Throughout the years I have heard many stories and read countless emails from men, and some women, who have talked about wanting to change. They have made commitments to live life differently, mostly with their sexual behavior, whether it was to stop using pornography, having anonymous sex, or masturbating.
For whatever reason – and there have been many reasons – they have not been happy with their behavior. They’ve felt shame around it, it has interfered with other aspects of their lives, or it has simply left them feeling empty.
These men and women have made commitments that have ranged from at least putting their behavior into perspective – so as to feel less guilt about it – to at most stopping the behavior altogether. Regardless of the nature of the commitments it has all come back to the same thing…change.
And many of these men or women who have sought change have come up short. Not once. Not twice. But numerous times.
They’ve made the verbal commitments to change. They’ve set sobriety dates. They’ve removed all sources of their “drug of choice” from their environment including destroying their computers. They’ve attended recovery groups and read the best books on the subject. But then, when they were least expecting it, they felt the undertow of their behavior sucking them back in to old patterns.
Why, then, is it so difficult to change?
I love this question. I love it because there are so many things that we talk about as human beings, so many things that we get distracted by, but in the end it all comes down to this one thing…why can’t we live the life we would like to live? Why can’t we change if that’s what we really want?
Whether or not you are a Christian it is difficult not to see ourselves in the Apostle Paul’s so very human assertion, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). If I were to translate this translation it would come out to be, “Why, then, is it so difficult to change?”
I am old enough to know that there are no easy answers to anything. But I’m also young enough to risk offering an easy answer. After all, if we don’t take risks we never accomplish much. More importantly, if we don’t take risks we never change.
My answer to the question, “Why, then, is it so difficult to change?” is in line with Paul’s answer but I come at it from a 21st Century perspective.
It is so difficult to change because these “habits” that have formed in our lives have formed to protect us from experiencing what we fear most – disconnection, isolation…loneliness.
Think hard on this one. How badly do you want to feel connected, especially to the people who first gave you meaning in your life – parents, siblings, or other caregivers? Since birth we have made connections with the people nearest to us. These connections have insured that we were fed, housed, and warm. These connections meant life.
As we grew older, whether we realized it or not, we wanted to maintain these connections, if only in our minds, because these connections brought us a sense of safety, even if those people weren’t very good to us when we were young.
And if they weren’t very good to us, our minds are going to work double time to stay connected. We’re going to take on the bad that we were told we were. We’re going to confirm what we think they think of us because, to the mind, it is far better to feel bad about who we are than to feel disconnected, isolated, and alone. It is far better to feel bad about ourselves than to risk the horror of nothingness.
For most people who are struggling with change this is the prison we have stepped into – to stay psychologically connected to these important people in our lives is often to deny our value and self worth, yet to love ourselves for who we are is to psychologically break free of them and risk the fear of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. In this conflict any relief would be welcome, any illusion that would make us feel connected, included, and valued.
And this is where pornography, strip clubs, prostitutes, masturbation and sexual fantasy come into play.
These “habits” that have claimed our lives are all illusions that help us disarm the anxiety that we feel inside when it’s too painful to be the person we feel we need to be in order to stay connected yet it’s too scary to step away from certain people in order to live the lives we feel called to live. These “habits” provide the illusion of inclusion when we simply do not believe that we can get our needs met in any real way.
To change, to really change, isn’t necessarily to destroy computers, have accountability partners who babysit us, or to distract ourselves. To change, to really change, is to recognize this strong pull to be connected to the people who first gave us meaning in life and to do the hard work of starting to live our lives for ourselves instead of for them.
To do this will arouse fear, horror even, as the mind feels as if it is slipping into nothingness, annihilation even. If you don’t agree, what is it that makes you so afraid to change? What is it that is holding you back? It’s got to be something much stronger than, “It’s a bad habit.”
But the good news is that on the other side of this fear is life. Fear is as much of an illusion as porn. It keeps us in our place and it keeps us stuck but it is a creation, a creation of our minds that was useful when we were very young because it kept us connected to the only people who would feed and protect us. But we are no longer children, and we no longer need these illusions. Ultimately, to change is to grow up. And that’s why it’s so difficult.
Paul’s answer to the question, “Why, then, is it so difficult to change?” is wrapped up in the reality that we cling very tightly to that which gives us psychological safety, even if clinging to it tears us up inside. We’re so afraid of non-being, of nothingness, of “the void” that we will do anything to experience the opposite. We’ll deface ourselves, limit our potential, and spend hours of our precious time watching other people have sex.
Paul’s alternative to our “habits” is no longer to “conform to the patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2). Paul’s alternative to porn use and compulsive masturbation is to become aware of who and what we have relied on to give us a sense of meaning and to trust that Someone, Something greater than ourselves has a destination for us as we stop our self-destructive behavior.
This will be scary. This will feel frightening as what gave us a sense of being no longer will. But we need to experience the loss of how we used to feel grounded in life and begin to experience the richness of God’s love and provision. This is the “renewing of our minds” that Paul talks about in Romans 12:2. This renewing will transform us. This renewing is change.