if it chewed through a control cable the pilot would lose control and crash. So, quickly the pilot would execute a procedure known as “taking the rat up.” That meant the pilot flew just as high as his plane would go, and there in the thin atmosphere the rat would perish, thus saving the aircraft and pilot. Confessional prayer works something like that. When we take our sins up into God’s presence and blush over them before Him, they somehow cannot exist in His Holiness.
Go ahead and try it! Take your sin to God’s throne. Hold it in complete honesty before His face. And I tell you if you pray like that often enough you’ll either quit the sin or you’ll quit the prayer!
Visualize the Consequences
A fourth principle in dealing with the force of sinful habits is to visualize the consequences of continuing the sin. What happens to people who do not gain control of their tongues? Do gossips please God? Do negativistic comments all the time make friends? Does becoming a neurotic talker appeal to you? Think of the embarrassment, the evil, the hurt, the friendlessness, the waste, the robbery of God’s glory!
Yes, visualize the consequences. Know what you’re running from!
I know of a Boy Scout who went camping with his troop in the Great Smokey Mountains. And during the night one of the older boys yelled, “There’s a bear in the camp! Run for it!” Well, everybody scrambled for safety, except my young friend. He got up slowly and began to walk toward the truck thinking it was all a hoax the explorers were pulling. But when he turned to look in the direction of the campfire and saw a real brown bear standing on his hind legs crushing a food cooler between his paws he found the incentive to run faster!
Yes, know what you’re running from! There’s incentive in it! Visualize the awful consequences of sin— the separation from God, from people, from self. Learn to fear it, to hate it as God does, and to flee it just as speedily as Joseph fled Potipher’s seductive wife in Egypt.
Fifth, ask God to give you a sense of His timing.
Quite often we push our unimportant sins to the forefront while holding our really favorite sins in the background. We confess like one of my sons who met me at the door saying, “Dad, I spilled glue on the porch today.” And later I found out he also got into some paint and smeared it on the side of the car. Our confessions to God are often a smokescreen, a diversionary tactic designed to keep God busy with minor habits of ours so He won’t have to go meddling in the really favorites of ours!
But look at it this way. God, who loves us, has a timetable for our maturity. And He does not go after all our sins at once. That would utterly overwhelm us! Rather, one sin at a time, little by little, He sanctifies us. First to go was Apostle Peter’s self-assurance. It was replaced with faith. Next went his swaggering profanity. Next went his cowardice. Then went his racial prejudice. And it’s that way with us. Don’t give your timetable to God! Accept His. Pray, “Okay, God! What’s first? Do you want to do this all at once or over a period of time? You’re the doctor!”
A man who tried to quit smoking on his own strength and timetable failed and failed again for over seven years. But when he got the flu last year he lost all taste for cigarettes. And after his recovery he never went back. That’s how God can work in His own time and way!
A sixth principle for the great riddance of evil habits is Christian meditation. In Psalm 119:11the psalmist admits he lays up God’s Word in his heart so that he won’t sin against God! Aye! Here’s a real key!
Most of us try to break a habit by focusing on the habit. For instance, we have poor eating habits and are consequentially 35 pounds overweight. So we go on a diet. “I will not eat. No chocolate pie. No strawberry jam. No fried chicken or Pepsis or sweet rolls or yum! No homemade peach ice cream! And the trouble with this plan of attack is that we humans tend to do what we think about! So, when we diet by focusing on what foods we won’t eat, we break down and eat those very foods!
Look at it this way. Think of the number 8. Now, don’t think of eight. Don’t let it into your mind. Crowd it out! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! You can’t, can you? But now divide 100 by five and subtract two and multiply the answer by 3.6. And do you see how you forget number 8 in the process? That’s how Christian meditation works.
Another illustration! How do we get the air out of a jar? We could create an elaborate vacuum system and suck it out.
Or we could simply displace the air by filling the jar with water. Meditation works like that, too. We displace our cravings for food, our focus on sweets, and our insatiable desire for drink, with God’s thoughts about our body being God’s temple, our God not being the belly and the fruit of the Spirit being self-control. And in time we become like our thinking. Sinful habits are simply displaced, crowded out of our lives as godly thoughts come in.
Prayer and Fellowship
Just after the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “O that a hand would come down from heaven and deliver me from my besetting sin.” And that’s just what we have in Christ, our Lord. The hand of flesh, of self-reliance, of human resolve is weak. But the arm of God is stronger than any of our habits. He is able and ready and willing when we are! And He can tear down strongholds in our lives (2 Cor. 10:4).
Now, to pass on! A seventh principle in habit-breaking is fellowship and prayer. In Luke 22:31 Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” And in the company of Christ’s spirit and God’s people Peter did not fail!
Now, Satan would like to sift you and me, too. He’d like to sift out our faith, our habits of worship and love and patience and such, and leave only our bad habits. But what saved Peter from that will save us, too! Christ-faith, fellowship and prayer!
Indeed, nothing of Satan can sift a man like alcohol. It can sift his job, his family, his character and usefulness right out and leave only a groveling, spineless inebriate. But Alcoholics Anonymous knows what fellowship, prayer, and faith in Jesus can do! And they have the best cure record of any detoxification work in the world.
Whatever your habit, enlist the help of friends. Ask for their prayer support. Spend time with them. Pray with them. The burdens we share are divided. Yet the joys of victory we share are multiplied!
Act by Act Courage
Habits are formed act by act. You’ve seen that delightful children’s sermon where a piece of thread is wrapped around a child’s hands. It can easily be broken. But after the thread has been wrapped around a dozen times or more, it cannot be broken. One is bound! Our habits are like that. The same sinful act done over and over again binds us fast! But just as a habit is formed act by act, so it can be undone act by act by act. Most habits cannot be thrown out the upstairs window. They must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.
So, begin to undo your habit one act of resistance at a time.
Take joy in every act of resistance.
When you give in, don’t quit! You can lose quite a few battles and still win the war.
And remember, saying “yes” to God is just as habit forming as saying “yes” to Satan. Say “yes” to Jesus often enough and the momentum of good habits will be just as strong in your life as the force of evil habit once was.
Read and Study
Another principle is to read and study. Take careful notice of the fact that the Bible and history are full of people who in God’s grace broke all sorts of habits. Acts tells of Paul’s habit of legalism and how he broke it. Peter rid himself in Christ of both profanity and bigotry. James and John conquered the habit of temper. And there are further testimonies of history that witness to broken habits of alcoholism, homosexuality, lust, lying, materialism, over-eating and the like.
Read! Study! See how others did it in Christ! And profit!
Remember the nursery rhyme, “Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?” I’ve been to London to visit the queen!” “Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?” “I frightened a little mouse under her chair!”
Often we set out to achieve some worthy goal but find ourselves distracted along the way. So, we forget our aim and succumb to our habit again. God realizes our short attention span and has given us guidance on how to sustain our mental and spiritual focus for prolonged periods of time. Proverbs 6:20 following tells us to “tie it around our neck” so we won’t forget. Commitment reminders– that’s what we’re talking about here! If you overeat, needlepoint it and hang it on your dining room wall, “Lord, what do you want me to eat?” If you talk too much, put a note on your car dash board, “Shut Mouth!”
But perhaps the best commitment reminder is the Lord’s Supper. There Jesus says to His disciples, all of us so prone to forget what we’re up to, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And the amazing thing about the Lord’s Supper throughout Scripture and history is that God has encouraged and refreshed and strengthened His people there. So come often and eat, drink and remember!
Conclusion: Not “Try” But “Trust”
Really now, it is so easy to break some things, isn’t it? Your watch, your arm, a favorite glass flower vase– why they have all broken for us with ease of careless trifle!
But habits are just not so broken! They are like rubber balls. The harder we throw them down the higher they bounce!
Example: New Years Resolution number one: “I will stop smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.” Result: Now we smoke two packs.
Example number two: January 1, 1992. “I will lose 30 pounds.” Result? June 6, 1992. “I gained sixteen pounds.”
Ah, but listen, dear one! “God is faithful and He will not allow you to be tempted above that which you are able. He will with the temptation offer a way of escape.”
In Canada, alongside the St. John’s River, lumberjacks fell huge trees, roll them into the water and float them downstream to a saw mill. Sometimes the logs tangle together and wedge against both banks forming a log jamb. The timber men go onto the jamb with saws and try to cut it apart. Failing, they often resort to dynamite. If that doesn’t work they simply wait for rain and the rise of the water level which sweeps the river clean.
I can relate to Isaiah 64:5, “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” Oh the habits I’ve tried to saw out of my life! My God, not even my best personal dynamite works! And sometimes I want to give up! It’s just too hard! Can’t you relate?
And then the Holy Spirit comes and reminds me, “Sure, there’s great pain in changing. But it’s nothing compared to the pain of staying the way you are. I’m here to help. Put your hand in mine. I’ll sweep all this logjam away! Trust me. Act with me. One log at a time . . . .”
Lord, help! For Christ’s sake. Amen